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The New Physics of Finebaum

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“Start spreadin’ the news…”

We can be grateful that Paul Finebaum did not announce his move to SEC with a LeBron James-style “The Decision” hourlong broadcast.  But his announcement that he is taking his talents to Charlotte was surprising mainly because it revealed the strength of his brand.

ESPN announced that Finebaum will host a daily radio call-in show on its radio network and that in August 2014, when the SEC Network launches, it will include a TV version of Finebaum’s radio program.

With so many companies wanting Finebaum’s talents — remember, it was a Cox Media Group offer in 2011 that launched the speculation about his future once his contract with Cumulus ended in January 2013 — he had some great offers to choose from.

Now that he has chosen ESPN, speculation is focusing on what the format of his program will be like?  He has stated that he still wants it to be caller-driven, but with those callers? ESPN has stated that the network still wants “Paul to be Paul,” but whom will Paul-as-Paul be talking to?

The move to Charlotte makes sense on several levels.  The ESPNU studios have been located there since it launched in March 2005, and the ESPN SEC Network will be based there as well.

But the move from Birmingham has prompted some to wonder whether that signals ESPN’s desire for the show to change.  From a programming perspective, Finebaum could have produced his show anywhere.  It’s the same rationale that allows the SEC Network to be located in a non-SEC state.

In moving to ESPN and the SEC Network, Finebaum’s show will have to change, in good ways.  It might still be caller-driven, but the callers will represent more than Alabama, Alabama, and Auburn fans.  (I see what I did there!)

Finebaum might want his first five callers to be Robert, Legend, Tammy, Jim and I-Man, but he would be best off telling the last four, “Thanks for getting me here. Let’s keep this to once a week, tops.” And goodbye.

As ringmaster to that circus (Credit Andy Staples with that metaphor), Finebaum was accused of “stirring the pot” with such callers.  Perhaps, but I always note that the pot should bear some responsibility as well.

While the Alabama-Auburn rivalry might have been interesting to a program syndicated on 25 stations in 21 Alabama towns, it will not create sustained interest within a national radio program (though a lot of Alabama fans might argue otherwise).

I would imagine that the hope is to create the same level of, um, excitement with a nationwide network of similar callers.  As the senior VP in charge of the SEC Network said, “We want Paul to be Paul.”

But it’s a principle of physics that expanded volume reduces the pressure and heat.  We will have to see how that plays out on the radio.

For me, Finebaum was most interesting for the media personalities he would attract.  His interviews with Bruce Feldman, Kirk Herbstreit and even Tim Brando provided lively content. But now, with ESPN paying the contract, we will have to see whether Feldman and Brando will be let in the door, or whether Finebaum will be limited to the same ESPN roster that is rotated around the Worldwide Leader’s programs.

If it devolves to Finebaum and another ESPN talking head switching chairs to talk on each other’s segments, it would be a poor substitute for the media personalities he featured before.

Coaches interviews? Meh.  SEC Media Days will be a couple of weeks before Finebaum’s show debuts.  But fans won’t miss much.  The coach appearances were always an obligatory nod to Finebaum’s audience.  But even a freshman writing a history paper would be hard-pressed to expand the actual content of those interviews into the assigned length.

Ex-coaches segments?  It will be interesting to see whether ESPN allows Gene Stallings and Pat Dye to have their weekly segments.  Neither provided much in the way of actual new information (and I found the drama Finebaum drew from his relationship with Dye to be fatiguing).  Stallings impressed more with his elder statesmen persona.

I will venture one prediction: Those inane political debates will be gone, and won’t be missed.  In his al.com interview, Finebaum said that he mainly missed the opportunity to comment on Alabama AD Mal Moore’s death and such news stories as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Oklahoma tornados.

But anyone who has listened to Finebaum knows that the Jason Collins coming-out story and Sergio Garcia’s “fried chicken” comments would have precipitated a couple of days of off-season debate, and those were always the low point of the Finebaum program before.

Even Finebaum himself would sound quickly tired of the calls that started, “I’m not a racist, but I do want to say… .” And if an article on the Helena church declining to host a Boy Scout troop after its decision to admit gay young men generated more than 1,000 comments on the al.com site, you can imagine what would happen on Finebaum’s Birmingham show.

Beyond that?  You will have to tune in to find out.  My listening might expand to beyond the 5 minutes it takes me to drive home from campus.  It depends on how much Paul in Charlotte resembles Paul in Birmingham.

Photo: SI.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

Related: That time Jim Fyffe saved Paul Finebaum’s life with the Heimlich maneuver.

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