Radio waves

Radio waves: back to normal for most NHL/NBA broadcasters, but not everyone

TORONTO — Much like the teams they track, the NHL and NBA radio broadcast teams are essentially back to normal after a few years of pandemic-related challenges.

TORONTO — Much like the teams they track, the NHL and NBA radio broadcast teams are essentially back to normal after a few years of pandemic-related challenges.

There are still a few outliers on the travel front, however – and almost all of them are in Canadian markets.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks radio broadcast crews are not on hand for road games this season. The Montreal Canadiens’ English radio team also remains grounded.

Remote coverage that was previously a necessity due to travel restrictions has become the new norm for broadcasters who are told to stay home and call matches on the road from a screen.

“It’s not perfect, far from it, I’m a little embarrassed that we’re not there yet,” longtime Maple Leafs broadcaster Joe Bowen said. “But that’s the current situation. So we’re trying to do our best in what we think are difficult circumstances.”

In the NBA, the Toronto Raptors are also sticking to remote radio coverage for road games.

TSN, a Bell Media property, and Sportsnet, part of a subsidiary of Rogers Communications, shared radio coverage of the Raptors and Maple Leafs.

A Sportsnet spokesperson declined to comment on the radio coverage decisions. Messages left with a TSN spokesperson were not immediately returned.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., the parent company of both teams, declined to comment.

“COVID has presented many challenges for the league, including our broadcasters,” Gary Meagher, senior executive vice president of communications for the NHL, said in an email. “They’ve adapted to calling games from a distance for the better part of two seasons with a dedication to their craft.

“As 95% of our broadcasters return to in-arena match calling, we know that the handful of radio teams that are still calling matches remotely are providing their fans with the unparalleled professionalism they’ve come to expect.”

Meagher said Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Montreal (in French only) were the four Canadian teams that had radio crews on site during road games. He added that “a few” US-based crews provide radio TV simulcasts for on-the-road shows.

In the NBA, Jim LaBumbard, the league’s senior director of basketball communications, said 28 of 30 teams have radio crews on site during road games.

The Orlando Magic – which also uses simulcast – are the only US-based team without a traveling radio crew, he said via email.

Broadcaster Paul Romanuk, who called hockey and Raptors games during his career and made remote calls for Olympics coverage, said there was a lot to be gained with staffing.

When a call is made from a screen, Romanuk said, the radio team is simply limited in its ability to deliver the best possible product.

“You can’t look at the bench and see if a player is in pain after blocking a shot,” he said. “You can’t see if a player has gone into the dressing room. You can’t see if the coach goes downstairs to speak with a player. You can’t see if a few players are shuffling behind the game. You miss all that.

“You might also miss the weird line change. You can’t do such a good job. You can’t be that precise.”

For the NHL, radio stations CJOB (Winnipeg) and CHED (Edmonton) owned by Corus Entertainment hold the rights in these markets. Cogeco Media owns French-language station Habs (98.5) in Montreal, and Ottawa games are broadcast on TSN1200, owned by Bell Media.

Sportsnet owns the rights in Calgary (SN960) and Vancouver (SN650) while TSN (690) owns the rights to broadcast English radio from Montreal.

“It’s much harder for broadcasters who aren’t physically there because they’re trying to communicate things that they don’t necessarily feel,” said Mike Naraine, assistant professor of sports management at Brock University. .

“So if they don’t feel it and it’s not verbally expressed through the radio show, it may not feel as real to the end consumer.”

Bowen, who has called Maple Leafs games for more than four decades, travels to the TSN studio in Toronto’s east end and the Sportsnet studio downtown to voice the games on the road from the same feed as a viewer receives at home.

“It’s a challenge, really,” Bowen said. “In my humble opinion that’s not the right way to do it, but the powers that be right now believe – I guess it’s kind of a cost-cutting measure – so that’s what we do and we try to do the best we can under the circumstances.”

A broadcaster’s perspective is one of the most important parts of staffing, but there can be many benefits.

Radio crews feel the atmosphere when thousands of fans have filled a room and this atmosphere can be felt on the air. Interacting with athletes and coaches during morning skates or shootouts can also be invaluable for on-air story fodder and news nuggets.

“It’s a necessity to be on the road, it just is,” said Paul Edmonds, who does play-by-play for the Jets on CJOB. “To do your job properly and then also to do it, I think with all the integrity you want to have on your show, broadcasters have to be on the road in my opinion.”

Many clubs allow broadcasters to join them on team charters. Other crews, however, must navigate commercial flights and potentially longer stays in highway towns, which can increase travel bills.

The staffing also prevents any issues that may arise when a host stream goes down or the broadcaster screen freezes or has glitches.

“Are you going to do a good job (remotely) if you’re a good broadcaster? Yes, you’re going to do your best. However, it’s your best in this situation,” said Romanuk, a radio instructor at Toronto’s College of Sports Media.

“Your best is to be in the building, in the city, to pick up the energy of the crowd and be part of the whole show, if you will. That’s your best. You’re put in a position to do your best work. You are not able to do your best work if you are asked to come in and do it from a studio (monitor).”

“I think it comes down to what the company that owns the rights does, what’s most important to them?” he added. “Is the most important thing to save money or is the most important thing to put on the best show possible for their audience?”

In Major League Baseball, the Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays used remote coverage on Sportsnet 590 earlier this year before resuming in-person roadside radio coverage for the second half of the season.

With the 2022-23 NHL and NBA seasons only a few weeks away, it’s possible that radio coverage changes will come later in the respective campaigns.

“It’s sad because that’s not how it should be,” Romanuk said. “I think at the end of the day, in all of this, I think it’s the public who are most disappointed, whether they realize it or not.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 11, 2022.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press