by Chris Foss
“Good evening, basketball fans, wherever you may be…”
When I was between the ages of nine and seventeen, my dad and I went to around half a dozen Portland Trail Blazers home games per year. On the way there and back, we would often listen to the pre- and post-game shows. For many of those years, Blazers TV commentator Steve Jones would host an hour-long feature-packed “Courtside” program prior to radio announcer Bill Schonely’s more nuts-and-bolts pre-game show, which would come on about half an hour before tipoff. If Schonely’s show came on while we were still in the car, Dad and I knew we might be late. On the other hand, if his postgame show was still going strong when we got back to the car after the game, we knew we had made good time; and we were doing especially well relative to Mom’s wishes if we got home before the “Fifth Quarter” (a “post-post game show”, if you will) came on.
The point of this anecdote: live sporting events on radio don’t make the event memorable on its own, but in my childhood they were an important part of the background, and they continue to be. As I discussed in my previous article, some of it is due to the captive audience factor: sports is one of only a few other selections on the dial. But why did Dad and I choose to listen to the Blazers’ pre- and post-game shows? We could have listened to music, or NPR, or (gasp!) shut off the radio entirely and actually talked. I think the closest answer I can come up with is that it was just an indelible part of the experience of going to a game. We liked listening to the announcers because they were institutions.
Bill Schonely remains the Blazers’ only original employee left, and was the team’s radio play-by-play man until 1998. He’s Portland’s analogue to Vin Scully (Dodgers) and Chick Hearn (Lakers) in Los Angeles, Johnny Most (Celtics) in Boston, Al McCoy (Suns) in Phoenix, Dave Niehaus (Mariners) in Seattle. The aforementioned Steve “Snapper” Jones played his final NBA season in Portland in 1976, then settled down for the next 30 years to do color commentary for the Blazers on TV. They were good at their jobs. They had great voices, they were informative, they were authoritative, sometimes they were funny, sometimes they were serious. They were like comfort food for the ears. These guys didn’t just stick around because no one else would do the job—they were well-liked by so many others in this region; they always got good interviews and the inside scoop. Were they company guys? Absolutely. But at that time in my life, I wasn’t interested in sports journalism, or muckraking, or the story behind the story. I was just a kid who wanted a fun time at a sporting event, and “The Schonz” and the “Snapper” were two of the best at providing the background to that.
As America remains a commuting society due to continued low gas prices, live sports on the radio will persist. Once I started driving during high school, I frequently made hour-long commutes—first between Portland, OR and Salem; then between Boulder and Denver, CO. Sports talk kept me company during the day (more on that in my next article in the series), but live sports kept me awake during the night drive. On the one hand, with TV, podcasts, the WATCHESPN app, etc., fans have a lot of choices, and radio has gotten progressively marginalized as a venue to get your sports from. It’s still a good option, however, for us commuters, as well as if you can’t stand—or hear—the announcer on TV. Radio via smartphone app is also on the rise, too.
Where has sports radio been good and where can it improve? First of all, the good. Westwood One radio’s coverage of the NFL has been in particular superb over the years. Marv Albert brought gravitas to the role of No. 1 radio play-by-play man, and Kevin Harlan has done a solid job in that role for the last couple of seasons. ESPN Radio has also been pretty good. Mike Tirico oddly seems to make a better radio announcer than on TV. On the latter, he sometimes trips over his words a lot because he is a fast talker; but his quick cadence is well-suited for the high-octane needs of radio. Jim Durham and Jack Ramsay were ESPN Radio’s outstanding NBA team for a long time before their untimely deaths last year, although Kevin Calabro and Hubie Brown have proven good replacements. With the exception of Tirico and Harlan, nationally sports radio seems to be a dumping ground for older statesmen of the broadcast booth. Guys like Brent Musburger and Al Michaels had better watch out.
On the flip side: women are not well-represented in this world, although they are making gains in sports-talk radio. While Doris Burke has become a relatively high-profile TV play-by-play woman for ESPN’s NBA coverage, I have yet to hear female play-by-play on the radio. WNBA games aren’t put on the radio, nor generally are even local women’s sports college teams. Radio would seem to be a logical place for women’s college sports, the WNBA, and women’s professional soccer to broadcast, however, given its relative lack of expense. A new generation could be captivated and new markets—albeit small at first and probably only on the AM side of the dial—could be garnered through an expansion of women’s sports on the radio. Women of sports like Day, Linda Cohn, or Robin Roberts could lead the way here. In Portland, Anne Schatz has been a great role model for women in the booth, first as a sportscaster on KOIN-TV (CBS affiliate) and now doing play-by-play for various women’s sports on Oregon’s PAC-12 Network affiliate.
Furthermore, local sports radio coverage has always been—and will likely continue to be—uneven. Take Denver sports, for example. When I started listening to the occasional Denver Nuggets game during a nighttime drive home, I was shocked that they only had one man in the booth—no color commentator. This may seem like a good way to save money, but this is not an area in which teams should skimp. The drive home was filled with a shocking amount of dead air. On this late November night, a generally uninteresting time in the NBA anyway, the then-good Los Angeles Lakers blew out the Nuggets, compounding the dead-air problem. A good play-by-play person AND a good color commentator who have chemistry are essential to the success of the broadcast.
In the end, sports fans will not just listen to whatever is available, so while there has to be a quantity of content, quality is also crucial. Fans with bigger budgets can now turn on podcasts or Sirius satellite radio in the car if they are extremely dissatisfied with the quality of the product. If it’s a big game, they’ll likely still listen anyway, but for the day-to-day grind, talent as well as availability of the game on the radio for the commuting fan is key. If you’re a sports fan who can’t play anymore, you have a great voice, and you enjoy travel and hard work, consider broadcast journalism.
“Good night, ehhhhhh…verybody!”
 Longtime (1970-98) Portland Trail Blazers broadcaster Bill Schonely’s famous opening and closing quotes appropriately begin and end this article.