Pick one voice to hear repeatedly for 30 years, you’ll probably select a sound more soothing than Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo.
But here we are after 30 years, and there aren’t many voices I’ve listened to more than his. And if you’re reading this interview, it either means you similarly spent thousands of hours listening to Russo, or he helped pave a career path for you in some way.
His show intro takes close to two minutes, his greeting alone takes about eight seconds, “Annnndddd good afternoon everybody!” Sports radio and its program directors are built to demand instant content, Russo opens his show doing the exact opposite, but that’s the benefit a host has when he IS the format.
With Mike Francesa, Russo helped build the concept of sports radio. Creating a successful format that suits your talent is enough of a career success, but Russo still had a Part Two left.
Taking a character from one successful show and attempting to build something new doesn’t always work. Following Cheers with Frasier is rare. But after nearly two decades with Francesa, Russo is still going strong with his own show, his own channel and his own audience 13 years later.
Brandon Contes: You’ve been with SiriusXM for 12 and a half years now, it’s going on almost 13 years since you last hosted an afternoon show with Mike Francesa on WFAN. Is that jarring?
Chris Russo: It sure is. It’s almost like you forget you did Mike and The Mad Dog for such a long period of time. 19 years for Mike and the Mad Dog and around 13 with Sirius. It’s hard to believe. I knew I would be at Sirius a long time and I wasn’t going back to FAN, but it’s definitely surprising. And Mike retiring while I’m still working is odd too. You do your talk show every day, but when you think about it – yes, strange.
BC: Has one portion of your career been more fulfilling than the other? Helping to create the sports radio format with Mike, or launching your own brand and channel with Sirius?
CR: It would be hard to ever top 19 years of Mike and the Mad Dog, especially considering we were the first to do a two-person, five-hour afternoon show in the format. There were individual shows in different cities, but there weren’t 24-hour sports stations. The fact that Mike and I started afternoon drive on an all-sports station, hard to top that.
SiriusXM is a different accomplishment, but when you’re the first to do something in a genre, that’s hard to beat. It was New York City, it was the first radio station to do all sports, it was 1:00 – 6:30pm, 50,000 watts. That sticks. Going to Sirius was more about me trying to do a national show, find a new audience, and put a station on the map. But with Mike, we created the format.
BC: Was there a point during the summer of 2008, that Mike, Chernoff or anyone at WFAN could have said something to get you to stay?
CR: [Long Pause] I don’t know. I think I was probably looking for a break after 19 years at the same place. SiriusXM gave me a channel, I wanted something different, I liked the flexibility of getting away from the New York teams. Probably not. I think Mike and I wore each other out a bit. Money wasn’t going to do it, there was a limited number of that. It was time to make a change, Mel Karmazin wanted me and he offered me my own channel with Sirius. At 48-years-old, I wasn’t getting that offer again.
They already had Howard and he set the precedent for a person to leave a big New York station for Sirius. You had confidence in the company, and we had a lot of trouble those first six or eight months during the economic crisis, but I trusted Mel that we would figure out a way and he did. So I don’t know if there’s anything Mark or Mike could have said in June of 2008. I think I was going to go.
BC: When Imus left in 2007, how serious were you about wanting the morning show?
CR: It was something I thought about. It was a new challenge, I liked the idea of getting home at 11 in the morning. I don’t know if I would consider it serious but thank God it didn’t happen because I would have done mostly all sports talk and that might not have fit morning radio. There was a thought about putting both of us in mornings, although I don’t think Mike wanted to get up. And there was a thought about splitting us up, but it never got that serious. It’s nice to get home at 11am, especially in the summer, having nice weather and the whole day, and I think I liked it from that aspect more than the actual dynamic of hosting a morning sports show. As it turns out, it was the best thing for me not to get that show.
BC: Do you miss the competition of terrestrial radio and the ratings battle? Did it ever bother you to see Francesa and Michael Kay on the back page of the newspaper?
CR: No. What I do miss is the give and take I had with Mike. The discourse between the two of us couldn’t be topped because Mike knew every sport. Most hosts know one or two, but Mike and I knew something about all of them.
I also miss the hometown teams. On a slow day, you could always rely on the local teams to get through a show. On Sirius, from February through August, there are days where you might not have a topic to grab everyone. A local station can always turn to the home teams, I don’t have that with Sirius. I can’t break down Julius Randle for 45 minutes because a listener in Phoenix might not even know who he is. You have to find something that grabs everyone.
BC: How long did you do your Saturday show on FAN?
CR: For about 19 years. I did Saturdays and Sundays in the late-80s before they put me and Mike together. I gravitated to Saturdays around ’90 and did it for about nine months every year. I loved it. Just like Mike loved his Sunday NFL show, it was a break in the routine for us.
BC: That show was my introduction to sports radio. I would sometimes go to work with my dad on Saturday mornings and FAN would play on the way home. And as a seven- or eight-year-old, the voice and laugh caught my attention and once I realized you were talking about the Knicks and Mets, I was hooked. Did you feel a different connection with the Saturday audience?
CR: Definitely. The Saturday audience is different. Even if it’s the same group of people, it had a different feel. There was more give and take with the calls because you have more time as a solo host, and it had more of a wide-open tableau. You could talk about anything because Friday night isn’t a big sports night so I was able to keep it different from the topics during the week or from Mike on Sunday.
BC: Were you a Stern listener at any point before going to Sirius?
CR: No, I definitely was not. I drove to work about 10:30, 11:00 o’clock so he was already off-air. And if I was focused on anything in the morning, it would have been Imus. I usually don’t listen to the radio too much. I always wanted my own fresh opinions, I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else. But based on my life at that point, it just didn’t fit into my schedule. So I really didn’t listen to Stern until I got to Sirius.
BC: Have you enjoyed your interactions with him and going on his show occasionally?
CR: Absolutely. Five times total. I’ve been totally into it. But it’s almost like when he gets Mike from Mahopac (Sour Shoes), he feels like he had Chris Russo on, so it’s been awhile, but I love going in there. He makes a sanitation worker sound interesting, a jewelry salesman sound interesting, he could make my father sound interesting! No matter who he’s talking to, he has the ability to be engaged. He used to like talking about anything going on with Mike and me, I also loved talking about Imus with him. I haven’t been on in a couple years, but I really enjoy it.
BC: What about going on Letterman? How many times did you do that?
CR: I think it was 37 times. The first was February of ’91 and the last time was about two weeks before he retired in 2015. I loved doing that show. And I’ll give you one story. They used to put me on in the third segment, 12:20am. Twice within a month in 2003, I was bumped. Once for Demi Moore and the other for Courtney Love. A week later, I’m driving into work and he calls my cell to apologize. I said, ‘Dave what are you doing calling me? This is ridiculous, don’t worry about it.’ He told me ‘it won’t happen again, if you’ll give us a break we’ll have you on again.’ Since then, every time I was on, I was the second guest and they gave me two segments.
BC: Did you enjoy the live audience aspect with Letterman? Because you were always good at feeding off the energy at remotes.
CR: I did, absolutely. There’s more pressure. You have to make them laugh, you have to be funny. The reason Dave liked having me on is because he knew I could carry the segment for nine or ten minutes. He could set me up and I could talk, it wasn’t pulling teeth. He put me on the first time because he heard me on-air and was making fun of the way I spoke, but it ended up being a long-lasting relationship.
BC: Francesa was complimentary of Pat McAfee when he got started in radio, it’s interesting now to see him on your channel. He’s very different from your brand of radio, but he generates interest.
CR: The sports talk genre has changed. Most hosts, anywhere you look, TV or radio, it’s 80% football even in the offseason and then they sprinkle in other topics. I never did football 12 months a year and in New York you don’t have to, but hosts today don’t do baseball, golf or tennis, they’re not even breaking down the NCAA Tournament. They spend most of their time on the NFL and they’ll mix in the NBA.
Pat is the new breed. He’s a big personality, but he uses the NFL to get his point across, a little wrestling too of course because he’s a wrestler. Now do I love the cursing? Probably not. But I appreciate that the genre has changed from what it was in 1989 when Mike and I started. The NFL is bigger and baseball is not as big. A lot of the younger people on-air didn’t grow up on baseball. It’s really an NFL dominated genre right now and Pat does a superb job of appealing to the younger audience who are into fantasy football and DraftKings, while that’s not where I grew up. There’s going to be a time where my show won’t be able to survive, but for the moment, I can still hang in there without doing 12 months of football.
BC: What about Morning Men, you’re an old school sports historian and then you have a polar opposite in Mike Babchik on your channel, but the rabid following of FALs he and Evan Cohen built is incredible.
CR: Babchik does a wonderful job. I love Babchik, and Evan’s a great sports talk host. Morning Men I look at a little differently because you can’t do a ton of sports in the morning and they have to compete with Stern on the same platform, that’s not easy. It’s a tricky spot, but they’ve done a tremendous job of finding a niche for themselves, and that’s not easy to do on Sirius where you can get lost with a million shows and channels. But Babchik and Evan haven’t, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.
BC: Why do you think you’re okay with Morning Men bits and more willing to play along, be the butt of a joke, but you weren’t as forgiving when it was Craig Carton doing it at WFAN back in 2007?
CR: That’s a good point. I think it has something to do with Imus because we were loyal to him and Craig was his replacement. I know the Carton and Mike relationship never warmed up, Carton and I have warmed up some. But you’re right. I don’t know what the reason was, we gave Carton a much harder time than I’ve ever given Babchik. Maybe in hindsight, I regret that.
Maybe I should’ve let it go, not say anything, just let them do their show and get established. I don’t think it was as bad as everybody makes it out to be. But there is a feeling that Mike and I didn’t give Boomer and Carton any support when they started. If they feel that strongly about it, there must be some truth to it, and I have to own that.
BC: Last year you were very critical of WFAN and what the station became, what about today with Craig and Evan Roberts in afternoons, is it more stable?
CR: I don’t listen much, but they’ve done pretty well in the ratings and now they have a simulcast with SNY coming, so give them credit for that. But I’m not up to date with what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Evan’s had to change his role and I think he’s done that, and Carton’s had to change a little because there’s more sports in afternoons than mornings. Gio has done a good job with Boomer in mornings. Give Malusis and Maggie credit for hanging in there. I just don’t know exactly where FAN is as a channel and a station if I’m being honest. I don’t know enough. One thing I will say is, Evan’s done a good job of letting Craig get his feet wet and reestablished.
BC: Are you surprised Mark Chernoff is retiring?
CR: Yea, he loves to work, radio is his life and he’s a routine guy. He gets up in the morning, goes on a run, has a catch with his kid when he gets to see him. But coming into the radio station at 6am, he’s always had that routine and he doesn’t have a ton of hobbies. He doesn’t play golf or tennis, so I am a little surprised to see him leave.
BC: Did you program Mad Dog Radio at the beginning?
CR: I did. I had a lot of help, but I programmed it. With Sirius, there’s a big chain of command, so I couldn’t just pick anyone I wanted and hire them. We’ve evolved a million different ways over the last 13 years. They still try to run things by me, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but I’m busy with the TV show, my radio show and now podcasts, there’s a lot going on. I know what’s happening with the channel, but I’m not involved in the decision-making process.
BC: Did you enjoy being part of the decision-making process?
CR: I did, but I learned I’m better on-air than off-air. It’s not easy to hire people, fire people, get approval, listen to tapes. There was a period in ’08 and ’09, I was doing a five-hour show, with no commercials. To juggle all that work was very tricky. They kind of put me out of my misery five years in and it’s been a plus.
BC: 61 years old and you’re not subtracting at all from your career, you have a daily TV show, a daily radio show and now you’ve even recently added a podcast series, Digging Up The Past. Why enter that medium?
CR: SiriusXM owns some podcast companies and they need content, that’s the biggest reason. In my last deal I said I would do it and I didn’t quite realize the involvement with it. I did one in the fall about Thanksgiving Day football, and now I have a four-part NCAA podcast that we did 22 interviews for. It’s the kind of stuff I like, it’s historical and most of the young talk-show hosts today, they’re grasp of history goes back to the mid ‘90s. They don’t go back to 1961, they don’t know who Jerry Lucas is. You can’t give me a normal podcast to do with an interview that I already do on the radio, so that’s where this idea came from where we have long-form episodes and it’s fun. It’s time consuming, 22 interviews plus narration takes time, but it’s good quality and I’ll always make sure my audience knows it’s worth the time to listen.
BC: What does the podcast allow you to do that your radio show doesn’t?
CR: I can get any one of these guests on my radio show, but you can’t get 22 of them together on one show because their schedules will never line up. But for a podcast, you can schedule it around them and piece it together, so it helps to complete a story.
BC: I think Francesa was 62 when he announced his first retirement, when does Chris Russo start to think about it?
CR: Not until my youngest gets out of high school and he’s a sophomore. What am I going to do if I retire and he’s still in school in Connecticut? I can’t go anywhere, I can’t move to Florida and play golf, so until he finishes high school there’s nothing to think about. When he goes off to college and it’s just my wife and I left in the house, then I could see taking a step back, but not for another couple years, minimum.
BC: Would you cut TV or radio first?
CR: I think I’ll always do radio in some capacity. Some sort of radio format.
BC: Is the flexible schedule that podcasting offers enticing as a post-retirement option?
CR: Yea, that’s appealing, it gets you out of the daily grind. Doing a show everyday for 49 or 50 weeks a year, it’s a lot. There will be a time that I won’t want to do that, but we’re not there yet.
BC: Last thing, because this made the rounds on social media in the last couple weeks. Were you made aware that there is a Tom Izzo who works at WFAN? It was not the basketball coach commenting on you blowing your nose.
CR: What happened was, my son who’s a senior at Tampa texted me and said, ‘look at this dad, Tom Izzo’s wondering if you farted.’ He thought it was the Michigan State Tom Izzo, so I did too. He wasn’t aware there was a Tom Izzo at WFAN, nor was I. And after I said it on-air, that’s when we found out it was a different Tom Izzo at FAN.
But that day I was just blowing my nose all day for whatever reason. That’s another adjustment we’ve had to make in the last year, TV at home, radio at home, you don’t get a break in-between where you’re in the city and feel the energy. I’m doing one show in the basement, the other on the third floor. It’s strange.
BC: Are you going back to the studio?
CR: Undetermined, but I would think so. It depends on SiriusXM and MLB opening their studios. Maybe by the summertime, but who knows.
BC: Is the ability to work from home a benefit to prolonging your career?
CR: You hit it right on the head. I do like the city, but it’s 17 hours a week that I spend commuting on a train, walking and driving. It’s a lot. Especially in the summer when you want to be home by six every night. You work harder at home, 17 hours of commuting is now 17 hours working, but overall, not commuting is a big plus.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@gmail.com.
What Tom Brady Needs To Know Before His First Fox Broadcast
“Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tom Brady announced he is retiring from the NFL today. It happened literally a year to the day since the last time he retired.
The last retirement lasted just 40 days. Before the end of March of last year, Tom Brady had decided he was done pretending to be happy about embracing life off of the field and announced he was returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a third season.
I guess we cannot rule out that that will happen again. The difference this time around, at least for Tom Brady’s professional life, is that he has a plan for his future. Now that his playing days are over, it is time for him to start his ten-year deal with FOX to be the analyst in the network’s top NFL booth.
Audiences do not know what to expect. No one can deny that Brady brings star power. He is the GOAT after all, but we cannot say for sure if he will be any good.
The pressure is tremendous too. Not only is Tom Brady embarking on a new career, but football fans seem to have taken a liking to the guy he is about to unseat. Whether Greg Olsen gets kicked back down to the number two booth or he is forced to share the spotlight in a three-man booth, plenty of people will look at Brady as the reason we hear less from the guy regarded by many as the best analyst on TV right now.
Brady does not have much room for error here. Since that is the case, I thought I would get some perspectives from people that can help him out. I asked three people to give me their best advice for Tom Brady.
Our panel includes a fellow player-turned-analyst, a legendary play-by-play man, and a broadcasting coach.
THE PLAYER TURNED ANALYST: ANTHONY BECHT
In 2000, the New York Jets used the 27th pick of the NFL Draft to select Anthony Becht. He played for five different teams during his twelve NFL seasons.
His broadcasting career began in 2013. Becht worked on ESPN for eight years as an analyst on the network’s college football games. He has since abandoned the booth to return to the sidelines. He will be the head coach of the St. Louis Battlehawks when the XFL starts its third first season this month.
I texted and asked him to look back on his broadcasting career. What does he wish he knew before he started? Here are the three pieces of advice that he had for Tom Brady.
1. Less is more. Folks want to watch the game and just know the “why”. Providing tangible information in a five or six second window is key.
2. Fans want to know about your personal experiences as a player – information and stories they can’t get or wouldn’t even know about because they never did it at the level we did. Share those when the time comes in a game.
3. Have a strong opinion about what you agree or disagree with, but be able to voice it without being demeaning towards players and coaches. It’s an art form and takes time to articulate that in a way that’s done right. I never bash any player or coach because a lot of work goes into be a professional athlete and coach. That needs to be respected but critiqued appropriately.Anthony Becht via text message
THE PLAY-BY-PLAY LEGEND: TIM BRANDO
Tim Brando has worked with a lot of people. That happens when you have been calling football and basketball action on TV for as long as he has. When I called him on Wednesday to discuss what is ahead for Tom Brady, he drew on his experience with another Brady.
Brando was working with Jole Klatt in his early days at FOX, but he and Klatt were not going to be an exclusive team. He remembers Brady Quinn coming in to their booth shortly after his NFL career had eneded. Quinn was about to make his debut for FOX. Before they were ready to turn him loose, the network wanted the former quarterback to get a feel for the pace and atmosphere of a broadcast booth.
I do think it’s important that you have a new talent understand what that workplace is like in the booth – the choreography that takes place, because there is choreography. If the ball is deflected, your spotter’s hands are coming together like a bad clap. If there’s a hit, who caused the hit? Who stripped it? So there’s a hand signal for stripping the ball and then recovering the ball with the arms closing together. So who got the recovery? Who caused the fumble? Those things are always helpful.
There are things that are going on frantically in the booth, but you as a broadcaster have to remain calm, understand it, and sound succinct and confident. That just takes time and it takes reps.
That’s one of the great things I think that Greg (Olsen) probably had an advantage in, as do a lot of analysts that get better over time. They do games of lesser importance that maybe the whole world is not watching.Tim Brando via Telephone
Tom Brady won’t have the luxury of time or of reps under the radar. He may get to do a few practice games, but the first time he will be calling a game on live television, it will be one of the biggest of the week.
Brando says in that case, it is really important that Brady use his instincts to his advantage in the booth the way he did on the field.
I don’t know Tom well, but I know him well enough to know that he prides himself on preparation. I don’t doubt for one minute that he will be prepared. He’s obviously an incredible competitor. You know, this is a this is a business of competition too.
If you’re a great player, just like a coach, you love the ecstasy of victory. You don’t want to admit it, but you love the agony of the defeat as well. That feeling of defeat is something we feed on to motivate you for your next performance. In television and sports television, you don’t get that in terms of winning and losing, but you do get it if you look at it as a great performance,
I believe that all great broadcasters are performers at heart. It takes a certain level of of a theater. It’s live. It’s not scripted.
I think some players that get in the booth that are looking to have that same, you know, euphoria that they have after playing and winning a game. Some of them get that and understand that in broadcasting and get out of that the same thing and others don’t.Tim Brando via Telephone
THE BROADCASTING COACH: GUS RAMSEY
Plenty of broadcasters turn to Gus Ramsey for critiques and advice. The Program Director for the Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting at Full Sail University is also a broadcasting coach working with clients at all levels of the business. They trust his opinion because of his professional experience.
In a prior life, Ramsey was the producer of SportsCenter on ESPN. He has worked with a number of incredibly talented people and been tasked with taking newbies to new heights, so I asked him what he would be thinking if it were his job to get Tom Brady ready for his first FOX broadcast.
Sometimes great athletes forget that most humans don’t know what the athletes know. Things that are basic or simple or even mundane to the athlete are incredible pieces of wisdom or insight to the average fan.
When I was at ESPN we had Tony Gwynn in for an episode of Baseball Tonight. In our show meeting, Tony was explaining why a hitter was slumping because we was cupping his wrist. He went on explaining it for 30 seconds or so. The room was in total silence, eating up every word. The greatest hitter of our generation was doing a deep-dive on hitting. It was amazing.
Tony suddenly got a little self-conscious, stopped explaining and apologized for “going on too long” and we were all like “No!! Keep going!” Tony thought is was boring. It was just the opposite.
Athletes can think things they’ve learned and repeated their whole lives are common knowledge so sometimes they don’t share that info because they think “everyone knows this.”
I want to walk away from a broadcast feeling like I learned something. Sometimes the ex-athlete doesn’t realize how much educating they can do in a broadcast.
The other thing I always encourage former athletes or coaches to do is to take the viewer where they’ve never been; on the field, in the locker room, in a contract negotiation, etc. If you can get that viewer to fully appreciate the feelings and emotions of what goes on in those places, you enhance the experience for us.
Terrell Davis was an analyst on NFL Network for a bit after his career. He once described Champ Bailey running back an interception 100 yards by saying as Bailey got to the 50 yard line “right here it feels like someone put sandbags on your ankles.” I’ve never run 100 yards in a football uniform in Denver’s altitude, but Terrell’s line helped me better understand what it feels like.Gus ramsey via text message
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Mark Packer Loves Reading Your Memories & Tributes to Billy Packer
“I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports.”
It still stands today as one of the most iconic moments in the storied history of Arizona basketball. Three simple words said it all as the Wildcats celebrated an overtime win over Duke to win the 1997 national championship. “Simon says championship.” Those were the words of legendary broadcaster Billy Packer as Miles Simon fell to the floor with the ball in his hands. It’s one of many lines his son, Mark Packer, has been reminded of recently.
It was the perfect three words after the country just watched Simon carry Arizona to college basketball glory. Packer captured the moment perfectly, just like he did during every Final Four for 34 years.
Packer passed away last Thursday at the age of 82 but his legacy and impact in sports broadcasting will never perish. He was heard during every NCAA Tournament from 1975 to 2008 and was on the call for some of college basketball’s most iconic moments, including Michael Jordan’s shot to win the 1982 National Championship, Bird vs Magic in 1979, and even Kansas completing an improbable comeback to win the 2008 championship in his last broadcast. And the best part of it all was that Packer did it his own way, with his own unique style.
“It has really been remarkable,” said Mark Packer. “When Billy passed Thursday night we put it out on Twitter and it took off but I didn’t really know what to expect on Friday and Saturday as far as reaction. But the tributes have been fantastic and our family has loved it.
“I have heard from just about everybody and their brother. Folks I never thought I’d hear from, I’ve heard from them, such as commissioners, whether it be the NBA, whether it be other Power 5 leagues, I’ve heard from all kinds of coaches. I’ve been blown away. It’s just another reminder of the impact Billy had on so many different people, not just the world of sports. To me, that’s been comforting to all of us. It just reinforced all the stuff we knew he was about and brings back special memories.”
Packer’s style of broadcasting has been well-documented over the years. He was honest about what he saw and always spoke his mind. Granted, that didn’t always sit well with college basketball fans, but Packer wasn’t concerned about that. He was honest because he cared.
“He wanted the game of college basketball to be the best it possibly could be,” said Mark. “When he saw things he did not like, the one thing he always did was speak his mind. He ruffled feathers and he didn’t care. His intent was to make the game the No. 1 priority. You realize now he didn’t have it out for your team, he was just speaking his mind.”
That style meant fans would often yell at games, ‘You hate Duke! You hate North Carolina!’ Packer’s honesty was often taken by fans as he hated their favorite team. He used to laugh at that, just as Mark does know when he thinks about those moments. That’s because Mark can remember feeling the same way as other fanbases as a kid growing up rooting for NC State.
“When he was calling an NC State game I thought he was always out to get my team,” laughed Mark. “He’d be doing a game in Raleigh — we grew up in Winston-Salem — and the next morning after the game I would be eating breakfast before school and I would say ‘Man, Billy, you really got on so-and-so last night, what’s your problem with NC State?’
“He used to just laugh, because I thought he had an agenda against my team. Of course the funny thing is, we’d go on trips with him to other games and you’d hear fans say, ‘Billy Packer hates my team!’ It almost became a laughing joke, even amongst the family members, that Billy Packer was out to ruin your team’s day when he does a ballgame.”
Mark has always referred to his dad the same his television partners did. That goes for his two other siblings, as well. “Dad” was rarely, if ever, said in the Packer household. Instead, the legendary broadcaster was called by his first name.
“The fact they called him Billy on television, we never called him dad,” said Mark. “We just called him Billy.”
As you can imagine, ‘Billy’ had a lot of stories. That’s normally the case when you’re around the game’s greatest players and broadcast the legendary games we still talk about today. Packer was always quick to share those stories with his family, which made for an entertaining childhood.
Out of the hundreds of messages Mark has received since his dad’s passing, he says he hasn’t heard any stories he’s never heard before. But that doesn’t mean people haven’t been telling him stories about his father.
“We’ve heard them all, quite frankly,” laughed Mark. “Maybe the thing that was so funny about it was that it reinforced some that we thought were total BS when we heard them the first time.”
Packer will always be synonymous with college basketball and the NCAA Tournament. He was the voice of the sport during its golden era and helped bring the magic to TV sets across the world. If Mark had to guess what his dad is most proud of regarding his broadcasting career, he says it would be just that.
“From a broadcasting standpoint, probably the Final Fours,” said Mark. “When you, I think the number was 34 I heard, and he did so many of them, for us, we kind of took it for granted. It was just something he did. It was March and Billy is about to go do March Madness. It was just fabric for not only him personally, but also the family. He just loved the sport and wanted it to be good.”
Mark has carved out an incredible broadcasting career of his own. He’s hosted both radio and TV shows with outlets such as the ACC Network, WFNZ in Charlotte, and ESPNU. Having a front row seat to one of the most iconic careers in broadcasting, undoubtedly helped shape his career. Mark is very forthcoming as to what lesson he took from his dad the most.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Mark said. “That’s prep. He always studied. He was always coming up with notes and angles and facts. I have always done that with the radio and TV shows, that you constantly prep, you constantly read and make notes. You may not use but 10 percent of whatever you’ve been studying, but somewhere down the road you’ll use it again.
“When we were cleaning out his closet I ran into an entire box of old notes that he had from games from yesteryear. I kept every one of them and I can’t wait to look at them and relive those games and see his prep work and point of detail for all those games.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
Anatomy of an Analyst: Doris Burke
“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.”
Basketball and Doris Burke have been synonymous for many years. At the age of 7, she started to play the game that would eventually get her to the top of her profession. Along the way she’s recorded many firsts for women in this field which I’ll detail later. Burke has also become an inspiration to other women already in broadcasting and those thinking about a career in media. Pretty impressive.
Burke was raised in Manasquan, New Jersey. She was the youngest of eight children, and started playing basketball in the second grade. She starred at Providence, where she was the team’s point guard all four of her years there and made an impact immediately.
During her freshman year, Doris Burke led the Big East in assists. She was a second-team All-Big East player once and twice made the all-tourney team of the Big East Women’s basketball tournament. Burke held seven records upon graduation, including finishing her career as the school and conference’s all-time assists leader, a record that has since been broken. She served as an assistant coach for her alma mater for two years from 1988-90.
From there it was time to embark on a Hall of Fame career.
ROAD TO ESPN/ABC
Burke began her broadcasting career in 1990 as an analyst for women’s games for Providence on radio. That same year, she began working in the same role on Big East Women’s games on television, and in 1996 she began working Big East men’s games.
Doris Burke has been working for ESPN covering basketball in different roles since 1991. It has also allowed her to do other things along the way that were unchartered for women in the business. In 2000, Burke became the first woman to be a commentator for a New York Knicks game on radio and on television; she is also the first woman to be a commentator for a Big East men’s game, and the first woman to be the primary commentator on a men’s college basketball conference package. In 2017, Burke became a regular NBA game analyst for ESPN, becoming the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full regular-season role.
If that wasn’t enough, from 2009 to 2019 she served as the sideline reporter for the NBA Finals on ABC. I mentioned it was a Hall of Fame career and it was officially deemed as such in 2018. Burke was selected to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the Curt Gowdy Media Award winner.
AS AN ANALYST
“Doris Burke has an ease about her. A quiet confidence if you will.” Relying on her past experiences in the game as a player and coach, the information she brings her audience is relatable. Some analysts struggle to bring home a point in a way that a casual fan will understand. Burke has no trouble with this. Her ability to spell it out, concisely and conversationally sets her apart from most analysts, male or female.
Burke attacks her job, knowing that some will question her authority when it comes to commentary on the NBA. She doesn’t mind steering into the skid.
“I am mindful of the fact that I have not played or coached in the NBA,” Burke said to Sportscasting.com last year. “It doesn’t mean that I can’t do a very competent job. I think I try to do that every single night, and I’m never afraid to ask questions.”
It’s all about the information to Burke, and has nothing to do with the fact she’s a woman covering the NBA.
“If you enhance a viewer’s experience, it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she said. “As long as you are competent and put in the work … you’re going to be accepted.”
Doris Burke learned the ropes so to speak from several women that came before her. In an NBA.com piece from January of last year, she outlined how much she enjoyed watching former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Gayle Gardner. Early on in her career at ESPN, Burke got to work with Robin Roberts on WNBA and women’s college basketball broadcasts along with Ann Meyers Drysdale and Nancy Lieberman. Roberts was Burke’s inspiration as she started her career path. She admired the professionalism that each displayed.
“Working alongside Robin Roberts … the one thing I would tell you is the most powerful means to change or impact somebody is by your actions,” Burke said. “She was the epitome of professionalism and competency and garnered the respect of the people around her because of the work habits she had. Watching Robin early on let me know that the basis for everything is the work you put into something.”
While Roberts may have been influential to Burke, Burke has been a beacon for other woman that are getting opportunities in broadcasting. When asked about their role model, YES Network analyst Sarah Kustok, 76ers play-by-play broadcaster Kate Scott and former WNBA player and current Miami Heat studio analyst Ruth Riley Hunter all mentioned Burke by name.
“Burke is the best example for anyone — male or female,” Hunter told NBA.com. “I love the way she describes the game. She adds so much to every broadcast, and when I was playing in the WNBA I was always really inspired by her work.”
Burke is popular amongst her colleagues at ESPN/ABC, thanks to a tireless work ethic an ability to adapt to whichever sport she may be calling that day. Count Jeff Van Gundy among her biggest fans.
“She’s the best, most-versatile analyst and commentator at ESPN,” Van Gundy said of Doris Burke in 2017 via Deadspin. “She does it all—great interviewer, commentator, studio analyst—everything. And she is an expert at it all—women’s and men’s college basketball, the NBA and the WNBA. She’s the LeBron James of sportscasters. There’s no better broadcaster out there right now.”
Burke is equally a big fan of Van Gundy and the top broadcast crew for ESPN/ABC’s NBA coverage. That includes Mike Breen and Mark Jackson as well.
“We are talking about three of the best to ever do it. Mark, Jeff and Mike have held down the NBA Finals for over a decade with commentary that is the best of the best. Hubie Brown is a living legend. All of those men have been nothing but gracious and supportive of me,” Burke told the Athletic.
Doris Burke is considered one of the best NBA analysts around. Her bosses at ESPN made sure to re-sign her to a multi-year deal and promised she will be involved in “high profile” NBA games in both the regular season and playoffs. Burke will also call finals games on ESPN Radio and appear on the NBA Sunday Showcase program on ABC.
Good for her and good for fans of the NBA on ESPN/ABC.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 2010, she was featured as the new sideline reporter for 2K Sports ‘NBA 2K11’ video game. She has appeared in every version since, including the latest ‘NBA 2K23’.
As a senior at Providence in 1987 she was the school’s Co-Female Athlete of the Year.
Her basketball idols growing up were Kyle Macy, Kelly Tripucka and Tom Heinsohn.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at Andy@Andy-Masur.com.