ESPN radio dimwit Colin Cowherd has been at it again. When we last heard from him without coming across his show accidentally in the car, Cowherd was stealing bits from blogs without giving credit, then pronouncing the victims of his theft "whiners" who needed to "get over it." He eventually, nearly a week later and under pressure from upstairs, apologized.
Last week Cowherd, for no apparent reason other than to flex his muscle -- in the same way that clown down your street flexes "his" muscle by gunning his Trans Am -- told his listeners to go to the blog the Big Lead simultaneously. The overload shut the site down for a couple of days, as Cowherd had hoped.
The Big Lead is a frequent critic of ESPN.
It was the latest battle in an ongoing war between sports-talk radio and sports blogs, one that hardly seems like a fair fight. One side is a medium that's essentially unchanged since the 1970s, an industry whose only idea since the Carter administration has been to keep getting more "in your face." The other side is, so far in its brief history, constantly adapting, changing, self-correcting, reinventing.
History tends to be on the side of the latter. There's no reason sports-talk radio has to be an enemy of innovation, no reason it can't adapt to the times, meet the challenges of new technologies and changing audience needs. It just hasn't.
Talk radio's response to the World Wide Web, possibly the greatest communications revolution since Gutenberg built his printing press and certainly the greatest since television, was to say, "Hey, you can listen to our radio show on your computer now!"
Shovelware, we used to call it when the newspaper industry -- which should have been a leader online, with its head start in information-gathering ability -- responded to the rise of the Web by dumping the stories from its pages onto its clumsy Web sites, coding and all. You'd be reading along online, dodging paragraph marks, and it would say, "Story continued on Page B-6."
The newspaper industry is still trying to recover from that slow response.
The Big Lead's editor told Deadspin, "We're on the playground with the rest of the first graders and, without provocation, some angry-at-the-world sixth grader comes over and drops you with a roundhouse you didn't see coming."
We're early enough in the process, and the natures of the beasts -- centralized radio, decentralized blogosphere -- are such that the schoolyard analogy still works. The radio guy's still a much bigger guy than any blogger. A better analogy, though, might be a large animal with a shrinking habitat swiping at the invaders.
So how's Cowherd doing in the ratings? Must be better than any obvious alternative, because ESPN sprang into action after his assault on a competitor and -- came up with a new policy. No more shutting down Web sites for no reason. We're serious about this, ESPN says. Starting now.
Ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber wrote a column that gave Cowherd and the network a mild slap, then quickly determined that the situation was being handled well.
Schreiber agreed with readers who called Cowherd's actions "immature, irresponsible, arrogant, malicious, destructive and dumb," then flicked the network on the wrist for its apology -- "Our airwaves should not be used for this purpose. We apologize" -- calling it "the kind of bland public statement that does little to assuage the anger and distrust of ESPN's audience over an episode like this."
Then she went to Traug Keller, the senior vice president for radio, and he told her, "We talked to Colin Cowherd, and we talked to all our radio talent, making it clear that you cannot do this ... Such attacks are off limits. Zero tolerance. I can't say it any stronger."
Schreiber pronounced herself satisfied with Keller's "quick, forthright response." Zero tolerance! Can't say it any stronger! And please ignore the extreme tolerance for what just happened!
Keller told Schreiber there had been no policy against encouraging listeners to shut down some random Web site because he had never imagined such a thing. So Cowherd escapes punishment because he managed to find a way to viciously attack someone that his boss hadn't thought of.
If Cowherd had shut down the Big Lead by hacking into its servers, which I would think is something ESPN brass could have imagined, would he have gotten away with it? The issue is that he attacked and shut down a competitor, using the radio airwaves, which are a federally regulated public trust. The exact method he used is beside the point.
Imagine if you killed someone by drowning him in a giant vat of cinnamon pudding and you got off, the district attorney saying, "There's no law against drowning someone in a giant vat of cinnamon pudding because it never occurred to anybody that someone would make cinnamon pudding. But make no mistake! The next guy who kills someone with a giant vat of cinnamon pudding ..."
What's happening here is that Cowherd is a man of limited imagination who's working in a medium that's being rendered increasingly irrelevant by another medium. And the only thing he can think to do is lash out.
There's a real challenge here for Cowherd and the others who do the same job: Respond. Fight back. Change sports-talk radio, make it better, figure out its unique strengths, the things it can do better than the blogs, and do those things.
Maybe there's someone in the radio business who can think of some ways to get sports-talk radio to start sounding different from how it sounded 30 years ago other than by making it louder, crasser, more "edgy" and "in your face" and various other false-bravado tough-talk labels in the Jim Rome playbook. More smack.
That person is clearly not Colin Cowherd, who's busy making the most of the fact that he has a larger audience than any blog while the getting's good.
I almost feel bad for the guy. I'd like to invite him over for some cinnamon pudding.
- - - - - - - - - - - -