Beer, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio (SUNY series on Sport, Culture, and Social Relations)

Here are some highlights from this 2007 book by David Nylund:

* I view masculinity as a social construction that assumes different forms in different historical moments and contexts.

* Men can pay a cost—in the form of poor health, shallow/narrow relationships, for instance—for conformity with the narrow definitions of masculinity that promise to bring them status and privilege.

* “A Martian arriving on Planet Earth and not knowing what masculinity was would quickly form the opinion that it is a highly damaged and damaging condition with very few, if any, redeeming features.”

* The late nineteenth-century American male image was that of a rugged individualist who, to escape civilizing constraints, went to work in exclusive male preserves, went to war with other men, and went West to find fortune, pitting his will against the perils of nature(Kimmel, 1996). However, as the United States became increasingly urban and mobile in the early twentieth century, these “masculine” options were no longer available, and men were forced to look else-where to reclaim their lost identities. To many middle-class white men, this retrieval of identity was vital due to the changing nature of work, the visibility of first-wave feminism, the closing of the frontier, and changes in family relations (e.g., modern urban boys being separated from their fathers and placed in the care of mothers or women schoolteachers). The resultant changes in work and family life brought on by urbanization led to fears of boys and men being feminized. Many men, in response to these changes, searched for places “where they could be real men with other men” (Kimmel, 1996,p.309) and where they could actively exclude women, nonnative-born whites, men of color, and homosexuals. Men created homosocial organizations (male-only spaces) such as fraternal lodges, rodeos, college fraternities, and the Boy Scouts to initiate the next generation of traditional manhood.

* Mediated sports texts function largely to reproduce the idea that traditional masculinity and heterosexuality are natural and universal rather than socially constructed.

* Sports talk, which today usually means talk about mediated sports, is one of the only remaining discursive spaces where men of all social classes and ethnic groups directly discuss such values as discipline, skill, courage, competition, loyalty, fairness, teamwork, hierarchy, and achievement. Sports and sports fandom are also sites of male bonding.

* promotes civic discourse and teaches us how to create community “for a lot of people who lead isolated, often lonely lives in America”…

* Self-confessed addict of sports talk Alan Eisenstock (2001) wrote abook titled Sports Talk, a masculinist celebration of the significance of sports radio and the sports talk radio junkie. He refers to sports talk shows as a “non-stop fraternity party, a sport bar on the radio”(p.3), in which men, through the medium of a call-in program, can interact with other men free from the censure of feminism and political correctness. Sports talk radio, from this perspective, is amass-mediated attempt at preserving male-only spaces reminiscent of the rise of fraternities and the Boy Scouts around the turn of the twentieth century.

* Talk radio’s appeal appeared to tap into the sense of public life, the isolation and exhaustion that come from overworking, and the increasing gap people felt between themselves and politicians. The genre represented a novel and often brash and aggressive way of creating a group identity within the homogenizing blitz of conventional mediafare.

* In Talk Radio and the American Dream, Murray Levin taped seven hundred hours of talk radio and found among callers a discourse worried about emasculation. The natural order of things now seemed reversed, so that crime, blacks, rich corporations, and women all had the upper hand. Talk radio became the discursive battleground on which to reclaim hegemonic masculinity and rid the United States of soft-spoken, New Age guys. Even though the callers lacked the power to ward off the verbal put-downs of the host, they kept coming back for more.

* sports talk radio, even more than political talk radio, is the only arena left for white men who have been “wounded by the indignities of feminism, affirmative action, and other groups’ quest for social equality”…

* Sports talk show is a venue for the embattled White male seeking recreational repose; that it caters to this audience as surely as Rush Limbaugh articulates its discontents. Some sports talk stations define their listening audience explicitly as the Atlanta sports station [The FAN] manager states, “we make no pretensions about what we’re doing here. The FAN is a guy’s radio station. We’re aiming at the men’s bracket which is the hardest to reach.

* It has been my experience that people in the media industry are wary of academics; they often believe that scholars read too much into the messages in the media. People in the media industries think their production practices are normal and ordinary—they take for granted what they do and say at work. I did not expect anyone to necessarily “spill the beans,” since most industry staff will not likely critique the negative sides of the sports business to an outsider, particularly an assistant professor.

* While driving on the freeway recently, I noticed a billboard that said, “Armstrong and Getty—Listen to them before we fire them.” Armstrong and Getty are local Sacramento talk show hosts who have quite a popular following. However, on their show they frequently mention the fear of being fired for saying something offensive or defying their station manager. The billboard is reflective of the volatility of the radio industry. There is a long history of hosts, disc jockeys, and pro-gram directors getting fired, moving around to different cities and different stations.

According to Wikipedia July 28, 2023: “Armstrong & Getty are the hosts of The Armstrong & Getty Show, a nationally syndicated morning drive radio show hosted by Jack Armstrong and Joe Getty. The talk show format is a mixture of libertarian political commentary, observations on local, national, and international news as well as reflections on social issues presented with humor.”

* My analysis of the production staff interviews reflects this high level of job turnover and career insecurity. Both hosts and producers talked about sports radio industry reality: never knowing where you might end up and never knowing when your contract might not be renewed be-cause of poor ratings. The station manager said, “We are all just renting time in radio; our jobs are never safe.” In fact, while I was interviewing some local hosts and producers at one particular station, one of their colleagues (the host of a morning show) was fired by the station and the corporation (Infinity) due to insufficient sports knowledge and lack-luster ratings. One host said that ratings are a “constant source of tension—you never stop thinking about it. And it’s so fleeting; one month you’re up and the next you’re down.” Several said they take the ratings personally.

* Many spoke of the multiple balancing acts that sports radio work involves, including the pressure to attract advertising revenue while staying loyal to callers. All my interviewees referred to advertising as “a necessary evil.” Attracting advertising revenue is a constant source of tension for many, particularly for the station manager I interviewed. After making sure that I was going to honor his anonymity, he was openly critical of the advertising industry: “I do recognize their power … They [the advertisers] are our number one priority… let’s face it … without them we can’t give our listeners the sports stuff they want. But it is hard to always push new products like the latest gad-get or male enhancement pills! I got into this business because I love sports and call-in programming, not to push products.”

* KHTK, the sports talk radio station in Sacramento, California, has a contract with the NBA Sacramento Kings to air their games. KHTK’s sport stalk hosts are also employed by the Kings (the Kings are owned by Maloof Sports & Entertainment) to do play-by-play and pre-game and post-game commentary. Jeff Kearns (2003), in his article “Embedded with the Kings,” suggests that the KHTK’s hosts are “cogs in an expansive promotional and media machine that seemingly mixes Kings announcers, players, media outlets, and advertisers—all of whom capitalize on and profit from the success of the only big-name sports team in town”.

* You just know that you aren’t supposed to badmouth the people (the sports franchise owners, advertisers) who pay you … We do have to kiss ass to the advertisers, the Kings, and the corporate sponsors all the time … politics. It’s bullshit. If we are supposed to have journalistic freedom, we should be able to rip a coach/player/organization without them or their sponsors being upset about what you said.

* The tension between journalistic independence and the necessity to maximize advertising revenues may be a sign of the paradoxes and ambivalences of current masculinities as well as a reflection of the dynamics of commercial culture. Many of the products advertised on sports radio—automobiles, beer, gadgets, and male enhancement pills—are reflective of the laddish masculinity mentioned earlier (Ben-yon, 2002). Similarly, station ads (such as “sports talk radio—it’s just beer, babes, and brats!”) give the impression that the staff are not really working at all; it’s just one big fraternity party. Yet, all the hosts and staff I interviewed talk about long hours, fatigue, and work stress. How might we understand the discourses of hedonism in face of in-creased corporate pressures and work strain? One argument might be that the emphasis on pleasure-seeking is assembled to mask the increasingly bureaucratic and rational features of the modern work-place. Stories of sports radio as one big laddish celebration obscure the fact that sports radio staff are all involved in rational bureaucratic work organizations—a feature of many men’s work experience in today’s hypercapitalist culture (Faludi, 1999).

* Talk radio gave listeners a way to tap into the nation, into public opinion, into a community that they did not have before, where they could hear viewpoints that had not been filtered and homogenized by the TV networks and their news anchors … Listeners find themselves politically isolated at work or at home, deprived of any forum for discussion or debate. Co-workers and family members were either politically apathetic and ignorant or of a different political persuasion, which meant that going back and forth with them about cur-rent affairs would be frustrating, even infuriating. But tuning into talk radio, people could hear other points of view, even outrageous points of view, and they could take them in quietly, or scream back at the radio without fear of an altercation.

* Kevin Wheeler: Sports radio is popular for the same reason regular talk radio is popular—people feel like that they have a voice. Even if an individual doesn’t get to call, they know that there are others out there like them who will… Sports radio is about interaction, in my opinion. Callers take the time to call (and hold for thirty–sixty minutes sometimes) because they want to be heard, even if the expression of their opinions doesn’t effect a change.

Local host: Why is it popular? Because guys like to talk sports … it’s in our genes! We like to mix it up with other men; feel heard and express our opinions. We used to do that at bars, in our neighborhoods … But now, we are working all the time, so we do it in the car … It’s how we connect.

* Both Wheeler and the local host’s comments resonate with the idea that in late capitalist and privatizing culture, sports radio attempts to satisfy a need for humans (in this case, men) to participate in the public realm. Susan Herbst (1995) refers to this civic engagement as an “imagined community” created in electronic public space. Since many men in a neoliberal economy are working and living increasingly isolated lives, sports talk radio gives the listeners and callers a discursive space to create community and enjoy social interaction. Likewise, Pamela Haag (1996) believes that sports radio fulfills people’s desires to be “thrown together in unexpected, impassioned, even random social relations and communities”.

* The ethic of fandom is one, according to Haag, in which people can speak both fervently and politely. To her own bewilderment, she admits to being hooked on sports radio while writing her dissertation, finding the shows comforting and stress reducing. Equally, at times I find sports radio helpful as an antidote to a stressful and busy career. I have developed imaginary relationships with hosts and callers that have provided a sense of belonging.

* Female producer: Guys think they know everything about sports and everything else … they love to debate … they don’t listen to each other … just talking over each other … and everyone is a better coach than the coach that is currently doing the job … although many [hosts and callers] are out of shape and not athletic, they can live through their favorite players and prove their male superiority.

* “Men’s investment in spectator sports accordingly becomes an investment in their own projected superiority through the superiority of the best athletes.”

* “Sports is our common denominator. You can be a blue-collar worker and you can talk sports on equal level with the chairman of a Fortune 500 company. You can’t talk business that way, or world politics that way.”

* sports talk can momentarily break down barriers of race, ethnicity, age, and class. In his article analyzing sports talk discourse, Farred argues that “sport facilitates the transient construction of alliances across racial, class, and even ethnic lines: White suburbanites, inner-city Latino and African American men can all support the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

* sports talk can temporarily displace one’s primary racial, cultural, or ethnic identity.

* the romantic outlook on sports suggests that sports exists outside power, ignoring the reality that sports talk “is freighted with political import”…

* Constructed certitude provides a sense of stability amid men’s current insecurities and anxieties. The construction of certitude offers a magical resolution to questions of identity, eradicating doubt and uncertainty in a society that is perceived as increasingly fragile and ambiguous.

* sports radio is not sexist but merely echoing and honoring their listeners’ natural masculinity and desire for “guy stuff.” This outlook implies that masculinity (and male consumer desire) is fixed and ahistorical. Yet, the process of naturalizing heterosexual masculinity hides the reality that sports talk radio is not merely reflecting a “natural” manhood but helping to construct it.

* “it would be impossible to overstate the degree to which sports talk radio is shadowed by a homosexual panic implicit in the fact that it consists entirely of out-of-shape white men sitting around talking about black men’s buff bodies”…

* sports have become one of the last bastions of traditional male ideas of success, of male power and superiority over—and separation from—the feminization of society…

* The rule-bound, competitive, hierarchical world of sport offers boys an attractive means of establishing an emotionally distant (and thus “safe”) relationship with others…

* So, while the manifest function of The Jim Rome Show “is to talk about sports, its latent content function works to construct traditional masculinity as the show and its host collectively provide a clear and consistent image of the masculine role; a guide for becoming a man, a rule book for appropriate male behavior, in short, a manual on masculinity”…

* “for males, conversation is the way you negotiate your status in the group and keep people from pushing you around; you use talk to preserve your independence”(p.3). Men often use communication techniques and speech patterns to prove themselves and demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. Nelson (1994) suggests that sports talk is one way that men prove their masculinity: “When they talk sports, they usually report-talk: they offer information, competing to establish who is most informed. It’s a verbal one-upmanship, an oral contest. This competitive conversation simultaneously establishes both hierarchy and unity: we are men talking about men’s interests”

* in-group humor is a primary feature of men’s relationships; “that the male bond is built upon a joking relationship that negotiates the tension men feel about their relationships with each other, and with women”…

* in-group humor gives regular listeners a sense of community based on mutually shared background and common knowledge. The incessant focus on pathologizing Michael Jackson appears to function in maintaining group solidarity among Rome and his clones. As Meyer (1997) writes, “Humor’s power in communication lies in sociability, as people share in communicating similar perceptions of the normal and abnormal”(p.191). Ridiculing Jackson, in this sense, helps to construct the clones as “normal.”

* the show produces a sense of community among its listeners: mainly young educated middle-class men who have access to radio, email, and faxes during the working day. In this mediated space, a shared sense of community and a set of speech rules are created that provide a third place (not home or work) for men to connect and express their masculinity. Tremblay and Tremblay (2001) argue that “The Jim Rome Show produces a speech community that appears to have morphed the traditional identity of masculinity from that of a Muscular Christian of the Industrial Age to a glib narcissist of the Information Age. This “new man” seeks to be capable and competent in Rome’s radio Jungle to cope with the anxiety-producing challenges of the emerging millennium. In this constructed “place,” men bond by sharing a playful speech community that has become a substitution for the real physical experience formerly acquired in the tangible arenas—the wilderness, the playing, and battlefields—for testing manhood and achieving masculinity.”

* The show’s popularity reveals men’s anxiety about finding their place in the modern world, and then seeking a “third place” to connect and even earn the respect of other men. Furthermore, the irony and masculinist humor of Rome’s show may not necessarily hide a macho agenda; rather, they conceal the nervousness of men who might prefer a simpler gender and economic order, but are attempting to face up to modern realities anyway. Respect is earned not only through sexism or irony but by presenting oneself as open-minded and tolerant regarding issues of racism and homophobia, for example. Therefore, the Jungle community is many things, both enabling and constraining, including a mediated accountability community where men police each other in a postfeminist, post-civil rights America.

* the extraordinary media attention these behaviors (trash talking, taunting, dancing, and/or celebrating) receive seems out of proportion to their importance, since they provide little if any competitive advantage and seem to be only peripherally related to the actual competition. Simons argues that the extraordinary attention these sport behaviors receive is racially motivated in that black athletes are said to be largely responsible for such acts. These behaviors are seen to be a reflection of urban African American cultural norms, which conflict with white mainstream norms. In summary, Simons posits that the restrictions placed on such behaviors represent white male society’s response to the threat to white masculinity represented by black athletic superiority and by African American athletes’ assertion of the right to define the meaning of their behavior.

* sports media complex obsesses about African American athletes, allowing white sports fans to fulfill voyeuristic desires to look at black athletes. The homoerotic desire fetishizes black athletes, reducing their bodies to commodities…

* Rome’s nationalistic rhetoric has significantly increased since 9/11.

* American sports culture developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nativism and nationalism were shaping a distinctly American self-image that clashed with the non-American sport of soccer; baseball and football crowded out the game and reinforced the notion of American supremacy.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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