Retro Radio Is on the Air!

Television isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (via Alan Levine)

Some years ago I was visiting a museum which included an audio exhibit pertaining to radio broadcasts of sporting events.  Included in the exhibit was a rare recording of a baseball broadcast from the 1920s, the decade when radio and baseball first shook hands and both were introduced to the American public.

Well, that exhibit piqued my interest.  What in the world would a primeval baseball broadcast sound like?

To my surprise, it sounded pretty much like a contemporary broadcast.  The play-by-play announcer described the action, while the crowd in the background responded appropriately to the action described.  By contrast, a contemporary telecast is so different from a mid-20th century telecast that a taxonomist might classify them as two different species.

Before going any further, I must admit I prefer baseball on the radio.  I hasten to add I am not one of those geezers given to crowing about the Golden of Age of Radio, or waxing nostalgic about The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, or The Great Gildersleeve.  All of that was before my time.

To a certain extent my preference for radio is a default choice, as I haven’t had a television in my household since 2009.  I could write another essay on that topic, but basically it’s one man’s way of holding the corporate media at arm’s length.

Of course, it’s impossible to avoid television completely.  Case in point: on a recent visit to the men’s room at a steakhouse in Grapevine, Texas, I discovered that every urinal had its own flat screen TV tuned to ESPN.  Yes, even the old reliable urination mini-meditation can no longer be taken for granted.

Nevertheless, when I am confronted with the television medium, I don’t recoil in horror like Dracula confronted with a crucifix.  In fact, when I travel, I might even watch some TV in the evening before I retire for the night.  Turner Classic Movies is a reliable option and the Adult Swim Channel is a superb guilty pleasure, but in season, I will likely seek out a ballgame.

When it comes to televised baseball games, I’m not a complete Luddite; more of a Luddite Lite.  From spring training through the postseason, I’ve been known to wander into a local pub or sports bar and watch a few innings from time to time.  Thanks to the sidebars that reveal the score, the pitch count, balls and strikes, the inning, and all the other essentials, I am fully informed from the moment I sit down, even when the sound is turned off.  As a bonus, the commercials are also silent.  When they appear, I just shift my attention to the Golf Channel on the adjacent screen.  I don’t care about golf but I care even less about commercials.

When I decided to go tubeless (admittedly, an outdated term in the flat screen era) at home, I wondered how I would deal with no more Texas Rangers baseball.  Of course, there were fewer and fewer games on free TV anyway, so as it turned out, it wasn’t that big a deal.

Of course, all 162 games are on the radio, but that is a legacy medium, which is a kinder, gentler way of saying it is obsolete.  Oh, radio is all right if you’re in the car, but in your home?  Imagine opening a sports bar with no video but only radio broadcasts of sporting events.  You might as well file for bankruptcy the same day you open your doors.

No question that radio doesn’t have the bells and whistles of television, but does that mean it is an inferior medium for baseball?  Let’s ponder that topic, but first let’s define medium.

If you are sitting in the stands at your local ballpark, there is no medium.  You are an eyewitness to the action in real time.  This is as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Of course, the modern major league ballpark has all sorts of doodads and gewgaws…message boards, ribbon boards, video boards…but the game itself is still the main event.  And as you go down the scale from major league to minor league to college ball, to high school ball, the high-tech distractions dwindle to a point where the game is not just the main event but sometimes the only event.

Like all media, radio is a conduit, albeit one that not only transmits material but filters it for the recipients at the other end.  Much like the medium at a séance, radio transmits information from somewhere else via a remote voice.

Before radio, the print medium (usually the sports section of the daily newspaper) was joined at the hip with baseball.  Like radio, it was verbal, but it was not vocal.  Through write-ups and box scores, an account of the game was proffered, but it was after the fact.  I wouldn’t say that reality delayed is reality denied, but a loss of immediacy was unavoidable.  Before radio, when a reader in Cleveland consulted the Plain Dealer to see how the locals did in the final game of a three-game series in Detroit, the team had already moved on to Chicago.

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Closer to immediacy was the medium of simulation boards stationed in public spaces.  Much like GameDay on the internet, it was a pitch-by-pitch recreation just seconds after each pitch was thrown.  Large crowds would congregate at these public spaces and would react much like the fans at the ballpark.  Still, this was delayed information, albeit slight.

The radio studio recreations that were so popular (and more economical than broadcasting from the ballpark – particularly for away games) were also a delayed relaying of information, much like the simulation boards.

Live radio is an immediate medium, giving fans the play-by-play as it is happening.  When radio was in its infancy, the solons of baseball perceived it as a threat – who would buy a ticket when the game was available for free on the radio?  As it turned out, the radio broadcasts promoted the home team and hence attendance.

Consider a middle-aged Brooklyn Dodger baseball fan, relaxing in his Bensonhurst apartment in 1939.  On a weekend afternoon, he is listening to Red Barber broadcasting a game from Ebbets Field as it is being played.  No need to wait till the next day’s Brooklyn Eagle to find out what happened!  Today it’s easy to take that for granted, but once upon a time, baseball on the radio was the Next Big Thing.

Of course, the same was true of television as that medium spread during the late 1940s and the 1950s.  As is the case with radio, the game was available in real time.  One important difference was you didn’t have to take the announcer’s word for what was happening.  You could see for yourself!

True, TV gives you video and audio, and radio supplies only the latter.  So how can radio compete with TV as a medium for baseball?

Radio is a series of stream-of-consciousness riffs divided by commercial breaks.  Unless a call to the bullpen is made, the half-inning will play out in one continuous stream (dead air is as anathema on radio as it is in your conscious mind), as described by the play-by-play announcer, usually abetted by an analyst and possibly a color commentator.  So there could be up to three tributaries feeding into the stream.

As the stream seeps into the consciousness of the listener, like water, it seeks its own level.  Depending on the game circumstances, the listener’s circumstances, and the talents of the announcers, it may bear the listener along like a flash flood, it may be a steady flow, or it may just be an undercurrent.  You may not think you’re paying close attention, but you’re taking in a lot subliminally.  If you had to take a quiz at the conclusion of the game, you might be surprised at how much you retain, even if the game was less than riveting.

Now you might say the same is true of TV.  Barring pitching changes, you will listen to a couple of announcers continually describing the action for a half inning.  But video changes all that.  As mentioned earlier, the sidebar scoreboard on your screen has rendered play-by-play announcers redundant.  Closed captioning is usually available on network telecasts, but if you’ve experienced it, you know it leaves a lot to be desired.  Even when done well, it is disruptive.

Captioners, who function more or less as court reporters, inevitably make mistakes, since they type exactly what they hear.  Homonyms and proper names are particularly tricky.  Unlike a court transcript, which can be cleaned up before it is filed, a TV caption goes out over the air, mistakes and all.

Ah, but television makes up for those flaws by giving us instant replays from various angles and often in slow motion.   All that plus the informative and/or entertaining graphics that pop up periodically.  The visual pyrotechnics certainly jazz up the telecast, but they do interrupt the stream of consciousness.  But that was the case even in the early days of TV, even though it was less intrusive.

The early telecasts were done with two cameras.  The audio was stream-of-consciousness, but the picture was dyadic.  Sometimes you saw the view from Camera 1, sometimes you saw the view from Camera 2.  The action was continuous but there was a split in the video and hence in the viewer’s consciousness, not quite as extreme as Jekyll and Hyde, but undeniable.

Either camera, much like a head mounted on a neck, could be panned or tilted.  The camera could shift to a lens with a different focal length (much like a fan using binoculars).  The director made the decision on where to aim the camera and which view would go out over the air.  In cinema circles, it’s called montage, a fancypants word for editing.  No matter how skillfully done (and if well done it can appear seamless) it disrupts the stream of consciousness.  With every change of picture, it is obvious that someone is influencing the stream . . . not damming it, not diverting it, not draining it, but clearly controlling it.  The game is still flowing but there are some perceptual hiccups.

Yet it is possible to maintain stream of consciousness on video.  Some contemporary webcasts for minor league teams are done with one fixed camera behind home plate – no director need apply!  The visual stream of consciousness matches the audio stream of consciousness, but it’s hardly must-see TV.

With multi-camera telecasts you have to go along with what the director wants you to look at.  If you are at the ballpark and the batter hits a gapper with the bases loaded, you can watch the runners, watch the outfielders, watch the cutoff man, watch the third base coach waving the runners around or halting them, the umpires getting into position to make calls, or go back and forth.  You can focus your attention or shift it.  You are, in effect, your own director.

The same is true if you are listening on the radio.  If the play-by-play announcer has set the stage accurately and is faithfully describing the action, then you are free to envision it as it unfolds.  You are in charge of your vision, even more than a fan sitting in the stands.

Of course, just because you are at the ballpark doesn’t mean you have to watch the game.  Given the elaborate scoreboards today, you could probably spend an entire game staring at the scoreboard, video board and message board without once looking at the playing field.  In Cincinnati, the boat traffic on the Ohio River might command your attention.  In Pittsburgh, the skyline is a sight to behold.  If you’re at Citi Field in New York, you can ignore the game and watch the planes landing.  (It occurred to me while attending a few games there that keeping an accurate tally of the various airlines passing in review might be more challenging than keeping score of the game.)

If you are a fan at the game, you can choose what to look at, but you can’t go back in time.  On TV, every instant replay is like taking a short trip in a time machine.  In fact, with the sound off, unless you’re paying close attention, sometimes you are not sure if you’re watching live action or a replay.

Also in the director’s bag of tricks is slow motion, so time can be slowed down when replayed.  There is no instant replay, slow motion or otherwise, in radio, though some highlights may be replayed during the post-game wrap-up.

Radio offers less in the way of sensory input, so experiencing a baseball game in that medium is far more subjective than it is on television.  To a certain degree, that is true of reading.  All people listening to a broadcast are given the same words, just as all readers of a book or newspaper are given the same words.  In radio, however, all listeners are given a broadcast of the same duration; you can’t speed it up or slow it down.  Readers have more subjective control.  Some people read quicker than others, some people skim read, and others skip ahead to the end because they’re more interested in the destination than the journey.  Can’t do that with radio.  You are a captive.  All you can do is go with the flow…or turn it off.

On radio, the play-by-play announcer is in complete control, but there can be huge differences in the minds of the listeners.   In pre-TV days, there was even  more to be imagined.  Nowadays if you listen to a radio broadcast from Toronto, you likely have an image of Rogers Centre.  Even if you’ve never been there, thanks to previous games you have seen on television, you have a pretty good idea of what it looks like.  So as the announcer describes the action in Toronto, you likely see it unfolding in the Rogers Centre of your memory.  Now you may not know it as intimately as a season ticket-holder does (Where are the craft beer drafts?  What about the gluten-free food concession?), but you surely know that it has a retractable dome, a hotel in center field, the CN tower looming overhead, symmetrical dimensions, and an artificial surface.  Consequently, your inner vision incorporates all these features.

But suppose you are listening to a game broadcast from a venue you are not at all familiar with.  Or suppose you know nothing about the teams involved.

If you’ve seen enough major league games on TV, you probably have a pretty accurate picture in your mind about the home and visiting uniforms of the 30 teams.  Now suppose you’re driving across the country on a summer evening and you’re twirling the radio dial in search of something to break up the monotony.  You come upon a station broadcasting a game between the visiting Northwest Arkansas Naturals and the hometown Midland Rockhounds (by the way, something of a dynasty, as they have won the Texas League championship for the last four season).

You know nothing about the Texas League.  You’re just passing through.  You’ve never seen these teams on TV; in fact, you’ve never heard of them before.  So you don’t know what their uniforms look like.  And you have no idea what Security Bank Ballpark in Midland looks like.  So as you listen to the game, you fill in the blanks.  As the announcer describes the game, you may hear some clues as to the team colors, the uniforms, or the design of the Midland ballpark.  So you might modify the image in your head.  But chances are it won’t match the image in the mind of a Rockhounds fan who has seen numerous games in Midland but is listening to this game on the radio.

Baseball on TV has been a reality all my life, but when I was younger, the number of games telecast was much fewer.  In Philadelphia, all we had were Phillies games.  The network Game of the Week was blacked out in markets with major league teams.

Even so, I saw plenty of games from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Wrigley Field in Chicago, County Stadium in Milwaukee, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, and the first Busch Stadium (f/k/a Sportsman’s Park) in St. Louis.  Consequently, when I listed to a Phillies radio broadcast from any of those venues, I pictured the action taking place in a specific place with unique dimensions, high or low fences, and the occasional oddball quirk, such as the left field terrace at Crosley Field.

In the late ’50s, games from the West Coast were not televised in Philadelphia.  Consequently, I never got to see the Phillies play the Giants at Seals Stadium.  I had no idea what the place looked like or what part of town it was in.  For all I knew, it could have been on Alcatraz Island.  All I knew was that it was the home of a former minor league team called the Seals.  Call me clueless – but with an excuse.  I was only eight or nine years old.

There were no telecasts from Los Angeles either, but I had heard a lot about the Los Angeles Coliseum, its odd configuration, its short left field line, its towering left field screen, and its Moon Shots.  So I could listen to a game and have some idea of what the venue was like.  Of course, telecasts of the 1959 World Series games fine-tuned my mental image, so when I listened to regular season radio broadcasts in 1960 or 1961, I had a pretty accurate picture of the Coliseum in my head.

One thing I remember about those away games is that remote broadcasts stimulated the imagination.  If the broadcast is from a city you’ve never been to, and you’re lying in bed in the dark, even a burg like Cincinnati can sound downright exotic to a listener hundreds or thousands of miles away. (This would have been a big surprise to Mark Twain, who once said that if the world were coming to an end, he wanted to be in Cincinnati, as it was always 20 years behind the times.)

Today, thanks to the MLB Channel, you can see telecasts from every big league ballpark in use.  If that isn’t enough, you can find ballpark guidebooks and coffee table ballpark picture books in almost any bookstore; not so in the 1950s.  They used to promote best-sellers by saying, “Read the book, see the movie.”  Today that could be reworded for baseball fans to “Read the ballpark guidebook, see the ballpark.”

If time and money were not objects, most seamheads would likely visit as many ballparks as possible.  But I’m not sure if TV addicts feel the same.  Too much exposure to television may erode curiosity.  For example, I have a sedentary friend who spends a lot of time (way too much time) watching TV.  He likes to watch the Travel Channel.  One day I remarked to him that all that viewing of far-off places must have whetted his appetite to see these marvels in person.  Surprisingly, he demurred.  He said watching HiDef video, taken from the best vantage points on bright, sunny days while sitting in his easy chair in his climate-controlled living room was sufficient.  The folks at the Travel Channel know their stuff and point out everything you need to know (stuff you might miss if you were there in person) and when you get there, it might be cold or raining or…well, who knows.  Going to see something in person involves effort, expenditure, and possibly disappointment.

Well, at first I thought it was funny.  My friend was an even bigger slug than I thought he was!  But I had to concede he had a point.  After all, there are plenty of football fans out there who devour NFL football on TV but wouldn’t be caught dead in a stadium…overpriced tickets, overpriced concessions, traffic, crowds, drunks, adverse weather.  I’m sure any number of baseball fans feel the same way.  Would they feel that way if TV had never been invented?

One’s mind wanders when listening to the radio, but that’s not a bad thing.  If you were mesmerized by a broadcast, you couldn’t listen to a game while driving or balancing your checkbook or gardening or whatever.  The medium invites selective listening: pay attention when you want to, let your mind drift when it wants to.  Television, on the other hand, thrusts image after image at you, making it much more difficult to let the mind wander at will.

No matter what medium you favor, there is a common enemy.  I refer to the Smartphone.  This confounds all competing media.  Movie theatres routinely play bumpers that warn those in attendance to turn off their phones.  I don’t see that ever happening at your friendly neighborhood ballpark, but I would implore fans to put away the Smartphone and pay attention.  You can observe a lot by watching.  Now where have I heard that before?

In fact, sometimes you can observe a lot by watching after the fact.  A lot of sports channels videotape games and replay them later at night or the following day.  Consequently, you can listen to a game on the radio, envision the action, and then see how your vision matches the video.  Maybe you saw it differently, maybe not, but it does make for an interesting lesson in how perception and imagination converge or diverge.

Another interesting exercise is to turn off the sound on your TV and turn on the radio broadcast.  Some fans do this routinely, as radio announcers seem to bond better with the audience than TV announcers.

Ironically, some of the most interesting broadcasts I’ve listened to occurred during laughers.  When the game is devoid of drama, the announcers have to pick up the slack.  Consequently, listeners are often treated to entertaining anecdotes and observations that may have only a tenuous connection to the game being broadcast.  Oftentimes the effect is that of eavesdropping on a bull session.  The listener almost wants to jump in and contribute.

Radio broadcasters do seem to have longer careers than their TV counterparts.  Here in Texas, for example, Eric Nadel has been broadcasting Ranger games on the radio since 1979.  In 2014 he was inducted into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame.  Some announcers have been around for decades.  Some become as legendary as players…consider the case of Harry Caray.  His boozing exploits away from the ballpark (and sometimes in the broadcast booth) were just as legendary as any ballplayer’s.

Then there is Vin Scully’s 67 year-career with the Dodgers.  No player could ever come close to this.  If Scully’s career were a human being, it would be old enough to collect Social Security!  Forget about the “face of the franchise,” how about the “voice of the franchise”?  Most major league teams have a radio announcer whose tenure is longer than that of anyone on the 25-man roster.  Now that Scully has retired, the reigning king of the airwaves is Kansas City’s Denny Matthews, who has been broadcasting Royals games since the team’s inaugural season in 1969.

In 2018 I will be listening to Eric Nadel during his 40th season with the Rangers.  Nothing against the Rangers’ TV broadcast team, but I have no plans to buy a TV.  Radio will remain number one with TV coming in a distant second.  And I suspect it will stay that way in subsequent seasons.

Now if they ever get 3-D baseball telecasts up and running…well, check back with me then.


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards

The other advantage from listening to baseball games on the radio, is the escape from the cluttered TV screen. Today’s coverage resembles a computer screen, often with unnecessary graphics. I don’t care where that last pitch was, because I just saw it. And this weird fascination with trying to predict what will happen with percentages or odds is moronic.

Radio actually forces the listener to use their mind, and that’s different from the smartphone.

TimBasuino
Member
Member
TimBasuino

Awesome article. I feel much the same way about radio – additionally one can actually do other things (i.e. working on the house, reading, etc.) while listening, not so much while watching.

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

I think the way to analyze the effectiveness of radio is to think back to old B/W movies with bombshells like Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, and Rita Hayworth. Were they sexy? Yes. And why were they sexy? Because they kept their clothes on and left the sexy part to the viewer’s imagination which was always more tantalizing than if they appeared otherwise. I listened to WEAN and WHDH when I was a kid. Visualizing the game in my head was more fun than watching it on TV.

sleeper54
Member
sleeper54

Driving at night …a baseball game on the air as your only companion, your only awake companion. Priceless; heaven on earth.