Radio Paints Pictures


(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.

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.”

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.

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Spot on Mike! I certainly received your positive teaching message. It wasn’t about the event or the medium – it’s about how great talent paints pictures when telling stories. From the time we’re children we ask our parents to tell us a stories. Your message is clearly about how we deliver those stories and paint those pictures in every situation. Those of us who are fans of Roy Williams and “Wizards of Ads” know of the same powerful point in many of his writings and speeches regarding the power of audio and storytelling. The brain responds to it even more than video. Keep your messages going so young talent learns from the best!

  2. Not one person ran to the radio for this coverage. The only person listening to the radio for the game was at least 80 years old. Stop looking for major news stories and then try to desperately link why radio is so great.

    • I wasn’t writing about radio being so great, but rather why some radio talent are great. It wasn’t about the medium, but rather about the message and how it is delivered. My intention in writing this article was not to offend you or anyone, but rather to lift up the craft of storytelling. I am sorry that didn’t come through to you. I was admiring the craft of storytelling using only audio and the artists who work hard at perfecting it.

    • WRONG. Here (231,817 people reached our podcast and post in a day 35,935 engagements, 8345 comments in 2 hours, 1592 shares, 1182% distribution score) People come to radio because they work and want to know what they missed (while laughing and being fun, that was NOT the day) INFO INFO INFO: Everyone in MY MARKET and on MY STATION wanted to hear about it. IT LEAD EVERY NEWS AND RADIO SHOW IN AMERICA for 2 days! Let me see we had his uncle, the reporter form the field, we had updates as the Bills were not sure if he was going to live and how to make up a game… So on a Male Talk in Roc BUF it was BIG but on CHR TOP 40s Country, Jazz heck even Spanish stations IT WOULD BE RUDE, no, tone deaf to ignore it. NOBODY SAID listen to the radio for FB and we are gods gift to radio at all (sounds a little biter at the biz btw) but you seem to think what doesn’t make us special IS EXACTLY WHAT does, I was able to RUN LIVE the press conference to say he was going to LIVE I was able to talk to family and most important IT IS WHAT EVERY MAN WOMAN AND CHILD was talking about and RADIO updated them in real time! Do not give me the phone argument either, radio can talk to the doctor, the Uncle and give them an outlet to be personable and to not feel like a vulture in news media press conferences (which is what they said to us) They could talk about Damar as a man and on their terms. I’m sorry if radio wronged you, there is a LOT WRONG. Heck ppl should have hired us and their station wouldn’t be so terrible now but roll with it keep trying and know what radio is an escape (THEY DO NOT COME FOR SONGS) YES a place to connect, personally, and in trying times locally (The Mojos, Elvis’ etc) be able to inform SHOW EMPATHY, show you are thinking and care what they think and care about and that plus HOPE for our future WILL separate yourself. People WILL ALWAYS BE REMEMBER what you did and said days like that and will be appreciated!


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