Last week two Chicago sports radio hosts made headlines for tweeting sexist, degrading comments about a local television sports anchor.
Those familiar with Dan Bernstein's radio show weren't all that surprised by the exchange. This is a man who refers to WNBA players as "animals" and "wildebeests," mocked Cubs great Ron Santo for his leg amputations and has talked about the "giant cans" of his own colleague on the air. Both Bernstein and Matt Spiegel apologized for their comments about Cristal the next day. Their station, The Score, hasn't handed down any punishment for their disgusting, damaging remarks.
This, of course, is not the first time that sports radio hosts have made offensive, unprofessional comments and have gone unpunished or gotten what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
Last year host Kirk Minihane of Boston radio station WEEI was suspended for one week without pay after calling Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews a "gutless bitch" who should "drop dead," because she elected not to ask Adam Wainwright a follow-up question about grooving pitches to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game. His "apology" for those comments included saying that if Andrews "weighed 15 pounds more she would be a waitress at Perkins."
Minihane didn't receive punishment of any kind until after Fox announced that it was pulling all advertising from stations owned by WEEI's parent company, Entercom Communications. Money talks.
Around the same time Fox was taking a stand against Minihane, Washington, D.C., station WJFK announced a new solo show for longtime host Chad Dukes. To promote it, the station played a "Best Of" reel, with a mind-boggling inclusion of an old prank call in which Dukes freely uses anti-gay slurs, including saying of the radio host he pranked, "I'm very offended by the way he won't respond, and I think he's a f----t."
Such statements would make instant headlines if a TV host uttered them, but don't really move the needle in the radio world. While some hosts go far enough to draw a punishment, too many instances of shockingly casual bigotry, sexism, homophobia and racism go unmonitored, creating an atmosphere that is uncomfortable and unwelcoming to a large portion of sports fans.
In a lot of ways sports radio is the last bastion of the old-boys club. Of the 183 hosts on Talkers' 2013 list of the 100 Most Important Sports Talk Radio Hosts, 12 are African-American males and two are women. Such a large number of sports talk radio hosts are middle-aged white men that the conversation that results is often a reflection of that limited perspective, with comments that marginalize and objectify women, statements that offend the LGBT community and jokes that border on or are openly racist.
David Nylund, author of the 2007 book "Beer, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio," also wrote about sports radio in a 2004 article, "When in Rome: Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Sports Talk Radio."
"With white male masculinity being challenged and decentered by feminism, affirmative action, gay and lesbian movements, and other groups' quest for social equality, sports talk shows, similar to talk radio in general, have become an attractive venue for embattled white men seeking recreational repose and a nostalgic return to a prefeminist ideal."
A now-infamous rant from San Francisco radio personality Damon Bruce in November 2013 supports that. "The amount of women talking in sports to the amount of women who have something to say is one of the most disproportionate ratios I've ever seen in my life," Bruce said. "But here's a message for all of them ... All of this, all of this world of sports, especially the sport of football, has a setting. It's set to men ... This is guy's stuff. This is men's stuff. And I don't expect women to understand men's stuff any more than they should expect me to be able to relate to labor pains."
Sports are not "guy stuff." There is no ownership here. Professional sports are entertainment for everyone and the leagues want every last dollar they can get, whether it comes out of a man's wallet or a woman's. Just because the majority of listeners to sports talk radio may be male doesn't make the marginalization or objectification of women OK.
Take these comments made by former NFL player Channing Crowder on his Miami radio show back in May of last year. Crowder didn't agree with Charles Barkley's statement that LeBron James should return to the Cavs, so he took out his anger, inexplicably, on the women of Cleveland.
"I would rather stare at myself in the mirror than look at the women in Cleveland. When you go to the game on Sunday, you look up in the crowd and you say 'Oh, there's all men at the game.' Then you start looking closer and you say 'Damn, I can't tell the difference between the women and the men at Cleveland Browns games.' It is ridiculous."
In April 2013, hosts at ESPN Radio affiliate 97.5 in Houston interviewed several coaches from Lamar University at a bar remote, including head softball coach Holly Bruder. Bruder was asked very little about her team, instead getting questions like: "Do you have any Jennie Finch-looking girls on your softball team that I can come and watch?" "For a guy that likes some of these thick softball chicks, maybe you bring some more guys to the ballpark if they wore a little less out there on the diamond." And "Is it a benefit for a softball player to have a full chest like her or is it better to not?"
In 2012 San Diego sports radio host Scott Kaplan was fired after insulting a female studio analyst on the Mountain West Network, calling her, among other things, a "beast," an "animal," a "monster" and a "sasquatch of a woman."
Comments like those aren't jokes. They alienate female listeners and pass off misogyny as an acceptable offshoot of a masculine escape. And when these disparaging comments come at the expense of female sportscasters, it negatively affects the way women in the industry are viewed by athletes, fans and peers. If a woman's own colleagues don't show her respect, how can listeners be expected to?
Many hosts claim to take on a "shock jock" personality, a shtick to engage listeners. But far too often the shtick is revealed to be the offender's true character.
Mike Missanelli, of Philadelphia station 97.5 The Fanatic, was suspended in February 2014 after an email exchange with a listener went public. You can read his responses to the listener here, including repeated accusations that the listener is a "latent homosexual." In March 2013 WQAM in South Florida fired host Dan Sileo for a series of offenses, including tweeting "Love Erin Andrews either naked or in a porn. Not at a sports desk."
In 2011 Mark Madden of Pittsburgh station WXDX told a female listener he was arguing with on Twitter, "Look, you're a girl, so ... you know nothing, and your opinion is useless. Get in the kitchen, have a kid, dance 'round a pole, something." Twitter rants can be captured and read over and over again, making them feel tangible, whereas radio's intangibility has often allowed it to avoid facing the same scrutiny as television or the written word. Podcasts of live shows are becoming more and more popular, but even so, when it comes to radio, things that are said feel temporary, as if once uttered they disappear into the ether.
But just because inflammatory statements on the radio don't often result in the same backlash doesn't mean they aren't powerful and influential. A radio program can tag along with a listener anywhere -- in the car, at a desk, via a streaming app on a cell phone. That connection creates a feeling of joining a community for a regular listener.
So-called "P1s," listeners who have the radio station set at No. 1 on their preset radio dials, know the names of all the hosts, producers and board operators, not to mention the names of their wives and children and dogs. A show becomes not just an outlet for sports talk, but a place to talk about life in general.
Hosts can choose to use that feeling of community to push for inclusion and change the conversations about race and gender. "Radio creates a male bonding community that has genuine moments of intimacy and connection," writes Nylund. "Signifying the potential for new forms of masculinity to emerge while simultaneously reproducing traditional forms of masculinity."
A favorite sports radio host who speaks positively about the acceptance of gay athletes could make a big impression on listeners. If a host shows respect and praise for a woman's athletic achievements, rather than her looks, die-hard listeners may appreciate her as a competitor, rather than as an object. By introducing progressive ideas into a traditionally masculine space, hosts can show that the two are not at odds.
I asked Dave Roberts, vice president of network content at ESPN Radio and one of my bosses, for his take on the state of diversity in the industry. "At the end of the day, if you walk into any football stadium, basketball arena or baseball stadium, a substantial percentage of that audience is female fans, so it makes good business sense that the people offering opinions reflect the diversity that is commonplace at the stadiums," he said, adding that "diversity is good for business, that's the bottom line. And anyone who doesn't understand that needs to get out of the business."
For female listeners, it's not about being uptight or not getting the joke, it's about not wanting to have to put up with sexism in order to get a daily sports fix. The best sports radio shows elevate the conversation, are smart, funny, insightful and irreverent and do not leave a significant portion of the listeners feeling insulted or marginalized.
If a host can't create compelling content without devolving into cheap sexist jokes or anti-gay pranks, the issue is with the host, not with the listeners who cry foul. As other aspects of the sports world continue to progress in positive ways for female fans, sports talk radio needs to catch up. I'm proud to have been given the opportunity to help change the conversation.
After a lifetime of listening to sports talk radio and several years working as an update anchor and fill-in host for Chicago's ESPN1000, I started co-hosting my own national show, "espnW Presents Spain And Prim," earlier this year. My co-host is a woman, Prim Siripipat, as is our show producer, Ali Bronson, and the director of ESPN Radio's weekend programming, Louise Cornetta.
The chance to be a part of real, meaningful change in the sports radio space is something I take very seriously. I strive to be funny, irreverent and opinionated while having smart conversations about the biggest issues in sports. I hope one day I can say the same for all of our peers.