Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fanaticism Continues to Go Too Far with Finebaum and WJOX

Note: I've had to write this on an iPhone over the course of a long day, so please excuse the lack of links or images, and please excuse misspellings or grammatical mistakes. I'll be sure to follow up on my computer soon and clean it up.
**7/23 - finally got in front of a computer. A few pics have been added, but everything else stayed the same.**

I got to take a ride up to Birmingham on Monday for some business, and I caught the first part of Finebaum's show and the brief recap he gave of what happened on his program the previous Friday. A long-time caller 'Bobby from Homewood' had made some comments towards rival caller 'Shane from Center Point'.

That a caller on Paul Finebaum's radio show made comments intended to embarrass/infuriate another caller on the program is not unusual. What was unusual (and completely wrong) was that the subject of the 'ribbing' - Shane - has been rumored (and basically confirmed by comments and references made by Finebaum and others on the program) to have a very serious medical issue on his plate.

While I am unsure as to whether Shane's condition has been 'officially' confirmed on the program - I have not listened everyday - through conversations I have had with trusted folks over the past few weeks within and out of that radio station, I believe he does have a serious, serious diagnosis.

While Paul's brief commentary Monday that 'Bobby from Homewood' would never again be on his show gave me some description of what happened, I met up with an old radio comrade and asked for more information on what went down. This person had the tape of the segment played to him earlier in the day, and what he described to me was pretty appalling.

Included were insinuations that Shane 'got what was coming' to him and that he deserved his current condition.

All because he's an Alabama fan?

Shane (on left) with Pat Smith
Now I'll be the first to say that through the years, Shane has annoyed and agitated me time and again with biased, unintelligent (perhaps intentionally, but I'm not sure) commentary and, in general, wasted radio time - a pet peeve of mine. There have been many, many times that upon Paul's introduction, "Shane is next...", I have turned the channel.

(So there's my disclaimer, if you cared.)

Where I have issues or concerns here aren't because of Bobby's comments here specifically - although there really is no place for them... anywhere. My concerns stem more from the culture that we have created around us as college football fans. And if we are searching for blame, it's a long line.

1) First, let's start with the puppet-master. Paul Finebaum.

Another disclaimer: I like Paul Finebaum. He and his producer Pat Smith have been nothing but helpful and available to me throughout my career to this point. They've been willing to, within reason, lend a helping hand to me whenever they could. And I appreciate them both for that.

Here's the problem - while I enjoy Paul's program (when I get to hear it), it does quite often devolve into schoolyard name-calling and bickering amongst the callers of the program.

You've heard it time and again - Jim from Tuscaloosa calls I-Man an idiot, Tammy follows up to defend I-Man (and other unintelligible screeching), saying Jim and other Alabama fans are all 'morons', the guy from Crestwood chimes in... and on and on the carousel goes.

And it's particularly bad during the summer months. Why? Because on a show that focuses 99% of it's attention on college football (and SEC football is 99% of that), it's difficult to find items to talk about in May, June, and most of July. I used to call this 'arrest season' - hoping upon hope that some college football player would get arrested or get in trouble. Just to give us something to talk about.

Terrible, right?

But that's how it works in this medium. You hope for controversy and gossip. I remember being a listener during the whole Mike Price episode. At 2 o'clock everyday, you could bet your ass that my ear was right next to that radio, waiting on Paul to tell me what the latest embarrassment was in Tuscaloosa. It was SO much fun.

Then when I was producing the show in Birmingham - you think it didn't make my world easier when UA fired Mike Shula and then the whole Rich Rodriguez/Nick Saban fun? Hell yes it did.

But it's those times when there is nothing going on that you've got to 'create' the fun. And that's how situations like what happened on Friday develop.

2) I also believe a portion of the blame goes to WJOX. (Further disclaimer: I used to work there and I have been guilty as anyone up there of just trying to stir the pot. Plus, some of my best friends still work there today.)

It's generally accepted, I believe, that the stars of the Finebaum show are in fact the callers of the show. In fact, I - within the last week - heard a promo on WJOX in regards to a promotional event where WJOX listeners could meet former athletes, JOX on-air personalities, and JOX callers. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"Come meet JOX callers!"

What? Why?

Surely I'm not the only person who sees the insanity of this.

But it is the monster that has been created. And maybe 'monster' isn't 100% accurate, because I don't think these people are necessarily monsters - I think that a lot of them are overwhelmed.

3) And that's why the callers themselves are up next in this blame game.

I read an article recently about reinventing yourself professionally. One item in particular that stood out to me was the author detailing how you shouldn't continue to try to be something you aren't. That's a mistake that I believe these callers continue to make.

Admittedly, Finebaum gives them the airtime and WJOX provides the encouragement, but these callers - who are grown adults - need to make an occasional self-assessment and remember that they are not cartoons or performers, and they are NOT professional radio personalities.

Now, I think famed Auburn fan Tammy is incredibly funny and extremely memorable. And, I also think she probably 'gets it'. She probably understands that she's considered to be a bit of a joke, and she's okay with it. And that's a good thing.

The problem occurs when the 'caller' doesn't realize the game that's being played, and just like his football, he takes his new platform too seriously. The caller has lost the perception of reality and feels that he/she is now entitled to this status of a 'JOX/Finebaum Caller'.

The problem multiplies when the elite-callers' radio-driven egos decide that not only will they be a recognized 'caller', they must be the 'best caller'. Then, factor in a new caller that is seeking that same elite status so that they, too, can enjoy the fame.

With both of these scenarios, callers are faced with the challenge of differentiating themselves from all other callers. Unfortunately, the de facto strategy to accomplish this is to simply just be more outrageous than the last guy. Set your targets on someone, and try to bring them down as a caller (i.e., "idiot", "moron", and on) so that they can rise above that caller.

Really, the best strategy for a new caller seeking his seat at the table is to go after the volatile established group, because if a feud can be obtained, you've joined the club.

Is it not crazy that there are people out there that actually want to get into a debate with Jim from Tuscaloosa? It's nuts, I say.

And it never seems to stop. That's where I think things get a little dangerous. What we heard on Friday is, I believe, an extension of the atmosphere that created Harvey Updyke. Was it better or worse? I don't know, and that's not what really matters.

What concerns me is the seemingly endless boundaries that we push. First, it was simple ribbing between Auburn & Alabama fans, then the attacks and name-calling, suddenly some fool poisons trees in Auburn, and now we have someone publicly wishing (and perhaps truly wishing) that another person would die because of an awful condition - one they deserved because he was a fan of the other team.

I said it after the Updyke stuff that it's getting out of hand, because, as we've seen, the bar must be raised. Whether it's being louder or crazier than the previous Finebaum caller or finding a way to retaliate on behalf of the Toomer's Corner trees, the next guy has to go bigger and badder.

But, like with Bobby from Homewood, most people just don't carry enough reflection and self-awareness with them to get a handle on what it is they are doing, and they become reckless and even dangerous.

It is unfortunate that I honestly believe that before long we'll have a situation where someone dies because of the stupid act of a fan. I've just seen too many fights and altercations, and to have the hatred level raised and reinforced by what we hear and see - well, some folks just don't know how to handle it.

And I guess that's what my message to Paul and my guys up at WJOX would be - remember who you are talking to and understand that there are those in your audience that can't handle the platform. There's no need to fuel that fire.

And for the listeners and callers, my message would be simply to just chill out. Ribbing and bragging is fine, but don't allow your emotions drive you to irrational actions.

Don't poison trees, and don't wish sick people dead.

Best wishes to Shane for a complete recovery.

- posted from the road