The expense cutting continues, and sadly, it continues to focus on talent. Far be it from me to suggest that RIFs – a nice way of saying job terminations – should come from other departments at stations rather than the air studio.
But it is mind boggling these periodic cuts keep impacting on-air talent – the folks who generate loyalty, familiarity, and the personalization of brands.
For years, broadcast execs have reminded Wall Street, agencies, media buyers, and anyone who would listen that on-air personalities are what separates radio stations from algorithmic, faceless streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.
Yet, when it comes time for cuts, it's the people behind the mic who seem to always end up in the crosshairs.
And now radio cost-cutting is making its way into a different arena – radio play-by-play broadcasters. They're the teams that find a way to magically describe what's happening on the field, the diamond, the court, and the ice.
They are painting pictures with their words as they've done over the airwaves for more than a century. In fact, the first known coverage of a sporting event over the radio airwaves occurred when KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast a boxing match between a couple of pugilists – 101 years ago.
Since then, radio play-by-play has become an art form. And some of the most talented broadcasters have sat behind the mic and brought America sports over the radio airwaves.
In fact, that was Ronald Reagan's forte, long before he went into politics in California, and ended up in the White House. He made his early reputation as a broadcaster covering games on WHO/Des Moines. President Reagan had fond memories of those early days when he was forced to provide – or fake – his own play-by-play as the pitches came off the tickertape.
Through the years, some of the greatest broadcasters of all time used their voices to bring us up close and personal with games we could not see. Mel Allen, Harry Caray, John Madden, Red Barber, Phil Rizzuto – the list goes on and on.
For Detroiters, it was Ernie Harwell, the gentleman who brought the Motor City his beloved Tigers, providing all his down home brilliance for decades.
Detroit baseball fans of all ages and generations remember Ernie for his great calls, including those iconic World Series victories in '68 over the Cardinals, and again in '84 versus the Padres.
Mitch Albom even wrote a play titled “Ernie!” that has enjoyed many successful runs in theaters in the Detroit area.
Ernie was so well thought of, his statue (pictured) graces the entrance way to the Tigers' downtown Detroit home, Comerica Park, giving millions of fans the opportunity to remember just how memorable he made those thousands of baseball games.
For a radio broadcaster, it doesn't get any better than that.
True sports play-by-play aficionados, however, are wondering why it's taken me so long to pay homage to perhaps of the greatest of them all.
Best known for his brilliant coverage of the Los Angeles Dodgers, including when they were in Brooklyn more than a half century ago, Scully's voice was synonymous with the team.
He called Dodger games for an amazing 67 seasons, dating all the way back to 1950. Scully's voice, his descriptions, his charm, his pauses all contributed to the man's immense legend. To hear Scully call a baseball game was akin to a poet laureate reciting a beautiful verse.
Scully passed away earlier this month at the ripe old age of 94, his legacy intact. Scully has been feted with just about every important plaque or trophy, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But to truly honor this icon, and pay respect to his peers – all those radio play-by-play announcers – before and since would be appropriate. Most of us will not be able to personally attend most games. We depend on the eyes, ears, and soul of the Vin Scully's in every market to bring us these games.
That just became more difficult for Portland Trail Blazers fans, especially the thousands who enjoy their NBA games on radio and TV. That's because starting this season, the team is going to save money on airfare, hotels, and food by leaving their broadcasters home.
There will be play-by-play coverage of Blazers games. It's just that the announcing teams for both the TV and radio broadcasts will be watching the games on television – just like you and me. The play-by-play staff will not be joining the team for road trips in an effort to save top-line expenses.
Oregon Live reporter Bill Oram reports the move is all about cost-cutting. The team hopes fans won't be the wiser if the play-by-play teams aren't sitting courtside, but instead are calling the games from an austere studio, their eyes trained on a big-screen TV.
Asking Blazers broadcasters to call road games from home will absolutely gut the fan viewing experience. Jody Allen’s team needs to scrap this plan — now. https://t.co/Z8yNLDytxZ pic.twitter.com/m6z4bI4Rex
— Bill Oram (@billoram) August 19, 2022
According to the afternoon sportstalk show on KPOJ (Rip City Radio) Dwight James and Chad Doing, the decision by the Blazers' brass isn't a done deal – yet.
But according to the team's president of business, Dewayne Hankins, these away game broadcasts will focus on stats, and will “incorporate all the lessons we've learned through doing remote broadcasts during COVID-19 over the last two years.”
But as Oram points out, the pandemic broadcasts left much to be desired, omitting important details and insights that only on-site announcers could pick up.
Not to mention the sounds, color, smells, and details that made Vin Scully a superstar, and paints those all-important pictures for the fan base.
To a corporate executive, this might seem like another example of pulling a fast one over on the fans. You can hear one say to the other on a conference call, “They probably won't even notice it.”
But these moments where organizations cheap out are becoming less isolated with each passing year. The Toronto Blue Jays dumped their radio commentators, letting the TV team cover both. I blogged about that one as Rush front man Geddy Lee (pictured) turned out to be one of the loudest opposition voices.
Geddy explained it this way:
“There are nuances and descriptors that radio broadcasters share with their audiences that are simply not the same as a cabal of TV announcers, no matter how good they are. It's a time-honored craft that requires a special ability to bring to life what we at home simply cannot see. This is a bad and regrettable decision.”
He's right, of course. But maybe you can't expect a bunch of guys running a sports franchise to “get” it.
A year earlier, the Orlando Magic ingeniously saved money by terminating their entire radio team, including the Spanish language broadcasters, opting to just provide the TV side of game coverage on the radio broadcasts.
And let's not forget the Oakland A's. Back in 2020, the team ended their radio relationship altogether, opting instead to stream their games on their branded A Cast.
That harebrained experiment lasted just six games before the team found a radio affiliate in the Bay Area.
But it's not hard to detect a pattern as well-heeled sports franchises increasingly conclude there's budgetary fat and waste in the play-by-play column of their spreadsheets, especially the radio broadcasts. After all, “we've got a business to run.”
And when radio companies themselves continue to schedule their well-publicized RIFs, often like clockwork, why shouldn't the sports teams follow suit?
It says something about the value – or lack thereof – of personalities and announcing teams – when broadcasters cavalierly let them go – in groups – even as fans howl in protest. After all, there's the expected blowback on social media, but it always fades after a few days.
These belt-tightening moves are a complete disregard for the art of the sports broadcast, meaningful perhaps for hardcore fans, but gradually becoming another cuttable expense by team ownership.
And radio broadcasters themselves.
After all, will anyone even notice?