Tech Focus: Radio, Part 1 — Sports Talk Keeps the Medium Alive

The tech may be simple, but AoIP was adopted early

It’s a good thing that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” has fallen into public domain. Otherwise, Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, who composed it in 1908, would be richer than Ed Sheeran. Until cars really can drive themselves and it’s OK to text at 75 mph, sports fans will be listening to the games and the talk on sports radio. And there’s a lot of them: Nielsen Scarborough finds that 12% of all U.S. adults have listened to a game broadcast on radio in the past year.

“You paint a picture in the mind,” former Major League Baseball player and long-time announcer Bob Uecker was quoted in R.A. Smith’s 2001 book Play-by-Play: Radio, Television, and Big Time College Sport. “It’s a kick to make baseball come alive to a guy hundreds of miles away who’s never seen your home park.”

However, sports radio has been in a bit of a time warp since the 1980s. Phil Owens, senior sales engineer for mixer manufacturer Wheatstone, puts it this way: “The equipment has changed, but the mission hasn’t.”

The Basics
Radio for sports remains a fairly simple proposition. Most radio broadcasts deploy a handful of effects microphones, often from the window of the booth to capture a separate ambient sound in case of announcer dropouts (such as cough mutes) and one or two closeup mics to catch key sounds, such as the bat cracks and catcher’s-mitt pops around home plate. Everything else they might need is taken from feeds supplied by the television broadcasters at the venue. The focus is squarely on the announcers, who both call the game and provide the color and context through their headsets.

All-sports WBZ Boston radio is part of a $20 billion annual market.

“There might be a field reporter with a handheld wireless microphone they can cut to for interviews, but, otherwise, that’s pretty much it for radio,” says Owens. “Radio can pretty much be done with an eight- to 12-channel mixer.”

On the other hand, radio was an early adopter of audio over IP, which offered radio broadcasters a cost-effective way to reduce cabling and complexity. “IP got to radio much sooner than it did to television, because it’s just audio,” he says.

Audio’s lower bandwidth requirements meant that latency wasn’t an issue even in the early days of networked audio and also allowed broadcasters to scale and share resources. Says Owens, “It was a natural solution for radio.”

According to Michael Baird, radio engineer for the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco 49ers, some teams might want to let go of broadcast radio in favor of streaming, which has even lower costs and less infrastructure. But many of the 24.3 million Americans who listen to all-sports radio in the U.S. do so in their cars, a major market.

“Radio is still a unique way to communicate sports,” he says. “It requires the listener to really focus on the game.”

Baird has a basic equipment package he uses for sports: his go-to consoles are primarily Mackie mixers, although he occasionally uses a Behringer X18 digital mixer that can be operated through a touchscreen or with a mouse. However, he actively uses the faders only for NFL games, where the league mandates the type and number of audio sources that television broadcasters must allow radio to access. The reason, he says, is that the movement of quickly opening and closing a fader for television causes what radio engineers call rushes, which can be distracting on radio.

Stereo is optional for sports radio; Baird sends a mono signal to the station where it can be upmixed to stereo, if desired. In some cases, such as the Oakland A’s Alameda Coliseum, where the PA system is offset to the right of the venue, originating in stereo would produce an intrinsically lopsided image.

Explaining his mix philosophy, he says, “You look to [establish] the balance between effects and announcers and then leave it alone. Sometimes, you’ll let your processors keep things together.”

Baird might have a few more effects sources than some of his colleagues. They include a pair of parabs loaded with Lectrosonics lavaliers on the sidelines for football and a single parab near home plate for baseball’s bat cracks or a basket on an NBA court. The rest of the effects, if any, come from the TV trucks.

“We want certain sounds in the mix, like bat cracks and mitt pops, the skate blades and the ball dribbles; we have our own microphones for background ambience,” he says. “We don’t need the [sounds of the] throw to first base or the throw to the plate. That’s part of the announcer’s descriptions.”

Talk Talk
Owens also points out that sports-talk radio remains a major force in radio: for instance, WFAN-AM New York regularly averages around 1.9 million listeners a day, part of a $20 billion annual market. And it can be complex.

“You have sources coming all sorts of ways: telephone lines, ISDN, IP codecs — every way you can think of to get audio into a studio,” he says of the constant stream of callers that make up much of sports-talk radio’s content. He also points out that webcams are increasingly a part of such shows, as radio extends itself outward through streaming. Wheatstone recently worked on that type of hybrid studio at the Atlanta Braves’ stadium. “It’s like a talk-radio studio, but with a really nice view,” he quips.

The games have changed, and so has the gear used to bring them to viewers and listeners. But, although television has taken broadcast sports to a data-driven, near-cinematic experience, radio still sounds more or less the way it did when Ronald Reagan — who once did play-by-play announcing for the Chicago Cubs — was president. Owens says that there may be more production values for sports radio in the future, but what’s near certain is that it will more deeply integrate AoIP solutions along the way.

“We’ll see the announce booth become an extension of the radio station at some point,” he predicts. “But, otherwise, it’s still radio like it was 30 years ago. Just better sounding.”

Click here for Tech Focus: Radio, Part 2 — Audio-Only Consoles Meet Sports’ Special Demands

Click here for Tech Focus: Radio, Part 3 — Iconic Mics Bring the Sound of Sports to Air

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