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A Peek Inside The Sooner Sports Network

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“The Spring Game to be decided right here! Snap, rolling right, (Austin) Kendall looking end zone, looking, stops, looks back left, looks right, throws in the end zone and it’s incomplete! Adrian Peterson’s Team White has won it by the score of 10-9!”

That was just one of the many moments heard inside the Oklahoma football radio booth on Saturday afternoon, as play-by-play voice Toby Rowland gave the action during the OU Spring Game in Norman. But that moment didn’t come without a large amount of time and preparation. In fact, you have to rewind two days prior to Thursday afternoon, to see when the preparations for the broadcast actually began.

Inside an empty Gaylord Family Oklahoma Stadium, on-site engineer Michael Dean is inside the radio booth to start his game day set up. A process that usually takes close to two hours, Dean also needs to coordinate his wireless microphones with the Trace Adkins concert that’s to take place before the game on Saturday. Any interference, would cause his sideline analysts problems and leave them unable to participate in the pregame show.

Though Dean is used to spending several hours setting up a broadcast, he’s not the only member of the team that spends multiple days getting ready for the football game on Saturday. Spotter boards, audio drops and a detailed study of the roster, are just a few of the things that fill the week for the majority of the 8-man crew involved with the Sooner Sports Network.

Inside the booth on the bottom of the two level room, Greg Blackwood (spotter) occupies the seat on the far left. To his right, sits Rowland (play-by-play voice) followed by Dennis Kelly (statistician) and Merv Johnson (color analyst) in the seat furthest right. Up top, sits Dean (engineer) alongside all his equipment to keep the Sooner Radio Network on the air. Down on the sidelines, the remaining three members of the team stand as Teddy Lehman (sideline analyst) and Chris Plank (sideline analyst) are joined alongside Tom Shores (parabolic microphone).

Oklahoma football has never been a stranger to success. However, the same can also be said for the Sooner Radio Network. Legendary figures such as Walter Cronkite, Bob Barry and John Brooks, are just a few of the voices that have told the tale of OU football through the years. Though the names have changed, the success has not. During the 2017 season, the Sooner Radio Network was ranked as the No. 1 most listened to college sports broadcast via TuneIn on three separate weeks. In Learfield’s end of the season list of Most Listened to Teams via TuneIn, the Sooner Radio Network ranked No. 3, making it one of the most popular broadcasts during college football weekends.

But how does it all work? I went inside the booth and asked those questions to several members of the broadcast team.

On-Site engineer Michael Dean

TM: How early do you show up on a game day?

MD: On a normal game day, I try to get to the stadium about 6 hours before kickoff. For home games, I’ll come down Friday and do my set up. So when I get here Saturday morning, everything is already in place and it’s just a matter of turning stuff on.

TM:  How long does it take you to complete your entire set up?

MD: If I’m in a hurry, I can do it in a couple of hours. When we’re on the road, and we get to the stadium at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning for a 2:00 kickoff, that gives me a couple of hours to put everything together, to where I’m not pushing it and ready to go. There’s two, great big cases that hold all the paraphernalia for the setup. It’s amazing how much the technology has changed with equipment. When I started in 1991, the technology seemed to change every 3 or 4 years. What we’re doing today, you couldn’t imagine doing that back then. It’s incredible.

Statistician Dennis Kelly

TM: Are you keeping a full stat sheet during each game?

DK: What we found is everyone has access to the game stats these days. So I tend to focus on trends. How many passes in a row have been thrown, how long the drive has been, how many yards or how close to a record someone is, that’s what I’ll focus on. We always have a stats monitor in front of us. When I have something, I write it down and pass it to Toby.

Spotter Greg Blackwood

TM: Since you’re pointing out every single tackle, run and catch, does that mean you have to be familiar with every single player that participates in a game?

GB: Normally, Toby will send me a picture of his spotter boards for that given week, around Thursday or Friday. I pretty much know everyone that plays for OU, but it’s getting to know the opposing team. What I like to do, like, for receivers, I put them on a Post It note, just their number and last name. So when the ball is in the air, I’m immediately able to find who it is and point it out on the spotter board.

TM: So, as the game moves on, do you get familiar with where each player is and able to act instinctively to where they’re listed on the spotter board?

GB: Exactly.

TM: I also see an OU Band-Aid and a Band-Aid for the other team. What’s that for?

GB: It’s just something I came up with. Whenever there’s an injury, I point to the player as well as his team’s Band-Aid. That lets Toby know who’s hurt and what team he plays for.

TM: Do you and Toby have any special hand signals for communication?

GB: Oh yeah. I’ll just say, hey, for a substitution I’m going to do this (wiggles his thumb and pinky finger). A lot of the time, I’ll say a player’s name in the headset. That way he hears me, but it doesn’t go over the air.

Sideline analyst Teddy Lehman

TM: You’re one of two sideline analysts (Chris Plank being the other) and you’re usually standing away from each other on the field. Most broadcasts don’t have that. How are you guys able to coincide without stepping on each other?

TL: Toby has a certain rhythm with the way he calls the game. He sets up the play, describes it as it happens and then gives you the result and the upcoming down and distance. You wait for that pause and then jump in with a quick comment. A lot of times it can be difficult, because if you have something to say that’s relevant to that play, sometimes, the offense is going up-tempo and they’re right back up to the ball. You have to get the info out and let Toby get back to calling the next play. It’s just a feel. I kind of know when Plank is going to come in. It’s usually after an injury or in between a series. Usually, during an actual series, that’s when I feel more comfortable coming in with something without stepping over Plank. But it does happen. When you have all the live mics we have, we probably have more than any other broadcast, it’s going to happen.

Play-by-play voice Toby Rowland

TM: How long does it take you to make a spotter board every week?

TR: It’s kind of hard to say, because I work on it every day throughout the week. So, like on Monday, I’ll enter all the information and then as the week goes on, you kind of add info to it. The whole process is probably a few hours. I just work on it all week, keeping adding stuff to it and by the time Saturday gets here you hope it has everything that you need.

TM: Why two sideline analysts? You’re one of the few ones to do it, so why two?

TR: Plank is great at getting all the information like a sideline analyst should be. Injuries, interviews, and all the things you’d expect. So with Teddy, we basically have an extra analyst, except he’s on the field instead of the booth. A lot of times, he gets stuff that we wouldn’t get if he was in the booth, because he’s down there. We tried it a few years ago, just threw it against the wall to see if it would work, and after the first game, everybody looked at each other and said ‘holy cow that was pretty awesome.’ What you’re starting to see now is some other places around the country try it, which is flattering. What Teddy gives us down there is gold. We have an analyst that can see from the booth and another that can see from the sideline. Between those two, we pretty much have it covered. The only tricky part is figuring out when to talk and not step on each other. I think we’ve done it long enough now that everybody had figured out the cadence. During the commercial break, we’ll often work it out to where we’ll tee each other up. It’s a nice chemistry.

TM: Something came up today that sparked this question. There was a number switch to a particular guy that wore a different number last season. Is that tough when you go a whole season identifying a guy as a certain number and then he switches the next year?

TR: They should really call us and ask our approval before they do things like that (laughs). It would really be hard if the player that wore that number last year was still on the team. Thankfully, you have a Spring Game to work it out. A lot of that stuff is why you go to a practice or two before the season starts. Like, next year, we’ll catch a practice or two before the season starts and the only intention is to see body shapes and numbers. You can act like you’re calling a play and mumble to yourself on the sideline, so you get used to that player with his new number. From the radio booth, you can’t always see the number right away. Like if it’s a wide receiver and he’s turned weird. But I can tell if it’s a single digit jersey number. If that’s the case, you’re identifying the player based on body size and movement.

TM: This did happen in the Rose Bowl, but what if the opposing team makes an unbelievable play to win the game? How do you call it when it’s a crushing defeat for your team?

TR: Naturally, you get more excited if your team is making the big play. Everybody does it different. Some people are super depressed on the air. I think the natural thing for me, is wow that was a giant play to win the game. They need a call that fits winning the Rose Bowl. Even though it wasn’t us that was the decisive play of this event. So it should have a pretty big call to it. But look, if we had made that play to win the Rose Bowl, I would have pulled a hamstring. It didn’t match the level of call to what I would have sounded like if OU had won. That’s just a preference. Every guy does it differently.

TM: What kind of hand signals do you and your spotter use during a game?

TR: There’s a lot of non-verbal communication between us. He can talk in my ear, without it going over the broadcast. But we try to limit that as much as possible, just to make the distractions less. If I don’t immediately recognize a receiver, he may say in my ear “Brown.” Just one word. But most of the time we prefer to communicate non-verbally. He has a hand signal for who the lead blocker was, who applied the pressure, there’s a number of different signals that we have to be on the same page with. That’s just been developed over time over 7 years.

TM: The process to setting up a process can be long. Even for you, is it stressful on a game day until you know everything is up and working correctly?

TR: I don’t think I stress at all about any equipment or the setup process. My plate is full enough that I don’t have the time. I’m stressed enough that my spotter boards are ready and I’m about to call a game. I 100 percent trust Michael Dean and need to. I assume every time we show up at the stadium that everything is going to be ready to go. There’s a bunch to do. We have a bunch of people on the air, so there’s a lot that goes into it, but I’m not stressed about it at all.

BSM Writers

Adam The Bull Is Giving Cleveland Something It’s Never Had Before

“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?”

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After spending 22 years on the radio, Adam “The Bull” Gerstenhaber was ready for a new adventure.  In fact, the former co-host of Bull and Fox on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland did not have a new job lined up when he signed off from his 11-year radio home last month.

“I was already leaving without having a new project,” admitted Gerstenhaber during a recent phone interview with BSM.  “I left before I knew for sure I had a ‘next project’.”

Gerstenhaber was preparing for his final show with co-host Dustin Fox on April 1st when he was contacted by an executive producer for TEGNA, a company that was developing a Cleveland sports television show on YouTube.  The executive producer, who had just found out that Bull was a free agent, made it clear that he wanted Bull to be a part of the new project.

It all came together very quickly. 

“Let’s talk on Monday,” Gerstenhaber told the executive producer. “And within a week they signed me up.”

The Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show on YouTube featuring Gerstenhaber, former ESPN personality Jay Crawford, 92.3 The Fan’s Garrett Bush, and rotating hosts to make up a four-person round-table show, made its debut last Monday.  The show, which airs weekdays from 11am to 1pm, features passionate Cleveland sports talk, live guests, either in-studio or via Zoom, as well as interaction from the audience through social media.

“I’m very excited,” said Gerstenhaber.  “It’s a definite adjustment for me after 22 years on radio doing television.  For the last 11 years, I’ve been doing a radio show with just one other host and I was the lead guy doing most of the talking and now I’m on a show with three other people and it’s such an adjustment.  So far, I’m having a ball.”  

And so far, the reaction to the show has been very positive.

A big reason why is that it’s something that Cleveland didn’t have and really never had, unlike a city like New York, where there are local radio shows that are simulcast on regional sports channels. 

“There’s nothing like that in Cleveland,” said Gerstenhaber.  “And there was certainly nothing like this with a panel.  Cleveland is such a massive sports town and now people that don’t live in Cleveland that are maybe retired in Florida or Arizona, now they actually have a TV show that they can watch that’s Cleveland-centric.”

The new venture certainly represents a big change in what Bull has been used to in his radio career.  He’s enjoying the freedom of not having to follow a hard clock for this show. In fact, there have already been some occasions where the show has been able to go a little longer than scheduled because they have the flexibility to do that on YouTube.

Doing a show on YouTube gives the panel a great opportunity to go deep into topics and spend some quality time with guests.  And while there is no cursing on the show at the moment, there could be the potential for that down the road.

Don’t expect the show is going to become X-rated or anything like that, but the objective is to be able to capture the spirit and emotion of being a sports fan and host.

“It’s something we may do in the future,” said Gerstenhaber.  “Not curse just to curse but it gives us the option if we get fired up.  It is allowed because there’s no restrictions there.  The company doesn’t want us to do it at the moment.”  

There’s also been the shift for Gerstenhaber from being the “point guard” on his old radio show, driving the conversation and doing most of the talking, to now taking a step back and having Crawford distributing the ball on the television show.

For a guy called “The Bull”, that will take some getting used to. 

“Jay is a pro’s pro,” said Gerstenhaber.  “He’s the point guard for this but he’s also part of the conversation.  I’m not used to not being the point guard so I have to adjust to that.  I think it’s gone pretty well and the chemistry is pretty good and with time we’ll get used to the flow of it.”  

Gerstenhaber’s move from sports radio to an internet television show is a perfect example of how the industry is changing.  A good portion of the listening and viewing audience these days, especially those in the younger demographic, are not necessarily watching traditional television or listening to terrestrial radio.  For a lot of sports fans, watching and listening on a mobile device or a computer has become a very important way of life.

The desire to adapt, along with a shorter workday, was very enticing to him.

“It was only more recently that I was like why do I have to only be a radio guy?” wondered Gerstenhaber.  “There were things about my job that I was unhappy about.  I was doing a five-hour radio show.  It’s too long. That’s crazy.  Nobody should be doing a five-hour radio show at this point.” 

Broadcasting on the internet has arrived and it’s not just a couple of sports fans doing a show from their garage anymore.  The business has evolved to the point where the technology has provided more opportunities for those who have already enjoyed success in the industry and are looking for new challenges.

Kind of like Adam The Bull!

“I think years ago, probably like many people in the radio business, we looked at internet and podcasts as like whatever…those guys aren’t professionals…they’re amateurs,” said Gerstenhaber.  “But the game has changed.”

Gerstenhaber, Crawford and everyone associated with the “Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show” should not have much of a problem attracting the younger audience. That demographic is already accustomed to watching shows on YouTube and other streaming platforms.  The challenge now is to get the more mature audience on board. There are certainly some obstacles there.

I know this from experience with trying to explain to my mother in Florida how she can hear me on the radio and watch me on television simply by using her tablet.

Bull can certainly relate to that.

“My mother is still trying to figure out how to watch the show live,” said Gerstenhaber with a chuckle.  “The older fans struggle with that. A lot of my older fans here in Cleveland are like how do I watch it? For people that are under 40 and certainly people that under 30, watching a YouTube show is like okay I watch everything on my phone or device.  It’s such a divide and obviously as the years go by, that group will increase.” 

With the television show off and running, Gerstenhaber still has a passion for his roots and that’s the radio side of the business.  In the next couple of weeks, “The Bull” is set to announce the launch of two podcasts, one daily and one weekly, that will begin next month.  But he also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to terrestrial radio at some point.

“I have not closed the door to radio,” said Gerstenhaber.  “I still love radio.  I would still, in the right set of circumstances, consider going back to radio but it would have to really be the perfect situation.  I’m excited about (the television show) and right now I don’t want to do anything else but I’m certainly going to remain open-minded to radio if a really excellent opportunity came up.”

The landscape of the broadcasting industry, particularly when it comes to sports, has certainly changed over the years and continues to evolve.  Adam Gerstenhaber certainly enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on the radio side, both in New York and in Cleveland, but now he has made the transition to something new with the YouTube television show and he’s committed to making it a success.

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BSM Writers

I Heard A Lot of Boring, Uncreative Sports Radio On Friday

“Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released”

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Maybe this one is on me for expecting better. Maybe I need to take my own advice and accept that there are times the sports radio audience just wants a little comfort food. Still, this is my column and I am going to complain because I listened to probably six different stations on Friday and all of them were doing the exact same thing.

The NFL schedule was released on Thursday night, so on Friday, regardless of daypart, every show seemingly felt obligated to have the same three conversations.

  1. How many games will the home team win?
  2. What does the number of primetime games we got mean for how much respect we have nationally?
  3. Why do the Lions still get to play on Thanksgiving?

Football is king. I get that. Concrete NFL news is always going to take priority. That is understandable. But where was even an ounce of creativity? Where was the desire to do better – not just better than the competition, but better than the other shows in your own building?

I listened to shows in markets from across the league. The conversations were the same regardless of size or history of success. Everyone that picked in the top 5 in last month’s draft is going to go 10-7. Every team that got less than 5 primetime games feels disrespected. It was all so boring.

Those of us in the industry don’t consume content the way listeners do. We all know that. Perhaps I am harping on something that is only a problem to me because I listen to sports talk radio for a living. If you don’t ever want to put more than the bare minimum of effort into your show, decide that is the reason for my reaction and go click on another article here.

Consider this though, maybe the fact that I listen to so much sports radio means I know how much quality there is in this industry. Maybe it means that I can spot someone talented that is phoning it in.

I want to be clear in my point. There is value in giving your record prediction for the home team. Listeners look at the people on the radio as experts. I will bet some futures bets in a lot of markets were made on Friday based on what the gambler heard coming through their speakers. All I want to get across is there is a way to have that conversation that isn’t taking two segments to go through each week one by one. I heard no less than three stations do that on Friday.

Sometimes your first idea is your best one. You don’t know that though if you stop thinking after one idea. That is what it feels like happens a lot the day after NFL schedules are released. It’s a very familiar rhythm: pick the wins, get a guest on to preview the week 1 opponent, take calls, texts and tweets with the listeners’ predictions.

I didn’t hear anyone ask their listeners to sell them on the over for wins. I didn’t hear anyone give me weeks that you could skip Red Zone because one matchup is just too damn good. I didn’t hear anyone go through the Sunday Night Football schedule and pick out the weeks to schedule dates because the matchup isn’t worth it.

Maybe none of those ideas are winners, and that is fine. They are literally three dumb ideas I pulled out of the air. But they are all ways to review the schedule that could potentially leave a smile on your listener’s face.

Show prep is so important, especially in a group setting. It is your chance to tell your partner, producer, or host that you know you can do better than the idea that has just been thrown out. Quit nodding in agreement and challenge each other! It may mean a little more work for you, but it means more reward for the listeners. And if the listeners know they can rely on you for quality, creative content, that leads to more reward for you.

And lay off the Lions. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re stuck at home. The NFL could give you Lions vs Jaguars and you’d watch.

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BSM Writers

Why You Should Be Making Great TikTok Content

“We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds.”

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It feels like there’s a new social media platform to pay attention to every other week. That makes it easy to overlook when one of them actually presents value to your brand. It wasn’t long ago that TikTok was primarily used by teenagers with the focus being silly dance trends filmed for video consumption with their friends and followers alike. Now, as the general public has become in tune with how this complicated app works, it’s grown far beyond that.

TikTok is now an app used by all types of demographics and unlike TikTok’s closely related cousins Instagram and Facebook, this app provides a certain type of nuance that I think people in our line of work can really excel in. 

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of how you can use TikTok to your advantage and how to make your videos catch on, I think it’s important to first mention why this matters for you. Now, if I’m being realistic, I’m sure there are some that have already stopped reading this or those that could scroll away fast enough when they saw the words TikTok. You might be thinking that this doesn’t fit your demo, or maybe that it’s a waste of time because productivity here won’t directly lead to an uptick in Nielsen ratings. But I’m not sure any social network directly leads to what we ultimately get judged on, and we aren’t always pumping out content directly to our core audience.

TikTok, like any other app you may use, is marketing. This is another free tool to let people out there know who you are and what you offer in this endless sea of content. And the beauty of TikTok is that it directly caters its algorithm to content creators just like us. Bottom line, if you are a personality in sports talk, there’s no reason you can’t be crushing it on TikTok right now. All it takes is a little direction, focus, consistency, and a plan. 

Unlike Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where you can throw a photo up with a caption and be done for the day, TikTok’s whole model is built on creative videos that keep users engaged for longer periods of time. This approach works. According to Oberlo, a social media stat tracking site, people spend more time per day on TikTok than any other popular social media application. 38 minutes per day!

This is where this is good news for us in talk radio. We’re specially trained in the world of TSL (time spent listening), and the longer people view your content on TikTok, the more the app rewards you by shoving your content into more and more feeds. TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t care how many followers you have, your level of credibility, or the production on your video. All ir cares about is 1) Is your content good. and 2) Are people watching it. 3) How long are they watching it. The more people watch and the longer they watch creates a snowball effect. Your videos views will skyrocket, sometimes within hours. 

So, how do you create content that will catch on? It’s really not all that different than what you do every day. Create thought-provoking commentary that makes people think, argue, or stay till the end to get the info you teased up for them. I’ve found through my own trial and error that it’s best if you stay away from time-sensitive material, I’ve had more success the more evergreen my content is. That way, the shelf life expands beyond just that day or week. This is different for everyone and there’s no one-size-fits-all, but this is where I’ve seen the most success. 

Also, put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to say something that people are going to vehemently disagree with. Again, it’s not unlike what we do every day. It’s one thing to get someone to listen, it’s another to get them to engage. Once they hit you in the comment section, you’ve got them hooked. Comments breed more views and on and on. But don’t just let those sit there, even the smallest interaction back like a shoulder shrug emoji can go a long way in creating more play for your video. 

If you want to grow quickly, create a niche for yourself. The best content creators that I follow on TikTok all put out very similar content for most of their videos. This means, unlike Instagram where it’s great to show what a wildly interesting and eclectic person you are, TikTok users want to know what they’re getting the second your face pops up on that screen. So if you are the sports history guy, be the sports history guy all the time. If you are the top 5 list guy, be the top 5 list guy all the time, and on and on, you get the point. 

Other simple tricks

  • Splice small videos together. Don’t shoot one long video. 
  • 90 seconds to 2 minutes is a sweet spot amount of time. 
  • Add a soft layer of background instrumental music (this feature is found in the app when you are putting the finishing touches on your video) 
  • Label your video across the screen at the start and time it out so that it disappears seconds later. This way a user gets an idea of what the content is immediately and then can focus on you delivering your message thereafter.  
  • Research trending hashtags, they are far more important than whatever you caption your video. 
  • Use closed captions so that people can follow your video without sound. 

Finally, don’t be intimidated by it or snub your nose at it. Anything that helps your brand is worth doing and anything worth doing is worth doing well. 

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