By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
John Granato and Lance Zierlein need to leave. Their show ended five minutes ago, but they're still talking.
The conversation has turned to Hakeem Olajuwon's lame commercials, and Zierlein has asked Raheel Ramzanali, whose show with John Harris was supposed to start at 10 a.m., to look up Olajuwon's embarrassing McDonald's commercial online. Granato, baiting Ramzanali, says, "Why does Raheel have to look it up?"
Ramzanali, who apparently has extensive knowledge of where to find bootlegged movies and video streams on the Web, mockingly imitates Zierlein, "Hey, Pakistani, go look up the illegal stream. Hey, Pakistani, where's the MMA stream. Hey, Pakistani, how can I watch the WWE. Dance, Pakistani, dance!"
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Granato is laughing hysterically while Zierlein is carrying on a codependent relationship with his microphone, pushing it away and then quickly jerking it back, unable to resist the urge to comment. The clock is ticking and they both have meetings, but they can't seem to help themselves. "I've got to get out of here," Granato shouts. "I'm not going to let you leave," responds Ramzanali, coaxing him to talk by bringing up Tiger Woods, knowing Granato has a looming tee time at the Redstone golf course. Finally, Zierlein wildly motions to the producer to cut his mike off from the control room to save him from himself, and he and Granato are out the door.
It's now 10:20. On most sports radio stations, this type of behavior would be considered juvenile at best and certainly unprofessional, but this is a typical morning on three-and-a-half-year-old KGOW, 1560AM, commonly referred to as "The Game." Its loyal fans refer to themselves as members of "the secret society." The station has a double rods logo (more on that later) that's either cutting-edge or sophomoric, depending on how entertaining its viewers find the symbol of flipping someone off turned on its side.
"There is a culture that we're going to make fun of ourselves. We're going to make fun of everybody else," says David Gow, station president. "We're going to have fun." And they have fun. Tons of it. But they face some challenges as well.
Their transmission signal suffers from interference, particularly at night when they switch to a weaker transmitter; they rank last in total listeners among Houston sports radio stations and are figuring out how to integrate the recently acquired Sporting News Radio network. Right now, with all three major sports teams in Houston suffering through a collective malaise, KGOW, like all other sports stations, isn't seeing the fan interest that winning brings.
Despite all this, they have a loyal group of followers who spend more time tuning in to them each day than listeners at other stations, and they are light-years ahead of other sports stations in their use of social media, particularly Twitter, and its 140-character limit, which cuts down on long-winded callers and provides a steady stream of breaking news tips to the station.
KGOW has carved out its niche as the feisty, irreverent sports alternative in a market that already has three other sports radio stations. Not content to simply read scores, do interviews and analyze trades, the hosts of The Game weave pop culture, locker-room humor and behind-the-scenes inside jokes in a decidedly colloquial approach to the topics of the day.
The station's talent and creative staff include a curious variety of characters, some of whom left behind promising careers at larger sports stations and others who had never worked in radio before. There is a former wine dealer, an oilfield tool salesman who dabbled in music, the vice president of sales for a telecommunications provider and a former football coach who worked as an accountant before joining the station. There is also one of the most acclaimed sports-talk duos in Houston. Virtually all of them took a pay cut to work at 1560.
They are now under the charge of Gow, a sedate Williams College grad who went on to a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard and had never worked in radio before taking over the station that now bears his name.
This approach has pitted them against the monolithic sports conglomerates of Clear Channel (KBME 790AM), CBS (KILT 610AM) and ESPN (KFNC 97.5FM), all of whom attempt to blend, with varying degrees of success, straight sports conversation with the "guy talk" format popularized in places like Philadelphia and New York, but never fully embraced in Houston.
As the only independent and locally owned station in the bunch, taking on Fortune 500 corporations is risky business. "We're David against the Goliaths," says Gow. But for Gow and the rest, it is the very lack of corporate culture, encouraged mischievousness and careful cultivation of on-air talent that they believe will ultimately win out.
in 1993, there were no sports radio stations in Houston despite the city's rich sports radio history, which dates back almost 40 years. KPRC and KTRH, well before their switch to ultraconservative talk, had long-running evening drive-time sports call-in shows. KTRH's SportsBeat counts CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz as well as veteran Houston sports stalwarts Rich Lord and Charlie Pallilo among its former hosts. Ralph Cooper continues to host the sports show at KCOH, where he has been since 1984.