It was one year ago today that Major League Baseball followed several other sports leagues in shutting things down. COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic caused panic, chaos and closed facilities across the country. It’s a day that many of us will not forget. Now, a year later with signs of hope that things will get back to normal, so much has changed in sports, broadcasting and life.
The word normal seems weird to say. Zoom calls have replaced actual time in locker rooms and clubhouses. Limited access has become a way of life for broadcasters and journalists, almost getting used to what is happening. Mainly it all comes down to just doing the best you possibly can under the current circumstances.
The challenges were immeasurable from the broadcast side, yet the good ones knew how to overcome the obstacles. Kevin Kugler, who calls games on Fox, The Big Ten Network and Westwood One, shared one of those hurdles he and some others needed to jump over.
“The biggest challenge has been giving the viewer or listener everything they need for a quality broadcast.” Kugler told me. “We’ve lost a little of the ‘relationship’ aspect of calling the games this year without actually being in practice or shoot arounds and having a chance to interact one on one with players and coaches. Doing video calls has helped some, but it’s not the same as actually developing those in person relationships. We’ve all done the best we can, but I do think the audience is missing out on some of the info we might glean in person.”
I can relate. Without that real one-on-one time with athletes or coaches, you do lose a little touch with the team you’re covering.
Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster, Eric Nadel who handles the radio broadcast for the Texas Rangers agreed with Kugler.
“There is so much time to fill and the best, most interesting information is the stuff we get from those interactions with the people in uniform,” Nadel said via email. “The inability to talk to players, get to know them so they trust me and tell me stuff that the average fan can’t find on line, has been devastating.”
Another play-by-play guy that agrees with the assessment is Judd Sirott who handles the radio call for the Boston Bruins.
“First off, we are incredibly fortunate to be working this season. The pandemic has wreaked havoc: hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives, and many more have seen their livelihoods disappear.” Sirott told me. “To survive, businesses have had to be agile and adapt. Calling Boston Bruins games is no different. The biggest challenge is not being able to “be there”, that’s not just the games (road games now), but morning skates, dressing room scrums, the coach’s office and everything we’d normally have access to.”
Access is clearly a roadblock during this time, something unavoidable for the safety of the players, coaches and media members. Chicago Bears radio play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak points out it isn’t easy to replace actually being on site. What you lose is more than just access to players. It is the ability to set the tone and feel of game day for your audience.
“I would say like all play-by-play announcers and analysts, we want to be where the action is, and there is nothing entering the stadium on game day that can replace that.” Says Joniak. “From the smells of the tailgates, to walking into the booth and seeing the green grass, and the anticipation of what is to come. It revs the engine in a way nothing else comes close to matching in my life. I love gameday and all that comes with it. From kickoff to the final whistle, it’s an adrenaline rush and it’s something I crave. I feel we as a crew did the best we could, given the circumstances.”
Kugler agrees that atmosphere matters to the audience and fans in the seats matter for atmosphere.
“I cannot wait until everyone is back, because the art of doing a broadcast hinges so much, in my opinion, on the fans. Playing off the emotions, the highs and lows, the music of the crowd. I miss that so much, and had really just been delving into that more when the shutdown came along.”
Professional broadcasters want to get their calls right. That’s a fact. That was much harder to do when looking at a game on a monitor not even in the same building as the game that was being called. Sirott says this is where patience had to rule the day.
“Accuracy is king. Trying to decipher tipped pucks in front; altercations behind the play; injured players hobbling off the ice; coaches barking at something on the bench when you can’t see the game from the perch you normally occupy is difficult.”, he said. “Taking some extra time for the picture to develop on screen and working with my partner Bob Beers (who’s keenly aware and has a great feel for the game) has helped. The conditions lead to more mistakes. You have roll with it. And when the time is right, have some fun with it.”
He even took the route of tailoring and refining his approach to these broadcasts. “To get the content, meant being more resourceful. I’ve jumped on the phone, sent an email, fired off texts or delved into some different sites online to collect material for our broadcast.”
The highest compliment a broadcaster can get during these crazy times is from the fans, is when they can’t tell the difference.
“Many listeners didn’t realize we were not at the road games”, said Joniak. “So, the payoff is that we maintained the integrity of our broadcasts and reliably served our listeners with the same thoroughness and passion as we’ve also delivered over the past two decades.”
Even those that knew what was actually going on, gave the broadcasters the benefit of the doubt.
“I will say this, fans have been very forgiving with the broadcast hiccups. I really have been pleasantly surprised with how little people have yelled at us for some of those things.”, said Kugler. “I think that everyone has just been so happy to have the events on TV or radio that they have been able to overlook some of the things that would have created angry tweets a couple of years ago!”
So, did anything positive, other than the fact the games were actually played? I know from my perspective working baseball, I became acutely more aware of what I was doing as a play-by-play announcer. Lessons to myself about slowing down and other details that I feel made me a little better under the circumstances. I’m a harsh critic of my own work, so that’s saying something. Seems like everybody figured out something along the way here.
“I think I’ve learned a little bit about what’s important and what’s not. I’ve really worked this year on trying to provide what is most crucial for the viewer or listener,” said Kugler. “Sometimes, I think we all get wrapped up in our prep and we can forget that we are doing this broadcast for someone else. Not for us, but for the fans. I have started to go into each game prep really thinking more about that, what would I want to see or hear as I’m tuning into this game? Sounds simple, but it’s something I’ve become really aware of over the past year.”
Joniak found some things that made him a better announcer under tough conditions.
“My senses were keener, my concentration deeper. The circumstances force you to pay deeper attention.”, he said. “There were times in games, and I think back to the Bears-Falcons game in Atlanta, where it was so dramatic of a finish it felt like I was there even though I wasn’t. I got absorbed in the moments. I also had crowd noise pumped in my headset by our engineer Paul Zerang so that was significant. I thrive in a loud stadium and calibrate my emotions accordingly with the rise and fall of the chatter.”
Sirott on the other hand found he could change things up and still have a successful broadcast.
“I’ve been more flexible with my time. Hockey players are creatures of habit. Lots of broadcasters are the same. We like a routine. To keep everyone safe and healthy, we’ve all had to change our schedules.”
For Nadel, who’s been at this a long time, he learned something too, don’t take the simple things for granted. “It (the result of the pandemic) hasn’t made me a better broadcaster. It has made me a broadcaster just trying to survive and do the best possible job given the current conditions.” Nadel told me. “But when and if we ever have access again to the people in uniform, I will be sure to use that access even more than I did before. If there is any way that I am better, it’s that I have to lean more on personality, perhaps making the broadcasts more entertaining even though I am less informative.”
The common theme, these conditions were not ideal, but in the grand scheme of things, we learned a little about ourselves. We learned to adapt to an ever-changing environment and provided fans with a quality broadcast under the circumstances. It was actually quite remarkable to see all the different “set ups”. Where the monitors were placed and so on.
I also think along the way, many of us, including those that I talked to for this column, appreciated things a little more. We were more aware of the stresses that were being placed on the ‘behind the scenes” folks, those in the television trucks and the camera folks that provided our pictures. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate them before, because we did. This pandemic just made it much more obvious.
Unhappy Anniversary pandemic, we won’t miss you one bit, but thank you for helping all of us to see what was important through these crazy tough times.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.