Tony Paige and Sports Talk Radio: Imagine There’s No Screaming

A New York sports radio overnight host will be signing off about the time I finish writing this, which will make me sad not only because I’ll miss him, but because his departure reminds me how much of sports talk radio is unlistenable to folks like me.

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Tony Paige.

Tony Paige, who for 16 years has done a live overnight show on New York’s WFAN, is wrapping up that part of his life at 2 a.m. Sunday with a 20-minute goodbye.

It’s a classy finish. It speaks well both of Paige and WFAN in a game where hosts often vanish as quickly and mysteriously as Sonny Liston against Muhammad Ali.

Paige announced several months ago that as he turns 66, he wants the time to do other things with his life, including travel and writing a book.

He’s led an interesting life already — starting as a newsman, meeting people as random as Idi Amin, surviving cancer — and he clearly figures the interesting part isn’t finished. Good for him.

It does potentially leave a hole for some of the rest of us, because Paige has been an unusual host for sports talk radio, or arguably for talk radio in general.

He spoke in calm tones. He rarely raised his voice. He acknowledged grey areas. He assessed games as someone who cared about the sport, not just whether his side won.

That didn’t make him a unicorn, exactly, but it did make him an outlier. It’s not that many other hosts don’t know the games they talk about. It’s the volume and intensity at which they do it.

I like sports. I would sometimes like to hear engaging conversation about sports. But when I’ve turned on sports talk radio, for decades, way too often it has felt like a jackhammer. It’s hosts screaming about must-win games in the third week of the season, or callers who want to know why their team can’t trade two rookies for the best player in the league, or a Groundhog Day loop of people stroking out over someone’s decision to punt.

Yes, I know sports talk radio has other content. I know there are interviews, and that it’s rarely the host’s fault the interviewees rarely get deeper than “Our team is ready to play.” I know some hosts are sports-smart and can break down strategies casual fans might miss.

I also know that creating a cacophony on the air isn’t scored as an error. Sports is an emotional avocation, or for some fans an emotional way of life, and they want passion. If the Yankees lose, they want someone benched or traded. If the Knicks lose, or rather, when the Knicks lose, they want owner Jim Dolan tarred and feathered.

WFAN understands this. It’s part of the playbook the station started to write in 1987, when it became the country’s first-ever sports talk station and all of the radio biz laughed. All sports? That’ll never work.

Now it’s everywhere, which means hundreds of hosts who would all love to poke their heads above replacement level and who figure, not incorrectly, that the way to do it is to be louder and more strident than the rest of the team.

Some years ago Joel Hollander, who put WFAN on the air and therefore was right when everyone else was wrong, brought Scott Ferrall to the FAN.

Ferrall talked in a gravelly voice with heavy metal playing behind him. I remember saying to Hollander that my ears, then in their late 40s, couldn’t take it. He replied that his ears couldn’t take it for any length of time, either, but that didn’t matter. There was an audience, mainly a coveted young audience, that found it appealing.

He was right. Again. All these years later, Ferrall is still heard on the CBS Sports Radio network. Just not by me.

No, when I’ve looked for sports talk late at night, I’ve leaned more toward Tony Paige.

It’s not that he was a glass of warm milk and a cookie, lulling New Yorkers to sleep. He had plenty of opinions and passions. He would just lay them out as a rational argument, not an explosion of irritation, outrage or delirium. He also wouldn’t try to find 15 ways of making the same observation.

He was civil to his callers, even the ones who weren’t contributing a lot to the conversation.

He had a personal passion for boxing, whose decline he lamented and explained. He carved out space for something like NASCAR, a fringe sport to most New Yorkers, but worth an update every so often.

He explored broader sports topics. He would talk about the general beauty of baseball. He talked about the danger of concussions before it became a thing. He talked often about the roles of coaches and parents in youth sports, warning about the dangerous downside of parents who over-insert themselves.

He took the time to eulogize athletes like John Mackey, the pioneering tight end, or Joe Frazier. He’d even slip in some non-sports faves like Don Cornelius from Soul Train.

His freedom to do all this was part of the tradeoff for working the graveyard shift. That’s not an insignificant time to be on the radio in New York, which has a whole lot of night people who form tight bonds with their radio friends. Still, it’s relaxed enough so program directors don’t require the two-minute-drill pace or greatest-hits focus of daytime shows.

Paige could never have done his night show in a drive-time slot. If that bothered him, it never showed. He clearly liked getting to call more of his own plays.

I don’t mean all of Tony Paige’s thoughts, riffs and programs were golden revelations. I just mean he was a literate, articulate, enjoyable radio host who happened to talk sports.

I’d listen to more of that if there were more hosts like Tony Paige.

Now there’s one fewer.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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