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In Sports Broadcasting, It’s Adapt or Die

If there’s any three gifts I could bestow upon anyone in any field, it would be a strong, committed work ethic, the ability to network, and the willingness to listen. 

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Getting into this industry of ours is a lot of hard work. It’s tireless brainstorming and mounting hours logged on our brains, voices, cars and lives. A lot of us have known that it’s something we wanted to do from a very young age. That’s the case with the author of our guest column today, Clay Ables.

Clay is just 25 years old, but his resume is filling up quicker than a Shohei Ohtani stat sheet. He’s worked hard to get where he is which is working with the ACC Network as a play-by-play broadcaster at Louisville and SEC Network Plus at Kentucky. 

He has shifted in his career some to focus on production for the SEC Network at Kentucky, ACC Network at Louisville and at Bellarmine for their ESPN Productions. Ables writes that despite his passion that is still strong for play-by-play, it wasn’t as easy as hard work and networking. So he went back to the basics and he became a bigger asset.

What was the journey like? Ables offers his insight on when he refocused his “laser” and became a better broadcaster because of it.


From the age of eleven I knew I wanted to be in broadcasting. 

I always envisioned myself early on as a sports talk show host, or a play by play announcer for ESPN. Many kids have that dream. 

The difference between myself and those other kids was as Tim Dench calls it “laser focus”. I was very fortunate to jump into Floyd Central High School in 2011 at the age of 14, with a teacher in Tim Dench & program that was second to none. The school has their own cable channel, an FCC licensed radio station and a brand new $1.2 million dollar studio. 

I was in heaven. I still say today as great of a professional career as I’ve had, I would trade it all back for those three years Mr. Dench was my instructor at Floyd Central. The experiences from producing the Paul Hornung Awards to broadcasting games, and most importantly learning from someone who taught me everything I could ask for about radio, tv, business, and life’s important lessons. 

The program Mr. Dench ran was so advanced that I was able to start working professionally on air in high school for multiple radio stations, broadcasting play-by-play across Kentuckiana. That also led to an opportunity to sit in on The Terry Meiners Show, one of the largest talk shows in the country and learn from another great. 

At age 19, I broadcast my first game for ESPN 3 with Cards TV. Soon after that I was doing play-by-play for Kentucky on SEC Network Plus. I thought I was on the fast track to national ESPN broadcasting. I had a goal in my notes to make it to a national level broadcasting by the age of 21. 

This type of drive helped make my career, but also can create delusion if you don’t see the full picture from 30,000 feet. 

Today, I’m 25 years old, and from on-air standpoint I’m pretty much in the same place. If you would have told 21 year-old me that, I would have been extremely disappointed. If you told 23 year old me that, I would have been extremely disappointed. 

If you’re a thirty-year vet in the business, or are just looking to start your career to become an on-air talent, one thing is common at both ends of the spectrum. The unknown path to reach success.

I’ve spent literally eight years networking with anyone I could find in radio and television. Everyone from on-air talent, to directors, executives, agents, utilities, grips, from the most successful to the least, I’ve talked to as many people as I could. No two people have the same path to success. 

This isn’t accounting where you go to school for four years, get an internship and you have a job. For people that like structure and control, like myself, this is the direct opposite of what you want. 

To steal a line from the great Bill Parcells from his Football Life documentary, “this is not a game for the most well-adjusted people”.

How networks, coordinating producers, program directors, and others pick talent is completely different from each situation. 

For me reality hit my senior year of college at the age of 22. I was about to graduate college with a nice portfolio of freelance on-air work, but I was calling only thirty games a year as a freelancer. That’s not enough to pay the bills.

I had to do what I thought I would never do, work behind the scenes. It was never beneath me, I always had the upmost respect for anyone on a crew or working a board at a radio station. I just never thought it was me. I had laser focus on being on-air, no plan B. 

Also in my short experience behind the scenes, I sucked. As a camera operator for one game in high school, Mr. Dench pulled me of camera after one quarter. Still to this day saying proudly “I was the worst camera operator he’d ever seen.” That’s saying a lot considering he’s been in television production for over 45 years & has worked on over 10,000 productions. 

I strive for the extreme.

But I had to make a shift. I knew that if I wanted to have the success I wanted in the business short and long term, I would have to learn to work behind the scenes. 

It started with going back to the basics. My senior year of college, Mr. Dench who is now the teacher at the WJHI, hired me to be his assistant teacher, mainly to teach sports broadcasting to his students. 

But I went back to the school of Dench and actually listened to when he taught his lectures on production, camera work, graphics, etc. I understood the reason for my lack of success behind the scenes. It was because I didn’t care at the time when I was a high school student.

My laser focus was about being on-air. Now the focus was on production. 

Doors then started to open. I kept my play by play work at Louisville with ACC Network Extra, but moved into camera operation. Churchill Downs Racing and Kent Harbsemier showed me how to do replay on a Dreamcatcher. Bellarmine started a TV department under the great Craig Miller, who taught me graphics. Then came Kentucky and Brandon Wickey, allowing me to jump in as a producer. 

This all happened in the span of about two years. Currently I’m now working on becoming a director, a role I never would’ve even dreamed of before my refocusing.

I followed in the path of the unknown. This route was one I couldn’t have imagined and to be honest if offered at 18, I wouldn’t have wanted. 

It’s been one of the best things that has ever happened to me not only for my career in TV, but also for my future on-air. 

How this paradigm shift happened is due to a few reasons. One is my support system. My parents, my family, and people in the business backed me 100% of the way, even when I didn’t know what I was doing. The other reasons for this successful shift, came down to two things. Networking and listening. 

If there’s any three gifts I could bestow upon anyone in any field, it would be a strong, committed work ethic, the ability to network, and the willingness to listen. 

I’ve seen far too many times the unwillingness to learn new skills from a person due to a lack of humility or effort. Adapt or Die. It’s that simple. You have to be constantly working and learning, or you will be on the outside looking in. 

This business does reward one thing consistently: Hard work. If you show up on time, work hard, and are willing to learn, you will succeed. 

No one knows it all. I still have a ton to learn. This is an ever-changing business. Between technology, equipment, and people, you’ll never be finished.

I’m incredibly fortunate that Barrett Sports Media allowed me to write this article. I hope that anyone that is in the business or is entering it can find it to be a useful resource that benefits your career. 

There’s so many people to thank for allowing me to be in this incredible career. As I said at the start, the main reason for my success is the people around me. Surround yourself with a great core and great things will happen. 

BSM Writers

Sports Talkers Podcast – Carl Dukes

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Carl Dukes went from DJing clubs to holding every job there is in a radio building. Now he is dominating 92.9 The Game in Atlanta. Check out his conversation with Stephen Strom.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3xYq3Oe 

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3JVYgDp   

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3JWPFQS 

Google: https://buff.ly/3w9RBzX 

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3psPDGZ  

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Terry Ford Couldn’t Say No To 107.5 The Game

“In Columbia, South Carolina Gamecock fans are in 150 percent. These people love football. The Atlanta experience, the taste of it in Lexington really gave me a good foundation for what we have here in Columbia.”

Tyler McComas

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If he had to put a number on the big decision he made last year it would be 150 percent. Sure, leaving Lexington, KY and 96.1 WZNN didn’t happen without long thoughts and consideration for Terry Ford, but the opportunity to work for one of the most respected names in the business was too much to pass up. 

In late November of 2021, Ford was named the new program director and host at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC. The opportunity originally came about during a conversation between Ford and Jason Barrett. Ford had always wanted to work with Bruce Gilbert. Barrett knew this, so when the position under the Cumulus umbrella opened, he urged Ford to consider the position.

“I’ve always wanted to work for Bruce,” Ford said. “Jason told me there was an opportunity to work with Bruce and I talked to the market manager Tammy O’Dell. She was fantastic. Everything was just too good. It was 150 percent the right decision. This has been nothing but a phenomenal experience.”

Columbia is the exact market you think it is. Situated in a college town, which breeds incredible passion for Gamecock athletics. South Carolina has had success in basketball and baseball, but to its core, it’s like most other SEC markets in that college football rules the day. To an outsider, that can sometimes be a challenge to immediately grasp and understand. But Ford is no outsider when it comes to the SEC. His previous stop was in Lexington and he even did a stint in Atlanta at 790 The Zone. He knows the landscape of the SEC.

“When I was at 790 The Zone, I’ll never forget the PD Bob Richards was like, ok, you have to understand, we might have pro sports here but the Georgia Bulldogs are gigantic,” Ford said. “This is SEC country. I kinda learned then and there that if Georgia was sniffing around some 9th grader that runs a 4.2 40-yard dash, that’s a story. When you’re in SEC country, everything is a story that matters to the local program. Atlanta gave me my first taste of the passion of the SEC football fan. Lexington was different because it’s a basketball school. And in Columbia, South Carolina Gamecock fans are in 150 percent. These people love football. The Atlanta experience, the taste of it in Lexington really gave me a good foundation for what we have here in Columbia.”

But there was much more to his new gig than just understanding how much passion there is in Columbia for Gamecock football. His biggest challenge was going to be to earn the respect and trust of his on-air staff as their new PD, as well as blend into the three-man show he was going to be a part of. So how did he do that?

“It’s kind of a tightrope,” Ford said. “You’re the PD, but you’re also in the octagon with them. I really think talking with hosts in ‘hosts talk’ is the best way to connect with them when you go to another market. We hosts are different. When you can sit and talk like hosts together I think it builds a connection. I think all hosts, when you get a new PD, you’re like, ok, what the hell have you done? You’re going to be in charge of me as a host, have you hosted? I think that’s natural for a host, whether it’s outward or internal. I’ve done the same thing.”

Ford has more than 20 years of experience in sports radio. That will garner him some respect in the building, but not as much as his continued eagerness to learn from others. That could very well be one of the best traits for any PD, no matter their age or experience. If you’re always eager to learn, you’ll undoubtedly be better. Ford is just that. He wants to learn from as many people as possible. 

“I’ve always wanted to learn from guys like Scott Masteller or Bruce Gilbert or Jason Barrett,” Ford said. “People who have done this successfully at a high level. And learning from guys who’ve done it in different size markets. You can’t take things from Philadelphia and apply them to Oklahoma City. It’s a different level. I wanted to learn how different guys in different markets program their brands. I wanted to learn all aspects of the business.”

Ford’s eagerness to learn isn’t where his characteristics of being a good PD ends. In the eyes of a host, it can be appreciated that the PD in the building has also seen things from their side. Ford has done exactly that. In a closed-door meeting, he’s now the one delivering the news, good or bad, to a host. But it wasn’t long ago when he was the one sitting on the opposite side of the desk. 

“I never want to forget when I went into programming, what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk in that other chair,” Ford said. “Because it can suck. I’ve sat in that chair and gotten good news and I’ve sat in that chair and got some crappy news. I just never want to forget what it’s like to be the guy sitting there getting news. I want to take all those experiences and all that knowledge and you come in and deal with a Heath Cline, or a Jay Phillips, or Bill Gunter, or a Pearson Fowler, who’s under 30, or Patrick Perret, who’s under 30. I want to be able to relate to them and talk to them in their host language, where they say, ok, this dude speaks the language. He gets where I’m coming from. It’s just about finding a way to relate to everyone.”

To be completely transparent, the phone call I had with Ford only lasted 20 minutes. But even in that short time, I found myself saying, wow, this is a PD I would love to work for. He’s intelligent and passionate about the business, he’s incredibly skilled and genuinely cares about relating to his hosts, but he’s also really funny. Each question he answered was well-thought-out and insightful, but it wasn’t said without a short joke until he broke out with a serious answer. He’s a guy that knows what he’s doing but isn’t the dreadful guy that sucks the life out of the building. Columbia seems lucky to have him. 

“Sometimes you get good fortune from the radio gods and other times you feel like you can’t get any luck they’re taking a dump on you,” Ford said. “They smiled on me through circumstance and with the help of a guy like Jason Barrett I ended up with a good opportunity in Columbia. It was too good to turn down. It was one of the moments where, if I turn this down, I’m a dope. I’ve been a dope in my life and this time I decided not to be one.”

I’ve always been interested in the daily life of someone who’s both a host and a PD. I don’t envy it because you have to perfectly delegate your time to fulfill both duties. So how does Ford go about it?

“Massive chaos at high speed while blindfolded,” joked Ford. “I get up around 6:30 in the morning and away from the office, I try to put in a couple hours of prep. That way people aren’t asking me about stuff and I’m not doing PD things. All I’m doing is trying to prep like a host. I try to give myself a couple hours of that before I come into the office. I’ll be honest, prepping as a PD and prepping as a host, good luck. I tell the guys here, I’m probably about 75 percent of a host right now, in terms of effectiveness. I just can’t prep like I want to. I’m a prepping dork. I jump down all sorts of rabbit holes and I’m deep-diving into stuff. As a PD you don’t have that time to dive.”

Ford started his radio career outside of sports talk. But he was always captivated by the business and spent many nights debating sports with his friends. It was a passion, even though he wasn’t yet hosting a show. 

“I always was captivated by sports talk, but when I was growing up it was a certain way,” Ford said. “It really wasn’t the way that I wanted to do it. I said, man, if it ever becomes where you can be opinionated, compelling but you can also have some fun, I’m all in. I always had an eyeball on sports while doing music radio. Around 2000, I said, I love sports, talking sports, you know what, screw it, I’m going to start looking for sports talk openings.”

So he did, but while searching for openings, Ford had to refine his craft, while also building a demo. He did it in a way that perfectly sums up who he is as both a talent and a person. He made it fun 

“I was doing rock radio at the time, and you talk to dudes, and what I would do is start sports conversations with them and record it. I would save those and put a riff in front of it like a monologue and I would take these calls and I built a demo by talking to drunk guys at a rock station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I got the gig off of that for Sporting News magazine in Seattle.”

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster: Kevin Burkhardt

He is always upbeat, but never over the top. No screaming, but his energy remains consistent and smooth throughout a broadcast.

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Anatomy of a Broadcaster, Kevin Burkhardt

It wasn’t all that long ago, that Kevin Burkhardt was selling cars in New Jersey. Now that’s all in his rearview mirror and Burkhardt is getting ready to enter his first season as the main play-by-play voice of the NFL on Fox. You could say he could be the definition of ‘perseverance’, doing whatever it took to chase a dream. That focus has certainly paid off nicely for Burkhardt. The leap he made in two decades time is amazing and not often duplicated. 

Growing up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Burkhardt, would do play-by-play for his Nintendo games back in his Junior High days. He loved Gary Cohen and tried to emulate him as best he could. Strangely enough, he would end up working with Cohen on Mets broadcasts on SNY. 

A 1997 graduate of William Paterson University, Burkhardt earned a degree in broadcasting. He took that degree to radio station WGHT in Northern New Jersey, spending eight years working for the station. It was a 1,000-watt, daytime only AM station. Burkhardt delivered local news and called high school football. While at WGHT he also worked at Jukebox Radio, broadcasting New Jersey Jackals minor league games for WJUX. To make ends meet while doing freelance work, Burkhardt began working as a sales associate at Pine Belt Chevrolet in Eatontown, New Jersey. Over the next six-plus years Burkhardt could not find a larger station willing to take a chance on him. 

He recalled the frustrated feeling he had back then, when he spoke with Sports Illustrated in 2013. . “I thought I was good enough to make it [in broadcasting], but after so many years of busting my tail, I was making $18,000 a year and working all kinds of odd hours,” says Burkhardt. “It just wasn’t happening for me.”

Finally, Burkhardt got a part-time job working at WCBS-AM in New York, which in turn put him on the radar of the all sports station, WFAN. He began to work there part-time, then eventually became the station’s full-time New York Jets reporter. He got the break he needed. 

ROAD TO FOX

After his stint at WFAN, Burkhardt joined the Mets broadcast team starting the 2007 season for SNY. He appeared on shows such as Mets Hot Stove, Mets Pregame Live, Mets Postgame Live and Mets Year in Review. His main duties though were as the field reporter during Mets telecasts. He would also call select games during both Spring Training and the regular season. 

Also, while employed at SNY, he called Dallas Cowboys games on Compass Media Networks from 2011 until 2013. That’s when he left for Fox. But, sandwiched in between was an opportunity to be seen by Fox execs. He called a Mets/Braves game with SI’s Tom Verducci on their network. The Fox brass liked what they saw. 

According to that 2013 SI article, Burkhardt’s agent initially had discussions with the network about his client calling college football this season but those talks morphed into an NFL opportunity. “When my agent called me with that, I was floored,” Burkhardt says. “I’m sure you hear people say ‘this is my dream job’ all the time, but I literally dropped to one knee on the floor. I could not believe what he was saying on the other end.”

He started with the #4 broadcast team and of course has worked his way up from there. Now, some 9 years later he’s on the top crew. After Joe Buck left for ESPN earlier this year, Burkhardt was promoted to the #1 broadcast team for the NFL on Fox, alongside Greg Olsen. 

Football isn’t the only thing Burkhardt has exceled in at the network. He is the lead studio host for Major League Baseball coverage on Fox and FS1 during the regular season, for the MLB All-Star Game and throughout the entire MLB Postseason.

GOOD CHOICE

When Buck left for ESPN, in my opinion Burkhardt was the obvious choice to replace him. Buck leaves some big shoes to fill, but Burkhardt has the ability to make this work. It’s never easy to replace a well-known commodity like Buck, but Burkhardt himself has been featured prominently on the network. As mentioned, his other high-profile assignments have made him visible and appreciated by viewers. 

If social media is a good judge, I almost got that out without a chuckle, the choice was a good one. Even the outgoing play-by-play man was on board with the decision. 

Burkhardt will do a great job and will become a fixture on Sunday afternoons. 

WHY IS HE SO GOOD?

Maybe we’re finding out that he was a great car salesman through his work on television. I mean there’s a friendliness and something reassuring about the way he calls a game. It’s positive, almost downright cheerful in his delivery. You know what you’re going to get from a Burkhardt broadcast. He is always upbeat, but never over the top. No screaming, but his energy remains consistent and smooth throughout a broadcast. I really enjoy watching everything he does.

While the style may be more lighthearted in nature, the information and description are right on the mark. The presentation seems much more relaxed than some announcers that can be a little ‘in your face’ at times. I say relaxed as a compliment, because as much as you want, a broadcaster can’t be ‘hyped up’ all the time. That would be disconcerting to say the least to the viewer.  

The fact that he has such a diverse background in the business really helps. Having done radio, he can understand the importance of brevity. That comes in handy when calling a game on television, especially when you want your analyst to feel free to make points. The reporting and studio hosting on his resume allow him to be very conversational and at ease. Those assignments also tune up your listening skills, which helps when calling action and working with your analyst.  It didn’t hurt either that he had so much experience on the big stage of New York. 

I know I’ve said this a million times, but he genuinely sounds like he’s having the time of his life every time he works a game or hosts a show. Considering where he came from, I’m not surprised. 

DID YOU KNOW?

In 2019, he called select games for FOX Sports Sun, the television home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since getting his break, Burkhardt has appeared as the celebrity endorser of Pine Belt Chevrolet, his former employer, in Eatontown, N.J.

In 2019, Burkhardt and his wife established the Kevin and Rachel Burkhardt Scholarship at William Paterson University in New Jersey, their alma mater, for a fulltime student majoring in Communications and preparing for a career in broadcast journalism.

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