After 27 years, WBUR’s ‘Only A Game’ is coming to an end

Former Celtics player Bill Walton was a guest on "Only A Game" in April of 2016 in Boston. –Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe

For 27 years, “Only A Game,” the sole sports program on National Public Radio and WBUR, told the kind of compelling, satisfying stories that a listener never quite wanted to end.

Somewhere along the way, it became one of those stories itself.

So it is with a sense of distinct accomplishment, but one of some melancholy too, that the people behind the program prepare to sign off for the final time, the show a casualty of budget cuts at WBUR in the economic maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Only A Game” is one more lovely story, ending.

The final original hour-long program airs Saturday morning at 7 a.m. on WBUR and on more than 250 NPR stations nationwide.

Bill Littlefield, who served as host from the show’s inception in 1993 until his retirement in 2018, will return for a conversation, titled “Goodbye,” with frequent contributor Charles P. Pierce. The program will continue with “best-of” episodes through September.

“It’s really weird,” said Karen Given, who has been part of the show for 23 years as a producer and, since Littlefield retired in the summer of 2018, the most frequent host. “For most of us this has been our whole careers, or at least a significant chunk of our careers. It’s really strange to be thinking about doing something different. And it’s sad that this is coming to an end. But personally, I’m grateful that it managed to last 27 years. That’s a long time for a radio show. Especially on NPR about sports.”

Karen Given became the most frequent host of “Only a Game” when Bill Littlefield retired.

The decision to end the show came in June, when WBUR announced a restructuring that including laying off 10 percent of the station’s staff, decisions that were in large part driven by lost revenue during the pandemic.

“When we entered into the second year of not having a named host after Bill retired, I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe the station isn’t 100 percent behind us right now,”‘ said Given. “So when the pandemic hit, we were having serious conversation along the lines of, ‘All right, how do we position ourselves so that if this happens we won’t be completely devastated.’ When I got the call, I was not shocked.”

A program like “Only A Game,” which covered in narrative form and with literary style the kind of human interest and socially relevant stories that sometimes get lost in the corners of mainstream sports media, seems more important than ever in a time in which athletes are using their immense power for protest.

“We were not driven by the mainstream sports narrative, so we didn’t have a mandate to cover all of sports like ESPN does,” said Given. “We had a mandate to go out and find untold stories and share them. We weren’t tethered to the sports world. We were able to focus on the things that nobody else was paying attention to.”

But with the disappointing news that it was ending came some contentment for those who are part of it in knowing that it far outlasted early speculation that a public radio audience would have little taste for a sports program.

“When we started this show in 1993, I remember thinking, ‘Well, how is a sports show going to fly on NPR? Or in our case, as a local show, how is going to fly on WBUR?,” said producer Gary Waleik, who has been with the show with the beginning, when the first story was about former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee and his barnstorming team of ex-big leaguers, the Grey Sox.

“We were told that public radio listeners just don’t care about sports. Which we kind of knew wasn’t true, but I remember thinking, ‘If we can make this last a year or two, that would be pretty cool.’ Twenty-seven years later, I think we can be pretty proud that we created something that people liked.”

The “Only a Game” crew shown in the 2000s: Gary Waleik, Karen Given, Gabe O’Connor (back), Charlie Pierce, and, Bill Littlefield

Littlefield, who shaped the show during his 25 years from one that began as a sports-newsy type of show to one that told irresistible stories about athletes of all genders, ages, and interests, said he was more optimistic at the beginning that “Only A Game” would find its audience.

“I remember the days at WBUR when there were people who thought it wouldn’t last two months,” said Littlefield. “People weren’t aware that BUR and NPR had done some homework and discovered that public radio listeners really cared quite a lot about sports. They not only followed professional sports and college sports but they were frequently active, played in their rec leagues, had kids that played sports, and really were interested, even if it wasn’t their primary interest.

“Knowing that, from the beginning we tried to find and report stories that were not going to be necessarily covered by the mainstream sporting press. A lot of the positive comments that we got over many years had to do with that. We were covering women’s sports much more thoroughly and fairly than other people.

“I took a lot of heat for being a big soccer fan. I still remember before the women’s World Cup in 1999, I I came into the office one day and I said, ‘You know, this is going to be huge,’ and my colleague said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said ‘You wait and see.’

Led by Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Brianna Scurry among others, the US women won the World Cup, a seminal moment for a generation of young American athletes who watched what they achieved and idolized them.

Producer Martin Kessler said that in time, some of the best tips about stories came from listeners who understood what the show was looking for.

“It builds on itself. Our listeners are amazing, and they know, ’Hey, that’s the sort of thing ‘Only A Game’ will look into, so we get all these amazing pitches from listeners, like, ‘Hey, I found this thing in my attic …’ ”

Perhaps the most well-known story in the program’s 27 years was one told in December 2018 by Shirley Wang, titled “My Dad’s Friendship With Charles Barkley.” The tale of the unlikely friendship between the charismatic Basketball Hall of Famer and a cat litter scientist from Iowa named Lin Wang, forged over a chance meeting in a Sacramento bar, became a you’ve-got-to-read-this sensation. Like the best “Only A Game” stories, it had an entry point through sports, but it really wasn’t about sports at all.

“I recommend everyone go viral once in their lives,” said Given with a laugh. “That is the story we hear about the most. We knew when that reporter brought that idea to us, she brought it to another producer, and he was about halfway through the pitch when we were like, ‘Dude, we’re in.’ I remember seeing an early draft on paper, I didn’t even hear it on audio, and it had me sobbing.”

Waleik digs deep in the mental archives to remember some of his favorites, such a candlepin bowling spoof of Ken Burns’s “Baseball” series on PBS (”Apparently he even got a chuckle out of it,” said Waleik), or the one time in which the show had a contest to give away a trip.

“We had an essay contest for listeners,” recalled Waleik, “and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip for four to Euro Disney, which was apparently having such a hard time that they had to go to ‘Only A Game’ for help.

“It was a really, really great experience reading the essays. The winner was one of the best interviews we ever did. Bill called this woman cold to tell her that she and her son had won. She was a single mom, and she was so genuinely happy. This woman’s response was gold, it was beautiful.”

While nothing is set at this point, it’s possible that the show could continue in a podcast format.

“I think the future is bright for us to do that if we wanted to do that,” said Waleik. “Good stories always emerge. It’s easier to tell those stories than it ever was.”

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