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Talk Soup 

The sports radio show Sports Gumbo is gaining a cult following for airing the frank opinions of its hosts and callers.

It's Monday, high noon, at Zachary's restaurant -- and at a corner table, the best damn sports talk show many fans have never heard of is about to begin. The two-hour Sports Gumbo, hosted by Jon Fine, Eric Asher and Michael Fazende, airs at noon weekdays on the Slidell-based ESPN affiliate WSLA-1560. On this particular day, the show is broadcasting live from Zachary's, one of five sponsor-driven remote locations.

The menu for Sports Gumbo can be as varied as Zachary's buffet. Occasionally, the trio, mainly Fine, touches on national sports, but the show really stirs the pot with its airing of opinions on local sports.

"Overall, the Saints draft was overrated and leaves a lot of question marks," says Fine. "There were a lot of pressing needs defensively so I didn't understand some of their moves. Drafting (Jon) Stinchcomb that early was a mistake unless he comes in and starts right away."

"(LSU football coach) Nick Saban said that if Johnathan Sullivan keeps his weight down and plays every down, he can dominate. To me, that means he's overweight and lacks motivation," says Fazende. "If that's the case, then they're back where they started."

"(Rick) Venturi's in a position where he doesn't belong as a coordinator," says Asher. "He's probably a great guy, but every place he's been, his record is a losing record. And I don't think he's proven on the field that he can be defensive coordinator for the Saints."

It doesn't take long for the phones to start ringing. For fans, Sports Gumbo is nirvana. It offers an uninterrupted forum for their opinions, from outright praise to controlled outrage.

"Most of the other radio hosts in this town need a personality transplant," says Tom from the Lakefront, a frequent caller. "Jon has an irreverent sense of humor, a freewheeling approach, and is always intelligent and prepared."

Tom is not alone in his praise. Loyal callers will attest that Sports Gumbo is not a typical sports call-in show. "WWL has deteriorated into cheerleading for the Saints," says Bill from Mid-City. "But Jon and the guys don't have a problem criticizing either management or the team."

"One thing that sets us apart is that we're not trying to be the coaches' friend, we're not trying to be the players' friend; we're operating with the fan's voice," says Asher. "And I think that's what the show's about, that fans have the right to come in here and give their opinion anytime. They're not going to be chided for their opinion, called names or get cut off."

Fine is the veteran of the trio, having logged more than 20 years in radio including a stint as the play-by-play announcer for the McNeese State football team. He hatched Sports Gumbo about two years ago in the New Orleans market. Different versions air throughout the state; the New Orleans show also streams over the Internet at www.sportsgumbo.net.

Asher himself was a former caller to sports talk radio -- particularly WWL-AM 870 programming featuring Buddy Diliberto and Kaare Johnson. "Your call got screened, so any real controversial call wasn't put through," Asher says. "That kind of aggravated me. That's what drove Michael and me to do this." (WWL management did not return calls for comment for this story.)

Fed up, Asher emailed and contacted other radio stations in the city looking for an on-air job. Fine recognized Asher as one of his callers and was impressed with him. Asher brought in Fazende and the current local version of Sports Gumbo took shape.

Though only broadcasting since last October, the show has already developed a cult following -- and all-important sponsors. "These guys definitely appeal to my customers," says Bill Evans, owner and operator of Hammerhead's Bar on Causeway Blvd., where the show does a remote every Tuesday.

"This is the best sports show," says Zachary's owner Wayne Baquet, one of Sports Gumbo's first sponsors. "And [Fine has] more knowledge in his head about sports than anybody in this city. That's no joke."

But Sports Gumbo battles one inescapable fact: the show lacks WWL's big bucks and big watts. WWL's Saints radio contract allows their hosts prime access to players, coaches and front office management. But that's OK with Fine. "We're not beholden to anyone," he says. Plus, top-level Saints do appear on the show, including president Arnold Fielkow, who came on last year and, according to Fine, "answered every tough question we threw at him."

Fielkow acknowledges that Sports Gumbo is "very critical" of the team -- but says he'd brave the show again. "I think Eric (Asher) is a knowledgeable guy about the sports scene here," he says.

Fine says he would love to see a 24/7 sports talk radio station take hold in New Orleans. But for Asher, the day-to-day reality is enough for him. "On my toughest day, I can look at this and say my life is going well," he says. "I'm talking about something I love to talk about. I'm interviewing Michael Jordan. I'm standing in front of Kobe Bryant. I'm at a Saints press conference. I'm on this merry-go-round and they're going to have to pry me off of it when it stops, 'cause I'm not getting off."

click to enlarge Michael Fazende, John Fine and Eric Asher - broadcast daily from Morning Call and other remote - locations. Says Asher: "We're operating with the - fan's voice." - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Michael Fazende, John Fine and Eric Asher broadcast daily from Morning Call and other remote locations. Says Asher: "We're operating with the fan's voice."
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