Tuesday in the Big Apple leads to Thursday in Detroit. Friday it’s the city of brotherly love and then on to Charlotte for a Sunday matinee.
Being a play-by-play announcer requires more than a great set of lungs and an encyclopedic memory, it also requires a really good set of luggage.
For veteran broadcaster Doug McLeod, the journey to a career in play-by-play started at a very young age, back when there was no flying required.
“I started calling baseball games during recess when I wasn’t at bat. I am not kidding. Sat on the ground and spoke into a pencil. To my instant surprise, the other players took it fairly seriously. Even the coach was encouraging as long as I was hitting for average.”
After a long career behind the microphone and on the road, McLeod took a break from the action to explain what it’s really like becoming a play-by-play announcer.
You’ve been in broadcasting 30 years, lets go back to the beginning – how did you learn to do play by play?
McLeod: I did a LOT of play-by-play in my head, listening to radio broadcasts and reworking them in my mind with my own descriptions. I had done so many of these “mental” games by the time I actually got into radio that it really didn’t feel like a big step, performance-wise, to actually doing it on the air.
It WAS a big step preparation-wise, though. That took a lot of work to get right.
As for how I actually got on the air, I managed to get myself hired at the local radio station in my little town in Iowa toward the end of my sophomore year in high school. I knew the owner from church and they were always desperate for someone to work cheap and handle part-time hours.
So I began as a DJ, often running the board for our many sports play-by-play events. After about a year, I was offered the Little League Double-Header of the Week. I’d like to think this was because I had impressed the owners but I suspect it was also because the games were sold and no one else wanted to do them. No problem! McLeod is here!
That was terrific on-the-job training and man, was I bad! Happily, anyone who cared about the games was already there!
A few jumps after the Little League Double-Header of the week, you were calling games in major league baseball and in the NHL – take us through what a normal game day is like as the voice of an NHL team.
McLeod: Game day with an NHL team unfolds in segments. It’s similar in basketball.
First: breakfast, coffee, the local papers, Internet research, game notes. Then it’s off to the morning skate where all sorts of major and minor information is available if you know where and whom to ask.
This is also when we’ll typically have our production meeting, involving the producer, director, all talent, pre-game personnel and anyone else who may benefit or be able to contribute. In these meetings we go over our broadcast plan for the evening, kick around some ideas, share information and generally make sure everyone is on the same page.
After that it’s back to the hotel (or on lucky days home) for more work on game notes.
Second: Around three hours before game time, it’s off to the arena. Once there, I’ll check in at the TV production truck to touch base with the producer and director. After that it’s inside to do whatever pre-game interviews are required. When I complete pre-production elements there are usually a few minutes to grab something very light to eat in the media dining room.
Important tip – you don’t want to over eat and feel uncomfortable or sluggish during the broadcast. Find a menu that works for you to be at your best and stick with it. Being successful at play-by-play announcing often comes down to routines, right down to what you eat before the game.
Then it’s up to the broadcast booth to get squared away with my notes. This is when I will typically also voice the tease and anything else, such as new billboards or other reads that might be required.
One of the most important things to accomplish during this time is interacting with other media people and team representatives. It’s very beneficial for purposes of acquiring information or simply establishing and maintaining relationships.
Finally: We’re on the air. This usually happens five minutes or so prior to puck drop (tipoff, whatever) and includes an on-camera stand-up, conversation with the color commentator, weaving in video highlights and sound bites. A quick commercial break and then we’re ready to start the game.
This basic routine is followed by TV announcers in most sports. A lot of it applies to radio, as well. This is part of a structure that is required in order to produce a flawless broadcast, which is always the goal but rarely a reality.
There is a whole crew of people responsible for a live event broadcast, who is the most essential person for you behind the scenes and why is their role so important to your success?
McLeod: A television broadcast swims or sinks based on the contributions and interactions between two people: the play-by-play announcer and the producer. If they’re wired in, it sings. If not, things can and do get out of hand.
With that said, I have great regard for every member of a TV crew because they’re all part of a team of professionals, when we all work as a team good things happen.
Leading up to a game you study, you research, you take notes, you interview players and coaches… how do you keep it all organized during a game and make sure you get the best stuff out there?
McLeod: We all have our individual ways of coming in organized. Some work better than others. The important thing is to experiment with different spotting charts and ways of organizing notes, whether on paper or something compact like a tablet.
Best solution? Approach every play-by-play announcer who will talk to you (you’ll find that almost all of us will) and ASK. Then try things out until whatever system you develop works smoothly for you.
After a game are you analytical/critical of your performance or do you just move on to the next game and start researching the next opponent?
McLeod: For many years when I was in radio I recorded every broadcast at the game site. I can’t recommend this highly enough (NEVER rely on someone back at the station to do this for you!).
I would listen in the car on the way home, sometimes happy, sometimes mortified at something I had screwed up. Regardless, it was always useful. This is obviously harder to do on TV.
Of course, you can record the game at home but watching it will have to wait until you get there. One great help has been the fact that on Fox regional networks, for instance, they often do a replay of the game at midnight.
This is perfect for watching what I just did and doing some self-critique.