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Bay Area baseball broadcasters mull just how far to push artificial noise

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 7/17/2020 By Bruce Jenkins
Dave Flemming, Jon Miller, Duane Kuiper are posing for a picture: From left, Giants broadcasters Dave Flemming, Jon Miller, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper in the KNBR booth at China Basin. © Ben Fong-Torres

From left, Giants broadcasters Dave Flemming, Jon Miller, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper in the KNBR booth at China Basin.

When it comes to artificial crowd noise in baseball parks, one thing must be understood with a pandemic-delayed season at hand: You will hear it. Everywhere. Instead of recoiling in disgust over anything that is fake (the 3-Dot’s original stance), try to have some fun with it. These are times in which any brand of levity should be cherished.

Major League Baseball has announced that every ballpark must have piped-in noise, and it has delivered iPads to each team, connectable to the stadium sound system and containing crowd noise from MLB The Show, its official video game. These are actual, customized sounds from the specific stadiums, most essentially the “hum” of a crowd during idle moments, plays calling for a rising crowd noise, or something spectacular, like a home run, a triple or a sensational catch.

Beyond that, there are all sorts of gimmicks built into the iPads, used at the club’s discretion. Teams can incorporate their own sounds, replicating normalcy when in fact there are no fans in the park. The Chronicle revealed Wednesday that the A’s plan to offer the drums, horns, “Let’s Go Oakland” and other sounds familiar to the Coliseum crowd, as well as celebrity voices and other surprises.

The Giants aren’t saying much, preferring a wait-and-see approach because, let’s face it, the answer to every question during this pandemic is the same: “We don’t know.” Just remember the main reason the piped-in noise is mandatory. Think of an angry catcher coming out to visit the mound — “Are you going to throw a f— strike here? Get your s— together!” — and you get the idea. That’s something nobody wants put over the airwaves.

“During the course of a game, if somebody comes up and gets buzzed in the head (by a pitch), you’ll hear some nasty stuff coming out of the dugouts,” said Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow. “That’s gonna happen. And it’s live; we don’t have any kind of delay option for radio or television. We were joking around about making a pregame announcement: ‘Please be aware, this is an R-rated broadcast. There will be profanity. And some nudity.’”

There’s a very delicate balance here. (He was kidding about the nudity.) The sounds of a ballgame are precious, and seldom heard with any kind of crowd in attendance. But the broadcasts cannot offer a silent backdrop. “Whatever the players might say to each other, I’m in favor of a little hum underneath, something that makes listeners feel like it’s a ballgame and I don’t have to talk every second,” said Ken Korach, the A’s play-by-play radio voice. “I think it would be uncomfortable for fans if there was nothing underneath. I just hope it doesn’t sound too contrived, like a relentless bunch of sounds over the P.A.”

Giants executive vice president Mario Alioto, who is supervising the broadcasting end, said, “MLB will offer guidance on noise levels, etc., but the specific way the sound effects are used are up to the team. Much of our Oracle Park sounds and rally chants will be the same. But there will be a steady sound of crowd-noise ambiance.”

“My first instinct,” said Dave Flemming of the Giants’ radio crew, “was, ‘Let’s amp this thing up with the crowd noise.’ But I have to say, after seeing some of the little test sounds MLB has sent out, I’m more in favor of having that hum, the background ballpark sound, and leaving it at that. I heard this rising cheer, like if there’s a big roaring crowd when a ball gets hit, and it didn’t sound right to me. It felt too fake. And the players will definitely have a say, if they’re bothered by it.”

The Krukow-and-Duane Kuiper telecasts will be at the mercy of whatever sound comes over the public-address system, home or away, but a radio engineer can get very creative. The Giants’ Darren Chan, who has worked with Jon Miller and Flemming for four years, is particularly creative.

“Darren has got a bunch of separate channels for recording things without our voices on them,” said Miller. “And he’s come up with tracks that are very specific to the ballparks and the teams. He’s got an actual Giants crowd with the roar of a home run. He’s got Oracle Park when the Dodgers do something big against the Giants — because that’s a sound unlike when any other team plays here. Dodgers fans going nuts, Giants fans a little surly, he’s actually got that, and so much more from all over the country. I can’t even imagine how much time he spends putting that together.”

Chan definitely plans to play it cool at the outset, because “we have no idea what the perfect amount is,” he said. “This is something we never thought we’d have to face. Every fan knows what the deal is. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. We’ll just be figuring it out as it goes, and that’s the fun part of it. Figuring it out together.”

Key question: When it comes to choosing piped-in noise over the stadium sound systems, exactly who makes that call? A Giants spokesman said only that it will be “our ballpark entertainment people, part of our scoreboard/game entertainment operation,” and the A’s response was essentially the same.

Which is hardly surprising. We’re talking about a person, or people, responsible for the emotions of an entire fan base.

“That’s a lot of pressure,” said Kuiper. “I mean, how creative do you let that person be? If they announce, ‘Now batting, Cody Bellinger,’ do you allow the guy to hit the Boo button? And how long does he keep his job (laughs)?

“Tell you what, I don’t even want to know who the guy is,” said Kuiper. “Put a hood over him so we don’t know his identity.”

What we do know is that the Giants play an exhibition game in Oakland on Monday night, pandemic willing, with a second such game at Oracle Park on Tuesday night. Let the grand experiment begin.

Bruce Jenkins is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: bjenkins@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Bruce_Jenkins1

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