By Garrett Jones
KCOU Sports recently held play-by-play training for its freshmen and first-year staffers. As part of the training, the sports staff reached out to several professionals in the field with four general questions. Their responses are below.
- Play-by-play is complicated. At its simplest form, what is one thing you think sets the best broadcasters apart?
Matt Hicks, Texas Rangers radio network: “In baseball, preparation and mechanics. Preparation is key for any sport, but each sport’s prep is different. For example, for me, basketball and football require more memorization. Baseball requires much less, but because of the way the game is played – quick bursts of short action – it’s vital you know where everyone is BEFORE the play begins. In baseball, you look away from the field much more than in the other sports, and you have to know where to find information. But you always want to limit the time you look away from the field – there’s always the danger of missing something. This is why I always use a large field chart for the opposing team that I place as close as possible to my sight line to the field. If in my mind I forget the other team’s left fielder that night, a quick glance to the chart and there’s the name…I never worry about forgetting the name.”
Drew Carter, 2019 Jim Nantz Award Winner, Sports Anchor, CBS 42: ‘Marty Glickman, widely regarded as The Godfather of Sports Broadcasting (Knicks/Giants/Jets, coined “swish,” mentored Marv and countless others, etc.), taught his protégés to “consider the listener.” That’s the key to broadcasting, in my opinion. The best announcers/hosts/anchors/reporters enter every broadcast trying to please the audience, not to make themselves look good. This can be really hard to do — especially for young people searching for jobs — but I think you should always ask yourself: “If I were watching or listening as a fan, what would I want to see or hear?” Not: “What will look or sound the best on my reel?” If you do this, the tape will be better, and it’ll happen organically. And note that the motto is consider the listener, not consider the listernerS. Always try to act like you’re speaking to one person and it will feel more intimate, for you and the viewer/listener. Last thing here (I could go all day lol I’m a nerd!): when you consider the listener, you’re compelled to go the extra mile. Find the extra nugget on the backup QB. Add a new word to your vocab every day, because you never know when you might be able to use it. Slash out unnecessary words (why say “left to go” when either “left” or “to go” suffices on its own?). Consider the listener and you’ll love the craft — that’s the foundation of every great broadcaster.”
Carter Blackburn, CBS Sports: “You trust what the best are telling you. The fundamental part of the job is to tell the audience what is happening in the game. You’d better know what is happening in the game, because if you don’t, your audience will stop listening to you.”
Nate Gatter, KCOU Sports alum, 2017 Jim Nantz Award Winner, Gateway Grizzlies: “The best broadcasters are knowledgeable, but conversational. In other words, they’re well prepared and have lots of statistical and biographical information at their disposal, but they’re smart with how they use it. They make the game the star rather than forcing in nuggets of preparation or making inside jokes/focusing on themselves. They describe the game first, then insert any additional information around the play-by-play to augment the listeners’ experience.”
“*Preparation. If you are unprepared, you will fail. You should be preparing AT LEAST an hour for every hour you’ll be on the air. If you want to be good, you should be spending two hours on preparation for every on-air hour. (I wrote this before reading the second question. I’ll answer again and leave preparation for the next question, but I believe preparation is the No. 1 most important thing for a young broadcaster just starting.) “
Carter Woodiel, former KCOU Sports Director, Sioux Falls Canaries: “I think 90 percent of play-by-play is ‘what’s the score’ and ‘where’s the ball’. It’s obviously tougher than it looks to keep listeners informed of those things but those are the two things that are above everything else. As for the rest, I remember hearing Dick Vitale say that the two things broadcasters need to do are educate and entertain. In other words, you’re trying to teach the listener/viewer something they might not know, and make the game more enjoyable for them.”
“Another important thing with this – the best broadcasters never put themselves before the game. Aside from a few folks who tuned in to that White Sox game with Bill Walton :/ people don’t turn on the game to hear from the broadcasters. Knowing where to step aside and let the game take over is key.”
Ben Wilson, KCOU Sports alum, co-host of KTGR’s The Big Show– “To me, the best broadcasters are the ones who put the viewer/listener and the players in the game first, all while understanding how to match their tone and inflection to the overall pace and flow of the game. There are so many nuances that come with calling a game, but at the end of the day, if you go in to every game with that mindset and make an effort to do more than just give the basic call of the game you’ll be off on the right track.”
Eric Nadel, Texas Rangers radio network: “The best radio play-by-play broadcasters describe things well so the listener can picture them easily. And they sound like they are happy to be there. A smile in the voice is always helpful.”
- In my eyes, a broadcaster is only as good as their preparation. Do you agree? What advice do you have for someone that’s never prepared for a game before?
NG: “Yes. If you are unprepared, you will fail. You should be preparing AT LEAST an hour for every hour you’ll be on the air. If you want to be good, you should be spending two hours on preparation for every on-air hour.”
CW: “I do agree! It’s by far the most important aspect of the job. As far as prep method, everyone prepares differently, and there was a lot of trial and error when I was first trying to figure it out. I’d start by finding as much info as I can about the players and teams involved (Google is your friend!). Then with each piece of info, ask yourself, “If I heard a broadcaster say this on the air, would I care?” If the answer is no it’s probably not worth including. Find as much that comes up ‘yes’ as you can! And don’t be afraid to change your prep process over time; I’ve called a few hundred baseball games and I’m still figuring out what works best for me.”
CB: “You have to prepare to perform. No one ever got hired based on their notes. Like an actor preparing lines, the preparation is so that you can deliver your account of the game as fully and accurately as possible. Preparation is a constantly evolving aspect for me, but nothing is more valuable than watching the team you are covering as much as possible.”
DC: “Yes, but preparation is more than just learning about teams and players (see above). You’re always preparing to be a better broadcaster. As far as game-to-game though, it’s paramount, but for me, it’s less about the material itself than the peace of mind. I find that the more prepped I am, the more comfortable and confident I feel throughout a broadcast and the more I can focus on fine-tuning elements I want to work on. For example: if I’m scrambling to find background info on the starters during the game, I won’t remember to say the time and score as often as I need to. When I show up to an arena with everything I need already etched in my mind or in my hand, I’m way more composed. That’s why I think it’s so key. And the more games you call, the better you’ll be at sifting through information and planning when and how to use your prep.”
BW: “Absolutely. I’d say prep is about 80-85% of the equation, the broadcast itself is only about 15%. Because if you don’t do the prep, you are going to get exposed quickly, and the rest of your broadcast is going to suffer. If you’ve never prepped a game before, my biggest suggestion is to take a blank sheet of paper and get all the info down about one of the teams on that sheet. Figure out how you want to organize it, but at the very least have all the players, their basic info, and the team records/info on the page as well. Then do the same thing for the other team. This is the most basic way of putting together a spotting board, and everybody does it differently, but the bottom line is you want to have all the necessary info on each team on one page. The last thing you want to do during a broadcast is to be sifting through pages of pages of notes, or trying to flip through the media guide. If that happens, your eyes aren’t going to be on the field/court and you will inevitably miss something. So start simple with your boards, and then make little tweaks and adjustments over time to make it as easy for you as possible to know where everything is.”
EN: “Pay close attention to the type of information other announcers provide and see what seems interesting to you. Then go get that type of information. For me, you are the one who has access to the players and coaches, so use that access? And talk to the other team’s announcers for the best inside info.”
MH: “Yes, I agree. Best advice? Broadcast a game without any advance preparation and remember that feeling. It won’t go away!”
- What’s something you know now that you wish you’d known in college relating to play-by-play?
NG: “I would tell myself this: You are bad at play-by-play right now. Whether you’re a freshman just starting or a senior with a couple hundred games under your belt, your play-by-play is not good right now. That’s OK. Seek feedback and accept criticism with grace. Use it to get better. Do not allow arrogance or ignorance to slow your development. The less ego you have, the harder you work, and the more constructive criticism you seek and accept, the more you will improve and the faster you will become the broadcaster you want to be.”
CW: “When I started at KCOU I put a lot of pressure on myself to get results right away. I think it’s important to remember that what you do in college is much more about putting work in than having a great call. This is a time in your life when you’re still figuring out how the job even works. in play-by-play, like with a lot of other skills, the results don’t always come quickly. You can be putting in work and improving every day, but not see results for a while. The key is to keep grinding because it will eventually click. For me things started clicking around the 45th game of my Cape League season.”
CB: “I had a professor at Syracuse who emphasized the performance and entertainment value of sports and television and many ‘more serious’ professors laughed at him. The more experience I have, the more I realize he was right.”
DC: “It’s so hard to measure your energy and excitement when you’re a college student calling a game. Not only are you naturally gonna be juiced up to call a game for your own school, but you probably know you’re not gonna call a ton of games in a given season (not sure how it works at Mizzou but I imagine it’s competitive and a bunch of people are gunning for reps), so sometimes you force it instead of letting the game come to you. Remember to unfold the broadcast at the start, leave some room to bring the energy up for big moments, and don’t floor the gas at the opening whistle. Breathe. When the game calls for more intensity, you’ll know it.”
MH: “How little you get paid doing minor league baseball…and how valuable it is to make contacts while in college and mine those relationships. Perhaps I’d be broadcasting in the NHL (my original goal) had I done more networking early on. No one ever exposed me to these things when I was at the Univ. of Maryland.”
BW: “The biggest thing for me was I wish someone had told me the importance of just being yourself on the air and not trying to sound like a network broadcaster. Because at the end of the day, the best broadcasters out there are the ones who reflect their own personality on the air and are comfortable with their own voice. When you’re 18-21 years old and your voice is still a ways away from maturing and deepening, it’s super tempting to just do your best Ian Eagle or Kevin Harlan impression and put on the Jim Brockmire-type voice. And it’s something everyone does subconsciously at first without even thinking about it, so it can be a really hard habit to break if you start calling games that way. Nobody ever told me I didn’t sound like myself until I had finished my first year of play-by-play out of college. One of my mentors pointed it out and told me how crucial it was for me to fix it. You can do all the prep in the world and have all the fundamentals down, but if you try to be someone else on the air nobody is ever going to take you seriously.”
EN: “Style is very important. It’s not just the description and the accuracy. Delivery and style is important and you cannot develop it until you have mastered the play-by-play aspect of the job.
- Anything else you think someone pursuing the field as a freshman should know?
MH: “A wise man and Hall of Fame broadcaster and person, Vin Scully, once told me in an interview that the most important aspect a young broadcaster should keep in mind is to be themselves. Do not try to be like anyone else. Be you! “
EN: “All aspiring broadcasters should know that the odds are seriously against getting a good job. There are far more aspiring announcers than there are good jobs. If it’s not your passion, find something else to do. And to help get a minor league or small market job, you probably need to sell advertising, so learn how to sell. And if you are going into baseball, learn Spanish.”
NG: “Dedicate yourself to this business or don’t waste your time. You will spend hours upon hours developing as a broadcaster, then spent countless more hours doing non-broadcast work as part of your eventual jobs. In minor-league baseball, broadcasters work 60-80 hours a week for less than minimum wage and spend — at most — a quarter of their time on broadcast-related duties. If that doesn’t sound like something you could embrace for years in order to get to where you want to be, pursue something else. There is no shame in that. I’ve considered quitting. Be aware going in that your path will be a long and difficult one and you will not be well compensated for your troubles. Very, very, very few broadcasters ever make it to Major League Baseball, or the NBA, or national television, or even NCAA Div. I colleges. Some do — and any of you could be capable of it. I do not mean to dissuade you from your dreams, but make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into and are prepared to sacrifice for success.”
CW: “Get as many reps as you can! KCOU is as good as it gets when it comes to campus radio play-by-play, but it’s not enough to build enough experience to get a great play-by-play job out of college. My experience at small schools and in summer collegiate baseball helped me tremendously in that regard.”
CB: “You are chasing sports broadcasting because it’s fun. Never lose sight of that. You will do it for free or very little pay for quite a while before it turns in to a living if you are fortunate enough to make that happen. Don’t let that reality distract from the enjoyment of it. Ever. And if someone tells you can can’t do it, use that as your motivating fuel.”
BW: “My biggest advice for freshmen coming in to school is to always say yes to any opportunity that presents itself. It doesn’t matter if it’s doing play-by-play for a sport you’ve never called before, color, a sports update, a pre/postgame or talk show, whatever. My first regional network broadcast was high school lacrosse — it didn’t matter that I’d never played or watched lacrosse, or knew nothing about the game. More than anything it was a great opportunity to get my foot in the door, so I said yes (and worried about the fact I had no lacrosse experience later). That ended up leading to a slate of college basketball assignments, so it’s a good example that you never know what sort of door will open whenever you say yes to an opportunity. Every rep is so crucial when you’re in college and to have an outlet like the student radio station to get experience is huge. So take advantage of that and always be thinking about what you can do to get better.”
DC: “I would just say do as many things and try to make yourself as versatile as possible. I’m writing this in the car on the way to Dallas to cover the biggest CFB game of opening week at Jerry’s World (insane), but I’m doing a job I never thought I’d pursue. I went to Cuse wanting to be a writer and only transitioned to broadcasting because I randomly ran into the WAER Sports Director during my first week of school. Serendipity, dude. Then I started pursuing PxP and didn’t plan to apply for anything in local news — and then I get an email from a news director in a great market asking if I’m interested in a spot. If I had focused solely on PxP during college, he wouldn’t have seen my anchor/reporter reel and wouldn’t have reached out, let alone offered me the gig. Be open to everything. That being said, check your priorities. To be honest, I really didn’t care about my classes — I don’t advise this!!! — because I found that I learned way more and met more people by gaining real-world experience. If you can do that in the classroom at Mizzou, great. Squeeze every ounce out of those opportunities. You’ll improve exponentially during college, to the point that you’ll cringe at your first tapes. Keep grinding!”