From his early days of having beer spilled on him while calling an Arena Football League game, to his dream role of calling the NBA Finals last June for ESPN Radio, Marc Kestecher has quite the tale to tell. He’s a very bright guy with plenty of insight to share on numerous aspects of sports broadcasting. Marc also has an outstanding reputation as one of the great individuals in the business. After reading this piece, I’m sure you will be able to see why many people think so highly of him.
BN: How did you initially break into the business?
MK: Well, I guess I wanted to be a broadcaster. My parents didn’t think it was a real career so we took a look and chemical engineering was the route. I was pursuing that at Syracuse University for two years until I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was at a great university with broadcast students. So, I switched into communications.
Everything changed when I got an internship my junior year with the Albany Yankees Double-A affiliate. I was working under a guy named Dale McConachie. We worked together that summer during my internship. He was a basketball announcer in Albany for the Patroons, a CBA team. I had switched to take classes at University at Albany, so I was working with him. The season started in October or November, and by December 25th, he landed the Triple-A baseball job in Portland, OR and he was going to take it because baseball was his thing.
The Patroons were left without an announcer and as they looked for a suitable backup, they asked me if I had any experience. Fortunately, I had been taking as much time as I could to make tapes, sit in the crowd, call the game when I wasn’t doing anything on air with Dale. That tape landed me a two-week, four-city road trip audition, which apparently I passed. I had it for the rest of the year and I was on my way.
BN: How did that lead to you ultimately landing in Bristol?
MK: I went from my Albany years — for six, to Cleveland — for almost three. A guy that I worked with at WKNR radio in Cleveland, Greg Brinda, was on the short list of fill-ins for ESPN Radio GameNight, which was on weekends — Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Great show.
I gave Greg my audition tape to give to anybody, which turned out it never got listened to, but part of the deal for Greg when he went up to Bristol was on Monday morning he would do his Cleveland radio show from a Bristol studio. The guy who ultimately hired me happened to be in the booth while one of my updates was coming down the line, and he was like, “Oh, what’s that voice?” From there, Greg gave them my number and they brought me out for a series of auditions in the fall of ’98.
BN: What do you remember from those auditions?
MK: I remember being incredibly nervous. It was a little different because I had been used to being in my own booth. In the old ESPN Radio days it was a little, corner broadcast booth with three microphone positions and most of the time there were three co-hosts. I would have to walk in about a minute before the update and one of the hosts would have to vacate — usually, right about the time they were sending it to the update. So, one guy would get up, I’d quickly sit down and have to deliver my update in front of Chuck Wilson, Tony Bruno, Keith Olbermann, or Chris Berman. It was nutty.
I couldn’t believe where I was sitting, but I thought I held my own. I thought I did a pretty good job. I did the best that I could do. I got a second audition and by then I was feeling a little more confident. By the end of the second audition, I had a feeling that there was gonna be an opening and I started hunting apartments. Sure enough, I got a third audition, and after that they offered a contract.
BN: How has ESPN Radio changed over the past two decades?
MK: Well, it’s a complete change in many ways in A) our studios. We went from that corner, little tiny dinky studio, to state of the art, digital, multi 55-inch plasma HDTV viewing studios. Also, how people receive our content. We were only on terrestrial radio stations. Then, ESPNRadio.com happened and we became available online. Then, with the advent of smartphones — the app. Many people get it that way.
I should add somewhere in that timeline, I don’t know if it was 2001 or 2002, whenever SiriusXM went on the air, satellite radio started delivering us 24/7. That also helped and became another way which we were heard. From how we go about putting our stuff together in studio, to how it is received by everybody, it’s just changed completely over the 20 years that I’ve been there.
BN: Do you think there’s anything that translates from doing play-by-play to hosting sports talk radio shows?
MK: I think the one common thread is the unscripted nature of it. I think as a play-by-play guy, you do all of your preparation in the days before your event. Then, once the game starts, you can look at your chart all you want, but you’ve got to basically keep your head up and call the action that you see in front of you. Have most of the stuff that you want to add memorized in your head.
Even though it’s a world apart from a talk show, there are some parallels in that most of your prep is done before, and you don’t know what direction you’re heading in if you’re taking phone calls. Callers may drive that show. We don’t do that as much nationally, but there still are guests and co-hosts that can take things in completely different ways then you would have planned.
I don’t do talk shows, so I don’t know exactly what the thread is, but just from having done a few here and there, it would be the kinda tightrope, high-wire-act nature of being on air — cracking a microphone and filling three hours of time.
BN: When you’re doing play-by-play, it’s so important to be concise. As a color commentator, Cris Collinsworth has talked about diagnosing a play and having maybe 10 seconds to do it — it’s not the easiest thing to pull off. Do you have any tricks of being concise when you’re doing a game?
MK: It’s more than a trick. It’s just that internal clock after the reps of doing hundreds of games. You know when something that has to be described on radio is coming up, and you have to get the idea of what you see and share it in this small timeframe. I think it’s just repetition.
Look, there are some naturals out there. Especially, analysts I’ve worked with who’ve never done games on radio or even TV. On radio, concise is obviously most important cuz your play-by-play guy needs to describe everything because you can’t see anything. On TV, things can be disjointed — you can see things and you may want to describe things, but now you’ve added a third element of what does the producer/director want to do? What replays are they going to show? What package are they going to squeeze into this moment?
Analysts on television, and even on radio, they’re impressive in two different ways — the conciseness of the radio analysts and then on TV, being able to work around multiple things that are happening at the same time — and then still describing the most important part of the game.
BN: You mentioned the internal clock. I’d imagine there are times when the color commentator says something that triggers a thought, but your foresight kicks in and you know there isn’t time for it. How has your foresight improved over the years?
MK: I think I always had a sense of the timing of the game, especially on radio. Where I’ve gotten better over the years, and with repetition, is to hold that thought. To expand on that thought, but yet at the same time I’m doing something else. It happens in nanoseconds, but now I have to describe something — and obviously in a game like basketball or hockey — you may have to hold onto that thought for 30 seconds or 60 seconds.
In football, you know you’re going to have time after a play is done unless you have a hurry-up offense. In baseball, generally you call the next pitch and you can get right back into it. So, it’s really positioning yourself for how you’re going to continue that thought. I think it can be very overwhelming in the beginning just trying to handle the action in front of you. That’s the part that repetitions help is knowing that you can hold that thought, and know exactly where you need to get to, to continue that conversation.
BN: When I think about hosting shows, sometimes listening can be really difficult because as a host, I’m organizing my thoughts, the reads, the tease, and I’m looking at the clock. Do you find listening to be one of the toughest things to do while calling games?
MK: Listening has been a work in progress for my entire broadcast career because there are so many avenues you can go down based on the response from your analyst’s, callers or from an interview subject.
I’d say almost 100% of the time, I script out my questions. I have a flow, an order of how I want an interview to go. I also don’t want to miss anything that’s important or get sidetracked, but at the same time I’m trying my best to listen to what the answer is or what the analyst is saying, because I think it sounds great when you’re having a conversation rather than I talk, you talk, I talk, you talk. Also, something might be said that I didn’t realize and just from a curiosity standpoint — maybe for the betterment of the interview and broadcast — that’s the direction it should go. It can open up more avenues.
BN: How extensive is your preparation for calling games?
MK I guess it depends on the sport, but it’s very extensive. For football, it’s a serious one-week project. Sometimes, when I have time, I can turn it into 10-days or two-weeks. That’s not usually normal unless you’re coming off of the summer and getting right into the first week of the season because there’s so many other things going on.
I generally try to give it a hard seven days to gather stories and stay on top of things. A lot of my preparation turns to video prep. I can watch games, see patterns of how coaches are going to rotate their players and just get a better sense of who normally comes in and out of games.
BN: What percentage of your prep hits the cutting room floor?
MK: You’d be shocked. On radio, I don’t know if I can give it a fair percentage. There are days where I feel like I only use 20% of what I had because A) the game was so good, or if it’s a quick game like in basketball, you’re really confined to description and working off of your analysts. I’d say for football and basketball on radio, I’d like to think I get close to 50%, but there are times where it’s significantly less depending on the action.
BN: What would surprise people about the difference between calling professional games compared to college games?
MK: I think people might be surprised at how much more preparation goes into a football game. Appreciating the fact that when there’s more than 200 players combined, and some of them have the same jersey — you’ll see a #1 on offense as a wide receiver. You’ll see #1 on defense as a cornerback. You’ll see #1 on special teams. And sometimes there’s a fourth #1. There’s two guys you might see on special teams — they can’t play at the same time, but they’re all wearing #1. So, being prepared for just a ton of players. If you have a blowout, you’re getting past your two-deeps. Now, you’re working with freshmen and sophomores who usually don’t play. It’s an amazing haul.
I think people also may be surprised — on football broadcasts — how many people are in the booth. You’ve got your play-by-play voice and analyst. The statistician and spotter. If it’s a network broadcast, we have a producer. And then there’s a tech, the engineer who’s getting us on the air. So, it’s a huge production. It’s like a traveling family during college football weekend that I think people would be surprised about.
BN: I just flashed back to being a little kid and having multiplication flash cards. You have to know the players immediately. It can’t be five seconds later. How do you go about that?
MK: I have, and most guys have, what they call a spotter chart. You can put all of your offense and defense, numbers, colors, names. I find that with my video research the first two or three days can be difficult because you’re seeing the same number over and over and it’s just not sticking. Or, you’re preparing for two football games in the same week and you’re just not getting the right #38. Then, somewhere magically by the fourth day or so, it just starts popping into your head. It’s an amazing process of memorization. It is kind of like flash cards, and I take that spotter chart with me for the game just in case I need to look down.
Also, people may be surprised to learn that having a spotter, which I have for just about every football game, is invaluable. His one job is to identify players for me. I generally handle the offense. I’ll have a spotter watch the huddle and see who the running back is. So, pre-snap I’ll get the running back from my spotter. I’ve got everything else on offense. Together, we’ll work on defense, but I really lean on my spotter for who makes a tackle — especially runs up the middle where it’s hard to see amongst 10 people, or three guys are colliding on a short pass over the middle. He or she has their binoculars on, or just sees it quicker than I do and points to my chart, so that we correctly identify who the tackler is.
BN: If you’re working a college football game, and a month or two later you’re broadcasting the same team’s game, how much of the previous experience sticks with you vs. having to relearn everything again?
MK: It’s funny because after an entire week, and by the fifth day I’m finally starting to get the names, you’d be surprised how quickly after the game is over you can flush that out of your brain. If I had to do the game over again five hours later, I might have to relearn some things because I’m on to the next game already.
I do find that with football and even with college football, if I get the same team a month later, it just comes a lot quicker. It may only take a few series to watch and be like, “Oh, that’s right. I got that guy.” You have all the skill guys. You have most of the defense. It is actually a nice thing if you have USC Week 1, and then USC pops up in November, because you know it’s not gonna take quite as long. For me, it may require watching a quarter or a half not necessarily five days.
BN: I interviewed Craig Sager a few years ago, and I remember him telling me that when he’d do sideline reporting for the NCAA Tournament, he’d wear a lot of neutral colors. He wore a lot of plaids because fanbases would freak out if he was wearing a colored jacket that matched the rival school. They’d accuse him of rooting for that team. Do you pay any attention to what you wear when you’re calling a game?
MK: I always thought that was nonsense. And I have to tell you, I can report that when I’m packing my suitcase for college games, and even pro I suppose, I try to make sure I do not wear the color of either team. Sometimes I forget, but I’ll share a story with you from about six or seven years ago.
I was on my way to Arizona for the BCS National Championship Game, and I had a college hoops game at Oklahoma State. I packed a purple tie not thinking anything of it. Oklahoma State was hosting Kansas State, and purple is their predominant color. Fran Fraschilla, my analyst, had kind of mentioned it on the ride over. I still kind of blew it off. Then, I did get a couple snide remarks at the arena. Some, I think, were in jest. Some, I think, weren’t. I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, that’s the last time I’m not gonna pay attention to what colors I’m gonna put in my suitcase.” Because when you are visible, which you are for basketball games, not so much for football, it can be a problem.
BN: Is there anybody in the broadcasting business of play-by-play, that is a known fan of a particular team, or do most guys keep that under wraps?
MK: I don’t think for play-by-play. Look, we’re all human. We all love sports. So, I would guess, we all had a team growing up that may be in a field that you’re working in now — whether it’s baseball or football or basketball. What I will say is, over the years it’s hard to imagine for those of us who love sports, that you start to lose that everyday zeal of your team winning at all costs.
I’m still a sports fan. I still watch the teams that I grew up rooting for, but I find I don’t have a rooting interest, and especially when I’m broadcasting them. I mean that goes completely out the window. It could be a team that I don’t care about by the time I’m broadcasting it. You have to take that out of the equation.
I’m sure there have to be some announcers that still really enjoy certain teams and follow them, but none that I know of. Especially as a national announcer, you’re calling it down the middle anyway. If you’re a home team announcer, you could be accused of being a homer, but you’re calling 162 in baseball or 82 in the NBA. I think your normal slant is going to go towards the home team where you’re trying to entertain the home team fans. So, maybe that goes into your process. I think most of us, we just root for close games. We root for Game 2 of the World Series where you have unbelievable action that will be remembered for a long time. That’s what you root for the most.
BN: Speaking of Game 2 of the World Series, a Dodgers fan jumped into the Astros bullpen. Have you ever worked a game where something wild like that took place?
MK: I don’t know if I had anything crazy in my years, but I have been in front of tense crowds. I can remember working the FIBA Tournament in 2010 in Istanbul. Turkey was playing in the opposite semifinal from the US. I think it was Turkey against Serbia. It’s legendary in Europe about basketball and the fans. Even soccer, we’ve heard all the soccer stories about the national teams playing each other. There was that feeling. It was a little bit tense in the building.
More on a humorous side, when I was doing Arena Football in my early years, I was doing a game in Iowa and Kurt Warner was the quarterback for the Iowa Barnstormers before he had made his ascent into the NFL. The broadcast position was kind of an overhang in the first row of the second deck. The fan’s knees were on my back. There was beer spilling everywhere. Nothing malicious toward us, but I remember thinking this is the wildest scene I’ve ever been a part of. I’m a road announcer in the middle of this madness.
BN: We were talking earlier about the challenge of listening. You’ve worked with some tremendous people over the years — Dr. Jack Ramsay, Hubie Brown, etc. — has there ever been a time where the guy you’re working with has said something so well and so interesting that it was hard to focus on what you were going to say next?
MK: I’ve had the great pleasure to work with Dr. Jack. I still get a chance to work with Hubie and it is daunting in that when you talk about listening — you wanna take in what they say, and many times you wanna amplify it as a play-by-play guy, but sometimes there’s nothing more that needs to be said because they’ve seen everything. All you can hope for is it triggers a story where there’s something the two of you have shared in the coach’s office, or perhaps even something historical.
I always found working with Dr. Jack and still working with Hubie, I try to stay on top of my basketball history. Something that might be germane to the game — something I might know casually, but I wanna know more details. Cuz those guys lived it, and many times they coached it, and they were a part of those players.
The story that I always enjoy telling was in the NBA Finals for a number of years we had Dr. Jack and Hubie as part of a three-man booth for the Finals. With Mike Tirico as play-by-play. I think one year Jim Durham was the play-by-play. So, we would go out for meals on the road during the Finals and invariably every night at one point, the salt shakers, the pepper shakers, the sugar packets, all became like a diagram board on the table, with Dr. Jack and Hubie basically giving us a PhD-level course on why the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs were doing what they were doing.
It was a learning experience. Here are two guys that have been through it all, who know basketball inside and out, and even they were disagreeing on strategy from some of the best NBA coaches and best players of the current day. So, that was one where I shut up, sat back, and took mental notes.
BN: What do you see as the future of sports updates when it comes to sports talk radio?
MK: Unfortunately, it feels like they’re being lessened in importance. Much of that is attributed to the fact that people are getting breaking news on their smart phones. People can be on their computer or their tablets or on their phones and dial up the information they need right then and there anywhere in the world if there’s some kind of cell coverage.
I do believe two things, 1), there’s still value in it. We can develop the news on a second level or third level. You may have the bulletin, but we may have a little more available on the why and the how, and we can pair it with audio almost instantaneously — especially at ESPN Radio where we’re rolling on press conferences and play-by-play. We can deliver that in a nice, neat 60, 90, two-minute package.
Also, 2), I think within the construct of a talk show, there’s always a good place at the top and at the bottom of the hour. Take a break from the show and deliver for two minutes, here’s the latest of what’s going on. I think if you’re listening and you’re in your car and you don’t have access to your phone, we’re getting you the news. We’re putting everything out there digitally as well. So, even if you’re getting alerts on your phones, you’ll get a nicely packaged two minutes with audio, a nice presentation with news and background that still has value, but I do agree, it’s not as valuable as it may have been 20 years ago. We just have to find ways to make it more valuable or keep it relevant.
BN: How challenging is it to find ways to keep updates valuable and fresh?
MK: I think it’s very difficult. It’s incumbent on my bosses and the creative people to come up with different ways to package that content and deliver it. Many times, they challenge us to come up with different ways to write it and to execute it. Maybe it’s not just “here are the scores” but it’s “here’s the score and the biggest part of that game.” Or, maybe people are utilized live on-site like we’ve done in the past with stringers where you can add greater context.
There’s only so many ways you can deliver a SportsCenter update on the radio. I think you can package it better, or make it more concise, or add more elements to it to make it move faster and sound better. So really, it’s incumbent upon the people I work with to just get their heads together and constantly come up with different ways to put SportsCenter updates in front of people in different ways throughout programming, whether it’s terrestrial or digital.
BN: What else would you still like to accomplish in your sports broadcasting career?
MK: I think when I got into the business, I wanted to be a play-by-play guy. I had a very circuitous route to get to where I wanted to get — NBA play-by-play — and I never could’ve imagined in any circumstance that I could get the top network NBA play-by-play job. It was the plan, but it really wasn’t the plan.
I was happy just to be able to do play-by-play on ESPN Radio especially for NBA. I was even more thrilled to be able to be the B-announcer, and that would’ve been fine for the rest of my career. So, to be the A-announcer was beyond my wildest dreams. I got to do my first NBA Finals last June.
I guess the best answer for me would be not to be satisfied, but to continue to do it. My goal at this point is to do a second NBA Finals, which I’ll do this June. Then do a fifth, and then do a tenth. Just continue to get better. I listen to all play-by-play guys around the country. I’ll hear one guy and say, “You know what. I should do something more on that realm. Here’s a little piece that I would like to try.” Just try to get better myself — challenge myself to prep harder — be better at what I do, and hopefully just evolve into the best radio broadcaster I can be.