The great quantum leap for Dallas Cowboys radio broadcasts came in 1991 when the former station KVIL became the first FM channel to broadcast Cowboys game on what was the highest defined band in the industry.
Jumping from AM to FM was certainly a big deal. In fact, it was a red-letter kind of day considering the move to frequency modulation was also around the birth of digital surround sound as well as radio broadcasts reacting to the emerging technology and engineering of sound.
Considering Jerry Jones had owned the team for just a couple of seasons but held an early penchant for advancing the Cowboys’ brand and marketing via non-traditional methods, the marriage with KVIL and general manager Ron Chapman was a natural.
“Ron saw the Cowboys for what they really were,” Cowboys sideline reporter Kristi Scales said. “An entertainment package and a great show.”
Indeed the Cowboys were a hit right away, with increased audience and the evolution of different demographics.
Today’s Cowboys games are broadcast on KRLD-FM, 105.3 The Fan. The games can also be heard on KMVK-FM, 107.5 Mega (Spanish) and Compass Media Network (National).
People are still listening to games on the radio.
Although this season isn’t quite over and the Cowboys are 8-7 going into the final game, the Cowboys were averaging a 17.2 market share during game broadcasts in the 25-54 demographic for all listeners and a 25 market share for the men’s 25-54 demographic in the first half of the season, according to recent audio ratings.
Just like on the field, some games (Arizona, national anthem kneel game, 19.7) are bigger than others (Denver blowout loss, 14.0). Last season’s playoff game against Green Bay drew a 27.7 market share in the 25-54 demographic for all listeners and 33.9 for the men’s 25-54 demographic.
Sports radio 1310 “The Ticket” and 93.3 The Bone broadcast Cowboys games from 2006-2008. FM oldies station KLUV was the Cowboys’ home station from 2001-2005 and KVIL from 1991-2000.
But the groundwork for increasing listeners for the games can be traced to KVIL and Chapman in the 1990s.
Douglas Barricklow, a former freelance sound engineer now employed by the Cowboys, said what KVIL was doing was the envy of not only the radio industry but television networks as well.
“I was fresh out of college and just happy to be working with Ron,” he said. “The things they were doing were things that no other sports radio broadcasts had even considered.”
While Jones, who bought the Cowboys in 1989, looked to make a splash in the marketing game, having the crispest sound and expanding audience was Chapman’s motivation.
“He wanted Cowboys football to appeal to fans that didn’t listen regularly to games,” Scales said. “He had fresh ideas and we tried different things to really bring broadcasts to a different level.”
KVIL was perhaps the first radio station to incorporate parabolic microphones on the sidelines to pick up on-field chatter and bring more of the game’s sound through the radio.
Quite expensive to purchase, maintain and use at the time, KVIL put two on each side of the field.
“It was cool because Troy Aikman would line up under center and call out his cadence to the left and that mic would pick it up and play it in one side of the stereo and then he would shift to the right and it would come in the other side of the speakers,” Scales said. “That kind of development was so well received, we traveled with those things too.
“We would pack up a truck in advance and send it ahead of time to prep for road games.”
Getting more player and coach involvement in the broadcast was paramount.
“We began pre-recording interviews with players and coaches throughout the week and would drop sound bites of those interviews in between Brad Sham and Dale Hansen talking,” Scales said. “We had those chopped into small segments of 20-25 seconds, and the producer could cue those up and then Brad could fire off.”
For Barricklow, his first season working on Cowboys broadcasts came in 1992 when Dallas returned to the Super Bowl.
“That was the year the number of listeners went through the roof,” he said. “We added weekday programming and then the combined listeners from Sunday to Saturday was phenomenal.”
To say KVIL helped spark a revolution of sorts in sports radio broadcasting would be an understatement.
Television networks began to experiment with several of KVIL’s innovations and today, while the need for large production crews, producers and equipment has diminished in the radio booth, TV network crews and responsibilities have grown.
Most radio broadcasts now rely on television central mic feeds to keep the same quality of the broadcast that were first delivered in 1991.
Barricklow isn’t even at the stadium during games anymore.
“I monitor several of our streams from our studio here at The Star,” he said. “The business has obviously changed and with that change was a loss of what made each local radio station so unique.
“Now most of the metro radio stations across the country are owned by about five companies and the main point of order is to cut costs. Carrying around expensive equipment and trying to do things on your own just isn’t practical in that kind of plan.”
Still, engineers like Barricklow are needed to re-create the kind of sound fans are used to.
“We use a couple of mics now right outside the booth that help us create the stereo sound,” he said. “The feeds we’re getting are monotone now and we have to use some different techniques to make it work.
“With what we used to use and in our archival audio, you could pick up all kinds of stuff, players and coaches yelling, conversations and stuff like that. But now, when you hear Dak Prescott calling cadence, that’s actually coming from the ref’s mic which is controlled by the television networks.”
Radio, TV in sync?
Sham, working on year No. 39 as Cowboys play-by-play voice, agrees with Scales and Barricklow that the golden age of innovation in radio might have passed.
He said the biggest issue moving forward seems to be how to synchronize radio broadcast with what you’re seeing on the screen.
“Just syncing the sound isn’t easy because we’re not just dealing with the old school television package delivered by antennae,” Sham said. “Now it’s AT&T, Dish Network and even streaming on the internet where signal delivery varies and if someone could figure that out, that could be the next step for radio.”
So can the sound quality or broadcast get better than it is right now?
“Technically, I’m not sure what more we can do,” Barricklow said. “What you could do with the KVIL broadcast was delay it to match the television production.
“Now it’s much different. There’s about seven different ways to delay football and so getting it perfectly matched isn’t as easy, including the Janet Jackson delay.”
Named for pop star Janet Jackson, the networks add another mini delay in order to combat television subjects that might encroach on FCC regulations.
Singer Justin Timberlake famously ripped at Jackson’s leather bra in a Super Bowl halftime show in 2004, exposing Jackson’s breast to TV cameras.
Jackson went on to explain that the exposure was due to a wardrobe malfunction, but wasn’t suspended for six games.
Jackson hasn’t been invited back to perform. Timberlake will be the headliner for Super Bowl LII on February 4, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.
Still, the syncing delays make it difficult to match up Sham’s call on the radio with what you’re seeing on the television, but in some cases, it can still be done.
With those technical challenges, innovation is harder to come by these days, but the sound is getting better with time.
“We’ve always felt like we were competing with TV networks,” Scales said. “The budgets now make things more difficult, but we still have listeners that turn down television volume because we’re delivering the game in stereo.
“We know listeners are going to watch the games, so we want to give them a reason to listen to us call the game and having that professional sound and all the things that enhance the package is important.”
For Mansfield’s Linda Cooley, a 30-year season ticket holder at the old Texas Stadium, following her favorite team now involves syncing the radio broadcast with the national television feed.
“The jump to FM was fantastic,” she said. “If I couldn’t get to a game for some reason, there were lots of times I couldn’t even tell you what broadcasters were working the game because I always had the radio feed on.
“One of the photographers I knew helped me get on the sidelines in pre-game one time and I saw the parabolic mics up close. I never really realized what those were used for and so that was the first time I noticed the sound difference in the broadcasts.”
For Joe D’Antonio, now the commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, his love affair with the Cowboys and Roger Staubach, coincided with his hometown love for the Red Sox.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in Massachusetts, catching a Cowboys radio broadcast was very rare.
“For me, it was really the mid-90s or so that I began to be able to get the radio call over the internet and now there’s so many ways to get the feed that it’s all I listen to,” he said. “Over the course of time, as a fan, you knew there was more to the Cowboys than just watching them on television. Listening to Brad and the crew really gave us a chance to connect with the team.”