My first play-by-play gig was as the voice of the Yakima Bears, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the short-season Northwest League. The Bears played 76 games in 80 days. Exactly 75 of those 76 games were played at night. As a first-time broadcaster, the season was a grind, but I loved the challenge and looked at every day as an opportunity to improve. Not a day went by in which I wasn’t tweaking some aspect of my preparation or listening to a half-inning of my work or experimenting with different things on the air. My experience with the Bears wouldn’t have been ideal for every first-time broadcaster – some would prefer a more structured environment working with an established broadcaster – but it was perfect for me and, by the end of the season, I felt like I’d developed a solid foundation even though I knew there was still a lot of room for improvement.
Before the season began, I’d come up with several phrases and expressions I planned on using on the air; the only one I remember is “forrrrrr-get it!” for a home run. Once I got on the air, I found myself rarely using those scripted phrases and, when I did, they were usually forced; I found that my best home run calls were spontaneous reactions to what I was seeing. It also took me a while to learn how to show the proper level of excitement on certain plays; I’ve always been very low-key and have never been much of a shouter or yeller. As the season progressed, I learned how to raise my voice to convey what I felt was the appropriate amount of excitement. That summer, I learned the most important tenet of play-by-play broadcasting:
Several months ago, I defended the play-by-play style of New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, who does exactly what I realized I couldn’t do: use pre-planned phrases. However, that works for Sterling and I think he truly is being himself. When I first heard Gus Johnson call college basketball games on CBS, I didn’t like him; he was very excitable and emotive and I thought he was trying too hard. But, now I’m one of Johnson’s biggest fans; over time I realized that Johnson’s unique, high-energy style matched his personality and that he was being himself. Both Sterling and Johnson are polarizing figures who most fans either love or hate with no in-between, but there’s no doubt in my mind both broadcasters are being themselves. Every play-by-play broadcaster needs to be prepared and descriptive but, beyond that, there are no hard and fast rules for having a play-by-play style that’s well received and will lead to a fulfilling career. Play-by-play is like writing: it’s important to learn the proper mechanics, but success will be elusive until you find your voice. Not to mention, “success” is very subjective and means different things to different people; whether it be working at the network level, calling your alma mater’s basketball and football games or serving as the long-time voice of a minor league team. And, just like one’s style, no one truly knows what will define success for them until they’ve been in the business for a few years.
I’m not sure when over the last decade I realized I’d figured out what “being myself” meant for me, probably because there wasn’t an Aha! moment; it was a gradual process achieved only after gaining self-awareness and lots of experience. And, I don’t even know how to describe what my style is. But, I know it when I hear it. When I listen to audio of games I’ve called, I cringe every time I hear a bad description, a misused word or a mangled phrase. I cringe most when I don’t sound like myself, when I can tell I’m trying too hard because I’m trying to be perfect or because I’m thinking too much about saying something that may sound good on a demo CD rather than focusing on describing what I’m seeing. And, if I don’t think I sound like myself, the listener will eventually pick up on that lack of authenticity as well.
Every now and then, a novice play-by-play broadcaster will e-mail me a clip of his or her play-by-play to critique. I try to help those broadcasters whenever I can; I know what it’s like to feel like you’re calling games in a vacuum, wondering if you’re any good and if you’re getting better. Also, there aren’t very many people who “teach” play-by-play, so critiques combined with carefully studying your work and the work of others is really the only way to learn how to effectively call a game. Most of the broadcasters who e-mail me their play-by-play need more reps and instruction and are still learning the basics of the craft, which is where every broadcaster should start. And, as you get more proficient with the basics of description and preparation, a style will emerge; to be as good as you can be, that style can’t be forced and has to emerge organically. Forcing one’s play-by-play style is similar to lying; one leads to more and, before you know it, the lines between truth and fiction are blurred and you don’t even know who the real you is anymore.
So, when I hear broadcasters screaming at the top of their lungs or unnaturally distorting their voice to convey excitement or using catch phrases for nearly every play or trying to make their voice sound deeper or more authoritative than it actually is, I wonder if they’re trying too hard, a question only the broadcaster can answer accurately (and an accurate answer comes only with the proper level of self awareness). But, over time, listeners figure out who’s being true to themselves and who isn’t. As with athletes, the careers of play-by-play broadcasters top out at different levels depending on a variety of factors. But, no broadcaster who isn’t true to himself or herself will go very far.
If you’re a play-by-play broadcaster trying to move up in the business, someone who’s trying to figure out what your next move will be, remember to always be yourself and to seek honest and critical assessments of your work. You may not go very far in broadcasting – a business that depends a lot on subjectivity and on being in the right place at the right time – but you will find your voice.Follow @raford3