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Billy & Curtis
Written March 10, 2021


Let us now praise college basketball.  Let us honor the radio play-by-play announcers who describe a team's road games.

I remember listening as a teenager to #1 Ohio State when they defeated #3 Wake Forest.  Checking the Internet, I'm reminded that Jerry Lucas led OSU as usual that Saturday night with 23 points and 20 rebounds.  The Buckeyes won 84-62 on December 9, 1961. 

By 1969 I was behind the microphone myself.  I was in my fourth season broadcasting away games of the Oberlin College Yeomen.  But then I graduated.

In that same year, Bill Hillgrove was likewise on the air.  He was in his first season with the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, actually getting paid for calling those games.

And now Bill, who soon added home games to his Pitt hoops schedule, has just completed his 52nd season!  He's the second longest-tenured active Division I men's basketball play-by-play announcer at a single school.  (The longest is another Pittsburgh institution, 84-year-old Ray Goss, who started calling Duquesne games one year earlier.)

In 1974 Hillgrove began calling Pitt's football radio play-by-play.  (He's seen on the right at a game that my company happened to televise in 1982.)  Then in 1994 he began doing radio play-by-play for the Steelers as well.  He still holds all three positions!  Weekends can be very busy.

Several years ago I was working on a Pitt webcast which required Mr. Hillgrove to provide a voice-over for a pregame video clip, which I'll say was 42 seconds long.  On the first try, he spoke for 49 seconds.  The producer asked if he could be seven seconds quicker, and on the second take, without rushing, he nailed it perfectly.  He's a pro.

When possible, I like to mute the audio of a televised Pitt game and listen to The Fan 93.7 instead.  The telecast is usually a few seconds behind the actual event due to transmission delays, but for some reason the radio broadcast always seems to be even further behind.  Thus, using my cable-TV DVR, I can delay the video maybe an additional 20 seconds until what I'm seeing syncs up with what I'm hearing.

Besides listening to familiar voices with hometown perspectives, I enjoy paying attention to the details of the action.  Television announcers ramble on about all sorts of topics, and a casual viewer might think that basketball consists of randomly passing the ball around until someone decides to take a shot.  In contrast, Billy and his radio partner, former Pitt guard Curtis Aiken, describe the fine points of what the players are doing second by second — defenses, screens, positions on the court, every aspect that they assume we can't see — and as I follow along I can observe those things happening, adding greatly to the experience.

Of course, as Craig Meyer wrote earlier this month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2020-21 has been different.  “As college basketball persists through the COVID-19 pandemic, the radio broadcast crews haven't been traveling for road games as they customarily do.”  Some more excerpts from Meyer's story:

The Pitt broadcasters have been calling games from Entercom's studios in Greentree, where they have three big-screen televisions and laptop computers showing stats.

The marvels of modern technology allow them to chronicle games taking place hundreds of miles away, but the setup has presented its share of difficulties.

Photo:  Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette

When a radio crew is courtside, for instance, they have access to the referees, who can explain a call to them.  At the very least, they can see the official making a gesture.  Remotely, they don't necessarily have that, as a camera may not be focusing on the referee.

“We're at the mercy of whatever and you're guessing,” Hillgrove said.  “Well, if you're guessing, what's the poor listener doing?  Guessing even more.  That's the fear, that we're not up on top of situations like we would be courtside or at the arena.”

On traditional road trips, they would be able to get to know these players over a meal at a restaurant or during a bus ride, asking about their families and their hometowns, and establishing a relationship with them while getting information they could incorporate on the air.  “To be part of that and be that close to the action, that's a lot of good flavor for the listener,” Hillgrove said.  “That's been taken away from us.”

All of the changes haven't been negative.  Hillgrove said that by working remotely, he gets access to video replays he doesn't on-site.

But for whatever short-term benefits they receive, there are long-term concerns — one in particular.  It costs money to send radio broadcast teams on the road.  Even as they ride with the team on planes and buses, there are hotel rooms and meals, among other expenses.

As athletic departments across the country feel the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's a fear that they'll decide that paying for a handful of extra people to travel is a cost that can be eliminated and that remote broadcasts, while not quite as good, are satisfactory.



Speaking for myself, I loved to go on road trips.  I naturally prefer on-the-scene reporting.  Nevertheless, I do find these remote broadcasts satisfactory.  In the Before Time, when Hillgrove sat beside the Panther bench with thousands of screaming fans behind him, his words would sometimes get lost in the crowd noise.  When the coach stomped out in front of him to yell at the officials, Hillgrove had to inform us of the coach's disagreement.  Such distractions are missing from the studio in Greentree.  (A little arena sound is piped in so the announcers can hear the whistles.)

And I'm pleasantly surprised that Bill and Curtis, even though they're watching exactly the same picture as I am, often notice little details that escape me completely.  Of course, I don't know nearly as much about the sport.  I was only an amateur play-by-play broadcaster


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