Away Ohio State football broadcasts go remote amid coronavirus pandemic restrictions
When Paul Keels sat at a table and looked at a wall of monitors before Ohio State’s football road opener at Penn State kicked off on Halloween, he felt some nerves.
It was an unfamiliar vantage point for the play-by-play announcer and longtime voice of the Buckeyes.
For the first time in his decades-long broadcasting career, he was not at the stadium to call a game, situated hundreds of miles away from State College.
“I was as nervous as I've been in forever getting ready for that game,” Keels said.
Due to travel limitations forced by the coronavirus pandemic, Keels and color analyst Jim Lachey have done radio broadcasts of the Buckeyes’ road games on WBNS-FM (97.1) and across the OSU football network remotely this season.
Rather than be perched in a press-box booth, the crew has remained on the university’s campus inside a video production room at the Schottenstein Center. That's where they will again be stationed on New Year’s Day when Ohio State faces Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl.
Several monitors offer glimpses of the game action through live video feeds that are arranged by the host team’s video production staff.
Usually, there have been a variety of camera angles available, with views from the end zone and the sideline.
In the Big Ten championship game, they also relied on an “all-22” angle that gives a wide look at all 22 players on the field, much like the bird's-eye view that coaches and broadcasters have while sitting up in the box.
But there are limitations compared to human eyes.
“You’re at victim to whatever video feed is available to you,” Keels said earlier this season, “and that’s why it's not ideal, but everyone understands why we're doing it this way.”
Keels said the biggest adjustment has often been in pregame preparations. When teams are on the field for warm-ups in the hours ahead of kickoff, he and Lachey are unable to watch the players. Before most games, the Buckeyes’ formations or groupings might offer a preview of a change in the starting lineup or the rotation at a particular position.
Other details might be overlooked. Keels is aware that there could be interactions on the sideline between players and coaches they miss if they are not captured by cameras.
Their perception of the weather is different, too, as is the sounds of helmets and pads colliding. It’s a different scene while physically distant.
But the role of a radio broadcast is at its core different from television, which offers clear visuals for what is unfolding on the field. Details add color for Buckeyes fans tuning in from around the state, but they pale in comparison to the essential elements.
Listeners need to know what is happening in the first place. Who’s winning? By how much? How much time is remaining?
“At the end of the day, it's time and score and down and distance,” said Skip Mosic, the broadcast’s producer. “If you give that, that's what the listener needs, and nobody does it better and describes what else is going on than Paul Keels.”
Preparing for this season, Keels sought advice from other Big Ten broadcasters about dealing with the challenge of calling a game while away from the stadium. Most in the conference faced similar circumstances.
The Buckeyes were home during the opening weekend on Oct. 24, when Keels and Lachey were in Ohio Stadium, affording them an extra week to prepare for the change.
“They just kind of said understand it's not going to be the same, you're going to miss some things,” Keels said. “It'll be a challenge. You just have to grind through it.”
It has been their reality for the Buckeyes’ three games outside Columbus, starting at Penn State and continuing with trips to Michigan State and to Indianapolis for the conference title game.
Under the unfamiliar conditions, Mosic pointed to one advantage for the broadcast pairing.
Keels and Lachey have been calling Ohio State football games since 1998, a span of more than two decades that has fostered chemistry and left Mosic to note that “it makes a world of difference.”
“If there’s a luxury with all of this,” he said, “that definitely is one of them.”