Much like the players, coaches, scouts, trainers, doctors, equipment men, public relations folks and so many others who work tirelessly behind the scenes to put such a wonderful product on the field, the live radio broadcast of an NFL game involves a lot more than just commentators providing their description of a game over the airwaves.
I recently had the unique vantage point of watching the Bears and Seahawks in a battle with major postseason ramifications from the national radio booth at Soldier Field, where I was part of the Dial Global radio broadcast. Along with play-by-play man Kevin Kugler, color analyst Mark Malone, producer Aaron Cummins, statistician Jeff Nelson and booth engineer Dan Rowbotham, I was the sixth man in a closet-sized booth — nestled at the top of the 200 section on the 50-yard line — serving as the spotter for Kugler.
What is a spotter, you ask?
As I used to tell my friends when I held the position with WBBM radio for the Bears’ radio broadcasts from 2001-03, the job description is as such: Watch the football game as closely as possible through a pair of powerview binoculars, always following the football and never taking your eyes off the field.
In other words, watch the greatest sport in the world as closely as possible.
Obviously, it’s a great gig if you can get it, and I have been beyond lucky in my 30 years to grow up with such amazing access to the NFL and surrounded by some of the smartest football minds in the business.
Thus, I thought it would be interesting to give readers a slightly closer look at what goes on behind the scenes in the radio booth, given the fact they only hear the voices of the commentators.
Staring at the field, from left to right, stood Kugler, me over his right shoulder, Nelson sitting in a chair directly in front of me and Malone against the right wall of the booth. Cummins stood behind the four of us, directly next to a bulletin board with numerous cue cards pinned on the board. Rowbotham sat in a chair, about five feet above us, in front of the board, making sure all of the audio levels were just right.
On the Seahawks’ opening drive, as Kugler and Malone were just diving into Seattle’s offensive personnel and game plan, Nelson and I had our first in-game opportunities to contribute. (I say during the game, because Nelson spent plenty of time preparing stats in advance.)
On the fifth play from scrimmage, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch took a Russell Wilson handoff and rumbled off left tackle for five yards, but he had the ball knocked loose in the scrum at the end of the play. I was unable to decipher who knocked the ball free from Lynch in such a muddled mess of bodies, but clearly saw nickel corner Kelvin Hayden emerge from the pile with the football. I relayed the information to Kugler by pointing to Hayden’s No. 24 on his handwritten numerical roster, and Kugler then shared with the listeners that Hayden came up with the football.
Meanwhile, Nelson was quickly producing a statistic on the Bears’ propensity for creating takeaways under head coach Lovie Smith.
The biggest role of the spotter is to identify tacklers, ballcarriers and receivers, though we earn our paychecks (tongue planted firmly in cheek) by recognizing when a fumble is forced or recovered, a pass is tipped at the line, and other subtle nuances of the game occur. Of course, the spotter, along with everyone in the booth with the exception of the broadcasters, must be silent throughout the broadcast, making silent communication imperative. Suffice to say, Kugler and other play-by-play men are also adept at reading lips and interpreting, sometimes crazed, hand gestures and the like.
Nelson’s job as statistician is much more labor-intensive, as he is constantly recording and relaying to Kugler yards gained on every play, as well as charting plays, timeouts, penalties, turnovers, and pretty much every other stat under the sun.
Nelson had all kinds of great nuggets throughout the broadcast, but, like all of us — for instance, me missing the first forced fumble, Kugler calling the Bears jerseys black or Malone referring to a Seahawk as a Bear — he wasn’t perfect. After Lynch tied the game on a four-yard TD run late in the first half, Nelson held up a card for Kugler that indicated it was Seahawks WR Golden Tate’s first TD longer than 40 yards. Of course, it was Lynch who found the endzone, but Tate’s 49-yard reception one play earlier that set up the score. Fortunately, after a momentary on-air pause, Kugler had the presence of mind to recognize the error before he began to report the incorrect stat live.
Much like the statistician needs to be good at multitasking, so, too does the producer. Cummins’ No.1 objective is getting Kugler and Malone in and out of breaks. He is constantly aware of the timing of the broadcast, in order to make sure Dial Global is “paying all of its bills,” otherwise known as getting all of the advertisers’ spots read. That is where his handy bulletin board comes in, as Cummins has pre-written cue cards, containing advertisers’ messages, which he hands to Kugler to read in and out of all of the breaks. Cummins is also the main communicator with the folks back in the studio, who provide scoreboard and news updates.
As for Rowbotham, I can’t comment much on his duties except to tell you he is the man most responsible for how the audio sounds on your speakers. From listening to the broadcast live on a headset, I can tell you he was right on the mark.
Each team scoring in the final 24 seconds to force overtime generally leads to an entertaining broadcast, but now you know what else happens before the excitement reaches the airwaves.