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Media Circus

That's Sportsertainment

By Michael Anft | Posted 3/27/2002

On a January night in 1993, in between halves of a Maryland/Oklahoma college men's basketball game at the Baltimore Arena, Nestor Aparicio saw his opening. Tired of bouncing around in local media--first as a poor man's Cameron Crowe at The Evening Sun, where as a teen he covered concerts and minor sporting events, then as a testosterone-stoked jock-talk jock at WITH (1230 AM)--Aparicio watched from the sidelines as WBAL radio's then-sports director, Geoff Rimer, was announced during a free-throw shooting contest. Rimer, Aparicio remembers, was treated as if he had thrown up a brick even before he toed the line."The crowd booed him," says Aparicio, now 33. "I don't think they were booing Geoff because of who he was. They were booing because they felt like they didn't have a choice but to listen to WBAL for sports stuff."

Aparicio spent the next several years peregrinating about the radio dial, including a stop at WWLG (1360 AM) and a stab at national syndication. Eighteen months ago, along with five investors, Aparicio made his boldest move onto the court of public opinion, opening up WNST (1570 AM) for the disenfranchised Baltimore sports-radio listener. It's the Dundalk native's loudest challenge yet to the sports-spewing hegemony of deep-pocketed, megawatted WBAL (1090 AM), airwave home to the Orioles and the Terps.

As a result, local sports fans can enjoy variety unmatched by other types of on-the-dial "competition," such as which right-wing nut to listen to (the ones on 'BAL when it's not doing sports or the ones on WCBM [680 AM]), or which batch of callow FM white boys to rock out with (98 Rock, WHFS [99.1 FM], or DC-101). Sports-talk listeners here have a genuine choice, between the station that delivers the cacophonous equivalent of a bunch of Jersey guys on bar stools (WNST) and the one where radio jocks find it provocative to take on Washington Post columnists and pass on insider stuff (WBAL).

There is a third option, for those whose provincial rooting interests are limited mainly to the Ravens and Your Baltimore Blast: WJFK (1300 AM), which features one local talk show that concerns itself with more than football (Those Sports Guys with Paul Mittermaier and Steve Stofberg) along with a pile of pure Ravensphilia (shows with Tony Siragusa and Brian Billick) and Colts nostalgia (Johnny Unitas, Bruce Laird). Former Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal's weekend shows are sometimes worth a listen just for the grief he gives Peter Angelos, but the rest is a bunch of ugly bluster (Siragusa, the syndicated Jim Rome) and beer-soaked Ravens worship.

Aware of 'JFK's limited palette, Aparicio knows who WNST is gunning for. "There's definitely a need for the choice we provide people," he says. "WBAL only does sports talk two hours per day. We're on 24 hours. We understand the Baltimore-sports-fan mindset. WBAL and The Sun never have understood that."

For local sports junkies, both stations are worth spending time with--WBAL for its clearheaded on-air guys, live game broadcasts, and ESPN Radio feeds late at night and on weekends; WNST for its attitude, round-the-clock coverage, and insanity/entertainment value. And at a time like this, with the impending baseball season, the Terps' hoops title run, and the implosion of the Ravens vying for attention of the jockocracy, it's fun to hear how the different approaches play out.

With jocks from the blue-collar suburbs, WNST certainly has local cred on its side. New guy Terry Ford hails from Essex, midmorning jock Bob Haynie from Glen Burnie. Morning guys Spiro Morekas and the Swami are longtime local fixtures. "We're the only locally owned channel run by regular local guys," says Aparicio, playing up the provincialism WNST proudly flaunts. "We're fans--the cooks in the kitchen who listen to their customers and give them what they want while we're having a good time."

The station clearly takes that "good time" part to heart. Often, WNST's jocks seem to be having much more fun than their listeners. On a recent show, Aparicio (who mans the mic weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m.) demonstrated his fetish for geezer rock by leading a raucous, on-air Sammy-vs.-David Lee debate while discussing the grenaded Ravens' roster--a veritable crush of noise. Aparicio's excitable-boy exhortations and twisted, sometimes trite use of language ("wrap this puppy up") can be just over the top enough to elicit laughs of disbelief, but can also get annoying. His sometimes-forced intimacy with callers can make a listener wish Aparicio had an internal editor.

Some of WNST's other shows score consistently higher on the entertainment grid. Morekas and the Swami's program regularly features serviceable analysis, as well as a few idiosyncrasies and ongoing dramas. Morekas' longtime bashing of the Maryland men's basketball team--a joke/source of irritation for the Swami and callers--recently gave way after he had a "vision" of prematurely deceased former Terps center Chris Patton urging him to join the other side. High art? Hardly. But for sports-talk fans, the humor and catharsis shined through.

Although WNST is overpowered by WBAL by a 10-to-1 power edge (50,000 watts at 'BAL to 5,000 for 'NST) and falls far behind regular top-fiver 'BAL in the ratings, Aparicio claims his station inhabits the moral high ground, largely because of the Orioles' multiyear, multimillion-dollar broadcast deal with the larger station. "They can't afford to be honest about the Orioles," Aparicio says. "They're in bed with them."

It's a fair point, albeit one on which Aparicio--author of Purple Reign: Diary of a Raven Maniac, with a foreword by Billick--should perhaps consider the construction of his own house before casting stones. Can a station on which Orioles announcers Jim Hunter and Fred Manfra bleed orange and black all over the play-by-play--and on which Hunter's off-season Hot Stove Baseball show might as well be hosted by O's baseball-operations boss Syd Thrift--be objective in its coverage of the home team?

"I wouldn't have taken the job here [in 2000] if I wasn't free to say what I thought," says WBAL sports director and Sportsline host Steve Melewski, a former play-by-play partner of Morekas' at WCVT (one-time voice of the university formerly known as Towson State). "What some of my listeners don't understand is that my job isn't Rush Limbaugh's. I have to function as a reporter--a reporter who has to deal almost every day with the players we discuss on the air."

While Melewski can be soft on the ancient, sometimes-lost Thrift, he deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one. His professional distance from some of his subjects provides a nice contrast to the sometimes-boosterish, ever-boisterous voices on WNST. "I'm more on the information-delivering side," Melewski says. "I don't have a shtick."

The sometimes-spirited back-and-forth on WBAL between host and caller almost comes off as civil discourse, even when led by the station's improving agent provocateur, Greg Sher, and ex-Colt Stan White, who proves that jocks who become lawyers are just as obnoxious as you'd think they'd be. (Steve Stewart can reach Melewski's high level--and he has a shtick. Unfortunately, he's been relegated to morning drive-time purgatory.) Melewski says he makes it a point not to allow name-calling and will never say a player "sucks" (something you will hear on WNST). WBAL's prime sports directive is to keep listeners anticipating the next call. "We want to keep people informed of the O's or Ravens' latest move," Melewski says. "Then, we'll go right to the phones."

The two stations represent the yin and yang of the fanatic: The need to know that helps form opinions about one's teams, and the unreasonable and noisy impulse to be loyal to them at all costs. But at least in one new arena, the noisy yang will win out: Aparicio was hired in mid-March to crank it up as a morning sports guy on WHFS.

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