Radio isn’t a visual medium — but it can still paint a picture.
Joe Putnam spent his youth playing Little League but by middle school he had realized that he served the game of baseball better as a voice rather than another warm body taking up space on the field.
The Bellefonte native joined the State College Spikes in 2008 as the team’s media relations manager and play-by-play radio broadcaster just two years after the ballplayers made their Centre County debut. For fans listening at home, Putnam gives color and shape to the game unfolding on the field, working the action — and the pauses — to bring each inning to life on the airwaves.
Recently, Putnam discussed the ins and outs of broadcasting baseball.
Q: What did having access to baseball at the local level mean to you?
A: It meant a lot, because it allows for that gradual understanding of the game. As the level of the game rises, what is basically a simple game gets more and more intricate, and being able to communicate those intricacies to the listener is a big help when presenting the picture of a game.
Q: How did it inform your choice of career?
A: I realized I wanted to become a sports broadcaster in middle school, but it wasn’t until I was about to go to college at Syracuse University that it started to become a reality. Going to baseball games and being part of tournaments was always a part of the summer for me, so it certainly taught me that.
Q: It’s one thing to talk about sports casually with friends, but it’s another to do it on the radio. What are some of the challenges and pressures of having to maintain an intelligent and naturalistic conversation while being listened to by thousands of people? Do you ever worry about dead air?
A: It is hard at first, because you never know who is listening on the other end and having a conversation without seeing or hearing the person on the other side can be challenging. However, that’s something that you learn and become more experienced at doing.
I’m never worried about dead air on radio, since there is always something to talk about, especially the score and inning (since radio listeners can’t see the scoreboard). But even saying that, I’ve found it’s a good idea every once in a while to “let the game breathe,” and maybe pause a few seconds to let fans get a feel for the atmosphere of the ballpark. That’s something to which the more relaxed pace of baseball (compared with other sports) lends itself to more easily.
Q: Has the work you’ve done in professional sports changed or enhanced your perspective as a fan?
A: It certainly has changed my perspective, since I’ve been “behind the curtain” so often now. When I go to a baseball game now, or any other sporting event, I’ll often look for those “behind the curtain” things rather than the game or the show itself. However, that doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the games. In fact, I think I’m more enthusiastic than ever about being part of them.
Q: You cut your teeth as a student at Syracuse University, hosting radio shows on lacrosse, football and basketball. Do you have to adapt your style or approach to each sport?
A: There are certainly differences in play-by-play among the sports, since each game moves at its own pace. Lacrosse and basketball are very fast-moving sports that require you to be on top of the play, while football is more of a game punctuated by moments of action. Baseball is by far the most relaxed of the major sports, with the time between pitches creating a sort of music between the notes that you get in tune with during the course of the game.
In a studio show format, there are still differences, but not as great between the sports. There are certain terms and lingo that are part of the conversation in one sport and not another, but the format itself remains the same.
Q: You work alongside Steve Jones to call games on the Spikes Radio Network. How important is to have chemistry or an easy back and forth with whoever you’re sharing the microphone with?
A: I believe it’s very important to have that chemistry. What Steve and I try to do, I think, is not only inform the listeners but entertain them as well. The chemistry we have developed through our eight seasons together has been a big asset to do that.
Q: Is that something that comes naturally or develops over time?
A: Since day one, Steve has been one of the most accommodating broadcast partners you could ask for, and so I think our chemistry came naturally and has only strengthened over the years. We’re also both students of the game and its history, so being on the same wavelength allows us to.
Q: You’re also the editor of the Spikes Illustrated game day program and the team website. How do those functions complement your radio duties?
A: While the program, website and media relations functions of my job are also time-consuming, they are greatly rewarding as well. Part of being a professional on the air is being eminently prepared, and these other duties keep me extremely well-informed on what’s happening not only on the field, but around the ballpark as well.
Q: Aside from getting to spend your evenings watching baseball games, what is your favorite part of your job?
A: I really do enjoy the travel of the job and getting to go to different areas in the Northeast. I’ve been to 15 different towns in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland over my eight seasons, and each place has its own character. Getting to experience that each summer is a really cool facet of the job, and I’m excited to embark on more trips this year.