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Volume 23 No. 18
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Creativity can help radio play-by-play grow into its second century

Fox broadcaster Joe Buck is the son of radio. His late dad, Jack Buck, was a St. Louis radio legend. Last September, in a Sports Illustrated feature on the city’s iconic station KMOX, Joe trenchantly summed up the medium today: “Radio was king and now it’s not king. It’s barely a prince.” Ouch!

Baby boomer sports fans were dependent on radio play-by-play; millennials are not. When video coverage of a game isn’t conveniently available, millennials devour real-time data on their smartphones. Enough said.

PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that revenue from sports sponsorships and media rights will grow to $37 billion annually by 2018. But radio is lagging significantly. Locally, many stations don’t ante up big dollars anymore to acquire a team’s radio rights because ad revenue doesn’t generally support the investment. Nationally, syndicators like ESPN and Westwood One draw the bulk of their revenue from transactional advertising budgets that are earmarked for the general network radio marketplace. In other words, securing exclusive radio play-by-play sponsors is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge
What is needed to make radio play-by-play viable?

Production

Today’s commoditized play-by-play announcers are polished but they’re cookie-cutter trained. Many lack the personalities of yesteryear’s Harry Caray or Johnny Most. They shout annoyingly from start to finish of games. The great ones, Mel Allen, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell and others didn’t holler. They also didn’t overburden listeners with a litany of stats better digested by eyes than by ears.

Radio was practically born in sports. Here Hal Totten announces from Wrigley Field in 1927.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Announcers should let listeners enjoy the most precious sound of the game: the roar of the crowd. It generates goosebumps. Too many today try to out-shout the roar. If not play-by-play announcers, color commentators spew inanities while the crowd emotes. It’s maddening. Listen to Vin Scully’s radio call of Henry Aaron’s record-setting home run. He didn’t say a word for almost five minutes. The crowd spoke volumes.

In the past, play-by-play announcers connected with fans through a blend of consistency, loyalty and warmth. Working through illnesses and resisting the temptation to call events on national networks, Chick Hearn set a streak of 3,338 unmissed Lakers’ games because the team’s broadcasts came first. Where’s the loyalty today? Some announcers jump from one assignment to the next, missing their local team broadcasts to promote their own careers.

Broadcasters are being shuttled to less prominent seat locations in arenas, ballparks and stadiums. In the NBA, for instance, radio announcers are now relegated to the nosebleeds after sitting courtside for decades. One NBA announcer said, “Some of the places we sit, the game is just a rumor.” Some football radio crews are placed in the corners of stadiums. It’s a disservice to listeners. After all, radio play-by-play announcers need decent vantage points to paint graphic descriptions.

Less is still more. For years, “Monday Night Football” on radio was simply Jack Buck and Hank Stram. Their broadcasts were not stifled by today’s sideline and studio reporters. Jack and Hank interacted unhurriedly, painted pictures, exuded warmth, and built indelible bonds with fans and listeners.

Sales

With some exceptions, teams now own their own radio inventory, which they include in an endless menu of corporate partnership assets: digital, hospitality, signage, experiential and more. So radio gets lost in the shuffle at a time it desperately needs stand-alone attention in the sales trenches. In Charlotte a number of years ago, this lack of radio focus caused expenses to exceed revenue, and the Hornets considered dropping their radio all together. Stations that do own rights and are staffed accordingly with full-time, play-by-play sellers (see Yankees and Red Sox for instance) enjoy stronger revenue. These sellers have one mission every day: pitch radio play-by-play.

Radio is advertising-friendly. Crusade for it. Of all live coverage of sports, radio has the least separation of church and state. Sponsors are easily and organically embedded in broadcasts. Now that baseball is upon us, advertisers are afforded a golden opportunity to create an interchangeable affiliation through a summer of 162 games.

On-air talent could assist on sales calls. Prospects would feel their natural passion and appreciate the voices who do in-game commercials.

Research

There’s no consistency of audience measurement. Some packagers use Arbitron’s Portable People Meters, others use traditional rating books, and still others sell aided recall studies. The marketplace needs uniformity.

Creativity and technology

The innovators of progressive sports coverage, ESPN, which has enough muscle behind its acronym to effect change, now smartly dubs its once radio division ESPN Audio. It’s beginning to cash in on the tentacles that technology affords.

A few more ideas to effectively bring creativity and technology to the field:

1. To accommodate those who want to listen and watch at the same time, sync the timing so that radio and television are in audio lockstep and that one isn’t behind the other.

2. Promote radio’s digital tentacles. Radio is now available virtually everywhere: satellite, tune-in, mobile and online. It’s time for MLB and the NFL to make their radio broadcasts available free online. The NBA and NHL did. Most colleges, too, have realized that it’s myopic to charge for live audio.

3. Bring in social media creatively, by weaving in listeners’ tweets and posts. Longtime Milwaukee Bucks radio announcer Ted Davis has a community of fans whose names are part and parcel of the entire play-by-play broadcast.

Radio was practically born on a sports platform, with the airing of the July 2, 1921, heavyweight fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. Will the audio pioneers and innovators of 2015 be ready when the medium begins its second century in 2021?

David J. Halberstam (halby@halbygroup.com) is a veteran radio and sports sales executive and the author of “Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History” (McGraw Hill).