Through the Airwaves, the Game Goes On

By Beacon Staff

In the remote outpost of northeastern Montana, where schools are so small that they combine their teams with schools on the other side of the North Dakota border, there are two primary ways to follow local sports: go to the game or turn on the radio. And with the vast distances and harsh weather of the prairie, sometimes radio is the only reasonable option.

“We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere,” said Bruce Lapke, program manager and technical director for KATQ in Plentywood, located near the Canadian and North Dakotan borders.

With few professional or college teams to choose from in Montana, high school athletics are generally the only game in town. Friday night football is a serious matter. So is playoff basketball. It’s no surprise that radio stations make sports a top priority. High school games aren’t televised live in Montana.

Of the three-person staff at KATQ, one person – Jim Nielsen – devotes his time solely to athletics. The radio station does play-by-play coverage of four sports – football, boys and girls basketball, and volleyball – at three different area schools. It’s a big load for a small station.

“Sports are really big here,” Lapke said.

From Scobey to Dillon, sports fans depend on their local radio stations for live coverage. In towns with television stations, highlights are available on the news, but for many this isn’t sufficient – they want to follow the game as it happens. The same sentiment can be applied to waiting for the daily newspaper. The Internet is good for so many purposes, but not play-by-play, unless radio stations live-stream their local coverage, which many do today.

Grandparents unable to travel to games want to hear their grandchildren’s names shouted after touchdowns. Casual fans want to listen to the voices of their favorite announcers to comfort them on cold winter nights. And diehard fans want to know exactly what’s happening in the game, when it’s happening. All of this is amplified during tournaments.

Plentywood only has a weekly newspaper and the closest big towns – Williston, N.D. and Billings – provide limited coverage of northeastern teams in the daily newspapers and on television.

“We get a couple channels from Billings, but the signal is weak,” Lapke said. “And we don’t get a lot of coverage anyway. They’ll post a score, but we don’t get any camera work.”

Mark Daniels, news director at KSEN in Shelby, has been in Montana’s radio business for 27 years. Even with the rise of the Internet age, Daniels said his station’s sports listenership is “maybe as big as ever.” The dying of small agriculture-based towns is dispersing people and altering the landscape, but no matter where they end up living, Montanans turn on their radio when it’s game time.

Lapke said his Plentywood station used to cover five schools, but one shut down as the town’s population faded and the other joined its athletic department with another school. The station’s sports coverage, however, hasn’t diminished. KSEN in Shelby also covers multiple schools in the region. In fact, Daniels said his station does play-by-play coverage for nine schools, more than anybody in the state.

Daniels, who won the 2001 E.B. Craney Radio Sports Broadcaster of the Year award, said people in small communities share a vested interest in their local sports teams, even if they aren’t fans.

“Everybody’s related around here, it seems, or they all know each other, so their interest is pretty large,” Daniels said.

But the enduring popularity of radio sports broadcasting isn’t unique to rural Montana. It’s evident in every big town as well. In Kalispell, Mike Hammer of KOFI said it’s impossible to determine exact listenership numbers, but he knows many in the community tune in on game night. Some just catch fragments of the game while driving, some put it on in the background at their house, and others make an evening of it.

Radio sports broadcasting relies on sponsors and even in lean economic times, businesses try hard to support their local teams and keep sports on air. The money helps pay for the announcers and their travel expenses. Hammer, who covers Columbia Falls High School football and basketball, said there are more than 20 sponsors for his coverage.

Depending on a station’s resources, radio sports coverage usually involves two people: a play-by-play guy and a color commentator. Sometimes it’s a one-man show. There is a steep learning curve, even if an announcer is well versed in the sport’s rules, execution and subtleties. An announcer must learn appropriate cadence, terminology and etiquette. Perhaps rule No. 1: Don’t pronounce kids’ names wrong.

“There’s nothing worse to a family than to hear their name pronounced wrong over and over again,” Daniels said.

Announcers are expected to understand the game far better than the average observer. When there is a dead ball, listeners expect to know exactly why. Shaine Reece, who covers football and basketball for Glacier High School, said his 12 years of refereeing experience often comes in handy. Furthermore, commentators must be considerate at all times while still conveying the emotion of the game.

“I can’t just blatantly say the officials are horrible, but you still want to paint the picture,” Hammer said, adding that covering high school is more delicate than college or professional: “In high school, you have to be more tender.”

Football and basketball are most commonly covered by radio stations, though any sport is a possibility. Many stations send announcers to baseball and volleyball games, as well as wrestling matches, particularly during state tournament time. Hammer has even gone to track meets and provided updates throughout the day.

Depending on the station, both home and road games might be featured, but road games usually take precedence – when the team is out of town, fans still want to follow the game. When radio stations can’t send an announcer, they pick up live feeds from the hosting town’s stations if possible. Many pick up feeds of Grizzly and Bobcats games too.

Reece and his colleague Doug Manaker only cover Glacier’s home football games. Their commentary is useful to people in the area who can’t make it to the game, as well as fans actually at the game. There’s a good chance that anyone donning headphones in the stands is listening to Reece and Manaker to better understand what’s happening on the field.

Reece recalls a time when he and Manaker asked a trivia question on air and then announced what they thought was the correct answer. But seconds later, a fan came into their booth and said: “No, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

“I love doing this,” Reece said. “It’s really fun stuff.”

Over in Plentywood, games will crackle through the airwaves every Friday night for the rest of football season. Then the weeks will fill up with basketball. For the small staff at KATQ, live sports coverage is a source of pride.

“There’s not as many radio stations up in this area,” Lapke said. “In Billings, it’s hard to find a game unless you know where to look. But up here, we’re the only station for 80 miles.”

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