DJ Hodge is a media pro’s media pro. The market manager at iHeartMedia Cincinnati wasn’t born and raised in radio. He spent time working in the newspaper industry. He has also seen a different side of sports radio, working for the broadcast network of the Xavier Muskateers.
Like so many others associated with talk formats in the town, Hodge is a Cincinnati lifer. You have to be in order to make an impact in the city.
In today’s Meet the Market Managers conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, DJ and I discuss why sports talk in the city is in good shape, even without a full clock of local content, how to keep the Reds happy while still being critical, and why more than just his sports properties get in on sports coverage at iHeart Cincinnati.
Demetri Ravanos: WLW is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I don’t know a whole lot of news talk stations around the country where sports is more associated with the history of their brand. So what role did sports play in that celebration?
DJ Hodge: We celebrated it on March 23rd, and it was an awesome, awesome day! We played a lot of sound from as far back as we could get. We created a lot of fun spots that sounded like 1922. We actually had a really cool promotion. We gave our listeners a chance to co-host on that day, March 23rd. Each of our dayparts on WLW that day had a listener in as a co-host.
Cincinnati is a very special place and WLW is unique in that it really wraps itself around the whole market. As you pointed out, sports is a huge part of the stations, the Reds, the Bengals, UC, Xavier, FC Cincinnati and NKU is part of the fabric of the city and sports is part of the backbone of the station. And we really try and walk that balance.
DR: So you mentioned the Reds and the Bearcats on WLW and then WEBN also has the Bengals. Why is it important to you that sports have a presence across so many different iHeart formats in the market?
DH: So we do a triplecast with the Bengals. That was the brainchild of Joe Frederick, and we have been doing a triplecast of the Bengals for over a decade. So we have it on WLW once the Reds’ season ends. Then we have it on ESPN 1530 in the market, which is a monster signal, and then we have it on WEBN, as you referenced, our heritage rock station. For us, it’s just a way to make the team available across as many of our stations as we possibly can. We really love the inclusion of WEBN and have found that to be a great FM home for the Bengals.
We actually had some fun two years ago when everyone knew we were going to draft Joe Burrow. As you probably know, “Welcome to the Jungle” is kind of the unofficial Bengals theme song. We worked with Zac Taylor to cut some intros for us and the three nights leading up to the drafting of Joe Burrow, we played “Welcome to the Jungle” at the exact time that Burrow would be drafted on Thursday, which I think was 8:07 if I remember. So all of our stations in the market, including our CHR and our news talks, played “Welcome to the Jungle” at 8:07 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with an intro personalized for that station by Zac Taylor.
DR: Ohio is a football state, but Cincinnati is a baseball town. So, how much can a Bengals Super Bowl run do to combat disappointment from the Reds?
DH: Well, the euphoria definitely has continued to carry on. You’re right, this is a high school football, college football, pro football state.
Obviously, the Reds are not out of the gate the way you would hope, but the euphoria of the Bengals has carried over since the postseason run. Everyone thought the Chiefs would make the Super Bowl for the AFC. You kept hearing the national pundits say that the Bengals were a year ahead of schedule or two years ahead of schedule. So it was so unexpected. It really just caught the city a bit off guard, and I’ve not seen this city for any four week period have that much euphoria.
Certainly, after the 90 World Series the town lost its mind and we were excited about UC in the Final Four. There have been events for sure, but a four week stretch where you literally hugged strangers was new. It was one of those hug-a-stranger moments where people were so excited. Everyone wore Bengals gear.
The Reds have not gotten off to the start they’d like. We’re getting a chance to watch a lot of young players and certainly, you hope that the future is bright. This is a chance to watch these young players develop. The city is very much wrapped around the NFL draft, which is this evening, as you and I are talking. Demetri, we’re not used to picking 31, I have to be honest. So the city has draft fever today and everybody’s really excited to see what happens tonight to make the team even better.
DR: So now since we introduced the Reds as a topic, I do have to ask about that uncomfortable moment when Phil Castellini drew criticism for asking, “where are you going to go” when fans questioned the team’s fire sale of talent. He makes this allusion to “it could always be worse,” you can move the team. How, as the market manager, do you approach that? Whether it is talking to talent about balancing serving a partner with acknowledging reality or anything else that maybe I’m not thinking of, what comes along with your role in a situation like that?
DH: Honestly, as you asked the question, you encapsulated it perfectly. You want to treat a partner fairly, for sure. I have the pleasure of knowing Phil, obviously a little bit. He loves this city and cares deeply for the city. Certainly, that message from him didn’t come across the way he intended. I know it didn’t, but you’re right, the response to that has to be authentic. That’s the conversation with our on air talent across all of our stations.
First and foremost, I need the talent to be authentic. We’re not going to read from a script. I’m not going to tell them what to say. Their listeners would see through that. Their credibility matters a ton for us. So it’s about them being credible and them being honest, but again, being respectful of our partner and not wanting to look like we’re piling on or look like we’re doing anything but telling the story.
As you know, topic A becomes topic A. Topic A tells us what you’re going to talk about, and certainly for a couple of days that dominated the airwaves. We had some talent that were very much pro-Phil and stood up and said, “Hey, that’s not what he meant”. We had some that took umbrage with it and took some shots.
It’s about being a good partner. We are as pro-Reds as we can be. I’ve been a Reds fan my whole life. I’m from here. The majority of our on air talent, like your friend Mo Egger, are from here. So we’re lifelong Reds fans. This is personal to us and it’s a passion for us. You just want to be fair there, right? You want to tell the story that’s there. You want to inform fans. You want to let fans vent and listen. We had Phil on right after that to sort of tell his side of what he meant and apologize for the way it came across. We want to be good partners, first and foremost, and we are. We love the Reds deeply!
My on air talent does have to take the stance that they believe in. I said to one just the other day, “listen, you can have the stance as long as it’s fair. Just be able to defend it. If somebody calls to question your opinion, you’ve got to be able to defend it yourself.” I want people to be authentic.
DR: So you’ve been on both sides of that relationship right now with the radio cluster, but before that, you were working with Xavier University’s radio network. How did that help you learn to identify and meet teams’ needs as their flagship station?
DH: That’s a great question. I had five great years with Learfield Sports at Xavier University as the general manager, and that provided me great perspective. You see it through the lens of how you want your brand portrayed. You see it through the lens of how you want your fans to be able to receive content and sort of the opinion around that. I think our talent do such a great job of that on all of our stations.
But you see it through the eyes of the coach as well. I remember having conversations with Sean Miller, who I love and who’s back in the market now, about a loss and the way it was portrayed in the market. At that time, what I was looking at is how the program is viewed and how the fan base is getting content. Now on the other side, I’m very sensitive to that because I’ve been over there. You’re right. I know what it feels like. I know what you want to accomplish, but you also want and hope that your flagship partner will have your back and present your information as fairly as possible.
But again, sometimes, you know, topic A. is topic A. When I was at Xavier, if we lost a game we should have won, like Duquesne one year, you’re going to take some heat, right? And the sports talk guys are going to take some shots. That’s part of the deal. It’s part of being fair and balanced.
DR: So you were also at the Cincinnati Enquirer. The period of time you were there is really interesting because it is sort of the beginning of digital overtaking newspapers in an undeniable way. And I wonder what lessons about adaptability you learned during that time that you brought with you to radio.
DH: Hey man, you’ve done a fantastic job with your research because you’re right. I was there at a time, 2003 to 2007 I believe, off the top of my head. I wasn’t prepared for that, but I think that’s right.
You’re right. It was right at the very apex of print and right as it was starting to get into the digital content space at the Enquirer owned by Gannett. We had launched Cincinnati.com right before that, and it was about disseminating the content. Now you’ve seen that newspapers have great writers. The Enquirer here in this market is somebody that we work closely with. They provide really good content from their beat writers. So people are going to want that content, but you’re right, it was migrating from the print version. It started that migration probably in 07 and then much heavier in 08 and 09. People are still craving the content, just receiving it a little bit differently.
Similar for us, right? We’ve had this explosion of streaming audio and podcasts now that there are smart speakers in the home. People are receiving their content from us, still of course predominantly through the radio in their cars, but now we have hundreds of thousands of session starts per week around our stations through a phone, through a smartphone, through a smart speaker. People are listening to us in different ways. You can get us on Xbox and Playstation and all the different devices where you can get streaming audio now.
It’s about the content. It’s about delivering it in a way that consumers want to receive it and where they are. That is the backbone of what we’re doing. It’s why the podcasting space has been so influential for us. Our leadership team has done a great job of keeping iHeart at the very tip of that spear.
Podcasting is one of those pieces now that people come to us for and they want to learn more and they want to understand how can they reach consumers via that podcast medium. It’s been a really exciting few years and I know that like many things in this business, the next five years will see even more changes and will continue to lead from the front.
DR: You mentioned podcasts. I think for most people, that’s where their mind goes first when you talk about digital audio. Radio has provided a great space where those things can coexist. There is something about the real-time nature of radio that podcasting will never be able to match. I wonder, as you look back on your time at newspapers and as you look at what radio is doing now compared to podcasting, do you see a way that printed newspapers could have better coexisted with the digital space, or is the X factor of live content something that just can’t be replicated?
DH: I think you nailed it right there. It is the live companionship that we provide. The one thing I would disagree with you on is that if I went to the mall, people still do that I think, and said, “Hey, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of streaming audio or digital audio?” I think they would say playlists. I think they would say it’s Pandora or Spotify or iHeart. “I type in an artist that I like and I hear songs like that”. That was really the first thing most people were using streaming audio for.
Now, podcasting is coming on really strong. We were really in that space early on with, as you again, touched on, perfectly on-demand listening. If you couldn’t listen to The Bill Cunningham Show live because you had a work meeting or a lunch meeting, you could listen that night! You could listen when you got home if you were cutting the grass, and people still do. The downloads for those on-demand shows are still really significant each month in terms of monthly listens and uniques. The space has exploded though.
It’s not replacing what we do in terms of companionship, but it’s replacing that time exercising or walking your dog. It’s making people say “hey, I want to listen to a story”. I, personally, love the crime dramas and all those criminal investigation podcasts, comedy and sports and all the different genres that we thrive in. But it’s a great place to tell a story, but it’s very different than the live companionship that we provide people through the broadcast radio during the day.
DR: Let’s talk about Cincinnati. I know it is often described as a very parochial market. You know, it seems like the kind of place that would embrace a station with 12 hours of local sports talk every day. Why hasn’t that happened? It seems like no competitor has had real staying power with that strategy.
DH: Yeah, news talk and sports talk are expensive to run for sure. I think we’ve done a great job with 1530. We’ve expanded our local hours. We still have a great partnership with ESPN in morning drive, but we’re now more live and local. We started a few years ago carving out one hour in the middle of the day for a show called Cincy 360, which is hosted by Tony Pike, the former Bearcat and Carolina Panthers quarterback. We then expanded that to 2 hours with Tony every day. We do an hour of ESPN programming and then it leads to Mo’s show in the afternoon, 3 to 6. I feel like we really found a great balance with the right amount of local content.
You’re right, Cincinnati is a parochial city. We largely don’t move away. It’s very neighborhood-based. Cincinnati, similar to St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Salt Lake, is a place that is very traditional and people don’t typically leave. Your parents lived here, your grandparents lived here, and you cared deeply about local sports.
For us, the national perspective in the mornings on ESPN 1530 is great. Especially when the Bengals are good or the Reds are good, or like UC football, it has been amazing. So it’s fun to get the national perspective when we’re in the national spotlight. Then we have a couple of different opportunities every day to really dig into the local piece. Plus there’s Lance McAllister, our flagship sports talk program that launched the career of Cris Collinsworth. Lance has a show every night on WLW. It is really the foundation of our sports talk, and it’s a great way to culminate what’s going on and really drive home the local stories from a lot of different perspectives.
DR: So without that 6A to 6P or 7P approach, does that make it easier for your sellers to market Mo and Lance to new advertisers as the authoritative voices on sports in the market?
DH: For sure. You’re really familiar with the radio measurement tool. It’s tough sometimes, just given the amount of people. That can’t give you a great, clear picture. But today, you can get a great measure of the impact of people like Mo Egger and Lance McAlister have in the marketplace by their social media engagement. When you see Mo and Lance have 70,000 Twitter followers, you know exactly how important they are in the market. You know exactly how big their level of impact is. Believe me, the businesses in Cincinnati know that. That’s why they want people like Mo and Lance to speak for them. They know the connection that they have with the audience.
Sports talk doesn’t typically crush it in ratings, as you know, but the level of engagement, the passion of the audience that’s there every day is really beyond what is measured. That’s been the really cool piece about watching that unfold with social media. Mo and Lance are really never off the air, right? I mean, they’re on the air, but then when they’re not, they’re still engaging with fans and getting into debates and having an understanding of what the fans are thinking and feeling. That really drives the content of the shows the next day.
It’s really a 360-degree approach in the sports space that has been driven by the impact that Lance and Mo and people like them around the country can have, which again drives listeners to their show and then creates that engagement that is so important.
DR: So I’ll ask you one last question before I let you go. And I think this is an important one. Is Cincinnati chili a prank that you all are pulling on the rest of us?
DH: Absolutely not, and we do not understand those of you that don’t get it, Demetri. Listen, Cincinnati Chili is not a traditional chili. We get that, but it is yummy and delicious and should be eaten as often as possible.
Who doesn’t like noodles and sauce with meat and covered in cheese? It’s hard not to like. We are very passionate about our Cincinnati chili and we all authentically love it. I promise you.
Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting
The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.
As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.
For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.
While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements.
While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized.
Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.
People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.
First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.
The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues.
None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.
As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.
Saban v. Jimbo Is WrestleMania for College Football Fans
Ryan Brown says the Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher feud is one made for pay-per-view and we have nearly five months to hype the match.
It was the day after I turned eleven that Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre ‘The Giant’. WrestleMania III filled 90,000 seats at the Pontiac Silverdome and the living room of one of the houses in my neighborhood. Real or fake, we didn’t care. Three decades later, Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher is 100% real and it is coming to a living room near you.
I live in the capital city of SEC Country – Birmingham, Alabama. SEC football needs no additional drama here. You get a complete college football obsession at birth. That said, the October 8th Texas A&M visit to Alabama will be among the most anticipated regular season college football games both regionally and nationally.
One would think CBS will use their annual prime time date for that Saturday just as they did for last season’s Alabama at Texas A&M game, you know, when Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher were on speaking terms. Not knowing how the season will play out, it would be no surprise if ESPN’s College Gameday is in Tuscaloosa as well. While we are at it, let’s just cut to the 2024 chase and schedule a Presidential debate in Tuscaloosa that weekend, as well.
Not one person will be surprised if Alabama is undefeated and the top ranked team in the nation that week. The surprise, based on the rest of the Jimbo Fisher era, will be the Aggies being unbeaten. Their trip to Alabama comes at the end of a five game stretch that includes Appalachian State at home, Miami at home, Arkansas in Dallas and a road game at Mississippi State. Incidentally, the same Texas A&M team that was able to upset Alabama last season also managed to lose to Arkansas and Mississippi State.
Just the prospect of the two teams being unbeaten and highly ranked causes some to say this game would need no extra storylines. Shouldn’t that, and being on CBS in prime time, be enough? The Saban-Fisher Feud already has people discussing this game nationally and Lee Corso hasn’t even donned a body odor-filled mascot head yet.
I would like to project this game to deliver the largest TV audience of the regular season but I can’t, for one reason: I’m not certain it will be close. I think Alabama is that much better than Texas A&M. That’s why the build up will deliver a huge first half audience.
For perspective, in the 2021 regular season, the Alabama at Texas A&M game had the fifth largest TV audience, in a game that went down to the final play. The Ohio State at Michigan game had 15.8 million viewers on as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, almost double that of Alabama at Texas A&M on CBS in prime time.
That brings me to another misconception: big games have to be in prime time to get a big audience. Of the top ten largest college football audiences in the regular season and conference championship weekend, only half were prime time games. College football fans, and NFL fans for that matter, will find the best games no matter where they are placed.
So, back to Saban v. Fisher; why is it a bad thing? Would SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey prefer it not happen? Of course. Will it bring more attention to a game in the conference he oversees? I say, absolutely. Heck, my daily show is already selling t-shirts for the game. You may say “shameless plug”, I say paying for my kid’s college. Tomato, tomahto.
This is what made “Mean” Gene Okerlund a household name in the 1980’s. He was the far too serious host that interviewed the wrestlers who challenged other wrestlers to a grudge match in exotic places like the Macon Coliseum and the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Dallas Sportatorium. Why did they do that? First, it was entertaining but, primarily, it sucked the viewer into making plans to view those matches.
I mean, if Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat said he was going to rip the head off “Big” John Studd, was I going to miss that?
That was why a bunch of kids crowded into a living room in Anniston, Alabama in 1987 to watch WrestleMania III, The Main Event. I can’t tell you who was on the undercard that night. The only wrestlers we cared about were Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant”.
Actually, my friend’s mom thought the Ultimate Warrior was “cute and had a great body”. He wasn’t on the card and I thought it was odd she told us that but she was footing the bill for the pay-per-view and had mixed the fruit punch Kool-Aid, so who am I to judge one’s wanton desires?
Texas A&M at Alabama will be the SEC’s main event this season and, if the cards fall right, it may be college football’s main event. What happened between the two head coaches might not be the proudest moment in SEC history but it will bring more attention to that game. And, my word, we finally have a nano-second in which two prominent coaches weren’t pre-programmed robots refusing to deviate from the script.
As amazing as WrestleMania III was for my childhood, it was scripted. The Tide and the Aggies will not be. College football remains one of the greatest values in sports. I pay very little to watch unscripted game after unscripted game. Truth is, you couldn’t even script most of what we see on a college football Saturday.
Texas A&M at Alabama is already beyond what the most creative writers could imagine and that is why this fuel to the already smoldering fire adds to this game. Now, if Nick Saban will just try to bodyslam Jimbo Fisher, we’ll have something.
Doc Emrick’s Love Letter is Hockey and… Language
The Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Doc Emrick developed his love for the sport and the art of the call early in life and never let go of either.
LaFontaine, Indiana is a small rural town in the northeastern sector of the state with a population of just under 900 people. Located between the cities of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, it is similar to the village illustrated in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” and its name, rooted in the French language, translates to “The Fountain” in English.
In the summer of 1955, the local Cub Scouts managed an organized softball league, and once children graduated to become a member of the Boy Scouts, they would transition to play baseball. One nine-year-old child in the summer of 1955 had the common realization that he would not likely make the major leagues since he was not considered an elite-level athlete. While he enjoyed playing the game, he enjoyed listening to the game on the radio even more, so much so that he wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career.
There would often be a softball or baseball game being played on a near-nightly basis in LaFontaine, with upwards of 100 people attending. The town ballpark had a public address system; however, it had no steady announcing presence, instead relying on adults to volunteer to provide the play-by-play for the spectators. For this prospective broadcaster with a nascent avidity for baseball, sitting behind the microphone and vivifying the action became something hardly perfunctory, but rather an inspired art form. It afforded him the chance to interact with his community and his friends as a familiar voice, and helped prepare him for what would become a 47-year professional career carrying out this very task, albeit in different settings for different audiences through different mediums, and primarily in an entirely different sport.
Going to a Major League Baseball game from LaFontaine was quite the trek for the young Mike Emrick and his family; therefore, attending was often a once-a-year event that took place in the summer. Driving northwest through the corn fields for approximately 150 miles without the presence of super highways, he and his brother Dan, accompanied by their parents, would eventually reach their “Field of Dreams” in Chicago, Il., where they would take in an afternoon game. From the time he was young though, Emrick cheered on the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call games of hall-of-fame outfielder Roberto Clemente on the wide-ranging KDKA radio signal.
Emrick had always had an interest in calling baseball games; however, that all changed one day in 1960. At the age of 14, he attended his first hockey game just before Christmas, a matchup between the visiting Muskegon Zephyrs and Fort Wayne Komets in Fort Wayne, Ind. The game ended in a tie, but Emrick was enamored with the game’s nuances, spontaneity and occasional fights nonetheless. While on the way to the car in a snow-filled parking lot to return home, he realized that this fast-paced game on ice would be the outlet through which his voice would be heard and passion for sport expressed.
“When I saw my first hockey game,” Emrick said, “overnight the whole idea changed from baseball to hockey. Then the question was: ‘Well, how do you get to do that?’”
Emrick closely followed the Komets after his realization, learning its players and the game of hockey listening on WOWO radio. While he was a fan of the team and enjoyed watching its hockey games at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, he was also there for another purpose in his quest to become a professional broadcaster.
“After I got my driver’s license at age 16, I would drive 40 miles on Wednesday nights to Fort Wayne and sit in corner sections of the old Coliseum… and do games into a tape recorder and try to get better at it,” Emrick recalled. “It was taking those games and using those sort of phony games; I used legitimate names of players because I would get a lineup and learn who they were. Then I would save the tape – and that was eventually my first audition that I sent out.”
Emrick grew up within a pedagogical household where great emphasis was placed on the proper use of the English language. His mother, Florence, was a home economics and physical education teacher while his father, Charles, was a high school principal, and the family owned a music store on the side as well. From the time he was in fifth grade, he received a salient piece of advice from one of his teachers about the inculcation and subsequent expansion of his vocabulary which he carried with him throughout his career.
“Once we used a word five times, it was ours for life,” Emrick recalled. “[My teacher] encouraged us to build our vocabulary, and so that was influential, I think, along the way.”
Emrick landed his first broadcasting job in 1973 as the radio play-by-play announcer in the International Hockey League for the Port Huron Wings (later renamed the Port Huron Flags) on WHLS radio for $160 per week. That job came after a series of rejection letters from a legion of hockey broadcasting outlets, the stationery located in a binder he keeps to this day.
The next season, despite nearly landing the Pittsburgh Penguins radio play-by-play job, Emrick added another job to his résumé by becoming the team’s public relations director and continued broadcasting games. While he had the will and determination to succeed and become an NHL broadcaster, his backup plan of becoming an educator was quite genuine in scope as his time in the minor leagues continued.
Shortly after he graduated from Manchester University in 1968 with a B.Sc in speech, and, one year later, an M.A. in radio and television from Miami University, Emrick’s foray into the world of college instruction began. Prior to working in Port Huron, Emrick resided in Pennsylvania, teaching public speaking classes at Geneva College and managing it’s 15-watt campus radio station. In addition, he volunteered to work as a correspondent for The Beaver Sun Times coverage of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a season press pass so he could further immerse himself in the game of hockey.
One of Emrick’s mentors in broadcasting was Bob Chase, the Fort Wayne Komets’ play-by-play announcer for 63 years, and someone who had a profound influence on his career. Chase called hockey, along with various other sports including basketball and racing amid his time behind the microphone, and while there were many other announcers doing play-by-play professionally, Chase was representative of Emrick’s soundtrack of hockey.
“I was a college guy and befriended him and he was very kind to me and would listen to my work,” said Emrick. “He was the one person that I listened to because at the time there was not a national TV package for the NHL, and so he was about the only guy I had access to.”
Emrick sought after his Ph.D in broadcast communications to ensure he would have a successful teaching career if his broadcasting dreams fell through. While in the doctorate program, Emrick honed his craft and earned his nickname “Doc,” a pseudonym he was called throughout his broadcasting career. In fact, his dissertation was titled “Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life,” and signed off by Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, his nonacademic advisor. Later in his career, he famously used 153 different verbs in a single game to describe the movement of the puck, including “squibbed,” “flagged” and “galloped” – an aspect of his broadcasting style, per se, that demarcated him from others in his profession.
“I always tried to use words that were hopefully interesting, but also I didn’t want to come across as talking down to the audience,” said Emrick. “I just wanted to use something that was creative and maybe amused people a little bit. Once one of those words was used, I tried never to repeat it the rest of that night because you don’t want to hammer people with the same one.”
Prior to the 1976-77 season, Emrick relocated to Portland, Maine to serve as the radio play-by-play voice and public relations director of the brand-new Maine Mariners in the American Hockey League – an affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. After three more years of hard work in the minor leagues, he finally made it to the pros with the Flyers as its television play-by-play announcer for home games on PRISM cable beginning in the 1980-81 season.
Having worked in both broadcast mediums, Emrick knows that radio requires the announcer to evoke imagery within the mind of the listener, while television is centered on the announcer’s reaction to the already-cultivated picture. While he never broadcast a boxing match, Emrick uses an analogy within that sport to describe the difference between the two broadcast mediums.
“I’ve heard it described before, and it’s probably accurate, [as] the difference between a boxer leading or counterpunching,” said Emrick. “In radio you basically lead, and in TV you counterpunch.”
Regardless of the medium though, what truly makes a broadcast unique is in how effectively it goes beyond the action taking place on the ice. Being able to do that comes in one’s preparation and knowledge of the game, both of which Emrick possessed and continued to grow upon being named the inaugural television play-by-play voice of the New Jersey Devils in 1982 on the MSG Network.
“The legs that get you from one thing to the next are the identity of the players,” said Emrick. “I think that’s still the most important thing of any play-by-play description is… the ‘who’… because it’s the people who are competing that draw the audience, and you need to identify who it is.”
Emrick returned to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1982-83, first as a spot announcer, and upon his departure from the Devils in 1986, as an studio analyst on UHF telecasts. In the same year, he began his first of many years of national television work as the lead play-by-play announcer for NHL games on ESPN, working alongside former NHL forward Bill Clement.
Before the 1988-89 season, Emrick was promoted by the Flyers to be the team’s lead television play-by-play announcer, working with his analyst Clement for a majority of the time in both his regional and national obligations. Working in both roles simultaneously, he has had to be cognizant of his audience – meaning that the preparation for regional and national games, while similar in methodology, differed from one another in terms of the time devoted to each team.
“Usually with a national telecast, it’s 50-50 on how much you talk about one team or the other,” said Emrick. “With a local broadcast, it’s usually 70-30 or 80-20 because if there’s one team that is supplying all of your viewers or most of them, you go that way.”
Emrick’s presence on regional sports networks continued upon his departure from the Flyers after the 1992-93 season, as he returned to Newark as the play-by-play voice of the Devils on MSG Networks. Broadcasting within the three-team New York-Metropolitan area marketplace for the Devils from 1993 to 2011, Emrick stayed up to date not only on his primary team, along with the Rangers and New York Islanders. As a result, the shift from regional to national television became smoother for Emrick, and with it, the allocation of the time he spent discussing each team more consistent.
“You treated it like a network telecast and I was very comfortable shifting from regional games to network because you had fans of numerous teams living in New York,” said Emrick. “Whereas in Philadelphia, you made the assumption that most of the people that were watching… were Flyers fans.”
Over his years at ESPN, Emrick called two Stanley Cup Finals, something that would render itself into an annual occurrence once he joined Fox in 1995. From there, Emrick called 20 more Stanley Cup Finals with Fox, OLN, Versus and NBC Sports – providing the description throughout the final roadblock standing between one team and a championship. Television, being the visual medium that it is, not only requires an announcer to be aware of their audience, but also of the moment and what will best transmit the atmosphere within the arena to the viewer. Throughout the course of enduring moments that stand the test of time, including game-winning goals, penalty shots and highlight-reel saves, Emrick uses his words judiciously, following a tried-and-true philosophy that requires discipline from the announcer with the potential to put an indelible stamp on the action.
“Less is more. Especially with television, you have a lot of people that have qualified to be in trucks and operating cameras and placing microphones in arenas,” Emrick stated. “Just like you are qualified to be there to describe it, they are the best at their profession… You don’t have to do everything. You have a lot of help.”
Emrick worked his first of seven Olympic Games in 1992 while on CBS, calling the ice hockey championships. While he had to consistently learn names of new players and adjust to the cultural differences of the host country, the quadrennial worldwide showcase built on tradition has induced games that have helped grow the game of hockey on an international scale. One of his most memorable broadcasts emanated from the thrilling conclusion of a gold medal matchup between Canada and the United States from Vancouver, B.C. in February 2010.
The game drew 27.6 million viewers, the largest television hockey audience since Al Michaels was behind the microphone for the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game between the Soviet Union and the United States aired on tape delay in 1980 from Lake Placid, N.Y.
“Sam Flood, our executive producer at NBC, always told us [for big games] to broaden the brush,” said Emrick. “In other words, never try to talk inside stuff because we were going to have a lot of extra viewers, and you didn’t want to talk [about] inside stuff and have them feel like they were being left out. And so we basically let the game do the talking and did not try to do a lot of strategy or things like that.”
Part of a broadcaster’s job is to recognize their role within the greater production of a live sporting event. Sure, they are often omnipresent throughout the broadcast; however, they are hardly, if ever, supposed to be the main character. The job of the rest of the production crew is to adequately tell the story of the game, whether it be through camerawork, graphics or interviews. While they are not scripting the moments on the ice, the broadcast director coordinates the assorted roles to help the team’s vision of the end product come to life. It is a task that allows for creativity, but also requires evolution to shifting consumer trends – achieved through collaboration.
Down by one goal in the gold medal game, the United States pulled it’s goaltender Ryan Miller for the extra attacker, which led to forward Zach Parise tying the game with 24 seconds remaining in regulation time. Then in overtime, Canada forward Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal,” giving Canada its first gold medal since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I think I said, ‘…and Crosby scores – the goal to Canada,’ and then I said nothing for almost two minutes,” Emrick recollected. “I didn’t need to say anything because what we showed and what the people in our truck and the people operating cameras provided was the sound of the crowd and the microphones on cameras”
Over the years, Emrick has worked with numerous analysts, including Bill Clement, John Davidson, Bobby Taylor, Chico Resch, Doug Sulliman, Sal Messina and Eddie Olczyk. As a play-by-play announcer, Emrick ensured that his analyst would be implemented into the game, usually when he felt they could contribute to the broadcast or when he needed to take a breath. By including them in the broadcast, a greater ethos is established with the viewing audience and multiple perspectives are acknowledged.
“I think our business is analyst-driven,” said Emrick. “Those of us in play-by-play are there to enhance the game but not get in the way of it. It is when the play stops that you really learn about what has happened or what could happen in the future. Those of us who are describing the game don’t have time to throw that in, and if we did, our credibility is not nearly that of people who have actually experienced it, and that’s why analysts are there.”
Following the 2010-11 season, Emrick relinquished his role as the play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Devils and continued to work as the national play-by-play voice of the NHL on NBC for the next decade. His final season as an announcer was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once professional hockey made its return, Emrick found himself calling games remotely – something he had never done in his illustrious career.
Emrick officially announced his retirement from broadcasting in October 2020 after 47 years behind the mic calling over 3,750 hockey contests, including 22 Stanley Cup Finals, 45 playoff Game 7s and 19 outdoor games. Prior to his retirement, Emrick won the Foster Hewitt Award for “outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster” presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.
Today, the NHL is in the first of new seven-year contracts with both ESPN and Turner Sports worth a reported $1 billion. For Emrick, the specific networks carrying the games do not mean as much to him as the continued worldwide dissemination of the game of hockey itself.
“I cheer for everybody who winds up being on the air doing games… because this is a game that is wonderful and needs to be continually promoted by whoever winds up with the rights,” said Emrick. “I’m not a businessman; I don’t have billions of dollars in my pocket.”
Following the conclusion of the 2010 gold medal game, sideline reporter Pierre McGuire interviewed Miller and Crosby, and the two athletes, despite being on opposite ends of the outcome, spoke about the significance of competing in the Olympics and how special it was to play the game on an international stage. Reflecting on that broadcast sequence, Emrick affirms that he had never been more proud to be associated with the game of hockey because of the eloquence, class and humility with which they spoke. Therefore, as ESPN and Turner Sports are in the midst of presenting the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs to millions of hockey fans around the world, Emrick hopes that they focus on telling the stories of the athletes – the primary reason for which people tune in to the games.
“The athletes are wonderful, and they have been all the way back through the first years that I started going to IHL games and getting to meet them for the first time,” said Emrick. “The number one thing that we have to sell is not only the speed of the sport, but more importantly, the guys who play it because they’re really good people.”
Whatever the future of hockey broadcasting holds, Emrick has undoubtedly become an integral figure in the history of the sport – all while never donning skates on an ice rink in his life. The half-a-century he covered hockey would not have been possible without his steadfastness towards becoming a professional broadcaster, avidity for the game of hockey and the group of people who allowed him to expatiate on the proceedings situated on a 200-foot sheet of ice. Emrick continues to watch hockey to this day and listens to the next generation of broadcasters be themselves while calling the action, the very advice Bob Chase conferred to him early in his career.
“It was the realization of a lifelong dream to get to do hockey games anywhere to anybody, but to be chosen to do national games was a great honor and responsibility,” Emrick stated. “I never took it lightly, and I always appreciated those who gave me a chance.”