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Kevin Graham Is Just Trying To Enjoy Himself Leading KNBR

“Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal.”

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If a song was needed to accurately describe Kevin Graham’s radio career, Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam would be a good place to start. The guy has been all over the place. As the new program director at KNBR in San Francisco, Graham has also held radio gigs in Boston, New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Columbus.

That’s some serious mileage. Suffice to say, Graham loves moving about as much as he loves watching his New York Jets losing.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If his career were a cereal, it wouldn’t be something simple like Frosted Flakes. It would be much more eclectic like Frosted Flakes mixed with Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Kevin Graham is a former on-air guy who hosted three different stints of sports talk shows in Salt Lake City. He was a Utah Jazz pre and postgame host. Graham was a football and basketball play-by-play guy who also broadcasted parades and beauty pageants when he was starting out. Add in the fact he programmed news talk station WBAP in Dallas for five years and you can see why his career is like an epic cereal medley. What a long, strange trip it’s been. 

Graham provides details about the major lineup change in afternoon drive that was recently made at KNBR. One of the most interesting things Graham reveals is what clicked for him as a programmer that changed his mindset and entire approach to the job. We also chat about what has caused him the most pain in his radio career, involving your star player in big decisions, and living life beyond radio. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?

Kevin Graham: West Virginia is where I was born and raised till about 14. Then right before my freshman year of high school, my parents got transferred to Detroit. I ended up going to high school in the Detroit area, then went to college at Central Michigan University. That’s when the radio world took off from there in all the different markets everywhere I’ve been.

I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be in sports broadcasting just because I played all the sports and was average to below average. Usually, when you’re the smallest and slowest kid on a team, you realize you’re not going to be a pro athlete. [Laughs] That’s when I decided you know what, maybe I can be in broadcasting. The best move that ever happened was my dad getting transferred to Detroit. The school I went to had a radio station, so as a freshman in high school I was in radio. I ended up doing some baseball play-by-play that year and just got hooked on it right then and there. It just took off from there.

BN: What’s been the best and worst part about being all over the country with all the stops you’ve made?

KG: [Laughs] The best part is just the fun of going to new markets. The fun of being a PD for me is working with the talent, the content, the branding, the imaging, the core of what a PD does. To me that’s a blast. All the various markets I’ve done it in.

Most stations that I’ve had to go in, there was a reason they were bringing me in because they weren’t doing as well as they were hoping. Fortunately, I would say all except one, they were in a better spot when I left than they were when I got there, which is cool.

A lot of that goes to the credit of just a lot of talented people. That’s been the fun. Having the impact that you can have on various talents and see what they’ve been able to do and grow.

I look at Detroit, I hired Mike Valenti — who’s number one in that market now for years — straight out of college at Michigan State and paid him not a lot and put him on middays with Terry Foster. Now, 20 years later or whatever it’s been, the guy is dominant. To see that type of stuff, to see the impact you have on people, that’s the best stuff.

The hardest part is just every move — as you’ve probably been around — sucks. It’s just hard to move. It’s taxing for a marriage when you’re moving that much. It’s hard when you have kids. It’s just hard when you move that much. My hope is this will be my last one, but that’s been my hope in a lot of places too. [Laughs]

BN: [Laughs] Hopefully this one comes true, man. The lineup change in afternoon drive, what was that process like for you just getting on board at KNBR and then this mammoth change takes place?

KG: It was a couple of things. First, it was ratings-driven. The ratings of the show had not been up to par with the other shows. We were taking a look at that. A lot of it was just listening and my gut. In the end, I trust my gut.

You hate it. That’s the worst part of the job — and that’s nothing towards Larry [Krueger] and Rod [Brooks], the two guys that we had to replace because they’re both very talented. But for whatever reason when that show was put together, the three-man show which can work in some places, it just wasn’t clicking the way we hoped.

In the meantime, Adam Copeland, who I was listening to regularly on our morning show as kind of a third person there, did a 5 a.m. show, also did fill-ins, Bay Area native, lots of energy, passionate. Talking it over with my general manager and Bruce Gilbert and just going through what we could do, we kept going back to him. Obviously, in that situation it’s hard, you’ve got to get buy-in from a lot of people and you’ve got to figure it out, but in the end we felt, and ultimately my gut felt that it would be a better show. So far, so good.

We’ve only been on I think about a month. Some of it is they just had to get to know each other. You know how it is when you get new shows and new co-hosts and all that. At least they’ve been aware of each other, just never really worked together. One month in, we’re really excited at where we’re headed and how the show is sounding right now, so I’m very hopeful that we’ve got ourselves a pretty good hit there.

Plus, Tom Tolbert’s a star in this market. Again, it’s nothing towards Larry and Rod, but when you have three people, here you’ve got your lightning rod, a guy that’s been in the market for years, a guy that’s been number one multiple times for years including before they made the change. I just felt like you needed to hear more of him.

When you have three people, it’s just harder to do that. Tom being the laid-back personality that he is, wasn’t commanding that he needed more air time. He was a team player, which is exactly what he should be doing. It was a big decision that moving forward we need to hear more of Tom. So far, so good on that.

BN: What’s your approach when involving a star, or not, in a process like that? It’s like NFL teams where some choose to involve their star quarterback with certain decisions, some don’t; what did you prefer to do with Tom Tolbert in your situation?

KG: That goes back to me being an on-air talent, I try to manage how I would like to be treated. I’m very direct and honest, and that’s how I manage people. I try not to be a jerk about it, but hey, here’s what I’m thinking we need to do. What ideas do you have? So in this approach, yeah, I did talk to Tom obviously before pulling the trigger. I felt like he needed to be aware.

To Tom’s credit, he didn’t really want to be aware. [Laughs] He was kind of put in a bad spot and I completely understand that. It’s a tough spot, but there was no way I was going to take our number one star, one of our top lightning rods on the station, and not get his feedback on it because that would be the worst thing, trying to force-feed someone if you don’t have their buy-in in my opinion.

BN: Especially when you’re new. Imagine if you didn’t involve him, made this change and he hated your guts for it.

KG: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt. I was just trying to be transparent and open. Those situations, they suck. I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks leading into it. It’s awful. But I’m paid to do what I feel is best for the brand. The company is trusting me to try to put the best product on the air and I felt like at that time, and with others in our building felt like it was the best time to make that change. I felt like Tom needed to be in the loop on it. If there were any red flags I needed to know that because I wasn’t going to make a change and put somebody in there he wasn’t going to like. That would not work.

BN: One of the challenges during the pandemic was that a lot of your hosts were working remotely. What was that like to start in a brand new market when that was part of the equation?

KG: It was hard. My morning guys were coming in. They had gotten approval and got all the necessary vaxxing and all of that. They were in. I was seeing them often. But everybody else was working remotely.

For me, it was good because John Lund is doing middays with Greg Papa. I’ve worked with John in the past. John was my first producer in Salt Lake City. I’ve actually hired him at other spots. That was easy because he’s somebody I’ve known for years. I was able to connect with him.

The others I just called and tried to get to know them. I just talked to them and made sure I tried to communicate as much as I could. At one point I get here and by the way within a couple of weeks of being here I end up with COVID even though being vaxxed and all that. That was hard because now I’m working remotely from a new city and a new place. So I was dealing with all that as well.

Just tried to communicate as much as possible and tried to adapt. When you’re at a station like this too, it’s not just the on-air you have to deal with, when you’ve got the Giants, the Niners, we have 1050 that carries games like crazy. There’s a lot of moving parts to this thing. Not only did I have to try to learn the market, get to know my hosts, but also try to learn the systems and everything that needed to be done to make sure everything was running smoothly.

BN: I hear this from a lot of on-air guys where maybe they figured something out, it clicked and then it just really changed their whole approach on air. Was there anything like that from a PD standpoint where you finally learned something and then it was just like oh wow, I kind of get it now?

KG: It’s weird to say this, but I think COVID changed a lot of things from my standpoint. For me, I was always a workaholic. I always felt like I had to work harder than everybody else to succeed. I think COVID just kind of slowed things down in a weird way because we were all in different spots and I think you saw how different people reacted to it. Some reacted very favorably to it and other people had a lot of issues with it. I was probably in the middle.

I was kind of trying to figure out how to manage a staff from a distance and had some personal stuff because at the time my dad was not in good health, so COVID allowed me to go work remotely from where they are to help him. I think after all of that and when I was wrapping up BAP and then coming here, for me it just cemented that okay you know what, there’s more to life than just your job 24/7. 

Unfortunately — and fortunately — I don’t think I probably would have had the success if I didn’t work as hard as I did and learned as much as I did. Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal. Don’t overreact to that. Calm, figure it out, work it out, try to keep everybody else calm.

It’s weird, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and probably everything finally clicked for me in a comfort zone where I finally said okay, you know what, quit being nervous about the next ratings book, quit being nervous about this and that. Just chill it out, enjoy yourself, be in the moment, take advantage of the perks and fun like going to games and all of that.

I used to skip some of that stuff because I felt like I had to get the imaging written up. I had to do this. I had to do that. Now it’s like you know what, I’ve got enough time in a day to get that type of stuff done and I’ve got a great support staff of people that help. I empower people more than I ever used to. I was more of a control freak, now I feel like I empower people because I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want it to be that if I do end up leaving here whether it’s by my choice or not, I would love to have people here who can step up into my role and take over. That’s how I kind of look at it now.

BN: As a New York Jets fan you’ve felt a good amount of pain over the years. I’m curious what has caused you the most pain in sports radio over the years?

KG: The most pain in sports radio over the years — Nielsen by far. Freaking Nielsen still to this day. We’ve got some blips going on now with meters and — just trying to watch my language — it’s very frustrating to have a system that you’re judged by — and all of us have to live by it, programming, sales, everything — that’s based on such a limited sample.

How you can go one month and be dominant and the next month you lose a couple of people. That happened to me in Dallas. It’s happened to me here. It’s happened to me in Boston. No matter what size market, two people can affect your livelihood in such a negative way. I don’t know the answer. It is what it is as they keep saying, but it’s really frustrating when you’re completely judged on this system.

Now we get real data about our stream, and just recently see that Nielsen is giving us 17,000 cume on our stream but yet Triton is giving us 300,000 cume on our stream. It’s like the 300,000 is real, where Nielsen is still based on the PPM technology. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s the biggest frustration and most likely will be the reason I get the hell out of this industry eventually. [Laughs] Whether I want to or not.

BN: Hey man, I totally get it. As far as your professional future goes, if you were able to write out what the next 10 years of your career look like, what would you want it to be?

KG: If you would’ve asked me that 10 years ago, I could have a map. Right now I don’t know. Right now all the moves I’ve made and all of the things I’ve gone through — and a lot of people have gone through particularly through COVID and everything else — I’m just trying to enjoy myself right now. I’m in such a great spot.

I have a great general manager in Larry Blumhagen who’s a brand new general manager and I was his first PD hire. Bruce Gilbert, Brian Philips, everybody in the Cumulus family, Mary Berner obviously lets us manage on a local basis, which I think is a little rarer than a lot of places these days with the way companies are. I’m just in a really good spot. I’m just going to enjoy this ride.

If I ever choose to move along, I don’t think it’ll be another PD job. If I stay in radio per se, I’d like to think all the various experiences I’ve had, could move up into a more senior-level job where I can impact multiple brands for a company. But if that doesn’t work out there are so many places now that create content. Everybody’s a media company now.

The thing about you and me and a lot of us in radio, we think the only thing we know is radio. Well, we know how to do content. If you can get on a mic and entertain people for four hours, you know what you’re doing. You can do the same thing as a programmer, so I do think we as a radio industry, I think we have the ability to get outside of radio if we want to now with audio being as hot as it is. I do believe that there could be other things that we can do if the time closes. As of now, man, I’m just settling in, enjoying myself, trying to figure out how to afford food here in San Francisco and be okay. [Laughs]

BSM Writers

Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting

The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.

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Maryland Matters

As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.

For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.

While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements. 

While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized. 

Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.

People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.

First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.

The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues. 

None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.  

As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.

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Saban v. Jimbo Is WrestleMania for College Football Fans

Ryan Brown says the Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher feud is one made for pay-per-view and we have nearly five months to hype the match.

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It was the day after I turned eleven that Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre ‘The Giant’. WrestleMania III filled 90,000 seats at the Pontiac Silverdome and the living room of one of the houses in my neighborhood. Real or fake, we didn’t care. Three decades later, Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher is 100% real and it is coming to a living room near you.

I live in the capital city of SEC Country – Birmingham, Alabama. SEC football needs no additional drama here. You get a complete college football obsession at birth. That said, the October 8th Texas A&M visit to Alabama will be among the most anticipated regular season college football games both regionally and nationally.

One would think CBS will use their annual prime time date for that Saturday just as they did for last season’s Alabama at Texas A&M game, you know, when Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher were on speaking terms. Not knowing how the season will play out, it would be no surprise if ESPN’s College Gameday is in Tuscaloosa as well. While we are at it, let’s just cut to the 2024 chase and schedule a Presidential debate in Tuscaloosa that weekend, as well.

Not one person will be surprised if Alabama is undefeated and the top ranked team in the nation that week. The surprise, based on the rest of the Jimbo Fisher era, will be the Aggies being unbeaten. Their trip to Alabama comes at the end of a five game stretch that includes Appalachian State at home, Miami at home, Arkansas in Dallas and a road game at Mississippi State. Incidentally, the same Texas A&M team that was able to upset Alabama last season also managed to lose to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Just the prospect of the two teams being unbeaten and highly ranked causes some to say this game would need no extra storylines. Shouldn’t that, and being on CBS in prime time, be enough? The Saban-Fisher Feud already has people discussing this game nationally and Lee Corso hasn’t even donned a body odor-filled mascot head yet.

I would like to project this game to deliver the largest TV audience of the regular season but I can’t, for one reason: I’m not certain it will be close. I think Alabama is that much better than Texas A&M. That’s why the build up will deliver a huge first half audience.

For perspective, in the 2021 regular season, the Alabama at Texas A&M game had the fifth largest TV audience, in a game that went down to the final play. The Ohio State at Michigan game had 15.8 million viewers on as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, almost double that of Alabama at Texas A&M on CBS in prime time.

That brings me to another misconception: big games have to be in prime time to get a big audience. Of the top ten largest college football audiences in the regular season and conference championship weekend, only half were prime time games. College football fans, and NFL fans for that matter, will find the best games no matter where they are placed.

So, back to Saban v. Fisher; why is it a bad thing? Would SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey prefer it not happen? Of course. Will it bring more attention to a game in the conference he oversees? I say, absolutely. Heck, my daily show is already selling t-shirts for the game. You may say “shameless plug”, I say paying for my kid’s college. Tomato, tomahto.

This is what made “Mean” Gene Okerlund a household name in the 1980’s. He was the far too serious host that interviewed the wrestlers who challenged other wrestlers to a grudge match in exotic places like the Macon Coliseum and the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Dallas Sportatorium. Why did they do that? First, it was entertaining but, primarily, it sucked the viewer into making plans to view those matches.

I mean, if Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat said he was going to rip the head off “Big” John Studd, was I going to miss that?

That was why a bunch of kids crowded into a living room in Anniston, Alabama in 1987 to watch WrestleMania III, The Main Event. I can’t tell you who was on the undercard that night. The only wrestlers we cared about were Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant”.

Actually, my friend’s mom thought the Ultimate Warrior was “cute and had a great body”. He wasn’t on the card and I thought it was odd she told us that but she was footing the bill for the pay-per-view and had mixed the fruit punch Kool-Aid, so who am I to judge one’s wanton desires?

Texas A&M at Alabama will be the SEC’s main event this season and, if the cards fall right, it may be college football’s main event. What happened between the two head coaches might not be the proudest moment in SEC history but it will bring more attention to that game. And, my word, we finally have a nano-second in which two prominent coaches weren’t pre-programmed robots refusing to deviate from the script.

As amazing as WrestleMania III was for my childhood, it was scripted. The Tide and the Aggies will not be. College football remains one of the greatest values in sports. I pay very little to watch unscripted game after unscripted game. Truth is, you couldn’t even script most of what we see on a college football Saturday. 

Texas A&M at Alabama is already beyond what the most creative writers could imagine and that is why this fuel to the already smoldering fire adds to this game. Now, if Nick Saban will just try to bodyslam Jimbo Fisher, we’ll have something.

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Doc Emrick’s Love Letter is Hockey and… Language

The Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Doc Emrick developed his love for the sport and the art of the call early in life and never let go of either.

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LA Kings YouTube

LaFontaine, Indiana is a small rural town in the northeastern sector of the state with a population of just under 900 people. Located between the cities of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, it is similar to the village illustrated in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” and its name, rooted in the French language, translates to “The Fountain” in English.

In the summer of 1955, the local Cub Scouts managed an organized softball league, and once children graduated to become a member of the Boy Scouts, they would transition to play baseball. One nine-year-old child in the summer of 1955 had the common realization that he would not likely make the major leagues since he was not considered an elite-level athlete. While he enjoyed playing the game, he enjoyed listening to the game on the radio even more, so much so that he wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career.

There would often be a softball or baseball game being played on a near-nightly basis in LaFontaine, with upwards of 100 people attending. The town ballpark had a public address system; however, it had no steady announcing presence, instead relying on adults to volunteer to provide the play-by-play for the spectators. For this prospective broadcaster with a nascent avidity for baseball, sitting behind the microphone and vivifying the action became something hardly perfunctory, but rather an inspired art form. It afforded him the chance to interact with his community and his friends as a familiar voice, and helped prepare him for what would become a 47-year professional career carrying out this very task, albeit in different settings for different audiences through different mediums, and primarily in an entirely different sport. 

Going to a Major League Baseball game from LaFontaine was quite the trek for the young Mike Emrick and his family; therefore, attending was often a once-a-year event that took place in the summer. Driving northwest through the corn fields for approximately 150 miles without the presence of super highways, he and his brother Dan, accompanied by their parents, would eventually reach their “Field of Dreams” in Chicago, Il., where they would take in an afternoon game. From the time he was young though, Emrick cheered on the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call games of hall-of-fame outfielder Roberto Clemente on the wide-ranging KDKA radio signal.

Emrick had always had an interest in calling baseball games; however, that all changed one day in 1960. At the age of 14, he attended his first hockey game just before Christmas, a matchup between the visiting Muskegon Zephyrs and Fort Wayne Komets in Fort Wayne, Ind. The game ended in a tie, but Emrick was enamored with the game’s nuances, spontaneity and occasional fights nonetheless. While on the way to the car in a snow-filled parking lot to return home, he realized that this fast-paced game on ice would be the outlet through which his voice would be heard and passion for sport expressed.

“When I saw my first hockey game,” Emrick said, “overnight the whole idea changed from baseball to hockey. Then the question was: ‘Well, how do you get to do that?’”

Emrick closely followed the Komets after his realization, learning its players and the game of hockey listening on WOWO radio. While he was a fan of the team and enjoyed watching its hockey games at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, he was also there for another purpose in his quest to become a professional broadcaster.

“After I got my driver’s license at age 16, I would drive 40 miles on Wednesday nights to Fort Wayne and sit in corner sections of the old Coliseum… and do games into a tape recorder and try to get better at it,” Emrick recalled. “It was taking those games and using those sort of phony games; I used legitimate names of players because I would get a lineup and learn who they were. Then I would save the tape – and that was eventually my first audition that I sent out.”

Emrick grew up within a pedagogical household where great emphasis was placed on the proper use of the English language. His mother, Florence, was a home economics and physical education teacher while his father, Charles, was a high school principal, and the family owned a music store on the side as well. From the time he was in fifth grade, he received a salient piece of advice from one of his teachers about the inculcation and subsequent expansion of his vocabulary which he carried with him throughout his career.

“Once we used a word five times, it was ours for life,” Emrick recalled. “[My teacher] encouraged us to build our vocabulary, and so that was influential, I think, along the way.”

Emrick landed his first broadcasting job in 1973 as the radio play-by-play announcer in the International Hockey League for the Port Huron Wings (later renamed the Port Huron Flags) on WHLS radio for $160 per week. That job came after a series of rejection letters from a legion of hockey broadcasting outlets, the stationery located in a binder he keeps to this day.

The next season, despite nearly landing the Pittsburgh Penguins radio play-by-play job, Emrick added another job to his résumé by becoming the team’s public relations director and continued broadcasting games. While he had the will and determination to succeed and become an NHL broadcaster, his backup plan of becoming an educator was quite genuine in scope as his time in the minor leagues continued.

Shortly after he graduated from Manchester University in 1968 with a B.Sc in speech, and, one year later, an M.A. in radio and television from Miami University, Emrick’s foray into the world of college instruction began. Prior to working in Port Huron, Emrick resided in Pennsylvania, teaching public speaking classes at Geneva College and managing it’s 15-watt campus radio station. In addition, he volunteered to work as a correspondent for The Beaver Sun Times coverage of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a season press pass so he could further immerse himself in the game of hockey.

One of Emrick’s mentors in broadcasting was Bob Chase, the Fort Wayne Komets’ play-by-play announcer for 63 years, and someone who had a profound influence on his career. Chase called hockey, along with various other sports including basketball and racing amid his time behind the microphone, and while there were many other announcers doing play-by-play professionally, Chase was representative of Emrick’s soundtrack of hockey.

“I was a college guy and befriended him and he was very kind to me and would listen to my work,” said Emrick. “He was the one person that I listened to because at the time there was not a national TV package for the NHL, and so he was about the only guy I had access to.”

Emrick sought after his Ph.D in broadcast communications to ensure he would have a successful teaching career if his broadcasting dreams fell through. While in the doctorate program, Emrick honed his craft and earned his nickname “Doc,” a pseudonym he was called throughout his broadcasting career. In fact, his dissertation was titled “Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life,” and signed off by Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, his nonacademic advisor. Later in his career, he famously used 153 different verbs in a single game to describe the movement of the puck, including “squibbed,” “flagged” and “galloped” – an aspect of his broadcasting style, per se, that demarcated him from others in his profession.

“I always tried to use words that were hopefully interesting, but also I didn’t want to come across as talking down to the audience,” said Emrick. “I just wanted to use something that was creative and maybe amused people a little bit. Once one of those words was used, I tried never to repeat it the rest of that night because you don’t want to hammer people with the same one.”

Prior to the 1976-77 season, Emrick relocated to Portland, Maine to serve as the radio play-by-play voice and public relations director of the brand-new Maine Mariners in the American Hockey League – an affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. After three more years of hard work in the minor leagues, he finally made it to the pros with the Flyers as its television play-by-play announcer for home games on PRISM cable beginning in the 1980-81 season.

Having worked in both broadcast mediums, Emrick knows that radio requires the announcer to evoke imagery within the mind of the listener, while television is centered on the announcer’s reaction to the already-cultivated picture. While he never broadcast a boxing match, Emrick uses an analogy within that sport to describe the difference between the two broadcast mediums.

“I’ve heard it described before, and it’s probably accurate, [as] the difference between a boxer leading or counterpunching,” said Emrick. “In radio you basically lead, and in TV you counterpunch.”

Regardless of the medium though, what truly makes a broadcast unique is in how effectively it goes beyond the action taking place on the ice. Being able to do that comes in one’s preparation and knowledge of the game, both of which Emrick possessed and continued to grow upon being named the inaugural television play-by-play voice of the New Jersey Devils in 1982 on the MSG Network.

“The legs that get you from one thing to the next are the identity of the players,” said Emrick. “I think that’s still the most important thing of any play-by-play description is… the ‘who’… because it’s the people who are competing that draw the audience, and you need to identify who it is.”

Emrick returned to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1982-83, first as a spot announcer, and upon his departure from the Devils in 1986, as an studio analyst on UHF telecasts. In the same year, he began his first of many years of national television work as the lead play-by-play announcer for NHL games on ESPN, working alongside former NHL forward Bill Clement.

Before the 1988-89 season, Emrick was promoted by the Flyers to be the team’s lead television play-by-play announcer, working with his analyst Clement for a majority of the time in both his regional and national obligations. Working in both roles simultaneously, he has had to be cognizant of his audience – meaning that the preparation for regional and national games, while similar in methodology, differed from one another in terms of the time devoted to each team.

“Usually with a national telecast, it’s 50-50 on how much you talk about one team or the other,” said Emrick. “With a local broadcast, it’s usually 70-30 or 80-20 because if there’s one team that is supplying all of your viewers or most of them, you go that way.”

Emrick’s presence on regional sports networks continued upon his departure from the Flyers after the 1992-93 season, as he returned to Newark as the play-by-play voice of the Devils on MSG Networks. Broadcasting within the three-team New York-Metropolitan area marketplace for the Devils from 1993 to 2011, Emrick stayed up to date not only on his primary team, along with the Rangers and New York Islanders. As a result, the shift from regional to national television became smoother for Emrick, and with it, the allocation of the time he spent discussing each team more consistent.

“You treated it like a network telecast and I was very comfortable shifting from regional games to network because you had fans of numerous teams living in New York,” said Emrick. “Whereas in Philadelphia, you made the assumption that most of the people that were watching… were Flyers fans.”

Over his years at ESPN, Emrick called two Stanley Cup Finals, something that would render itself into an annual occurrence once he joined Fox in 1995. From there, Emrick called 20 more Stanley Cup Finals with Fox, OLN, Versus and NBC Sports – providing the description throughout the final roadblock standing between one team and a championship. Television, being the visual medium that it is, not only requires an announcer to be aware of their audience, but also of the moment and what will best transmit the atmosphere within the arena to the viewer. Throughout the course of enduring moments that stand the test of time, including game-winning goals, penalty shots and highlight-reel saves, Emrick uses his words judiciously, following a tried-and-true philosophy that requires discipline from the announcer with the potential to put an indelible stamp on the action.

“Less is more. Especially with television, you have a lot of people that have qualified to be in trucks and operating cameras and placing microphones in arenas,” Emrick stated. “Just like you are qualified to be there to describe it, they are the best at their profession… You don’t have to do everything. You have a lot of help.”

Emrick worked his first of seven Olympic Games in 1992 while on CBS, calling the ice hockey championships. While he had to consistently learn names of new players and adjust to the cultural differences of the host country, the quadrennial worldwide showcase built on tradition has induced games that have helped grow the game of hockey on an international scale. One of his most memorable broadcasts emanated from the thrilling conclusion of a gold medal matchup between Canada and the United States from Vancouver, B.C. in February 2010.

The game drew 27.6 million viewers, the largest television hockey audience since Al Michaels was behind the microphone for the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game between the Soviet Union and the United States aired on tape delay in 1980 from Lake Placid, N.Y. 

“Sam Flood, our executive producer at NBC, always told us [for big games] to broaden the brush,” said Emrick. “In other words, never try to talk inside stuff because we were going to have a lot of extra viewers, and you didn’t want to talk [about] inside stuff and have them feel like they were being left out. And so we basically let the game do the talking and did not try to do a lot of strategy or things like that.”

Part of a broadcaster’s job is to recognize their role within the greater production of a live sporting event. Sure, they are often omnipresent throughout the broadcast; however, they are hardly, if ever, supposed to be the main character. The job of the rest of the production crew is to adequately tell the story of the game, whether it be through camerawork, graphics or interviews. While they are not scripting the moments on the ice, the broadcast director coordinates the assorted roles to help the team’s vision of the end product come to life. It is a task that allows for creativity, but also requires evolution to shifting consumer trends – achieved through collaboration.

Down by one goal in the gold medal game, the United States pulled it’s goaltender Ryan Miller for the extra attacker, which led to forward Zach Parise tying the game with 24 seconds remaining in regulation time. Then in overtime, Canada forward Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal,” giving Canada its first gold medal since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I think I said, ‘…and Crosby scores – the goal to Canada,’ and then I said nothing for almost two minutes,” Emrick recollected. “I didn’t need to say anything because what we showed and what the people in our truck and the people operating cameras provided was the sound of the crowd and the microphones on cameras”

Over the years, Emrick has worked with numerous analysts, including Bill Clement, John Davidson, Bobby Taylor, Chico Resch, Doug Sulliman, Sal Messina and Eddie Olczyk. As a play-by-play announcer, Emrick ensured that his analyst would be implemented into the game, usually when he felt they could contribute to the broadcast or when he needed to take a breath. By including them in the broadcast, a greater ethos is established with the viewing audience and multiple perspectives are acknowledged.

“I think our business is analyst-driven,” said Emrick. “Those of us in play-by-play are there to enhance the game but not get in the way of it. It is when the play stops that you really learn about what has happened or what could happen in the future. Those of us who are describing the game don’t have time to throw that in, and if we did, our credibility is not nearly that of people who have actually experienced it, and that’s why analysts are there.”

Following the 2010-11 season, Emrick relinquished his role as the play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Devils and continued to work as the national play-by-play voice of the NHL on NBC for the next decade. His final season as an announcer was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once professional hockey made its return, Emrick found himself calling games remotely – something he had never done in his illustrious career.

Emrick officially announced his retirement from broadcasting in October 2020 after 47 years behind the mic calling over 3,750 hockey contests, including 22 Stanley Cup Finals, 45 playoff Game 7s and 19 outdoor games. Prior to his retirement, Emrick won the Foster Hewitt Award for “outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster” presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Today, the NHL is in the first of new seven-year contracts with both ESPN and Turner Sports worth a reported $1 billion. For Emrick, the specific networks carrying the games do not mean as much to him as the continued worldwide dissemination of the game of hockey itself.

“I cheer for everybody who winds up being on the air doing games… because this is a game that is wonderful and needs to be continually promoted by whoever winds up with the rights,” said Emrick. “I’m not a businessman; I don’t have billions of dollars in my pocket.”

Following the conclusion of the 2010 gold medal game, sideline reporter Pierre McGuire interviewed Miller and Crosby, and the two athletes, despite being on opposite ends of the outcome, spoke about the significance of competing in the Olympics and how special it was to play the game on an international stage. Reflecting on that broadcast sequence, Emrick affirms that he had never been more proud to be associated with the game of hockey because of the eloquence, class and humility with which they spoke. Therefore, as ESPN and Turner Sports are in the midst of presenting the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs to millions of hockey fans around the world, Emrick hopes that they focus on telling the stories of the athletes – the primary reason for which people tune in to the games.

“The athletes are wonderful, and they have been all the way back through the first years that I started going to IHL games and getting to meet them for the first time,” said Emrick. “The number one thing that we have to sell is not only the speed of the sport, but more importantly, the guys who play it because they’re really good people.”

Whatever the future of hockey broadcasting holds, Emrick has undoubtedly become an integral figure in the history of the sport – all while never donning skates on an ice rink in his life. The half-a-century he covered hockey would not have been possible without his steadfastness towards becoming a professional broadcaster, avidity for the game of hockey and the group of people who allowed him to expatiate on the proceedings situated on a 200-foot sheet of ice. Emrick continues to watch hockey to this day and listens to the next generation of broadcasters be themselves while calling the action, the very advice Bob Chase conferred to him early in his career.

“It was the realization of a lifelong dream to get to do hockey games anywhere to anybody, but to be chosen to do national games was a great honor and responsibility,” Emrick stated. “I never took it lightly, and I always appreciated those who gave me a chance.”

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