Father’s Day – a time to celebrate the dad’s in our lives and give them a special day or as former Mets’ broadcaster Ralph Kiner once said, “It’s Father’s Day today, so to all you father’s out there, happy birthday!”. Or something like that. We know what he meant. When you think of baseball, the fathers and sons that come to mind I’m sure are the Griffey’s, Ken and Ken Jr, the Bonds’, Bobby and Barry and the several generations of Boone’s, Bob, Brett and Aaron.
My mind of course goes to father and son duos in the broadcast booth. Almost as rare as a father/son combo in the game, it’s pretty rare off the field as well. There are several “family affairs” throughout baseball and some transcend just one sport. The common theme is, growing up with a dad that travels a lot leads to having to get to know him later in life. On rare occasions the duos get to work together, which leads to a relationship that wasn’t known before. The focus here, will be on the three most popular father/son combinations in baseball broadcasting.
Jack and Joe Buck
Jack was the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1954-2001 and did baseball and NFL national broadcasts. The elder Buck had a distinctive deep voice that was perfect for baseball on the radio. He was versatile, doing the NFL as well. I loved listening to Jack alongside Hank Stram on the CBS Radio coverage of Monday Night Football.
Joe is now one of those voices you hear and realize. It’s probably a big game, or THE national game of the week. The younger Buck followed in his father’s footsteps in doing both Major League Baseball and the NFL. Joe started with the Cardinals in 1991 before he went on to national acclaim as the lead play-by-play voice for Fox Sports’ coverage of MLB and NFL games. The two were able to work together for many years in St. Louis, with Jack on Cardinals radio and Joe on Cardinals television.
For Joe being in his dad’s shadow was something that he had a hard time with at first, but learned later on that there was no reason to feel that way. “I was broadcasting Cardinal baseball in the major leagues at the age of 21, and that only happened because my last name was Buck. At the time, I fought that,” the younger Buck told NPR in 2016. He continued, “But there’s also a little bit more of a sharp knife out there, as far as critics are concerned, that you better be as good as the old man, or in some cases better, to be considered a success.”
Being modest, Joe continued to NPR, “I know I do a decent enough job to keep my job, but I will forever be known to some people as Jack Buck’s son. And thank God he and I were best friends or that would drive me nuts. Instead, I consider it a high compliment.”
The Bucks are the only father-son combination each to have called a Super Bowl.
Marty and Thom Brennaman
Hall of Famer Marty replaced Al Michaels as the Reds play-by-play announcer in 1974, a position he continued in until retiring at the end of last season. He spent his entire 46 year run behind the mic for the Reds. Marty is one of the nicest human beings you’ll meet and was the last of a breed of announcers that were able to really “tell it like it is”.
Marty broadcast games for the fans of Cincinnati and somehow still had the support of management over the years. His distinctive voice, a very “folksy” and “midwestern” delivery was an easy listen. Not many get to stay with one team for his entire career and go out on his own terms, still at the top of his game.
In 2006 it was announced that Marty’s son Thom would be joining the Reds broadcast crew for the 2007 season. Marty was thrilled, “this is a dream fulfilled for me,” said Brennaman in 2006. “I was always a little bit envious of the Buck’s and the Caray’s. Now I get to work with my son. Nothing’s better than that.”
Thom began his career in the late ’80s, working for the Cubs and Diamondbacks before returning to Cincinnati in 2006. Thom proved himself to be a top tier broadcaster with a very straight forward style. In some ways he took some of the best of his father and made it his own. Thom is not shy about voicing an opinion during a game, about a player or team or whatever. As mentioned, Marty was one of those “fans” in the booth back in the day, Thom has a knack for being able to do that as well.
Thom was fortunate to grow up in Cincinnati and tag along with Marty to the ballpark. He learned a lot about the game from some of the greatest Reds in history and of course his dad. As Thom rose through the ranks, dad was always there for him. “After games or the next day or as the years went by to Chicago or Arizona or even now, I can certainly and have, thousands of times, picked up the phone or sat down with him and say hey how would you have maybe handled this or what do you think about the way I handled that?” Brennaman said last September on a Reds’ podcast. “Especially during football season. He’s able to sit back and watch a lot of the games I’ll do during the NFL season. He’ll say ‘hey what were you thinking about that?’ or I’ll say ‘what did you think about that.’ It’s a pretty dog gone good coach to have around.”
Thom spoke about his decision to leave Arizona and join his dad in Ohio on the Reds’ Flagship Radio Station, WLW. “Having a chance to work with him (Marty) is sort of the cherry on top of the sundae. You know the sundae was built on a foundation of I’ve always been an Ohio guy. I just love Cincinnati,” he said. “I loved growing up in this part of the country. I just thought it would be really great if our children could grow up here. I’m really just going to miss being around him.”
The Brennamans are the only father-son combination each to have called a perfect game (Marty for Tom Browning in 1988; and Thom for Randy Johnson in 2004).
Harry, Skip and Chip Caray
Maybe the most popular broadcaster of all the duos (in this rare case a trio) was Harry Caray. The elder stateman of the trio held down gigs with the Cardinals, White Sox and Cubs (he also had a brief stint with the A’s and St. Louis Browns). He teamed with Jack Buck in St. Louis to form a terrific broadcast team on Cardinals Radio. Harry was a showman though and that really came through when he went to the White Sox. The eldest Caray started the tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the PA, from the booth in the 7th inning (thank you Bill Veeck). He would swing his microphone encouraging the crowd to join him, to the delight of those in attendance and those watching at home. While it was big on the Southside of Chicago, it exploded on the Northside.
When Harry came to the Cubs, he was the attraction. The team was starting a rebuild under GM Dallas Greene and they weren’t very good. Caray was the ultimate salesman for baseball, pointing out the great things about being at the game and also calling things out that needed it. Some of the things Harry got away with then, probably wouldn’t fly in today’s game or world. Lost in all of that though, was Harry in his early days and up until he suffered a stroke in 1987 was a tremendous broadcaster – clean, crisp and concise calls of some big moments in the game of baseball. Not that he wasn’t good after 1987, he kind of steered into the skid and embraced his role as an entertainer and someone people wanted to watch. Harry passed just before the 1998 season, the year he was supposed to start working with his grandson, Chip. That duo never materialized. More on that in a moment.
Harry’s son, Skip Caray was as much a part of Atlanta Braves lore as his father was with both Chicago baseball teams. Skip joined the Braves broadcasts in 1976 and stayed there until his untimely death in 2008. Skip and longtime partner Pete Van Wieren formed a widely popular duo on Superstation WTBS. They were seen all across the country (as were the Cubs during that time) growing a fan base in places not even near Atlanta.
Skip was widely popular and not for the same reasons his dad was. Skip’s style was often imitated but never duplicated. He had a quick wit and a sarcastic sense of humor that really made him so endearing to most fans. Some didn’t take his sarcasm to heart and weren’t fond of his deprecation of some of the bad Braves teams in the 1980’s. Skip would try to make light of horrible games, in fact with the Braves down big in a game he said, “It’s OK to walk the dog now, folks, if you promise to support our sponsors.” Priceless.
Chip Caray is the third member of the trio. Chip came into his own as the television voice of the Chicago Cubs from 1998 until 2004. Chip has an enthusiasm for the game that is hard to match. His home run calls during the ’98 race between Sosa and McGwire were featured prominently during Long Gone Summer when it debuted last weekend.
“Swung on and belted…” is a signature call. Chip is a cerebral guy and really knows the history of the game of baseball. You can tell that he really loves what he does and really loves the game with his style.
Chip was hired by the Cubs to work with his grandfather Harry in the booth for the 1998 season. Unfortunately, Harry passed away in February of that year, and they never got to work together. “I never got to close the family book with Harry, I didn’t know him well and had very little interaction with him, which is why ‘98 is still bittersweet in many respects.”, Caray told me. “There is a ton of regret not getting to ‘know’ my grandfather on a personal level. Professionally, I mean, an entire history of baseball in our family was lost, I would have loved his advice on how to handle being a play-by-play guy in a big city like Chicago…all of that gone in a flash,” said Chip.
When the Cubs chose not to renew his contract on the final day of the 2004 season, he announced he was headed to Atlanta to work with his father Skip on Braves’ broadcasts. A man he didn’t know very well. “My parents were divorced; I knew my dad loved me. I saw him two weeks a year. As he said one time, ‘I left when you were five and all of the sudden, I see you and get to know you and you’re 16 and 6 foot 4.’ That was an eye opener for him and an eye opener for me too,” said Chip.
“As bittersweet as it was to leave the Cubs, I was overjoyed getting a chance to work with my dad and be his son,” said the youngest Caray. “Understand that while divorce is in one way a failure it doesn’t make you a failure. We had a heart wrenching conversation one time. He said ‘I feel so guilty about the things I wasn’t able to do with you as a kid.’ I stopped him and said ‘do you like who I am as a person? Forget the broadcast, do like what you see of me as a person, a husband, a father?’ He said ‘yeah’, and I told him that he needed to understand that all of these experiences and things that I went through have made me who I am.”, he recalled. “So, celebrate that you did a lot of things right. It turned out ok. I think it gave him some peace and was sort of the basis of understanding for us and not looking back at what didn’t happen or should have happened but think about what could be from that point on,” Chip said with a smile in his voice.
“The moments and times I had with my dad were great, we had a lot of laughs. He left us far too soon. I miss him every day,” Chip said.
He recalled how important it was to forge a relationship with his dad. “We were able, as adults, to reconnect the fibers of family that weren’t frayed by any stretch, but had never really been put together. My dad developed amazing relationships with my kids, my wife and it was so rewarding to see how proud he was of me being a husband, father, and yes, broadcaster too.”
In May of 1991 all three Caray’s were in the booth together, for the open of the broadcast when the Cubs hosted the Braves. Chip and Skip with Atlanta and of course Harry with the Cubs.
It still amazes me how the game of baseball is such a family affair. Whether it be on the field, the broadcast booth or in the stands, it’s generational. It’s meant to be shared with father’s and sons or father’s and daughters. Let’s hope those in charge of the game realize it and get the players back on the field soon.
Others include (not specific to baseball only):
- Marv and Kenny Albert
- Harry and Todd Kalas
- Ian and Noah Eagle
- Will and Sean McDonough
- Don and Daron Sutton
- Ken and Casey Coleman
- Woody and Wes Durham
- Dan, Dan Jr. and John Kelly
The Craig Carton/FanDuel Deal Is Undeniably A Good Thing
“Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better.”
Craig Carton is destined to forever be a polarizing figure in the world of sports media. Long before he was arrested, he had plenty of detractors that considered him less of a talk show host and more of a shock jock. Add to it a conviction for his role in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors in order to pay back gambling debts, and it is clear that the guy’s approval rating will never hit 100.
There are understandable reasons not to like a guy and then there are grudges. Grudges don’t have to be personal. They don’t have to spring from some sort of affront. They can easily be born out of feeling like someone has figured out a way to live a life above the rules and free of consequence for their awful actions.
Grudges can (and often do) blind us to reality. I think that is a big part of what is happening when people point to Craig Carton’s new deal with FanDuel and say that there is something wrong with it.
If you missed the announcement last week, Carton is joining FanDuel as the company’s first “responsible gaming ambassador.” He will create content about gambling responsibly and also work with FanDuel engineers to create AI to spot problem gambling patterns. The deal gives Craig Carton a seat at the table with one of the biggest mobile sportsbooks in shaping their responsible gaming policy. Isn’t that a good thing?
I probably cannot convince you to view the guy in any particular light. When it comes to former inmates being rehabilitated and getting a second chance, we tend to be very dug in with our opinions, whatever may influence them.
Undeniably, Carton did a bad thing. Swindling people out of huge chunks of money is always bad. In America, it somehow seems worse. As costs of living increase and wages remain flat, every dollar is accounted for and allotted to something for most of us. The guy should be ashamed of himself. And here’s the thing: he clearly is.
Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better. Hell, what other station in America dedicates any time at all, even just a half hour on the weekend, to issues of addiction and recognizing problem habits? This deal with FanDuel seems perfectly in line with his previous attempts to atone.
You don’t have to like Craig Carton, but you do need to acknowledge that everything he has done in terms of highlighting his problem with gambling and offering help to those that he sees a little bit of his own struggles in has been sincere. There is no reason to believe it isn’t.
Under the terms of the deal, not only will Carton advise and create content for FanDuel, but the company will also make sure Hello, My Name is Craig finds a bigger platform. You can be cynical and say that this is just part of a bigger deal between FanDuel and WFAN parent company Audacy, but FanDuel’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mike Raffensperger explained that it is good for the gaming industry to promote betting responsibly.
“I think what we recognize we needed is to add some humanity as to how we get this message across,” he said when explaining why Carton was the perfect face for this campaign.
We see it every time we post a story about sports betting. Someone will comment that it is an evil practice and that the advertising has made sports radio disgusting. The reality is that it is no different from alcohol. For most people, it is harmless. Plenty though, cannot handle it. Still, you tell me the first time you hear an ad break on sports radio or see a commercial break during a game without a beer commercial.
If you really believe sports gambling is evil and want people to stay away from mobile or physical sportsbooks, who do you think the ideal person to be delivering that message is?
You can go with the puritan approach of tisk-tisking strangers and telling them they are flawed people that are going to Hell or you can have a guy that has literally lost it all because of his addiction out front telling you “I know I cannot place a bet and here is why. If that sounds familiar, maybe it is time for you to seek help.” It seems pretty obvious to me that the latter approach is exactly what Raffensperger is talking about – using humanity to reach the people they need to.
Craig Carton committed a crime. A court of law said he had to pay for that both with restitution to his victims and with jail time. He served his time. Deals like this one with FanDuel make it possible for him to stay on schedule with the restitution payments. Even if you think he is unforgivable, that should make you happy, right?
It is admittedly strange to see a mobile sportsbook hire a “responsible gaming ambassador.” I would argue though that it is only strange because it isn’t something we have seen before. Be skeptical if you are the “I’ll believe it when I see it” type, but I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to congratulate and celebrate both Craig Carton and FanDuel.
Sports Radio America: The Starting Point When There Is No College Radio
“If we want to replace talent with talent, we have to develop talent at the lowest levels much more than asking for requirements at the highest levels. Every industry needs their farm-system.”
It is a laboratory. A place to make mistakes. A spot to make friends. The hub of many communications schools. College radio stations are the pipeline by which young, aspiring broadcasters, engineers and producers carve their path to the pros. Broadcasters from around the United States credit college radio for helping them get to where they are today, and view it as a conduit for the next generation of talent.
“I can’t speak highly enough about my college experience doing radio,” said Evan Wilner, senior radio producer at ESPN and former member of WRHU-FM at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “I realized in college that I am much better at fixing things rather than talking while other people tried doing something about it. Every place I’ve been, I feel like I’ve been ahead of the game because of the experience I got in college.”
Wilner’s story is far from unique among professionals in broadcasting today, and proves valuable in ascertaining the role college radio plays in preparing broadcasters in their journey. Travis Demers, the radio play-by-play voice of the N.B.A.’s Portland Trail Blazers, shares a similar sentiment regarding the opportunities college radio afforded him, and how it helped him work in the industry he had a nascent passion for.
“In sixth grade, I was listening to WFAN, and when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player, I started [radio] right away as a college freshman.”
Demers attended LIU Post in Brookville, N.Y. beginning in 1999, and eventually served as the sports director of WCWP-FM. In his time at the station, Demers was given numerous opportunities to broadcast football, basketball and lacrosse games on campus, eventually leading to an internship, and corresponding full-time job, at ABC Radio in New York City.
“Everything I could do specifically with sports is what I was trying to do right from the start,” reminisced Demers, “and I was fortunate enough to do that.”
Dan Zangrilli, who serves as a play-by-play announcer at West Virginia University and host of the M.L.B.’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ pre- and post-game shows on 93.7 The Fan, got his start in college radio at Clarion University in Clarion, P.A. The 4,000-watt WCUC 91.1 FM was Zangrilli’s place to get practice broadcasting live basketball games, and hosting a morning talk show.
“I had free reign; it was basically like my easel,” elucidated Zangrilli. “I started out as a freshman and became the sports director, and ascended to the general manager position by my junior year. That’s just such invaluable experience to be immersed in every aspect of the radio industry, and I wouldn’t trade that place for anything.”
In a media landscape full of changes accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifespan of college radio as a subset of the industry is at greater risk of being classified as ephemeral than ever before, a harrowing realization that one former operations manager for a mortgage company had in Memphis, Tenn. had just over a decade ago.
Ayokunle Spencer, a graduate of the University of Memphis and former paralegal, was working for the Rawlings Company in Louisville, Ky., when he happened to overhear a conversation that forever changed his life. One of his co-workers was apprehensive about how his daughter, set to graduate from the University of Louisville, would leave as the school’s radio station would be shut down due to a lack of funding. At the onset of the 2008 economic recession, college radio stations were slashed from budgets around the country, stymying the development of prospective talent and rendering vagabonds heavily involved, and invested, students. Forsaken from the ability to develop the skill set and collect the air checks needed to land a job in the industry, Spencer decided it was time to make a concerted effort to resuscitate an ostensibly-dying concentration of the evolving medium.
“When the need presented itself… we [tried to] put something together [to give] people opportunities to sharpen the skills, and develop the next broadcast talent,” said Spencer. “We posted on the message boards at the colleges and, in about a year’s time, there was an influx of different students we were getting a chance to work with.”
Sports Radio America was founded by Ayokunle Spencer in 2008 as a digital broadcasting network intended to give college students attending universities without a campus radio station the chance to polish their on-air skills and perfect their craft. A member of the jazz-format WUMR while attending the University of Memphis, Spencer had previous experience in pitching up-and-coming hip-hop and R&B artists to local radio stations, including the likes of All-Star and Yo Gotti, through his promotional company and record label, Dynasty Digital Entertainment. Progressive in his thinking, Spencer was one of the first to stream radio broadcasts on the Internet, assisting Bishop G.E. Patterson in the dissemination of a small, A.M. religious station to the masses.
“Radio was always a passion for me as a kid,” said Spencer, “but I always took steps towards that passion before the University of Memphis. I felt, at that time, I was more at the forefront of what was going to come next. I wrote a paper that the Internet would be the place for media in thirty years, and twenty-five years later, I think I was dead on with that one.”
Conceived by means of necessity, Sports Radio America is a haven for young talent, broadcasting live games and talk radio shows on the Internet. The outlet, though, became more of a potpourri of commentators and journalists alike in order to help them evolve to the dynamic world of mediated communication.
“What it started out to be isn’t necessarily what it is now, although I want to get back to those roots of working with highly-talented students and getting them prepared for the next stage of their careers,” said Spencer. “Other journalists that were leaving FOX or ESPN, or older guys that had gotten kicked out of their radio stations because they didn’t know anything about digital, they ended up here. It kind of became a collage of different broadcasters and media personalities from around the U.S.”
As Sports Radio America celebrates its 10-year anniversary, Spencer remains focused on positioning the media venture ahead of the pack, cogently aware of industry changes and best practices to help its broadcasters land jobs and the company prosper after unforeseen circumstances over the previous year-and-a-half.
“We just came through COVID, and in terms of advertising, all that stuff was crushed,” explained Spencer. “We are kind of almost in a rebuild mode now. We give people the opportunity to create something new, build up your audience and see if something works.”
Once Sports Radio America’s popularity began to grow around the country, the broadcasting outlet, to avoid being overwhelmed with participants, began interviewing and selecting talent to join them. Throughout his professional career, Spencer has had an innate ability to evaluate talent across all industries, something he calls “a God-given gift.” In his current role, which he compares to a professional football scout, one of Spencer’s jobs is to find the best people to join Sports Radio America, and help them get to where they want to go.
“The way my brain processes information, I can just tell certain people in certain things are creative enough to meet industry standards and excel,” said Spencer. “In sports radio, I evaluate voice, how interesting they are in being able to hold a conversation, the topics they pick out, etc. It’s really the only gift I think I actually have.”
Spencer has been successful in helping aspiring collegiate-level industry talent get the experience they need, with his organization serving as the pipeline many colleges have come to eliminate from their campuses. His method of evaluating talent aligns with principles employed by current hiring managers and industry professionals, such as Nick Cattles, host of The Nick Cattles Show on ESPN Radio 94.1 in Virginia Beach. Cattles highly values relatability and uniqueness in his evaluations of talent, along with if they are able to keep a listener actively engaged in their program.
“I think hosts around the country are better off when they allow themselves to be an open book,” said Cattles. “I always listen, probably more intently, to somebody who is willing to give the ‘secrets’ so to speak as opposed to somebody who is more guarded. The cool thing about radio is that there are so many talented people, and there is no one way to do it right. You try to find people who can do it their own way with the passion and the work-ethic that you can invest and believe in.”
Hardly esoteric in understanding, radio, and media altogether, is changing, and seismically in that matter. With today’s reliance on digital platforms for distribution, programs are, evidently, being adapted to fit the proclivities of the listening audience, including a shortening total attention span.
In a recent study by Microsoft, the average human being has an attention span of eight seconds, down a whopping four seconds over the last twenty years. This figure, which is shorter than that of a goldfish, is a direct byproduct of the principle of instant gratification, and the evolution of technology to enable its propagation. The inability to sustain focus has become an endemic in today’s society, and mediums of communication have had to adjust to fit this dynamic psychological paradigm.
Furthermore, consumers of mass media are more apt than ever before to selectively filter information; that is, specifically choosing what to concentrate on. As a result, media, in all of its forms, is less concentrated in scope, being narrowed to appeal to the target audience. The conflation of methodologies, simultaneously existing within a preponderance of content and a widening definition as to just who is considered to be a journalist, challenges the fundamental precept of what media is entirely. So how is radio adapting in this new landscape? By expanding its means of dissemination.
“It’s much more multi-faceted, social media-oriented and digital as opposed to [it being] siloed, [as it was] when I got into it,” said Brad Carson, operations and brand manager of 92.9 FM ESPN and Audacy Memphis Sports. “It used to be that you were a radio guy. Now in 2021, you are getting people that are entertainers. The latest joke is, ‘Hey, here’s our latest talent with one million TikTok followers.’ I think you can get people on a radio station or on our Audacy platforms from all walks of life. It’s a much more inexact science than [ever before].”
Spencer, whose progressive thoughts on the media landscape are openly conveyed in conversation, believes the introduction of streaming to be a considerable advancement that can play across multiple platforms. Unsurprisingly, he was ahead of the game at Sports Radio America, basing the online platform on this technology.
“The market for audio is always going to be there. The question is what medium we are going to use to deliver it,” said Spencer. “Everything will probably be streaming by 2030. I think that there will still be the public channels on the airwaves, but the majority of media will be consumed [via] streaming because [it is] a more accurate [platform] to measure who is listening. Whatever the next area of audio is, we will probably start it here first.”
Based on my conversations with these industry professionals, it is safe to say that Ayokunle Spencer, Brad Carson, Travis Demers, Evan Wilner, Dan Zangrilli and Nick Cattles attribute their college radio experience as one of the reasons they possess the skills to succed in their current jobs. Being able to have the flexibility to make mistakes, try new things and establish long-lasting professional relationships are invaluable to ambitious young broadcasters, and all evolving broadcasters for that matter. Belonging to a college media outlet is undoubtedly something many students savor, with many largely basing their choice of college on the quality of the media outlets if they are so fortunate. However, not all ambitious young broadcasters are equally privy to the same resources.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters are able to provide sufficient previous experience when trying to secure an internship or a job.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters are privy to changing industry trends, nor do they have the resources to render them an understanding as to how to achieve their goals.
Not all ambitious young broadcasters have a place to be mentored, and mentors willing to leverage valuable industry connections that could lead them to an internship or a job.
For Ayokunle Spencer and his team at Sports Radio America, lessening the discrepancies between those with the ability to easily make connections and expend resources, and those looking to establish or collect them, has always been at the forefront of their mission — and they intend to keep shrinking the gap.
“I am surprised there aren’t more places like this where people can develop their skills before they reach the big-time,” expressed Spencer. “If we want to replace talent with talent, we have to develop talent at the lowest levels much more than asking for requirements at the highest levels. Every industry needs their farm-system.”
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
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