By R.L. Bynum
Visiting NHL radio crews depend on local engineers
New York fans listening to Islanders radio broadcasts of this week’s two playoff games in Raleigh will probably have no idea that a North Carolina resident is responsible for the professional sound quality they are hearing.
Because an engineer isn’t part of the travel parties for any National Hockey League radio broadcast team, there is one in each NHL city who works with the visiting radio team.
Since 2001, that person in Raleigh has been Ben Alexander.
“I do a little bit of producing but, for the most part, I’m just the technician, I’m the engineer,” said Alexander, who lives in Apex. “I set up the equipment and basically make sure that they get on the air and make sure that everything sounds good from the game site.”
Although Alexander is the designated engineer in Raleigh, there is no formal contract. He sends invoices to each team and gets separate checks. He costs the teams a lot less money because they don’t have to pay for lodging or for him to travel.
“With NHL broadcasts, and other professional broadcasts as well, there’s pretty much a standard way they’re done,” said Alexander, who grew up in Raleigh, and graduated from Broughton High School and N.C. State. “So, you can send out an information sheet and it’s pretty easy for an engineer in a given city to figure out what all needs to be done for that particular team.”
Alexander does pretty much the same job for every team unless, similar to the Hurricanes, the television broadcast is simulcast on radio. That makes the duties a little lighter when, for example, the Dallas Stars come to the PNC Arena.
“They actually will pay me just to make sure that the simulcast broadcast is getting out,” he said. “But, for the most part, I’m not doing anything for them except make sure they get on the air.”
Unlike every previous season since 2009, he’s finally been able to work games deep into April and into May and enjoy the craziness that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“This has been a fun year,” Alexander said. “It’s been really neat to see the crowds come back. This first round of the playoffs was the loudest I’ve heard this building since 2006. It’s really been a lot of fun just to be in the atmosphere and watch the Hurricanes perform.”
The loud crowd can make his job harder.
“It can be real challenging,” he said. “Fortunately, the headsets make it so that you can cut out some of the crowd noise. It makes it a challenge to hear the announcers on top of the noise.”
Alexander worked with the Islanders team of play-by-play man Chris King and analyst Greg Picker earlier this season, and many times over the years.
“Most of these guys are really great to work with,” Alexander said, including King and Picker in that group. “And they’re traveling from city to city seeing a different person each time. They do the best they can to get along and to make things as easy as possible for the guys like me that are setting the stuff up. Most of them, they’re just a lot of fun.”
Some of his favorites are Kenny Albert (at right in the above photo with Alexander), who calls New York Rangers games — “He’s just as friendly as he can be.” — John Walton, the Washington Capitals’ play-by-play voice, and Pete Weber, the voice of the Nashville Predators.
“He’s hilarious,” Alexander said of Weber. “They do everything to make the broadcast as much fun as possible. Just animated and not taking anything too seriously. Always cutting up and having a good time.”
Some fans probably couldn’t deal with Alexander’s situation. He wants the Hurricanes to win. But not only can he not cheer, he’s working with the radio crew broadcasting for the opposing team.
“I’m going to be sitting on my hands when it comes to cheering for the teams,” Alexander said. “I make it a point to try not to [cheer]. I’m not going to let my emotions show during the game. I think the announcers probably know that I’m wanting the Hurricanes to win. But my job dictates that I have to just make them sound as good as possible.”
Alexander took the job after the previous visiting-team engineer, Bob White, decided the travel and workload had become too much. At the time, White was traveling from Charlotte for each game and also was doing work for Charlotte Bobcats and Carolina Panthers games.
“It’s a pretty easy gig,” Alexander said. “If you understand the technical aspect of it, there’s not a lot of tasks that get sent your way. It’s pretty much straightforward. There’s not really anything crazy about what I do other than that I get real good seats to all of the games.”
Alexander got his start in radio working for Traffic Patrol Broadcasting, which did traffic reports for numerous radio stations, after studying speech communications at State.
Through a series of events vaguely connected to the Hurricanes, Alexander ended up adding to his engineering duties in a major way.
John Brockwell, the longtime engineer for Hurricanes radio broadcasts, who still works with the radio broadcasts, started a domino effect. In 2004, he decided to stop also serving as the engineer for Duke Radio Network’s football and men’s basketball broadcasts. When John Rose opted to leave the Tar Heel Sports Network to fill that opening at Duke, Alexander added the job as engineer for UNC football and men’s basketball games, and has also done that job since the 2004–05 school year.
“Everybody has jumped around. It’s kind of funny,” said Alexander, who was there for Game 7 when the Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, and was at courtside for UNC men’s basketball national championships in 2005, 2009 and 2017.
Interestingly, Alexander isn’t the only engineer for a Triangle ACC radio network who graduated from a rival school: Rose and David Modlin, the engineer for N.C. State broadcasts, both are UNC graduates.
“I try not to hate on anybody because on any given day, I may be working for them,” said Alexander. His wife graduated from UNC and his son graduated from N.C. State.
All of his jobs are on a contract basis, but he gets benefits through his wife’s job as a pharmacist at Rex Hospital.
Taking on the UNC job obviously created scheduling conflicts. While UNC games always take priority, he’s still responsible for making sure the visiting-team engineering duties are covered.
There have been 46 home Canes games so far this season, and he’s worked fewer than half because there were 24 conflicts with Tar Heels games. His friend Al Salisbury did all 24 of those games this season, but obviously there are no UNC conflicts the rest of the way.
“I do the same things for the Tar Heels as their home engineer and it’s a lot more specialized,” Alexander said of his duties for UNC games. “There’s a lot more production work that goes into it, so it would be harder for them to just hire an engineer in each city that they went to, so that’s why I travel with the team and do everything for the Tar Heels when it comes to football and basketball.”
He has worked night Hurricanes after noon UNC games, including one season when UNC played a game at N.C. State earlier in the day. He had no doubles this season, though.
The engineer travels with the teams on most college radio teams, with Boston College being one exception in the ACC.
There are plenty of contrasts between the two jobs. The logistics of the Hurricanes job are much easier because there is a dedicated booth for the visiting radio crew in the hockey press box on the fifth floor of PNC Arena.
“I’m able to set up a system in that room and leave it set up for the entire season. I don’t have to tear down and set up every game,” Alexander said. “I have to travel with the equipment wherever I go with Carolina. And with the Hurricanes, I’ve got a locker in the booth that I can put the headsets and stuff in. I can just throw it in the locker and be done with it at the end of the game.”
The pregame and postgame programming on the Tar Heel Sports Network is much more extensive than it is for NHL radio networks. The NHL postgame shows have to be brief because the radio team must catch the bus with the team after the game.
Alexander has to rush as well for UNC road games, but the Tar Heel Sports Network has Dave Nathan back in Chapel Hill, who eventually takes over postgame coverage. Similarly, Alec Campbell hosts the Canes’ “Aftermath” show on radio.
“For the most part, any sound that the announcers are using like coaches interviews and stuff like that — for hockey, the announcers usually take care of it all on their own and they’ll email it back to their studio or something like that. I don’t have to really worry with a lot of that kind of production work,” Alexander said. “With the Tar Heels, I handle a lot of the production work when it comes to coaches interviews and things like that. The announcer will do the interview and then he’ll just give it to me to edit and everything.”
Major sports leagues and college broadcasts for revenue sports have the luxury of having one person whose only job is to be the engineer. That’s not the case for most non-revenue college sports broadcasts. Nearly all minor-league baseball broadcasts also don’t have engineers, with the broadcasters having to perform those duties.
Gone are the days when an ISDN (integrated service digital network) phone line was used to transmit the broadcast. It’s all through the internet now, but a phone line is the backup should the connection go down.
“But there is a change in the sound quality when that happens, and it’s also a little bit of a lag getting switched over,” Alexander said.
Whatever happens, crews know they are in sound hands with Alexander at the controls.
Carter earns National Headliner honors
Andrew Carter, the former UNC beat writer and current reporter on The News & Observer/Herald-Sun’s investigative and enterprise team, won one first-place award and also garnered a third-place honor at the National Headliner Awards in Atlantic City late last month.
Carter won for “sports writing by an individual or team.” The three submitted stories were on former UNC lineman Tommy Hatton’s concussion ordeal, on the Wallace-Rose Hill football team trying to cope after Hurricane Florence and on UNC athletes who joined in the fight for a free-standing black cultural center on campus in 1992 that laid the groundwork for the Silent Sam protests.
Carter earned third-place honors for “newspapers spot news photograph” for his photo of a man with a kitten on his shoulder in New Bern after Hurricane Florence.
Columnist Luke DeCock won third place for “sports column by an individual.” The three submitted columns were on Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling, on an old friend who passed away after they lost touch with because of a disagreement, and on Mack Brown’s return to UNC.
Jessaca Giglio’s cancer battle passes milestone
The best news in the area sports journalism world from last week didn’t come from anywhere near a playing field or a newsroom.
Jessaca Giglio, the assistant sports editor of The N&O/H-S, returned work this week after undergoing the last of 16 chemo treatments Friday in her battle against breast cancer.
I finished chemo today.
Sixteen treatments over 20 grueling weeks.
— Jessaca Giglio (@jessacagiglio) April 27, 2019
It’s been a brave fight for both her and her husband Joe Giglio, The N&O/H-S N.C. State beat writer, who only made one road trip during the basketball season so that he could be with her for help and support.
“She still has more treatments (radiation) ahead of her, so we want her to take it easy. But we couldn’t be happier that she now has the worst of it behind her,” Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O/H-S said via email. “It’s been a challenging few months, so it will be such a big help to have her back in the editing saddle. More than anything, we’re grateful that she is on the road to good health.”
— Jonas Pope IV (@JEPopeIV) April 27, 2019
ECSU honors Pope of N&O/H-S
On Saturday, Elizabeth City State honored Jonas Pope IV, the recruiting and high schools writer for The N&O/H-S, for being part of the 2019 class of the 40 Under 40 at ECSU.
The school honors 40 ECSU alums under the age of 40 who are “making strides in their careers, contributions to their communities, or impressions on the ECSU campus and beyond.”
Pope also delivered the keynote speech at ECSU’s athletics banquet last month.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The N&O/H-S, Chip Alexander wrote about the pressure of snap decisions that Carolina Hurricanes video coach Chris Huffine must make during games. Does he advise a challenge on a goal? If he’s right, the opponent’s goal is nullified. If he’s wrong, the Canes lose their time out and the opponent gets a power play.
Debbie Yow retired as N.C. State’s athletics director last week. Some good reading on Yow came from this story in the News & Record from Brant Wilkerson-New and this Q&A from Joe Giglio in The N&O/H-S.
In The Undefeated, Marc J. Spears wrote about how two famous basketball families, the Currys and the Rivers, are now one big family. Seth Curry is marrying the sister of his former Duke teammate Austin Rivers.
In the News & Record, Ed Hardin wrote about how the transition has already started away from the one-and-done era.