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Broadcasting Amidst Tragedy

“You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

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Chris Lee

A player collapses on the field during your broadcast, what now? While you absolutely feel for the individual, you have to describe the activity and hope for the best. Nothing can prepare you for this eventuality. As we’ve talked about in previous columns, you can’t play doctor and speculate on the injury; you just have to describe what you see. While thankfully these incidents are few and far between, you just can’t possibly know if something like this could happen in one of your broadcasts. 

It all comes down to how you handle it. In this case, at the European Championship, Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field. He needed CPR in order to be resuscitated. Ericksen was given chest compressions as his teammates stood around him to create a type of “privacy wall”. Eriksen was carried off the field to a loud ovation from the audience. This is when you start dealing in fact-based commentary only. What you see being done is what you talk about. Reaction shots from the crowd, teammates and officials can tell the story better than you. This is the time when your director, producer and camera operators are critical to the storytelling. 

Courtesy: Getty Images

The game was broadcast throughout the world. ESPN had the broadcast in the United States and as you can imagine, they took some heat for the way the medical incident was handled. Many complained that the telecast lingered too long on the scene before cutting away. ESPN said it didn’t have its cameras at the match and was using a “world feed” supplied by the Union of European Football Associations.

“Once it was clear the world feed was going to take a more aggressive approach to covering the situation, we should have moved quicker to a static wide shot of the stadium or returned to the studio,” ESPN said in a statement.

You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If there was no focus on the injury, ESPN would have taken heat for that as well. In these cases, you just have to do the best you can under the circumstances. 

The Eriksen situation, got me thinking about a situation I found myself in, while doing pregame for the Chicago Cubs in 2002. In fact, we’re approaching the anniversary of this sad day. It was June 22, 2002 at Wrigley Field when the game was being delayed and nobody knew why. It was the day that Cardinals’ pitcher Darryl Kile passed away in his hotel room in Chicago. He didn’t report to the ballpark for batting practice, when he normally would. The team had hotel staff check Kile’s room and that’s when they found him in his bed. He passed away in his sleep. Just an awful day at Wrigley and a terrible day to be broadcasting. 

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Chicago. I remember it was a strange start time (2:05pm Central) due to Fox televising the game. My pregame show started at 1:30 that afternoon. Before our show began, we were informed of Kile’s death. However, we were not allowed to broadcast the information, since his family had not been notified yet. I remember thinking, ok, so how are we going to let people know that this game isn’t happening, without giving up this tragic information. On one hand we have a responsibility to let fans know what’s going on, but then there’s the more important aspect, someone has died and the family didn’t know. Even in a competitive world, the latter trumps the former. We started the show as normal and had some discussions on how to move forward during commercial breaks. 

As I recall, we decided to mention that there was going to be a delay, without going into specifics. Keeping it vague at least let the audience that the game wouldn’t start on time. But, at the same time it opened up a whole different set of issues. You have to remember that in June 2002, we were only nine months removed from the horrific terrorist attack on our country on 9/11/2001. I was sure that people’s first thoughts would be that there was some kind of security risk to fans in the ballpark. In fact, later I learned that a rumor had been swirling around that an attack was imminent. Of course, that was just an unsubstantiated rumor. 

After discussion with my sports director Dave Eanet and booth mates, Pat Hughes and Ron Santo, we decided to alleviate that thought. We had to. Knowing that in those days a lot of fans brought their radios to the ballpark, we felt the need to alleviate any concerns about security. Coming back from a break we decided to say, “we have been informed that there will be a delay before first pitch this afternoon. We have been assured by Cubs officials that the reason is not a security situation, we’ll have more info as it becomes available.” 

I remember feeling very empty about that statement, seeing as I knew the real reason for the delay and that the game was not going to happen at all. We had the responsibility to keep going and continue to provide a pregame show as if nothing was happening. Santo and I started to fill, talking about general baseball things, standings, league leaders and the Cubs upcoming schedule. After extending the pregame show a bit, it was time to hand things off to Hughes for the start of what was supposed to be the broadcast of the game. 

It was at that time, I decided to take our wireless microphone and head down to the field. It was very strange being on the field at that time of the day. I saw no activity in either dugout. People in the stands were asking me what was going on. I had to lie and say, “I have no idea, that’s why I’m down here.” It was just a few moments later that Cubs’ catcher Joe Girardi came out of the dugout, surrounded by teammates, members of the Cardinals and the umpiring crew, to make an announcement to the crowd. It was 2:37pm and his message was carried live on our airwaves and on Fox. 

“Excuse me. I thank you for your patience,” he started, with his voice cracking with emotion. “We regret to inform you because of a tragedy in the Cardinal family that the commissioner has cancelled the game today. Thank you.”

Fans were still confused after waiting for as long as they had. Some could be heard yelling “What happened?”

“Please be respectful,” Girardi responded. “You will find out eventually what has happened, and…I ask that you say a prayer for the St. Louis Cardinal family.” The fans politely applauded Girardi as a sign of thanks. Girardi would later say it was the hardest thing he ever had to do in the game. He said it was more difficult than taking his uniform off for the last time as a player. 

There are a few things I’ll never forget after Girardi’s address. Seeing Tony La Russa and Cubs manager Don Baylor shake hands and embrace, each was shaking his head in disbelief. Baylor knew Kile, having managed him in Colorado during the 1998 season. Listening to the fans clammer in that din we’ve all heard before during a baseball game. Watching them file out of the park was something to behold as well. Cubs’ fans embracing and patting Cardinals’ fans on the back. For a moment the rivalry was not important. The final thing I saw on that field before making my way back up to the pressbox, were several St. Louis players, including Jim Edmonds walking across the field. They were going to address the media in the only interview room at Wrigley Field, on the third base side of the field. The looks on their faces, I’ll never forget. 

MLB.com Photo Gallery
Courtesy: Stephen J. Carrera/AP

While some outlets decided to run with the news before the family was notified, there was no way we were going to reveal the news prematurely. I’m extremely proud of the way my station handled a very difficult and sensitive situation. It was one of the toughest, if not THE toughest pregame broadcast I’ve ever done. I’m grateful to my teammates in the booth that afternoon for understanding the gravity of the moment. 

There is no guidebook for how to broadcast under these circumstances. You have to rely on common sense and decency to get it done when it comes to tragedy. As much as athletes have a bit of celebrity to them, at the end of the day, they’re human beings with families, kids. When horrific injuries, or even death occur, remember that fact and treat the moment with the respect and dignity it deserves. 

BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 44

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This week’s episode is all about the NFL. Demetri explains why the league embracing kids is long overdue, Andy Masur stops by to breakdown the first Manningcast, and Ryan Maguire explains why some sports radio stations are missing a golden opportunity to shine on Sundays.

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BSM Writers

Interviews Thrive On Podcasts In A Way They Can’t On Radio

“Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.”

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Live radio vs. podcasts seems to be a heavyweight fight that isn’t ending anytime soon.  Podcasts are growing so much that companies that do radio are also now offering podcasts. This column is hardly about that fight. 

Instead, this is about how a podcast interview is a better way to get the best out of the guest than anything live on a radio station. This is not about downloads or clicks or sponsors. Solely about the content that is being produced.

A podcast makes the guest more comfortable and is more intimate than a live radio show.  Especially in sports.

Since 2015, I have hosted and produced 656 podcasts (yes it was fun to count them) and hosted many radio shows. My current shows are called Sports with Friends, Hall of Justice, and Techstream. That last one I host with tech expert Shelly Palmer.

On radio, there is a myriad of things the host has to do besides focus on the guest.

First, there are the IDs. Program directors have always told me ID the guest every chance I get. “We are talking with Eli Manning on WFAN,” is heard 7 times during an eight-minute segment.

On a podcast, the name of the guest is on the player or app that is playing the podcast. “Episode 1. Eli Manning, New York Giants” scrolls across smartphones, car radios, or other devices constantly.  Never interrupt the guest with an ID.

Then, there’s the fact that it is recorded and not live. I have a standard preamble that I say to any guest before any record light turns on.

“I will push,” I explain. “I will see where the conversation takes us, but I do tend to push. However, I’m on your side. This isn’t some expose’. If something comes up that you don’t like your answer, tell me. I’ll take it out. If there’s something that I say that is bad or wrong, tell me, I’ll take it out. This is a conversation, not an interview.”

In 656 podcasts, only one player, Bryce Harper (then of the Washington Nationals) asked me to take something out of a podcast.

We were doing Episode 54 of Sports with Friends when the subject of Dusty Baker came up.  He had just been hired to manage the Nationals. I mentioned in passing that Dusty had given the eulogy at my best friend Darryl Hamilton’s funeral.

Bryce was so intrigued that he recalled the comments I had made and asked if we could pause. We then spoke for a good 10 minutes about the kind of person Dusty was. Why Darryl held him in such regard.  It was a really inciteful chat.  Never was on the podcast.

Still, guests do relax when told that the editing option exists. They let their guard down. The host of a podcast can ask deeper questions.

“Who was the first person you called when you found out you were traded?”

“Have you seen a life for you after football?”

“How much do you hate a certain player?”

All questions, that if asked live, could seriously backfire. So not only does the guest have a guard up, but the interviewer also has to play it relatively safe, when they are not IDing the guest for the umpteenth time.

Time constraints also don’t exist in a podcast where they are beholden on live radio. The guest is just about to tell you they did cocaine during the World Series, and you are up against the clock.

ShinStation - Game Over - #017 - Wrap it Up - YouTube
Courtesy: Comedy Central

I have hosted shows over the years where the guest was phenomenal, but I screwed up the PPM clock. That was the takeaway.  The clock is important on a live medium that needs to get that quarter-hour.

I try to keep my podcasts short. You wouldn’t see it from looking at the lengths of my episodes. Still, I feel that if someone wants to talk and dive into a topic and it goes a little long, I will never cut the guy off.

Ken Griffey Jr. spoke for 45 minutes with a cigar and his feet up on the phone by his pool. He was telling jokes and stories. I wouldn’t have stopped that if a train was coming. When I hosted Mariner content at KJR in Seattle, our interviews usually last 5 minutes.

Jon Morosi broke down the future of clubhouse access and how he traveled during Covid. Then he told an amazing story of his wife working in the medical field and how that impacted all of his family. Shannon Drayer of 710 KIRO got so in-depth in her arduous journey from being a coffee barista to the Mariners on-field reporter. It was split into two episodes.

Former porn star Lisa Ann talked about her decision to quit the business. Even Jason Barrett himself was Episode 173 of Sports with Friends.

(When in the past has Jason Barrett been in the same paragraph as a porn star? Note to Demetri: please leave it in.)

The radio industry is seen to be cutting costs wherever it can. Mid-market stations are not doing night shows anymore, instead offering nationally syndicated programming. 

Weekends are another avenue that perplexes me. Talent that is not deemed good enough to be on during the week is often given weekend shifts. Also, some Monday-Friday hosts add a weekend shift to their duties. Here’s a theory: play podcasts. Format them to hit your PPM time marks. 

They don’t have to be my podcasts, but in the crowded podcast space, surely there are sports talk podcasts that are intimate, deep, and fun. Since we live in a data-driven age, let’s see how a radio station fares playing high-quality podcasts or portions of them, vs. weekend hosts.

Program directors often worry about the outdated nature of a podcast. That sells the podcaster short. As someone who has been in the podcast space since 2003, I know how to make them timeless, and companies make shows often enough, that rarely would they be outdated.  

Quality shines through the speakers.  The spoken-word audio format is continually evolving. Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.

How to Start a Podcast: Podcasting for Beginners - RSS.com Podcasting

The podcast industry is continually evolving.  Radio needs to evolve as well.  Then, it can be a fair fight.

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BSM Writers

National Voices Can Work For Local Clients

“Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder.”

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Selling personalities is one of the hottest trends in media today. Sure, most of the buzz is around social media influencers, but radio has long had a relationship with its audience based on personal connections between host and listener. And nobody has a better relationship with their audience than a sports radio host.

I am sure you are leveraging your local hosts by now. Live spots, testimonials, remotes, and promotions are all great tricks of the trade, as well as sponsored social media posts. But does your station carry syndicated shows? I am sure you do either from 7 pm-12 am Monday-Friday or on weekends.

In 2018, The Ticket in Boise, Idaho brought CBS Sports Radio host Damon Amendolara and his co-host, Shaun Morash, to town for a Boise State football game. Damon had just switched to mornings from evenings, and his show aired in Boise from 4 am-8 am Monday – Friday. His ratings were decent, but nothing that stood out considering the daypart. It was thought to be risky to sell him into sandwich shops, pizza places, appearances at local legend hangouts, and so forth.

Boise State head football coach and QB Bryan Harsin and Brett Rypien did a live shot on the show from the on-campus bookstore. At dark thirty. It all worked. DA and Morash were hits! Everywhere they went, lines and crowds awaited them and they hit spots in a two-county area.  The few days of appearances worked so well that DA is back in Boise three years later, this time for a week. Now, DA is doing his show from resort hotels 2.5 hours away, taking riverboat adventure fishing trips in Hell’s Canyon, craft beer tours for his sidekick Andrew Bogusch and hosting college football viewing parties at brewpubs. Every station that carries syndicated shows probably has a DA success story waiting to happen. 

Start by listening to the shows, know the benchmarks and quirks of the national personalities or call the affiliate rep and ask. Does the talent discuss their love of beer, BBQ, pizza, whatever? If they do, then go ahead and sell them to a local client. The national talent can do the spot and endorse your client. If it’s a product, send one to them. Figure out how to get them a pizza. If it’s a service, do a zoom call with the client and let them start a relationship. Include some social media elements with video. The video can be used in social media and can sit on the client’s website. Yours too!

If you want to bring the talent to town, do it for a big game, local event, or 4th of July parade, and the sponsors will follow. Run a promo during the talent’s daypart asking local sponsors to text in to reserve their promotional spot. Have the talent cut liners asking the same thing. Take the NFL Sunday morning host and sell a promo to a sports bar where the host zooms in to a table or room full of listeners, and they watch a portion of a game together. Or sell the same idea to a national chain and do an on-air contest for a listener to have a home watch party with the zoomed-in host complete with food and beverages from your sponsors sent to both locations. How about sending your #1 BBQ joint that handles mail orders and sends some food for the talent? They can videotape themselves reheating the BBQ and make some great Facebook and Instagram videos.  

Distance, like absence, can make the heart grow fonder. Try selling a nationally syndicated host inside your market. I promise you’ll like it. 

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