Above the Norm
Intellectually stimulating sports radio? Really?
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Hello, Norm? Am I on? I gotta get something off my chest. You’re Norm Hitzges, the Dallas-based maestro of the art form we know as sports talk radio. I—like a fair number of people reading this column—have spent the better part of my adult life listening to sports radio. While my friends were leafing through the Great Books, I was trekking through the hinterlands of the AM dial in search of sports news, sports opinions, and, occasionally, sports wisdom. I remember my first sputtering call to a sports radio host. I’ve got a point to make, Norm, about how your yogi-like approach is exactly what we sports fans crave these days. In a world polluted with sports talk, we need your guidance.
If you do not know Norm Hitzges, then you will recognize the type. He is a balding, mustachioed man who speaks about sports for hours at a time, pausing every so often to read commercials for Bob’s Steak and Chop House and Carter Eye Center. Hitzges’s army of loyal listeners—referred to on Dallas’s KTCK (“the Ticket”), his current radio home, as P1s—communicate with the host in the now familiar patois of sports radio. Greeting: “I’m a longtime listener and first-time caller.” Sign-off: “I’ll hang up and listen.” Despite this apparent exoticism, sports radio is not seen as socially perverse. No, in the Metroplex, hosts such as Hitzges and Randy Galloway and Craig Miller and George Dunham set the agenda—chewing over games just completed, raising burning issues, and turning the screws on the likes of Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban, and Tom Hicks.
Hitzges, in particular, is a pure creature of radio. On Dallas’s KLIF, he hosted the country’s first all-sports morning-drive show in a major market, a three-and-a-half-hour affair that whirled effortlessly from the “three majors” to more-rarefied pursuits like mountain climbing. (Hitzges is among the few sports radio hosts who can be described as intellectually curious.) When Hitzges moved to the all-sports KTCK in 2000, he joined a station full of vaudevillians, attuned more to the male libido than sports, but he retained his just-the-facts approach. On The Norm Hitzges Show, every moment is pregnant with numbers, every hot opinion comes with a statistical backing. When Hitzges embarks on one of his nasally monologues, with metrics like OBP and RBI and QB rating totals falling from his lips, he reminds you of nothing so much as a passionate high school teacher walking you through an algebra lecture.
We are in a boom period for sports talk in Texas. In September, Hitzges’s Ticket won the Marconi Award, which recognized it as the best sports talk station in the country. The Arbitron ratings released in August placed the Ticket as the highest-rated station in the Metroplex among men aged 25 to 54; according to an industry survey cited in the Houston Chronicle, the Ticket pulled down $24.7 million in ad revenue last year. (That’s nearly half the revenue of New York’s WFAN, which is located in a city with three times as many people.) The Houstonite, too, finds himself with a buffet of sports talk, with four (!) all-sports stations, ranging from sports radio 610 to 790, the “Sports Animal.” Sports talk’s appeal lies in its chief demographic—that is, youngish males with money to burn.
But amid all the bombast and the sound effects, the essential nature of the sports jock has changed. Yes, the basic format still consists of “Brad in Arlington” unburdening himself of an opinion. What is different is Brad’s sports IQ. As unimaginable as it seems today, there was once a time when the sports media consisted of the morning sports page and the five minutes of highlights on the local news. Sports talk in the intervening hours was a revelation. Now, you needn’t but gaze at American culture to see that sports has permeated every niche. There are the national sports talk shows that have crept into Texas markets, like The Jim Rome Show and Mike and Mike in the Morning. There is a parade of shrieking heads on ESPN’s TV channels, chewing over the issues of the day (and if there are no issues, they’ll find something and call it one). There are an ever-expanding number of Internet message boards, where the swagger and vitriol of certain posters is enough to make even Jim Rome blush.
By merely breathing the air, the sports fan has become a much more educated being. Brad in Arlington is liable to call up The Norm Hitzges Show having already studied Baseball Prospectus, ESPN.com, and numerous fantasy-football manuals. As such, the local sports talk host is no longer quite the towering figure in the local sports scene. He’s more like another guy who has pulled up a seat at the bar. “There isn’t any question that the listener is a more informed listener,” Hitzges told me. “The opinions, on the other hand . . .”
It’s in this new media universe that many a sports jock has chosen to put sports on the side burner. They use it as a jumping-off point for shtick, while devoting the bulk of their time to arbitrating men’s moral issues. (Several of Hitzges’s Ticket co-hosts have perfected the approach.) Hitzges has gone in exactly the opposite direction. In the face of so much raunch, he dives even deeper into sports. He realizes that in the ESPN-driven universe, there is no shortage of attitude and slacker humor; what we need is something more substantial. This is why Hitzges, for all his divine nerdiness, matters. He’s a Sherpa guide to show us through the numbers, to separate the valuable information from the blather.
When I spoke to Hitzges, it was late on a Tuesday afternoon during football season. He was about to sequester himself for five hours of hermit-like study of the upcoming week’s college and NFL games. “I hate to use a word like ‘insight,’ because that assumes you actually have any insight, but that’s what you’re trying to look for,” said Hitzges. “You’re trying to take the listener into areas they haven’t been before.”
Hitzges had just begun his research, but he agreed to give me a preview. Did you know that the New England Patriots, the Dallas Cowboys’ upcoming opponent, were 15-5 against the spread as a road favorite? That Dallas had scored 122 points in the second halves of its games, more than 25 teams had scored in their whole games for the season? “Let’s talk Tony Romo,” Hitzges continued, now getting into it. “Romo just completed his sixteenth game as a starter last night. In his sixteen games, the length of an NFL season, he already has 4,386 yards. That’s extraordinary! If he were to have a season like that, sixteen games in one year, he would almost break into the top ten seasons in the history of the NFL. And these are his first sixteen games! What happens when he starts to figure out coverages?”
You see what I mean. With Hitzges on your radio, sports talk transcends its roots and acquires a certain elegance. It’s almost brainy enough to make you think you haven’t wasted all those hours of your life. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Love the show, Norm. I’ll hang up and listen.