Voices of the Packers, voices of the fans
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of Packerland Pride Magazine. Subscribe here!
In the aftermath of a win or loss, where do you turn? Sometimes after a win it is fun to watch the other side react to defeat. Most times it’s better to stay on your own side and watch the Green Bay Packers, the players and coaches, talk about what went right. Shortly after, national television stations go over every NFL game with magnifying glasses so intense they burn brain cells with too much exposure.
When it’s a win this doesn’t matter as much. Everything is baked in sunshine, every ESPN talking suit makes sense, the players and coaches are momentarily happy. The Internet is a wormhole of complementary Power Rankings and good reads. If they lose you may react differently. Analysis is avoided, players and coaches say the right things and keep working towards getting better. Everything else isn’t enjoyable to read, or watch, or hear.
That doesn’t really change during the game. Right now there’s petition on Facebook (with at last check 493 Likes) to keep Fox’s A-team (their distinction) of football commentators, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, from announcing another Packers game. This seems bent more than a little under the heated frustration of another loss to the 49ers in Week 1; the fact of the matter is Buck and Aikman will hopefully be doing Packers games for a long time because that means the Packers are worth broadcasting in a marquee football game.
Still, the underlying message here is that during these nationally-televised games, especially with High Definition televisions and live delays disrupting the sync between television and radio, national announcers are nearly impossible to get away from if you want to watch the game. We know these guys whether we like it or not.
The last bit is also true on the radio. But in a different way. The Packers have, through their history, had memorable radio play-by-play and color broadcasters. They began as one of the only connections for following the team, then had to change as technology and media did. But they’ve always remained relevant, integral parts to the Packers fan experience. They are important and will always be so because, although radio is a secondary medium to TV if you’ve got the choice, they represent the rooting interests of the fan – a major advantage in this day of national network broadcasters. Radio guys, in short, are us: living with, reacting to in the moment and, finally, rooting for the same team we all are.
But it started with less fandom – less everything, really. Radio broadcasts were essentially bare-bones message-relaying. And this was an upgrade. Before radio, people would gather in public places in Green Bay to stare at grid graphs, or large boards with the layout of a football field on them, surrounded by spots for data points like score, down and time. Telegraphs would transmit information about what was going on in a game, someone would announce the action to the crowd, and they’d mark the grid graph’s field accordingly to keep up with the results.
Russ Winnie first called Packers games on the radio, charting the team’s roller coaster ascendence and drop from 1929 to the late ‘50s. After Winnie, Ted Moore took over the radio call as the Packers stormed through some of the unprecedented 1960s. But already, the impact of the next technological juggernaut was felt when CBS assigned Ray Scott to announce Packers games on TV. Scott called the Ice Bowl and Super Bowls I and II, not to mention countless other major sporting events. Of course he and his unmistakable voice are remembered fondly.
Tom Murphy, Director and Archivist of the Packers Hall of Fame, was a friend of Scott’s. Like anyone else, Murphy knew him by that voice. When Scott would call and say, “Tom this is Ray Scott,” Murphy recognized him from the time he said “Tom.”
Scott died in 1998. He was elected posthumously into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2001, and Murphy regrets that Scott, who very much wanted to be a Packers Hall of Famer, never got to receive the honor in person. Still, his career was “tremendous,” as Murphy says. “He was the absolute best person to have dinner with for the stories he’d tell.”
Moore and Scott were similar in their minimalist style of play-calling and, though both certainly latched on with the team at the right time, Scott is probably better remembered – largely because he was just that good, but also in-part due to the new medium he worked in. “He wasn’t one for a whole lot of color,” Denis Gullickson says of Moore. “When radio first gets going, these guys were more play-by-play, so he’d be pretty basic – ‘Starr begins the count … gets the snap … it’s a sneak … touchdown, the Packers are in front.’”
Gullickson, a Packers historian, co-author of “Before They Were The Packers: Green Bay’s Town Team Days,” and author of “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally,” used to listen to Ray Scott on TV and Moore on the radio when the games would get blacked out in Green Bay. He’d listen to them at home on a homemade crystal radio, thinking of his dad in the stadium, who worked as an usher for home Packers games.
“There wasn’t a lot of description. When I was a kid throwing the football around the yard with my brothers and we’d listen to the radio, those guys were such stoic characters,” Gullickson said. “What more did they need to say other than, ‘Starr takes the snap, looks around … Dowler breaks into the open or Taylor bursts through a hole.’ You could see those guys, they were just such icons that I think if you put the picture to the words, the words didn’t have to be all that.”
Scott and Pat Summerall became CBS’s first lead football announcing team as the NFL merged with the AFL in 1967. They called four Super Bowls together before Scott left CBS in 1974.
On the radio, Moore’s last season with the team was 1969. After being the voice of one of the dominant stretches in professional football, Moore remains a little under-the-radar, his work not always mentioned due to the bigness of the entire era that surrounded him. By being there, though, calling action for listeners in his to-the-point manner, Moore was the transmitter for one of the greatest periods in Packers history.
“Maybe there’s just so much else about Lombardi’s Packers, so many icons and Mt. Rushmore’s not big enough for all the names that emerged in that era. Maybe the fact is that what he was announcing was so huge that he was just the medium,” Gullickson says.
The same year that was Moore’s last was Jim Irwin’s first with the Packers. And there began a 30-year period where Irwin, through some awfully bad to supremely excellent play, was the steadying voice of the Green Bay Packers.
“There aren’t too many people who watched the Packers, even when Brett Favre was here, that don’t remember that voice,” Gullickson said of Irwin. “He got to tell the story of the Packers fading after Lombardi and then the renaissance under (Ron) Wolf and (Mike) Holmgren. But Irwin was the voice of the desperate ‘70s and ‘80s, the early ‘90s. He was a constant.
“I hate to put too much poetry into it, but when you know the team is struggling and yet you’ve got Jim Irwin on the radio and he’s shoring the whole thing up, so you’ve got that as a constant. No matter how badly or fortunate the team might be doing at any point or time, there’s Irwin’s voice there. It brackets everything.”
Irwin and former Packers wide receiver Max McGee on the radio became appointment listening for Packers fans. With an interplay that showcased one another’s strengths and knowledge, Irwin and McGee lit a torch since passed to Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren.
The basic setup of play-by-play/color commentary duos like those mentioned above are standard practice now. It came as a result of the demands on radio to provide more than a description. A major factor was the nationally-televised 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, also referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The lesson, just as apparent today: give people a taste of live football on TV and they crave more and more, like a dog who will never get sick of scarfing down treats. To boot, telecasts were already beginning to implement color guys in the early ‘60s, and people could see what was happening on TV.
Gullickson mentions Tony Canadeo as an example of the color guys’ importance. Canadeo called games with Scott, and though his raspy voice turned some fans off he was appreciated nonetheless because of the wisdom he could deliver to an audience that only a former player can.
“I think it had much to do with television bringing the game to the fans, then of course radio has to deliver more because of those pictures,” Gullickson said. “You’re going to have to be more descriptive. So Canadeo may not have been the greatest voice in terms of quality and pitch and whatever, but he knew the game. I think that’s where you probably see the color with radio in particular realizing (they needed to better describe the game.)”
So former players like McGee and McCarren today became crucial to radio for their ability to quickly dissect formations and plays, teaching listeners while peeling back the curtain to a degree. Their insights were able to show “things aren’t all that mysterious, here’s the way it works,” as Gullickson says. Most recently former offensive lineman Mark Tauscher joined the Packers Radio Network as an analyst for its pre-and post-game shows, giving the booth a perspective from a very-recently retired player. Color commentators made the game easier to “see” on the radio and were arguably the medium’s biggest evolutionary step.
Radio was more-or-less caught up with television as far as commentary goes, but they still didn’t have visuals of the game itself. Instead, as consistent and respected voices of the Packers, first Scott then Irwin and McGee and now Larrivee and McCarren became the outwardly cheering commentariat usually not allowed in Professional And Serious Football Telecasts. They provided fans with fandom on the airwaves.
“You talk about players being the face of the franchise, but for a fact Irwin was probably the voice of the franchise,” Gullickson said. “Some of the worst of it and potentially some of the best of it … The same thing’s true with Larrivee these days. Aaron Rodgers is the face of the franchise, but Larrivee is the voice.”
People knew Jim Irwin, knew Ray Scott, in large part by only meeting them through their voices on Sundays in the fall and winter. Same with Bob Uecker and the Milwaukee Brewers. These guys became trusted confidants backing the Packers the same as anyone listening likely is. In doing so, they are part of the greater Packerland family.
As Gullickson recalls, some of the more memorable moments in Packers history can be relived through the broadcaster’s handling of the situation. He remembers the Packers-Bears “Instant Replay” game in 1989 this way.
“I just remember all the turmoil and delay, and of course the two of them, as I remember, trying to kill the time. Instant replay is new, so they’re working with that, and there’s the emotional factor – the Packers scored, wait there’s a yellow flag on the ground, wait they’re instant-replaying it. It takes what seems like forever and I remember that, Irwin’s constancy bridging that whole thing, and I suspect McGee probably making fun and being incredulous all the while too.”
When Irwin retired after the 1998 season, it was quite literally like Packers fans were losing a friend on the radio they’ve known for possibly as many as 30 years. The radio headphones to fill would be massive. McCarren had joined Irwin and McGee in the booth a few years before, which Gullickson thinks probably helped smooth the transition from beloved Irwin to Larrivee in 1999. It wasn’t always easy. Change after that many seasons with the same, good person few likely wanted part with doesn’t seem like it would be. If Larrivee’s start was rough, it was probably for no bigger reason than he simply wasn’t Irwin.
“Packers fans wanted constancy like Jim Irwin and he leaves and you wonder where things are going to go, but who thinks of Wayne Larrivee as questionable anymore?” Gullickson says. “How many people run around or watch a game these days, watch a play go down and jump to their feet and say, ‘There’s your dagger!’ So Larrivee’s really hit his stride, too.”
Indeed, The Dagger tagline Larrivee employs when the Packers put the finishing touches on a win grew over time, really hitting its apex during the team’s heart-stopping run to the 2010 Super Bowl. Close game after close game was essentially decided before time expired with a certain door-slamming play. When whatever happened on the field happened, it became an expectation. Riding on radio waves, Larrivee’s ‘Dagger!’ call punched the already-loud exclamation point of victory into the atmosphere while pronouncing the opposition dead on the scene.
Larrivee’s excitable tone – sometimes too excitable for some – meshes well with McCarren’s just-as-signature preparatory cheer (YESSSS!!) from the booth, where, if you’re listening without visuals, you know something good’s about to, or should, happen very soon. Usually it means there’s a receiver wide open somewhere and Rodgers is throwing it his way. It’s an adrenaline shot applied directly to your ears.
That’s certainly different from where radio broadcasts started. As Gullickson said, we’d probably never have heard Ted Moore shout out ‘There’s your dagger!’ But, of course, the need and demand for radio has shifted. The purpose, at its core, remains describing the game, informing those listening. But over time that purpose has developed a just-as-important appendage: the voice of the team, for its fans – a crucial distinction from calling the game for the general listening audience.
“Everybody wants to get into Green Bay’s biggest church, which I call Lambeau Field, or travel with the team, but it’s just not possible,” Gullickson says. “What’s your connection? How do you get that flavor or connection? Obviously it’s whatever media is available.”
There is more descriptive media than radio because there is media you can both see and hear. But, as a Packers fan looking for that connection, that outlet and that broadcast which voices what you’re feeling? The Dagger-y elation of a huge win or the hollowness left by a loss? Those feelings can only be felt by those who are fans – at least in the moment – themselves.
“You get two different things, and unlike when Ray Scott was assigned to the Packers, you don’t have that identity with TV anymore,” Gullickson said. “I think radio now, it’s a matter of being informed but I think it’s more the homer thing because your TV crews are rotating in and out.
“But with Irwin, McCarren and Larrivee, they’re constants. Even when you get ripped off in Seattle, you’ve got that voice on the radio who empathizes and probably see things much your way. Through the ups and downs, the voice of the homers are a constant.”
It’s the radio that has the personal homer-ific touch, the unapologetic fan’s view twisted with professional, informed opinions. Mega-networks will continue to rule television because the NFL is 3,000 herds of cash cows plus about 40 acres of cornfield made of solid gold. National broadcast teams all have their irritating habits, we all know them. We know Joe and Troy because we watch, because watching is better than not. But there, always available, is radio. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.