Radio change-up: Sportsnet to simulcast Blue Jays TV broadcasts on radio this season

·8 min read

Blue Jays radio broadcasts were part of the soundtrack to longtime fan Blake Appleton's formative years growing up in east-end Toronto.

The familiar call from Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth would emanate from the radio of the family Buick on Sunday road trips home from cottage country. When Appleton worked part-time evening shifts at a local pharmacy as a teenager, the broadcast could be heard in the background for customers to enjoy.

And Appleton's grandfather would put the game on when they got together for an iced tea and a chat on the back deck, working the extended antenna as needed to get the sound on the leather-strapped transistor radio just right.

That kind of tradition has been a big part of the Blue Jays experience for many fans since the team's debut in 1977. Now a season-ticket holder, Appleton still senses that radio connection every time he walks to his seats in the 217 section at Rogers Centre.

"You always see those older Jays fans with an actual radio there with them in the ballpark, which is always a telltale sign that people don't want to give up that radio piece of the experience," Appleton said.

Blue Jays games will still be heard on the radio when the 2021 regular season begins Thursday, but the sound and feel of the broadcast will be different.

Sportsnet recently announced that it will simulcast TV broadcasts on its radio network this year.

In a news release, Sportsnet said the decision to streamline production was made to minimize travel and closely adhere to team, league, and government protocols related to the pandemic.

It left the Blue Jays as the only team in the major leagues without a dedicated radio broadcast crew.

"It's a shame, it's a bad idea," said Paul Cross, a professor and co-ordinator for the radio and media production program at Toronto's Humber College. "Generally it doesn't work to put TV audio on the radio and expect that people listening to the radio are going to have the same experience that they would have if a radio personality was performing the same role for them.

"Radio requires description and special attention that a TV broadcast doesn't necessarily require."

Ben Wagner and Mike Wilner handled Blue Jays radio commentator duties last season. Sportsnet parted ways with Wilner last fall while Wagner remains part of the broadcast team in an undefined role.

Sportsnet plans to use TV broadcasters Buck Martinez, Dan Shulman and Pat Tabler on both TV and radio for the 2021 campaign. Radio broadcast plans for next year and beyond have not been determined.

"There is a nuance and a slight difference in the call between radio and television," said Rob Corte, vice-president of Sportsnet and NHL Productions. "But we're very confident in the team we have. Dan, Buck and Pat are exceptional broadcasters and they are the voices of the Blue Jays.

"All we ask is just give it a chance and have a listen. I think people will be impressed and will really like the product."

While Sportsnet's news release stated the network will be simulcasting TV broadcasts on the radio, Corte said the end product will actually be a "unique broadcast" for the medium.

"What the radio listeners will get is you will have the call of the game from the broadcasters and you will also have a unique international sound mix," he said. "So that's the bat crack, the umpire, the PA announcer. Those two will be mixed together and that will be the broadcast you get.

"You're not going to hear sound effects from television, you're not going to hear the music from television, it is still going to be a unique radio experience audio-wise."

Other radio changes include the use of an in-game host who will throw to the commentators, the return of the JaysTalk call-in show and more coverage of post-game manager and player availabilities, Corte said.

Rogers Communications owns both Sportsnet and the Blue Jays, who made some big off-season signings as they aim to contend in 2021. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was asked about the radio changes during a recent media availability.

"I haven't really spent a lot of time talking to (team president) Mark (Shapiro) and the group about that," he said. "I think we're in an interesting time where we have to be adaptive and have to think about things in a slightly different way because of the nature of a pandemic."

Howarth called the Blue Jays' World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 with Cheek, who died in 2005 from brain cancer. Howarth started calling triple-A games in Tacoma, Wash., in 1974 and retired after calling the 2017 season with the Blue Jays.

"I will feel for the audience because whatever they end up doing, it won't be the same," he said.

When it came to radio broadcasts, Howarth said he'd strive to include simple positional details and balance commentary with crowd noise and in-stadium sounds so that it meshed nicely for the listener.

He was constantly attuned to natural audio possibilities. As an example, Howarth would sometimes ask the engineer to raise the volume of the stadium PA announcer's player intros on the broadcast and he'd work his call around them as needed.

He recalled delivering his trademark call of 'Yes sir! There she goes!' when Jose Bautista hit his famous bat-flip homer in the 2015 playoffs. Howarth went silent for almost a full minute afterwards to let the roar of the crowd tell the story — a radio-first approach that's rarely used on television.

"That's what makes baseball so beautiful on the radio," he said. "When you can orchestrate a broadcast for three hours and bring all those elements into it for the listener, you have put that listener right there in the ballpark."

Shulman, meanwhile, is a television and radio veteran who calls a variety of sports. Considered one of the best commentators in the game, he has spent over two decades calling baseball games for ESPN Radio.

So will a broadcast style adjustment be required given the unusual Blue Jays setup this season?

"The short answer is yes. The longer answer is I think that's something I won't be totally sure about until I start doing it," Shulman said. "I'm definitely cognizant of trying to keep the radio audience informed as to what's going on obviously. But I think I'll need some games to see exactly what that means because I haven't done a simulcast before."

"You can't do a total radio call," he added. "That's a disservice to the TV viewers who make up the vast majority of the overall audience. But I will try to give things like the count, baserunners and the score more often for the benefit of those listening on the radio. I'm hoping everyone understands the complexity of the situation and that they give it a chance."

Corte said Sportsnet was "very far down the line" in auditioning radio colour analysts, but given that Wagner would need time to develop chemistry with a new partner — and given location challenges with the pandemic — the network went with a new plan for 2021.

"As things became clearer and clearer, and we looked at all the potential challenges we were going to face, we decided just to put a hold on the radio and do it this way," he said.

As the only Canadian team in Major League Baseball, the Blue Jays — and Sportsnet as the rightsholder — have to deal with challenges posed by international border restrictions.

The team is slated to start the season playing home games at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., and hopes to return to Toronto later this year if possible.

Mike Naraine, an assistant professor with Brock University's department of sport management, said the pandemic situation has allowed Sportsnet to experiment, trim some costs and use its broadcast more efficiently.

"This omni-channel approach in sport, being able to have TV be your principal point of access but then to simulcast on radio, on iPads through (over-the-top) services, that's where the game has moved and where the needle is today," Naraine said.

"I'm not too surprised. I know that the traditional baseball fan may be upset but it's not a surprising move to be honest."

Howarth, who also did some TV analyst work earlier in his career, said he was surprised when he heard about the changes, adding he feels for the Blue Jays' radio listenership across the country.

"Even the very best in Dan, Buck and Pat will have difficulties trying to call a game to satisfy the radio broadcast," he said. "It cannot be done. That's why I was both saddened and disappointed that the decision was made because in essence it takes away from the real love and joy that baseball brings to the audience."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press