Reviving the Radio Star

High-def TV made the living room a better viewing experience than attending games for many NFL fans. But football's word painters—the announcers in your earbuds—could make the upper deck a go-to destination again

By
Richard Deitsch
· More from Richard·

As he chronicles the exploits of Joe Flacco, Jacoby Jones and Terrell Suggs each week, Gerry Sandusky, the longtime voice of the Ravens, says he envisions his older sister, Ruth McFadden, listening to his broadcast from her home in Silver Spring, Md.

“We grew up in a football family and she knows a great deal about football, but she could not diagram a tackle trap,” says Sandusky, whose father John was a longtime assistant coach in the NFL. “She cares about the people, the storylines, the flow of the game, where the ball is, what the crowd is like, and great storytelling. I am always talking to my sister when I’m on the air without her realizing it.”

Ruth McFadden is part of a group of NFL fans rarely written about—those who listen to the NFL on the radio. With so many fans owning big-screen, high-def televisions with surround-sound systems and other new-age adornments, radio coverage of the league often feels like an afterthought. So much has been written about the home experience versus the in-game experience, but that debate is always television-centric. It makes you wonder: Does radio coverage of the NFL have a long-term future?

Says Sandusky: “It does because it caters to everyone who can’t be home or at the stadium, people on the road, people working, all the people who cannot be at commonly consumed spots for football.”

The audio quality of radio broadcasts could improve to the point where it sounds like the announcers are in the same room with you. And consumers could soon have the option, no matter the device, to sync the audio to a television broadcast without delay.

The biggest advantage radio has over television is that fans, given their loyalties, generally prefer a local broadcast to a national broadcast. It’s why you likely know someone who has synced up his television so the home team radio broadcast plays concurrently. “We know from our research that the true hardcore Giants fan still wants to listen to us,” says Bob Papa, who has called the Giants radio broadcast fulltime since 1995 and also does the team’s preseason games on television. “People always come up and tell me the different contraptions and ways they set up listening to us. The Giants fan, Bears fan, Bengals fan or whomever, they want the hometown announcer because of the excitement factor as opposed to two guys in television who will give you a down-the-middle broadcast. Fans want the inside skinny on their team. They don’t want a profile or feature or a sideline reporter giving you a story on the other team. They want their broadcast to be home-team centric.”

Papa says Giants home games are not broadcast on a delay as a nod to the fans at MetLife Stadium who are listening to the game. For road games, Papa says the delay is minimal (usually a couple seconds) to make it easier for people to sync their televisions with his broadcast. Sandusky often hears the same thing in Baltimore, with hundreds of fans telling him they run his Ravens radio broadcast through the television.

Howard Deneroff, the longtime executive producer for Westwood One Sports, is also bullish on the future of NFL radio given how society has become mobile with its sports consumption. Deneroff said more than 23 million listeners tuned into a portion of last year’s Super Bowl broadcast on Westwood One Sports. (That number does not include satellite radio, online, or mobile, which all carried the Westwood One broadcast.)

“Radio, or audio more appropriately nowadays, is accessible everywhere—via radio, cars, online, and mobile devices,” says Deneroff. “We have immediacy, mobility and other intangibles that TV doesn’t have, especially in unusual times. I will point out that at last year’s Super Bowl, we were the first media entity back on the air reporting the power outage, the first to report it was isolated to the Superdome and not affecting other parts of New Orleans, and the first to report what caused it. All were important because unfortunately the word terrorism was an immediate thought that entered everybody’s mind. Radio is still an important means of communication, even though ways of consuming it have changed.”

What makes a successful radio broadcast for football? “It’s all about your ability to relay the action in a timely and descriptive manner while also conveying the emotion of the game,” says Ian Eagle, who calls Thursday night football for Westwood One Radio, as well as wild-card and divisional playoff games. (Kevin Harlan is the radio voice of Monday night football and the Super Bowl.) “There is a certain ebb and flow to a radio broadcast,” Eagle adds. “But most importantly you have to ask yourself the question, ‘Are the listeners getting the information they need to follow along?’ ”

caption tk
Bob Papa has called the Giants radio broadcast fulltime since 1995. (Richard Brightly/Icon SMI)

Eagle says the score, time remaining, down and distance, which team has the ball and which direction its driving is the basic framework of an NFL radio broadcast.

“Then you get into the particulars—who has the ball, who made the tackle, did the ball carrier run left or right, where are the receivers lined up pre-snap, was the play inside or outside,” says Eagle. “The next step is being more specific with your calls: Did the runner slash or stutter step? Did the pass hit the receiver in the numbers or did he catch it with his hands? What color are the uniforms? What are the weather conditions? This is often where football play-by-play announcers can separate themselves from others. In addition, you should be ready to ‘tag’ what your analyst is saying if there is something that you can add to enhance his point. But it can’t get in the way of describing the next play.”

Those who call games on television must be more economical with the details than radio’s talented word painters. Analysts also play a larger role on television because replays and graphics need to be explained. “When I do a game on radio, it is kind of my ball,” says Papa. “I am the producer and I am the director, so to speak. The analyst has to find his spot to jump in because I’m basically the camera, if you equate it to television. When I was doing Thursday Night Football for the NFL Network, the game was an analyst’s game. It was about setting the analyst up, and the producer and director giving you the pictures. It is a different mindset and a totally different broadcast.”

So what will NFL radio broadcasts sound like 20 years from now, assuming they exist? “It is just so hard to predict technology because it changes so often,” Deneroff said. “When we [Westwood One] extended our NFL contract five years ago, the words mobile audio device were not present anywhere. Nor were tablets or other types of everyday life now.”

Deneroff believes the audio quality of the broadcast will continue to improve to the point where it sounds like the announcers are in the same room with you. He also predicts that consumers will have an option, no matter the device, to sync the audio to a television broadcast without delay. “I’d like there to be a way to save the audio to listen to later on all devices—much like satellite radio has on some of their units,” Deneroff says. “This way if you can’t listen live, you can record it and play it back later.”

Papa expects fantasy football to become a larger part of the radio broadcast in the future, and that broadcasters will have to well-versed on the opposing team because of the intense interest in that growing industry. Sandusky predicts radio will become a much larger part of the stadium in-game experience.

“Every team has a stadium announcer who will give you the basic facts,” Sandusky says. “But you can tell people in their earbuds things on radio that there is no way the stadium announcer could tell them,” Sandusky says. “I think it totally enhances the experience. Baseball fans have done this for years and I don’t know why NFL teams do not follow this model. It would create a greater depth and dimensionality for the in-game experience.”

More from The MMQB
17 comments
MHagesfeld
MHagesfeld

Since I have young kids and now watch many games somewhat delayed with DVR to skip commericals, I miss syncing up and getting the color of Doug Dieken and the excitable play by play of Jim Donovan for my Browns.  But I still listen to Westwood One on Sunday and Monday nights as I do dishes, and would be very sad to ever lose that...along with any time I have to make a Sunday drive, to be able to pick up local football is such fun, to judge the homer announcers versus MY homer announcers.

howieloader
howieloader

Mike Keith and Frank Wychek doing the Titans radio broadcast are money... Much prefer listening to them than the tv crew, although Eagle/Fouts and Harlan/Wilcots do A+ jobs in my book...

chriswill769
chriswill769

I also like the to listen to the nfl games on westwood one especially harlan eagle and kugler they have gotten much better 

HeyVancouver
HeyVancouver

Richard, how did we ever get by before you came on the scene to open up the mysteries of the sports media world ? ... Congrats !!!

rskins09
rskins09

Richard --- good article ... You did your homework as usual ...

TageRyche
TageRyche

For a 10 year period, I worked Sunday afternoons. Without the radio broadcast of Gil Santos and Gino Cappelleti, I would've missed ten years of Patriots games.

The radio broadcasts should always continue.

kemp1313
kemp1313

I used to do this every week with the Redskins when Frank, Sonny, and Sam were doing the broadcasts. When they fired Frank (HUGE mistake that the broadcasts haven't recovered from), I stopped. Until the Redskins replace Larry Merchant with an announcer who isn't a shameless shill for Pro Football, Inc (i.e. the Washington Redskins), that's the way it's going to be for me.

jihadistjohn
jihadistjohn

the satellite radio/DVR combination is the ONLY way to consume sports nowadays...i've had this set-up for nearly 10 years and cannot recommend it enough...the extreme delay in the satellite audio means the requisite DVR pause is all you need to sync things up...there is NOTHING better than the feeling of knowing i will never again be forced to expose my eardrums to anything related to the Four Letter network...it's 2013...treat yourselves to a bristol-free life!

TalGreywolf
TalGreywolf

There are other factors involved.  Let's take a good example... Saints at Seahawks on Monday night, December 2nd.  For a lot of folks, they'll watch the game on ESPN, but for those folks who don't have ESPN, there is WWL-AM, a clear-channel station that can be received pretty much all over the South and even into the Midwest and Northeast.  And while Westwood One will also have the game, there are areas that won't have that coverage... so WWL fills in providing the ability to listen to the game on the radio.

Let's also not forget that for a number of military folks stationed overseas, you don't watch the game but listen to it on Armed Forces Radio.  You might be at a small guard post, can't have a television but a radio, well, that's acceptable and a way to hear the game.

(Just as an aside, for a number of years pre-Katrina, WRNO Worldwide provided a shortwave signal and simulcast the WWL radio coverage of the game.  The Saints became one of the most popular teams in Germany for a while during that time.)


RayHuggyBearYoung
RayHuggyBearYoung

I am the opposite.  While I listen to lots of football on the radio because I am working, I do not like getting the one sided announcing.  I am more of an NFL fan than a local team fan.  My favorite team is not my local team.  I would rather hear people who care about the game than care about the team.

3M_TA3
3M_TA3

I used to sync the radio with the TV but Directv makes it difficult. My preference is radio, and whenever possible, I sync it. Radio announcers are just better.

dbochon
dbochon

The Westwood One Crew on Monday Nights are excellent!  Love that booming voice guy who does their promos.  

Nate_Mac079
Nate_Mac079

Even though I have a big-screen HDTV in my living room, I find myself listening to more NFL (and sports in general) on the AM dial than watching them. The main reason being that radio broadcasts allow me to do other things and still follow the game as opposed to being sedentary in front of a TV. There are some fantastic broadcasters here in the New York area, and I'm very pleased that Bloomberg Radio 1130 has picked up a bunch of national NFL games.

rskins09
rskins09

@kemp1313    You beat me to it ...If not at the game and the announcer's weren't say top shelve, i'd always listen to Sam & Sonny and Frank Herzog ....80% of the time they were WAY better than what you heard on  TV , including John Madden.Same with the orign. Colts ..Colts fans would listen to Chuck Thompson ...Sonny would always explain the plays better than the TV announcer's ......   BTW, still don't understand why they got rid of Frank Herzog ...Wish Frank would come out of retirement .. He was way better than a lot of the so-called announcers on TV now ... 

Iowa
Iowa

@RayHuggyBearYoung Yeah, I think Bob Papa underestimates fans somewhat. While no doubt a good share enjoy their home announcer, a number of us also just prefer the broadcast on a national game. The Westwood One broadcasts are far more descriptive than a TV broadcast, and they're neutral. Great article, love listening to the NFL and NCAA Tournament on radio by Westwood One.

Iowa
Iowa

@dbochon Agreed. I enjoy listening to the Westwood One broadcasts, love the picture the broadcast paints. And it's a great bonus when traveling to be able to find an ol' AM station that has an NFL broadcast, as Westwood One also does a doubleheader every Sunday of rather randomly selected games. No matter what phones are able to do, I'm never going to be watching one while driving, so radio will always have a place.

Newsletter