The most important thing for a play-by-play broadcaster’s development is reps; one needs to call games in order to get better at calling games. But, listening is also important – listening to yourself, listening to others and getting decision makers and/or more experienced broadcasters to provide constructive feedback after listening to you. Without those three types of listening, it’s impossible for a play-by-play broadcaster to get better or to know if he or she is headed in the right direction. All three types of listening have been crucial in my development as a play-by-play broadcaster.
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The first time I called baseball play-by-play on the radio was in Pasco, Washington – the season opener between my team, the Yakima Bears, and the Tri-City Dust Devils. I’d never done a pre-game show on my own and I’d never thought about how to put one together, making my 15-minute pre-game a challenge. I did very little research on the Bears players and no research on the Dust Devils players, so I had little to talk about during lulls in the action. When there was action, my calls were pedestrian at best, horrendous at worst. In short, I was awful.
After the game, I started thinking. Should I listen back to my first broadcast? I wondered. Maybe I could learn something. When I was in college, veteran broadcasters spoke to me and my classmates about the importance of listening to our own broadcasts, so didn’t I need to start after my first game? I never did listen to my first baseball broadcast; as it turned out, I screwed up my recording of the game – of course I did! – so I couldn’t listen even if I wanted to.
Eventually, I figured out how to archive my game broadcasts on my Minidisc recorder, but I was two weeks into my first season before I listened to one of my broadcasts. It was a game at Everett, Washington that ended when the Bears leftfielder dropped a fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning, allowing the winning run to score. I thought my call of the game was very good, particularly my call of the final play. And, on the 20-minute bus ride from the Everett ballpark to the hotel, I listened to myself through my headphones. My initial assessment of my call was accurate; I sounded really good, even upon further review. However, I noticed a few things I didn’t like about my call and I made mental notes on the improvements I needed to make. After the brief listening session, I felt pretty good about my play-by-play and was excited about my next broadcast, when I’d get to implement some of the changes I wanted to make.
That exercise led to me creating a policy to which I still adhere – I only listen to my play-by-play after what I feel is a very good broadcast. When I’ve listened to games I’ve done that I didn’t think were very good, I’ve wound up picking apart my call even more and feeling uninspired about my work. But, listening to games in which I felt my call was good energizes me even while I recognize there’s room for improvement.
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I love long-distance drives on Saturday afternoons during the fall and winter, because they give me a chance to listen to basketball and/or football play-by-play. On this particular Saturday in December, I was in the middle of a three-hour drive to call a basketball game when my radio dial settled on the broadcast of a Division I basketball game. The play-by-play broadcaster was decent; he painted the picture pretty well and gave the time and score often. However, he kept referring to his team by their nickname, a nickname I didn’t immediately identify with a particular school. I listened to nearly a quarter of the game broadcast before I heard the school’s name.
I immediately thought of my own basketball broadcasts; at the time, I was calling games for the University of Nebraska Omaha. Do I say the school’s name and nickname enough? I thought. Do I make it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” are one in the same? From that point forward, I made more of an effort to interchange the school name and nickname of both teams as often as possible, occasionally using both together. The broadcaster I was listening to may have figured the majority of his listeners are fans of his school and didn’t need to hear the school’s name repeatedly. However, I’ve always believed it’s important to make my broadcasts accessible to as many listeners as possible without dumbing down the broadcast to the point where diehard fans would be offended. And, I didn’t think making it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” or “IUPUI” and “Jaguars” or “Kansas City” and “Kangaroos” were interchangeable would insult my core audience.
Too often, play-by-play broadcasters think they can only learn from the best broadcasters and, if they’re listening to a broadcast by someone they deem inferior, they just tear it apart without breaking down the call critically. However, lessons can be learned even from the worst broadcasters. Mind you, the Division I broadcaster I’m referring to was far from horrible – he was quite good, actually – but I was able to learn from something he did that I thought sounded awkward. There are broadcasters I don’t particularly care for who are good at certain facets of play-by-play that I try to emulate. A play-by-play broadcaster can learn something from every game broadcast he or she listens to, whether it’s what to do or what not to do; the latter is just as important as the former.
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I don’t remember how Liana wound up with a free night at a hotel – was is for opening a new bank account? Anyhow, because I had a basketball game to call on Valentine’s Day, we decided to celebrate the holiday the following week by spending a couple of days in Syracuse, New York; I’d never taken Liana to the city where I earned my college degree, Syracuse was only an hour away and it was a trip that was within our modest budget. We’d just checked into our hotel when my cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. To my surprise, it was the Director of Broadcasting for a National League team. He wanted to talk to me about the demo CD I’d sent him.
A couple of months prior, I sent a CD with clips of my baseball play-by-play to nearly all of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, hoping to get some feedback on my work. The few teams I’d heard from hadn’t told me much, if anything, about my play-by-play skills. So, I listened intently as the gentleman on the other end told me I needed to be more descriptive (“this isn’t television,” he reminded me). I kept probing him for more information; what else did you notice? I asked. The Director of Broadcasting was firm, but friendly, and he was happy to answer any questions I had. We talked for about an hour. At the end, he told me I was headed in the right direction and that, with more experience, I’d have a shot at a broadcasting position in the Major Leagues. He also encouraged me to keep in touch and to keep sending him my demos. After that conversation, I was a much better broadcaster. I also realized Liana must love me to put up with me spending an hour of our romantic getaway on the phone.
Of the three types of listening, getting constructive feedback is the hardest to accomplish. Most who listen to a play-by-play broadcaster will either tell that broadcaster he or she is great or that he or she is awful, if they tell him or her anything at all. That’s why it’s important to cast a wide net; when I was a minor league baseball broadcaster I contacted the Director of Broadcasting for several Major League Baseball teams and two gave me constructive feedback (another National League team’s Director of Broadcasting emailed me with useful feedback and we later spoke over the phone). It’s crucial to keep seeking constructive feedback until you get it. And, once you find people willing to help you, don’t be afraid to ask them to listen to more of your work down the road as you continue to get better.Follow @raford3