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Video Kills Another Radio Star: Is The Play-By-Play Role In Trouble?

On April 11, 1921, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast a fight between guys named Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray from the Motor City Garden. A few months later, the same station hired Harold Arlin to broadcast a Pirates-Phillies game and a college football game between Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Since then, a long and quixotic relationship between fans and their radio play-by-play men has pretty much been responsible for the growth in popularity in sports in the United States.

Think about what sports might be like without Vin Scully, Russ Hodges, Harry Kalas, Jack Brickhouse, Marv Albert, Mel Allen, Red Barber and Lindsey Nelson, just to name a few of the thousands of beloved voices who essentially had become family members over the decades.

But like everything in life in these times of technological advances, and tightening budgets, some professional teams have begun to re-think the need for radio play-by-play deals.

Chuck Kaiton

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Last week in Carolina, the career of one of the NHL’s most illustrious voices, Chuck Kaiton, was ended by the decision of Hurricanes’ management to replace his radio calls with simulcasts of the team’s TV telecasts.

For nearly four decades, Kaiton had broadcast the games of the Hartford Whalers and then the Hurricanes, when the Whalers left Hartford for Raleigh in 1997.

Even before Kaiton’s contract expired on June 30, rumors began to float that the team’s new owner, Tom Dundon, and general manager, Don Waddell, were considering phasing Kaiton out to save money.

Last week, the terms of Carolina’s new offer to Kaiton became public. The Hurricanes offered Kaiton an 80 percent pay cut, but an opportunity to make up some of the difference by joining the organization’s sales team.

So Kaiton left.

“I was hoping for a reasonable offer to stay but obviously the offer was an invitation to leave,” Kaiton told the Raleigh News & Observer. “That is how I look at it. I really was hoping we could make some headway. It’s his decision to offer what he offered and it was quite a substantial decrease. It really basically told me they weren’t that interested in keeping me. That’s life. It’s his team.”

Kaiton’s streak of consecutive broadcasts will end at 3,412.

When the 2018-19 season begins, Hurricane fans will be hearing the voice of John Forslund, the team’s television play-by-play man.

This move might not be alarming had two other NHL teams, the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres, not already come to the same conclusion.

The trend is the result of the realities of modern-day finances, especially in the smaller media markets in leagues, like the NHL, which have always relied on a smaller niche of fans.

In making their decision, the Hurricanes used dwindling radio listenership as a major reason. The team categorized the numbers of those tuning into Kaiton as only a couple of thousand.

“Radio is not a prudent financial decision,” Waddell told the News & Observer a few months ago. “It’s important, I think, to have it for the people that still want to listen to it, but it’s something from a business standpoint that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Small market teams, such as the Hurricanes, cannot command large radio rights fees like major market teams can. This is how it usually works: A network interested in broadcasting a team’s games ordinarily pays the team, and the league, a rights fee. The network then sells advertising to compensate itself.

But in the case of the Hurricanes, the team had to pay its flagship station to broadcast games. And the cost of that, weighed against those served, eventually doomed Kaiton.

What’s more, the Hurricanes televise all 82 of their games. And if their fans are not able to be in front of a television, the organization – all organizations, really –  now make it possible to follow action on Twitter and devices that enable streaming.

So now, instead of the crisp description of where the puck is and whose stick it’s on, they will now be reminded how entirely different television play-by-play is.

“I really don’t think it will be that different for me,” Forslund told the News & Observer. “My call has always had a lot of directional in it, so it may just be a little tweaking for the (radio) listeners. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people who are visually impaired who say they can follow my call – where the puck is in the zone, when and where the puck is in the neutral zone, when the puck is along the boards or the action along the walls. It all goes back to my radio roots.”