Lest we forget, the E in ESPN stands for entertainment. No single entity is more responsible for the growth of the sports hot take industry than the Worldwide Leader. ESPN's not the only culprit, by a longshot, but as the preeminent sports broadcasting entity in this country, Bristol's thirty-year evolution from sports news and live contests to opinion and volume-based sports-focused entertainment led the way.
From the analysis-free, bombast and blather-heavy 'C'mon Man' testosterone festival of NFL Primetime to the overlapping yawps of Around the Horn to Colin Cowherd's dreadful egofest to the unmentionable dreck of First Take and everything in between, ESPN pioneered the sporting version of CNN's Crossfire - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing more than a ratings grab. Only nobody ever went full Jon Stewart on ESPN. (Someone might've, but I'm writing this from memory, and I can't remember anyone doing so. I also don't remember what I ate for lunch, which is increasingly a problem for me, or would be, if I remembered it.)
But something's happened over the past 18 months or so, and it's hard not to wonder if John Skipper and the rest of the suits at ESPN haven't seen the light. Cowherd and Bayless are gone, as is Cris Carter. (who serves as an exemplar for a whole host of former pros with lots of volume and a lot less insight - hey, Keyshawn, and how you doin', Curt Schilling, you deranged racist fuckburger!) Around the Horn still exists (I think), but it's balanced by the unique voice of His and Hers. And ESPN Radio is a revelation. Once a landscape free of anything other than white men with similarly warm takes, it's now both diverse and smart.
Once Mike and Mike clear the airwaves, ESPN Radio offers some of the most singular voices in sports (and entertainment).
Dan LeBatard skewers sacred cows on the regular, in his show, which discards just about every conventional sports talk trope. It's by turns sloppy and silly, but it also showcases LeBatard's incisive interviewing style and co-host Stugotz's brilliant doofus sidekick performance art. There may be no broadcaster in sports today more willing to press a guess for real answers to interview questions, or to risk grossly awkward moments in pursuit of truth, or at least good radio. And there's never been anyone like Stugotz, one of the great character actors of the time, sports radio category.
Former Scott Van Pelt sidekick Ryen Russillo is acerbic and blunt, but he's also extremely knowledgeable and he doesn't suffer fools. I'm not completely sold on Danny Kanell as his partner, but Russillo's unwillingness to play the usual radio host games makes their mid-afternoon show go.
We've already talked about Bomani Jones here, but his voice is both sonically distinctive and as thought-provoking as any talker on radio today, sports or otherwise. His afternoon drive show stands out as the most direct evidence of what I believe is a conscious choice by ESPN to prioritize content and context over bombast and noise.
And if you're still listening to the radio in the evening, you're not stuck with the dreadful crap that used to pass for entertainment. That stuff's been banished to the wee, wee hours of the morning. Now, at 7:00 pm EST, Jalen Rose and David Jacoby offer up a hip hop-infused and professional athlete-informed perspective. Rose's DGAF meter is reasonably high, and it mixes well with Jacoby's professionalism and youthful vibe.
Jorge Sedano and Izzy Gutierrez wrap up the radio day, both Hispanic and one gay, which is something that would be impossible to imagine even three or four years ago. The straight tends towards the hot takey too often for my taste, but the mix is still entertaining and the fact that the show exists at all is groundbreaking.
With all this discussion of the current radio lineup, we've completely buried the lede. ESPN, once the province of Chris Berman's blatting bloviation, has a new face. It's hard to argue that there's a bigger star in Bristol now than Van Pelt. The network built an entirely new programming format around Van Pelt's persona, and you couldn't architect a more direct departure from the past. In contrast to Berman's Boomer-first, look-at-me broadcasting, Van Pelt's smart, thoughtful, balanced, hip and humble approach comes off as a revolution. You know ESPN likes a guy when they let him take shots at other talent, even if that 'talent' isn't long for the new world. There is no sports broadcaster on the planet right now better than Van Pelt, and other than Dan Patrick, it ain't close.
With all of those changes, we haven't even talked about what might be the most important and meaningful change at the WWL. There are more women on ESPN's airwaves today than on any major sports broadcaster in history. Jemele Hill, Sarah Spain, Prim Siripipat, Jane McManus, and Kate Fagan all have voices on ESPN radio and TV, and while we're yet to see a woman sit in the first chair on a major show, it's only a matter of time - and for that, ESPN should be lauded.
Ours is a confusing time, with yesterday's media struggling to find purchase in a world where everyone's opinion is available all the time, and amplified in ways old-line institutions still haven't yet completely grasped. ESPN is far from perfect (with too many cases to cite on that point), but the fact that the most important sports (and entertainment!) broadcaster in the country has made what is clearly a conscious decision to feature diversity, intelligence (we're ignoring Jonathan Coachman at this point) and perspective over heat and volume is a big fucking deal.