I was driving up I-270 heading to visit family for the holidays when Washington went to Chicago to play the Bears on Christmas Eve. Freed from local radio waves by Sirius XM’s satellites, I was listening to the Chicago broadcast of the game, and it was a goddamned pleasure. The guy doing the play-by-play—I would later find out it was Jeff Joniak of CBS Chicago—was a throwback to what I remember from my childhood days of turning the TV down and the radio up here in D.C.: a measured delivery, setting the stage, describing the action clearly and intelligently, and conveying emotion without resorting to shouting or overt cheerleading.
I was also driving when the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin scored his 1,000th goal a month later, and I caught that call on the Capitals’ radio network. It came 35 seconds into the first period. So though it was a career milestone, it wasn’t necessarily a crucial moment in the game (the Caps would go on to win 5-2), but the play-by-play call was a messy smear of incoherent screaming that didn’t clearly illustrate the action so much as it sketched out some kind of chaotic Hieronymus Boschian hellscape.
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes for good play-by-play.
Grant Paulsen has been pondering the same thing—but for a much more concrete reason. When the Arena Football League begins its 2017 season in April, the 106.7 The Fan host will make his debut as a professional football play-by-play guy for the expansion Washington Valor. He’s already neck deep in preparation, designing his reference sheets, doing practice calls over old AFL games on YouTube, and of course researching the players, most of them unknown.
“Obviously, I’ll be the first person that’s ever called Valor games,” Paulsen says, “So there’s no one I can tap into about the team history or anything like that. I’m starting on the ground floor.”
True, but it’s also an important step toward a role he’s dreamed about all his life, one of the first topics I remember ever speaking to him about: doing national play-by-play for the biggest of big leagues, specifically on the radio.
“My aspirations are to do some type of Westwood One-type radio call,” he says. “I love the descriptive nature, painting a picture, kinda being the eyeballs of the people who can’t see.” So he’s actively wrestling with the exact kinds of issues that alternately pleased and irritated me during those two recent radio experiences.
“You don’t wanna be a distraction, you don’t wanna become the reason people are watching,” Paulsen notes on the one hand. You just wanna provide excitement.”
But on the other hand, “I think people who are boring while calling a game take away from the game, frankly.”
It’s a tough balance to strike for anyone, compounded by the fact that the broadcast crew are employed by the same ownership group and media company, if not necessarily team employees.
What he won’t have to deal with, at least not initially, is the hangdog attitude so pervasive in D.C. sports fandom, which often extends to broadcasters too. (The Wizards are riding a hot streak right now, but during interminable stretches of being mediocre-to-bad, Comcast play-by-play ace Steve Buckhantz reacts to every turnover and miscue with an air of resigned disappointment, like someone seeing his idiot dog run into a sliding glass door for the 35th time.)
“It’s gonna be easy for me,” Paulsen says, “because there’s no history of losing for the Valor. There is no ‘here we go again,’ because there’s never been a before.” He’s also a guy who has been in press boxes since he was 10 and is therefore accustomed to suppressing his fandom to a borderline pathological level.
Asked who he’s looking to emulate, Paulsen cites a number of familiar names: Comcast TV sportcaster Joe Beninati and former Redskins radio broadcaster Frank Herzog locally and FOX sportscaster Joe Buck nationally. But the name he cites as his aspirational archetype is something of a surprise: CBS sportcaster Ian Eagle. From my perspective, Eagle is a solid, workmanlike play-by-play guy—not annoying but also kind of benign.
And that, Paulsen says, is entirely the point. “I think the greatest thing you can say about Ian Eagle is that there isn’t any one attribute that you think of with him,” in contrast with more idiosyncratic voices like Gus Johnson, he says. “He’s just so smooth and professional. I think that’s kinda the dream.”
It’s a demanding goal to be a constant presence and yet utterly in the background. Which may go a long way toward explaining why so many broadcasters fail, descending into shouting and incoherence.