Media outlets continue to be ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in numerous budget cuts and employee layoffs throughout the country at newspapers, magazines, websites, and radio stations. The latest high-profile enterprise forced to take difficult cost-cutting measures in light of the economic downturn is Boston public radio station WBUR.
Among the resulting casualties of those cutbacks will be one of radio’s most in-depth, thought-provoking, and sincere sports programs, Only a Game. The final edition of the show will broadcast in the fall, ending a 27-year run on the air. Only a Game is syndicated by 260 National Public Radio stations across the United States, and like most NPR programming is also available to listen via podcast and streaming audio.
Launched in 1993 with host Bill Littlefield, Only a Game is NPR’s only dedicated sports program. The magazine-style show (sort of like HBO’s Real Sports for radio) initially began covering sports news and topics of the week, but eventually evolved into longer-form storytelling and interviews.
It's true. We're sad to say that this show will end at the end of September.
But we're already working on some of our most important and ambitious episodes, and we plan to sprint through the finish line. https://t.co/HT1X5hO0SM
— NPR's Only A Game (@OnlyAGameNPR) June 17, 2020
Littlefield retired in 2018 and the show hadn’t named a permanent replacement host since. Producers Karen Given, Martin Kessler, and Gary Waleik, along with technical director Marquis Neal all took part in sharing that role, introducing segments, reading essays and opinions, conducting interviews, and so forth. Also contributing analysis to the show were commentators such as Esquire‘s Charlie Pierce and the Wall Street Journal‘s Jason Gay.
[Update: Kessler responded to this article, clarifying that Given has been hosting almost every week since Littlefield’s retirement while also producing segments. Meanwhile, Jonathan Chang, who joined the staff in 2019, has also been producing segments for them.]
Only a Game covered a wide variety of topics for current and historical stories that would interest its audience, which included listeners that weren’t necessarily sports fans.
As could be expected, recent shows have focused on sports’ role in addressing systemic racism and police brutality, and the attempt to return from the coronavirus shutdown. Other recent topics include at-home marathoners, transgender pro wrestlers, the dating life of an NBA beat writer, and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s basketball career.
Guests recently interviewed on the show include Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, Jeremy Lin, former major leaguer Garry Templeton, and comedian Gary Gulman. Notable guests during the show’s 27-year run were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billie Jean King, Phil Jackson, Tony La Russa, Serena Williams, Bill Walton, Gabby Douglas, Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Young, Tim Wakefield, Jimmy Connors, and Larry Czonka.
Ultimately, however, the show was a tough sell to station management, public radio affiliates and listeners, and sports fans who typically don’t listen to NPR.
I can’t say this more strongly: @OnlyAGameNPR deserves to continue at @WBUR @NPR— at a time of such bland sameness in sports media, it told stories that weren’t being told & gave a platform to voices that weren’t being heard. What Karen, Gary Marquis & Martin do is exemplary.
— Jason Gay (@jasongay) June 17, 2020
“I think the fact that the station didn’t invest in the show two years ago is kind of indicative of how we generally feel,” said Given in WBUR’s official announcement. “It’s always been a fight to keep this show going. It’s hard to sell sports to public radio management, and it’s hard to sell public radio to a sports audience.”
Yet it’s important to note that public radio stations weren’t dropping Only a Game. This was a decision by WBUR, which decided it could no longer afford to produce the show when revenues have been drastically reduced.
An archive of shows is available at the NPR website and whichever podcast platform you prefer likely carries a back catalog as well.