Sunday, May 1, 2011

Getting A Better Picture... On The Radio

I watched approximately the first half of the Richmond Cup race on FOX at a friend’s house on Saturday night. I was enjoying the racing, as Richmond has always been one of my favorite tracks, which I can say about virtually every short track at which NASCAR conducts business.

Alas, the evening had to end, and I drove home, a trip of about 50 miles. Fortunately for me, I was able to listen to most of the second half of the race on a truly great radio station, WESC, 92.5 FM in Greenville, South Carolina. This station can be heard nearly all the way to Atlanta, and nearly all the way to Charlotte. WESC has been carrying the MRN and PRN broadcasts for at least three decades now.

Back before 2001, when NASCAR signed its TV deal with FOX, et al, I didn’t have cable or satellite TV for the most part. I occasionally caught a race on one of the broadcast networks when it was presented. Prior to 2001, however, I mostly got my NASCAR on the radio, and I don’t remember having any complaints about the coverage. When I caught a TV broadcast on ESPN or the old Nashville Network back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, I loved the treatment that commentators such as Ned Jarrett and Neil Bonnett gave to the races.

In 2001, everything changed, of course. The new TV deal was inked, and once I had basic cable, I was able to watch every single NASCAR Sprint Cup race, as well as the Nationwide and Camping World Truck races. I know, I know, none of these three series were called by those names back in 2001, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just stick with their current names.

Since I’ve had basic cable, I have probably watched about 95 per cent of all the NASCAR races, plus quite a few ARCA races, as well as some IRL and F1 races. And then there’s the NHRA, but I won’t get into that. Obviously, I’ve missed a few races, but when I wasn’t near a TV, I always had old reliable, which of course is good old WESC, which in turn provided me with MRN and PRN broadcasts.

I’ve had my beefs with all of the TV networks which have broadcast NASCAR events since 2001. I feel that SPEED TV does a great job with the Camping World Truck races. I like Phil Parsons’ commentary nearly as much as I did his late brother Benny’s. If I had it my way, SPEED would broadcast all of the NASCAR races. I’m glad that FOX does about half of the Cup season, however, because I know that not everyone has cable or satellite TV. ESPN, with their sister network ABC, broadcast the late season Cup races. Unfortunately for those without the extra channels, mostly those races are broadcast on ESPN’s channels

Many have questioned the various networks’ commitment to NASCAR over the last few years. ESPN has been a point of contention for many journalists and pundits lately, and in a way, I see their point. From a NASCAR fan’s point of view, it may seem that ESPN doesn’t have the same level of commitment as, say FOX, SPEED, or the handful of races which are broadcast by TNT. All of the major networks, especially the broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX) are not primarily sports networks. Sure, they make a lot of money from the sports that they do broadcast. FOX and CBS are doing quite well with their coverage of the NFL. NBC has been giving us the Sunday night NFL game. ESPN is the home of Monday Night Football. CBS and NBC have had great success with their late round PGA golf coverage. I don’t even know who does the NBA or NHL finals anymore, because I basically don’t care, unless my Celtics are playing. I live in South Carolina, so I probably couldn’t even name five NHL teams. Not that we don’t have hockey fans here, because we do, and even have a professional hockey team or two in the area. I just don’t have the time to pay much attention to them.

ESPN, however, is different from the other networks. ESPN covers virtually all sports known to mankind. If you’re a beach volleyball fan, and who isn’t, then ESPN is the place to be. If you like watching professional bowling, ESPN and it’s sister channels are only a remote click away. There are so many sports, and only so many hours in a given day, or week, or year, or for that matter, a lifetime. I’m willing to give ESPN a pass on scrimping a little when NASCAR coverage coincides with the NFL draft. In the USA, which is where ESPN’s primary audience resides, the NFL is king. Of course, I’m only talking about ESPN from a TV standpoint. provides in depth coverage on so many sports that it boggles the mind. At least my mind. I can read about sports I’ve never heard of, much less seen, all on one website. ESPN would need to have about a dozen more TV channels to give every sports fan what they want. Bandwidth is everything, and ESPN does an admirable job with what they’ve got.

I love ESPN. They rock. If I ever have to live without ESPN, I might spend the rest of my life mumbling to myself in a corner. Well, I mean more than I mumble to myself in a corner already. Remind me to tell you how I became a fan of the sport of curling some day. I’m not kidding. It’s now my second or third favorite sport.

I digress, as usual. The point of this little message from me to you is that I realized, about halfway home, listening to the Richmond race as it was called by MRN, was that I had what I felt was a more total picture of the race by listening to the radio than I had from watching the TV coverage that FOX provided. Over the years, I have heard of more than a few fans who told me that they turned on the TV coverage, and muted the sound. Then they turned on the radio and listened to Barney Hall, or whomever was broadcasting the races via radio.

I’ve seen the light. I think I’m going to start doing the same from now on.

I got home and fed the creatures who inhabit the property, and turned on the race on WESC while performing my chores. Finally, I turned on the TV, with the sound muted, though with closed captioning enabled. I saw the Richmond version of the ‘Big One’ that took out Jeff Gordon and a few others. I compared what I heard on the radio to what I read on the closed captioning on TV. (Proving to myself that I can multitask, at least to some degree, though it made my head hurt.) I found that I learned much more, got a clearer picture through the radio broadcast than I did from the images I saw and the words I read on my TV screen. For the rest of the race, I did much the same, and though FOX basically followed Kyle Busch around and around in circles, I got updates on other drivers throughout the field from MRN on a regular basis. FOX really never showed it, but MRN told me about some pretty good racing going on back in the field.

MRN stands for Motor Racing Network, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of NASCAR. For those of you who like to criticize NASCAR, I offer to you that NASCAR has done at least one thing very well, and that’s what MRN does. MRN does not have the luxury of letting the pictures tell the story. Veteran broadcasters like Barney Hall paint a mental picture by words alone, and they do it very well. MRN has been broadcasting races for so many years that it can be expected that they will provide very high quality coverage of NASCAR events, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve never been disappointed.

You want a nominee for the 2011 class for the NASCAR Hall Of Fame? Don’t forget guys like Barney Hall, or Eli Gould, who, as I understand it, also knows a thing or two about college football in the great state of Alabama.

If I were in charge of NASCAR, I think I would require all networks that carry my product to spend quite a bit of time studying how MRN can bring a race alive to a listener by words alone. Show what’s going on back in the field more than just a few times during the race. I don’t mean pay lip service to it, but actually cover it. When the guy leading the race is 2 seconds in front of the second place guy, there might be 4 drivers beating the crap out of each other for 5th, or 10th, or maybe 35th place. So what if the guys racing for 35th are 3 laps down? If it’s the best racing on the track, show it. That’s what the fans at the track are watching. I know. Sometimes I’m one of those fans at the track. I’d rather watch two guys fighting for a spot way back in the field than watch the leader drive away from everyone. I hate it when I read the next day about a race and find out that a particular driver had finished well, but was never shown, nor even mentioned during the broadcast. That seems to happen every week, somehow. Radio, by it’s very nature, requires that the broadcasters cover the entire event, not just the leader. Radio guys know that we can’t see it, so they have to describe it for us. Good radio guys can paint such a vivid picture through words alone that it seems inconsequential that we can’t actually see what’s happening.

There are so many great drivers, crew chiefs, owners, and people behind the scenes that deserve to be in the Hall Of Fame. I’m sure that most, if not all will get there eventually, and they all deserve it.

Just don’t forget the people who bring the Show to your living room, or to your car while you’re driving a lonely highway.

I don’t want to forget about the good people at Performance Racing Network, or PRN. They do a great job as well, slipping in almost seamlessly when MRN isn’t there.

Who knew? I finally got the big picture, and it was all back where I started. Radio. I can see more clearly now.