Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Radio Dilemma: A Matter of Frequency

You're standing in line at Chick-Fil-A.  Or sitting at the bar at Bonefish.  Or waiting to checkout in Piggly Wiggly.  Wherever.  The phone of the person next to you lights up and buzzes and erupts with a joyful noise unto the Lord.  Instead of forgettable pop music or unintelligible rap, however, you are met with the exclamation of a man in his sixties. 


The words of Paul Eells, Voice of the Arkansas Razorbacks, after Clint Stoerner fired a beautiful 23-yard strike to a leaping Anthony Lucas for the game-deciding score in a 1999 victory over #2 Tennessee.  It was one of those moments that validates those who say that there is nothing better than college football.  One year removed from the fumble that derailed Arkansas' undefeated season and propelled the Volunteers to a national title, Stoerner got his redemption, Razorback fans claimed their revenge, and Paul Eells left his indelible mark on the fabric of Razorback history.

Seven years later, on July 31, 2006, Eells was returning home to Little Rock from a golf tournament in Fayetteville when his Chevy Impala left Interstate 40 and struck a car in the westbound lane.  Both drivers were killed, and no Razorback fan will ever forget the mourning that followed in the days and weeks after.  After 28 years as Voice of the Razorbacks and head sportscaster at KATV in Little Rock, Eells was one of the most beloved figures Arkansas.  It was a story that consumed an entire state.  Every radio show and every newspaper columnist and every television station paid tribute.  The memorial was packed to the rafters.  Razorback fans spliced clips of "Paul's Calls" into music and submitted them to radio talk shows.  And yes, Eells was even immortalized via ringtone.   

Last Sunday marked the five year anniversary of Eells' death, and the landscape of college football has changed drastically in the interim.  The Southeastern Conference has claimed every single BCS Championship, while 2005 champion Texas is coming off of a losing season, and 2004 champion USC was stripped of their title.  The ACC pillaged the Big East, and the Big East pillaged Conference USA, and nobody is exactly sure who is in Conference USA now.  Discussions of conference expansion are continuous, and the prospect of 16-team superconferences dominating the landscape seems likely. More than anything, however, the biggest change in college football over the past five years has been the dramatic increase in exposure.  

In 2009 the SEC shocked the college football world by making every single game played by its members available to a television audience through ESPN and CBS.  

It was a massive deal, and one that immediately forced other conferences into catch-up mode.  The Big Ten went to work on improving the breadth and reach of its proprietary network, and the Big XII and PAC-10, er, PAC-12 started working on deals of their own.  Where we are headed is pretty obvious.  Within a matter of years, not decades, every single college football game with a major-conference participant will be available to view on television.  Most to a national audience.  

Radio, for the most part, will be obsolete.  

We are, practically speaking, most of the way there already.  Even in 2005, the last season Eells served as Voice of the Razorbacks, there were only a handful of games in which the Razorbacks were not on television.  But there were at least some, and that required fans not in attendance to rely on Eells to follow the action.  Not anymore.

The position of play-by-play announcer in the SEC is historically somewhat of a permanent position.  It's the top rung of the ladder instead of a stop along the way.  Most of the twelve current play-by-play men are either into their third (or fourth or fifth or sixth) decade of describing the action, or were selected to replace such a legend, and have no plans of going anywhere.  What happens, though, now that their role is somewhat superfluous?  Will the role of "Voice of the ___" continue to produce legends when 80% or more of those who care aren't even listening?  

When was the last game you were truly dependent upon radio play-by-play to follow your team?  I remember exactly which game it was for me.  Arkansas at Mississippi State in 2006.  It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and my cohabitant girlfriend put up our Charlie Brown Christmas tree while I paced outside our apartment, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights and cursing ESPN and JP for not picking the game up.  Darren McFadden took a kickoff to the house and the Razorbacks took care of business, but that day only reinforced what I already knew:  living and dying with your team through nothing but the voice of a play-by-play announcer sucks.  Hard.  

Don't get me wrong, I love the romanticism that these guys bring.  Ancient and unabashedly homer, they have a wonderful partiality that is endearing even when your team is the rival.  My favorite radio call ever was a 2005 touchdown run McFadden had as a little-regarded freshman against Georgia.  He broke through the Bulldog front seven, and the race was on.  As he found fifth gear and split the safeties, Larry Munson lamented how "Five" was "running away from us, just running away from us".  Not going to get that from Verne Lundquist or Brad Nessler.  Or one of the Daves.  

The thing is that for someone like me, who will, by God, be ass-in-seat for as many games as possible, and ass-on-couch for the rest, the radio call is something I want to hear on the way home, as much to hear what the crowd sounded like as anything else.  It's an extra, not a need, and with athletic departments more business-minded than ever before, how much longer will advertisers pay premium prices to keep those legends in the booth?  College football is everywhere, and the number of ways that target demographic can be reached is growing every day. 

So where do we go from here?  What's next?  Television deals and superconferences and, eventually, a playoff system seem to be what college football is destined for.  Increased college attendance and the internet are maximizing the footprint of the game, and because of that, it is evolving and improving for everyone that enjoys it.  But it is important not to let these guys, these legends and legends-in-the-making, get left behind as flotsam and jetsam in the wake of progress.  Jack Cristil has called more than half of Mississippi State's football games.  Ever.  The Bulldogs need Jack Cristil, and more importantly, they need to believe that their next Voice will be another Jack.  Around for the duration, not just until ISP moves him to another market.  

It's easy for me to say that.  To say that I hope my son can enjoy as an adult the voice he grew up with as a child.  Those are empty words, though.  He's not going to listen to the game with me.  He's going to WATCH the game with me, either in the stadium or on the television.  We just won't need a radio guy.  Which is great.  And sad.  I really want the great tradition of SEC play-by-play announcers to continue.  I want to wax poetic about Jack Cristil and Eli Gold and Jim Hawthorne, but I must readily admit that I'm not doing my part, and don't plan to. 

I sure do miss Paul, though.


Trent Wooldridge will be that guy with enough bourbon.  He loves the S-E-C chant and honks because he hates Texas.  He puts honey on his pizza, demands aisle seats, and sees quitting golf as more of a hobby than actually playing golf.  Follow @twooldridge and track his quest to transform his one-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.  Because nursing homes suck.

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