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Game Announcers Are Storytellers

Ross_at_Century_Link_smallerThere 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.
Player LabelEvery 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.

Team PagesAbove 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.

Radio Stuff “Radio News Quiz” – Week 3

Radio News Quiz 3The Weekly Radio Stuff “Radio News Quiz” debuts on Thursday in the podcast. It’s 10 Questions about this week in radio news. In the podcast, we discuss the stories and use lots of great audio. Here we post the question and offer links to the answers. If you get all 10 correct you win the respect and admiration of your peers.

THE QUIZ

1. What RADIO event kicked off this week with a live, rocked-out version of the national anthem?

(Answer

2. At the Talkers 2014 session, Radio insider Jerry Del Colliano said music radio has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. This week, he made headlines for predicting the demise of another genre. What was it?

(Answer)

3. A Yankees reporter learned a valuable lesson this week about recording press conferences on an iPhone app. What was it?

(Answer)

4. Why did the Morning Zone at 91.3 Modern Rock in Victoria, Canada dial-up its sister-station 95.3 The Peak in Calgary?

(Answer)

5. Which popular radio host just launched a clothing line at Macy’s?

(Answer)

6. What did Mike Tyson do on Canadian TV that all radio interviewers can learn from?

(Answer)

7. Why did the San Francisco 49ers suspend play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson?

(Answer

8. What inappropriate or insensitive song was used to launch a format change in Rochester from Oldies to Country on 9/11?

(Answer)

9. Which talented podcaster was the host of the Fox Sports Radio 2001 Year in Review which paid tribute to 9/11 from a sports perspective?

(Answer)

10. What RADIO STATION did Joan Rivers debut on as a talk show host?

(Answer)

Are You Ready For The NFL?

The NFL deal is almost done (It’s 7:58a PT). Sundays this fall won’t be wasted on chores and church socials — and the fantasy football smack talk will continue per usual. Are you ready? Is your station ready? Are the promos locked and loaded? Is the website ready to go? Did you proactively plan for this moment — or are you scrambling in reactive mode today? If you aren’t ready for this — which we all knew was coming – what else aren’t you ready for?

Here’s the latest NFL timeline.

Play by Play: What’s the Score?

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.”

In an interview with Larry Gifford Media, Ohio State football and basketball play-by-play guy Paul Keels makes it clear.

“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.”

Lakers radio voice Spero Dedes agrees.

“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.”

Paul Keels Interview Podcast 20 minutes

Spero Dedes Podcast Interview 24 minutes

Look Who’s Talking Play-by-Play: Steiner, Dedes & Keels

When Charley Steiner was just a boy, the first game he heard on his mom’s microwave-sized Zenith radio was a Brooklyn Dodgers game announced by a 23-year old Vin Scully.

“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.”

Dedes is in his sixth season as the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers and is a play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports NFL and NCAA Basketball coverage.

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.

Charley Steiner Interview Podcast-40 minutes 

Paul Keels Interview Podcast 20 minutes 

 Spero Dedes Podcast Interview 24 minutes

Down The Rabbit Hole with Charley Steiner a.k.a. Dinners with Vin Scully

Dodgers radio play-by-play announcer Charley Steiner was seven years old when he first heard Vin Scully calling Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games while growing up in New York. Today, he is friends and colleagues with Scully and has dinner with him before every Dodgers home game.

“I pinch myself. It can’t be much cooler than this.”

In an interview with Larry Gifford Media, Steiner’s voice is filled with all the excitement of the same little boy who huddled around an over-sized Zenith radio in his Mom’s kitchen to listen to Scully’s poetic description of the Dodgers all those years ago. And at times, Steiner finds it hard to put what it means to him into words.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have done what I’ve done, to end up where I have been and to have dinner with whom I have dinner. It’s…it’s…it’s….it’s Alice in Wonderland.”

Entering his seventh year in the Dodgers’ radio booth, Steiner acknowledges that counting the 83-year-old Scully as a friend and mentor is bit “Gumpian.”

 “I freely admit I get to play pepper with Babe Ruth every day. It ain’t bad.”

Every Dodgers home game, Steiner, Scully, Rick Monday and Billy Delury sit down at the same table, in the same seats at the same time (“5:30, like clockwork”) at Dodgers Stadium. For 45 minutes, the four men talk about the issues of the day.

“Vin reads every section of the newspaper every day. So we will spend as much time talking before a game about life, about a political issue or whatever, as well as how well ‘he’ hung the curve ball in the sixth inning last night.”  

Spending so much time with Scully has helped Steiner develop a wicked good impersonation of the Hall of Fame announcer. His voice jumps from the depths of his belly to the top of his nose and dances out of his mouth like ice cream cone dripping down your hand on a hot summer day. Imitation is the finest form of flattery and Steiner doesn’t hold back.  

“In the booth, technically he has impeccable timing. He has an unbelievable vocabulary. He has the ability to reach for the right word and the right emotional tone – every time.”

Steiner continues, “You know that old sports cliché: the game speeds up for young guys and slows up for veterans?  The game comes slow to him. I mean that in the highest regard. His brain is working a mile a minute. It’s like Keanu Reeves’ character in Matrix, deflecting bullets in slow motion, that’s Vin!”

The lessons learned from Scully for Steiner reach far beyond the broadcast booth.

“I’ve learned as much off the air and how he conducts himself as I have on the air. There’s a sense of composure both on and off the air. There is a separation between the on-air persona and who you are and being able to leave that other stuff at the door when the game begins.”

On March 31st, Steiner will be in the booth as Scully opens his 62nd season as the voice of the Dodgers. Scully will call the first three and last three innings on Talk Radio 790, KABC radio in Los Angeles, with Steiner and Monday doing the middle three innings.

Charley Steiner on Vin Scully – Listen to Steiner’s comments on Scully

Charley Steiner Interview Podcast-40 minutes – Listen to complete interview with Steiner

Read more from Charley Steiner in the Larry Gifford Media “Let’s Talk About It…” Newsletter

Secrets of PPM

PPM is about four years old and we continue to learn more about how to use the insane amount of information it provides and what strategies to use to maximize ratings. Inside Radio and Research Director Inc. just released a new study on PPM based on the top 30 markets. Research Director Partner Charlie Sislen talked to LarryGifford.com about the study (click here for the full study) and he provides strategic tips for programmers who are struggling in this new world.

 One of the findings in the study which may be disturbing to programmers of spoken word formats is that CUME is more important than was first thought. “Everybody knows in the PPM world CUME is important, but when you look at top skewing radio stations they are all really CUME and not TSL driven. We really believe it’s the P1 CUME that’s doing it,” says Sislen.

Sislen notes that play-by-play can help the spoken word format draw in CUME, but it is not a magic bullet; the success of play-by-play depends on the team and the market, and in many cases it can be a detriment. “What a programmer has to recognize is that this event is an important launching point for your radio station to recycle this audience back in. Take them from being P4s and get them into regular listeners. Give them a reason to come in to the other day parts and give them a reason to come back the next day, the next week, some time outside of that play-by-play.”

So how can you win with PPM? Sislen offers the three “C’s” for talk hosts;

  • Crisp
  • Concise
  • Compelling

“If you’re not crisp, concise and compelling and you’re spoken word, the listener is going to go away, and the moment the listener goes away the PPM knows it.”

For programmers, Sislen stresses the importance of building occasions. “For sports, to put it in perspective, the typical P1 spends 6:44 with the radio station (per week). You get four more occasions (of at least five minutes within a quarter-hour) from those people that 6:44 has gone to 7:44. That’s massive. We’re just talking about your P1s and we’re getting them to come in just four more times in an entire week.”

The other hot issue is clocks. How many spots are you running and where are you running them? Some suggest two breaks per hour straddling the top and bottom quarter-hours and Sislen doesn’t disagree. “In a vacuum, absolutely that’s true. However, we don’t live in a vacuum and the spoken word is different than a music format and you’ve got to know what your competitions clocks are. Study your clocks and make sure you understand the rules that you need to garnish to get credit for a quarter-hour.” Once you figure out your competitors clocks, Sislen says you should be going into content when they go into commercial break. It’s that simple.

Listen to our entire conversation, including the importance of marketing your show and station, how buyers and sellers still need more education and what’s next for PPM.

Charlie Sislen Interview Podcast