Adventures in radio: The 2010s

One of the first blog entries when this blog began in 2011 was “Adventures in radio,” chronicling such events as driving four hours to do a game and then driving back the same night, driving 800 miles over two days to cover four games, announcing games from the top of a ravine, losing your partner before the game due to injury, etc.

It just occurred to me that this year is not just the 30th anniversary of my entrance into the full-time work world, but it is also the 30th anniversary of my announcing sports on a part-time basis. The first game I ever announced on the radio was a Friday afternoon football game between Lancaster and Cuba City Sept. 25, 1988. (Cuba City 28, Lancaster 27 in overtime.)

I returned to Southwest Wisconsin, from whence my career and announcing began, six years ago, and as with seemingly everything in my life, I have experienced enough for a second volume.

I’ve written here before that my favorite sports announcer of all time is the late Dick Enberg. I don’t sound like Enberg, but one thing he had, and one thing I hope comes across when I do games, is that Enberg sounded as if there was no place he would have rather been than calling the game he was calling. I am unaccountably lucky to be doing something I wanted to do from around the time I started watching games on TV, and, since I’m part-time, without all the downsides of working in broadcasting.

Adventures in Radio Volume 2 starts with the second game that I wasn’t exactly scheduled to announce. I was asked to go to Highland and do reports of the Black Hawk–Highland game. I was told before the game that the regular game would probably be a blowout, so I might get to call the second half of the game. That turned out to be pessimistic, because the station called me and put me on with two minutes left in the first half, when I was not quite ready to report. There were no commercials for my part of things, which I discovered when I threw it back to the station and the on-air host/engineer immediately threw it back to me.

Complicating matters further (that phrase perhaps should be engraved on my gravestone) was the fact that I ad a cellphone whose battery had seen better days. I was hoping (because apparently I didn’t bring a charger with me) that the charge would be sufficient to announce the second half, so coming on before the half was a complication. And sure enough, a few minutes into the second half, my phone died.

What did I do, you ask? I simply said, loudly in the press box, “Does anyone have a cellphone that I can borrow?” The public address announcer, who I was standing next to, held up his, and so I called the radio station back and announced the rest of the game.

People unfamiliar with radio have no reason to know this, but cellphones generally don’t produce great sound quality. If you’re fortunate, the quality of the game overcomes technical issues, or your lack of ability as an announcer. Fortunately, it was a great game, with the winning quarterback scoring the fourth of his four touchdowns with about three minutes left for the come-from-behind home team win.

The next year I did more games, including the entire football season of an unlikely state finalist, the 2013 Platteville Hillmen. (Alma mater of UW football coach Paul Chryst, by the way.) The second game of that season featured a Super Bowl-length game due to one team’s throwing the ball a lot (the clock stops more often in high school and college games than in pro games), and a lengthened halftime due to the fact that the officials saw the lightning in the southern sky that they had either not seen or ignored the entire second quarter. The game ran so long that we were bonus coverage on the other radio stations doing games that night. The game ended with Dodgeville beating Platteville 51–45 at 10:50 p.m., and we left the stadium at 11:10 p.m., 4½ hours after the broadcast start.

More unusual than that was the conference’s decision to have each team play three teams in their conference twice. (The conference has only six teams, which means just five conference games except for this season.) That was meeting number one; meeting number two ended with the home team, which had scored 51 the first meeting, scoring 51 fewer points and losing their Homecoming game.

Platteville’s problem was that the three teams they played twice turned out to all be playoff teams. Add their season-opening nonconference opponent, and Platteville arguably had the most difficult schedule in the entire state, with seven of nine games against playoff opponents, including three games against teams that would get to state. After their 1–3 start, the Hillmen needed, we figured out, to win four of their last five games to have any chance of all of getting in the playoffs.

That is what ended up happening, including two wins over teams to which Platteville had lost earlier in the season. The coaches in Platteville’s playoff bracket were either impressed or persuaded by Platteville’s regular season to give the Hillmen a third seed, despite barely getting into the playoffs. That meant, believe it or don’t, a third meeting with Dodgeville, which Platteville shut out fo the second time. (That was the first time, and I guarantee you the last, that any team will play another team three times in one Wisconsin high school football season.)

Platteville then went on the road and knocked off the number two seed, setting up a trip to Big Foot High School in Walworth to play the number-one-ranked and number-one-seeded Big Foot Warriors. That turned out to be a grim defensive struggle thanks to 35-mph winds from one end of the stadium. But Platteville scored, sort of, all the points in the game — one touchdown, and then one safety when the long-snapper, snapping into the wind, missed the punter and lined the snap off the goalpost for a safety. Ironically, that turned out better for Platteville than it could have, since on a safety the resulting free kick comes from the 20-yard line. Platteville ended Big Foot’s undefeated season 7–2, and, it turned out, the career of the coach, who left after the season.

(I found out why he left some time later, which explained why the people in the press box were acting as if their last chance to go to state had just ended. It turned out the Big Foot coach had been dealing with parent complaints during the season about their children’s lack of playing time. During their undefeated season. Parents can be, and perhaps are becoming more of, a problem in high school sports.)

One week later, Platteville played Manitowoc Roncalli in Watertown for a trip to state. The end-of-the-game highlight was from one of Platteville’s best players, whose absence due to injury was much of the reason for the Hillmen’s 1–3 start. Roncalli had two quarterbacks, one of which was obviously a better passer than the other. So it might seem odd that the lesser thrower was in on the potential game-tying or game-winning drive, but he was. And the last pass was intercepted by our formerly fallen hero, who figured out what was happening, got out of position and made the end-zone interception to send Platteville to state. I was yelling so much that no one needed a radio to hear me back in Platteville.

After 25 years of announcing that included several state semifinal games but no championship game (and two times where the team I was covering got to go to state, but we couldn’t broadcast state), that also sent me to cover state football for the first time. There is really nothing bad I can say about announcing at Camp Randall (other than parking, but you knew that). Making matters even greater is that four teams from the radio stations’ coverage area got to state, which prompted wall-to-wall football from 9:40 a.m. until 10 p.m. The Division 5 game ended, the announcers went to commercial, and we jumped in like we were the second drivers at Le Mans, in what we called the Cinderella Bowl, because Platteville, having finished the regular season 5–4, faced Winneconne, which ended the regular season 4–5. The Wolves’ win over the Hillmen left both teams with 9–5 records — and I believe they are the only two teams in history of state high school football to finish with those records — but, as I have said numerous times, getting a silver trophy at state beats getting no trophy at state.

That fall also saw me announce for the first time a sport I played — if you want to call sitting on the bench for two seasons “playing” — but had never announced before, girls volleyball. Until then, the only announcer I had ever heard do volleyball was Chris Marlowe, who announced Olympic and college volleyball. Marlowe can get very excited, which is not really my style. I had heard very little volleyball on the radio, so I wasn’t really sure how to announce volleyball on the radio, where nothing happens unless you say it happened.

The radio stations had four teams get to the sectional semifinals, and had games on three stations, because that’s all the announcers they had. That is, until I called the news/sports director and said I’d never done volleyball before before volunteering to do the fourth match. And so, on Halloween night, driving throughj several small towns while hoping to not hit little Trick-or-Treaters (because that would have made me late for the broadcast), there I was, stuck on one end on the second floor, with a telephone, not broadcast equipment (because they now had more announcers than available equipment), trying to announce. I say “trying” because it turned out that a technical problem at the station knocked me off the air before the match began. (What did I write about “complicating matters further” again?)

The station managed to find someone to go to the station to put me back on the air, but that meant he had to engineer for me. (The system that failed was supposed to allow me to do everything from the game site.) I didn’t get on until halfway through the second set. After stumbling through set two, I threw it back to the station for commercials, only to hear in my earpiece, “I don’t have any commercials!” So I ended up doing the final two sets of the four-set match by rereading the reader spots I have, and that was it. Fortunately again, they were close sets, and I heard afterward a group of peoiple were listening to me call the final moments of the final set, and apparently they could tell what was going on by what I was saying, which meant that a good game saved not-so-good announcing again.

That moved me into doing volleyball the next season. That was a good season to announce, because two area teams got to state. One of the regular-season matches I did featured Platteville’s volleyball archrival, River Valley, which had beaten Platteville twice in the previous regular season, only to lose to the Hillmen in the regional final. In their second regular-season meeting, River Valley took a 2–0 set lead, only to have Platteville come back and win the last three sets and the match. Match number three was back in the regional final, and it again went to five sets, with the Hillmen winning in a two-hour-long heart attack of a match.

Platteville breezed through the sectional semifinal, taking less time to win than it took to get to the game site. That set up the sectional final the following Saturday night in Whitewater, one night after I had to announce a football playoff game. And then the radio station called and asked me to announce another game, a secodn-round playoff game the afternoon before the vollleyball final, without, it turned out, another announcer or (as I found out when I got to the station) equipment. Fortunately the one thing I did have was my phone charger, and so I announced a football game and the volleyball match on my cellphone. (The lack of equipment was matched by the fact that the high school that hosted the sectional final didn’t apparently know I was coming, so they had no place for me.)

That sent me to the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon for state volleyball in the morning and late afternoon … until another radio station owner called me and wondered if I could do one of his team’s early-afternoon semifinal. As long as I was up there, why not? (And as long as I could get to my broadcast position, which was for someone unfamiliar with the Resch a trip approximating climbing to the top of Camp Randall Stadium.) So three matches Friday, and after the first team chronologically speaking won a state championship match Saturday morning, during which I looked at the lack of radio station for the opponent and I concluded I was the only radio announcer in the entire world announcing that match.

I forgot to mention, though, how that Green Bay trip started. The previous Sunday I got a call from the radio station that when I got it I assumed I was either going to be told I was going to Green Bay or told that I was not. Instead I was asked if I were interested in doing UW–Platteville basketball, starting Thursday. So I started at the former Milwaukee Arena Thursday night, where a few minutes before the broadcast began (after they fed me — really) I thought to myself that I was about to announce a game on the floor where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other NBA greats played and Al McGuire coached. And then I drove to Waupaca, where my parents lived at the time, that night, got up before sunrise the next day, drove to Green Bay for three volleyball matches, drove back to Waupaca (after doing a pregame interview in the station van for the next day), then went back to Green Bay for the early-morning championsnip match.

The weird part was when I got back home and covered the next Platteville school board meeting, where the announcement had been made that the coach was fired. To quote a popular phrase, it’s … complicated.

I announced both men’s and women’s basketball for UWP for two seasons, and I’ve filled in some (due to a radio station hiring) since then, including one football game, which happened to feature the two highest-ranked teams in Division III playing each other that day. That game went to overtime, with a 28–7 deficit erased thanks to this:

Since they feed you (three hours) before and after the basketball game (I was known as the pasta with marinara and Subway Club Sub guy), and since sports information people do all your stats for you and compile stats for your game prep, I have no cause for complaining about anything about that experience.

I did get to announce the final UWP men’s basketball game at UW–Superior, at least as a conference game. That game started the day before when we bused to Eau Claire for a practice, dinner and night at the hotel. (Where I did halftime segments with the entire team for the rest of the season’s games.) The next day we went up to Superior on U.S. 53 through a part of the state where there are more trees than people. That night, we got to the arena the usual two hours before tipoff, and I chatted with UW–Superior’s radio and cable announcers.

In the lobby of that arena is a photo of UWS’ most famous graduate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a cheerleader. Since I knew where Ahnuld went to college, I concluded the pregame interview with his most famous line …

I mentioned that to the Superior announcers, and they laughed and said they’d never thought to do that, which I find hard to believe. So of course I mentioned Superior’s upcoming new conference by using Schwarzenegger’s second most famous line …

… to announce their departure from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Then we left. We stopped in Sparta at 1 a.m., and the bus driver got out, to be replaced a few minutes later by a new bus driver. (You know you’ve gone a long way when the trip requires a second bus driver.) She apparently had not been told we were going to Platteville, because she tried to turn onto U.S. 61/151 to go to Dubuque, at 3:30 a.m., making us about a half-hour late getting home. The players and coaches could wander in whenever they wished, but there was one person on that bus who was expected to go to work at the usual time on two hours sleep.

The bus is the way everyone goes in the WIAC. So in my two years I saw more college-age-demographic movies than I ever needed to, since I cannot sleep on buses. (Well, I did once.) I saw some good movies that the kids won’t be seeing, including “The Wolf of Wall Street” on the Superior trip. There was one movie that I saw part of on two trips, but I have never seen the whole movie …

… not that I probably need to.

The second year I announced UWP was the year that coach Jeff Gard’s father, Glen, died just before the season. Jeff’s brother, of course, is UW–Madison coach Greg Gard. We stopped at a Subway in Madison on the way, and when Jeff paid the bill, the clerk looked at the credit card and said, “Are you related to our coach Gard?” (Who I announced when he was playing in high school, by the way.) That seemed to be a good omen for the evening.

Platteville and Whitewater have been archrivals since the Bo Ryan vs. Dave Vander Meulen days, and probably before that. The year before was a White Out game in Platteville, and so to follow the spirit of the evening I found a white sport coat, shirt and tie and white pants, and wore all of those, making me look, I suppose, like the Good Humor Man at the microphone. That also required bumper music for the occasion:

Unfortunately Platteville lost on White Out Night. A year later in Whitewater, though, Platteville won in overtime, one night after UW beat Indiana in overtime with “their” coach Gard as the interim coach. So during the postgame I brought that up, and Jeff started to get emotional, and I had to avoid doing the same because I still had a broadcast to finish. Having our blue Gatorade mysteriously disappear from the bus and dumping spaghetti on my lap were minor in comparison to the thrill of that win.

I had another highlight last year, when I announced UWP’s women’s game against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center. It was the first time I had ever announced a game with my alma mater, though they were the opponent of the team I was covering. I got to talk about the UW Band (which was there, though Mike Leckrone wasn’t). And I also got, for the third consecutive year, to announce my own last name belonging to a player (though she spells her last name with an additional A). Between my uncommon last name and my lack of athletic ability, the first time I heard her name on the PA was a startling moment.

Remember Enberg’s advice to never say no? One day I got a phone call from the radio station asking if I knew anyone who announced soccer. A radio station in northwest Wisconsin was looking for someone to announce Rice Lake’s state game, or games. I said I didn’t know anyone but would think about it. And then after I hung up I realized I did know someone who had announced soccer — me, on cable TV.

To make a long story slightly shorter, after I got the gig I wondered who I could do the match with, since I really didn’t know soccer that well. And then I realized the soccer player in the house could help, and so …

… we made our soccer debut. We probably didn’t do a great job. For one thing, the scoreboard was not actually visible from the broadcast position, so I had to give the score and he hd he had to lean way to the right to see the scoreboard off to the left. Fortunately, it was a compelling listen only because the game went into overtime and penalty kicks. (With Michael critiquing the goalies rather severely.)

That was part one of the day’s doubleheader, since after driving from Platteville (leaving before sunrise in the fog) to Milwaukee, I drove to Clinton to announce a football playoff game, returning home, of course, in the dark.

Proving yourself reliable has gotten me asked to announce three state girls basketball tournaments (with four state champions) and two boys basketball tournaments (with the teams ending as runners-up), and three state football championship games, in the Resch Center, the Kohl Center and Camp Randall. No football team has won the gold ball yet, but from the announcer’s perspective if you get to state you can’t announce any more games.

This spring I added high school baseball and softball to the list of things to do. One baseball game was not interesting, but what happened to me may have been. The game started late due to a rain delay, and then had another rain delay during the game. The tech we use makes the announcer sound as if he’s sitting next to you, but there is one problem — there is no way to stop the broadcast and then resume it in case of, let’s say, a rain delay. So when the heavens reopened, I had to fill an hour of airtime by myself. (At least I had brought an umbrella.) So I said what else was going on, did play-by-play of efforts to remove water from the field, talked about watching rain delay coverage on cable TV … whatever it took to fill the hour.

That experience got me to Fox Cities Stadium for state baseball. It was just one game, but afterward my partner and I sat in the stands, sun shining, and watched the next game, just like a couple of guys who made up some excuse to get out of work.

For someone who has never done this more than part-time (and has learned to not want to do this full-time), I have been unaccountably lucky to have done as many games, and great games, as I have. Unlike in my day job, where I will complain about something I feel isn’t right (sometimes in a passive/aggressive sense), I am quite laid back at this. Want me to drive to Onalaska on a Tuesday night for basketball? Fine by me. Want me to cover a seven-hour-long wrestling regional? OK, wwhere is it? The game I’m supposed to do is postponed so you want me to do another game tonight? I better find out how long it takes to get there.

Unless I am having technical problems, my blood pressure and pulse probably drop when I’m announcing. It is my favorite thing to do, and unlike most hobbies, I get paid to do it.

I’d write more, but I have a game tonight and a game Saturday afternoon. Click here to listen if you dare.

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