While New York mourned the scourge of Tronc’s financial lords, who beat down the Daily News sports staff to a one inch lead pencil, Carolina Hurricane hockey fans were dealt a deafening blow.
Chuck Kaiton, the gravelly and gifted voice of the Canes was silenced by the club’s chief bookkeeper and bean counter, Tom Dundon; a.k.a. “The Owner.” Dundon made it clear that radio was superfluous at best and unimportant at worst.
Audience information was leaked with an unapologetic shrug. The message from the team was clear. Radio is as necessary as a horse and buggy in this dawning day of the driverless car.
The thin audience numbers were tossed liked a few pennies into the cup of a homeless New Yorker, crouched over a subway vent to stay warm. Only 500 to 2000 fans a game tune-in to the radio broadcast; anything to justify the axing of Kaiton after four decades of unswerving loyalty. The sword turned into a shield.
But why cut your nose to spite your face? Why would an ownership react so myopically, suggesting that the community doesn’t give a puck about the team. These numbers can eviscerate the Canes’ sellers, no matter what they’re peddling; be it radio, season tickets, glossy signage in the arena or in your face ads above the urinals.
So Kaiton was not a priority. The fact that’s he’s a Hall of Famer, unique, arguably the best in the league and wait, of yes, he started with the franchise the night it faced off in the NHL; as the Hartford Whalers. That was back in 1979. He’s worked 39 years and missed only one game in all these years – when his dad died. So Dundon apparently has no appreciation for history either.
The owner was born in New York but made his dough in Texas. So iconic hockey radio names like Win Elliot and Marv Albert have little value to him. The only thing he might miss is a New York egg-cream.
Dundon graduated SMU in 1993 with a degree in economics. He might not know Foster Hewitt from Milton Friedman. Spending many of his adult years in Dallas, Dundon knew of only one kind of hockey broadcast; a simulcast of TV and radio. That’s what the Stars do and that’s what the Canes will now do. He didn’t need a business course to know that cutting Kaiton would save salary and travel costs.
His comments about Kaiton in recent months were distantly respectful but laconically dismissive. He is smart enough to know not to tinker with the pedestal Kaiton is put on by his own peers.
Heck, the team arrived in North Carolina, plodded a couple seasons in Greensboro before settling in Raleigh. Chuck had been through it all, including seasons crawling through a feel of darkness. He understood the challenges the Canes would face in Carolina. This was tobacco row, the citadel of college basketball.
He’d call hockey games on radio, sprinkling in narratives; using basketball equivalents to explain the rudiments and fundamentals of hockey. To many in Carolina the NHL wasn’t grits. It was a new game. Until Chuck, listeners might have thought the circle was the top of the key and the net was under the hoop. But listeners loved the intersection of Kaiton’s raspy voice and silky smooth descriptions. It may not have been basketball but his call was as rhythmic as Gary Hahn’s and Woody Durham’s. You knew he was good when in basketball crazy country, a hockey guy, Kaiton, won the North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year award.
Now, he’s out. Instead of getting a raise for his decades of ambassadorship, the new ownership gave him a kick in the behind.
Dundon made a half pregnant decision. He keeps radio, pays the station to clear the air-time but produces a no-win hybrid , a TV/radio broadcast. The viewer will say the announcer talks too much and the radio listener will say he talks too little. You’re either on the pot or off. If you’re going to buy a suit, don’t go to the wedding with ripped sneakers.
Many will say hockey is the one sport that’s conducive for simulcasts because TV announcers call games wood-to-wood, reinforcing a radio call. Mike Emrick does and he is wildly popular. Correct. But there’s Emrick and there’s the rest of the NHL. On simulcasts, someone pays; the color man who gets less runway or the listener who gets less play-by-play detail. The TV director finds it more challenging too. With a TV play-by-play man spewing verbiage a mile a minute, the director can’t cut as easily to crowd shots, isolations or tape.
For Chuck, what now? You can’t keep a thoroughbred in a locked barn. Chuck would be perfect at Madison Square Garden where the very capable Kenny Albert is excellent but his attendance rate (through no fault of his) warrants a truant officer. Between Kenny’s commitment to Fox, NBC and even backing up Mike Breen on Knicks TV, the Rangers’ broadcasts are down his depth chart of priority. Good for his career, bad for Ranger fans.
The beauty of radio is consistency. Popular hockey announcers pride themselves on the few number of games they miss. Look at some of the best. Take Joe Bowen today or Bob Wilson yesterday.
What does the Kaiton move say about the future of hockey on radio? Nothing good. Dundon says there’s little sponsor demand for the radio broadcasts. Perhaps. If so, Dundon should look in the team mirror. Demand is built through positioning and effective salesmanship. Teams like the Canes package radio like a list of goods in a Sears warehouse. Radio is one of the offerings to potential sponsors, easily dissed by the millenials who make these decisions. They’re offered by the Canes sellers, not sold. There’s a difference. Passion points have to be sold.
The beauty of radio is how sponsors are embedded in the broadcasts, interchangeably and organically. Sponsors build bonds with the team, through a colorful and cogent broadcaster like Kaiton who can provide implicit endorsements.
Is this the first radio domino to fall? Are more simulcasts in the offing? Will radio be dropped altogether. Who’s next? How about basketball? Was it last season that the Washington Wizards couldn’t find a radio home to start the season? The Isles struggle to get on a New York station.
This isn’t 1975, the year that Bob Prince was fired and Pirates’ fans marched on the downtown headquarters of team rightsholder, Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. It’s certainly not the day when an admired and saintly Ernie Harwell was dethroned, his mic grounded by then Tigers’ president and ex Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. Fans wanted to lynch Bo. He was never forgiven. Meanwhile, Harwell was brought back in short order.
We’ll miss Chuck, “Wriggled through the pads,” “Sifts it free,” “Scrubs for the loose puck,” “There’s indignant pushing and shoving” and “He 9-irons it ahead.” He’s too good. Kaiton will land where radio matters and he can be appreciated. The NHL needs him.