Hidden Maryland: Backstage at a Ravens game broadcast
By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
At 7:23 p.m. Thursday, viewers of WBAL-TV and listeners of WBAL radio saw and heard Gerry Sandusky and his Baltimore Ravens broadcast partners Stan White and Qadry Ismail talking about the game against the Atlanta Falcons that was to start in seven minutes.
They were chatting about the contest marking the halfway point of the preseason for the defending Super Bowl champs and describing the competition at the center and safety positions for the Ravens.
Yet the real Sandusky at that moment is standing at a mirror in a men’s room at M&T Bank Stadium, hurriedly applying makeup from a bag of brushes, powders and creams spread out in front of him.
“Foundation is our friend,” the 52-year-old sportscaster says jokingly as reporters, coaches and scouts rush past — back to their perches in booths overlooking the field after one last, fast bathroom stop before kickoff.
There’s no magic here. Just a prerecorded segment used to give the trio time to hustle from the radio booth to the TV booth and get set up for TV — and a veteran broadcaster who understands that viewers might not hear what he has to say if he doesn’t look TV ready.
Watching Ismail and White running from one studio to the other and Sandusky scrambling to put on some makeup suggests the kind of choreography that takes place with 50-odd people working behind and in front of the cameras during a preseason game like this. Over the course of a broadcast day and night at M&T Bank Stadium, time is the overriding theme.
“You know how long it takes a woman to put on makeup?” Sandusky asks as he works his eyebrows. “Exactly the amount of time she has to do it. I’ve learned the truth of that doing my makeup. You learn to do it in the time you have. It’s all about time. … To make this work, there has to be a kind of military planning and precision.”
Few areas of broadcasting are as dictated by time as football games. Unlike baseball, there’s a clock measuring everything from how long a team has to snap the ball between plays to the two-minute warning timeout.
And within each broadcast, there are clocks within clocks that producers use to sync up pre-recorded material, show replays and air the all-important bill-paying commercials.
All of that is raised to another level altogether when producing a simulcast — as Sandusky, Ismail and White did Thursday night, with the broadcasters being seen and heard on radio and TV at the same time.
“Controlled chaos” Mike Address calls it during the fourth quarter, as he sits in a truck trailer under the stadium. Address is a partner in VPC Incorporated, a Maryland company that specializes in producing live events. He’s the guy who arranged for the rental of two 52-foot trailers, 13 cameras and a crew of more than 50.
Those trailers served Thursday as the control room for coverage of the Ravens game that was carried on WBAL and on outlets broadcasting to markets such as Harrisburg and Washington. The ultimate producer, the company that hired VPC, was Rave-TV, which is the Baltimore Ravens.
Think of the broadcast world working against those clocks as akin to “Upstairs Downstairs.”
Upstairs on the press level are the TV and radio broadcast booths for WBAL where Sandusky, Ismail and White work — the talent.
Downstairs under the stadium are the trailers where most of the production is done, with producers and directors yelling over and across one another calling out camera numbers and letter names of replay machines — choosing the images that fill TV screens in 211,000 Maryland homes during the game.
No one is on the clock more than Sandusky, who in addition to doing play-by-play delivers pre-and-post-game segments and on-field reports for the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. news on WBAL-TV.
Sandusky arrives just after 3 p.m and starts his workday with the ritual of touching a plaque dedicated to the memory of Walt Stienjefski, an usher and friend. From that moment until he walks out of the stadium into a mostly empty lot at 11:50 p.m., he is tick-tick-tick.
There’s a halftime break to eat a turkey and cheese sandwich packed by his wife, Lee Ann, and two bathroom breaks — each of those includes a fast makeup re-do.
“I like to get here early and settle in, so that you can watch the day and night build and unfold,” he says, looking out of the TV booth onto the field — an open-air view from the 50-yard line.
Only there is not much settling in. He starts by setting out his charts and getting the feel of his place at a long table in the booth, where the regular trio will be joined by Jonathan Ogden, who was recently inducted in pro football’s Hall of Fame.
It will be a bit of a squeeze because Ogden, Sandusky says with respect (if not awe), is “huuuuge.”
The white adhesive tape along the table marks their places: “Stan,” “Q,” “Gerry” and “Mr. Hall of Fame.”
But after just a few minutes, it’s down the corridor two doors to WBAL’s radio booth to discuss logistics with the five WBAL staffers. After that, he heads down two stadium levels to the truck to talk to Don Dirado, the Rave-TV producer.
Sandusky, a Towson University graduate who started at WBAL in 1988, says it took him a year of working simulcasts to figure out the “trick” of doing them.
“On simulcast, during the play, I do radio,” he says. “After the play, I do TV. I know that creates too much talking during the play for TV, but I have to let people who are driving in their cars know the ball is on the near side of the field on the 20-yard line. On TV, they can see that for themselves.”
He says it also took time for him to understand that a three-person booth works better when the two analysts are seated side by side rather than on opposite sides of the play-by-play announcer, which is the usual model. Sitting side by side, White and Ismail use nonverbal cues so they don’t talk over each other.
“My job: I’m the card dealer knowing when to deal to each of those guys,” he says.
“Stan is the most knowledgeable football guy I’ve been around. He knows levels and nuances of football that amaze me every week,” Sandusky explains. “And Q knows the modern football player’s psychological makeup. Man, does he know that. He knows what guys are thinking. He’s lived in that helmet.”
“So if we’re talking about X’s and O’s or a defensive situation,” I have to go to Stan,” he says of the 63-year-old lawyer and former Baltimore Colts linebacker.” “Or, if we’re in a situation where psychology is at play or it involves receivers, I have to go to Q.”
Both are strong personalities who still respond to the game with the intensity of NFL athletes.
As Sandusky stands at that mirror just minutes before kickoff Thursday night, White is standing at the front of the TV booth, facing the field, punching the air with his fist like a conductor in time to the marching band at the 50-yard line.
The 42-year-old Ismail, meanwhile, is rocking from heel to toe at a sprinter’s pace while emitting a series of ear-splitting whistles — sounds that pierce the game-time stadium din flooding into the booth through its open front.
“The first time I heard Q do that whistle next to me, I almost fell out of the booth,” Sandusky says. “But Q knows what he’s doing. He explained that it’s like a metronome for him that says, ‘It’s almost game time — it’s time to ratchet it up, ratchet it up, ratchet it up. Come on, man, game time. Let’s go.’”
That’s what viewers and listeners didn’t see and hear seconds before the lights came up in the WBAL booth at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Let the record show that the live simulcast began right on time — with Sandusky looking pretty good for a guy who did his TV makeup in such a hurry.
“Welcome to M&T Bank Stadium,” he says, smiling into the camera. “It’s a perfect night for football …”
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What: In the WBAL broadcast booth and Rave-TV control room truck for a Ravens game
Where: M&T Bank Stadium
You would never guess that: WBAL analyst Qadry Ismail occasionally lets fly with an ear-splitting whistle in the booth.
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