March 15, 2014

DFW’s radio play-by-play voices still going strong

The broadcasters are as relevant as ever, maybe even more so.

When Eric Nadel decided to pursue a radio broadcasting career, he developed a plan built around his friends Mel Allen and Red Barber.

Neither Allen nor Barber, icons of sports radio broadcasting, probably ever realized they were Nadel’s friends, much less intimate ones.

But that’s what those radio voices meant to a kid growing up in his family’s home in Brooklyn. At bedtime on most nights, Nadel’s parents could find a small transistor radio underneath their son’s pillow.

And most nights, it was either Allen or Barber telling Nadel a baseball bedtime story.

“That’s pretty much how I shaped my career,” Nadel said. “I wanted to be a friend like they were. They were my friends. They told me stories about the Yankees and Dodgers and that’s how it began.”

It’s that image of a young Nadel, one with his transistor radio tucked away, that is a benchmark memory of 60-plus sports radio broadcasting years.

The transistor radio, widely popular in the 1960s and ’70s, is arguably one of the first vehicles used to connect society with the world.

The art of sports broadcasting has come a long way from the 1921 Pittsburgh boxing match between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray, considered the first sports radio broadcast.

The days of the transistor are long gone, with choices including WiFi, satellite technology, the Internet and television.

Unless you’re Dallas Stars play-by-play man Ralph Strangis. On summer evenings, you likely can catch the veteran hockey announcer on the balcony of his Dallas apartment listening to his late grandmother’s 100-year-old Coronado radio.

While Strangis harkens back to the glory days from time to time, he’s like everyone else when it comes to getting the broadcast he wants.

Whether it’s a smartphone, a tablet or satellite radio, broadcasters agree that, while the vehicles of consumption have evolved, the basic backbone of broadcast play-by-play remains fundamentally the same.

The storyteller

Whether it’s Nadel, Strangis, Dallas Cowboys play-by-play guru Brad Sham or the Dallas Mavericks’ Chuck Cooperstein, each says the stories he tells during broadcasts are of utmost importance.

“If what we do isn’t interesting, it’s our fault,” Sham said. “This is a chocolate and vanilla question, really. It’s about what the listeners in general like and the consistency of which we bring it.”

Today’s broadcasters, be it television or radio, continue the standards set by old-school radio broadcasters.

Nadel, who worked with the late Mark Holtz on Texas Rangers broadcasts for 11 seasons, said he’s kept the same basic broadcasting procedure throughout his career because it puts the listener at ease.

And some of his usual banter is taken from broadcasters he’s listened to — or still listens to — today.

“Look, everybody knows what Rangers Ballpark [now Globe Life Park in Arlington] in Arlington looks like. They know what Fenway looks like,” Nadel said. “But I’m still going to tell them every night because I feel like it’s familiar to the listener. That’s my job.”

Telling the story, or as Strangis called it, “coming up with three hours of narrative,” isn’t easy in effort or logistics.

“You can’t just put a suit and tie on someone and all of the sudden they’re a broadcaster,” Strangis said. “I’m in the unique position of doing a simulcast, so even though I’m on television, the root of my call is from my experience as a radio voice. I’d go back to just doing radio in two seconds.”

Over the years, the importance of radio calls has shuffled down the media pecking order some.

In Cooperstein’s case, the veteran of college basketball and football broadcasts before he joined the Mavericks learned the hard way.

In one of his first preseason games, a timeout was called and he started in on a quick commentary to lead in to a commercial.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that was really good,’ ” he said. “But I didn’t realize that when they call timeout and you’ve got a hundred seconds, you’ve got a hundred seconds. That’s it.

“So, we were 15 seconds late coming back. It took me half a season to really get it all down because the NBA is such a fast-paced game.”

The fraternity

For Nadel, his career afforded him not only friends as a childhood listener, but a brotherhood with the three other professional play-by-play men in the Dallas area.

With the schedules they keep, it’s rare that any of them can get together for an evening to solve the world’s problems.

“I wish we did; that’s a great idea,” Nadel said. “I get out with Brad a few times a year and that’s because we worked the Rangers together for a couple of seasons. I see Ralph pretty regularly because I go to Stars games, and Chuck and I text each other a lot.”

Nadel said he has special relationships with most of the baseball broadcasters and considers John Miller, the longtime San Francisco Giants radio caller, a mentor.

For the Rangers’ play-by-play man, it’s been five decades on the mike. He will be honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the Ford C. Frick Award on July 26 in Cooperstown, N.Y., during induction ceremonies.

He said he still works to improve every day.

Sham said constant improvement makes sense, especially since newer technologies have expanded audiences.

“I think there’s always visionaries coming up with something,” Sham said. “With the advent of satellite radio, that’s taken Chuck, Eric and Ralph across the country. Satellite radio has opened new vistas for all of us.

“With radio, you’ve got a choice and so our job, especially for people in cars, is still the same as it was back then. Not everyone can be in a place to watch streaming video of some kind. We’ve got to tell the story for the listeners.”

The consumer

So who’s listening?

Ratings numbers don’t get specific enough for a team or school to really understand game-by-game impact, said Rich Phillips, assistant program director for KTCK/1310 AM and 96.7 FM, whose station carries Stars games.

“It’s inexact enough just for the 24-hour, seven-day numbers to understand what the impact is,” Phillips said. “Breaking those down into a three-hour window is almost impossible.”

What is possible is gauging the interaction of the people listening to the broadcasters calling local games.

Strangis said fans and listeners, for the most part, have a tough time engaging players or coaches, but the relationship with broadcasters who come into their homes and cars is different.

“They come right up to me like we’re best friends,” he said. “And that’s a great thing. I think if you spend a career doing this, you develop that relationship similar to what Eric talked about as a kid.

“For me, it was Ray Scott and Curt Gowdy that made an impression. These are guys that invented the craft and these are guys that were trained on radio. Plus, they had some local significance for me. Dick Enberg has this great quote about how national guys are liked and local guys are loved. It was always important to me to be that local guy.”

The satellite

When fledgling XM Satellite radio launched just after the turn of the century, and Sirius satellite launched shortly thereafter, a new radio platform was born.

Before that, if a listener wanted Vin Scully’s Dodgers calls or John Miller’s Giants play-by-play, he had to physically be within the geographic network.

But satellite radio changed that. Now, it’s possible to get whatever sports broadcast you want from wherever you want, whenever you want.

“It’s incredible. On the way to the game, I’m listening to someone’s broadcast on the East Coast and on the way home, I’m listening to Scully or Miller on the West Coast,” Nadel said. “And I’m scribbling notes on a pad sometimes, just hoping I can read it when I get home.”

It’s now possible to get the satellite feed on a smartphone and, beyond that, individual stations are now podcasting as well. The technology isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it’s light years beyond the transistor radio. And it’s getting better.

“I got a text once from Jon Bon Jovi who I became friends with in the Arena League days,” Sham said. “To think that Jon Bon Jovi was listening to a Cowboys broadcast in New Jersey, or wherever he was, is quite amazing.”

The future

From the radio booth to the executive offices, all agree that the future for radio is bright, just maybe at different levels in this rapidly changing environment.

“The main thing is the hometown call,” Cooperstein said. “When we get to the playoffs, it’s the only way for the local market to get the hometown call as opposed to the national one on the networks.”

Phillips said the listeners are getting more savvy around the local broadcasts.

“I’ve read on the message boards where listeners have used their DVR to sync our radio call over the Internet with the TV broadcast,” he said. “You know there’s like a 30-second delay, but listeners would rather watch the game on delay so they can have our excitement or disappointment involved.”

Strangis said he hopes younger listeners are consuming the right parts of what makes great play-by-play calling.

“Today 95 percent of kids consume things on their smartphone, laptop or television, in that order,” he said. “We’re reaching times now where consumers either cannot or will not consume three hours of any broadcast. What I’ve talked with engineers and producers about is that I could see a day where we’re packaging things in a different way.

“We may not be calling every play, and I think we’re headed toward a place that may be completely unrecognizable from its roots. Hopefully, the next generations will carry on things and continue the chain.”

Although the transistor might have run out of battery life, it seems like a radio spot on press row isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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