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Open Thread - Game 860: The Chris Townsend Interview, part the first

Wherein your intrepid imperial reporter sits down with the host of The Dugout Show and A's Talk for a conference on all things A's and KTRB.

Chris Townsend is the voice and host of The Dugout Show, airing ahead of the pre-game show, and A's Talk, which airs after every A's game, on KTRB/Xtra Sports 860 AM, The Radio Home of the Oakland Athletics.  He also hosts his own national program, The Chris Townsend Show, on 500+ affiliates nationwide and on the Armed Forces Network globally.  Raised in San Diego, he currently lives in San Jose, CA and is the proud married father of 4-year-old twin daughters.  I sat down with him after the latest live postgame broadcast event (June 10th) at the Holiday Inn on Hegenberger Road in Oakland for a 45-minute conversation, of which this is the first part, with the second airing tomorrow right here... a special thanks is also owed to Englishmajor for the use of her equipment (CT agreed that her old-school Marantz rig was the bomb) and her (substantial) engineering skills.

Editor's note: In the interest of accuracy and to retain the conversational flavor of our interview, I have left the content of the thing essentially in a sort of Transcription Vérité format, with little or no editing done to "tidy up"  the text of the interaction.  Whilst this may make it somewhat more of a longer read, I thought it necessary to preserve the informal, stream-of-consciousness flow of our original conversation, so please forgive me in advance and enjoy.  --EN

EN: I guess we'll start with a little background... you're from New England, but you grew up in the San Diego area, is that right?

CT: My dad was born and raised outside of Boston, in Beverly Farms, and the family basically came West because my grandfather came out to fight WWII.  He trained in San Diego and fought in the Pacific...

EN: Is this Bob Elliott?

CT: No this is my dad's father... I have a lot of Boston history, to be honest with you.  So, my grandfather comes back from the Pacific and says "I'm never going back to the snow," and that's how the Townsends stayed in San Diego.  My mother's father, Bob Elliott, after he got called up and played for years with the Pirates, went and played for the Boston Braves, was MVP in 1947... first 3rd baseman ever to be named MVP, and obviously played for the Boston Braves against the Indians in 1948, in the World Series and he's in the Boston Hall of Fame.  And I wanna say right now, my family by last count has 13 heating oil companies, so between my mother's side and my dad's side, a lot of history in the New England area.

EN: You went to San Jose State, on a baseball scholarship, and did a simultaneous degree in broadcasting -- radio, film & TV -- was that the plan coming into college, to have both coals in the fire in a way: if you could play, you'd continue to play, and if playing didn't work out you could just bounce over to the broadcast side?  Was that your plan coming into it or did that develop as you got into college, and so forth?

CT: You know, I knew pretty early.  When you grow up and you play ball, and you're better than most guys -- you're All League, you're All This, you're All That...

EN: What position did you play?

CT: In college I was a pitcher.  But in high school, you're dominant, you think you're gonna have a chance to be something special -- and it is an honor to get a college scholarship and have your education paid for -- but I knew pretty early.  I think I played with a lot of stupid guys, who didn't realize.  I knew really early, when I played against guys like Jason Giambi and Phil Nevin... I mean these guys were All World and were playing on the US team.  I played against a lot of guys who went on to become big-leaguers, and I think that's always kinda helped me in what I do now, was that I have an eye for talent, I guess you could say? I knew that even though I could compete, that these guys were on a different level.

EN: You realized that if you were gonna move on, you'd become a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond...

CT: I realized pretty early that I'm gonna have to do something after baseball, that I'm gonna have to graduate and find a way to make a living... it was obvious I wanted a family, like I have now... even then I knew I wanted a family.  Could I compete with those guys?  Yes. Could I beat them?  Yes.  But overall, I was not gonna get drafted, I was not gonna have the chance to play in the big leagues... cuz these guys were different, they were special, and I realized that early.  For some reason a lotta guys -- and I don't fault them for it.  You always wanna believe, "I'm as good as that guy." I realized pretty early on that I wasn't.  I used to laugh at some of my teammates... I played (in) the Big West, which Phil Nevin played at Fullerton State and Giambi played at Long Beach State, these were teams going to the College World Series and battling for the national championship, so I could see how good these guys were.  To hear the guys I was playing with were going, "Ah, they're not that good!" and I'm looking at 'em going, "Are you high?  Are you kidding me?" There's something special about these guys, about big leaguers. And I could see that, talent-wise.

EN: So they had that kind of aura early on?

CT: Well, they have a gift.  Against Jason Giambi down at LB State, back when LB State used to play they had a field on their campus -- and they play in this park now called Blair Park -- on a Saturday I came in and struck out Jason Giambi.  On a Sunday, pretty much the exact same scenario, as a cocky young kid... and he was a junior, he was on the Olympic team kinda guy, and I said "You know what? I'm gonna throw the fastball by him again."

EN: (makes cork-popping, home run sound)

CT: He hit a home run... at their ballpark there on campus, down the right field line, they had cages that they used to hit in before the game and after the game and whatever... he hit it over the cages!  It was easily 500 feet, so he made the adjustment on me, but I wasn't physically or mentally that good. I got away with something on Saturday, came back with it on Sunday... he made that adjustment, and (hit a) 500 foot home run.  So you see guys, and they're special... there was something about them, the way the ball came off their bat was different, the way they carried themselves was different... they were special. And of course they go onto the big leagues and make millions of dollars. 

EN: Well, you're doing this, it can't be that bad.

CT: I'm here sitting here with you

EN: Well, you're sitting here with me now, but you were just on the radio, in front of thousands of people...

CT: Jason Giambi's not here, I'm with you. He has it way better than me.

Mid-'90s: An orbiting Space Shuttle astronaut retrieves Chris's Sunday fastball offering to future MVP slugger Jason Giambi.

EN: OK, next question.  I know you've covered all sports... football, you covered the Sabercats for a while.  Is baseball your natural sport to cover, first of all?

CT: Well, don't forget I did a 49ers TV show for 3 years.  You know, when you get into talk radio, you find your comfort zone: the stuff that you gravitate to, that you're good at.  Baseball is what I am.  I grew up, every single day, going through our living room with the MVP trophy on the wall.  I grew up with pictures of Warren Spahn, and Johnny Sain... you know I grew up in baseball, baseball is in my blood.  Football too.  I played football... small guy, wasn't very good at it, but I love football too.  Baseball and football are my wheelhouse.  I've really enjoyed covering the NFL... I have a lot of respect for the guys that play in the NFL.  No one puts their bodies or themselves on the line like the guys in the National Football League: there's no game like it.

EN: It's like going into a war zone.

CT: They're the biggest, strongest, fastest human beings on Planet Earth. There's nothing like it.

EN: It's not like baseball where the fat guy can play, the short guy can play, the slow guy can play, where there's more of a physical disparity between the players.  Football, you have to be built pretty good, it's a different caliber of physicality that's required.

CT: The athleticism is definitely different.  But the toughness is different. 

EN: Is it mentally, physically, both?

CT: Well, I think toughness is both.  You don't hear the excuses... the excuses that we hear, about players not being able to perform in baseball?  That would not be allowed, would not be tolerated in the NFL.

EN: Coco Crisp having a coughing injury is not happening in the NFL.

CT: Yeah, you go tell that to Mike Singletary right now, what do you think he's gonna say?  Could you imagine telling Vince Lombardi, hey I coughed and my side hurts and I'm gonna be out... and oh, by the way I just played 2 games, after missing X amount of games.  I mean we're at the 62-game mark, and he's played 2 games. You think that flies with old time college football, or pro football? 

EN: I don't think so.  So, that said, you've covered the Angels, you've covered the Giants.  You've had to play a Halos fan on the radio, to some extent you had to play a Giants fan on the radio, how is covering the A's different?  Are the A's different or is it an extension of what you've done before?

CT: OK, first of all, the Angels thing was not for very long so that was easy to fake... I was with KNBR for almost ten years, and I never faked being a Giants fan.  I think anyone who listened religiously to the morning shows I was on, or the stuff that I did around the Giants, they would know that I never played a Giants fan.  I played it straight.  People knew I was from San Diego, people knew I was a Padres fan, I said multiple times on the air that I was not a Giants fan.  The old Program Director hated that I would not play a Giants fan... that actually affected me a couple of times, in contract negotiations. 

I have to be real, that's who I am.  I'm not gonna -- and the Angels thing is kinda funny now, as I'm saying this, I was desperately trying to get a gig in LA, I mean it's the 2nd largest media market in the country -- but, where I am now in my life, and what I've been through, I'm not gonna fake anything. This is what I am, and like I said when I first came on, my first real experience with American League baseball -- cuz we kinda forget how, back in the day, there was no MLB Network. There was no ESPN.  There were no highlight shows, there was no internet... most teams didn't even have 70 games on television.  I didn't have any kind of real shot at watching AL baseball when I was growing up, so it wasn't until I moved here when I came to SJ State, that I actually got to see -- when I moved here I wanna say the A's didn't even have 100 games on television at that point.  But it gave me a chance to go to games, it gave me a chance to come up to the Coliseum and see A's baseball and of course, at that time the A's were the best franchise in MLB.

EN: I wanna ask, before we move on to something else: KNBR.  Is it as propagandistic as it sounds? I mean, you were saying they gave you a hard time a couple of times, not wanting to fake being a Giants fan... wanting to play it objectively, play it straight. Being clear: "I grew up a Padres fan, I'm from San Diego" and so forth.  Cuz it comes across, when you're listening to it, that the people who are on it -- particularly the people around the Giants stuff -- are kind of told what to say and what they have to say has to be "Rah, rah, go Giants!" 100% of the time.  And even if the Giants served it up that day, and got beat 12-1, and Jonathan Sanchez left hanging breaking ball after hanging breaking ball in the middle of the plate for Prince Fielder or whoever they played that day to pummel, that they still have to put a positive spin on it.  Whereas what you do with the A's... you don't do that.  If it sucked, you're the first one to say "This sucked. WTF was that?" It's just not acceptable to you.  So is KNBR different than KTRB? From what it seems, if you listen to KNBR, what they require from their hosts and their jocks?

CT: What KNBR does is good business. KNBR is very good business.  KNBR understands where their bread is buttered. Everybody who's gonna work there understands that.  Certain guys are gonna be able to break away from that. No one is really ever gonna cross the line, and they're very smart.  That's why their fan base is so strong, that's why they've been around for as many years as they have... I mean KNBR's been around for over 80 years, the actual station.  They've been the Giants' flagship for I dunno, 30 years. But they are one of the most successful at selling baseball.  You've gotta remember that.  There's 30 teams in MLB, but there's not many that are better at selling the game of baseball than KNBR is with the San Francisco Giants, so I want to get that out there first.

Yes, I take shots at the Giants, and some of it is just having fun.  Some of it may be a little personal.  But they are very good at what they do.  And you have to... I'm hoping that someday, we'll be -- in a way -- like that.  Because you have to serve the masses. I mean, it's all about business in the end.  You're gonna have your hardcore audience, and your hardcore audience wants to be pro-Giants, pro-A's... that's what the hardcore audience wants.  The A's are very interesting, because for some reason, the A's hardcore audience is very interested in criticism, in what's next, in what could the changes be... what could be coming from the minor league system?  But you look around most professional sports teams, and their fanbase... they want the positive spin.  So KNBR gives you what you want.  And because of that, they're able to sell and make a lot of money doing it.  So we should not fault KNBR for being good at business.

EN: So they give the people what they want, and that's the priority.

CT: They're taking care of their customer. And you know we will do the same as we grow with KTRB... I mean the audience will dictate what they want. I mean, that's how ratings work... if we're doing things the right way, then our ratings should go up and we should attract more people.

KNBR on-air personalities react to the idea that the San Francisco Giants are a flawed team that will in all likelihood never win a World Series.

EN: OK, that said, what you do... particularly the postgame show, coming out of every game -- win or lose -- I wanna say that it's at a very high level.  You know I've told you this before, that the only person I've ever heard do it with the kind of balance between passion... fan-ness -- fandom, you know? -- and insight, sports "acuity," sports intelligence (which to me are the 2 essential elements: passion and intelligence)... that the only person I've ever heard do it as good as you do it is Gary Thorne.  And that's very large shoes, and that's very impressive.

So when you're doing a postgame show, and the calls are coming in... the team has won, the team has lost.  They won by 4, they lost by 12... and you're doing a show and you sign off after doing an hour, a half hour, or even two hours sometimes.  You get to the end of a show and you switch the board off. What makes you say, "That was an awesome postgame show, that was killer. We killed it tonight."?

CT: When you call in.

EN: (falls down laughing) I am blushing right now... if you could see this, I am turning red right now.  Seriously, is it callers, controversy, what is it?

CT: If there is a game that's controversial, that's the easy way. When I can get calls -- and I've been very thankful, like for everybody that was here (at the Holiday Inn) today -- I tell everybody, "Thank you for stopping by, thanks for calling in..." and I know I say it all the time and it gets repetitive but I mean it.  I really appreciate all these people who take the time to come by events like this, who call into the show, who e-mail.  But when I know it's a good show, is when it's been kind of a "blah" game, but yet I go for an hour and a half with calls.  That's when I know I'm doing something right.  If it's a game where they won 10 to 1, and I predicted they would win in a blowout?  Well, you should have calls.  Or if it's a game where the team gets hammered, and there's been some questionable decisions, you should get calls.  It's the game where there's no reason to call in, yet I've got 50 e-mails, I've got texts, I've got calls for an hour and a half... that's when I've went, "You know what? We nailed it."

EN: Very cool. OK, I wanna talk a little bit about your national show.  A lot of people reading the blog don't get (to hear) your national show... it's on sometimes, it's not on other times, so tell us a little bit about your national show. How long you've done it, who Jerry is, and how is it different from what you do on KTRB for the A's?  My impression of it, having listened to it a few times, is that it's a lot more freewheeling, a lot more out there, a lot more... kind of intense. Maybe a little risqué, let's say?  Cuz a lotta times, I'll tell ya.... a lot of times, you know we have our "CT Thread" on Athletics Nation, and a lot of times -- you know, when your show is on and everyone is commenting on what you're saying on the air in the thread, and what the callers are saying.  And a lot of the time, some of the comments will be about, when it gets a little out there and you try to bring it back to a more "normal" thing for the A's, well... if this had been his national show it might have gone into a story about strippers or something. Whereas if it's for A's Talk, it's got to be a little more "family," a little more reined-in and so forth.  So tell us a little bit about the national show, and how it differs from the postgame.

CT: Well, recently my producer Jerry had his birthday, and one of my main affiliates is Houston.  And a producer down there in Houston, and also a big fan of the show, is connected with a gentleman's club down there in Houston...and we had two employees of the gentlemen's club sing "Happy Birthday" to my producer.  One was named Candy, and I can't remember, the other one's name was... Lily.  That kind of stuff would not happen on A's Talk.   It's a much racier show, it's at night, as you said a lot more freewheeling.  We have a good time with it.  You kind of let your hair down at night, it's a different audience.  You gotta remember, I did morning radio for 6 years, so I've seen a lot of... ways to do radio.  It's not your standard "sports geeks"... I don't ever wanna be put in the same class as most guys in sports radio, cuz most guys in sports radio are just the guy who wants to be the smartest guy in the room.   And I don't like that guy, you don't like that guy... no one goes to a party and wants to know the guy who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room.

EN: There's constant... I don't wanna say controversy, but (sometimes there's) conflict on the blog, between the statistics people, the OBP people, the sabermetricians, versus the "fan" fans... the old school, "Did he hit the ball?  How far did it go?" fans.  So there is that.

CT: Well, I understand that when you bring mathematics into baseball... I mean, Bill James changed everything in baseball, and I can see how some people say "You know what?  I've got enough issues in life, and I want to enjoy the game, watch the game, talk about the game.  I don't wanna be browbeat by certain equations, where you're telling me that this is how you're going to predict whether teams are good or not, or whether players are good or not, or a quality player." I understand, some of these equations are dead on. Some of 'em are a little ridiculous. Nothing in business, nothing in life is "This is how you do it, and this is the only way to do it."  And Billy Owens -- and I know we've gotten off from wherever the hell we were before -- but Billy Owens, who I think we all understand is going to be a GM someday...

EN: Director of Player Development, is that his title?

CT: Director of Player Personnel.  And we talked about it on one of the Dugout Shows where, when you look at sabermetrics, it's definitely a way to look at things.  Because baseball is a game... it's 162 games, and the numbers, they're gonna average out.  I mean you look at how many times people play over 100 years... people who are very good at math like Bill James can start putting statistics together, and put equations together, and they're gonna be right.

EN: And baseball, because it's 162 games, such a large sample size compared to all the other sports... it's going to invite that insight, or that attempt at insight.

CT: No question.  But I don't blame people if they don't get into it. I like some of it, but you know... in some ways, it bores me. 

Sometimes, analysis can go overboard and a name is just... a name.

EN: Do you feel it bogs (down) a postgame show, when people call in with that kind of thing?  That it can narrow the amount of people listening, who are maybe casual fans, and they drift from it because it's numbers and statistics and this kind of thing?

CT: I love every single caller.  I would never, ever, ever say that there was ever a bad call... I want everybody to call, because you know what?  Baseball is a sport that... it needs all of that.  We need the people who are just fans, who just love going to the games, who... you know, "I just love this player."  And then you need the hardcore people, who really wanna be like amateur GMs.  They wanna be the smartest guy in the room.  I want everybody, cuz everybody -- you have that mixed pot that makes for a better show...

EN: I was thinking of "gumbo" right before you said mixed pot...

CT: Yeah, and that's what the Bay Area is, isn't it?  I mean we're -- it's a mixed group.  The A's fan base is a mixed group.  I want everybody. 

EN: The East Bay is one of the most diverse geographies... the 510 area code is one of the most diverse, every kind of person is on my block, everywhere.  In terms of the whole country, it's one of the most diverse places, so that makes a lot of sense.  Talk a little bit about KTRB... obviously it's the new flagship, it's a 2 year old station (almost) now, so tell us a little bit about the daily life of the station, and about some of your aspirations.  I know we've heard a lot about "building the station".  So tell us a little about some of your most intimate aspirations for getting it to something like the level something like KNBR is at.

CT: My goal with this radio station is to give (fans of) the Oakland Athletics a station that is there for them 365 days a year... that's talking about A's baseball not just in season, but out of season.  I wanna give the A's fans something they can be proud of because all my years on KNBR, A's fans used to call in and they'd bitch and complain.  And I heard it for years. Well now I'm looking at it from the standpoint of well, A's fans, here you go.  Help me build this thing, because the only way we're going to build this thing is with your support.  And I appreciate Athletics Nation, I appreciate everybody who comes out to an event like this, because we need everybody, but that is the direction.  Management would love to give you exactly what you want. They would love to give you a station that is all A's... they'd like to add other franchises also.  And (to be) a real competitor for KNBR.  KNBR has been around for 80 years, like I said, and their formats have been a little bit different, and they've been all sports now for a while... so it will be years before it is possible to truly compete on a day-to-day basis.  But you know what?  Why not?  Why the hell not? 

EN: As you said during the event here, you have to believe or it's not gonna happen.

CT: What are we doin' here?  If we don't believe we can build a radio station, then what the hell are we doin' here? I'm an optimist: you have to believe.  You have to believe it, you have to dream it, or it will never come true.

EN: As the late Tug McGraw said, "You Gotta Believe!"  Absolutely.


In tomorrow's second and final installment, CT and I go in-depth to discuss the state and trajectory of the current A's team and franchise, plus a bit about his most insane on-air escapade and what he feels about (cue scary music) The Blogs.  Thank you for reading and please do stay tuned ;)

EDIT: Part Two of this interview has been posted and can be found right here!