Monday, September 19, 2005

Radio Sports Announcing 101

As a young radio broadcaster, aspiring to do sports play-by-play for a living, I was taught a valuable lesson once that I would like to share with anyone who is of a mind to listen. The actual instruction will come at the bottom of this post. In the meantime let me explain what got me thinking.

My wife and I, and our oldest son, spent the weekend in Chicago visiting my youngest son who attends DePaul University. While there, we did a lot of shopping, eating at restaurants, and looking around. We even spent some time in the Wrigley Field area at the conclusion of Saturday's Cardinals-Cubs game. What an interesting synergy when St. Louis and Chicago fans stuff themselves into a small area. We spent about a half-hour at the Cubby Bear to "drink in" the post-game hijinks of the Cards/Cubs rivarly on the day the Redbirds clinched the division. Lots of fun.

But I digress. We headed back for St. Louis mid-afternoon Sunday. After clearing the Windy City suburbs and post-Bears/Lions traffic, I decided to try to pick up the Rams/Cardinals game on KTRS. Just south of Joliet, we were a good 260 miles from St. Louis, and the 550am signal came booming in. So, I was able to listen to almost the entire broadcast by Steve Savard and Jack Snow as we headed south on I-55. For the most part, a decent call of the game. But I was frustrated at times by the effort that I had to put into it.

What do I mean by that? Steve Savard seems like a nice man. But he exhibits a play-by-play style that many younger broadcasters, especially those who are also TV sports anchors, have. They do radio play-by-play as if it were a television broadcast. I mean, they describe the action as though the listener can also SEE the game. This is an understandable habit as we all are video animals these days. When you see highlights, or play-by-play on television, there is no need for the announcer to do a good radio play-by-play description. Such as:

-The weather.
-The color of the uniforms.
-The direction the team with the ball is going.
-To what side of the playing field the ball is thrown.
-The type of formation the offense displays.
-The size of the crowd.
You get the idea... All of the things the listener CAN NOT SEE FOR HIMSELF!

Often, this manifests itself with the announcer saying things like:

In baseball-- "That one's hit deep to left field" That what? Was it a pitch down the middle? Was it a curve ball? Is it a line drive? Is it a high fly or a beach ball?

In football: Out of nowhere--"There's a pass to the sideline" Where were they on the field? What down is it? How many yards for a first down? What formation were they in? What's the defense doing? Who are the wide receivers? How many are there? Which sideline? etc. etc.

I could go on and on. But the announcer operates under the assumption that his audience sees what he is seeing.

This is the area where Mr. Savard's technique...and that of many of his current colleagues... falls short in my book. It's a common problem among the current generation of broadcasters who have grown up with video. Back when some of us "old dudes" were learning the business, very few games were actually on television. The occasional baseball "Game of the Week" was televised. NFL games were not nearly as plentiful. ESPN, and the constant stream of video highlights, was way off in the future. So, the radio broadcast was our primary exposure to sports. The current crop of guys has grown up with the mindset that every piece of audio is an accompaniment to some video. But, as with the Rams-Cardinals game that I was tuned to yesterday, that's certainly not true. I was begging for someone to "put me at the scene".

The end of the game was a perfect example. Kurt Warner marched the Cardinals down the field on a drive for the potential winning touchdown. But I couldn't visualize whether the sun was at his back, or in his eyes, or for that matter if the sun was even a factor (many times it is at Sun Devil Stadium). He threw several passes where receivers were tackled inbounds, which kept the clock running. But I didn't know if the passes were inentionally thrown over the middle, or if they were thrown to the sideline and the receiver couldn't get out of bounds. There were times when the ball was thrown to the sideline..but I didn't know who the intended receiver was...or which sideline it was. Long pass? Short pass? Swing pass? Didn't know. On the play where Adam Archuleta of the Rams sacked Warner to essentially end the game, unless I missed it, there was no mention of whether Archie (I'm not much on nicknames either)came through the line to make the play...or from one of the sides. I'm talking about basic description of the action.

The lesson I learned about this early in my career was simply this--On radio, you describe the action as if everyone in your audience is blind, and has never seen anything, let alone a sports event.

To be an effective radio play-by-play person, describe everything you see in detail because the audience members, sightless or not, don't see what you're seeing. This lesson came to me not from Jack Buck, or Dan Kelly, or any of the broadcasters that I've been fortunate to be around. It came from a listener in O'Fallon, Illinois who used to catch my descriptions of high school and college games on the old WIBV. He had heard some of my poorly-worded efforts and decided to call me with some advice. He was blind.

His critiques made me realize that in order to be effective for everyone, a play-by-play radio broadcast must be geared to basic description for the benefit of every potential listener. Less analysis...more descriptive phrases...more atmosphere...more scores...more setting up the play...more situational description.. and attempts to involve the listener in the actual experience. It may seem elementary at times, but it's not about you being there...it's about the listener being there.

It was a powerful lesson from a man who had no broadcast training...but was the perfect professor. Since then I always tried to become "the eyes" of my listener. Many of today's broadcasters could benefit from my sightless friend's advice. Paint a vivid picture. Radio is a medium for great storytellers.

14 comments:

Scott P said...

This is not good advice. It's great advise. The reason Jack Buck's call of Ozzie Smith's famous HR is so good is because of the set-up, the detail of the call, his use of adjectives, and the emotion. If you can, listen to the 30 seconds or so prior to the HR.

Johnny D. said...

Wow! Great stuff. I happened to listen to a Cub game on WGN back in July and Pat Hughes the play-by-play man set the scene beautifully. He gave me the weather, the color of both teams uniforms right down to the striping, and the predominant attire of the crowd. I realized that I never hear that anymore, and how much I missed it.

Anonymous said...

It's sad that someone like Savard, who doesn't seem to want to improve his skills, is getting a chance to "learn on the job" at the NFL level. The listeners should be more demanding. One of the best football announcers who ever worked in this area was the late Bob Starr. You didn't need the TV when he was working a game; he gave you everything you needed. Wayne Larivee in Green Bay is another good example of an excellent current day football announcer. And even though I wasn't a fan of his baseball work here a few seasons ago, Joel Meyers is a pretty good football play by play guy. The element that all these announcers have in common is that they accept the responsibility to inform the LISTENER, and they always keep the LISTENER in mind.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was traveling home from the Chicago area Sunday evening, on 57 rather than 55. I attempted to hear KTRS several times throughout the drive, but only received a peep of the broadcast once, and it was static-filled. The "other" station came in loud and clear for most of the drive. I still believe the Cardinals made a very bad decision.

Tommy said...

Sunday evening would have been a much different story than Sunday afternoon with regard to picking up 550. When the sun goes down, they switch to the night pattern and points to the east of St. Louis have a very tough time picking up that signal. Daytime--it booms. Nighttime--good luck. I'm not surprized you had trouble in the evening.

An old St. Louisan said...

I imagine Kurt Warner marched the Rams down the field, not the Cardinals. The football Cardinals, long gone and not lamented, have literally left the building.

Tommy said...

Uh...Nooooo...Mr. Warner has left the Rams, and the building...stopped off with the Giants for a year...and now is quarterback of the pathetic organization of which you speak..the Cardinals..who now exhibit themselves in Phoenix.

Anonymous said...

Listen to Wayne Laravee call a Green Bay game on WTMJ sometime. Excellent

Jay Murry said...

Tom, thanks for a great piece of insight...and I'm glad that I'm on the right track with my PBP work.

That may sound like a bit of gratuitous backpatting, but after years of listening to greats like Jack Buck and Bob Starr, after years of diligent hard work and self-critiques of my game tapes, attending seminars and workshops, and having the opportunity to talk to the best in the business (Kevin Harlan and Howard David, among others), I have recognized the importance of painting a visual picture of games, with detailed words of technicolor...instead of a bland charcoal sketch.

The degree of success that I have achieved can be debated, but I do work on detail, detail, detail. Granted, listeners are only with you, by and large, for intermittent segments...while they do other things. But, you still have to include a lot of detail in play-by-play broadcasts.

Conductors of orchestras don't neglect the woodwind or brass sections, because that would obviously make the subsequent music performance far less interesting. Radio play-by-play announcers have to adhere to that standard, to use all the instruments at one's disposal, if you want to entice listensers to your broadcasts and keep them for significant amounts of time.

I've benefitted from alternating play-by-play and color analyst duties with Brian Hauswirth, when we were calling high school games on WGNU in the early 1990s...and doing most of my current broadcasts solo at KWRE. It widened my field of vision, and you have to include detail when flying solo, because you don't have a crutch to lean upon. Having over 700 broadcasts under my belt, from the high school to the NCAA Division-II level, has certainly helped reinforce those points.

For further illumination: two weeks ago, I was broadcasting a high school football game featuring Wentzville Holt and Pattonville. On one particular play, Pattonville QB Dennis Bowen scrambled out of disaster and scored on an 81-yard run. The detail of that run was far more interesting that the mere statement of fact that a touchdown was scored. From his 19, Bowen bootlegged to the right hashmark, but was immediately hemmed in by the defensive end. Bowen then had to scramble backward and to his left, back to his 5...slipping 3 tackles along the way. He then picked up a couple of blocks on the far sideline, and had open field as he crossed back toward the near sideline. At midfield, he juked a Holt defender poised to make the last-ditch tackle, and he stumbled down the near sideline and staggered with exhaustion across the goal line...after covering around 120 actual yards, to get that 81-yard touchdown.

Just mentioning the bare-bones fact about the scramble and the touchdown is not all that interesting. But, if you're intent on infusing high-definition detail in your PBP, that play becomes far more exciting and amazing.

Basically, if you're asking the listeners to invest their time with you, you have to match that investment by doing everything possible to make the broadcast as vivid, informative, truthful, and entertaining as possible.

Anything less will prompt the listener to seek other selections on the broadcasting menu.

Jay Murry said...

Tom, thanks for a great piece of insight...and I'm glad that I'm on the right track with my PBP work.

That may sound like a bit of gratuitous backpatting, but after years of listening to greats like Jack Buck and Bob Starr, after years of diligent hard work and self-critiques of my game tapes, attending seminars and workshops, and having the opportunity to talk to the best in the business (Kevin Harlan and Howard David, among others), I have recognized the importance of painting a visual picture of games, with detailed words of technicolor...instead of a bland charcoal sketch.

The degree of success that I have achieved can be debated, but I do work on detail, detail, detail. Granted, listeners are only with you, by and large, for intermittent segments...while they do other things. But, you still have to include a lot of detail in play-by-play broadcasts.

Conductors of orchestras don't neglect the woodwind or brass sections, because that would obviously make the subsequent music performance far less interesting. Radio play-by-play announcers have to adhere to that standard, to use all the instruments at one's disposal, if you want to entice listensers to your broadcasts and keep them for significant amounts of time.

I've benefitted from alternating play-by-play and color analyst duties with Brian Hauswirth, when we were calling high school games on WGNU in the early 1990s...and doing most of my current broadcasts solo at KWRE. It widened my field of vision, and you have to include detail when flying solo, because you don't have a crutch to lean upon. Having over 700 broadcasts under my belt, from the high school to the NCAA Division-II level, has certainly helped reinforce those points.

For further illumination: two weeks ago, I was broadcasting a high school football game featuring Wentzville Holt and Pattonville. On one particular play, Pattonville QB Dennis Bowen scrambled out of disaster and scored on an 81-yard run. The detail of that run was far more interesting that the mere statement of fact that a touchdown was scored. From his 19, Bowen bootlegged to the right hashmark, but was immediately hemmed in by the defensive end. Bowen then had to scramble backward and to his left, back to his 5...slipping 3 tackles along the way. He then picked up a couple of blocks on the far sideline, and had open field as he crossed back toward the near sideline. At midfield, he juked a Holt defender poised to make the last-ditch tackle, and he stumbled down the near sideline and staggered with exhaustion across the goal line...after covering around 120 actual yards, to get that 81-yard touchdown.

Just mentioning the bare-bones fact about the scramble and the touchdown is not all that interesting. But, if you're intent on infusing high-definition detail in your PBP, that play becomes far more exciting and amazing.

Basically, if you're asking the listeners to invest their time with you, you have to match that investment by doing everything possible to make the broadcast as vivid, informative, truthful, and entertaining as possible.

Anything less will prompt the listener to seek other selections on the broadcasting menu.

mike thompson said...

Having just finished a year's worth of football play-by-play, both home and away, for the River City Rage of the NIFL on 1380 ESPN, I can attest to the fact that drawing on a radio background is valuable when trying to outline the things that Tom speaks of. Most radio pesonalities are used to being the eyes and ears of the listener, painting a vivid picture, etc. Both Tom Casey, who did my color, and myself, at least attempted to go to great lengths to set the stage, and on every play give a vivid description of not only the action itself, but the who, what, and why's of how it came about. Interesting to note, while at KLOU last week, I answered the phone on the air and I,too, was told by a gentleman who said he is blind that he enjoyed listening to our Rage broadcasts this past season. I have to admit,it made me feel great to think Tom and I made enough of an impact on that man to prompt him to call me 2 months after the season ended. Point being, if we were able to satisfy that gentleman in terms of making the broadcasts 'come alive'...then we probably did a good job all year long for everyone else. But again, both Tom and I come from RADIO backgrounds, which I think is an easier transition than perhaps television....That said, I have to disagree with the assessment regarding Steve and Jack. I think THEY DO paint that picture for the listener....both have football backgrounds, Jack does excellent color and adds to the game, and Steve's calls are vivid and accurate. Back to the Rage, we're headed for Savvis Center in 2006 and the broadcasts will be taken to the next level in terms of pre-game and post game, etc. I'm looking forward to implementing this good advise from Tom Calhoun and keeping it forefront in my mind when Tom Casey and I get rolling in March of next year. Thanks!!

Phil Giubileo said...

Tom,

Great piece! I was fortunate enough to study sportscasting under one of the all-time greats, Marty Glickman, who was a very well-known play-by-play announcer in the NY area for many years. Marty is credited with virtually inventing much of the basic terminology in basketball play-by-play and was the original NY Knicks broadcaster. He also did the NY Football Giants, Jets, college basketball and football, etc. for many many years.

The first two things I learned from Marty was that my job was to "paint the word picture" and "consider the listener". Those were two things that I have always considered in my various broadcasting adventures over the years--including three seasons with the River City Rascals and the only season of the one-and-done St. Louis Heartland Eagles of the USHL.

My former boss and friend Ken Wilson was also very helpful in reinforcing these skills through his analysis of my work--it helps a lot when you can have people that you trust that are willing to be honest about your work in order to help you improve.

A good book to gain some insight is Glickman's biography called "The Fastest Kid on the Block", which has a primer on the nuts and bolts of play-by-play.

Scott S said...

One thing every PBP announcer needs to do more often, like every three minutes - give us the score! It's why radio is buried in TV's dust, because of their real time graphics.

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