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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On Joe Bowen/Jim Ralph Road Broadcasting Situation.

Image result for Joe Bowen Jim Ralph Leafs
(Photo Courtesy of Toronto Sports Media)

I was away in B.C. dealing with a serious family situation when the news broke from the well regarded, and excellent Toronto Sports Media site (TSM) that it would be appear that Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph, the long time radio broadcasters for the Leafs would not be travelling on the road with the team, and would instead call games in studio from a monitor.  Thankfully, after a day of reaction, and commentary from mainstream media, bloggers, online posters and Joe Bowen itself, the situation appears to have corrected itself.  There was a legitimate personal concern, that this would be a growing trend and a further erosion of the radio medium.  It may not seem like a big deal to many, but for guys hanging around an industry which is high on supply and low on demand, and also under a lot of scrutiny from team officials, fans and broadcasting executives, I felt that Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph would not be maximizing their expertise.  If I am a supervisor or a boss in any field, my goal is to put people in places they could succeed the most.    That said, I get where Bell and Rogers are coming from.  They are a business, have a budget and have a bottom line. In radio the costs can be extravagant and those costs have to recouped from corporate sponsors.   

Now, deep breath.  Here is more background, followed by my take.

Here are the stories:   

Ok, here is my take on the whole situation from a guy who is in the business of sports broadcasting, all be it on the periphery.   This whole story got its wings when Lou Lamierello made the decision to not have Toronto media fly on the Charter plane with the Leafs, as they had before.  Really, when it comes to things such as media on the plane, it is the teams prerogative to have them on or not.   The Leafs brass felt that the plane was an extension of the dressing room, which is a more than fair analogy.   A lot of extended team personel is on the flight.   Coaches may need to meet with players.  GM's and Coaches may need to chat about a player performance, a transaction as well as game strategy.  It is not all comfy seats, extravagent spreads and card games on a plane.   I would think that broadcasters, and media would excercise discretion though and not report anything they got form the privilege of flying on the team charter.  That's Media 101, and if you are in the habit or reporting from a plane, you are only hurting your own credibility. 

To be honest with you, I do not travel on the road with the teams I broadcast for, and just call their home games.   This suits me just fine.  I could glean very little from travelling with the team that would help my broadcast.   Sure I could get a sense of the team on the road via game day skate and road routines, but nothing that could really add to the broadcasts.  Normally I maintain a safe distance from the team. Do I know some of the guys?  Some better than others.  Others I do not know at all., and I do not think it detracts from my game call.  If I need to know something, I can ask a variety of sources, players included.   To me, that is a minor issue, except of course the perks and luxuries that one would get from travelling with the team.  It is a nice carrot for the broadcasters to have on the road.   Now they would have to fly charter and sit in coach, which is far less comfortable, but hey, you are still in the best arenas in North American, get to see different cities and have the best job on earth, calling games on radio.  

The second issue is the main one.  That is to have Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph call the game on a monitor in a Toronto studio.  This is not something that is novel.  Lots of Olympic events are called off of a screen in a remote location from the actual event.  However, in hockey and from my perspective at all, to me it does not work at all.  Now Joe and Jim are professionals, and could likely communicate the necessary information to the listener, but it would not be the same and you could not capture the same emotion as you could by being at a game.  The sounds of the crowd, the pace of the game and the subtle nuances that broadcasters notice from the broadcast booth simply cannot be replicated at the studio.  You are at the whim of the TV broadcaster for camera angles and replays, cannot see all of the ice, or more importantly the numbers of the players.  That makes your job that much more difficult.  I get that there is a substantial cost to sending broadcasters on the road for radio, which some see as a medium that is in its twilight. I do not subscribe to the whole radio is a dying breed mentality.  I sure think it can be freshened up, but I have a lot of love for the medium of radio and feel it adds a lot to the game, especially if you have a passionate broadcaster like Joe Bowen.  Could there be more interactivity via social media or other communication pieces to spruce up and update the broadcast?  Sure. Ultimately though the pure game call is the thing.  Of course, I'm bias as I am a broadcaster, and might not be in the right age demographic.   As for the cost, I get it from Rogers/Bell that there is a cost of sending guys on the road.  Please spare me the Bell/Rogers are rich companies spiel.  You know why they are rich companies?   It is because they look at the bottom line.  I do not doubt for one minute the fact that the $200 000 cost to send guys on the road is accurate.  Now you are looking at potentially 41 flights times three (Joe, Jim and a technician), along with Per Diem money as well as hotel costs.    Add in salaries of all three, and the costs overall become quite substantial, but in my opinion, a worthwhile investment.   Radio rounds out your coverage, and gives those who do not have the full TV packages a lifeline to the team. Plus, radio broadcasters are the soundtrack of the lives of those that tune in.  I used to record signature Joe Bowen calls for my answering machine message back in the day, and still love,the medium.  Again, I am strolling down memory lane, and also maybe sabotaging my own argument here, but I still see value in the traditional radio product.  That will never change.   

Fortunately it looks like Joe and Jim will be back  on the road calling games from the arena, where they should be.  No doubt there will be cutbacks and ways to save.  Games in Detroit, Buffalo, Montreal, or Ottawa are likely to be more car rentals, and/or train rides if the dollars work out.  There willl a few less hotel nights, if there is some cost saving.  Hey, that's  life in the business world.   Should this controversy have generated the headlines that it did?  Probably not, but there are a lot of people who are passionate about broadcasts, and broadcasters in general.   

Overall, I am relieved that the guys are back on the road, not necessarily for them, but the industry in general.  If this experiment had carried through, and people saw no noticeable difference, I would have hated to see this be a trend that trickled throughout the league.    Already we have two teams that simulcast TV and radio feeds in Buffalo and Dallas, that tend to lead more towards the TV call, and leave the radio call as a something of an afterthought.  Fortunately the guys that call the games are adept at any medium, and can strike the balance needed (Buffalo has Rick Jeannerett/Dan Dunleavy and Dallas has Dave Strader). 

Maybe this will be addressed down the road again, and the outcome might be different.  I get the sense that this might be reviewed on a year to year basis purely for the dollars and cents.  For now, I am glad that Bonsie and Ralphie are back on the road and calling the games in the arena, as opposed to a TV monitor!  

Steve Clark

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