Just about anywhere in the country at any time, you can find sports talk radio on the dial. It’s a format that has deep roots in Cleveland. One of its pioneers, Les Levine, is getting a lifetime achievement award from the Cleveland Association of Broadcasters this weekend. Sports commentator Terry Pluto says sports radio has withstood the test of time.
The sports radio pioneers
Levine has been on the air for 50 years. His show, "More Sports and Les Levine" airs on 92.3 The Fan and Spectrum cable, as well as Cleveland.com. He got his start in 1970 at a radio station in Jasper, Indiana working as a disc jockey. Then, he returned to Northeast Ohio where he worked as sports director and sales manager at WNIR in Akron.
"You name a station in Akron or Cleveland, at some time or another, Les has probably passed through there, whether he was doing Kent State football or Cleveland State basketball or talk shows," Pluto said.
When Levine got started in talk radio sports, Pluto said there was really only one other star sports broadcaster: Pete Franklin. Franklin hosted Sportsline at 50,000-watt Cleveland AM station WWWE 1100 AM (now called WTAM). His show ran from 1972 to 1987.
A growing 24/7 format
But Pluto says the remarkable thing is that the sports talk format has only continued to grow. Cleveland has two full-time sports stations: 92.3 FM The Fan and ESPN Cleveland (WKNR-AM 850). "And there are at least three other stations where sports is anywhere from four to eight hours a day. It's not like it's changed dramatically from when Les Levine and Pete Franklin started doing it."
Pluto says it's the timelessness of radio that makes it work so well.
"It's almost like if you listen to Tom Hamilton and Jim Rosenhaus do the Indians game on the radio, you could go back to the '40s when it first started to come on. There are some differences but not as much as you would expect. There's still something magic about whether you're calling an event, or after the game calling in and second-guessing the manager or want to fire somebody or trade somebody."
Radio on TV
Sports talk radio is so popular it's even simulcast on cable television, with hosts filmed sitting in front of microphones in a studio. One of the most popular was Mike & Mike, which aired from 2000-2017 on ESPN radio and simulcast on ESPN TV. Now one of ESPN's signature radio/television simulcasts is Golic and Wingo, which launched in 2017.
Pluto says Levine was among the first to simulcast his radio show more than 20 years ago.
What makes it work
"The simplicity of it, it's remarkable," Pluto said. "We're supposed to be beyond all this after 50 years. You're just supposed to be able to get what you want when you want it."
"You're not really talking about the games, you're talking about what are they going to do, what they should do, what they should not have done, what you would have done if you were there. Everyone gets to play general manager or owner of the team, and it seems to have a certain appeal to it. It's also actually a safer environment than political talk. And it's less likely to cause big division in families as opposed to politics."
Last year, Levine announced he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, but has said he has no plans to stop working.