Thursday, November 21, 2013

It Was A Simpler Time

If you’re a baseball fan and haven’t seen the recently discovered video of the last few innings of a 1965 baseball game telecast by WGN, do yourself a favor, and when you have an hour, watch it.  You can find it lots of places, but there’s link on Deadspin that’s also got some other neat stuff.  The link is here.

It’s a great game; a ten-inning no-hitter Jim Maloney of the Reds hung on the Cubbies the afternoon of August 19th, 1965, and Jack Brickhouse and Lloyd Pettit are calling the game for WGN-TV.  My wife IDOLIZED Lloyd Pettit, not only for his Cubs broadcasts, but for the way he called the Chicago Blackhawks games.  Pettit is a hero to Wisconsinites, of course, not because of his connection to Chicago sports, but because of the tremendous gift he and his wife gave to the people of Wisconsin: the Pettit National Ice Center, an Olympic training/hockey facility at State Fair Park in West Allis.

I digress.

My friend Jim Bartlett wrote a great blog-post about this “ancient” TV footage recently unearthed, and pointed out how different televised baseball was back in the 60’s.  To paraphrase Jim, he referred to Brickhouse and Pettit as being like a couple of knowledgeable baseball guys who came to the park to watch the game and talk baseball.  They didn’t overanalyze, they didn’t preach, they treated the viewer with respect, and assumed you were following the game and didn’t have to be told every little thing that happened on the field.

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about my formative years in baseball. I grew up listening to a couple of the best “minimalist” sports announcers of the 50’s and 60’s: Earl Gillespie (and later, Merle Harmon) doing the Milwaukee Braves games; and the great Ray Scott doing the Packers’ telecasts on CBS during the glory years.  There was no “color” or “analysis”; just the announcer, describing the action.  Laconic doesn’t even begin to describe Scott. His patter consisted of stuff like “………Starr……….to Dowler……….Touchdown.”  Or “........second and six……Starr hands to Taylor….Thurston and Kramer leading the sweep………….first and ten.”

You really didn’t need much more than that.

And during my years in LA, I had the privilege of listening to Vin Scully call the Dodgers games.  What an icon!

The soundtrack of the “ancient” footage of the Cubs/Reds game at Wrigley in the 60’s with Brickhouse and Pettit really isn’t that different from the kind of announcing that WGN-TV has had for decades on the Cubs broadcasts, whether it was the colorful Harry Carey with Steve Stone, his grandson Chip with Stone, or Len and JD. Like most “local” guys…I’m thinking here of Brian Anderson and The Rock on the Brewers telecasts…they don’t wear out their welcome motor-mouthing, and the production elements are actually pretty basic.

But the network broadcasts of Baseball and Football…..whether on Fox, ABC/ESPN, NBC, or CBS – talk about OVERKILL.  There are so many graphics, so many sound effects, so many things on the screen at the same time including the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen updating scores of other games, that it can drive you batty.  And there's nonstop talk - much of it inane - as if a few seconds of silence would cause everyone to lose interest in the game and change the channel.  

I'm comfortable with silence, or simply "crowd noise".

Fox has this one sound effect they play every time they change the graphic on the screen, and on our “big” home theatre system in the media room at the Morrissey Compound, it’s enough to drive you batty, a combination of the sound of a 747 taking off and some other electronic element that causes the bass speakers in our system to move enough air to create a breeze.

I know, they’re aiming the broadcasts at my kids (who are 30 and 28 years of age), who “watch” a game while texting andsurfing the net on their smart phones, confident in the knowledge that if anything big happens, the TV will replay it a dozen times from a dozen angles so they don’t really miss anything by not truly paying attention to the broadcast.

Enough with my nostalgic rambling.  Bookmark the link and enjoy the old broadcast….when you have time to just savor the unhurried pace and un-hyped announcing.

It was a simpler time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Five Years Later.....

Five years ago this morning I was pulled off the air, escorted to the office of the bookkeeper, and in front of two witnesses, fired from the company which had employed me for a little more than 30 years. I was a few months shy of 59 years of age and had just a few weeks prior set a retirement date with the person who engineered my demise. A few minutes later, my longtime friend and morning show partner Glen Gardner was given the same treatment. Several other people were fired later in the day.

We’d both known it was coming for a week, tipped off by our sources at the top of the food chain, so our lawyers were in place, the litigation commenced, justice was done, and we were both eventually paid off for our investment in the company (both of us were long-standing shareholders), settlements were agreed to, and life moved on. 

There’s no sense minimizing the huge disruption this was in our lives, but we picked up the pieces, reinvested our payouts, and reinvented our professional lives. The station Glen and I had worked on eventually failed and was shuttered with another mass firing at the end.

After the litigation was settled, my wife – the world’s greatest support system – and I took a long vacation at Spring Training in Arizona. While we were soaking in sun and baseball, the person who had engineered our firing suffered a massive stroke and died a few days later. Ironically, our daughter was the unit coordinator in the neuro facility where this woman spent her last few hours on life support – a horrible and sad fate not to be wished upon anyone.

Having been business partners in broadcasting for many years, Glen and I had come to be good friends at and away from work. Some months after our abrupt dismissal, Glen started an online news service for which I became a contract writer, along with some other media friends from the area who were similarly “at liberty”.

If you’ve lived around here for more than five years, you’ll recognize most of the names above. The last half-decade has not been kind to the media business. 

I realized my future was as a contract (freelance) writer/researcher, and the first big project I accepted after joining the YourNews operation, was development of a huge website for the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Foundation. I did some contract work for wonderful non-profits like the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, and a few years ago Glen brought me on board as a contract writer/producer for Public News Service, where I’m still cranking out Wisconsin-based stories. Glen has since left Public News Service and moved “back home” to the Boston area, where he operates a thriving consulting business and spends a lot of his time on airplanes cris-crossing the country. 

A year ago today, Glen married his childhood friend Lauren, giving us something to truly celebrate on November 18th every year! Glen and I are most fortunate to have such wonderful supportive spouses. Mazel tov, Glen and Lauren!

Five years out, I still have some bitterness about giving essentially my entire professional life to a closely-held private company, being a partner, investor, manager, and performer for 30 years – only to have friends and partners of long-standing dismiss my decades of service without even a thank-you. But for those of you reading this who’ve suffered similar fates during the ongoing media purges, know that there is abundant life after broadcasting.

As George Herbert wrote in 1651, living well is the best revenge.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Bo Should Put The Players Names On Their Uniforms

Simply because it’s smart marketing. And it’s dumb not to.

Suppose you heard about a locally-owned grocery store with good selection and prices, and you walked into the store and found nothing was labeled. You could quickly determine which was the produce section and the dairy section and the bakery, but nothing was labeled. Suppose you stopped a clerk and said “what’s with the no labels?” and the clerk said “we find that most of our loyal customers are already familiar with our products and labels are not necessary”.

That’s essentially the argument I got when I posted a Facebook status last night saying I hated that Bo refuses to put the players’ names on the back of their jerseys.  My own kids ridiculed me. The female (I’m not putting her name on her jersey here) said “watch more games to become a real fan” followed by an emoticon smiley face; and the male (not putting his name on his jersey here either) “liked” the female’s comment.  Another commenter (a journalist for one of the local newspapers – not putting his name on the jersey here either) said “It’s about the name on the front of the shirt”.

Oh, puh-leeze.  As if that crap worked 30 years ago when it was somewhat popular.

Collegiate sports at the level the UW has decided to participate is about a hell of a lot more than the tiny percentage of “student athletes” who actually suit up and compete. It’s about putting fannies in the seats and justifying the ever-escalating ticket prices and fat TV contracts, more than about whether some coach decides he has to leave that “student athlete’s” name off the jersey so he or she remembers that there’s no “I” in team.

Collegiate and professional sports are marketed as personality battles.  It’s not the Packers versus (or, as the young folks say, “verse”) the Bears.  The promos the airwaves are saturated with say stuff like “Aaron Rodgers and the Packers take on Jay Cutler and the Bears”. Or “can the Rodgers-less Packers get past the Cullen Jenkins-led Giants defense” or whatever.  And please don’t give me that shopworn crap about how big-time collegiate sports are not comparable to pro sports, and amateurs, and all that BS. Every week, collegiate football (and basketball) broadcasts are promoted with the use of specific player names.  It’s not Texas A&M. It’s Johnny Manziel and the Aggies.

If the UW is going to continue to compete at the BCS level in Football and at the nationally-ranked level in basketball, you’d better believe Barry Alvarez knows damn well it takes BIG bucks to sustain such programs. And those programs support “the lesser sports” which can’t charge 50 bucks a seat. Those big bucks come from fat TV contracts and marketing deals all the way from which company makes the uniforms (name or no-name) the players wear, to which business’s name is most prominent on the scoreboard advertising, to sales of team merchandise (name or no-name). 

Implicit is the argument that you’ve got to keep a huge fan base happy – a fan base exponentially larger than the number of people who buy tickets.  So you’ve got to market.  And if you want people to quickly learn to enjoy (“use”) your product, you damn well better put a name on it.  You want to make it as easy as possible for people to learn your brand (UW Baskeball) and the names of your products (players).  That’s the engine that drives this big collegiate sports money machine.

After all, it’s not the University of Wisconsin Basketball Arena.

It’s the Kohl Center.