Positivity rules the roost when you talk about Bulls radio play-by-play man Chuck Swirsky. He manages to keep himself energized and real in a business that sometimes forces people into just the opposite frame of mind. “The Swirsk” as he was nicknamed in 1981 has been at it for a little over 40 years and has loved every minute of it. Making his mark in Chicago, Swirsky then moved to Detroit, followed by a trip to Toronto and then, eventually back to where it all started.
Swirsky has done radio, TV and even some PA announcing along the way. He’s been the voice of the Raptors, Michigan basketball, DePaul basketball and now the Bulls. He’s even filled in on White Sox television broadcasts. Swirsky has come a long way since making his debut on Chicago airwaves back in 1979, when he hosted a nightly sports show on WCFL (AM 1000), which wasn’t all that common place at the time. He was able to build a rapport with the rabid Chicago fan base.
During this interesting NBA season, Swirsky has been busy, though not traveling as has been the case with many sports this pandemic. Swirsky was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me this week. We touched on a number of different subjects.
Andy Masur: What has this been like doing basketball games during a pandemic?
Chuck Swirsky: Broadcasting a basketball game during a pandemic is like no other experience I have ever encountered. The raw emotion of the crowd is missed. The vibe isn’t there. I give our game operations staff major praise for creating and organically infusing energy at the United Center, but the fans truly make the sport. Other than viewing Zoom conversations, I have no one-on-one contact with front office, coaching staff members or players. We rely so much on relationships to drive the narrative and by nature I’m a people person; without acquiring nuggets of information the broadcast suffers.
Having said all this, I will never ever complain about the challenges I encounter. It’s an honor and privilege broadcasting NBA basketball. I have never taken one game for granted. In fact, I’ve grown, and in selected areas, I have become a better communicator.
AM: Prep evolves over time as well, is it easier to prep with technology that we have today or is it tougher with more info available?
CS: There are outstanding services that prepare intel/info sheets for broadcasters to use on game nights. I don’t subscribe to any of them. I’ve never paid one cent for info. I am totally old school. I do hours upon hours of prep work. I watch the Bulls opponent’s previous three games. Prior to COVID, I spend hours of time with players, coaches, front office staff to create a base of information, and trust.
The Internet is wonderful. NBA League Pass is incredible. No question, I’m a better communicator to our audience because of increased technology. Yes, there is an overload of information but I’ll gladly take that instead of the other option. But I will remind broadcasters that you still have to stay focused and locked in. Never allow someone else to do your work.
AM: After being in the business as long as you have, how have you been able to maintain the energy night in and night out?
CS: I still maintain the same enthusiasm and energy I had 40 years ago. That’s the truth. I love my job and love people. I’m not jaded. I try and maintain a balanced diet, although if you ask my wife, Ann, she will quickly tell you I love desserts and gummy bears. I plead guilty on both counts, but I do get workouts in. I want to continue broadcasting Bulls ball until the day they tell me to take my Spalding and go home.
AM: If you think about it, your career has come full circle. You started in Chicago and you’re back after a few stops in between. You had one of the first sports talk shows in town on the former WCFL (now ESPN 1000), what was that like during the late 70’s?
CS: In August of 1979, I hosted the city’s first nightly sports talk show. It aired 7-11 PM. WCFL Radio was purchased by the Mutual Broadcasting System and we called ourselves “Mutual CFL.” We were the lowest rated 50-thousand watts station in American broadcast history. We had blank pages for logs. Zero commercial inventory. Any PSA content our traffic department received we immediately played on the air that night. But being 25 at the time, I was energized and thrilled to be in Chicago.
In fact, I actually took a pay cut to accept the job at Mutual CFL. I had been hosting a sports talk show on WBNS in Columbus. Because we were the only nightly sports talk show on the air in Chicago a number of players, coaches and front office executives listened and shared information with me; some for release on the air, some just private intel. Either way, I was able to establish a trust factor with those in the know and I was extremely fortunate.
AM: Do you consider yourself a pioneer in that genre?
CS: Do I consider myself a pioneer in that genre? Andy, I’ll say this, I consider myself very, very fortunate that Mutual CFL gave me the chance to walk in the door, sit in a chair Monday to Friday and talk sports. At first, I was way over my head. I was intimidated and overwhelmed, but my boss, the late Orrin McDaniels, kept encouraging me and it paid off. I received a huge boost from the most influential radio-television critic in the country, Gary Deeb of the Tribune and Sun Times, who wrote a number of positive articles about me (and trust me, everyone in the industry read Gary Deeb). His endorsement of my work helped solidify my standing in Chicago.
My take on sports talk radio is this: I bring knowledge, the ability to listen, passion and communication with the ability of offering strong opinions without crossing the line of a personal code of morals and ethics.
AM: Off the air, your Twitter account (@ctsbulls) is filled with uplifting messages daily. Are these things that just come to you or were they things your mentors told you? Where do they come from?
CS: This is something I initiated a few years ago. There is too much negativity in the world. Social media is full of land mines, full of hatred, jealousy and envy where people can hide their names behind a cloak of secrecy all while destroying someone’s character. I decided enough is enough. I am a positive person.
Life is not a straight line. We have ups and downs. Joys and hardships. I’ve been rejected many times in the radio-tv business. It’s not a good feeling and it hurts. I am sensitive, at times too sensitive. But we must keep persevering. I want to be an encourager, a listener, a support system to those who need direction and guidance.
I am not a clinical professional therapist. I’m just a flawed man trying to be better today than yesterday. I was blessed to grow up in a loving home. My parents were the best. My father was a decorated United States Naval officer who passed away suddenly when I was in the sixth grade. I learned so much from him even as a kid. His work ethic was off the charts and he was a perfectionist and demanded the same from me. My Mom was a school teacher and was the most selfless human being I have ever encountered. Both of my parents died young and I dedicated myself to honoring their memory through being kind, considerate, compassionate, empathetic, sincere and well mannered.
I had great mentors ranging from Vince Bagli (WBAL-TV Baltimore), Ernie Harwell (Tigers broadcaster), Joe Tait (Cleveland Cavaliers/Indians), and Pete Gross (Seattle Seahawks). I want to encourage, inspire, and lift others up, not only in our industry, but life in general.
AM: Last one for you, I have to know, where did your Bulls victory dance come from and how did it start?
CS: The Bulls victory dance came out of the blue. Following a Bulls win I was dancing and our engineer Rich Wyatt taped it and posted the video…the next thing I knew, thousands were watching it, and it went viral. Life is short and I want to have fun. I love the Bulls and love my job, so I decided to do a brief victory dance after every Bulls win which we post after the game. I need to learn more dance moves. If you don’t believe me just ask my wife!
Luckily for Swirsky he’s had the opportunity to “dance” a lot this season with the Bulls winning some games. His moves are also available on his Twitter account for you to check out. Swirsky is a great follow.
Swirsky is an accomplished broadcaster, having been inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame in 2016. In May 2018 he was elected to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and to the WGN Radio Walk of Fame.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.