SBJ/20100816/Opinion

Sound it out: Technology now offers choice in game audio

In New York in the 1960s and ’70s, many of the games played by the area’s teams were not televised. Growing up there and then, my radio was indispensable. There was no choice.

The very ubiquity of radio helped rhythmic announcers like Mel Allen, Red Barber, Marty Glickman and Marv Albert build iconic pulpits.

In 1958, the Dodgers’ first year in Los Angeles, only 11 of the team’s 154 games were on television: those played in San Francisco against the rival Giants. Yet Dodgers fans didn’t feel deprived because Vin Scully painted a masterpiece every day on the radio.

Through the years, radio play-by-play announcers have infused commercial messages magically. For that matter, Scully’s reads today for Farmer John still have listeners craving hot dogs. In his time, Allen labeled home runs “Ballantine Blasts” for the longtime beer advertiser of the Yankees. In Detroit, when the Tigers were sponsored by the local Stroh’s brewery, Ernie Harwell would say, “He Strohs to third,” fostering an indelible bond between the team, fan and sponsor.

As more and more games made their way onto television, cable and elsewhere, radio’s role waned insidiously. Over time, even radio’s monopoly on purveying immediate information out-of-home faded. BlackBerrys and iPhones became instantaneous sources of customizable information almost anywhere.

How does radio expand its relevance in 2010? One direction perhaps is to expand the play-by-play audio options that are available to television viewers. The radio call could headline an expanded menu of audio channels that accompanies the picture.

Television’s leaders talk cheerfully about 3-D, choosing camera angles and real-time game statistics, but audio on telecasts has remained static for decades. The play-by-play announcer, color commentator and occasional sideline reporter all caption the picture. Other than some nuances, it’s been the same way for the 60-plus years of television. There has been no striking innovation in audio.

Imagine watching a game and choosing from a range of audio offerings. For starters, options might include:

The television standard: The conventional audio that accompanies telecasts.

The word-picture: The radio play-by-play of either team (home and away) or the national radio broadcast when and where applicable.

A further expanded and concomitant audio menu might include:

Radio host/talk personality version: In addition to the crowd noise, the public address announcer and enhanced graphics, a provocative host, entertainer or personality could interpret and opine. For example, Jim Rome, Jerry Seinfeld or another colorful personality might share his or her viewpoints throughout a telecast.

Foreign language: The bigger the event, the more the options. Sirius Radio promoted Super Bowl coverage in a multitude of languages. Wouldn’t it be nice to watch games with the language of choice, all synchronized with the picture?

Translation: A conventional analyst captions the picture; no play-by-play announcer. Think John Madden in his prime, alone, joined only by the public address voice, graphics and crowd noise.

Ambient: How would it feel to sit on the 50-yard line with no other intrusions, enjoying the public address announcer and crowd noise? NBC first experimented with this format to mixed reviews decades ago. Today, with the help of beefed up graphics, eavesdropping acoustics and real-time data, the overall viewing experience would be superior.

Because its telecasts are also available online, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” might be a good start. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth are wonderful, yet NBC can also offer its viewers the home and visiting radio announcers, the call of Westwood One’s national broadcasts, foreign language play-by-play when available or other creative versions of the audio concoctions described earlier.

The availability of broadband and SAP (secondary audio programming) makes much of this feasible almost immediately. Down the road, following its impending acquisition of NBC, Comcast could also run NBC’s “Sunday Night” telecast on several cable channels, each one delivering unique audio.

Many NBC affiliates also have digital subchannels that are capable of running separate audio feeds of the same telecast. For that matter, NFL.com this summer is making available 65 preseason games, some with separate home and away feeds of the same game. Radio operators are also building HD substations where these additional audio presentations could complement the picture hatched by their television colleagues.

Sponsors would benefit, too. Should Toyota, for example, own halftime on the flagship NBC NFL telecast, it might also own parallel programming on all the accompanying audio options. NBC might also give Toyota more interstitial features in the expanded audio, something that it is not likely prepared to do on the flagship network telecast because of stricter policies on advertiser infusion.

Advertisers, for instance, might also own the broadcast booth on these additional audio presentations, at least figuratively, as Lowe’s does in Yankees games. On these extended audio feeds, shorter audio commercial messages could be immersed and sponsor ads would appear organically in dialogue boxes for those tuned in online. Cross-promotional opportunities are also endless.

Taking a visionary role, ESPN Radio is transitioning to “ESPN Audio.” Still distributed primarily through traditional terrestrial radio stations, ESPN can now also be tuned in online and on Sirius/XM. From “Mike and Mike in the Morning” to game-day programming and play-by-play, ESPN is presented in a variety of forms and through various channels of distribution. On-air personalities are saliently visible on espnradio.com, which continues to pick up traction with users and advertisers. “Mike and Mike,” essentially a radio show, does a healthy number for ESPN2 on its simulcast.

It’s time for the leaders of radio, television, sports governing bodies and teams to consider a mutually beneficial undertaking to enhance the fan’s audio experience.

David J. Halberstam (halby@halbygroup.com) is the principal of Halby Group, consultants to the sports, media and marketing community.

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