Sports talk radio adjusts to life without sports

Just outside their office in Kearny Mesa, sports radio talk show hosts Chris Ello, left, and former Nashville Sound Tony Gwynn Jr. are pictured.

SAN DIEGO — Alpine is dark when Judson Richards wakes up. It’s still dark when his work day begins at 6 a.m. While his pregnant wife and his mother slumber elsewhere in the rural home, Richards settles behind a microphone to start his shift.

What he’s after is light, and not necessarily the daylight that creeps up the Cuyamaca Mountains to the east.

Sports are supposed to be light, not heavy. Can they still be, when there’s a viral pandemic on the loose, when the games have been scrapped, because there’s so much real life happening?

Talking about sports is what Richards, 39, does each day. The former Point Loma Nazarene University baseball player has built an audience since joining a local radio station in 2011. In these serious times, he doesn’t apologize for the sports niche. On the contrary. He wants folks to know he and his colleagues are there for them, and with them. He’s thrilled for the opportunity.

“If we sound invested,” said Richards, a broadcaster with XTRA 1360-AM Fox Sports Radio San Diego, “if we sound engaged, if we sound enthusiastic, if we sound upbeat, positive; if there’s laughter in our voices — that’s what our audience, especially in the morning, is kind of tuned into hearing.”

Richards and others local sports hosts are striking a balance in these harrowing days of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has taken lives, slammed economies and raised fears on several continents, to say nothing of shutting down games in several sports leagues including MLB and the NBA.

Wisely, they’ve chosen not to ignore the pandemic’s effects on day-to-day life in San Diego.

Yet for the most part, broadcasters at both 1360 and 97.3-FM The Fan have stuck to what they do best: Talk about sports, and laugh about sports, and find escape in sports.

Even without the games, sports still has something to offer. They’re sure of it.

“We’re stuck with the task of trying to take people’s minds off it, which, by the way, is what sports is really about,” said Tony Gwynn Jr. (a former Nashville Sound) of The Fan. “We’re kind of getting you away from your normal worries. It’s a delicate dance. For the most part, we try to keep things light.”

Gwynn’s laughter is nearly identical to the laughter of the broadcaster’s late father, making it a welcomed infectious agent. A former San Diego State and Padres outfielder himself, Gwynn can be heard in the 3-7 afternoon slot (inclusive of the 5.5 hole, you’ll note), when he banters with colleague Chris Ello.

Gwynn, 37, let out a belly laugh, when asked this: How has the shutdown of local schools affected his home life?

“It’s been chaotic; I have four kids ranging from 4 to 12,” he said. “They forget, I think, that there’s something called an inside voice. Like, my home is one of the loudest places you can be in.” He added: “That said, we’re going to try to take advantage of it.”

Richards has switched to broadcasting from home rather than driving to the station in Murphy Canyon where he had worked — several feet apart — with co-host Mike Costa. (The Fan, too, has enacted distancing measures, said brand manager Adam Klug, to further de-populate its building.)

Richards has a rich home life, too. His mother, 74, lives with him. His wife is due to give birth April 6 to the couple’s first child.

During their shows, Gwynn, Richards and colleagues leave the science to the experts, but provide helpful updates, such as restaurant closings. They try to be encouraging about coping with the health crisis and the shutdown. For example, former Chargers center (and talk-show host) Nick Hardwick, drawing upon his competitive-sports background, told XTRA’s morning-show audience that “being under-prepared is the worst thing you can be.” Costa suggested curtailed activities outside the home will lead to rebuilding of the family unit. John Kentera, an affable host of an afternoon show with The Fan, took a more direct approach. “If you don’t take this serious,” he said of COVID-19, “you’re a moron.”

“I feel like if you don’t acknowledge what’s happening in the world,” Richards said, “you just seem naive, and that can lead you to kind of make it seem like sports is the most important thing.”

He added: “I do like to acknowledge: We’re here for a distraction.”

There are still games to catch — Aztecs games.

Going the instant-nostalgia route, 1360-AM is rebroadcasting Ted Leitner’s call of each of the 30 victories San Diego State’s men’s basketball team recorded this past season before the pandemic canceled the NCAA Tournament.

“It gives people just a little bit of a break,” program director Brian Long said of the condensed broadcasts, which air between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.

(These broadcasts are a good change of pace. Leitner’s one-person narration provides contrast to the day’s talk shows, which are much busier. Plus, there is Ted Talk that breaks up the blowouts. “Yowzer!” Leitner said after SDSU’s 20-0 run against Texas Southern, minutes after praising State’s opponent as a league power. “Imagine the bad teams in the Southwest Athletic Conference.”)

Games already played, go only so far.

You wonder this: For how long can the talkers keep the ball bouncing, before the games return?

“It’ll get tougher as we get going,” Gwynn said. “We’ll just have to keep getting creative. Do I know what that looks like? No, I really don’t. But it’s certainly something we’re very well aware of.”

Klug and Long said their broadcasters are doing a bang-up job of balancing sports-talk entertainment with pandemic-related information. While decreased vehicular traffic in San Diego caused by local shutdowns isn’t kind to radio ratings, the stations’ streaming content gets more attention.

A few years after he was a surfer living the single life in Pacific Beach, Richards appreciates how life can change in big ways, but also savors the consistency of his job. Familiarity is a big part of the connection between him and listeners. There’s a “we’re in this together” vibe, generated over many hundreds of shows. He’s comfortable at sharing details of his life with listeners. He’s been known to seek their advice. For example: What was he to say to the father of his soon-to-be fiancee, upon first meeting him at the family home in Joliet, Ill.?

“I like it when the audience can educate me on stuff; it’s good, real good,” Richards said. “The show has been a personal escape for myself. I sit down and get lost in a topic. It’s probably the most normalcy I feel in a day.

“I get in the studio, and I can quarantine myself, and I’m good.”

No point waiting for someone to say, let the games begin.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.