Homer Runs

Calculating the pluses and minuses of rah-rah sports coverage.

Sports fans come in every size, shape and disposition, but most fall into one of two categories. Members of the first group prefer to think positively about their favorite teams -- to celebrate when they succeed, mourn when they misfire and keep hope alive even after the mathematical possibilities have been exhausted. In contrast, folks who fall into the second classification love to bitch during the bad times, and when things are going well, they still expect the roof to cave in at any moment, figuratively speaking. No wonder such anticipators of catastrophe typically consider anyone with a sunnier outlook to be deluded and incapable of objectivity. In other words, a homer.

Denver journalists and broadcasting figures can be sorted in much the same way, with the number of personalities who display homer proclivities far exceeding curmudgeons at most stations. The ratio is generally closer at The Fan, the city's senior sports-radio signal, but the push and pull between these two extremes became more obvious beginning in January. That was when aggressive intellectual Sandy Clough, who'd manned the morning show for several years alongside cohort Mike Evans, was moved to evenings to make room for Tom Manoogian, also known as Lou From Littleton. Manoogian, a KOA veteran, describes himself as a "glass-half-full type of guy," but Fan program director Tim Spence goes a step further. "I'm not going to hide it," he says. "Lou is the biggest homer this side of the Mississippi."

The hosts admit that they're polar opposites. "I didn't go to journalism school to be an unbiased reporter," Manoogian allows. "I'll leave that to the Sandy Cloughs, the Mark Kiszlas, the Terry Freis, the Dave Kreigers. That's their job. They report the sports news the way they see it, and God bless them. I tend to be more of a fan than a journalist."

Mike Gorman

"His style is not my style, but that's a matter of personal preference," Clough counters. "There's probably room for what he does somewhere in the mix. But it's not the talk radio I was brought up listening to. It was a little more opinionated, at times confrontational. And as far as sports talk was concerned, I just thought you were getting paid to tell people what you think and why, and not just who you're rooting for."

Clough isn't immune to homerism accusations. He says some listeners have called him a shill for effusively praising the Colorado Avalanche, which has a contractual relationship with The Fan. This knock is fairly simple to refute; he generally tells e-mailers to check the team's record over recent years and then get back to him, which they seldom do. In the late '80s, though, he thinks he may actually have given too many free passes to the Denver Nuggets because he was close to the team's coach at the time, Doug Moe. The criticism he received for his encomiums back then "was probably justified," and although he doesn't say the same about more contemporary gripes, he knows they come with the territory. As he puts it, "There isn't a person in this business anymore who isn't sometimes criticized for being too hard or too soft."

True enough, but the latter charge still rankles Manoogian. When it's mentioned, his voice turns much darker than when he's delivering his usual blizzard of cheery, familiar catchphrases; he calls anyone he likes "Cuz," compliments guests via the suck-up question "Who's tougher than you?" and frequently drops the clause "long story short" into anecdotes that often stretch out to the distant horizon. "There's 42 radio stations in town," he says. "No one has to listen to any particular station if they don't enjoy what they're hearing."

Regarding the homerism allegation, he believes it's based largely on selective hearing. He gently chided the Broncos after their humiliating November 3 loss to the New England Patriots, and before the previous week's game with the Baltimore Ravens, he said, 'They've got no left tackle. Blake Brockermeyer has seen better days. Their quarterback, Danny Kanell, hasn't played for two years. They're missing Ian Gold, and the linebacking corps is the strength of their defense. They're going to have a tough time winning this game.' Now," he asks, "does that sound like a homer?"

Many would say yes, since homers tend to repeatedly make excuses for their darlings that they'd never offer to opponents. To Manoogian, though, he's just being himself. "I like to take the approach of being positive for the teams I support," he confirms. "I'm a season-ticket holder to the CU Buffs, the Broncos, the Rockies and the Avalanche, and I want the local teams to do well. I find no benefit for my daily work to go on the radio and criticize people personally."

Manoogian's approach mirrors that of a good salesman, which he was for many years and remains in most respects. He prefers to portray himself as a sports nut who invented the Lou From Littleton moniker so that his father, who owned a South Broadway used-car lot where Manoogian worked, wouldn't know his son was calling radio stations on company time. Granted, this tale is true, as is the story of his being hired by KOA on the strength of his calls to the outlet. Yet he wasn't really an average Joe when he joined the staff in 1994. He'd worked on the sales side of two media operations, Channel 31 and Channel 4, before becoming director of sales for the Rockies in 1992. Manoogian concedes that his position raised conflict-of-interest questions at KOA before he came on board as an employee. Then-general manager Lee Larsen "called one day and said, 'Tom, you can't call KOA as Lou From Littleton, because we know you work for the Rockies,'" he remembers with a laugh. His solution was to start phoning other stations.

After KOA gave him a weekend show, Manoogian left the Rockies and started Major League Marketing, a company that puts together corporate events, often with a sports theme. On November 21, his firm is co-promoting a flag football game at Ford Field in Detroit (his home town) between alumni of the University of Michigan and Ohio State University to commemorate the 100th football match-up between the Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Locally, his biggest coup was brokering an arrangement between the Jefferson County school district and Pepsi that generated around $7.2 million for Jeffco schools.

This "day job," as Manoogian refers to it, would keep most people busy enough, but he supplemented it with a weeknightly KOA talk show from 1996 to 2000, as well as fill-ins and specialty shows like Broncos Talk at the station after that. Because he has three small children, he initially balked at Fan program director Spence's overtures late last year, but he eventually changed his mind. He says the cries of misery from Clough admirers that greeted him in January didn't make him regret the decision. As he puts it, "People were used to listening to the show that preceded me. And the people who've decided to stick it out the last ten months, obviously they've adapted to my style. And if they don't listen, they've moved on to something else."

According to the Arbitron ratings service, Manoogian's performance to date has been underwhelming, and overall station numbers among listeners twelve and above are down. These figures don't mean much to The Fan, which targets men between ages 25 and 54, and Spence says the station is in the top ten for this demographic between the hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Still, the station continues to lead out of sports updates with the likes of staffer Mitch Hyder "reminding you to remember the time you spent listening to" specific shows. Spence won't say the words are directed at people who keep Arbitron diaries, because the company has rules against tampering with the process. Draw your own conclusions.

On the other hand, two other Denver sports radio stations -- The Zone, a Clear Channel property, and KLZ, which recently hooked up with ESPN -- didn't even register in the latest Arbitron survey, and Spence says the beginning of the seasons for the Avs and the Nuggets should provide a boost. He's upbeat about Manoogian, too. "Lou is the fan's fan, living and dying with every team, every snap of the ball, every shot of the puck. It's a growth opportunity, and I think today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow is better than today, and it will continue to grow in that fashion."

These comments are echoed by Manoogian. "I'm having a great time, and I enjoy going to work every day," he says. "The positive remarks and the negative remarks show that people are listening. All I can do is go in every morning and give the best effort I can."

Clough, meanwhile, is taking the road less traveled. "Part of the problem I have with sports-talk radio, whether it's national or local or whatever, is that it vacillates between vicious personal attacks -- calls for the firing of coaches, the releasing of players, stringing them up in effigy -- and a kind of relentless, systematic homerism and boosterism. And there's no gray area in between. I try to operate in that gray area."

Getting on top: The October 30 Rocky Mountain News contained a bonus for readers -- a 48-page booklet titled "Top of the Rocky: An insider's guide to the Mile High City's peak people, places, shopping, sports and dining." In the publication, readers discovered picks made by Rocky editorial types and respondents to an online poll for top choices from musicians to margaritas. But many honorees weren't caught off-guard by this designation. A week or two before the fact, they were informed about their victory by Rocky salespersons, who told them what they'd won and asked if they'd like to buy an advertisement in the issue to acknowledge the achievement. Around a dozen businesses took this offer; thank-you spreads accounted for around half the ad space in "Top of the Rocky."

On the surface, this move raises ethical questions, or at least possible perception issues. Most newspapers have rules in place to prevent ad dollars from influencing coverage, a philosophy known as "the separation of church and state." But the proximity of ads about "Top of the Rocky" awards to the awards themselves may have given the impression of a quid pro quo that, as Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple points out, didn't exist in this case.

"The selection of 'Top of the Rocky' was completely independent and had nothing to do with whether a person purchased an advertisement or not," Temple notes. "If we had called an advertiser and said, 'We will name you a winner in this section,' that clearly would be unacceptable and would damage the credibility of an editorial product. But I don't know how the credibility would be damaged by us independently picking the winners and then going to people who are winners and saying, 'You're going to be a winner. If you'd like to buy an advertisement, you can do it.'"

Would it also be fine for a salesperson to be told in advance about, say, a rave review of a restaurant, so that he could then contact the owner and ask if he wanted to run a big ad opposite the critique? Temple says this question doesn't reflect a knowledge of "how newspapers work"; coordinating that kind of thing would be unwieldy. But the comparison of the scenario to "Top of the Rocky" is faulty, in his view, because "this is a specialty publication run on special presses on special deadlines -- and it's a supplement to our paper, not something you'd expect to see as part of the daily paper. It's a supplemental section that provides extra revenue to the Denver Newspaper Agency, and it takes a lot of planning. You have to justify the existence of the thing. It's a business initiative that contains stuff that's different from what we put in the paper every day."

Temple's right to talk about money in the context of such projects. Westword's Best of Denver edition, on which "Top of the Rocky" offers a variation, is annually the paper's most lucrative. That's why management secured legal rights to the phrase back in the '80s. (On one occasion, Westword's lawyers sent a letter to the Rocky threatening legal action for perceived infringement on the trademark.) Many other alternative weeklies across the country put out similar Best Ofs, which bring in loads of money and a gusher of publicity; even the plaques winners put up in their establishments pay off in terms of extending a paper's brand. But an informal e-mail survey of editors from alternatives revealed how differently publications balance their desire for a cash bonanza with the journalistic standards they aspire to the rest of the year.

Several editors said their publications do things as Westword does: The sales department isn't informed about who's won until the paper is printed. Avoiding the appearance of hinkiness is just one reason cited. Another is that sometimes last-minute cuts have to be made, and if a blurb about someone who's already bought a hooray-for-us ad gets slashed, awkwardness would follow. Other papers tell salespeople the winners of the readers' poll but keep the editorial choices secret until publication, to maintain a distance between writers and ad dollars. And there's also a percentage that, like the Rocky, figure that since the choices weren't made with sales participation, and profit's the idea anyhow, what the hell? Here's the list. Start selling.

Big bucks generally result -- but on occasion, so do conflicted feelings. One alternative editor, whose paper "reluctantly" started informing salespersons of readers' poll winners, put things in perspective. "It's the one time each year we in editorial feel like we've got to put on our high-heeled fuck-me pumps," he wrote.

Satisfaction guaranteed.

Hey, boo-boo: I was under the impression that Denver Post owner Dean Singleton holds the deed to every paper in the vicinity of San Francisco, but apparently I was wrong. In this space last week, I incorrectly identified the Contra Costa Times as being a Singleton property, when it's actually part of the Knight-Ridder chain. My apologies. And Dean? If you're thinking about expanding in the Bay Area, let me tell you about a publication that isn't already yours...

The Times mention touched on a plan by managing editor Chris Lopez, a Post graduate, to pay reporters a $50 bonus for front-page stories that are shorter than eight column inches, or approximately 300 words. In an e-mail exchange, Lopez provided an update. "So far I'm $200 lighter (four staffers have collected a crisp $50 bill from my wallet)," he wrote, adding, "Notice the money comes from my wallet, not the corporate coffers." He explained his reasoning as follows: "It's the whole entree that we try to deliver, and we talk about it in our shop in every department, both with reporters and page designers. Go long when you need to. Short when it makes more sense."

And when it means a dip into Lopez's wallet.

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