Earlier this week, we covered the decline in print media coverage of hockey (and, generally, all sports) in a post that helped spark some really intriguing debate in the Puck Daddy comments, on other blogs and on newspaper Web sites. It's a discussion not only how we're going to consume the news going forward, but also how leagues like the NHL are going to market their product to future generations of fans.
Which brings us to the hockey on the radio.
It doesn't have the romanticism of baseball radio. It doesn't have the necessity of football radio, a fact to which any fanatic husband or wife asked to run an errand on an autumn Sunday can attest.
But hockey radio is vital to fans who can't catch the game on television (especially if they're in a market with untelevised games) or in the arena. It's also vital as an ancillary, or at times alternative, source of commentary and news for a given team. If the homers in the TV booth are insufferable, turn down the volume and pop on the headphones, right?
So what happens when the voices on the TV are also the voices on the radio? Greg Logan of Newsday reported Tuesday night that the New York Islanders were cutting loose longtime analyst Chris King and his partner, up-and-coming play-by-play voice Steve Mears. The justification:
The radio team was let go in a cost-cutting move by the Islanders after Madison Square Garden Network, which has a contract for the team's TV and radio broadcasting rights, gave the Islanders permission to use the simulcast signal of the television broadcast with announcers Howie Rose and Billy Jaffe.
Dey informed King and Mears a week ago of the change and expressed regret about the timing of the move. "Once we were presented with this opportunity," Dey said Tuesday, "I notified them of what we were planning to do."
The Islanders aren't the first team to do the simulating thing -- the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars do it, too -- and they aren't expected to be the last for a variety of reasons. Will hockey fans soon see the day where radio and television broadcasts are merged? There are benefits and drawbacks to this consolidation. Before we get to that, two questions:
Do you listen to live hockey games on the radio? What would your reaction be if the television voices replaced the radio ones in your town?
Hockey's impact on radio varies from city to city, signal to signal. The New York Rangers (ESPN Radio) and the New Jersey Devils (WFAN) are on "blowtorches" heard all over the region. The Islanders, in contrast, were on WMJC-FM, a "best mix" station whose playlist includes such hockey fan favorites as Kelly Clarkson and Black Eyed Peas.
Overall, radio's considered a "loss leader" for teams that aren't exactly, at least in the U.S., hitting the jackpot with local television rights fees to begin with. Some teams have purchased time on large radio stations and sold their own advertising to make up the difference.
Nationally, the NHL took over its radio content after years with Westwood One as a syndicator, but national terrestrial radio is now an afterthought. The birth of XM Home Ice has been to radio what the creation of NHL Center Ice was to television: Feeds from nearly every NHL city on every night, anchored by a station that talks hockey when your local sports yakker is rehashing yesterday's Lebron news.
Spend a night listening to those radio calls from different NHL cities, and it's entrancing. You hear fresh perspectives on the game, mixed with unabashed homerism. You hear interviews between periods with visiting beat writers and ex-jocks that can be fascinating. You hear hockey, rather than see it, opening up the Game to the mind's eye in a captivating way.
So what happens when television announcers are heard on the radio? Depends on the announcer.
The Buffalo Sabres simulcast with Rick Jeanneret and Harry Neale is an institution. Ralph Strangis and Daryl Reaugh, heard on TV and radio for the Dallas Stars, are one of the best duos in NHL broadcasting.
Like Islanders TV play-by-play guy Howie Rose, Jeanneret and Strangis have their roots in radio. So do TV guys like Chicago Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley and New Jersey Devils announcer Mike Emrick and Nashville Predators announcer Pete Weber and ... well, you get the point. As someone in the industry told us this week: "All the hockey guys that are on TV came up through radio."
From that aspect, TV could work on the radio. The picture a guy like Mike Emrick paints is that of a radio announcer. The next generation of Emricks and Jeannerets are going to come from radio, too, because that's where the majority of minor league broadcasting jobs are.
Remember this Puck Daddy classic? It was a radio call:
That said, they're fundamentally different mediums. The line heard time and time again is that simulcasts "cheat listeners," whether it was in fighting the Colorado Avlanache's rumored move to a simulcasts this year or in decrying the Dallas Cowboys' plans to simulating.
It would be a cheat. Not so much for the television audience, which could actually use more attention to the action in the game than it receives from certain NHL booths; but for the radio audience that will, undoubtedly, have to suffer through clunky moments like a color commentator using a telestrator on the radio.
CNBC's Darren Rovell looked at the TV/radio issue today, and surmised:
In general, radio broadcasts, not relying on pictures, are more descriptive. Will the television announcers adjust their calling style so that radio listeners aren't frustrated? Obviously simulcasting an NFL or college football game is probably easier than a baseball game.
(Ed. Note: Agreed that football is better than baseball for a simulcast, but the NFL on TV would be a horrible transition to radio. Close your eyes and think about what the games on Fox sound like. Yuck. Back to Rovell ...)
If it means significant savings, I suspect we'll see more of this. The bottom line is the bottom line. No matter how much people might complain about lapses in the medium, I'm not sure they'll really stop listening to their team because every once in a while they have to hear about the replay they can't see.
Potentially. But that would, in the end, turn radio into a soulless promotional arm for the team, completely devoid of any distinctive ancillary value to a hockey fan.
Which is probably how the Islanders see it, too.
Lead image via Staffannouncer.com and Film Dope.