Sports

Here’s what’s behind the uncertain future of Canes play-by-play radio announcer Chuck Kaiton

The Carolina Hurricanes broadcast team, Tripp Tracy, left, (TV), John Forslund, center, (TV) and Chuck Kaiton (Radio) before an NHL preseason game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. on Sept. 30, 2016.
The Carolina Hurricanes broadcast team, Tripp Tracy, left, (TV), John Forslund, center, (TV) and Chuck Kaiton (Radio) before an NHL preseason game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. on Sept. 30, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

For the first time in 22 years, fans tuning into a Carolina Hurricanes game broadcast this fall may not hear Chuck Kaiton on the call. Instead, they’ll likely be met by the familiar voices of John Forslund and Tripp Tracy.

Due to the ever changing landscape of the local play-by-play radio broadcast industry and a new owner known for eliminating inefficiencies, it appears the Hurricanes radio announcer-- who has never missed a game in his 39 years calling games for both the Hurricanes and Hartford Whalers organizations -- could be replaced by a television simulcast for the coming season.

Kaiton’s potential departure, though largely expected after recent comments about his uncertain future from new Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell, would come as a blow to listeners who revere his fast-paced commentary style that oozes excitement every time the puck enters the offensive zone.

Recognized for his insistence on correctly pronouncing each player’s name according to his native tongue, Kaiton is known for his intermission segment “Kaiton’s Corner,” in which he answers audience questions and explains a detail of the sport to his listeners, and for his his jubilant call of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup victory.

“I associate Canes play-by-play with Chuck,” Joe Ovies, co-host of “The Adam and Joe Show” on the ESPN radio affiliate 99.9 The Fan, said. “When I think about the 2006 Stanley Cup, I think of Chuck’s call. There’s still a romantic attachment to the radio call, but that romanticism isn’t enough to get you to listen to the radio over watching it on the television when it’s live.”

The possibility that Kaiton’s contract won’t be extended is indicative of troubling times ahead for local play-by-play radio announcers and especially for the titans who have previously dominated it. With games more frequently aired on television -- last season, all 82 Hurricanes games were either carried by a Fox Sports network or aired nationally on NBCSN -- and a combination of the new era of mobile streaming devices and Twitter play-by-play updates, there are simply more ways than ever to follow along to local sports games, marginalizing the need for play-by-play radio.

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Indeed, while neither the Hurricanes nor 99.9 The Fan were able to provide concrete numbers on ratings for Kaiton’s broadcast, Hurricanes’ GM Don Waddell’s recent comments seem to suggest that Kaiton’s broadcasts weren’t bringing in the listeners that they used to.

“Radio is not a prudent financial decision,” Waddell told The News & Observer May in discussing whether the team would sign a new deal with Kaiton. “It’s important, I think, to have it for the people that still want to listen to it, but it’s something from a business standpoint that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The Hurricanes declined to comment further until a final decision on Kaiton’s future was made.

Kaiton’s contract expired with the Hurricanes on June 30th. There have been ongoing negotiations between the two sides, yet there seems to be no timetable for a resolution one way or another. Kaiton has said he hopes to continue doing Hurricanes broadcasts.

“I still want to do radio in this organization, but negotiations are ongoing and I hope they will see it that way as well,” Kaiton said in May.

Kaiton declined a request for further comment Friday morning.

Nielsen, a company that provides ratings for radio and television stations across the country, and the NHL each said they were unable to give information regarding local play-by-play broadcast ratings. In a 2017 ranking of the 10 most popular radio formats released by Nielsen, the “All Sports” format came in ninth, amassing just a 4.3 percent share of the average quarter hour radio market. “All Sports” includes sports talk radio shows in addition to play-by-play broadcasts.

Cost cutting

The financial concern about the broadcast seems to have little correlation with anything Kaiton, 66, is doing himself. Highly-regarded within the industry, Kaiton won the Foster Hewitt Memorial award from the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004, given annually to NHL broadcasters who make outstanding contributions to their professions during their careers, and he is hugely popular amongst his peers and fans alike.

“Chuck is one of those rare guys in what I think is a changing world of sports play-by-play guys,” Dave Shore, a broadcast radio insider who’s worked with ESPN, the Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit Pistons and many others, said. “He’s basically a gym-rat of the sport. He’s wonderfully knowledgeable, conversational and has a great personality. That being said, it happens. I get it. It’s part of the changing world. We’re seeing a lot of [radio broadcasters] hang it up or get it hung up for them.”

Several NHL teams across the league have already replaced their radio play-by-play broadcast with a television simulcast, including Hurricanes’ owner Tom Dundon’s hometown Dallas Stars, and it seems likely more franchises will follow suit as they try to cut costs.

“The internet and visual mediums have disrupted just about everything,” Ovies said. “As we become more of a TV focused sports world where that’s where the money is, radio has seen a decline in importance as it relates to the [broadcast] job. There was a time when not every game was on television.”

This is not the first year that technological change has affected the industry, though, which brings into question the timing of the potential decision to move on from Kaiton.

“The first reason why this is happening is because they’ve got a new owner,” Ovies said. “Tom Dundon is looking at the ledger, and if you look at the broadcast budget, my guess is that the broadcast budget is taking a lot out and doesn’t give a lot back….The numbers aren’t so great that you would justify the salary that, I guess, Chuck is getting. At least they don’t feel that way.”

Ovies says that things could very well be different if the Canes weren’t in the midst of a nine-year playoff drought.

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‘Diversify your talents’

The traditional radio play-by-play role has become antiquated; it’s not that there isn’t a place for a local play-by-play guy anymore, it’s just that the job requires a greater variety of responsibilities than it once did in order to make up for lost revenue, according to Ovies and Jones Angell, the radio play-by-play announcer for UNC-Chapel Hill football and basketball on the Tar Heel Sports Network.

“Play-by-play announcers now do have to wear more hats that just the actual play-by-play of the game itself,” Angell said. “I tell young broadcasters that all the time. One of the keys is that you have to diversify your talents. You’re not only going to be on the air calling games anymore -- it’s just media isn’t that way.”

Angell creates, co-hosts and edits the content of the Carolina Insider podcast for his network in addition to calling games on Saturdays. He’s an example of how a traditional play-by-play broadcaster must adapt to the changing landscape of broadcast radio.

The Hurricanes aren’t the only in-state team that has reconsidered their radio broadcast. The Charlotte Hornets recently replaced their long-time play-by-play commentator Steve Martin with the 31-year-old Chris Kroeger.

After 30 years as the voice of the Hornets, Martin retired following the 2017-2018 season, paving the way for a fresh face able to provide content for the network far beyond calling the 82-game Hornets’ slate.

“My job is more new media,” Kroeger said. “I’m really just a content creator. I don’t think I would’ve gotten this job if I didn’t have all the different skills that I bring to the table. If I didn’t have the ability to do a podcast, or the ability to be active on social media, or the ability to create content for our website, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be in this position. It’s not necessarily because of my play-by-play chops -- the team was very matter-of-fact with me in that they saw that part of the job as the growth opportunity for me.”

Struggling in NHL, NBA markets

This isn’t to say that there is no room for a traditional play-by-play broadcaster across the country. Angell, Ovies and Shore all insist that that Kaiton-type predicaments vary market to market and sport to sport.

Sports like college football and the NFL still garner large enough audiences to justify paying radio broadcasters to call games, according to Angell, Ovies and Shore. Selective markets within baseball and basketball, Los Angeles and New York for example, are likely to have fans who continue to call for their local teams to be broadcast across airwaves. ESPN New York and ESPN Los Angeles did not respond to a request for play-by-play broadcast ratings.

Most NHL (even in the big cities) and smaller NBA radio markets, however, are struggling. There simply isn’t enough interest in hockey in cities with other major sports teams, and basketball teams outside of major markets often aren’t picked up on national broadcasts -- where the real advertising money is -- like NFL teams are.

“When I was in Los Angeles, the Ducks and the Kings, these weren’t rights deals that anyone was going to pay for,” Shore said. “In the #2 largest market that has 80 radio stations, no one was paying to broadcast their games. Here’s the LA Kings in a Stanley Cup championship season buying time on a local radio station to carry the audio broadcast of their game.”

The Hurricanes are facing a similar problem. Most television or radio rights deals consist of the network paying the team and league for the rights to broadcast their games and the network makes money from advertisements during the broadcast. But it’s hard to sell advertising for airtime on a broadcast that gets a marginal amount of listeners.

The Hurricanes, instead, pay 99.9 The Fan to have their games played over radio airwaves. If a team headed for an NHL title in the second largest city in the country can’t attract enough radio listeners to justify a network paying for the rights to broadcast its games, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Hurricanes are facing similar troubles.

Shouldering the brunt of the financial losses that come from this “reverse-rights deal” and the contract of a legendary broadcaster like Kaiton, organizations like the ‘Canes -- especially ones with ownership groups focused on the bottom line -- have little choice but to consider making a change of some sort.

“Chuck -- I preface this by saying I completely understand where Chuck is in his career, as he’s too much of a veteran to have to go back and do the grind work that a younger guy might do for cheaper -- is not doing any of the things that Kroeger is doing for the Hornets,” Ovies said. “If Dundon wanted to, he could go in the direction of what the Hornets are doing with somebody like Kroeger, where they have a guy that does a bunch of things on top of radio to justify his salary.”

Ovies was quick to note the drawbacks associated with the differences in radio and television play-by-play that will come if the Canes switch to a simulcast.

Kaiton and other radio play-by-play broadcasters specifically gear their calls towards an audience that can’t see the game, and thus, need to bring the action to life in a way that television broadcasts don’t. There’s a clear difference between the help and directions you would get from a friend to the bathroom if you were blindfolded compared to if you weren’t; the former would be incredibly more detailed.

Still, he maintains that Forslund, a 22-year veteran who regularly calls nationally-televised NHL games on NBC and NBC Sports Network during the regular season and playoffs, may just be up for the task.

“John Forslund is a total pro, and he’s the rare breed that I think can do both,” Ovies said. “He can do TV, but he’s so good at his job that I think he would be actually able to mix in a few things that would be helpful for radio.”

Regardless, fans could be in for a change when turning on the radio on the way to the Hurricanes home opener or when leaving the stadium should they take off early.

“Chuck Kaiton is an absolute legend in our business,” Angell said. “He’s one of the best broadcasters that the NHL has ever had and certainly a terrific gentleman as well.”

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