Slim volume with powerful content: Sports-talk radio explained

Henk Erik Meier
Institut für Sportwissenschaft, Sozialwissenschaften des Sports
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster


Robert L. Kerr
The Sociology of Sports-Talk Radio
99 pages, hardcover.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2018 (Palgrave Pivot)
ISBN 978-3-319-67252-6

The recent book by acclaimed author Robert L. Kerr on the sociology of sports-talk radio is a highly enjoyable read. For a European audience, the book’s subject, that is, U.S. sports-talk radio, might appear to represent a rather exotic topic at first glance. However, a very interesting and relevant insight for European readers provided by the book is that sports-talk radio has adapted well to the Internet age. Stations are online available and operate successfully in a digital social media environment. The author characterizes the book as an exploration of themes developed in a previous, award-winning publication How Postmodernism Explains Football, and Football Explains Postmodernism: The Billy Clyde Conundrum, which raises the question if this short publication can actually pass as a stand-alone book. The answer is: It can – and all the more so as the book will make its reader curious to explore further works by the author.

Although rooted in postmodernism, the book provides a number of interesting and relevant key ideas without resorting to esoteric jargon. The author operates on the postmodernist premise that narratives or explanatory stories most often fail to reliably explain certain social phenomena. Thus, definite answers are not be expected. Yet, the author argues that this is hardly the point about commercial sports: ‘what football and mediated sport more generally do for us instead is spawn the endless narratives that evidence suggests we actually need even more than reliable answers. Indeed, that seems to be a much more likely explanation for why both commercial football and the almost incomprehensibly vast media cosmos that it inspires not only exist but endure and mean so much to so many Americans:’ (p. 3, italics in original) Still, Kerr is not only repeating previous claims according to which commercialized and mediated sport represent a socially sanctioned gossip sheet (primarily for men) but emphasizes that many people interact frequently, insistently, colorfully, emotionally, and with ferocity. Sport is, moreover, understood as a conduit or medium through which feelings, values, and priorities are communicated.

Kerr characterizes commercialized sports as a ‘hyper-mediated narrative marketplace’ in which most narratives ultimately fail ‘because actual developments in the sports world are so completely random as to defy anyone’s ability to know most of the time what happens next, or even why past events really happened’ (p. 9). Not all readers – including the reviewer – might agree to such a strong postmodernist premise, as sports appears not to be completely unpredictable. However, Kerr is certainly right that specific events are random and allow for diverse explanatory narratives. However, his main point is that ‘the narrative blitz goes on – and on and on’ (p. 9). The hyper-mediated narrative marketplace never closes. Commercialized sports seem to offer textbook examples of meaning-making, the social construction of reality or narrative creation. Kerr presents very rich qualitative case studies on how narratives are presented and discussed in different shows within the sports-talk radio genre. The book’s methodology is, however, not fully elaborated – Kerr simply states that the analyzed shows were chosen for their prominence. Concerning the qualitative techniques applied, Kerr refers simply to frame analysis according to David Altheide.

He convincingly claims that sports-talk radio supports the postmodernist view that human narratives hardly provide truly reliable answers.

The case studies will not be referred here in detail although they offer a really good read and make evident that the nature of the shows and the styles of the presenters differ substantially across the genre. Kerr manages to provide colorful characterizations of the show hosts, and he densely traces their interactions with callers and among each other. European readers might wonder why recent events, which apparently provoked a massive reaction by U.S. American sport audiences, such as the ‘kneeling’ protest of NFL players during the playing of the U.S. anthem, are only briefly mentioned (p. 44). However, the main aim of the book is not to explore how sports-talk radio deals with polarizing political debates but with the endless creation of narratives around commercial sports. A very inspiring argument that Kerr makes is that the ferocity of arguments about these narratives is not justified by the issues at stake: ‘When [participants] are determined enough, the drive to have the last word and the definitive pronouncement in the struggle to impose meanings knows almost no limits’ (p. 77).

A particular advantage of this elegant book is that Kerr manages to summarize his main insights in a nutshell, that is, a very short final chapter. Kerr states that ‘what all those chapters share in common is the compelling documentation they provide of just how very deeply important that engagement in the ongoing – veritably interminable – generating and contesting of sports-talk radio’s mediated narratives is to the participants’ (p. 94, italics in original). A very good point made by Kerr is that the characterization of sports-talk as escapist cannot quite grasp the serious and furious character of the conversations and interactions. He convincingly claims that sports-talk radio supports the postmodernist view that human narratives hardly provide truly reliable answers. Moreover, sports-talk radio illustrates that the truth of these narratives is not relevant, because what counts is the continuous production and consumption. Thus, Kerr states that ‘the perpetual quality of that dynamic is ultimately the point that matters most sociologically’ (p. 95, italics in original).

In sum, this short book is recommended to any scholar who is interested in understanding reception processes in commercialized sports. As Kerr makes perfectly evident, sport audiences are involved in an endless process of meaning construction around the game. Participants take these processes of meaning production very seriously and argue quite fiercely about narratives even though the validity of competing truth claims cannot be decided. Kerr demonstrates that sports talk is not escapist in the sense that people do not have strong opinions about it. Quite the contrary, they easily engage in heated debates and adhere to their narratives even when their explanatory stories seem to defy evidence. Ultimately, Kerr’s book raises the question why these narratives are so important for the participants in sports talk. Although the author does not provide answers, the book should inspire other scholars to further address these issues.

Copyright © Henk Erik Meier 2018

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