Adventures in radio

I’ve been in the full-time work world half my life. For that same amount of time I’ve been broadcasting sports as a side interest, something I had wanted to since I started listening to games on radio and watching on TV, and then actually attending games.

If you ask someone who’s worked in radio for some time about the late ’70s TV series “WKRP in Cincinnati,” most of them will tell you that, if anything, the series understated how wacky working in radio can be. Perhaps the funniest episode in the history of TV is the “WKRP” episode, based on a true story, about the fictional radio station’s Thanksgiving promotion — throwing live turkeys out of a helicopter under the mistaken belief that, in the words of WKRP owner Arthur Carlson, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

I’ve never been involved in anything like that. I have announced games from the roofs of press boxes (once on a nice day, and once in 50-mph winds), from a Mississippi River bluff (more on that later), and from the front row of the second balcony of the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse (great view, but not a place to go if you have vertigo). Even though I’ve never worked full-time in radio, for some reason I’ve had enough strange things happen to me during radio games to write a book — or this blog entry.

The second year I was doing games, I had a Friday afternoon football game followed by a Saturday afternoon football game — that is, until I got thrown into a Friday night game when the scheduled announcer chose the day before to have an emergency appendectomy. (Having had one nearly 30 years ago, I can tell you that in those days, all appendectomies were emergencies.) Game number two was difficult enough in that I was announcing the team in the town where the radio station was, having not seen them play yet. The only score of the game was an interception return, and so, since I spent the time I’d usually take to memorize rosters driving from afternoon game site to night game site, I called the visiting team’s defensive back’s making like Al Harris against Seattle racing down the sidelines, not being able to identify him until he reached the end zone and I had a moment to look at the roster to identify him.

The next afternoon came game number three at a former Lutheran high school in Prairie du Chien (before that a Catholic high school, and now a prison for juveniles) where a game had never been broadcast before that day. The “press box” was just a table at the top of the bleachers where the public address announcer and scoreboard operator sat. No problem there; we just set up in front of the press table, which was equipped with speakers for the PA announcer. That proved to be a big problem, because the PA announcer fancied himself a play-by-play guy, and so every time we tried to call a play, he’d overpower us on the radio. (“On first down, a handoff to Jason JASON BRINKMAN ON THE RUNNING PLAY!”) We should have given him our game checks.

Five months later, I was announcing the last regular season basketball game between two archrivals; the home team could have been part of a three-way split for the conference title had they beaten the visitors, who had clinched a share of the title already. The home team picked a bad night to have a bad night, and toward the end of the game, I described on-air a group of people being told by the referees to leave the gymnasium due to their comments about his officiating. It was more than a year later when I found out who made those comments — they turned out to be some of the people who became my in-laws.

I then left southwest Wisconsin only to return to the radio a few years later, when, in a casual conversation with the radio station’s news and sports director, he asked me if I wanted to do games that fall. At the time, I was living in Appleton, about four hours away from said games. However, gas was a good deal less than $4 a gallon, I had the ability to get off work early, we had no children to deal with, and we could stay the weekend with the in-laws, so, for two years, my wife and I would get off work around 2 p.m., race home, hit the road for southwest Wisconsin and, four hours later, arrive at the game site to announce that week’s game. (That arrangement paved the way for the single oddest thing that happened to me in radio sports, which comes up in just a few paragraphs.)

I will probably spend time in Purgatory for this next story: At the end of the first year of this arrangement, I had a state semifinal football game to announce involving one of the teams the radio station covered. The game was at Sauk Prairie, so I drove from Appleton to Beaver Dam, and then my wife drove while I studied rosters and game notes. I also picked up that day’s issue of the Wisconsin State Journal, which had a story about the game we were announcing, noting that the opponent was inspired by the death of the father of one of the players earlier that year. That team indeed won in overtime, the second time in my career that I had been stopped from the chance of doing a state championship game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. And on the way out to our car (fortunately out of the earshot of the winner’s fans), I muttered about the unfairness of using the dead for inspiration, thus creating the phrase “Dead Guy Game” in my lexicon. (Some time later, I heard that a sports correspondent who covered the team we were announcing suggested in jest that if that’s what it took to get to state, his own team’s fans could have arranged to kill their own coach.)

The first round of the high school football playoffs in Wisconsin is traditionally the Tuesday after the regular season ends. So, in year two, I left work early on that Tuesday, drove four hours west, announced a playoff game, and then drove back to Appleton, arriving at 1:50 a.m., in time for a whole five hours of sleep before I had to go back to work.

I got to repeat that arrangement a couple years later, when I went from Ripon to Portage to call in highlights for one playoff game, then drove to De Soto, which is on the Mississippi River, to announce another playoff game that night. I had been warned that the setting for that game was, shall we say, interesting — De Soto had a small press box/concessions stand/ticket booth, so our game location was outside next to the press box, at the top of the bluff below which sat the football field. We were higher than the lights, and sections of bleachers below us were roped off due to falling rocks. We were told that games had been interrupted in the past by deer who would wander through the woods behind the football field onto the field. After announcing in that interesting setting (which became really interesting when the fog rolled in), I of course jumped back in the car and headed back to Ripon (making it a 300-mile day), because I had to take my wife to Outagamie County Airport for her 8 a.m. flight the next day. The only thing that made that trip work was the fact that it happened to be the weekend when Daylight Saving Time ended, so I at least got one more hour of sleep than usual.

After those two years of games every weekend, I’d be asked to occasionally call games during periods where the radio station had more games than available announcers — for instance, the postseason if more than one team went far in the playoffs. One day after the March 1998 blizzard that dumped 28 inches of snow in Wautoma, I had to go to Mineral Point for a basketball sectional semifinal game. The problem was the roads were so bad that it took more than two hours to get from Appleton to Beaver Dam, where I stopped and called the radio station (I did not have a cellphone at the time) and told them I might not make it to the game on time because the roads were so bad. However, once I headed southwest on U.S. 151 again, there was absolutely no snow or ice on the ground. I got from Beaver Dam to Mineral Point (97 miles) faster than I got from Appleton to Beaver Dam (64 miles).

Another instance where I got called in was to do a girls basketball sectional final (the last game before state, which, like we all discovered in the NFL playoffs in January 2008, is the absolute worst game to lose — to lose the championship game is better than not playing in it at all.) I went to the radio station the afternoon of the game to pick up the equipment, at a time when the only person at the radio station was trying to engineer coverage of two separate postseason wrestling team sectionals. When the telephone line to one of the sites disconnected, the engineer tried to magically reconnect the line by yelling “HELLO!” progressively louder into the phone. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any louder (“HEL-LO-OOO!”), he did (“HEL-LO-OOOOO!”). I actually had to leave the building because I couldn’t stop laughing, but I didn’t want him to see me laughing because, well, he had a reputation of being a bit unstable.

I got one day of warning for that assignment, because the sectional semifinal game was the previous evening. But I can do games on less warning than that — I was sitting in my office one early April morning at my former employer when I got a phone call from one of the hotels in Fond du Lac. The person on the other line was a co-owner of an adult amateur hockey team in Texarkana, Texas, which was playing in the USA Hockey National Championships beginning that afternoon. The tournament took place at the same time that the Iraq war began, and even though the team had purchased air time for the games on a Texarkana radio station, the radio station could not send anyone to announce the game because staff was needed in case of big war developments. The radio station sent the equipment on the team’s flight to Wisconsin, promising they’d find an announcer up here, but failing. The hotel clerk suggested calling Marian, I guess because Marian has hockey (though the games weren’t broadcast anywhere until last season). When the co-owner asked if anyone at Marian had broadcast hockey before, I said, why, yes, I had announced hockey before. (One high school game, 15 years earlier, which I did not mention.)

Six hours later, after getting my wife, who conveniently was home on maternity leave for our youngest son, to bring my game bag to work, I sat in the Blue Line Family Ice Center, announcing a team I’d never heard of before that morning in a tournament I had barely paid note of before that morning on a radio station I’d never heard of in a part of the country I’ve never been to (four states in the Texarkana area). It was, however, a great experience — three one-goal games, with the winning goals scored progressively later in the games. The Texarkana fans were great (there were three Web sites for the team, one of which had video of the team’s on-ice fights), and apparently the listeners back in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma liked my work, based on the feedback I got over the phone line from the radio station. They were particularly interested in my description of the eight inches of wet snow that fell during the second day of the tournament.

In the late 1990s, I started doing Ripon College basketball on the local radio station. Ripon’s conference, the Midwest Conference, is rather spread out, with five Wisconsin colleges (including LawrenceRipon and St. Norbert), four Illinois colleges and one Iowa college. The basketball schedule included Friday–Saturday doubleheaders, and so we’d usually announce the women’s and men’s games at the first site, leave after the game and get to the second site sometime after midnight, so we didn’t have to get up early and possibly be at the mercy of the weather. The third year I did Ripon’s games, the schedule featured an epic road trip to Lake Forest College and Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill. — a round trip of 773 miles over two days. (Believe it or not, one year earlier I did a Ripon-to-Monmouth, Ill.-to-Grinnell, Iowa-to Twin Cities weekend for my games and my wife’s job — more than 1,000 miles over three days.)

A few weeks before that odyssey was scheduled, I was sitting at my desk at Marketplace reading the Wall Street Journalabout the cult-like following of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Krispy Kreme had no Wisconsin stores yet, but there were four in the Chicago area, including one sort of on the way to central Illinois. So I emailed my fellow announcer for the games and told him that henceforth the road trip would be referred to as “Operation Krispy Kreme.” If you have to drive through most of the night, certainly Krispy Kreme doughnuts and coffee should provide adequate sustenance.

By the time of the trip, others more familiar than I with Krispy Kreme had heard about Operation Krispy Kreme, and so by the time we left we had a lengthy list of doughnuts we were commanded to purchase. I was concerned about getting to Krispy Kreme at all because the store we were going to was in a south Chicago suburb, and Lake Forest is a northern suburb of Chicago, and of course one of our games went into overtime. We reached Krispy Kreme at 11:40 p.m., 20 minutes before the store was to close, and the store was full. And if that didn’t explain why Krispy Kreme had a cult-like following, the free sample did.

I drove through snow to Jacksonville, propelled by Krispy Kremes and their excellent coffee, arriving in Jacksonville at 3:40 a.m. The next day, we got up late, missed breakfast at the hotel restaurant (to this day I believe you cannot buy breakfast in Jacksonville, because I have never found a restaurant that serves breakfast), announced both Ripon–Illinois College games, jumped in the car and headed back to Wisconsin through more snow, arriving back in Ripon much earlier … at 3:25 a.m. I’m certain that the pneumonia I got six weeks later had nothing to do with that trip.

That might strike you as the strangest thing I witnessed or did on the radio. But I have a better story than that one. Back when I was making weekly trips to southwest Wisconsin, we had a game one Friday night early in the season in Westby, followed the next afternoon by a game in Wauzeka, which, like the aforementioned Lutheran school, had never had a game broadcast from there before this day.

When we arrived in Wauzeka, the press box immediately reminded me of the guard tower that got blown up in the opening titles of the old TV series “F Troop.” (That’s what the literary types call “foreshadowing.”) Getting up to the press box, I noticed that three of the steps looked as though they were pulling out of one of the stringers, so I suggested we (myself, my wife, my fellow announcer and his four-year-old son) avoid those steps.

My partner then left the press box for a bathroom trip for his son, returning about 10 minutes before we were to go on the air. He got his son up to the press box, then headed up the stairs. And then I heard a tremendous noise, and looked at the source of the noise to discover that there was no fellow announcer and no more stairs. He had hit the bad steps, gone through them, and landed on the ground 10 feet below, leaving a gaping hole in the stairs. The home team’s trainer came over to clean out the nail gouges up both sides of his torso, but when he became woozy, it was decided that perhaps he should be checked out at the nearby hospital. So when the taped voice threw the game to us, naming both of us, the first thing I had to do was explain why only I would be announcing that day, seeing as how at that very minute the local ambulance was driving him and his freaked-out four-year-old to the hospital.

Complicating matters further was the fact that my partner, to avoid paying for the installation of a telephone line, had created a Rube Goldberg-like arrangement where the radio unit we were using (it broadcasts between the FM band and the public service band) was picked up by a police scanner, which was connected to an old telephone in an office in the high school, by using two alligator jacks hooked into the posts of the handset’s microphone and the external plug on the scanner. That arrangement meant that I couldn’t hear how I sounded; my partner was going to listen to a radio while we called the game, but that duty went instead to my wife, who doubled as floor manager, cueing me to talk when we came out of commercial. I also had to say on the air at the end that I hoped someone from the radio station could come to the game and disconnect the equipment, since I had no idea how to do it. As it happened, my partner checked out OK at the hospital and returned to the game site just as the broadcast ended.

It was, fortunately, a good game, with the home team winning 18–11. Afterward, my wife said she didn’t think before then that I could talk essentially nonstop for almost three hours. My thought was that I couldn’t imagine that anyone wanted to listen to me talk essentially nonstop for almost three hours.

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