The New York Islanders: Where The Interns Are Also The Radio Broadcasters

For the last nineteen years, I’ve gone out of my way many times to defend the New York Islanders organization. For the first five, I was paid to do so, as a member of the team’s Public Relations Department, and for the last fourteen, since my departure for a position at the NBA, as a staunch, ardent fan who always tried to maintain a tie to the place where I grew up both personally as a fan and professionally as an employee.

I was paid to defend the Fisherman jerseys (which I obviously regret). I was paid to defend the Kirk Muller deal (which I will always defend, because I still believe it was the right idea). Once I was not paid, I still chose to defend everything I believed to be correct. I backed the Lighthouse. I gave Garth Snow a shot when everyone else was more concerned that he was promoted from backup goalie to GM, and think he has done a better job than anyone cares to give him credit for. I think Scott Gordon is one hell of a good coach. I did not defend Mike Milbury’s ridiculous moves.

Those days end now.

As the Islanders, after being backed into a self-constructed corner by first failing on an annual basis to come up with a radio deal to satisfy all of their fans, and then after pulling the plug on a real radio broadcast and going the cheapo route by simulcasting last year, announce that their games will be broadcast on the Hofstra student radio station, I think it might be time to jump off the ship, whether it is sinking or not.

I am a product of college radio and support it to the fullest. I was Sports Director of WNYU my senior year there, succeeding a guy you may have heard of, Kenny Albert. The New York sports media is dotted with other alumni of this program, including C.J. Papa, Rich Ackerman and Steve Cangialosi, with many more having very successful careers behind the scenes. I know how important college radio is to students that want to get into the business, and believe they should be afforded every opportunity available. I called a my fair share of basketball games while at NYU, including one at Madison Square Garden and one at Boston Garden. I had two internships while working there. Both of these internships created relationships that still remain, and have contributed to various opportunities I’ve had in my career. Even with all of that, I could never have fathomed the concept of any of us calling NHL games while still in school. Even Kenny rode the bus in the minors for a couple of seasons before his first NHL gig.

With that said, let’s talk about the Islanders’ amazing decision to place their games on a college radio station. I’ll break it down into different areas, so that all arguments on both sides can be seen:

–Station Signal: As I alluded to earlier, the team’s broadcasts have been much maligned for many years not because of content (until last season), but because too many Islander fans couldn’t hear them due to poor signal strength. The signal that WRHU has is stronger than anything the Islanders have experienced for a long time. If this part of the decision is true, it is a major plus. However, if recent reports of actual signal strength, such as this one by the inimitable Dee Karl, are true, then this is just as bad as what they have had in the past.

–Content: The decision to simulcast last season was an atrocious one. The team has obviously realized that and is correcting the error. I assume that Chris King will be the play-by-play guy for the broadcasts, and that is something that is well deserved. Chris is the consummate pro and one of the nicest guys in the business. There is a reason the Islanders kept him around while they were doing the simulcast thing, and now he is being rewarded.

I also have no problems with students hosting the broadcast, doing intermissions, and running all of the technical operations. What better way to learn than by being doing something first hand. Some will mock this, but I will not. Sure, I am guessing there will be a technical glitch here or there, but that can happen to even an experienced engineer. Again, this is a plus.

Where this whole plan unravels for me, and I mean the WHOLE thing, is with the decision to use Hofstra students as the color analyst. This is a decision that ranks right up there with the one to simulcast. Listen – I have nothing against any of these kids. Like I said, I’ve been there. But I fail to see anything that qualifies them to be an analyst on an NHL broadcast of any sort. Most will stand up and say that they know the game, but they also should know that the role of an analyst on a radio broadcast requires a little more training than simply watching games from the stands or on TV.

Look at every analyst on every broadcast you watch. The overwhelming majority are former players or coaches, who have a knowledge of the game that is more intricate and in depth than anyone really cares to realize. I’ll always be of the opinion that a former player or coach should be in that spot, especially one that has ties to the team that fans can grab onto and relate to on a personal level. You will also find the occasional media member as the analyst. This is how Chris King originally got into the Islander broadcasting biz, how Sherry Ross became the Devils radio analyst and how Suzyn Waldman earned her way onto Yankee broadcasts. None of them played the game professionally, but all had an insight into the game that came with years of being around the game and all deserved the opportunity they got to show their stuff on the air.

Where, exactly, did any of the Hofstra students gain this knowledge? By watching the Hofstra club hockey team? What, exactly, will any of these students add to the broadcast in the analyst role? In a market that boasts radio analysts like Dave Maloney and Carl Banks, this decision deserves every bit of ridicule that it will receive. Since when did a major league team’s broadcast become a training ground instead of a place where the analyst enhanced the listening experience?

Additionally, put yourself in the press room at the Coliseum or Madison Square Garden for a minute. Look around the room, and you’ll see a plethora of seasoned radio professionals that have covered the game in some way, shape or form for more years than most of these kids are alive. Every one of them would love to have that one shot at being a broadcaster for a team and would most likely do it very inexpensively (yes, myself included). It is something that each and every one of them has dreamed of at some point in their career, and it is a slap in the face to all of them. These are some of the guys that you’ll be hearing the ridicule from as this decision becomes more and more real. Many of them have the forum already. All of them have more credibility in their pinkie toenail than all of the Hofstra kids have combined.

–Budget: Ah, yes. I forgot we were talking about the Islanders, so here is the real reason. Why pay an analyst or engineer or for airtime, when all of it can be free. This has to be the arrangement for the Islanders to even be considering this decision. Put our games on, don’t charge us, and let the kids do everything that they are dreaming about. Why pay for it when the kids can get college credit for it instead? When you think about this, it is a brilliant stroke by the Islanders. They can spin it all they want, talking about the signal strength and making their fans happy, but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line and, as we have seen with the Islanders, the cheapest route is often the one chosen. As they have proven this summer by letting go of head scout Ryan Jankowski, team legend Bryan Trottier and some other very highly qualified, highly respected people from behind the scenes that did more good for the organization than anyone will ever realize, all that matters right now is saving as many pennies along the way as possible. And I won’t even go down the team payroll path.

You would think at some point, the Islanders would try to do something big that doesn’t bring ridicule on the franchise, but at times, it feels like that they would rather go out of their way to be mocked. And this is exactly the type of decision that brings on that reaction. Why would the New York media take this team seriously when they choose to go in this direction? This market requires certain things for its sports teams to be treated the way they want, or expect, to be treated. Act like a minor league franchise and that is the coverage you will get.

Go through the teams and count the number of broadcasters working in New York that also have national roles in the business. Better yet, I’ll list them for you: Mike Breen, Marv Albert, Ian Eagle, Gus Johnson, Kenny Albert, Sam Rosen, Joe Micheletti, Mike Emrick, Ron Darling, Bob Papa, Bob Wischusen…I might even be missing a couple of others. Part of being taken seriously as an organization is the image you choose to project. A large part of that is how you present yourself in your broadcasts. It is eminently clear that the Islander have no desire to be taken seriously in that domain. On the Islanders TV side, Howie Rose gave me my first real break in the business, and is a quality announcer, while his new partner Butch Goring does not need any defending, since that is exactly the kind of person that should be in that role, so there are no issues there (although the release of Billy Jaffe this summer was completely uncalled for). But on the radio side, even with the highly deserving Chris King playing a large role, this is blatantly obvious.

I can no longer defend the decisions this organization makes. This one just proves that they don’t care about anything except saving money, and that they don’t care if those decisions result in them not being taken seriously. They have taken a professional sports team broadcast and in essence are turning it into “NHL Broadcaster Idol”.

As one commenter on Chris Botta’s blog asked, what happens to the broadcasts when there is a conflict with a Hofstra basketball game? I wonder what it will feel like when they get bumped from there as they have from everywhere else, including the general consciousness of the New York sports media.

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