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Winning Teams Create Big Opportunities in Sports Radio

Matt Fishman

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“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” –Vince Lombardi

When I first started in Sports Radio, a local team losing was thought of as good for the station. Losing created conflict between players, coaches, administration and led to all sorts of great potential content. Probably the best example of this was the first year of the Score in Chicago–1992. It was the perfect storm. The Bears were having a terrible season. For this brand spanking new sports station, this created endless content. 

Additionally, The Score had a weekly luncheon/interview with Coach Ditka. Ditka was so done with dealing with the media; he would only talk on his weekly radio show on this brand new radio station. The beat reporters, tv stations, and columnists covering the Bears had to attend the shows or listen, to get their quotes from “Da Coach” for their stories. This was radio gold. Especially for a brand new station during the infancy of the Sports Talk format. As long time host Terry Boers said, “It would be fair to say that Ditka did more for the Score in its first year than anyone. I will never ever underestimate his impact on the first year of the Score. Nobody could have done more for the Score at that time than he did.”

Over the past 26 years, the format has evolved, matured, and been taken over by corporations with shareholders to answer to.  Additionally, as verbal attacks became a regular part of the format, something changed. Winning was no longer seen as boring to the format, but instead an incredible springboard for success. Higher ratings, greater interest in the format, increased marketing and sales opportunities and that all important “buzz”.

Right now that is all happening in Washington DC and Las Vegas as their teams battle in the Stanley Cup Final. Vegas is the Cinderella story of an expansion team making it through the Western Conference to the final, while Washington has not been to the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years and features one of the NHL’s biggest stars in Alexander Ovechkin. 

106.7 The Fan is the FM DC rights holder for the Capitals. Caps programming has dominated the station in addition to the typical flagship Play-by-play and pre and post-game shows. The Fan’s PD Chris Kinard notes, “We’re seeing sustained audience engagement unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We’ve had days with bigger overall ratings, higher streaming numbers, etc., usually focused around Redskins content. But the meter counts, cume influx, streaming spikes, and social media engagement have been consistently near record-levels since the Caps beat Pittsburgh to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals….We’re moving fast to create opportunities for our clients to be involved in the party. We’re on the streets marketing the station and capturing the scene on social media. And I think, while all of this is happening, we all have to keep in mind the lasting impact that a championship can have on a radio station. Listeners will remember how they experienced the Cup run, and our station can and should be a part of those memories if we create compelling content and experiences.”

Across town, Chris Johnson, Program Director of the DC’s The Team 980 says “We’ve seen a tremendous surge of audience. Specifically starting with the day after the Caps eliminated the Pens. That morning we did a special show bringing in Caps TV announcers Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin. The show had a huge response on-air and on social media. We’ve also added special pre and post games shows along with Caps and NHL guests over the past 3 weeks. Steve Czaban is broadcasting live from Vegas and we’ll be live from the Capital One Arena as well.”

In Las Vegas, where this improbable team and story has taken hold, ESPN Las Vegas afternoon drive host Steve Cofield talks about the Knights run to the finals and their impact on the local community, “Since I got here in 1996, Vegas has mostly been a disjointed community amongst the locals. Many work on the Strip where you get tired of personal interaction and just want to escape to your house in the suburbs 15 minutes away. In the past, they’d drive home, pull in their garages and hardly speak with their neighbors. Now VGK game nights are a massive meet up at local bars where sports and non-sports fans bond. Those bars, dominated by the video poker machines, used to be quiet. Now there’s a buzz before, during and after the games.”

From a sales standpoint timing and quick-turnaround are key during a winning run. So says Dave Greene, General Sales Manager for 610 Sports in Kansas City and fellow BSM columnist, “Momentum can come from a lot of places and sometimes even completely unexpectedly.  Earlier this year when Kansas State made their run in the NCAA tournament that was something we clearly weren’t expecting.  We knew if we acted quickly we could capitalize on the success of the team from a sales standpoint and we were able to.  Our format thrives on passion and the fan base is never more passionate than after postseason success.”

In conclusion, over the past 20+ years things have changed. A winner in town is a huge opportunity for local sports radio stations, but it also takes the PDs, Hosts, Sales Managers, and Marketing directors to act quickly to take advantage of the opportunities. If they do so, the teams aren’t the only winners at the end of the day. 

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Nate Bukaty Didn’t Sell Himself Short

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bukaty remembered his friend saying to him. “That’s the sentence I remember he kept saying.”

Tyler McComas

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There’s an old Vin Scully video clip I can’t stop watching. It may be the most impressive example of how to do baseball play-by-play I’ve ever seen or listened to. It’s the bottom of the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium as the home team plays the rival Giants. Madison Bumgarner is on the mound for San Francisco and Scully is telling a story in the middle of the inning about how the pitcher and his wife saved a baby jackrabbit from the inside of a dead snake.

The story goes that Bumgarner and his wife ran across a rattlesnake while the two were roping cattle. They were startled, so the three-time World Series champ grabbed an ax and chopped the snake to pieces. That’s how they found the baby jackrabbit. Bumgarner’s wife brought the rabbit back to the apartment and nursed it for the next few days. Eventually, the rabbit was healthy enough to be released back into the wild.

Mind you, Scully is telling this incredible story while calling a baseball game and not missing a beat with the live action. It’s truly a spectacle of broadcasting mastery. 

Scully ends the story by saying, “Madison said, just think about how tough that rabbit was. First, it gets eaten by a snake, then the snake gets chopped to pieces, then it gets picked up by people and lives.”

Scully then follows with “so I guess, really, the moral to the whole story about the rabbit and the snake is you have to somehow survive, you have to somehow battle back. A lesson well-taught for all of us.”

When I listen to those final two sentences I can’t help but think of how it relates to Nate Bukaty’s journey into sports media, which is a story I heard just a few hours before the news of Scully’s passing on Tuesday night. Granted, Bukaty’s story has nothing to do with something as intense as taking an ax to a live rattlesnake, or even something as heroic as saving a baby rabbit, but his start in the business can be a comparison to the moral of the story, which was overcoming early adversity and battling back.

Bukaty realized in the front seat of his dad’s car in the sixth grade he wanted to be in sports media for a living. An hour before he made that decision, he would have told you he wanted to play the game professionally, instead of broadcasting it. But after his dad quickly pointed out how difficult it was going to be for him to be a pro athlete with a very to-the-point conversation, Bukaty turned his decision to the guys calling the Kansas City Royals game on the radio. His dad didn’t fight back at that aspiration. The father and son then spent the entire rest of the car ride discussing what it would take to achieve his newfound dream.

The dream persisted through junior high, high school, and even upon the decision to attend The University of Kansas. For over six years, Bukaty never re-considered what he wanted to pursue for his future. He made the decision long ago that he was going to broadcast games. But during one of his first days on campus at KU, his first major roadblock hit. 

“I met with the sportscasting professor and he told me I would never make it in the business because my voice was too high,” said Bukaty. “It was my childhood dream since I was in 6th grade and the professor told me the first day on campus I was never going to make it. I was pretty devastated by that for a day.”

This wasn’t a criticism an aspiring broadcaster normally gets. It was something completely out of Bukaty’s control. His voice wasn’t something he could change. Most, probably, would have changed their major as quickly as possible, but Bukaty didn’t. Instead, he remembered a time he overcame adversity by being cut from the high school basketball team his sophomore year, only to be a starter on varsity his senior season. He was ready to overcome adversity again. 

“I just went back to him and said, ‘well, I’m going to give this a shot, with your help or without’, “ Bukaty said. 

But this isn’t a story where the young kid tells the professor he’s going to do it anyway, and easily finds himself in the future as the voice of a Major League Soccer team and 18-plus year veteran at Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City. No, there’s more adversity to come in this story and it happened less than three years later.

Bukaty was now a junior at KU and the reality of how hard it was going to be to make a career in broadcasting was settling in. He was applying for internships and realized there were all kinds of people working for free. The thought of finding a way to get paid for one was starting to become overwhelming. 

His morale was starting to sink as he expressed his frustration over dinner with a friend that also attended KU. Bukaty even told him he may try to attend grad school to become a history professor or even a lawyer.

“I’m just looking at the odds and how hard it is to get a foothold in this business of sports broadcasting, especially since I don’t have any connections or anything,” Bukaty told his friend. “I think I find those other things interesting enough to be happy doing it.”

The next thing that was said is something Bukaty will never forget. You could even argue it set the tone for the rest of his professional career.

“He chewed me out and told me, how dare you give up on your dreams before you even give it a shot,” Bukaty said. “He told me I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t at least give it a shot.”

It was the exact push Bukaty needed to refocus. It was made clear to him he could go back to law school at any time, but his dream was something he needed to chase. 

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bukaty remembered his friend saying to him. “That’s the sentence I remember he kept saying. That really helped me refocus and realize, yeah, this is what I have wanted to do since I was a kid and I shouldn’t give up on it. I’m going to keep going.”

It’s a moment Bukaty hasn’t shared very much over the years. But there’s no denying the incredible impact it had on him. From that moment, he’s never looked back. 

The funny thing is the friend that shared incredible wisdom with him that day had no intentions of going to college while he and Bukaty were in high school. The only reason Bukaty convinced him to come to The University of Kansas was because he turned his friend into a huge KU basketball fan. Without the Jayhawks fandom, there’s a great chance that distinct conversation never happens. 

But that’s not the end of the incredible interaction that night with Bukaty and his friend. 

“That night, he also said, here’s what’s going to happen: You’re going to become a successful sports broadcaster and I’m going to become a sports historian and I’m going to write a book on you someday.”

His prediction was nearly spot on. Amongst many other incredible jobs and titles, Bukaty is the play-by-play voice of Sporting KC and one of the longest-tenured sports talk hosts in Kansas City. His friend is no other than Matt Zeysing, who’s the head curator of the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

There aren’t any current plans for Zeysing to fulfill the entire prediction and write a book on Bukaty’s career, but if he wanted to, he could probably write a best-seller on just the night the two shared inside a bar in Lawrence. Regardless, it was an incredible prediction that had a lasting impact on Bukaty’s career.

And about the professor who told Bukaty his voice was too high to be in the business? It was that same person who got him a radio job in Moberly, MO. Talk about a redemption story. 

Bukaty’s career story combines overcoming adversity, living out a dream, and getting outside his comfort zone to realize new passions and talents. Calling Major League Soccer games for Sporting Kansas City is truly a dream come true for him. Play-by-play was always his first love and getting to realize that dream is one that he never takes for granted. Even if that means getting home after a game at 11:30 at night and having to do a morning drive radio show the next day at 6:00 a.m.

“My sleep schedule is a complete nightmare,” laughed Bukaty. “After a game, I cannot go to sleep. Say it’s a Wednesday game and I get home around 11:30, I’ll go for a three-mile run around my neighborhood. That does wonders. I feel three really good hours of sleep is better than four hours of tossing and turning and not turning your brain off.”

Bukaty has always challenged himself to get out of his comfort zone. That’s originally how he started in sports radio at 810 WHB. He listened to sports radio, but it wasn’t something he was immediately drawn to as an opportunity. Bukaty saw it more as a forum where hot takes were consistently lived, which wasn’t his broadcast style.

“I came to talk radio reluctantly,” said Bukaty.

The human drama and the amazing feats of athleticism were things that interested Bukaty far more than a hot take. 

“I love the storylines of humans overcoming adversity and achieving hard-fought objectives as teams,” said Bukaty. “I love the emotional connection between the team and their fans. I didn’t love sports because of the hot take.”

That’s what makes Bukaty’s sports radio career so impressive. He’s seen the beginning and the rise of the industry, yet, he’s never changed who he is on the air. Regardless of how the business has changed, he’s never let the style of other broadcasters change the way he wants to do a show. 

“What makes it easy for me is that my co-host, Steven St. John, drives the show,” said Bukaty. “And that’s the way it should be because he connects with the sports fans in Kansas City better than any person in sports talk radio and maybe better than any media member in town.”

Bukaty has a career that the young version of himself at KU would only dream about. Who knows, just like he made the decision to broadcast games in the front seat of his dad’s car while listening to a Royals game, maybe he’s helped a kid in Kansas City realize play-by-play is what they want to do. But one thing is for sure, Bukaty isn’t done getting out of his comfort zone to make himself better. That’s why he’s now calling MMA events. And it’s why he could accomplish even greater things in the future. 

“I’ve always tried to make it a habit to get outside my comfort zone and say yes to things that seem a little uncomfortable,” said Bukaty. “Every time I’ve ever done that I’m glad because it’s made me grow professionally or as a person.”

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I Raise My Microphone to You, Vin Scully

Thank you for your graciousness and for the gift you bestowed upon all of us. I wish you a peaceful rest.

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Vin Scully

“It’s time for Dodger baseball! Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.” That’s how the legendary Vin Scully would greet countless thousands of Dodgers’ fans every time they’d watch or listen to a game. His gift was making every single listener/viewer feel like he was your buddy, the guy sitting next to you at the game or a bar or wherever. Vin made everyone feel special because that’s who he was. 

Now, unfortunately it’s time to talk about the passing of an absolute legend. Scully died earlier this week at the age of 94. Scouring Twitter and reading reactions to his death, there’s one theme I noticed. Most everyone that watched him or listened to him, Dodgers fan or not, say it feels like they’re losing a friend. Not that Vin’s career needed any validation, but to me, that’s the mark of a great broadcaster. Being there, through the ups and downs and being a trusted voice that people could rely on if they had a bad day or a great day. 

Vin’s passing leaves a void in our industry that will never again be filled. I say that, not just because he was the greatest baseball play-by-play announcer to ever crack a mic, but because he was a tremendous person. He seemingly had time for everyone. Even a green around the gills play-by-play apprentice, me. 

In 2004, when I was with the Cubs broadcast team, we made our annual trip to Los Angeles. I had been traveling with the team for a couple of years at that point, but never had the chance to meet Scully. I mentioned this in passing in the booth one afternoon. Pat Hughes, Ron Santo and our producer Matt Boltz started talking about Vin. Hughes said something to the effect of, let’s go visit him after the game. I thought nothing of it. But sure enough, after the postgame show, Pat motioned to me to come with him. I will admit, I was nervous. Out of character for myself, I didn’t know what I was going to say to him. I even had a baseball with me for him to sign. Such a geek. 

We made our way through the press dining room at Dodger Stadium and tucked away in one of the back corners was a doorway marked “Private”. Pat and I entered the private dining room for the Dodgers broadcasters and there was Vin and the rest of the crew. Pat was greeted immediately by the guys and proceeded to introduce me to everyone. He saved Vin for last. The ever-gracious Scully stood up from his chair and stuck out his hand. I’ll never forget what he said and in his dulcet tones, I can still hear it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Andy, I understand you’ve been doing some play-by-play, how’s that going?” Floored, I managed to speak and told him that it was a work in progress, but I was happy for the chance. He told me to keep at it and shook my hand. He then noticed the baseball in my hand, and asked if I wanted him to sign it. The fanboy in me, shook my head and I still have that ball in my collection. 

Vin Scully

I moved on to San Diego and saw Vin numerous times. I almost literally ‘bumped’ into him before a Dodgers/Padres game at Petco Park. Vin would walk the hallways in the broadcast area to ‘warm up’ before a broadcast. I marveled at this man, who still seemingly had that nervous energy that we all experience before going on the air. He would stroll up and down humming, not loudly, but with enough volume that you could hear him. He told me that was how he exercised his voice in getting ready for a game. It was amazing to see and hear, then get the explanation. 

Scully was a decorated man, winning many awards. He was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1982, receiving the Ford C. Frick Award. He was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 and had his microphone retired by the Dodgers. 

This great gentleman broadcast baseball for 67 years. Starting in Brooklyn in 1950 and finishing in Los Angeles in 2016. Scully worked for both CBS and NBC during his career and not only covered baseball, but on CBS he called NFL games from 1975-82. In his final telecast for the network, he was on the call for the NFC Championship Game, when Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark in the endzone for ‘the catch’ that put the 49ers into the Super Bowl. He also was on the network’s golf coverage as well as tennis. 

At NBC he did baseball and he did it well of course. He called four All-Star Games, four NLCS and three World Series. Scully had some memorable calls in the Fall Classic. Scully provided the call for one of baseball’s most memorable plays when Bill Buckner’s error in the 10th in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series gave the Mets an improbable win over the Red Sox:

“Little roller up along first. Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it! “

Scully also called Kirk Gibson’s famous homer during Game 1 of the 1988 World Series: 

“High fly ball into right field, she i-i-i-is … gone!”

Scully said nothing for over a minute, allowing the pictures to tell the story. Finally, he said:

“In a year that has been so improbable… the impossible has happened!”

Well before those moments, he was part of so many legendary and unforgettable calls with the Dodgers. Upon his retirement Dodgers fans voted on his greatest calls of all time. There are too many to list here, but a couple come to mind immediately. 

Scully had a flair for the English language. He would say things in a way that made the listener/viewer feel like they were right there with him. He set a scene unlike any other broadcaster. Take for example the 9th inning of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965, a 1-0 win over the Cubs at Dodger Stadium. 

When Koufax struck out Harvey Kuenn for the game’s final out, this is what Scully said to paint the picture as perfectly as Koufax painted the corners that night:

“You can almost taste the pressure now,” he said as the ninth inning got underway. ” … There are 29,000 people in the ballpark, and a million butterflies.”

“It is 9:46 p.m.,” Scully said. “Two and two to Harvey Kuenn. One strike away. Sandy into his windup, here’s the pitch … swung on and missed, a perfect game!”

There were then 38-40 seconds of nothing but crowd noise. 

“On the scoreboard in right field, it is 9:46 p.m. in the city of the angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games, and he’s done it four straight years. And now he’s capped it; on his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game.”

Brilliant. Simple, yet incredible. The first of the three perfect games Scully called, took place in the 1956 World Series. Don Larsen faced the Dodgers in the Bronx and as the game went into the 9th inning, Scully epically described the tense feeling building at Yankee Stadium.

“Well, all right, let’s all take a deep breath as we go to the most dramatic ninth inning in the history of baseball,” he said.

Scully later described Yankee Stadium “shivering in its concrete foundation” as 64,517 fans hung on every pitch.

When Larsen struck out Dale Mitchell on a called third strike to end the game, Scully said, “Got him! The greatest game ever pitched in baseball history by Don Larsen, a no-hitter, a perfect game in a World Series.”

“When you put it in a World Series, you set the biggest diamond in the biggest ring,” Scully said.

Scully was the gem of the biggest kind. I’ve heard many words used to describe the man upon his passing. Gentleman, kind, warm and friendly are a few. To me, Vin always displayed class. Even as his final game in the booth for the Dodgers came to an end, he eloquently said so long:

“You know, friends, so many people have wished me congratulations on a 67-year career in baseball, and they’ve wished me a wonderful retirement with my family, and now, all I can do is tell you what I wish for you. May God give you, for every storm, a rainbow; for every tear, a smile; for every care, a promise; and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life seems, a faithful friend to share; for every sigh, a sweet song, and an answer for each prayer. You and I have been friends for a long time, but I know, in my heart, I’ve always needed you more than you’ve ever needed me, and I’ll miss our time together more than I can say. But you know what, there will be a new day, and, eventually, a new year, and when the upcoming winter gives way to spring, ooh, rest assured, once again, it will be time for Dodger baseball. So, this is Vin Scully wishing you a pleasant good afternoon, wherever you may be.”

A year after he signed off, the Dodgers advanced to the World Series for the first time in 29 years. Dodgers’ fans started a petition for him to come out of retirement and call the games on Fox. Joe Buck was even on board. Scully declined, preferring instead to lay low. “I honestly don’t feel I belong there and I would not want anyone to think I was eager for a spotlight.” Scully said. He added, “I’ve done enough of them.” 

I think any of us, that got to meet him, watch him or listen to him over the years would disagree with that last statement. You could never get enough of the great Vincent Edward Scully. Thankfully his voice lives on through audio recordings and YouTube videos to show the younger generation how it was done. And done so well for so many years. It’s always hard to say goodbye, to someone you feel like you knew, even if you never had the chance to meet him. 

Vin, I raise a microphone to you. Thank you for your graciousness and for the gift you bestowed upon all of us. I wish you a peaceful rest. And we all know where you’ll be, in our hearts and fondest memories forever.

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Sports Talkers Podcast – Linda Cohn

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