Kevin Harlan: The Energetic Radio Voice of the Super Bowl

kevin harlan

Loved by many for his high-octane play-by-play and disliked by some for overdoing it, Kevin Harlan will be calling his eighth straight Super Bowl on national radio this Sunday.  Likable and easy going off air, Harlan brings unrestrained energy on-air, beginning with the first play from scrimmage right through the final gun. Virtually every down is called with equal verbal and vocal vigor.

Based in Kansas City, Harlan, 57, works for two television networks, CBS and Turner. He covers a combination of NFL, college basketball and the NBA. He’s also the lead announcer on Westwood One’s radio coverage of the NFL. If his schedule isn’t draining enough, Harlan does pre-season television for the Green Bay Packers.

“He’s outside the numbers, inside the numbers, his helmet is gleaming under bright sunshine.” Indefatigable, absolutely, but I sometimes wonder whether fatigue sets in, late in broadcasts. Sustaining his level of energy for hours is challenging for a man half his age.

Although Harlan is blessed with innate talent and works endlessly to sharpen his skills, he was born on first base. His dad Bob Harlan was a longtime sports executive and one-time president of the Green Bay Packers.

For years, national play-by-play on radio was an uncomplicated production. The beauty was its simplicity. Jack Buck and Hank Stram teamed for 17 Super Bowls together; from the late 1970s through the mid-90s. The broadcasts were warm and fuzzy. The two gents had good chemistry.

The husky voiced Buck sounded like everyone’s lovable uncle. He was entertainingly slick when facing an uncomfortable exigency that even the best play-by-play announcers occasionally do. “He gives it to the second man through who thrusts to the 35-yard line for a first down.” Whoever the ball carrier was, it didn’t matter. Uncle Jack was on the call and he would eventually tell you, sooner rather than later. Buck made Coach Hank feel comfortable; eliciting insightful commentary and uncanny predictions. “Jack, look for Montana to throw it to Clark on the next play.”

The national Monday Night Football radio broadcasts were born as an antidote to the bombastic Howard Cosell, who many, particularly in mid-America, despised on ABC Television. Jack and Hank appealed to all, in cars, at work and those watching the game with Cosell’s voice silenced.

Radio is about intimacy. One voice or even two wafting gently from the speaker. Vin Scully was the best and he worked alone. This year, Harlan will have two color commentators in the booth and two sideline reporters. Want more? There will be halftime, pre and post-game reporters galore. In other words, Harlan will be part play-by-play man and part traffic cop.

Harlan is criticized by some for hollering, from start to finish. The truth is that the great ones didn’t scream; Scully, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, Cawood Ledford and Marty Glickman. They pitched down their vocal octaves and captured sports’ drama through proper pausing. To listeners, I suppose, it’s like food. Some like theirs salty and others sweet. Still, for all the carping, Kevin realizes that he’s on radio and not just taking a day off from television. He paints a picture for those who aren’t watching or want more than skeletal data available on a Smartphone.

Last season, when an unruly fan busted out of the stands at Levi Stadium, Kevin made an instantaneous decision to describe the miscreant’s rudderless lap around the football field, security’s delayed response and the intruder’s feeble attempt to dodge them. It was classic, descriptive and entertaining. The call went viral on social media.

Describing it in colorful detail was certainly against convention. Broadcasters are asked not to perpetuate such reckless activity by acknowledging it. In the Q&A I did with Harlan below, he addresses his decision. Agree or not, good for him! He broke convention.

You’re constantly on the move; calling the NFL, the NBA and college basketball for network television. If your brimming schedule, as it is, doesn’t fill a plate, you top it off with a full season of broadcasting NFL games for Westwood One Radio. Rumor has it that you do occasionally sleep! In your travels, when you run into fans who know your voice and your face, with which sport and medium do they identify you first?

It depends on the season. During football season, people will most often mention the Monday Night broadcasts. And it’s only after they hear me order food or say hello to someone. They never recognize me based on my appearance because I’m not in front of the camera very often. It’s usually by voice. Many people also recognize my voice from the NBA 2k video game series. I’ve been with CBS going on 20 years and TNT for 22. It always comes as a surprise to me when I’m stopped by someone, and I’m so appreciative of their kind remarks and the time they take to say something.

During the intersection of seasons, football and basketball, you must feel like you’re running yourself thin. How much longer do you want to continue this hectic pace?

Well I sure enjoy what I’m doing. I consider it a privilege and blessing to be in the fortunate position I’m in each and every broadcast. I never take it for granted. I grew up dreaming of this kind of job. I really don’t get tired, and I have a very, very understanding wife of thirty years. She is traveling with me more now that we sent the last of our four children to college. That sure makes it more enjoyable.

The preparation hasn’t changed but perhaps managing the information has become easier the longer I’ve been doing this. I do feel a huge responsibility to my employers and fans to get it right, but that falls in line with all jobs. So with good health, and a desire to always improve and loving my job, I’d like to keep going as long as I can.

You’ve talked in the past about listening to the legendary and former Cleveland Cavaliers’ voice Joe Tait. Who were other announcers you idolized growing up?

The first voice that I recall really admiring was that of NFL Films narrator John Facenda. Ray Scott (CBS) and Pat Summerall (CBS and Fox) are voices that I listened to a lot. Jim Simpson (NBC) had a fantastic delivery. Keith Jackson (ABC) was someone I idolized. I learned a lot listening to Joe Tait (Cavaliers Radio) and Jim Durham (Bulls, Mavs and ESPN) with their descriptive styles. And then I listened to a lot of radio broadcasters from decades ago with their attention to detail. Chuck Thompson (Orioles) comes to mind. Tapes of Red Barber (Dodgers and Yankees) were constantly played. Like you, I’m sure, there are many voices in my head and they form a compass that I try to follow to this day. I always fall short obviously, but it does give me something to strive for.

You’ll be on radio nationally on the Super Bowl, joining Boomer Esiason and a team of others. What additional preparation is required of you, given the enormity of the game?

Because there are so many voices on the broadcast, offering a lot of opinions and perspectives, I find myself leaning heavily to basic reporting of the game. Thus, my goal is knowing the players and describing them and the event accurately. And that is my focus for the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl; a lot of attention to personnel and having the narrative firmly in place going into the game. There is an enormous responsibility to broadcast a game like this and I bring in all the things I’ve reviewed in my work through the season into play to hopefully give the best broadcast I can.

You’ve been criticized, particularly on the East Coast for shouting on-air too much? Do you feel the criticism is fair and have any of your superiors ever raised the issue with you?

You can’t be in this business and expect everyone to like your style and emotions. I can appreciate their viewpoint. It is a very subjective profession. I have never been told by any of my employers to change my delivery. And I value most, the opinion of my peers; others in this profession who just honored me, voting me a national award (National Sportscaster of the Year). It was incredibly humbling. Words cannot describe how our family felt with such an honor.

In 2016, you called the play-by-play of an unruly fan running onto the football field. The audio of your call went viral. The conventional rule though, followed by most announcers both nationally and locally, is not to acknowledge this disruptive act for fear that it promotes more of it. Do you have any regrets and what if any backlash did you suffer?

Had the intruder run right through the formation seconds before the snap of the football and run without being stopped for close to a minute, I doubt I would’ve called it the way I did. But it was clear he was out for a joy ride, and his reaction, and the lack of a reaction from security, led to the call. I received no backlash from any of my employers. In fact, to my surprise, it was the exact opposite – including from the NFL. I doubt though that I would do it again. Once was enough, unless of course it became part of the story.

Your daughter, Olivia Harlan is a sports announcer too. What encouragement have you given her and how’s she doing?

Our daughter has been around me for many years – as I’ve worked games. She has seen what it’s like, heard me talk about it since she was a little girl and decided on her own to get into broadcasting. She chose a school with a great journalism program (U of Georgia), worked endless hours during school and gave up a lot of her time to get started. She is learning a lot, is enjoying the challenge and has had some early success in her career. We are very proud first of the wonderful woman she has become, and secondly of how much work and effort she puts into each broadcast and her desire to improve.

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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