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Radio Baseball

I was having a conversation the other day with a fellow radio professional about sports radio, specifically baseball on the radio. He was expressing his belief that in today’s world “nobody listens” to baseball, particularly minor league baseball, on the radio. Further he explained, that people only tune in at all to hear “a voice,” a phrase that he does not mean to describe a personality but rather a specific tonal quality. He is very down on the idea of minor league baseball as a listening base.

Look, Minor League Baseball is a tough business, one exec said that if they depended on “just the baseball” to draw a crowd, they’d be out of business, hence the Minor League fascination with oddball, eccentric and pop culture iconic event nights. These things are fun. But nothing puts butts in seats like winning or at least have a high quality product on the field. Find a way to combine the two and you really can’t lose.

In any case, the radio baseball listener is different. He or she IS tuning in for the baseball. Whether it’s the parent of a player on the other side of the country or a hard core fan who loves his or her team but cannot attend the game for some reason.

Listening to baseball on the radio IS different than watching it on TV or going to the game. Which is why broadcasting stations need to keep in mind that the demographic for baseball is different. The listener – granted a smaller audience – is made up of people who both connect passionately to their team AND have an intellectual approach to the sport. They aren’t going to be swayed by “silly” or “loud” commercials and they aren’t looking for the same products that the twenty-something’s are hearing about on the pop-music show. It’s a great place for higher end intelligent products and services that appeal to people who think.

For me, baseball is the cosmic background radiation of my life. It is always there, and always providing me with a moments distraction. I love having a game – any game – on the radio pretty much all the time if I can. The advent of internet radio has made this amazingly possible, and there are days when I will have a game on the “radio” from early morning (I live on the west coast) to late at night. I listen to a lot of baseball, and I feel like I have something to say about the people who broadcast the games.

First, I am not listening for a “voice.” I am looking for a local person who is both objective AND a homer.  I want the guy who gets excited by any good play and is positively giddy when it’s his team. I want a guy who rides the bus with the team and drinks with them (assuming they’re over twenty-one) and eats with them on the road. A guy who is part of the team, in the sense that he communicates the team to me.

Second, he does need to have some background and skills in the game. The worst guys on the radio are people to whom it is a job, who despite their “pipes” don’t really connect with the game. Those folks cannot communicate the game orally. They don’t paint the word pictures that both help the listener see what happened and  at the same time, allow them to create their own mental visual of the play.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he has to emotionally connect. This is harder than it sounds, but is easily recognized when heard. It is, of course, easy to be excited when your team is winning and playing well. But a broadcaster who makes that connection and continues to be objective and passionate during a bad time is the best of the best.

So some of my favorites?

Charlie Steiner and Rick Monday – Dodgers.

At first they seem an odd pairing and their interplay at first seems stilted and rough. But as l listened more and more I came to appreciate the clear cut distinction between the two, unlike many partner teams who both sound similar and talk all over each other. Steiner and Monday almost never do that, and you’ll never wonder who is talking. Add in Monday’s playing experience and Steiner’s all around sports knowledge and you get a pretty good team.

Mike Curto – Tacoma Rainiers

A Cal League Veteran (Rancho Cucamonga), Mike is an English Lit major which is clear in his delivery and vocabulary. He is a thinking fans broadcaster and as a bonus, his blog may be one of the best in all of minor league baseball. The only drawback is that there is no local station picking up the Rainiers broadcasts, so he is available via the internet only (milb.com)

Zack Bayroute, Stockton Ports

My favorite, hands down and not just because he’s a friend and we work together on occasion…

Zack is one of those multi-sport guys who is destined for bigger and better in sports broadcasting. He looks good on TV and has a great command of his words and presence even when threatened by a rouge bee in the booth. Mostly he has the ability to connect with the team and with the listener. You feel the joy and the pain with him. And it really doesn’t matter if it’s the Ports or the (UOP) Tigers basketball team. Zack’s “trademark,” if there is such a thing, is his vivid descriptions of the surroundings, including uniforms and colors as well as the venue and the surrounding environs. Even the moon, if he can see it. He really brings you into the ball park with him, then tells you the tale of the game.

There are many more, but for me, my 2012 Season was basically these three, along with the guys in Cincinnati who are all homers and hysterical. I almost crashed my bike while listening to them one afternoon talk about one of their own pitchers misadventures on the mound.

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On the Radio

The first week of Baseball draws to a close. Seems like most of my “favorite” teams are off to good starts, with the Dodgers, Mariners, Ports and Rainiers all .500 or better. That makes for an optimistic week.

So far my favorite game of the year is the Friday night come-from-behind win by Tacoma. With the A’s and Mariners on the TV, the Dodgers already done, I brought up the (free) radio audio for the Rainiers from Cheney Stadium and listened as the R’s scored 5 runs in the 8th after starting the inning down 7-3 against the only 7’ tall pitcher in the game today, Loek Van Mil.

There really is something special about a game on the radio. Yes, Baseball on TV is quite nice, but the special cadence and flow of a game on radio is mesmerizing to me. The pauses when the crowd comes softly through the microphone, the sound of the pitch hitting the catcher’s mitt, the crack of a bat and the “Ahhh” from the crowd until they are certain that the ball will either be caught or the cheers when it lands for a hit.

Because of my job, I know that most minor league broadcasters will add an extra microphone that is aimed at the crowd, usually just hung out the window of the press box, or occasionally taped to the top of the window. But it’s that extra touch that adds so much. In an era of life that finds us bombarded by constant talk and chatter (and yeah, I get the irony of that*), I find myself drawn into the game when the play-by-play announcer takes that pause.

I play along with him, knowing that he is looking up a fact or stat, taking a swig of Coke or coffee, sharing a quick joke with his counterpart from the other team, or even cursing softly over a balky piece of equipment. But the game goes on, even in the silence that lasts just a few seconds. Players are walking to and from dugouts, the sound of fans, like bee’s droning away on a lazy summer afternoon. It is one of the most relaxing experiences in my life.

And then the Rainiers get a hit. Then another. And another. The excitement builds and the crowd gets louder. Each pause by the announcer now seems unbearable with the building anticipation. It is as if we all know what will happen and we are just waiting to hear it.

Satisfied by ten batters and five runs, our play-by-play man takes us to the commercial break, now with an 8-7 lead.

Sure, you could watch that on TV, but trust me, it’s better on the Radio.**

*My job – Talk Show host

** Or the internet equivalent

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