This interview is part one of our three part interview series with John Strong, voice of the MLS on Fox Sports. To hear Strong in action, listen to his call for Darlington Nagbe's 2011 MLS goal of the year at the bottom of this page.
Things like catchphrases and having the perfect voice are small pieces of a successful journey, the business of sports broadcasting hinges on something much more important.
“Can you tell me a story?” wonders John Strong, lead play-by-play voice for the MLS on Fox Sports.
“Especially when that story is complicated, or is on a subject I don't know a lot about; especially when I'm distracted while I have the radio or TV on; especially when you're limited by time...can you tell me a story?
“And when your story is finished, will I have understood it, and will I have learned something? Storytelling is just as relevant in play-by-play as when I was doing sports updates on the radio. Things like having a great voice are sometimes overrated. This business is all about telling stories, so...can you tell me a story?”
No skills develop in isolation; it takes years of practice and a focused determination to become a successful sports broadcaster, never mind being fearless in sticking your neck out there.
Strong’s sports career path embodies that determination, and is a blueprint many should follow.
We always stress that making it in sports broadcasting takes a special type of person, focused and ambitious at an early age. While in high school you started Laker Broadcasting - a student-run broadcasting program - and began producing Lake Oswego High sports events, how did this happen?!
Strong: Well, I knew from a very young age that this is what I wanted to do, that becoming a sports broadcaster was my dream job. As a young kid growing up in Portland in the early 90s I was a diehard Blazers fan, meaning I grew up listening to Bill Schonely call games every night, and I wanted to be him.
It really took root when I was in high school; my junior year I "covered" our HS football team on this ancient webpage you could create via oregonlive.com, and I called in updates to a web radio show from games.
Summer before my senior year, a combination of A) really wanting to start doing it for real, and B) the very real chance that I'd be cut (deservedly) from the varsity soccer team made me spring into action.
The OSAA (Oregon State Athletic Association) had done webcasts of the previous year's football semis and final, so I e-mailed to ask if I could be a part in any way. They pointed me to a new website that had just launched, basically a one-step webcasting service, which was looking for exactly what we were: parents or kids that wanted to do High School football.
I obviously jumped at the chance, how cool was this? I recruited a friend of mine at the school paper to help us get PTA money to pay for it, and in return he'd be the analyst. We had another friend who was very IT-savvy (went to MIT) who helped get us up and running and had to get a bunch of administration types to okay it (none of whom had any clue what we were talking about). Understand this was 2002, when no one was podcasting or doing webcasting other than a few radio stations just putting their signal on the internet; we were one of maybe ten student programs that fall.
It was incredibly rough, incredibly low tech, but it was play-by-play.
The big breakthrough was two months in when we figured out how to record the games, so I could listen back and critique myself (I had an awful catchphrase that I killed the moment I heard it back).
We did football and basketball, and the net effect was that I went off to college with a lot of experience, at least enough to start figuring out what sounded good and what didn't.
After high school you went on to University of Oregon – how did you continue refining your broadcasting skills while in college?
Strong: If you are wondering how to become a sports broadcaster, It's all about reps reps reps.
The 10,000 hour rule is a good point, especially when you're talking about something that's hard to teach in a classroom. I took on everything I could possibly find: reporting, anchoring, and hosting on the campus radio sports and news programs, play-by-play for lacrosse, softball, soccer, hockey, football, basketball (both at Oregon and HS state playoffs).
I was news anchor for a weekly variety show put on by J-School students (in lieu of a full-fledged campus TV station). I got as many internships as I could get my hand on: radio and TV stations, sports teams in Portland over the summer, even one where I was working for a group called the Oregon Sports Authority because I wanted to try something different for the heck of it.
And that's one of the keys as well, I think, is breadth: odds are your first employer (or first few) will demand you do a lot of different things, whether it be both news and sports (and traffic, like I did), running the board, engineering remotes, doing production work, etc. The big thing now is video content for websites. I never wanted to be in a position where I didn't have at least a little bit of experience in something, lest that be where my opportunity came and I wasn't prepared.
That's also one of the big things kids should look for when picking a college:
Do they have a campus radio or TV station?
Is it possible to actually get on the air before your senior year there?
What about local radio and TV stations, are they open to internships or putting college kids on the air in some capacity?
Sometimes that's the benefit of a "smaller" school like Oregon (as compared to, say, Syracuse): there were far fewer kids looking to do what I was looking to do, meaning I pretty much walked in the door and onto the air.
Key Takeaways from "How to Become a Sports Broadcaster"
Get started early, the more repetition you get early on the more confident you will be when it really matters. If you start learning what works and what doesn't in high school, you'll be better prepared to start making your mark in college
Do everything, don't become too focused on one niche. Anchor, report, play-by-play....learn to edit, set up lighting...call lacrosse and volleyball games not just football and basketball. You'll find your niche eventually, but to start just stay broad and learn it all.
Always record and listen back to your work as a sports broadcaster - be critical and find other people who will listen and be critical too. You only get better by refining.
School matters when you want to become a sports broadcaster, think about were you can get the most opportunity. Schools like Syracuse are wonderful programs, but will you be able to get on air and get real rep there? Sometimes a smaller school will give you more opportunities to practice your craft.
Stay tuned for part two in our three part interview series with John Strong, voice of the MLS on NBC. In part two we'll venture into getting from graduation to a real job as a sports broadcaster. And if you have any questions for John - ask them below in the comments.
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