One of the most common questions I receive from aspiring play-by-play announcers is, “How often should I give the score?”
The short answer is, “as often as you can.”
“When it comes to radio you can never tell the score, and the time and location too much. There’s old stories about Red Barber and egg timer and things like that, but really what we try to do is make sure we set down and distance once if not twice, give the formation of receivers whether they are right and left, what kind of formation the running backs are in, but also be mindful the time and score is most important thing.”
“For sure after every made basket obviously you want to give the score. I think after every possession change you certainly want to give the score. Also when a team has a possession and they gain an offensive rebound and kind of reset for a new possession I try to give the score as well. I don’t think you can give enough, I really don’t.”
Why so much? Keels explains.
“Because when people are listening on radio, a lot of times they are listening while driving, they listening while doing one thing or another and so the focus is not always focused in on everything that comes out. You just try to point out those elements as much as possible. Sometimes we hear complaints that you give the score and time too much. Well, the reply is you know what the score and time are so you’d much rather over do it that way than under do it the other way.”
“I knew when I was 7 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up with all the specificity of I wanted to be the announcer for the Dodgers.” Steiner continues, “The big thing, more than anything else, was hearing this disembodied voice coming out of the speaker and beneath the voice you could hear the crowd cheering, you could hear the guy selling, ‘Peanuts! Popcorn!’ and I’m just sitting there like a dopey little kid listening and listening and listening. I think it was my Mom who said, ‘You know that’s his job.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’”
This season marks Steiner’s seventh in the Los Angeles Dodgers radio booth, which he will share again this season with Vin Scully, who is entering his 62nd season behind the microphone.
Paul Keels grew up in Cincinnati in the late-60’s listening to Jim Mcintyre call Reds games alongside the then-recently retired Reds lefty Joe Nuxhall. He also recalls Dom Valentino describing the action for the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals games and Marv Holman providing play-by-play for Ohio State football.
“Just being able to listen to the games on radio, keep up and learn about the sport, learn about athletes and keep track of what was going on kind of gave me a great feeling of how wonderful it was to have something provided to you almost as if you were at the event. It gave me the feeling: wouldn’t that be nice to be able to be the go-between for other people like others had been for myself and my brothers while we growing up listening?”
Keels is in his 32nd year of broadcasting including stints with the Reds, Bearcats, Bengals, Pistons and he is in his 12th season as the voice of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Spero Dedes was a huge Knicks fan as a kid and used to tune into Mike Breen’s call of the games.
“I recall at some point I stopped paying attention to what was happening in the game and started paying more attention to what the announcers were saying. My passion for play-by-play started there and just grew.”
I talked to Steiner, Keels and Dedes for the Larry Gifford Media “Let’s Talk About It” newsletter to get a better idea of what it takes to be a successful play-by-play announcer. The entire interviews are available as podcast downloads at the conclusion of this story.
GIFFORD: All three men were inspired to be play by play announcers when they were young fans and listeners. So, I asked them what their obligation to the fan is going into each game.
STEINER: Tell the story as truthfully and accurately and photogenically as you can on the radio. You have to paint the picture, because there is someone stuck on the freeway, there’s someone working in a kitchen and (that person) doesn’t have access to television. I have to “A” paint a picture and “B” be as accurate and precise as I can be.
KEELS: When you’re describing a game, it’s about what’s going on, on the field. It’s not about you; it’s about the listeners, players and coaches on the field. Be mindful of those people who are listening. They can’t see what you.re seeing and you need to describe it as best as possible so they can.
DEDES: The obligation is to give as much information as we can and present it in a way that is unique. With the access we have to the coaches and players every day, we can go into the locker room, talk to the guys, we.re on the airplanes with them, we travel with them on the road; I think our obligation is to give them that behind the scenes look and take advantage of the access that we have.
GIFF: All three guys talked about how important preparation is. They all read newspapers, websites, blogs, stat sheets, and media guides. They all talk to players, coaches and other announcers to get information. So, what are they looking for?
DEDES: Just stuff that stands out. I’ve never been a numbers-driven play-by-play guy. I think numbers work better on TV than they do on radio. I try to look for story ideas, little nuggets we can play into the broadcast in a conversational way. Throwing numbers out there on radio…it doesn’t translate as much.
KEELS: It starts with trying to get as much biographical information (on the opposing team) and organize that in a way that’s suitable. Try and, as much as possible, view the opposing team on TV at least once or twice. DVR has been a great thing because you save some of these games and watch them over and over to get more familiar with people. And as much as possible talk with the other team’s radio announcers, sports information directors and pick up what you can and read sports pages and newspapers that cover the teams on the Internet. And have all of that as best you can at your disposal while the game’s going on.
STEINER: (Listen: Charley Steiner No Sh-t Philosophy) I have a “no sh-t” philosophy. Well, what’s that? “A” I don’t want to put any sh-t on the air. And “B” any stuff I put on the air I want to get a reaction from the fans, “no sh-t?” That’s it. You want to be relevant. You don’t want to beat folks over the head with inane statistics and inane chatter; make it interesting, make it entertaining. At the end of the day – especially broadcasting a baseball game – make it fun.
GIFF: What advice do the these three pros have for aspiring play-by-play broadcasters?
KEELS: Be mindful of the people you work with. Try not to burn bridges, but do the best at the job you have. Don’t always be putting more effort into the job you want that’s not there in the moment than the job you have in the present time.
DEDES: Try to figure out what your strength is early and try to develop that talent or skill as best you can. And then, once you establish that, you want to become versatile. Writing is imperative, I think, to anything in this field that you want to do; even as a play-by-play guy. I like to sometimes write something that I’m going to say…one of our game opens. You always have to be able to write. During the course of a game you want to cap a call with one phrase or one line of commentary and those are writing skills. Maybe not pen to paper writing skills, but skills with words. You have to convey through the spoken word during play-by-play.
STEINER: Our business is one of the very few on Earth where it is a prerequisite that you must have fun. If you don’t have fun, sure as hell your audience won’t. Leave your issues at home if you have any. Leave your ego at the door if you have some. Go out and a call a game. If you can go home at the end of the day, look at yourself in the mirror and say I told them the best story I could today and go again tomorrow. Mission accomplished. It’s been a good day.
The podcasts of my interviews with Paul Keels, Charley Steiner and Spero Dedes are available for download and include more details on how they prepare for each game. Plus, Charley talks about eating dinner each night with Vin Scully and what it was like to create an iconic “This is SportsCenter” commercial. Spero discusses the most intimidating moment of his career — taking over the legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn.