A Little Cluster In Kalamazoo Shaped 2 MLB Broadcasting Careers
“For Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Joe Block and Houston Astros announcer Robert Ford, Kalamazoo was (in many ways) where it all began.”
What if I told you that the careers of two current Major League Baseball Broadcasters started in the same place and with the same company?
That place is Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the company was called Fairfield Broadcasting.
The 4-station cluster (WQLR-FM, WKZO-FM, WQSN-AM, and WKLZ-AM) was owned by business partners Steve Trivers and Bill Wertz, who set up shop in the Southwest Michigan college town in 1972. Before selling their assets to Midwest Broadcasting in 2006, they were responsible for helping launch the broadcast careers of many professionals, including yours truly.
However, two Fairfield alumni went on to work in “the show” and remain there to this very day.
For Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Joe Block and Houston Astros announcer Robert Ford, Kalamazoo was (in many ways) where it all began.
Having worked with both of these pros (and having had many shared experiences under the same roof) I wanted to sit down with them for my latest column.
Kalamazoo already had a rich broadcast history long before Block and Ford had arrived. Harry Caray was once the Sports Director at WKZO in Kalamazoo and worked alongside a young News Director by the name of Paul Harvey.
Caray called his first ever baseball game in nearby Battle Creek (a semipro tourney) and would famously claim that his legendary home run calls of “It might be … it could be … it IS … a home run!” and “Holy Cow!” were born in that first broadcast.
Neither Block nor Ford knew about these historical footnotes. At the time they were merely 20-somethings looking for an opportunity.
The rest, as they say, is history.
How did you end up working in Kalamazoo?
Robert Ford: In short, I was attracted to the opening in Kalamazoo because I needed a job. After calling games for the short-season Yakima Bears in 2002, I worked as an account executive for the Yakima Sun Kings, of the old Continental Basketball Association, & planned on calling games for Yakima in 2003 unless I found a broadcasting gig in the affiliated minors.
I quickly learned I’m not a salesman and that I hated being an account executive. And the Bears told me that it wasn’t a sure thing that I’d be back with them in 2003, & I needed to re-apply to be their broadcaster again. Before that, I hadn’t considered working in independent baseball but now decided to cast a wider net in my job search to get out of a miserable situation in Yakima, and to give myself a chance to call more baseball games. I learned that an independent league team in Kalamazoo was looking for a broadcaster, so I called Joe Rosenhagen, the GM of the Kalamazoo Kings, who confirmed they needed a broadcaster for the 2003 season, and that the radio station was doing the hiring.
He gave me the name of the program director, Ryan Maguire, I looked up the address of the station & sent my stuff in. Maybe 2 weeks later, I came home to a voicemail on my answering machine from Ryan, asking me to interview for the Kings job.
Joe Block: This is a great story. I got to call games for the first time on a commercial station because I left my keys at home. At a Michigan State football game, it came time for a third down conversion, a “key” play. I reached in my pocket and retrieved the only thing in there: My wallet. The fan to my left, who was clearly no longer a student, asked me why I kept pulling out my (empty) wallet. I explained, and we struck up a conversation. Stephen Trivers liked my creativity. He had such an incredible knack for recognizing talent. I have no idea how the owner of Fairfield Broadcasting, a cluster of radio stations in Kalamazoo, would identify that this gangly, half-drunken teen would be a possible hire, but he did.
Mr. Trivers, who, to his credit, dared to sit in the student section that day, later hired me to call play-by-play for Kalamazoo College men’s basketball on WKLZ-AM. Ken Lanphear, who had been the Hornets’ voice for many years, stepped down to focus more on his off-air responsibilities if I remember correctly. So, because of a chance circumstance, I met a decision-maker and scored my first, true, play-by-play gig.
What’s a memory from your time as a broadcaster in Kalamazoo that stands out?
RF: My memories of my time in Kalamazoo involve always working, & always being on the air, which is what I wanted & needed at that point in my career. After the Kings’ season, I was doing play-by-play or color on high school & small college basketball & football, as well as news anchoring & reporting on WKZO. I was always busy, but I don’t remember being tired or exhausted because I was young, doing what I loved, & working with people I enjoyed being around on a professional & personal level.
JB: There are so many memories from working in Kalamazoo. One afternoon, we were off the air because of technical problems, so Ryan Field, my color analyst and roommate, and I went to the other side of the gym to spectate. I kept heckling the other team. There couldn’t have been more than two hundred people in the gym, so EVERYONE heard me. At 20, I was an embarrassment to the profession, but, after time has passed, it’s pretty funny.
Field and I went on a road trip to Wooster, Ohio, to do a tournament. My punctuality was in question, so, unknown to us, Ken followed us there in case we didn’t show. I never missed a game (well, except one – that’s later) but I’d often get there close to air-time.
We got to Wooster plenty early to set up, but in our first break in pregame, Ken tapped us on the shoulders, and we yelled, startled. We also drove back to Michigan in a driving blizzard and had to stop somewhere in Ohio to spend the night.
So, I did miss one game… again, snow. Driving from East Lansing, I got to Battle Creek before my 1985 Renault Alliance had to rest in a hotel parking lot. I had left about four hours before a game but only could get to BC by airtime.
What’s your best MLB memory?
RF: When the Astros lost Game 6 of the 2017 World Series in Los Angeles, forcing a Game 7, my first thought when the game ended was, “I’m going to call Game 7 of the World Series tomorrow. No matter what happens, I can always say I got to call a World Series Game 7.” Not only did I have the privilege of calling a Game 7, I had the privilege of calling a Game 7 that my team, the Astros, won for their first-ever World Series title. I’m not sure anything will top that for me.
JB: I am lucky I possess a trove of wonderful, hilarious, and meaningful memories from my 11 years working in Major League Baseball. The most enjoyable day I’ve had reporting for work was in 2013 or 2014 at Wrigley Field. I worked with Bob Uecker, which is still an honor and a thrill to type this. Sometime in the first inning, Ueck observed the rooftop seating and began to craft a fantastic storyboard of a potential sitcom, loosely based around the Wrigleyville rooftops. Ueck wove in details, far-fetched and animated, throughout the game. I’ve never laughed harder. And I still fondly remember that game as my favorite because it captured the essence of why we entered this profession: To have fun.
What lessons did you learn from your time in Kalamazoo that helped you in your big-league career?
RF– I don’t know that there was a specific lesson, it was more just getting the opportunity to be on the air in Kalamazoo every day, in a variety of scenarios & situations, that helped make me a better broadcaster & put me in a position to get a big-league broadcasting job. I will always be indebted to people like Steve Trivers, Bill Wertz, Ryan Maguire & Dave Jaconette who believed in me, trusted me, gave me a chance to succeed, & supported me. Those two years in Kalamazoo gave me confidence that I could do the job & were a springboard for all of the great things that have happened in my career since.
JB– Kalamazoo, and, namely, Mr. Trivers, laid a concrete foundation for my professional career. I committed many no-no’s under his watch: Arriving too close to tip off, preparing little or at all, not shaving, not dressing appropriately, sleeping during the game (it was very warm in Olivet’s gym). By not being retained following the season, I learned a hard lesson that without subscribing to the basic tenets of any job, let alone a choice profession like play-by-play broadcasting, I was never gonna make it. So, a deep thanks to Mr. Trivers for imploring me to be a pro.
Ryan Maguire is a columnist for BSM, and a longtime sports and news radio program director. He has managed KIRO-FM in Seattle, WQAM in Miami, 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, 610 Sports in Kansas City, and 105.7/1250 The Fan in Milwaukee. Presently, Ryan serves as the Executive Producer of Chicago White Sox baseball on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. Originally from Michigan, Ryan still holds out hope that the Detroit Lions will one day deliver a Super Bowl title. He can be reached on Twitter @RMaguire1701.
Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?
“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”
Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career.
Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff.
Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.
Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.
Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country.
Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.
Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.
Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.
Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!
A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.
FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan. MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team. I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”
JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions.
“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).
“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”
MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?
The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.
Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.
But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.
The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.
As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.
Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.
The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.
Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!
But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)
That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?
We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!
The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.
Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.
Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)
Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.
We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.
When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?
If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle
“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”
Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.
The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.
Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark.
It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.
Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.
Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.
One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.
It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.
It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.
One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.
Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”
There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.
We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.
The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.