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Here is a topic that millions of men ponder on their commutes: do bagels reduce flatulence?

Sherman, a listener in Dallas, has e-mailed his local sports-talk radio station to report on an experiment. Sherman went four days without eating bagels and averaged 12.25 daily farts. On four days with bagels, he averaged 10.5. “In-depth statistical analysis shows a 14.3 per cent decrease in number of toots,” Sherman concludes.

This has little to do with sport, but then sometimes neither does being a sports fan. Sports-talk radio understands the function of sport in men’s lives. That has helped the medium capture millions of listeners in several countries in just 20 years. Sports-talk stations give many men a ready-made persona for being a man.

Yet the subculture has gone largely unnoticed, except by the political activist Noam Chomsky. Now at last the medium has its first book: Sports-Talk Radio in America, a study of stations in 10 cities.

Only in 1987 did a New York station try to live by sports talk alone. Within a decade WFAN was billing advertisers more than $50m annually, the highest for any radio station ever. The format mushroomed across the US. The book describes, for instance, the humble origins of Kansas City’s sports-talk station, KCTE: “The toilets sometimes did not work. The heat often did not work. The air-conditioning never worked.” Yet when a minor explosion put KCTE off the air in 1997, the local newspaper received hundreds of phone calls asking where the station had gone.

By 2000 there were 600 American sports-talk stations. Shows like the Total Dominance Hour in Oklahoma City answered a male need. But only in Boston, probably America’s most passionate sporting city, did they become mainstream. The WEEI station is the town’s third biggest radio station. In no other big American city does a sports-talk station make the top 10.

Sports talk is a niche, but a lucrative one. Its callers may sound like morons but, says the book: “Listeners to sports talk are 74 per cent more likely to earn $100,000 or more a year than the general population.” They are America’s richest demographic, men aged 25 to 54.

Often their discussions are pathetic. A friend of mine, addicted to the British shows on which football fans call in to allege global conspiracies against their teams, always wants to phone in and shout: “Don’t you realise that it doesn’t really matter?”

The author Garrison Keillor says of the American callers’ “absorption in a fantasy world”: “Ten minutes of their ranting and wheezing is a tonic that somehow makes this world, the world of trees and children and books and travel, positively tremble with vitality.”

But that is unfair. Rants about sport are a sideline. Listeners do want to hear fellow commuters chew out an assistant referee, but they also enjoy comparative analyses of female celebrities.

The point of the label “sport” is chiefly to put off women. Sports themselves sometimes have the same function. Usually four-fifths of listeners to these shows are male. Women pop up chiefly to present segments such as “Pizza ’n Porn”, in Seattle: a former traffic reporter with a sexy voice reviews a porn video she watched the night before together with a pizza delivered by the segment’s sponsor.

With women excluded, the men have a club of soulmates in their hometown, and are free to discuss matters beyond sport. The most popular shows segue from “sports talk” to “guy talk”.

The consequence is that the American stations are always flirting with illegal obscenity. Often they sound like homages to the British comedy duo Derek and Clive. When a Buffalo station distributed “urinal splash guards” with logos of ice hockey teams to bars and restaurants, and urged listeners to “piss on”
them, the Federal Communications Commission pondered whether this was obscene.

Yet sports-talk radio has helped democratise sport. Over the decades, coverage of sport has shifted from the game itself to the players and lately to fans. On sports-talk stations, listeners are the heroes. Oklahomans love hearing 94-year-old Effie Heil call in to attack Oklahoma University’s teams. On WFAN, the frequent caller Joe Benigno eventually got his own show.

Thanks to the listeners, sports-talk radio is a parody of Athenian democracy. As in ancient Athens, the town’s wealthier male citizens gather in the public square for debate. The difference is that on sports-talk radio only meaningless topics get discussed.

Chomsky notes: “The callers have a tremendous amount of expertise, they have detailed knowledge of all kinds of things, they carry on these extremely complex discussions.”

It’s precisely these qualities that he misses in the wider American debate. His explanation is that sport is the only subject most people are encouraged to think about.

That’s harsh. Gabriele Marcotti, who hosts two shows on Talksport in Britain, and often sits in his London office listening to Philadelphia sports-talk radio, says the format “gives you a sense of intimacy and inclusion that television can never give”.

Whereas TV inclines to soundbites, sports-talk radio invites you into a long chat between soulmates. True, they are mindless, but that’s part of their appeal.

Sports-Talk Radio in America: Its Context and Culture. John Mark Dempsey (ed), Haworth Press, $17.95 paperback, $39.95 hardback

  • John Mark Dempsey (ed.), Sports-Talk Radio in America: Its Context and Culture (Haworth Press, New York, $17.95 soft cover, $39.95 hard cover)

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