It was October of 1993. I was barely a month into my WHL broadcast career as the Voice of the Prince Albert Raiders and at the tender age of 20, I was summoned into the office of Raiders Head Coach Donn Clark.
He closed the door and said, “Whose team are you on?”
I stuttered and stammered, shook my head for a minute and then questioned, “Excuse me … what?”
“I need to know whose side you’re on,” Clark continued. “Are you going to be on our side, the Raiders, or are you going to be on your own side, questioning what we do?”
Clark was upset about my call of the game the night before, when he pulled starting goaltender Tim Bacik for back-up Kendall Sidoruk and I openly questioned the move on air. Having grown up in the game (having a father who scouted for 27 years in the NHL), played, officiated and coached the sport of hockey, I was comfortable with providing scathing analysis of the team for which I broadcast.
However Donn Clark wasn’t, nor was team General Manager Dale Engel, and what followed was an hour long discussion over how I should approach my craft.
It was then and there, 23 years ago, that I started to formulate my approach to the delicate profession of play-by-play and very quickly came to this hypothesis: sports fans hear enough bad and negative news in the actual news. They don’t need to hear it about their favourite sports teams.
I’ll circle back on this later, but for now I’d like to point out that the reason for this column is to provide some tips I wish I’d known a generation ago when I took up this racket. I’ll also pass along some invaluable advice I learned along the way from some industry greats.
I moved on from P.A. to become the Voice of the Regina Pats in 1995 at the age of 22. My boss, Sports Director Geoff Currier at CKRM Radio, was the Voice of the Saskatchewan Roughriders at the time and to this day is the best tactical football broadcaster I’ve ever heard.
I was observing him call a Riders game in the broadcast booth at Taylor Field in the mid-90’s when I told him in a break, “Man you’re doing a great job!”
He leaned over with his cigar-stained teeth and grumbled, “Kid, the star of the broadcast is always the game.”
Those words still echo in my head 20-some years later, at least on a monthly basis. If you survive in this profession, you’ll endure harsh criticism from all corners including, “Oh he thinks he’s bigger than the team”. It’s fine for your critics to think that, but you must never, ever start to believe it yourself.
The Star of the Broadcast is Always the Game.
If you taking nothing else away from this column, make sure that’s the thing you allow to sink in.
You will be asked countless times over the course of your career which broadcasters you looked up to as a kid, or try to emulate in your work. That was always a puzzling question for me, because I wanted to carve out my own style. However for the sake of an answer I’d always mention CBC’s Bob Cole, legendary Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek, ESPN’s Gary Thorne or former Pats radio broadcast man Kevin Gallant
I’m sure there are some remnants of all of those guys in my calls today, but it certainly isn’t by design. You do tend to take on the traits of the guys you listen to the most.
You’ll also hear that it’s in your best interests to be versatile, and it’s very true. If you can effortlessly float between the roles of play-by-play, colour commentary and hosting, you’ll be miles ahead of the one-trick ponies who are pigeon-holed into only one capacity.
How to do this? For one, on those endless busrides or flights, dive into the media guides of the teams in your league and the league directory itself. Absolutely devour them. And don’t just memorize them, learn them. Want to know who the all-time scorer is for the Tri-City Americans? Or who holds the record for most receiving yards in a Grey Cup game? Or the phone number of the Brandon Wheat Kings?
Just ask me. I can recite them all.
If that sounds like not much fun or too much work, maybe this gig isn’t for you.
It doesn’t hurt to hit the treadmill regularly and invest in a spiffy wardrobe. They used to call this your image but now it’s hip to call it your “brand”.
And of course, learn the game itself. Don’t lean on sexy phrases like the “Left-Wing Lock” or “Match Coverage”. Ask the coaches and players what they mean or even ask to sit in on a film session. You’ll likely be surprised to know the coaches will invite it. It shows initiative on your part, a genuine willingness to learn, and you’ll come away entirely richer for the experience.
Remember too that you don’t know as much about the game as these guys and likely never will. Conversely, they don’t know squat about how to broadcast a game, writing or social media either. I’ve gotten a long ways in this business by not criticizing too severely the players or coaches simply because they don’t critique the work I do. At least, not to my face or not that I’ve heard.
The hilarious secret that nobody in sports knows but I’ll divulge now is that the team broadcaster hears from absolutely everybody. You name it. Obviously the players and coaches, but also the trainers, the bus drivers, the billets, the parents, the girlfriends, the goal judges, the flight attendants, the referees, team management, the team secretary, the owners and of course the stickboys and ball boys. They all want to confide in you.
You must treat them all with respect and at the same time respect their confidence. The trick is separating the b.s. and propaganda from the truth, yet all the while keeping it to yourself or waiting until the right time to mention it on air. It could be years after the fact that you do.
I’m not sure there’s another role this unique on a sports team.
Another thing before we get back to the topic of objectivity because that’s what this piece is supposed to be about, is about breaking news. Being on the inside of the organization, you’re going to be privy to private conversations and witness some mind-blowingly crazy events that would certainly be front page news or generate 10,000 Retweets (like a confrontation between a player and a coach on a road trip for instance).
But you CAN’T report it. You’ll think about it a million different ways, get all twisted up in knots, but put your smartphone down immediately. It’ll kill you when it ends up on someone else’s blog or Twitter feed the next day, but that’s something you need to get over. Of course you’ll be chastised mercilessly for being “beat on the story” when you knew it all along, but you MUST let it roll off your back.
When you do, you’ll have earned the trust of the organization and trust is the fundamental cornerstone of what we do as broadcast professionals. In fact it is in all of life.
So on the topic of trust, how can your listeners trust that what you’re describing on the radio is true? It’s easy. Your primary audience is made up of the fans of your team. Again, it’s the group of people who bend your ear and, on a larger scope, it’s the people who buy the tickets, jerseys and caps of your team.
I can’t sum this up any better than former Pats coach Lorne Molleken did for me in the year 2000. The former Blackhawks, Penguins and Sharks coach was miffed over something I’d said on the air the night before so he sat me down, waved his finger in my face and advised, “You’ve got to broadcast the game from a Pats point of view. If we’re getting screwed by the refs, then you’ve got to say it!”
Message sent, and lesson learned. From that day forward, that’s been my approach and if fans of other teams are eavesdropping on my broadcasts and don’t care for what I say, that’s their problem.
They don’t sign my cheques.
Do we want our team to win? Of course we do! There’s nothing more exciting than being in the middle of a Conference Final in the WHL or CFL. The Memorial Cups and Grey Cups are what we dream of and our team needs to win to get there.
Rooting for your team on air has become much more acceptable nowadays than it was decades ago and that’s the American style leaking north of the border. HBO and blog god Bill Simmons is an unabashed supporter of the Boston Celtics while rising star Sarah Spain of ESPN is routinely photographed in Cubs gear. If you love your team, then why hide it? It certainly leads to some fun back-and-forth with fans of rival clubs.
There’s great commentary on this in the autobiographies Now Back To You Dick by Dick Irvin and Holy Cow! by Harry Caray. The pair are legendary homers and explain in their books why.
I guess now’s a good time to point out that it’s good practice to read the books by legendary announcers and I’ve devoured the works of Ernie Harwell, Bob Uecker, Al Michaels, the biographies of Vin Scully and Foster Hewitt and many, many more. They were the pioneers of the industry and they did it right. You want to learn the Old School way and morph it with today’s digital world? This is the path.
Now of course I saw the other side of homerism when I was calling the Regina-Red Reer series on Shaw and Access TV last spring in the WHL Playoffs. I was warned by the producer that there would be a large contingent of Alberta viewers tuning in and I needed to call the action right down the middle.
I tried real hard to do that and in truth, it wasn’t that difficult. I got excited for both teams’ goals (which I always have because goals and touchdowns are exciting no matter which team scores them but I get criticized for that too. Again, find what works for you).
Regardless, I left the booth at the Enmax Centrium after Game 7 in Red Deer feeling pretty proud of the job I’d done. That is until I opened my phone and was hit with a barrage of hate Tweets and blog comments from Pats fans who felt I wasn’t myself on the air, and wasn’t “Pro-Regina” enough.
So, you can’t win.
But I flew home on the Pats owners private jet and despite their devastation over the series loss, the owners patted me on the back and said it was a job well done.
Earlier this month Access and the WHL announced an expanded broadcast package which includes more Pats games than ever before so we must have done something right!
In summation, be yourself. Don’t copy anyone else’s style nor path to success. Do what feels right and if you’re steered in another direction, take some time to consider it and take the appropriate action.
But always remember, the star of the broadcast is the game.
*You can read more about broadcasting on Rod’s award-winning blog at www.rodpedersen.com and follow him on Twitter at @rodpedersen.