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
September 18, 2013

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.

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.

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