Not just hard to listen to…

Other than two televised world cup rugby games between New Zealand and France (one win last year, one loss several years earlier), the sum total of my exposure to sports broadcasting over the past decade has been the fictional programme Sports Night, in a comedy drama show of the same name by Aaron Sorkin, created before he went on to make The West Wing. Brilliant show, amazing cast, fantastic writing.

But I understood very little of the actual sports side of things. It’s just not something I pay any attention to.

There’s a scene in Sports Night where the show’s Associate Producer Jeremy Goodwin (played by Joshua Malina, who also plays Will Bailey in The West Wing) has to come up with something to say about a remarkable result in a cricket match that has taken place somewhere in the world. Except he doesn’t understand cricket – and he’s a genius.

So I think I did pretty well to have listened to Talksport today and have come away with the understanding that a) England lost at cricket; b) they lost very badly; and c) there’s some football going on.

What I failed to understand (and don’t bother explaining please) was all the talk of ducks, maidens, slips and cover, slow spinners and playing round the front pad for LBW. Nor did I really understand why there was a wizard involved or why you can’t play from the crease in the subcontinent. These words do not make sense in that order in my world.

But Talksport is not aimed at me. I am not a member of their cult. All of the insider language, the arcane knowledge and the sites of worship mean virtually nothing to a complete outsider. There is a fetishisation of statistics and assumed knowledge of past performance of literally hundreds of players from all over the world, as well as awareness of previous strategies and decisions by elderly men with titles. I do not have access to this information by choice.

I’m not going to do my rant about football being an amazingly successful cultural project to pacify and distract the working class and prevent political uprising (with roots back to the Roman Colosseum), and nor am I going to make anything particular of the fact that in 90 minutes of radio not a single person who spoke – or even was one of the hundreds of names mentioned during that time – was a woman.

I’m not even going to pass much comment on the incredible saturation of alcohol and gambling advertisements and sponsorship. None of these things will come as a surprise to you.

What I am going to note though – and it’s something that most casual observers will miss: this is incredibly sophisticated radio.

I worked at a talkback station in New Zealand for five years, and that station carried every horse and greyhound racing event in the country, sponsored by the TAB (the national betting agency). Managing that process is hard work. Crossing live to events all over the country, keeping tabs on what’s going on at any moment, arranging it so that all of the commentators can hear each other when they need to and keeping that show ticking over – all without a break in the banter at any moment… that’s really incredibly hard to do.

When you start a radio show not knowing what’s going to happen; when you have a dozen sporting matches each with its own variables and incidents as well as a catalogue of names, statistics and events that you have to keep in your head – and cross smoothly from one to another while being entertaining and meeting the required ad schedules and news timings all at the same time – that takes incredible skill, experience and knowledge.

And while I felt like I was an outside observer that had access to none of the references or backstories to the various punchlines, I couldn’t help but be impressed at both the technical and the intellectual skill that’s going on here. This is live high-wire walking without a net, while juggling blindfold (only with words, telephones and live line-feeds) – day in and day out.

I probably won’t listen again, as it’s not for me. But other than those reporters who operate under heavy fire and artillery shelling, these guys (and their support staff) have far and away the most difficult jobs in broadcasting, and that deserves respect.

I’d be fascinated to watch a show like that being made. Last time I did, it was reel to reel tape, switchboards, cart machines and analogue feeds. I suspect that the digitalisation of the studio has radically transformed the workflow of the live sports broadcast.

But just as I prefer The West Wing to the real world of American politics, I’d rather watch Sports Night.

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