In Midtown Manhattan, in a crowded ballroom of a mammoth 51-story hotel, the sports media factory churns out flavorless information sausage packed with preservatives and lacking any real substance.
This is Radio Row: table after table after table of men (almost always men) wearing headsets and talking into microphones, the voices of sports radio in corporeal form: satellite and FM, national and local, 1010 WINS, SportsTalk 790, Mike Francesa, Mike and Mike, Beefer & The Squelch, Cheese & Geno, Boozer and the Clown -- they are all here, talking, dispensing their takes. The din is constant, a dull roar of white noise in the dim yellow light.
The TV sets get the choicer spots against the wall, slightly removed from the scrum of humanity in the rows of radio tables. In those rows and the little remaining floor space: athletes, former athletes, mid- and low-level celebrities, PR reps, handlers, fans with all-access passes, and credentialed media deemed too lowly to get their own table (hi!). Mountains of flesh recognizable only as "probably a defensive tackle" attract eyeballs with their gravity, surrounded by satellites of smaller humans tasked with directing them to the next interview. Willowy blondes glide around in knee-high boots, their hand-held mics unnecessary in identifying them as on-camera talent. Paunchy men with tired eyes change oxygen into carbon dioxide.
This is how the machine works: a Person of Note (NFL player, retired athlete, actor, reality TV humanoid) has something to promote -- Man Musk body wash, Doodz hair product, "The Real Ice Fishermen of St. Olaf," or Cars Ignoring Physics, in theaters next Friday. The Person of Note's product has a PR rep who links up with a media company's talent booker. The talent booker and PR rep agree on a time for said interview, and the media company scores an interview with the Person of Note as long as a slice of airtime goes to the Brand. This is why you hear NFL draft prospects say things like, "I'm just blessed to be working with Man Musk." The Person of Note will repeat this in every interview, twenty or thirty times a day for however long his Brand demands that he be there.
(If this sounds hollow and depressing -- if your stomach turns or your nose crinkles at this joyless capitalistic symbiosis -- it merely means that you are human, and not one of the Brand's lizard-people tapping away at a BlackBerry to squeeze another interview in the 15-minute window before their Person of Note is due on Barry & The Gooch.)
SB Nation happily plays this game, by the way. We need access to Persons of Note in order to create content for you, dear reader, to consume. And so I apologize if there's an impromptu HydroWater ad in the middle of our interview with your third-favorite player, but the free market built this indestructible machinery. For our part, we at least try to do things differently than other outlets:
Unfortunately, Dan Rubenstein operating a mobile game show is the exception, not the rule. The rule is asking the Person of Note about the big game. The rule is asking about Peyton Manning's place in history or Marshawn Lynch's taciturn nature or Richard Sherman's outburst. And the rule, more than anything, is brand awareness. This isn't news to anyone who's aware of advertising's omnipresence, but it's in its purest form on Radio Row, a field where cynicism blooms like an acrid flower.
This lamentation of soulless corporate influence and trite media blathering doesn't give full weight to Radio Row's saving grace: the athletes themselves. The fact that our idols are only present to shill for a brand doesn't negate the presence of our idols.
Here, in the flesh, are the genetic wonders from our television screen and fantasy teams. They are making a living: in a sport with brutish, short careers, they endorse products not just for the money but to test the waters of mass media, with the best of them graduating to a second career behind a microphone. Retired greats move with the grace and import of male lions; years ago, on Radio Row before Super Bowl XLI, I saw a gridlocked cluster of people part like the Red Sea for Joe Montana. The psyche of a sports fan, as far as I can tell, is forever rooted in wonder.
Two days ago, I walked up the carpeted staircase leading to Radio Row, turned the corner, and nearly bumped into Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden as excited middle-aged women snapped photos with them. I didn't wonder why two baseball players twenty years past their relevance were at a football event. I didn't think of them as 50-year-old men. For a moment, I only knew their meteoric brilliance in the sport I loved as a child, two superhumans held in awe by a kid who memorized the stats on the backs of baseball cards.
I don't know what they were there to sell, and I walked away before I could find out.