When the Phillies and WPHT (1210-AM) failed to renew their contract before the 2002 season, millions of words went unheard by hundreds of thousands of ears.
Fans both near and far who were accustomed for decades to the 50,000-watt clear channel power of Phillies broadcasts on the 1210-AM frequency by WCAU-AM and successors tuned to the new rights holder, WPEN (950-AM), and got nothing but the crackle of static.
The Phillies had been available after sunset in a vast swath of the eastern half of the country from Florida to Maine, from the Great Lakes to the Smoky Mountains. WPHT is picked up – particularly when atmospheric conditions are just right – in 42 states, including Alaska. I have heard 1210 in Canada. It comes in to ships halfway across the North Atlantic.
That comforting signal provided a home away from home for transplanted Phillies fans by the thousands from the Carolinas to the Upper Midwest. I believe I read the e-mail outrage of most of them in the weeks after the Phillies signed a 3-year deal with WPEN, a well-intentioned, 5,000-watt station assigned the 950-AM frequency. For many listeners in the tristate suburban area, reception was dicey at best, particularly at night. And no matter how the engineers tweaked their signal and tried to fine-tune the Phillies’ coverage area, there were significant blanks where the signal faded in and out or was distorted by the variety of interference that have made the amplitude modulation method of transmission all but obsolete.
Until it became obvious the Phillies finally were listening to the anguish of their electronically excommunicated fan base and were considering a return to the station that now bills itself as “The Big Talker,” a lot of us were praying Major League Baseball will sign a deal with Sirius, the satellite pay-radio company that beams down the entire NFL schedule in digital quality. It turns out that MLB games will be carried on rival satellite service XM next season.
So, on May 2, a Monday, the missus and I will begin the long drive up I-95 from Florida and a gaping void will be filled. No more hallelujah-shouting preachers, no more gee-tars twanging or news of widow Jones’ lost cat. The Phillies play the Mets at Shea Stadium that night. We will hit the 1210 preset and Marconi’s miracle will deliver the play-by-play to us somewhere in South Carolina.
There is a terrific seafood place we discovered at an exit about 30 miles north of the Georgia border. After dinner, we will hit South Carolina around sunset. By the Hardeeville exit, or the Beaufort exit at the latest, 1210 will crackle through the interference, sporadic at first as the 50,000 watts begin dominating the bandwidth. By the long bridge over Lake Marion that ends in Santee, the voices will be identifiable. The Phillies and Mets will carry us past the annoying neon blitz of South of the Border and well into North Carolina. Sorry, Pedro. It will be a swift 210 miles or 3 hours – whichever comes first.
But the big winners, of course, will be all the fans in the immediate Philadelphia area inconvenienced at best and shut out at worst by the ballclub’s ill-advised decision to hitch its wagon to a station with such a limited signal. That is no rap at WPEN, which has provided its signal-limited audiences with a variety of quality programming over the years. Business is business.
Baseball, however, was made for the clear-channel powerhouses, for mighty KMOX, voice of the Cardinals, for Pittsburgh’s KDKA, first station to broadcast baseball. It was made for Detroit’s WJR, Chicago’s WGN, Cincinnati’s WLW and Boston’s WBZ. They have talked generations of baseball junkies through the long, hypnotic nights of Highway America.