(By Mike McVay) The Damar Hamlin story that started with an on-field cardiac arrest and resuscitation on January 2nd moved instantly from being a sports story to a news story. It literally became a heart story — those are the type of stories that I encourage news anchors and on-air personalities to look for and deliver as they touch the heart of an audience.
This one was unique, in that it’s something that had not happened since 1971, and it presented all the parts of an emotional cycle. Shock, Concern, Sympathy, Hope and Relief.
Damar appears to be on the road to recovery. Shows no signs of neurological damage. Had been treated in and then transferred from a hospital in Cincinnati to a Buffalo hospital to be near his home and his team. Then, on this past Wednesday, he was discharged. His recovery is miraculous. The on-field heroics of the Bills field staff and the Cincinnati Bengals medical team saved his life.
The memory of seeing an entire stadium silenced and worried looking will stick with many for months, if not years. The image of players and members of the team’s staff kneeling on the field and praying. An ESPN in-studio commentator and former NFL player, Dan Orlovsky, praying on-air while on the studio set. These are rare images to see anywhere at any time.
I wanted to wait until the general opinion was that we could feel confident that Damar would recover to at least a normal life before sharing my thoughts in how media handled this situation in live, real-time action. Even if Damar never plays on an NFL field again, this incident, and the public’s support of the athlete and his charities, will be remembered for some time to come. How media handled it mattered.
We are going to be teaching ESPN's coverage from tonight for decades in sports journalism programs.
There was no speculation. No rumors. Honest conversations. "We deal with what we know, not what we want to be true, so what do we know now."
— Brian Moritz (@bpmoritz) January 3, 2023
The player needed to be clearly improving for me to write what I planned to write — which is, on the night of the game, I believe that radio covered the on-field incident so much better than television. My belief is that it is because audio paints a picture that the listener envisions in their own mind. Radio talent have to think on their feet and use words to paint a picture. They have to be better prepared because radio uses only one sense. The sense of sound. One’s imagination is almost always greater than reality. The sense of sound feeds our imagination. A picture or video changes that. Not everything needs video to make a lasting impression.
In general, radio talents are not as dependent on a producer speaking into their ear, via a pigtail, telling them what to do as are TV talent. Not all radio talent, but those that are highly successful, play on our imaginations as they tell descriptive stories. A large part of why I am lauding radio storytellers versus television presenters is because television personalities are able to use sight as well as sound. Television personalities often purposely allow the picture to speak for them.
The night of the Damar incident, a 70,000-seat stadium went silent for an extended period of time, and both television and radio allowed us to hear that silence. That silence was more impactful on radio. It’s what followed that silence that spoke volumes.
Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are an excellent television broadcast team and their combined experience makes them one of my favorite sports TV duos. Aikman a Hall of Fame quarterback from the Dallas Cowboys. Buck is a superstar sports play-by-play talent who is well respected. He has a history of sports broadcasting and a family heritage that includes a father in the business. His father Jack was the voice of Monday Night Football on CBS Radio from 1978-1995. Buck grew up at a breakfast table where sports was discussed and where broadcasting was in his DNA.
Despite all of that history and training, no one trains for what Buck and Aikman and the three members of the studio team in the ESPN studio had to deal with reporting. There were times when they seemed to be at a loss for words. That was understandable. On television, the anchors talk about whatever the director in the truck shows on the screen. In radio, the personalities talk about what they’re seeing. They’re forced to paint a picture and tell a story. They have to make quick decisions based on the situation. Those of us who’ve turned on a microphone switch know that feeling.
Watching TV live when Hamlin collapsed on the field, it became evident by looking at the players faces that this wasn’t a limb or neck injury, and I went to my smart speaker and asked for the Westwood One Monday Night Football broadcast. I wanted to hear what Kevin Harlan and Kurt Warner would be saying. I wanted to listen to what a radio production would present versus what I was seeing on TV. Admittedly, I am an audio first person. In my opinion, radio did it better.
That is not to say that ESPN didn’t do a good job, because they did convey what’s happening on the field and in the stadium, and they showed views of the field that the radio team was able to take advantage of as they covered the story. The TV broadcast team didn’t sound confident in their on-air treatment of the situation. The TV studio team was unaware that such a situation had happened previously in 1971 when a Detroit Lion died on the field. They called the situation unprecedented. You cannot blame them for being unaware. The year 1971 is a long time ago, and who prepares for such a situation?
The radio team appeared to be aware. Kevin Harlan did a masterful job of using his words to paint a picture. He was aware that a death on a field had happened before. He mentioned the 1971 player’s name, his team, the year and stadium where the incident took place. I could hear a slower pace of speaking as he shared that story. My suspicion being that he was looking at his phone or a different device to check online for accuracy. Which I can appreciate. It was at that moment that I said aloud to myself, “Radio uses audio better than anyone.”
The broadcast team on @westwood1sports – @richeisen / Kurt Warner / Kevin Harlan – showed great empathy and care while trying to walk listeners through Damar Hamlin's situation medical situation. We're fortunate to have good PEOPLE on TV and radio showing care in a tough moment.
— Josh Pacheco (@Joshontheradio) January 3, 2023
Kevin Harlan is also a television play-by-play announcer, but radio is in his DNA, and that’s where he started. He grew-up the son of a Green Bay Packers senior executive. Being around the game added to his knowledge, but learning to tell stories descriptively made him a great radio announcer. Being a great radio announcer made him a great television play-by-play announcer. He has personality an it comes through the speakers.
There are many on-air personalities, and well-spoken men and women who argue sports and scream at their radios as they listen to sports talk programming, who believe that they can do it better than the person on-air. A few can, but many cannot.
Don’t get me wrong. There are examples that can be pointed to where normal everyday people with normal everyday jobs became successful sports broadcast personalities. What the best on-air personalities are able to do is tell stories in a vivid fashion.
Radio talents who want to succeed at a high level have to be better prepared, able to make rapid fire decisions that are the right decisions, think on their feet, and use words to paint pictures.
Radio has that one sense. The sense of sound. Audio artists use it to paint colorful and vivid pictures.