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Friday, July 20, 2018

THE BROADCASTING GRIND

Every two or three years I get very reflective and self-absorbed about my freelance career in sports broadcasting.  Those who know me well know my passion for the industry and my zeal in getting to the most elite spot possible, but man it is a grind.   What started as a passion and a hobby turned into something with real goals or desires.  Nothing wrong with that, but the further you get, or attempt to get in the broadcasting industry it takes it toll.  Let me try to further clarify.   

DISCLAIMER #1:  This is not a "poor me" piece designed to elicit sympathy or positive feedback. Though those sentiments are greatly welcomed, I am not fishing for compliments- at least not this time.   Ask my wife about that.  I will do something around the house, and then try to milk it for all it is worth!   This is not my goal.   I write because I find it cathartic, and I really enjoy writing because it helps clarify a lot of things in my mind.   While I hope you enjoy it too, I know I'm not penning the next great novel, nor am I Hemmingway-esque in my prose. 

Firstly, a brief history of why I got into this incredibly competitive, frustrating, rewarding and certainly time consuming line of work.  I always had the broadcasting bug in me. Combine a love of sport, a mediocre level of athletic talent, and a memory for random and useless sports stats, and there you have it.   I never had a chance to pursue anything until university when I was at Western for my first year of undergrad and I gave the single worst audition for a spot on Western's TV channel. The less said about that the better, and thank goodness there was no YouTube back then!  Next year, in 1992,  after a transfer to McMaster I landed at 93.3 CFMU-FM, the campus radio station and never really left until 2007 doing anything and everything I could.  I created shows, hosted shows both sports and non-sports, called play by play for the basketball teams and football teams, made trips to Halifax,  Fredericton, St John's, Thunder Bay for national championships and broadcasts.   It was pretty fulfilling stuff .  Not many get to travel the country to broadcast their favourite teams.  I even parlayed the volunteer work into a couple of paid gigs as I was Sports Director of CFMU for a short time and worked in the athletic department at McMaster for a year.    I was 26 years old, wanted a career in broadcasting but had no idea how to do it.  I made crude demo tapes, tried to reach out to people but not knowing how to network, or to seek out contacts, the dream fizzled and I went to Teachers College after a couple of unfulfilling career choices.  The dream reignited itself as I returned to CFMU to call basketball games and then tried local TV where I tried to call anything , or everything I could.  Minor hockey tournaments?  I'm there.  High school basketball?  I was your man.  Calling games for McMaster and York?   Sign me up!You get the picture.  

Then in 2006 , a great break occurred when I got to fill in for FAN 590 stalwart Roger Lajoie on play by play for a couple of Oshawa Generals game.  That break led to me applying for and getting the regular TV gig for the Niagara IceDogs, a position I hold today and this year will be my 12th year as the TV voice of the Niagara IceDogs.   At the time I got the IceDogs job, I thought the world was my oyster.  I was 35 years old and on TV in a respected and high profile league.  I honestly thought at the time that I would put two or three years in at the OHL level and then jump up to the next level, or get to the NHL.  Funny how you have these great dreams, hopes and aspirations and the world does not step aside to ease your path.    I am now 46 years old calling OHL games, and I am not getting any younger, but the business is every bit as competitive as it was when I started with the OHL , maybe more so with the increase in sports broadcasting specific schools and post -secondary programs and the increased opportunity thanks to technology.   Everyone has the resources to broadcast games, and that leads to increased competition and really more polished broadcasters. 

DISCLAIMER # 2 Many people have told me that I am very fortunate to be doing what I am doing as not many people get to to this and get paid to do that. I've called games for the TSN brand on radio and online, spent two years as the TV play by play voice of the Hamilton Bulldogs when they were with the AHL.  Yep, I was one league away from the NHL.    I am very grateful for what the broadcasting world has offered me , but it does not safeguard me for my desire to reach the very pinnacle of broadcasting.   

A lot has changed personally since I started with the Niagara IceDogs in 2007.    In the past 11 years, I got married to a beautiful woman, have an even more beautiful daughter and have continued a very fulfilling career as a high school teacher. 18 years teaching now with 12 to go before retiring , but who's counting?    Hey! Gotta pay those bills somehow, as freelance broadcasting is decent money, but it does not pay the freight.  As you try to be a good dad and husband, your goals have to calibrated.  No longer am I able to apply for AHL or ECHL play by jobs as that would result in a lot of travel, and a reduced pay cheque.   I am well aware of my "head of the household responsibilities" and would never want to compromise that.  That limits the opportunities for sure, but when the alternate is providing for your wife and daughter and keeping family harmony, I am more than OK with that.   A few years back I likely was the lead candidate to take over the Hamilton Bulldogs radio job when Derek Wills left to take over the Calgary Flames radio gig. However, my daughter was three, and life on the road would not have been conducive to family life,  In the end not going through with the application process was an easy decision to make.    

However, despite being comfortable with decisions that may have had a significant family impact, here is where the grind part kicks in.    My wife is incredibly supportive of my goal of broadcasting at the NHL level, and of any new gigs that come my way.  When I got the job of calling the AHL on TV with the Bulldogs, that added 14 games to a broadcasting season that already had me calling 34 games plus playoffs.  That is a lot evenings away from home on top of a full time job.  When I got the job calling McMaster football for TSN 1150, she arranged her schedule as best as possible.  She has been amazing considering I have made some selfish decisions in broadcasting and called games when I really should have been at home.    If I had one piece of advice to broadcasters, it would be to strike a balance between home life and broadcasting life.  I wish I could impart more on that subject, but I know that I have not already done that, and those decisions have at times taken a personal toll and a toll on my family.   

This is where the grind part comes in and this brings me to the main crux of why I wrote this long meandering piece.  I find myself coming to a bit of a cross roads.  I used to like to think of myself as a young, hot prospect in broadcasting, a guy who was ready to take the sportscasting world by storm, and be a great NHL broadcaster.  Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the NHL.  I'm not a young man, though I do have lots of life left in the broadcast world.    I have applied to a plethora of  places in the NHL with varying levels of application success. The closest I came was when I interviewed for the Calgary Flames radio job back in 2015.   The first choice Rod Pederson was past over due to some personal issues he was going through (I can say that Rod has moved beyond that and is still a quality, quality broadcaster in Saskatchewan). The second choice was Derek Wills , a very good play by play voice with a long tenure at the AHL level.  I have had positive conversations with the Dallas Stars and New York Islanders when their positions come up but ultimately they looked elsewhere.  So far I've applied for play by play gigs in the following NHL cities : Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Buffalo, Dallas, Colorado, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Arizona, Nashville,  Las Vegas and Florida.  12 teams and 12 "thank you but no thank you messages back". In a highly competitive industry, it is not unexpected but it does take its toll. Every year, I also reach out to all 31 NHL teams to see if they have any broadcasting needs. and reach out to TSN , Sportsnet and the CBC to ascertain their broadcasting needs.  The response rate from this place is hit and miss.  Many choose not to respond, as is their right as cold call emails likely are not high on their list of priorities.  Those who respond, are polite, and articulate but the message remains the same.  I try not to repeatedly contact local sports radio stations and my contacts there as I do not want to burn any bridges or cross that fine line from being earnest and enthusiastic to being bothersome or annoying, but at the same time if you're not showcasing yourself, you are in trouble.  You cannot just sit back and hope decision makers recognize your vast talents and that they are dying to reach out to you.  It rarely works out that way.   I also have created, and maintained my own website and that is extremely time consuming as I go through footage, record it, edit it, and upload it onto my website.  I am proud of my self made broadcasting portfolio, but man it takes a long time.   

DISCLAIMER 1 ADDENDUM-  At this point I might be coming across as a whiner, which is neither the goal nor my desire .  I am just trying to convey my own personal reality. Again, not looking for sympathy or compliments here.   

All this meandering stream of consciousness has led me to this. Right now I hold two great broadcasting gigs. One is at TSN 1150 where I call games for McMaster University football.  There is nothing like broadcasting for your alma mater. I have all the time in the world for the McMaster Marauders.   Also, I will return to the IceDogs for a 12th year.  I have a wonderful gig there too, as I get to work with good friends and turn out an on air product, I feel puts us on par with regional NHL broadcasts.    I will spend the next year grinding and working harder than ever to reach the highest point in broadcasting that I can.   After both of the seasons are done, I am going to sit down and seriously assess where I am and make some firm decisions.I am not saying that I will leave broadcasting, though I might.  I might have to take a step back and broadcast for the love of it, rather than as a means to an end and a path to the next level.   I don't know what that will look that to to tell you the truth.  I might decide to take a deep breath and go balls to the wall for another year.  It all depends what shakes out at the end of the 2018-2019 season.  The third one seems less likely as that means another year of the grind, or cold calling or emailing, applying for jobs with 200 other people, risking becoming that needy broadcaster who wears out his welcome or runs the risk of tarnishing his reputation, or legacy by being annoying.   On the other side of the equation the last three years of the grind has produced some great experiences.  I do not get the McMaster football job without grinding.  I do not get to call World Junior Training Camp games for TSN GO without the grind. I do not get to call FIBA Basketball without the grind.   

The next year is pivotal for me.  Serious reflection and decisions will have to be made.  I am just letting the chips fall where they may for now. I will worry about the future when it gets there.   So, with that in mind, let the countdown to the first McMaster broadcast on August 26th being, and let the countdown to the first Niagara IceDogs broadcast on September 28th begin! 

In Neil Young's great song Hey, Hey, My, My he sings "It's better to burn out than to fade away" . That night work out for rock stars, but its not the mantra for this broadcaster. 

Thanks for reading 
Steve Clark - Play by Play : Niagara IceDogs TV, McMaster University football radio


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