The Islanders have been searching for the perfect radio signal for years. (Last year they had no radio signal, grabbing the MSG Network feed.) Now they have one again–and it originates only a mile down the road from the Nassau Coliseum at Hofstra University–WRHU 88.7 FM.
In a deal announced the day before the season opener, the Islanders agreed to broadcast on the Hofstra radio station. In return, Hofstra students will have an unparalleled working arrangement with the team.
“I think it’s landmark,” says Justin Johnson, the Islanders executive who was integral in orchestrating the pact. “Ultimately, what we were looking for was something very non-traditional.”
Although delighted with the groundbreaking agreement, he admits cost-cutting did play a factor in the process.
“I would be lying to you if I didn’t say we were looking at maximizing the opportunity across the board.” (The students are not paid by the Islanders.)
However, Johnson adds, the difference between what the Islanders paid for radio coverage on WMJC last season and Hofstra this season is “not off the charts.”
Reaction from the Islanders broadcast team after the jump
More than a dozen students have been chosen to participate, with the majority helping out at Hofstra’s studios in Hempstead. Those broadcasting hopefuls have their hands in everything from the live engineering to scoreboard updates.
Three other students, Juniors Anthony Barra, Tom Verde and Senior Mitch Merman, get their experience level taken up a notch.
They are directly involved at the game site (home and away) for the entire season. The trio will rotate throughout the season as color analyst alongside veteran Islanders radio announcer Chris King. (King, without jacket, preps for game with Verde.)
“I enjoy it. You can ask anyone that’s ever worked with me my whole career, either Islanders or [Long Island] Ducks, I’ve always had students up in the booth,” King says.
Barra, who turns 20 in November, tells FishbowlNY that this is a chance of a lifetime.
“We all want to be able to call professional sports teams. To get an opportunity to do it in college, and then have this on our resume…it’s absolutely unreal.”
While the students are getting some serious on the job training, critics of the broadcasting marriage say it drops the Islanders to a lower-level organization.
Johnson, though, is quick to dismiss those rampant remarks.
“Go to 88.7 WRHU when we have a game and you tell me. You be the judge,” Johnson says. “Every time we turn on the radio broadcast… we are beyond proud of this relationship. We are beyond proud of the team they’ve assembled over there, and the product stands for itself.”
Acclaimed sportscaster Ed Ingles, now the professional-in-residence at the university, is in charge of assembling the team at Hofstra. Ingles holds workshops at WRHU to get the students prepared for the various roles of the live broadcast. He has also recruited former Islanders play-by-play announcer Barry Landers to help teach. Hofstra doesn’t have a NCAA Division I hockey program.
“We had to get practice, we had to get experience calling hockey,” Barra (on the right) admits. “We all had to brush up on Islanders knowledge…and NHL knowledge as well.”
Once additional students are chosen by Ingles and his staff, the recommendations are given to the Islanders brain trust for a final decision.
King says in the coming weeks Ingles will have several other students ready to join Barra, Merman, and Verde in the main on-air rotation.
“It’s actually been fun,” says King. “You see that youthful energy and the enthusiasm…it’s all new to them.”
Well, even though King has been with the Islanders broadcasts for 17 years, it’s all new to him as well. Sliding over from the color commentary chair, King marks his first season as full-time play-by-play man.
“I think the students are thrilled that they get to be on an Islander broadcast,” King admits. “I’m just as thrilled as they are because I finally get to do something that I really love to do and that I haven’t done yet.”
King is not only taking the play-by-play plunge, he is the producer. Of course, with so many rookie announcers, King has another “unofficial” role this season.
“I’ve sat them down before we began and gave them my philosophy of what makes a good broadcast,” King says. “I can kind of guide them as to what I think makes a successful color analyst, and give them pointers along the way.”
King also sits with the students after each game to review what they did well and where they need to make improvements.
Barra, who has radio play-by-play aspirations, is excited to see his school’s station get on the map.
“We’re finally getting recognized now as a radio station for all the work that we’ve been doing all these years. …We have a lot of talented broadcasters at ‘RHU, finally will get some recognition.”
Johnson envisions the Islanders extending their work with Hofstra beyond the School of Communication.
“I think we looked at all sides of it. …Ultimately, [we] got a chance to evaluate whether or not indeed they could represent a professional franchise,” Johnson sums up his decision. “The more we heard of them, the more it was a no brainer….We took a chance on doing something very, very different. Hopefully, the fruits of our labor will show down the line.”