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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Part 2: Walton Gets the Call

This column will most likely be much shorter than my rant about Steve Kolbe.  That is because I am filled with negativity as a human being and well, I don't have many mean things to say about John Walton.  By all accounts he is a guy who worked his ass off in the AHL and did a great job with the Hershey Bears.  So his call to the NHL is, if anything, long overdue.  I do give myself the right to nitpick as I will shortly do.  But I'm sure when John Walton got a call from Bruce Boudreau that he was now the Caps radio guy, he felt like Harold and Kumar did when they finally made it to White Castle (and NPH paid them back for messing up Harold's BMW).  In fact, what would make this complete is if John Walton actually downed 50 cheeseburger sliders to celebrate his job with the Caps.  He probably found a more profound way to celebrate, but such is life.....

Let's be clear:  John Walton belongs in the NHL and he is undeniably an upgrade over Steve Kolbe.  But I am still curious as to how his tenure in DC will go.  Will he be regarded as a "good" NHL announcer or a "great" NHL announcer?  His job should be safe either way because 1) Ted Leonsis doesn't seem interested in a widespread search for the position (sticking to his "build from within" strategy) and 2) John Walton blogs and tweets which I think in Ted Leonsis' mind is what got Walton the job.  I personally still believe in the value of a "great" radio announcer (irrespective of their social media skills), but I have to admit that I am part of a dying breed - that from a revenue perspective "good" is good enough on the radio these days.  It's a shame, but times change -- and social media is probably more important to an owner's brand than radio.

That said, let's see how Caps fans react to Walton's call (the bulk of the fan base, which probably has not listened to him in Hershey).  I personally have listened to his calls in Hershey periodically.  For a short while, I interned with another AHL team and cut highlights from Hershey broadcasts.  But, I can't claim to be a Hershey die-hard.  So it's not like I listened to him day-in and day-out.  I do have my general impressions from his broadcasts.

1)  Technically speaking, John Walton can describe the action 100x better than Steve Kolbe and is very good at an absolute level.  This is probably his greatest strength - and a good one to have.  I appreciate the fact that not once in my time listening to him have I said "How the hell did the puck get from point A to point B?".  God willing I will have TV access to many of the Caps games this year, but when I need to listen to the radio I know I won't need a translator or feel like I'm missing out.  John Walton keeps you focused on the in-game action.

2)  He is honest.  The one trend that has gone under the radar while owners worry about their announcers' social media skills - is that most owners view announcers as part of the PR department (see Redskins and Larry Michael).  I've heard John Walton bluntly call out Hershey Bears players for sloppy play or soft goals allowed.  That is what gets you my respect.  This isn't a frickin' job interview.  It's not your job as an announcer to sell tickets (well sometimes it is, but that's another story).  If it's a team weakness, please don't spin it or minimize it - tell it like it is.  My understanding of John Walton is he does exactly that.

I hope to God that John Walton doesn't compromise his point of view for the sake of Ted Leonsis or the organization.  The Caps will never look as bad as the Redskins - so in a relative sense they aren't guilty as all hell.  But make no mistake about it, the Caps prioritize having a strong PR arm.  And say what you want to about Mike Vogel's writing ability, but from what I've seen he generally stays on the side of not being critical of the team.  I never heard Steve Kolbe be as obnoxiously pro-team as Larry Michael, but I never heard Steve Kolbe call out the team either.  John Walton will hopefully continue to tell it like it is.  At least I'd respect that.

3)  John Walton is seemingly more social than Steve Kolbe.  This isn't about blogging or tweeting.  This isn't a popularity contest or being a part of the cool kids club.  But, it is about knowing the players and being able to share qualitative insights during the broadcast (not robotic stats).  Stats play a role and can't be ignored, but I think John Walton will do a much better job of talking about a specific player's development in Hershey, their approach in practice, or anecdotes from the road.  This should make the broadcast much more entertaining than a Kolbe broadcast.

4)  On the downside, my opinion is that John Walton's voice is just "ok".  It is a little gravelly to me.  Again, I would take John Walton's voice over Steve Kolbe's any day of the week.  But in an absolute sense, I wonder if Caps fans who are new to him will warm to him in this regard.  There is a parallel between John Walton's voice and Chuck Kaiton's voice (Carolina Hurricanes) and Chuck Kaiton seems to have his die-hard fans.  But that type of voice can go either way.  So let's see if Caps fans say "John Walton's voice is better than Steve Kolbe's voice" or if they say "John Walton has a good voice".

5) I am unsure about John Walton's vocabulary - it might be a little too plain.  Again, neutral is better than bad.  It's not like the guy can't speak English.  I'm just saying this might be a missed opportunity for differentiation.  His signature call of "Good Morning, Good Afternoon, and Good Night" is again - just "ok" in my book.  Not to beat a dead horse, but after years of Steve Kolbe - just "ok" is much preferred to "I wish I could stab my ears out".  I don't want Bob Costas calling my games either, mind you.  Not every game needs to remind you of the maudlin time your dad whisked you away on the New York subway to see the illustrious Mickey Mantle for your 7th birthday (hey, I tried!).  But maybe John Walton could use a little more of that?

6) I also wonder if John Walton enjoyed a psychological lift from the Bears' performance.  I mean, the Hershey Bears won 3 Calder Cups while John Walton announced for the team.  Let's see if fans hold him in high regard with the Caps continually shitting the bed in the playoffs!  I mean, I don't have the study in front of me, but there has to be some correlation between a team's performance and how announcers are viewed.

One announcer who pimps it out?  Dave Jageler!  Yes, the Nats are up-and-coming, but they still suck.  Yet, Dave Jageler is the man!  Let's see if John Walton can win over Caps fans despite the Caps underachieving in the playoffs**

**The Caps are of course free to make this a non-issue by winning the Stanley Cup, but I don't want to become the Chief Executive Officer of Fantasy-Land just yet......

Well, so it is.  John Walton gets his call to the big leagues.  Bravo to him.  Do you know him better than me?  Chime in!  Like I said, I'm not a John Walton expert just yet - just sharing some general impressions.

Let's see if he's "good" or "great" at the NHL level.  I'm pulling for him, though.  It's been a long time since I've enjoyed listening to a Caps radio broadcast.  I don't know what I'll do with myself this season!

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