A Night at the Whineys

Had I not been going to the gala—had I been going only on the evidence of the thousands of cars—I might have thought that the 2006 Whiney Awards Show was a game. The “Whineys” are the Academy Awards for callers to the “Whiner Line” on “The Big Show,” Boston’s premier sportstalk radio program. You call the Whiner Line to record “whines”: jokes, wry comments, or songs about the subjects and events of the day’s show. The recordings are played at the end of the show while the hosts listen and yuck it up. A select few of these—the year’s best, in a range of categories—are revived and ushered into glory at the annual awards extravaganza. The Whineys used to be held in a hotel ballroom, but by February 28, 2006, the number of people in the Greater Boston area who hadn’t been nominated for awards and weren’t necessarily even callers but were nonetheless willing to pay WEEI good money for tickets had grown to the point that the setting had shifted to the Boston Garden, where the Celtics and Bruins play.

More than the honorees, these were the people I paid my $20 ($40, if you count the event-rate parking) to see. This had nothing to do with curiosity. What brought me to the Whineys that night was pure desperation—the hope of catching a glimpse, in my fellow unhonored attendees, of something that remained catastrophically obscure to me in myself. For much of the preceding eleven years, I had been laid out behind drawn blinds, listening to sportstalk radio as if to the voices of angels, and I was looking for an end to this. Or so I told myself at least, as the Garden turnstile clicked.

From 1995—the year I began a Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature at Yale—to 2006, by which time I was nearing the dead end of a four-year, nowhere near tenure-track job at Harvard, only minutes away from the Garden, I listened to sportstalk radio religiously. “Religiously” is the word for it in sportstalk. “I listen to you guys religiously,” a caller will sometimes say before getting to the point of his or her call.

Callers to sportstalk radio programs call with what they usually call “points” to make about “the world of sports.” Callers will on rare occasions address their points directly to the radio listeners, but however direct they may want to be, they first have to say a proper hello to the hosts. The hello portion of the call usually goes something like this:

Host 1: “Jim from Rego Park is on the line. Hey Jimmy.” (I’ve made the caller a man because, for every Doris from Rego Park, there are 100 Jims. Jim, whom I’ve made up, could be any caller. Doris, who died in 2003, stands alone. Any longtime listener to WFAN in New York will remember her signature sign-off—“Thank you for your time and courtesy”—by which she both acknowledged a slight speech impediment, a nervous cough, and insisted upon her separateness as a woman.)

Jim from Rego Park: “Hey guys.”

Host 2: “Jim.”

Jim may get straight to his point (e.g. “Yeah, um, I wanted to address the A-Rod issue . . .”) after taking care of these niceties. But he may also feel the need for further niceties. If he’s a first-time caller, he’ll probably want to say “First-time, longtime” (first-time caller, longtime listener). Whether he’s a veteran or a first-timer, it’s likely that he’ll want to say something like “Great show guys” or “You guys do a great job.” The hosts will thank him for this, and it’s at this point that he’ll confess, if he wants to, that he listens “religiously.”

The little pride that I can take in making such a confession here in the silent medium of writing (and in the safety of the past tense) would not have survived for a second on the air. Though many of the callers who say they listen “religiously” say it with a kind of pride, this practically guarantees a swift punch from the hosts—“You’re not exactly a success with the ladies, are you Jimmy?” Others make sure to beat the hosts to the punch by beating themselves up over it. No one escapes unashamed. So I made sure to stay out of danger. Preferring guilt to shame (the source of more of my woes than one), I never once called in to a sportstalk radio show. Instead, I listened mutely as caller after caller went to the slaughter.

According to the moral code that sportstalk radio hosts enforce, listening is something to be ashamed of when it ceases to be a prop for work. Hosts will often speak of what they do as “helping you through the workday,” and the principal mission of the big rush hour programs (the “drive-time” shows by which sportstalk radio stations live and die) is to give comfort to listeners on their way to and from work. Like the ideal athlete it celebrates, the ideal listener the medium projects is a “hard worker.” As a result, only those callers who are legitimately excused from work—the sick, the disabled, and the retired—are free to express without shame their true devotion to the radio. The sublime and unrivaled apoplexy of Jerome from Manhattan—probably the best known New York area sportstalk radio caller—would have been a scandal had he not been afflicted with a serious if never specified ailment that often had him in the hospital. There is no place within the world of work where one can get away with screaming the way Jerome screamed, day after day, until his doctors finally forced him into “retirement” (an arrangement in which he was allowed to call in, but only infrequently, and only at half blast).

I was neither sick nor disabled nor in any other way excused from work, but I cannot truthfully say that sportstalk radio ever propped up much work for me. The hours I spent listening were, in fact, completely unproductive. From the very first hour, I told myself that I would make up for the time I spent listening by writing about it. But the time for any redemptive writing was lost early on. In the long hours beyond any redeemable lost time, I could have learned languages, or a musical instrument. And I could have read. More than anything, listening to sportstalk radio took the place of reading for me. I do not think I could have continued to listen so avidly had listening taken the place of a more active and clearly productive pursuit. It would then have been merely another form of procrastination, not the true madness that it was. The life that my radio listening had for me began in its resemblance to reading, another kind of passionate withdrawal from the ordinary forms of productive activity.

In the first sentence of the prologue to Don Quixote, Cervantes famously calls the reader to whom he addresses himself “unoccupied” (desocupado). What reader can say that he or she is not thereby summoned? In our age of general literacy, reading becomes a key to the world of occupations—most jobs require literacy—but reading still cannot itself be counted a productive occupation. Take Busy Day, Busy People (1973), or What Do People Do All Day (1968)—classic children’s books about the importance of being productive. These books lead the child into literacy by leading him or her to project him or herself imaginatively into the adult world of work. First the child sees him or herself in one occupation and then in another. In the process, he or she learns to read. This free, imaginative movement from one occupation to another would not be possible if reading were itself an occupation. There is no picture of the reader in Busy Day, Busy People.

So I understand Karl Marx to be expressing a reader’s wish when, in The German Ideology, he dreams of a society in which “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity.” In Marx’s dream, the social regulation of general production “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind to, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Though I was hardly in a dreamy mood when I made my own choice of a career—an academic career in literary studies looked riddled with traps from the outset—a dream akin to this one guided my choice. (Dangerous dream! But I won’t blame the guide for the sins of the follower.) Any other choice would have felt more confining. Of all the career options open to me, this one, centered as it was on the anti-occupation of reading, seemed to leave the most possibilities open.

It did not take more than a semester in graduate school, however, to see how unfriendly the conditions would be to any open expression of interest in the essential non-productivity of reading. Of course, the usual gushing about pleasure was allowed—in fact it was encouraged—but only on condition that it remain guilty. The instant the idleness of reading began to appear within the realm of work, the purity of that realm had to be violently reasserted—some form of devotion to “the profession” and its established division of labor had to be hyperbolically expressed.

My reaction to my first full exposure to these unfortunate features of the professional production of knowledge about literature was deeply defensive. Untrue as they would have been—and they would not have been more than half untrue—suitably earnest expressions of devotion to a conventionally defined field of scholarly production (to the study of a particular period, genre, and area of literature) would have been far less compromising than my policy of stonewalling turned out to be. Clinging in terror to the truth about my interest in literature, I fell into a far deeper and more deadly form of deception than any I could have consciously chosen. Eyes closed, head back in a white armchair, surrounded by half-read books, I would have looked like I was asleep to anyone walking in on me as I listened to the radio. Meanwhile, to my own closed eyes, the scene was worse than my worst nightmare: from such a false sleep there was no guarantee of ever waking up.

Like most magic, the spell I had fallen under worked through the power of names. Sportstalk is a language in which proper names play a particularly prominent part. Even the verbs in sportstalk aspire to the condition of the proper name. It is perfectly proper sportstalk, for example, to say that Jimmy the Superfly Snuka “snuka’ed” Don Muraco when, on October 17, 1983, he jumped on him from the top of a steel cage. The great texts of this language—the texts around which all sportstalk turns—are the box scores: lists of proper names followed by sequences of numbers. These were the first texts I read unaided as a child (I knew the Red Sox batting order by heart and worked backwards from that knowledge). This primal reading laid the tracks along which my readerly energies could travel over to sportstalk radio. But the names in the box score were not the only names I was listening for. The names of the callers were just as magical.

To call in to a sportstalk radio show—or to any talk radio show, for that matter—is to be released for a moment from one’s family name. Callers keep their first names, but in place of the last names by which they would be sworn to tell the truth in a court of law—or by which, if they are employed, their bosses might identify them—they are identified by the names of the places that they’re calling from. This cloaks them, ironically, in shining armor. “Al from Everett,” “Frank from Gloucester,” “Bruce from Bayside,” “Jerome from Manhattan”: by these dubbings, the listener to sportstalk radio—the medium’s dupe—is made its crusading hero. The listener as hero: all talk radio is founded on this trope.

Of course, the joke is ultimately on the listener here. It is entirely at the listener’s expense that Clear Channel and the other big corporations that run talk radio stations turn such tropes to profit. Still, something in the heroism of a Jerome from Manhattan remains better than the joke upon it, just as something in the heroism of Don Quixote de la Mancha—the hero as dupe of literature—survives Cervantes’s satire. That similar something was enough to keep me listening to sportstalk radio hour after hour. It was far from enough, however, to sustain anything much like human life in me. CBS Radio is no Cervantes, and while the errancy of Jerome from Manhattan may be inspired, the dream to which he gives such wild voice is actually all too tame.

That dream is not to redress the evils of the workaday world but rather to reach its summit, where work becomes play. There stand the Pros, those who play professionally, the lucky few who have a job that is not a job. Of course, this summit is practically unattainable. Only the fewest of the few reach it, and no one can continue to strive for it very seriously much past the age of 25. Nonetheless, the peak on which the pro athlete stands remains entirely within the workaday world. Even in the eyes of the most idolatrous fan, professional athletes are not really transcendent figures. If they were, they would not be on trial around the clock on sportstalk radio, endlessly subject to the most sententious judgments on how well or poorly they uphold all of the highest values of the world of work: loyalty, toughness, drive, subordination of self, et cetera.

In the eyes of the fan, the pro player is a worker in the field of fields—the perfect field, toward which all other fields gesture. Though all the yelling and screaming on sportstalk radio might seem to suggest otherwise, the real genre under which it falls is pastoral. It’s all about morbid obsession with an idealized field. The fan’s numbing function is to ring the glorious field and cheer. It is with that ringing in his ear that the fan calls the radio and yells out his inevitable complaint: “Give me $20 million a year and I promise you, hamstring or no hamstring, I’m still running hard.” Or, “Dog it like that and I’m fired in a heartbeat; meanwhile this jerk gets $20 million.” The complaint always boils down to the same thing: the caller doesn’t get to play. He can only watch, dream of what he has watched, and then call in the next day.

The job of sportstalk radio hosts is to field the call in such a way as to keep the caller’s dream alive without thereby letting the caller entertain the mad thought that he might ever truly enter the field of play. Grim labor: keep alive a hopeless dream while keeping callers fully aware of its hopelessness. In executing the first part of their two-fold task, hosts will often employ the metaphor of the caller as player. “Yeah, that’s all you got? You’re really going to bring that garbage to the rim?” a host might say. And callers who run afoul of the rules of the metaphorical game may even get “suspended” for a week or two (Jerome is the all-time leader in this category by a wide margin). But here and there the host will suddenly turn cold and declare the game over, the metaphor dissolved. “Dude, you’re high,” the host will say. And thus will begin a stern review of our catechism: hooked on sports and on sports supplements like sportstalk radio, the fan pursues a legal, happy, and socially respectable high. PED’s, amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana are bad, but sports, like alcohol, are good drugs, so long as you don’t abuse them. When are you abusing them? When you forget that you’re just another fat-assed fan and that you’re only dreaming.

And here, on the fan’s fat ass, the host can confidently rest his entire case. Once upon a time—in high school—the fan may have been an athlete, but this was before he had come fully into his fandom, which can happen only once any chance at the pros has finally been lost. From this point on, no matter how many rec leagues he may play in, the fan will be more a consumer of sports than a player of them, and rolls of speechless fat will keep the record of his deeds. Of course, not every full-grown fan is actually overweight. But he who partakes of the body of the host—the religious listener like me—is in spirit as fat as can be. No sportstalk radio station could possibly stay above water without binding itself firmly to at least one iconically round host. Every last hour, every play of every game ever watched, every last ounce ever ingested of our drug is stored in the fat cells of a Mike Francesa (WFAN) or a Glenn Ordway (WEEI). The much-discussed fat on which they sit out their five daily hours on the air is ours, the absolute measure of our lost time.

Carrying all this weight, the hosts can deliver crushing blows to those callers who forget that they are just fans and that the field they watch, day after day, can never be theirs. In their publicity shots, the hosts have that same cherubic look that NFL lineman—rapacious, ligament snapping monsters—have. Your host on sportstalk radio is definitely not your friend. My deepest sympathies as a listener thus lay squarely with the hosts’ worst enemies, a handful of rebels who refuse—some consciously, some cluelessly—to recognize even the very first commandment of the hosts’ grim law: “thou shalt turn thy radio down when thy call is taken on the air.”

In order to censor out profanity and other FCC-proscribed speech before it makes it onto the air, sportstalk stations delay the broadcast of their “live” telephonic content by seven to ten seconds. As a result, if the caller fails to turn his radio down, the hosts will hear their own voices from seven to ten seconds earlier murmuring in the background while they have the caller on the line. This drives them insane. “Turn your radio down!” they will scream, and if the radio remains audible, the caller will get “blown up” (hung up on, to the tune of a bomb exploding, a gunshot sounding, or a toilet flushing).

This kind of caller is brother in arms to the streaker, wildcard entrant onto the field of play. Both reveal flaws in the policing of the privileged field. Of course, the police will have the last word. Like the streaker, the transgressive caller is always brought down, and no box score records the yardage he has gained. A trace of his exploit, however, remains. For seven to ten seconds after the caller has been hung up on, we still hear his voice there. If you are a religious listener, these seconds are a taste of eternity.

When I finally stopped listening religiously to sportstalk radio, it was not because I came to see these promises of eternity as false. On the contrary, through the needle’s eye of those seven to ten seconds, I had entered into a dimension where time truly does disappear. In the early years, I had assumed that my listening would eventually come to a natural end, but by February 2006, when ads for the annual Whiney Awards Show ran at least every hour on WEEI, it had become brutally clear that the death I’d been waiting for would not come uncourted. So, on the appointed night, I went to the Garden. Passing through the turnstiles, I thought I was doing something akin to what an alcoholic does when he or she first enters an AA meeting.

If that idea was wayward, it wasn’t because the Whineys provided only soft light to step into. Though dim, the light inside the Garden that night was completely unforgiving. Some people buttressed their appearance there with kids and friends, but most, like me, had come alone. This made things quiet. Except for three sentences—one spoken at the ticket booth, one to buy the CD of the nominated whines, and one “excuse me” when I reached my row of seats—I did not speak. Some present were more gregarious, but my case was hardly exceptional. Seated to my left was an enormous guy, clearly an ex-athlete. We acknowledged each other, but, like everyone else, our attention was held by the Garden scoreboard, where highlights from the past 40 years of Boston sports were being shown. Never have highlights looked so grim. Even the quite young must have felt old watching them. Sports highlights are best watched at home, where the watcher can privately savor collective memory. To watch highlights collectively, on the other hand, is to remember only long hours spent alone in front of the TV. Watching the Garden scoreboard that night, each of us watched in secret the loss of his own life.

When, having run down the glories of the present day (the recent championships of the Patriots and the Red Sox), the highlights finally came to an end, the theme song to “The Big Show” started to play. Dutifully—far from proud of it—Glenn Ordway, principal host of “The Big Show,” appeared on the stage, which was under the scoreboard, down where the games are played. Though I was expecting a lot from the evening, I was certainly not expecting anything pretty, so the sorry sight of Ordway—at once fat and small in his tux—came as no disappointment at all. Nor was I surprised that, starting with Ordway, host after host, having prefaced his remarks with some cracks about his “face for radio,” then proceeded to ridicule the faces and bodies of the nominees.

What I was less prepared for, however, was what I should have most expected: the profanity. The Whineys were not being broadcast; the FCC had no jurisdiction here. This exposed the audience to a new kind of violence from the hosts. While we listeners still had our heads in the radiophonic clouds, the hosts were quick to claim all the powers of the profane for themselves. This was no carnival, no happy profanation of the censor’s sacred law. It was serious business. The relentless moral of the cursing hosts was that they knew best, having stuffed their pockets with it, the true secret of what our lives looked like beyond the law, live and uncensored: we were shit.

For his part, the MC—a hard-working insult comic named Tony V—could find no flaws in the logic of the hosts’ profanations. Each “winner” of a Whiney had to step to the podium escorted by one of two malnourished, half-naked, and completely unenthused teenage girls. Tony V left no winner proud, and he left several pale, but his real question—the killer—was for the audience: If the winners were the most sorry bunch of losers conceivable, what did that make those of us willing to pay good money to watch this farce? “I’m just shitting on you” was the only consolation he could offer. To make matters worse, the Garden was draughty and people were visibly cold. No one present could possibly have been unashamed. Somewhere around where the middle of the fourth quarter would have been had it been a basketball game, the evening became a question of survival. That’s when the audience began to awake from its radiophonic slumber.

Hecklers emerged—not many but still enough that Tony V could not take good aim at any single one. So he fired back with birdshot. “What’s this,” he asked, cupping his hand to his ear, “the mating song of shitbirds?” A thousand hearts in the audience leapt. Who, then, was shitting on whom? By the time Tony V’s next shot arrived, what had been a small scattering of hecklers had grown to a large flock, joined at the edges by exultant boobirds. This was now officially a late rally. I had my game face on now. I looked over at the huge guy next to me. So did he. Were he and I about to start booing in unison? I was certainly not going to stick around to find out. I put my head down, bulled my way to the end of my row, and fled.

There could have been no victory for the listener under those conditions. The late rally of the listeners only confirmed that the game had always been in the bag for the hosts. If a listener booed, the joke was ultimately on him for having expected anything more from the evening’s ceremonies than the shit that we were getting. But what else could a listener do but boo once he finally knew that FCC censorship in fact protected us from the hosts more than it protected them from us? Rush the stage? Laughter, I suppose, was a respectable option, and I can assure you that I did not cry, but I never would have gone to the Whineys had I known how truly sad they would be. In one important way, however, my script for the evening had not been wrong, and among the evening’s surprises, this was by far the most shocking. I actually got from the evening exactly the final result that I had claimed to be seeking from it. My pseudo-professional listening career did in fact meet its end there.

“One car, one body,” I heard myself thinking as I looked for mine in the packed parking structure. When I found it and turned the key in the ignition, on came the radio. I held my breath, hoping—completely irrationally—to hear what I was missing by leaving the Whineys. But the unbroadcastable truth I’d just witnessed had not been a dream: from the darkness of the Garden, no voices came. Instead, a b-list host in the Brighton studios was taking care of the usual palaver. Endless transmission. I tuned it out, released the brake, and headed into that slow spiral that makes every parking structure an image of the infinite. From the outside—from Causeway Street—the looming Garden gave no sign. I was delighted to have escaped the horrible rite transpiring secretly within. And yet, as I drove away, I could not shake the strange longing to hear how the end of the Whineys sounded. It’s not that I was in any suspense, or that I had any burning interest to know anything further about it. I wanted simply to hear the event in my absence from it—to experience my absence from it that way. Such is the natural longing of the creature of radio, the habitual listener in absentia: you long to hear the sound of the world occupying itself in your absence.

Had the Whineys been broadcast, I might still be listening to sportstalk radio religiously today. It was censorship that had produced those seven to ten seconds that had captivated me; now censorship set me free. Almost. There remained, like a ghost, the call I had never made to the station. Was now not the time to discharge that debt? The station was practically undefended. All the formidable hosts were at the Whineys. I could refuse to turn my radio down while my call was being taken, and the b-lister would hesitate before hanging up on me. I would hear myself well for a
time before he pulled the trigger. It would be my goodbye to the medium. “Longtime listener,” I would say, and so would begin the last words I would ever hear on sportstalk radio. But no, it was too late for that. I had already left the company of listeners. What I owe that company, unoccupied reader, I have no choice but to gamble on you.

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