95.7 FM The Game

Love him or hate him, Ralph Barbieri will be missed

Throughout the strange evolution of Bay Area Sports Guy into a site that covers and even breaks news relating to KNBR and 95.7 “The Game,” I’ve mostly refrained from adding my two cents on the stories themselves. Other sites — okay, another site — go all in, ripping the local media personalities on a near-daily basis. Conversely, I’ve generally reported the stories and allowed the comments section to serve as a sort of forum to vent, give opinion, argue, whatever.

In hearing Ralph Barbieri was fired, trying to corroborate that story with other sources, then posting a story I already had ready once SFGate broke the news, I didn’t have much time for opinion. Analysis and educated guesses on what the future could hold for Barbieri and the local sports talk stations as they “Sally Forth,” as Barbieri would say? Perhaps. But the Barbieri news, combined with covering the Giants and the 49ers’ groundbreaking, created a whirlwind of post topics that didn’t leave me time to actually process Barbieri’s firing after 28+ years.

Now that things have slowed down a little, it’s time to put on my “blog commenter” hat and write what I really feel.

KNBR firing Barbieri now, while he still wants to work, was a huge mistake. An error that crushes the one thing that made this station unique. Even though it’s terrestrial radio, supposedly a dying medium, the fact that Barbieri’s distinct, grating and familiar voice won’t be around anymore will further the medium’s slide into irrelevance.

Rewind: 15 years ago

I didn’t grow up around here. I wish I had, but when you’re a child that isn’t your choice to make. I spent my formative years in Eureka, where in the 1990s the talk radio options were Rush Limbaugh and … Rush Limbaugh. Then I found out as I entered high school that, at night, KNBR’s signal was strong enough to penetrate the redwood curtain. Hallelujah!

When my dad was a kid he listened to the Giants play the Dodgers, hiding his transistor radio under the covers so his parents wouldn’t know he was still awake. I didn’t have to hide it, but I’d stay awake later than I was supposed to, listening to Ron Barr and Bob Fitzgerald (back before Fitz hated his audience and his version of SportsPhone 680 was actually quite good). For a sports nerd who begged his father for a subscription to The National, this audio world where sports banter stretched into the wee hours was a gift I couldn’t get enough of.

Kids who grow up in Eureka think about nothing more than escaping the sleepy town once they have access to a reliable vehicle. In the mid-90s my friends and I made road trips as often as we could, switching shifts at our part-time jobs with coworkers and zooming recklessly down 101 to catch Giants games (with stops at Taco Bell in Willits and Scandia’s batting cages in Rohnert Park along the way).

My parents weren’t much for talk radio — they preferred listening to the same 10-15 classic rock tapes and CDs over and over again. But once when I drove down with my friend Carp, he turned the dial to KNBR. “That’s right,” I thought. “They talk about this stuff all day long!”

That’s how I got to know Barbieri. And at first, I was taken aback. Is his voice real? Why is he so angry? Some of the diatribes were hilarious (like his hatred for Atlanta many years ago for two reasons: the Braves acquiring Fred McGriff from the Padres and stealing the NL West from his beloved Giants on the last day of the 1993 season, and because the city put on, in his words, “a bush league Olympics”). But how can one person scream for three consecutive hours about O.J. Simpson? And is he thumbing through a thesaurus mid-rant? But being young and impressionable, I figured Barbieri was a normal sports talk host in a big market. Loud, irascible, with a voice that could cut asphalt.

However, Barbieri was far from normal. Nobody else on the station sounded like him. Nobody in New York, Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago sounded like him. And on the station that carried the Giants, it wasn’t hard to notice that Barbieri was the only one who attacked the Giants’ decisions with such an odd mixture of rage and love.

I moved to the Bay Area to take classes and earn a piece of paper from the UC system. When I first arrived, I tried listening to Barbieri’s solo show. Sometimes, it was a fun mix of in-depth interviews and The Razor screaming. Others, it was just too much Orenthal to stomach. All the while, I appreciated the fact that he’d always be there, fearlessly attacking some people, transparently sucking up to others. He was as imperfect as a “summer” day in San Francisco, which made him perfect for San Francisco. When he was paired with Tom Tolbert, Barbieri became less difficult on the ears and actually displayed a sense of humor (something that was almost never showed during his solo shows).

Now he’s gone.

No more meandering Friday shows that devolved into toilet humor — for my money, the best radio KNBR has ever had. No more “two things can be equally true,” “parenthetically,” or meandering stories about being the only person to buy the Barcelona Olympics Triplecast.

As much as we all like to rip these hosts, most of them are fairly talented broadcasters at the very least. It’s not easy to speak for hours on a variety of topics without resorting to a plethora of time-filling noises like “uh” or “you know.” It takes practice, confidence, and an extraordinarily thick skin (just read the comments after this post a little while after it goes live). But while there are several experienced talkers on the three local stations devoted to sports, the one person who led the league in “Oh wow, something crazy happened to the Giants/49ers and now we have to hear his reaction” was Barbieri.

Gary Radnich, especially when it comes to stuff about “the business,” has had his moments. His monologues after events like Larry Krueger’s firing and the release of Game of Shadows let listeners in on how people behind the scenes really think. Damon Bruce can take a hot-button topic and put together a well-crafted 10-to-60 minutes of radio, regardless of whether or not you agree with him.

But Barbieri’s reactions to controversial stories were different, because of his volatility. His inherent unpredictability (even though so much of what he said was predictable, like the famous “two things can be equally true” refrain) was why I used to think he’d leave on his own terms. It seemed Barbieri’s job was absolutely safe, even if he said something that would get anybody else fired. In a world of political correctness and teams having a say on what’s said about them, Barbieri’s untouchability empowered his listeners.

“Maybe I can’t call Brian Sabean an idiot for signing Armando Benitez, but Ralph can and he’ll still be on tomorrow!”

Corporations killed the radio star

Barbieri’s personality led many to flip their radio dials when he came on, or at least claim they did. There were several reasons why:

— Unlike most sports talk hosts, we knew exactly where Barbieri stood politically.

— The Amici’s spots, where he claimed that nobody else in the market made thin crust pizza worth trying, were amazingly self-congratulatory and incredibly long.

— The Al Davis hatred was juvenile and didn’t make for great radio. Even Davis’ most strident detractors knew that there were two divergent sides to the owner’s personality. To ignore the good side and talk about him as if he was Lucifer was a frequent Barbieri tactic, one which grew stale over the years.

— Barbieri’s interviews were distasteful to many due to the length of his questions and his tendency to interrupt guests, sometimes aggressively.

— His rudimentary knowledge of basketball and modern statistics, along with his failure to stay on top of every story in the news cycle and his frequent tardiness, painted the picture of a guy who didn’t prepare one bit for his job.

Except his job description wasn’t “sports encyclopedia.” It was “sports talk host,” which is a long way of saying “entertainer.” I don’t feel the need to agree with everything a host says, but boring sports talk radio is, in my mind, a crime against those who listen in order to fill their minds with recent sports news and opinions instead of thoughts like, “I hate my job, I’m in debt, I’m in pain, I’m bored, etc.” He was frequently annoying or just plain wrong with his takes, but Barbieri was also the only host in the region who regularly surprised me with some of the questions he asked. Fearlessness gave him credibility, which is why it’s still a shock to see him go.

I didn’t mind the $100 words Barbieri would throw around in an obvious attempt to appear enlightened, because that was part of his charm. Barbieri — with his Euro-loving, vegetarian, California-Buddhist demeanor — was the antithesis of the normal sports talk host, even though he’d still tread on familiar ground like gambling and misogyny.

Many have pointed to Barbieri’s numerous DUIs and other character flaws. Clearly he’s far from a perfect person, but in listening to him I never detected a mean person. And while he was extremely high-maintenance during his time at KNBR, I never heard anything about him treating those around him poorly. That’s more than I can say for Fitzgerald, who I’ve heard from multiple sources is a rude, arrogant man, the type of person you wouldn’t want to share an elevator with if you can help it. Even if Barbieri is the same way in real life, I don’t really care — you can hear the disdain behind Fitz’s voice. Not in Barbieri’s. Who else seemed as genuinely excited to take calls?

However, as a few radio corporations buy up all the stations and slowly transform them into spiritless facsimiles of one another, only money talks. Fitz’s current deal is very amenable to Cumulus’ bottom line. Barbieri’s wasn’t. The Razor may have wanted to leave amidst much fanfare and gratitude at a time he chose, a year or three after a 30th-anniversary bash starring Don Nelson, Steve Young, Brent Jones, Adonal Foyle and every San Francisco mayor since 1982. Here’s the problem: Cumulus operates based on financial quarters, not years or decades. The idea that Cumulus doesn’t like Barbieri’s liberal tendencies is a fun conspiracy theory, but this was a decision based on Barbieri costing the station far more money than they were making off Amici’s. Period. This wasn’t about personality. Cumulus is based on Atlanta — Lew Dickey wasn’t listening to every second of The Razor and Mr. T. But Dickey knew that enough people thought their afternoon ratings juggernaut could still rake in plenty of money with Tolbert alone.

Bye-bye Mascot, hello replacement-level host

When you listen to a station for as long as many of us have, there’s plenty of time to reflect. Just like a team with several recognizable players, one’s mind often wanders to “who’s the leader of this station?” Without a doubt, Ralph was KNBR —  their lead actor and mascot at the same time. Now that he’s gone, the station is on borrowed time. What, you think the Giants and 49ers are going to stay on KNBR forever? Local sports content is gold, and these teams will find a way to make money directly off the games we listen to in our cars … a lot more money than what your local oil change facility provides.

KNBR still has Radnich, Tolbert and others making decent money, but that won’t last. Little by little, host by host, Cumulus will do to KNBR what they did to KGO. Cumulus will win, because they are allowed to. Terrestrial radio is heading to the scrap heap because content choices are becoming limitless and, let’s face it, listening to 24 minutes of commercials to get 36 minutes of content isn’t an efficient way to be entertained. So instead of raising the bar to keep AM and FM radio relevant, these few corporations are burying the bar — and along with it, all the hosts deemed too expensive.

This isn’t a sentiment shared by all, but I’ll really miss having Barbieri around most afternoons. Tolbert brings plenty to the table, but the reason everyone liked him so much by himself was that’s how we got our much-needed breaks from Barbieri, who can wear on you after a while. But full-time solo Tolbert just isn’t the same without the the shadow of Barbieri. Chemistry like what they had is rare, and KNBR tossed it aside for a summer of Tolbert and Byrnes, or whatever. It’s too bad.

For someone who rides back into the Bay Area on a road trip, or gets into their car after flying back into SFO, turning on the radio and not hearing Barbieri’s voice is a shock to the system. Same with those who call the Bay Area home. It’s not exactly a tragedy, since Barbieri is rich and sports talk is the opposite of life-and-death. But it’s another signal that entertainment isn’t about what the consumer prefers, at least not to corporations like Cumulus, Entercom and Clear Channel, which may be the worst of the lot. To them, profit is religion and everyone is replaceable. Even if you hated Ralph (and as the previous 2,000 or so words probably shows, I certainly did not), this clear shift to corporate blandness on a station I grew up loving is a shame.


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