NPR Considers Baseball's Live Pitch

Hey, here’s something to think about as the concert season begins to move inside to the clubs and the baseball season heads into its last month with a few pennant races heating up(and I’m glad I have live music to numb the pain should the Cubs choke in the home stretch).

But what I want to ask you is…did live music borrow from baseball broadcasting?

This question came to mind when I was listening to NPR live concert series.

As host Bob Boilen intro’s the shows—describing what’s going on onstage or the vibe in the venue—he does so with a style that reminds me of how baseball play-by-play announcers call a game.

So there I was, caught with a double dose of pleasure and I wasn’t even at the show!

Experiencing two favorites—baseball and live music—intersecting simultaneously I got jazzed, so I looked a little deeper into how this intersection impacts live music, specifically when we’re not there to see or hear it in person and have to rely on a commentator like Boilen to paint the picture for us.

But before we get to Boilen’s style of calling a NPR live show, let’s back up a bit first, and start with baseball’s broadcasting groundwork.

Baseball got its broadcasting start on radio in 1921 and it was on the strength of the announcers that fans listened with rapt attention as the leather popped and the ball clicked against the bat as announcers gave eyes to what the fans were hearing over the radio waves thousands of miles away.

And the dialogue between the color and the play by play announcers was awesome. Guys like Vin Sully and Mel Allen and others, would tell mix in status and clubhouse anecdotes and jokes, while the game carried on and the game unfolded with each wind-up and pitch.

But most of all, I loved how those announcers painted the picture of what the game sounded like. Their words and emotional inflexions gave the game that added intensity you couldn’t get if you weren’t there. Using phrases, like “the wind and the pitch” or describing how a team was carrying a player off the field on their shoulders after a walk off homerun as the crowd roared in the background.

Through the speakers of the radio came the game. A sort of storytelling audio High Definition.

And it was, and still is, the play-by-play commentator’s job to define how the game sounds on your ears and what images are created in your mind.
And when I realized that music broadcasting came first circa 1906 but was fully functional and commercial in 1920 with baseball following suit in 1921, had to back track on my initial thoughts of Boilen borrowing.

It wasn’t a case of Boilen borrowing from baseball but it was the other way around, in fact.

But in any case was radio announcers—sports or music—have such a huge impact on how we perceive the game or live show.

And I ever since I’ve been wondering if Boilen was applying a similar style to live music because calling a live concert like a baseball game does have a impact on us as listeners. From how the music is prefaced to how he wraps up the show at the end, it all is crucial to how absorb the moment as it unfolds.

The only real difference is that the concert goes on uninterrupted without any commentary during the show while the baseball announcer is there on every pitch telling us what’s happening.

Is seems like a small difference but I wonder what it would be like if Boilen was to interject at every chord change or in between songs. Would this annoy us? Possibly.

But if you think about how crucial his intro and wrap up are to the show then thinking about what some sort of actual concert play-by-play would be like makes you wonder if we would hate it or love it once we got use to it.

And whether it’s the Raconteurs or Fleet Foxes, Spiritualized or Black Mountain, Boilen takes the liberty to tell the listener what’s going on onstage, from the stage set up to the mannerisms and body language of the band members, mirror the method of baseball play-by-play announcers describing a wind-up and the pitch….

Would the concerts be as enjoyable if Boilen didn’t do any calling at all and the concert just started with the band playing? How would the listening experience be if it was just the amp hum, the crowd roar and then the music?

Do we depend on guys like Boilen to paint the picture for us at the venue just as much as we do when a play-by-play announcers go through a dramatic homerun call?

The things I like about how Boilen begins the show is how he does paint the scene; he also ends the show with a dramatic outpouring and likeable euphoric flowing, a rush of expression that is sometimes a few words or a steady stream that always illustrates how he’s feeling in the wake of the show, as the crowd claps and roars in the background.

It’s always interesting to see how live sports intersect with live music, learning how one has influenced the other over the years.

And it’s even more interesting when this intersection somehow creates a new aesthetic for enjoying live music.

And in NPR’s case, it works as an effective way to include all the fans–in the venue or listening at home, or weeks later on a podcast—together in one communal live music experience.

And looking at this from a five senses perspective, it really makes you think about which sense is most important to enjoying a live show.

Sight or Sound?

In this case—and I think Mr. Boilen would agree—that our eyes are just as, if not more important than our ears.

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