The all-American, all-sport microphone-in: The next cultural import could be a radio station bringing you Dagenham Dave but no Stranglers. Jim White reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN rain checks play during a baseball game involving the St Louis Cardinals, the commentators from the local station KMOX are obliged to keep on chatting, sometimes for hours. But unlike their contemporaries at Test Match Special, they have recourse to something more enlightening than chocolate cake to stimulate conversation during lulls in the action: the phone. If it is pouring, Cardinals fans can ring them up and take part in the chit-chat.

Fans like Sam from St Charles, who was clearly KMOX's bile-filled equivalent of Dave from Dagenham, the mythical caller to British phone-ins who is reckoned to be two stops further than Barking.

'I'd like to know how Dal Maxvill managed to get a job where he doesn't get fired,' thundered Sam about the Cardinals general manager during a recent game. 'The guy's an idiot. He's in a position where he doesn't have to do anything and no one seems to care.'

And this was during a Cardinals winning run.

KMOX is American sports radio at its best. User-friendly, aggressive, on the ball 24 hours a day. It is a model alien to British listeners brought up in the even-handed tradition of the BBC, but one we may become accustomed to if one of several consortiums bidding for the new commercial franchises in London is successful and brings all- sports radio to the capital from next April.

KMOX, one of 44 stations in the city, has been broadcasting for 50 years, virtually inventing the concept of all-talk radio. In St Louis, sport means the Cardinals, the team owned by the local brewery Anheuser-Busch, the outfit responsible for inflicting Budweiser on the world. The Cardinals are the Manchester United of baseball, their following spread far beyond the city limits, across the mid-West. Fans come by the coachload from miles away, making the average attendance 32,000 (there are 81 home games a season), several thousand more than the New York Yankees.

Much of this success is due to KMOX's dedicated reporting of the team; television may broadcast one game in five, but KMOX covers the Cards' every move from spring training to the World Series. On a night of favourable atmospheric conditions, the station's broadcasts can spread across 40 states: Bill Clinton, growing up in neighbouring Arkansas, has made it known that the only reason he is a Cards fan is because he heard their exploits on KMOX as a child.

When there is a game on, KMOX is the buff's heaven. Never mind ball-by-ball match commentary, their coverage begins two hours before the start with interviews and prospects. Shortstop Ozzie Smith recently proved that American sportsmen are every bit the master of the platitude as their English contemporaries when he said: 'This game is everything we could ask for. Hopefully now we can hold our own against them and do better than we did over at their place.' Coverage finishes two hours after stumps, when the phone-in analysis of the evening's game hangs up. That's up to nine hours of solid baseball.

But John Cooper, sports producer of the station, would hate anyone to think it is just one big ballgame. John's desk is littered with memoranda on tennis pronunciation ('Please, everyone, it is Ee-von Lendl') and a script detailing the latest news of the St Louis Ambush soccer team ('Forward Mark Moser exploded for four goals to pace the 'Bush to a four to one rout').

'Our listeners are interested in all sports,' Cooper said. 'The Blues ice hockey team selected two Russians at last year's trades, talked them up and they ended up playing not so well. Big phone-in talk point. This year they gone and drafted another Russian. Even bigger phone- in talk point.'

Nevertheless, it is baseball coverage which is the commercial heart of the operation.

'Play by play is our important revenue time,' said Frank Babcock, director of sales and a man unafraid of jargon. 'For an important game we can bump up our pricing perspective by 10 or 20.'

Which basically means if the Cardinals do well, so does KMOX.

'Sure, the network admits its profits are made on the team having a great run. If they do, everyone wants to climb on board and be part of it. If they don't, you might as well fold up your tent and call it a year.'

Such is the success KMOX has encountered following the Cardinals that they have joined a consortium trying to bring an American football team back to the city, to give them something equally lucrative to report during the winter.

Commercial sports radio in Britain would not be able to profit from a direct association with one team. Although some locals feel KMOX's relationship with the Cards is a touch too cosy, most are happy with it. Imagine, however, how Spurs fans would take to a radio station which tried a similar arrangement with Arsenal.

But there is plenty British radio sport could learn from the Americans. About personality presenters (KMOX's Jack Buck won an award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987, the first broadcaster to be so honoured); about economies of production (nine hours of coverage using four members of staff); and the splendid idea of directing phone-in calls to the commentators.

That is something they might try at Selhurst Park during pauses in Wimbledon games: 'And while we're waiting for the ball to come back down to earth, the phone lines are open.'