“In some ways I feel like a bartender,” Dave Johnson mused before a recent Wizards game. “I used to always wonder how bartenders could remember what somebody’s drink is, what everybody’s story is. Now I’m starting to get it.”
Johnson, the play-by-place voice for Washington’s wackiest sports broadcast, then launched into a play-by-play of a different sort, one about the lives of his regulars. David from Las Vegas was traveling that week, and would be in the upper Midwest. Noah was in Hawaii. Donald Paul Raymond was observing Lent. Stef in Virginia Beach was with her kids, Brandon and Lauren. Jen would be doing a puzzle. Tracy and Michael were over in section 203. Mathew M. had gotten his cousin Chico involved. Dan and Tony were in Austin.
“I can tell you when somebody’s been away, how old they are,” Johnson continued. “If you want to spend the next three hours I can keep going down the list, tell you everybody’s life story.”
Such a claim might be normal for a talk-show host; it’s probably less typical for an NBA play-by-play man. But Johnson’s broadcast has transformed in recent years from a mere description of the action to what he and color analyst Glenn Consor now call the “Radio Party,” a frenetic, interactive bit of madness that sometimes feels more like a family reunion than a basketball game.
Johnson greets individual listeners by name coming in and out of commercial breaks, dozens and dozens of regulars. They send tweets to Johnson before and during games, apologizing if they’re “checking in” late and telling him where they’re tuning in from. Listeners inside the arena grab Johnson’s co-host, Glenn Consor, during his halftime bathroom breaks to talk about what they’ve just witnessed. Johnson and Consor turn in their section 216 perch and wave to farflung sections of Verizon Center, where individual listeners have tweeted their greetings. Listeners mail them cookies and alcohol, coasters and cufflinks. And Johnson recognizes the whole absurd gang, one by one, during his broadcast.
“Johnny, checking in from the UPS truck,” Johnson said during a recent game. “We promise to try to deliver a win.”
“You know where David is tonight: listening from Colby, Kansas,” he said later.
“Fred’s listening in Miami, is heading to Jamaica in the morning,” he said still later.
“Tyrone wants to wish his son a happy 21st birthday,” Consor added.
“Timothy Lawson is back with us, El Capitan,” Johnson said, and on and on it goes. Last spring, an intern counted nearly a thousand Twitter users who tweeted into the “Radio Party” during a playoff game.
“They turned a totally passive activity into something that’s really interactive, and kind of created a community of Wizards fans and listeners,” said Chris Kinard, the sports director for WNEW, which airs Wizards broadcasts. “Everyone wants to hear their name on the radio. It’s a pretty simple concept. That’s been the case since radio started. The audience usually has no role in play-by-play activity other than just listening to it, and now they’re getting shouted out on the radio.”
That’s what led Kinard to tweet to Johnson, getting a kick out of hearing his own name during a game. That’s what makes my daughter listen to Wizards broadcasts, gawking in amazement when family members are mentioned. That’s why Gloria Mamaed, a 48-year old from Reston, wore earbuds to her office holiday party, and again during her family’s Christmas brunch, so she could still be a part of the Radio Party. (“It’s like we’re there. we’re all watching together,” she said.) That’s why Rob Embrey, a 46-year old from McLean, now listens to the vast majority of Wizards broadcasts from his new home in Southern California.
“It’s a weird phenomenon,” said Embrey, who appeared on air with Johnson and Consor during a road game against the Lakers. “It’s a personal touch. It makes you feel more involved, and it’s gotten us involved with each other. We all follow each other on Twitter, we interact with each other. There’s a camaraderie that comes out of it, a family-ness, as corny as that sounds.”
Johnson is careful not to mix the Radio Party with his play-by-play call; he talks to his listeners before the game and during halftime, going to commercial and coming out of timeouts. He keeps Twitter open on his laptop during the game, glancing at it during breaks, replying to some listeners and retweeting others. He reads their comments and advice, and consoles them when things go poorly — “We’ll get through this,” he said, during a recent blowout. “Hang in there gang.” And because of all that, he doesn’t rest for a single second during a broadcast.
“You know, it probably makes you a little bit more exhausted,” Johnson said. “But I think in some ways it energizes me, because again, it really does feel like you’re throwing a party.”
And he feels like it’s working. WNEW’s ratings on weekday nights among adults ages 25-54 have more than doubled since November, although some of that is surely due to the team’s success. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban caught the spirit during a broadcast last spring: “Listening to wizards radio on nba on Sirius,” Cuban tweeted. “Vintage bananas. Hashtag hashtag! Love it.”
“I know by doing this we’re trending younger, we’re getting more women involved,” Johnson said. “I think we break the stereotypes. People are connecting. But we’re having a blast, that’s the bottom line.”
It’s why Johnson now feels like a bartender, sympathizing with fans who are distraught, keeping up with their vacations, tracking teenage listeners as they go off to college, following his regulars in their careers. He said he’s never experienced anything quite like this during his 30-year broadcasting career, and he said the interaction has brought a new energy to his play-by-play.
“I really believe strongly that radio is the most personal of mediums,” he said. “We invade your personal space, whether I’m in your car or I’m in your ear phones. I just think it’s amazing — radio is the oldest of the mediums, yet in some ways it’s the most adaptable.”
So Johnson will keep his Radio Party going, greeting Anna on her way home from a fundraiser, and Stephen on his way to Atlanta, and Ryan in Fargo, and Sammy in the 400-level, and everyone else who checks in.
“Remember,” he told his listeners moments before a recent game began. “United we tweet; divided we wind up on Myspace.”