Larry Gifford answers 3 questions about radio; What do you do when news breaks? What do I think of the Doug & Wolf segment that almost came to blows? and Should the FCC ban the word “Redskins?
There are a lot of young broadcasters who are in need of guidance when it comes to play-by-play. You may have been listening to games on radio since you were “knee high to a grasshopper,” but listening and doing couldn’t be farther away from each other when it comes to calling games.
Enter Ross Fletcher.
Recently, I hosted a conversation with the Seattle Sounders FC play-by-play announcer and some young broadcasters and he offered up some terrific advice and even shared his game charts.
He talked about giving the score every two minutes, making sure listeners know which team has the ball and where on the field it is and be prepared. But, what interested me more was how Ross defined the roles of the play-by-play announcer and color commentator, how he preps each game and his passion for telling stories. He’s given me permission to share some of his comments and sent some pictures to help deomonstrate how he approaches game prep. Soak it in.
Know your role. “The play-by-play guy is there to shape what’s really going on and the color guy is there to embellish, to add that little luster and explain things in a bit more detail from a step back seeing that overall pattern. I always think the best combination of color and play-by-play is where the play-by-play is comfortable throwing the color guy a few things and asking questions. I love to ask my color guy questions, because generally the color guy who is there has a breadth of knowledge to answer those and it gives you a good back and forth, a good banter. It keeps the color guy on their toes as well. I would say generally the mix for radio is 70% play-by-play, 30% color. And so the analyst can really focus on the bigger picture stuff adding the “WHY?” to the play-by-play announcer’s “WHAT?” For exciting moments, it is 100% play-by-play until the moment has fizzled out. I’m a bit of a purist. I don’t like the color guy cutting into the play-by-play because on radio you’re still painting that picture and if it’s an exciting moment that chances are the action is going to be very, very quick and so that is a really intense moment for a play-by-play announcer to be able to punch stuff out. Then the color analyst can come in with analysis of the play; why it happened and how it happened.”
Preparation: “I’ve developed over 15 year really how I want this page to look. The actual sheet I have for the in-game the in running play-by-play is a folder (11×7). It has the home team on one side and the opposition on the other. The way I’ve built it up there are individual sticky notes for every player on the squad. That’s a lot of preparation but it comes into its own.
Every single player has their own sticky label and then when I know the confirmed team news I can very simply stick it on to my piece of paper the players who are in the starting 11 in formation order and so that makes it easy to identify both where the player is on the field and which sticky label to look at depending on who you want to talk about. On the sticky labels are the players number, name, age, height, games played, goals and assists, that’s the very basics and that can get you through any play-by-play. Beyond that I do three little bullet points for every player below the basics which give me three different talking points on every player on the field.
Above that I’ll have the current record, where they are in the standings, and recent results with the goal scorers, and next to the players sticky labels some very brief points or simple stats about the club. On the bottom left hand point of the home team I’ll have information on the refs, a sidebar on the head-to-head records of the teams playing, and then I leave about a 1/2 page blank for the storylines I mentioned. I jot them down in capital letters so I can quickly easily read what I need. On the other side, the bottom half of the paper are in-running notes that I keep which is the score, who scored, and the chances it created. Usually, I’ll have enough room for all significant chances, which is a good way to remind listeners what’s going on through game, or recap action during a slowdown of play. You’ll be able to jot down those notes because your color guy will be talking about what happened and analyzing how it came about. That gives me everything I need to know on two sheets of paper.”
On Telling Stories. “You are storytellers and the more stories you have the better. As long as it’s relevant to the game, tell your stories. People love stories. Quite often the athlete’s back story is what is most compelling and not the season stats. People love to get to know personalities. If you feel you have a connection with the people who are out there performing on an emotional level then you’re going to buy into the broadcast more. When the time is right, tell stories, and build the characters, because great sports are built on great characters. It’s called “the beautiful game,” soccer, because it doesn’t really lend itself that well to statistics so in opposition it does lend itself well to good story telling.
What I would say is that great story telling can start in the pre-game show and then you can come back to it during the game. I’m comfortable with people telling stories during the match itself. A substitution is a great time to tell story, because somebody is coming on and the people who are listening want to know about the guy that’s coming onto the field. It is important that you know your “in” line and know your “out” line, and being able to tell your story in probably 15 to 30 seconds. Always have that in your mind about how you’re going to tell that story so it fits into the commentary and doesn’t interrupt the flow of the play-by-play.”
Ross Fletcher started his career at BBC Radio Darby when he was 16. He was the Saturday intern who spent his time filling out soccer score sheets when he wasn’t making the host’s tea. He’s been calling soccer on radio since he was 19. He did some commentaries of lower league and it’s how he got his break. (“I got my break actually by doing games in front of 300 guys and 7 dogs. But you bring that same kind of work ethic to it. Seriously, there may have been more dogs at some of those games than people.”) He spent his early career with the Premier League team Darby County, in addition to national radio reporting and play-by-play on all four divisions of English soccer. He’s been in Seattle for nearly three years.
There is an issue facing thousands of radio co-hosts and sidekicks across the country; the radio station values the main host of your show more than it values you. That was the revelation this week for Fitz in the Morning sidekick Tony Russell when the host of his Seattle-based morning show got a new deal.
“I realized Fitz signed for another 5 years, but I didn’t. No one came to me to sign a contract for another five years.” Tony, who is documenting his mid-life crisis on the blog www.TheNextHalf.com, confessed his frustration on this week’s Radio Stuff. “Basically, Fitz’ decision was my decision. I had no say so in it what so ever. So I’m here for another five years too, basically. It’s kinda like Brooks & Dunn.”
It was a swift kick in the gut.
And then another does of reality hit.
“Hell, I’m not his co-host, because if I was his co-host this would be a 50-50 deal. Thus the word “co.” I’m a sidekick. And I thought, ‘Wow. I don’t really want to be here another five years if I don’t make more money.’ The truth of the matter is while I make great money for the rest of the country, for here (Seattle), I don’t even qualify to buy the average home. I thought, ‘This just sucks.'”
“The biggest mistake I made early on was not saying, ‘Hey I want my name on the show.’ Because, if your name is not on the bumper sticker your equity goes way down and so does your pay in comparison to a host. Get your name on the show when you’re starting out. Make sure you’re part of the brand not just part of the team.”
If all this sounds a bit mopey and “woe is me,” Tony has a caveat. He’s not bitter with Fitz or even blame him. He owns it. And as a licensed mental health counselor and ordained minister he offered himself some advice;
“Watch your attitude. Because it’s easy to get bitter. Remember you get to do something everyday that thousands and thousands of people would love to do. Walk in everyday like your pants are on fire and do the best you can do and again brand yourself. Find what your good at and don’t go ask to do it, don’t wait to be asked, initiate and show your value if you want to stick around.”
This week’s Ask Larry addresses new media, new jobs, and a need for new promotional ideas.
When I was growing up listening to radio the DJs made me happy and often times made me laugh. I remember just wanting to go to remotes to be near them hoping they’d recognize me as that guy who called in and requested that song once. I was weird. I didn’t request songs, because I wanted to hear songs. I called radio stations because it was a magic factory. It was mysterious, interesting and I was curious. The closest I could get to be at the radio station was calling the request line with a bogus request.
“Hi WNCI, Who’s this?”
My heart sinks. My palms sweat. A nervously laugh erupts.
A radio geek is born.
When I was sprawled out in the back seat of Dad’s company car forced to listen to WLW in Cincinnati, for hours upon hours, my Dad was happy. He enjoyed it. He laughed and listened and nodded as he drove.
So, when I got my shot at radio I knew I wanted to make people happy and make them laugh. So, I created a comedy show with three other guys. We called it “Renegade Radio.” We had so much fun putting the show together, but more often than not that funny fell flat. In fact, we were so concerned with being funny on-air, we forgot to have fun. We’d end up in arguments or worse silent, tension filled standoffs which make for great drama on TV, but sucky radio.
Here’s the deal. The guys my Dad and I listened to on the radio weren’t funny. They were having fun. We perceived them as funny, because it was enjoyable and fun to listen to. Radio hosts aren’t comedians (with few exceptions). We are entertainers, personalities and companions. Joke writing isn’t something that happens in an instant even for the great ones. Especially for the great ones. (see: Jerry Seinfeld “How to Write a Joke.”) If you really think about it the funniest moments in life are most often the unscripted, unplanned, morsels of spontaneity that tumble off the tongue.
Have fun with news, have fun with your show collaborators, have fun with listeners and you’ll be perceived as, funny. And likely fun, authentic and enjoyable too. If you’re always testing out punch lines and trying to one-up your co-hosts and forcing everything into a bit, you’re going to come across as schticky, annoying or worse a hack.
This week Larry Gifford answers three new questions about radio: What’s the difference between content and context? Why shouldn’t radio hosts try to be funny? And why can’t I find work?