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TV Coverage Doesn’t Work On The Radio

“Too many of us grew up listening to games on the radio and this would be a gaping hole, that would be hard to fill.”

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For nearly a century, the game of baseball has been heard on the radio. In fact, later this year, the the two will celebrate 100 years together. The first game ever broadcast was August 5, 1921 on KDKA in Pittsburgh and the partnership took off from there. Now comes word, a century later, that the Toronto Blue Jays are eliminating their radio broadcast altogether. For the first time in team history, fans will have to listen to a simulcast of their tv broadcast.  

The team released a statement to explain their decision:

“In an effort to minimize travel and closely adhere to team, league, and government protocols related to the pandemic, Sportsnet will be streamlining production for the 2021 season by simulcasting TV broadcasts on Sportsnet 590 The FAN and across the Sportsnet Radio Network. Blue Jays fans can now enjoy the legendary voices of Buck Martinez, Dan Shulman, and Pat Tabler on both TV and radio. Ben Wagner remains part of the Blue Jays on Sportsnet broadcast team, joining Jamie Campbell, Joe Siddall, Hazel Mae, and Arash Madani in covering all the bases throughout the season.”

Seems like a stretch, considering most teams won’t travel their broadcasters for the first part of the season anyway. In the end, it looks on the surface to be a cost-cutting move and the victim in the case is radio, its broadcasters and its listeners. 

I am admittedly completely biased when it comes to the subject of baseball on the radio, having done it myself for the better part of the last two decades. My first thought was, wow, I really hope this is not a trend that catches on. It can’t, right? Too many of us grew up listening to games on the radio and this would be a gaping hole, that would be hard to fill. 

Some of my colleagues from other teams and veterans of broadcasting took to Twitter to express their displeasure in the decision making from the Blue Jays. These are just a few of the reactions to the news about the Jays.

Howie Rose, the longtime voice of the New York Mets, hit one of the biggest issues right on the head. How can you expect fans to listen to a television broadcast on the radio? There’s no painting of a picture, because, well, obviously you can see the picture on TV. Rose describes baseball on the radio as an art and he’s right on the mark. Descriptions, from the color of the uniforms the teams are wearing, to the shade of brown on the infield dirt, make the radio broadcast what it is. 

Keith Olbermann, broadcasting veteran, paints a dire picture of what might be to come. It’s hard to argue the point now that a team has actually eliminated its radio broadcast. One team tried it a year ago and was met with disapproval from the fan base almost immediately, forcing them to reverse course. More on that in a moment. 

Tim Brando, longtime broadcaster, also tells it like it is. This move puts a ton of pressure on the tv broadcasters, Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez. How are they supposed to serve two audiences at the same time? They won’t be able to please either completely. They will undoubtedly get complaints from the tv audience saying they’re too descriptive. The radio listeners will complain about them not being descriptive enough. What do they say during a replay? When a graphic is on the screen and so forth? Nobody wins here. 

Retired Blue Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth was interviewed by the Toronto Sun a few days after the decision to eliminate the radio broadcast was announced. Howarth is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in the world. Even he, in his own way, expressed his disappointment about what the team was doing. 

“I think without question, baseball is the best sport for radio,” Howarth said. “I say that because of two things: The number of games — twice as many as hockey and basketball — and the pace of the game.”

He would go on to say, “the TV broadcasts are great, but to simulcast them is completely different from radio with its descriptions, its story-telling and the love of the fans, getting them involved.”

Howarth did share that he believes if anyone can make this work, it’s Shulman who he says “is smart and flexible enough to make these adjustments, whatever they might be, to satisfy as many people as possible.”

That’s all fine and well, but there is another component to what’s going on here: a connection with a fan base that identifies with its radio broadcasters.

My earliest memories in the game are listening to Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau call Cubs games on WGN Radio. Sitting in the car with my dad, listening to games as we drove to do errands or head to my grandparent’s house. This element is hard to replace, actually it’s impossible to replace. 

A Cubs fan pays tribute to Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau - The Sherman  ReportThe Sherman Report

To that end, Howarth feels like this decision does damage to the legacy he and his former partner, the late, Tom Cheek established. 

“People will probably, if anything, remember back to Tom and Jerry when they were growing up and recall what great moments they had enjoying the radio broadcasts and wondering why can’t we still have that,” Howarth told the Toronto Sun.

Earlier I mentioned the Blue Jays were the first to actually eliminate a radio broadcast, the Oakland A’s flirted with a different version of this story. Ahead of last season, the A’s announced that their radio broadcast would only be available digitally in their home market, due to the team having troubles finding a local station to air the games.

It’s different than the Blue Jays’ story, because that was still going to be a radio broadcast featuring the team’s radio broadcasters. It just wouldn’t be heard over the air. Even that didn’t go over well, as the A’s eventually reversed the decision just six games into the season, finding a station to air the games. This decision by the Blue Jays is more likely to create an even stronger backlash. 

No Bay Area Radio Broadcast for A's in 2020, Instead Will Offer Free Online  Audio Stream - Athletics Nation

I get it, times are changing, technology is evolving seemingly daily. People have choices in how they listen to games. Streaming services, including MLB.com have allowed them to listen to their hometown team wherever that fan calls home. But again, this didn’t affect radio, because the call they’d hear was the actual radio broadcast featuring their local announcers. 

The Blue Jays made a big splash in the offseason, signing George Springer, Marcus Semien and Kirby Yates. While spending big money on players, the fans get shortchanged by the move to eliminate the radio broadcasts.  

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