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How Sports Talk Radio Navigates The Coronavirus Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If it weren't for the pandemic, the NBA playoffs would have just started, baseball would be in full swing and NASCAR's GEICO 500 would have just crowned a new champion. But none of those things have happened. So what do you talk about when it's your job to talk about sports? Here's commentator Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Downstream from every unpitched baseball and every unswished jump shot are a normally hearty band of critics, clowns and town criers, the sports radio talk show hosts. There are no sports, but there are still radio stations that call themselves sports talk, a situation that has driven some to the breaking point. A few days ago, an exasperated Dan Le Batard let his ESPN radio co-host know that their home studio setups weren't providing the seamless broadcasting experience he was hoping for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN LE BATARD: Trying to do the show in the modern age with no sport...

(SOUND OF DOG BARKING)

LE BATARD: ...And doing it with (laughter) - and I'm trying to...

(SOUND OF DOG BARKING)

LE BATARD: ...Do a radio show. The dog understands how to help me better than either one of you do.

PESCA: That's one mode of communication. But sports talk radio has pivoted not completely but profoundly to coronavirus. Paul Finebaum, the dean of Southeastern Conference football sports yakkers, has mentioned asymptomatic carriers and serology as much as he's mentioned strong safeties these last few weeks. In New York City, WFAN's Mike Francesa is holding local and national officials to account as he once would to a flailing general manager who blew a draft pick.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "MIKE'S ON")

MIKE FRANCESA: We don't have a testing program yet. We all know it. But we don't own up to it. We can't own up to it because you know what? If the president ever owned up to it, he would get slaughtered. And he knows that because that's the way they're playing this game right now.

PESCA: In the world of podcasts, some sports talkers have gone entirely coronavirus. Nate Duncan and Ben Taylor are both NBA podcasters who look at the league from a more cerebral, statistics-driven perspective. They haven't halted their respective hoops podcasts, but they've added another one called "COVID Daily News." Old topic, true shooting percentage - new, infection rate. Taylor says communicating sometimes arcane statistics to an audience that is eager and invested but not necessarily expert is exactly what's needed in the pandemic.

BEN TAYLOR: Years and years of vetting ideas and having conversations and getting different points of feedback, sort of shaping the way you present something in sports that's easy for people to digest - I think that translates really well into a real-time hectic, chaotic, potentially politically charged situation.

PESCA: That's obviously one reason sports talk and coronavirus talk are a good match. The hosts are good communicators, statistics play a key role in explaining what's going on and judgments - sometimes harsh ones - about leadership are a sports talk host's stock and trade. So when Mike Francesa offers up an opinion like this about an elected official...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "MIKE'S ON")

FRANCESA: If you're always trying to dodge the blame and always trying to blame someone else, it's hard to lead. And right now, we need someone to lead.

PESCA: That's a familiar frame to most sports fans. It's easy for them to apply it to politicians in a crisis. This gets to the biggest reason why sports talk fits with coronavirus analysis - the audience. Unlike political junkies, who may have an unshakable belief in their team's supremacy, fans of sports teams must ultimately acknowledge that a victory goes in one column and a defeat in another. Of course, the losses during a pandemic are counted in deaths, and the wins don't result in trophies but treatments. Still, the basic psychology is the same. Whether in sports or this pandemic, people need a shared space to vent, ponder, discuss and rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Commentator Mike Pesca hosts Slate's daily podcast "The Gist" and never runs out of things to talk about. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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