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Panthers Radio Network broadcasters adjust on the fly, as COVID-19 restrictions force them to call games in new ways.
By Darin Gantt Dec 24, 2020

When he was a kid, Little Mickey Mixon routinely turned his 8-foot putts at Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill into potential Masters winners at Augusta National, broadcasting his triumphs to a listenership of one. During televised games at home, he'd watch along with the action, memorializing his call of the game into his Webcor tape recorder.

As it turns out, those boyhood dreams turned into valuable experience for the Panthers' play-by-play voice, even though the audience is much bigger now.

Mixon and the rest of the Panthers Radio Network crew have been forced to call games in new ways this year, doing road games from home, and home games in a different arrangement because of COVID-19 restrictions.

And while that takes some technological wizardry, a head on a swivel, and one foot on the brake of their own voices sometimes, they make it sound as smooth as, . . . well as if they were there.

It's a different way of doing business, but it's the reality of football during a pandemic, so the show must go on.

"Listen, if we don't do a good job with the broadcast, that's on us," Mixon said last Saturday night, before he called the Panthers' game at Green Bay from a place considerably warmer. "You sort of have to get over yourself not being at the game and put out a product that's still just as good."

That didn't stop him from beginning his broadcast last week with the words (written in longhand in a spiral-bound notebook): "Lambeau Field, 1265 Lombardi Avenue, ... this is Titletown."

Moments later, sideline reporter Kristen Balboni noted that it was "balmy for Green Bay," which was especially true considering she was inside a suite inside Bank of America Stadium wearing a light sweater.

To be clear, this is not an attempt at deception. Multiple references are made in each pregame and game broadcast noting that they're not necessarily in the same place the football team is that day.

For pregame host and color man Jim Szoke, that meant the end of a 25-plus year streak in Week 3, when the crew didn't travel to Los Angeles for the Rams game.

Szoke and executive producer David Langton were among the final three team employees who had seen every game in franchise history in person (leaving equipment manager Don Toner as the last man standing), as that was the first road game broadcast with everyone at home.

"It's weird sometimes," Szoke deadpanned. "But what are you going to do?"



THIS NEW BOOTH IS NICE

In the before times, the radio booth was a small suite to the side of the press box, near the 25-yard line (moving right to left on your radio dial).

It's less than 10 feet wide, with two levels of countertops, with all the technical equipment behind them. It's a tight squeeze. And in case you haven't heard, putting people in small spaces together — while perhaps good for the on-air chemistry — isn't such a good idea at the moment.

So for this night, the crew spreads out at four high-top tables in Suite 445A, which used to be occupied by some guy named David Tepper.

It's a nice pad, broad and spacious, with room for plenty of big screens which come in very handy.

The room also features some of the trappings that signify its previous occupant, including a large carved wooden panther statue and a bedazzled football on a shelf with his name blazing and emblazoned in Panthers blue.

Having everyone together is a new phenomenon because usually the sideline reporter is . . . on the sidelines (more on that later). But for two road games this season (at Tampa and at Atlanta), they left analyst Kurt Coleman at home in Charlotte, with the rest of the crew at the game.

For home games, Mixon and Colemen stay in the old booth, with Szoke in another booth a few strides away. When you hear them, they sound seamless (or that's the goal), but the distance between them makes pulling together complicated at times.

But for last Saturday's game against the Packers, they were all there in their regular spots, and there was an almost festive, normal atmosphere.

Of course, that might have been because there was a festive, normal atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium at the time, with Clemson pounding on Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game through windows in front of them, as they prepared to call the game from the smaller (yet still very large) screens above their seats.

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PLAY-BY-PLAY, A NEW WAY

While none of these jobs are easy, Mixon's challenge is easiest to notice, as the lead play-by-play voice.

When your job is to describe things happening as they're happening, it's tricky when they're not happening in the place you are, or in the same timeline.

The good news is, Mixon has some experience.

He's called games in just about every situation imaginable. He will tell you with pride and detail about his first job: "Graduated from the University of North Carolina on Saturday, May 11, 1980, started at WCGC in Belmont, North Carolina on Monday, May 13, 1980." His first boss, a large gentleman named Ebb Gantt (no relation), told him he could air "two midgets fighting in the McDonalds parking lot, as long as the ads got sold."

So Mixon sold ads all day, and called Pop Warner football games, American Legion baseball games, and church-league softball all night at WCGC, broadcasting to perhaps dozens of Gaston County residents at a time.

As he progressed in his career, Mixon found his way to Charleston in the mid-80s, and once when his phone line in the minor league baseball press box failed, he paid a local kid a few bucks to run him play-by-play from inside the stadium. That way, he could call the game from a phone booth across the street. It was, at the time, his best impression of Teddy the announcer from Bull Durham, minus the stick and the wooden mallet to make bat-on-ball sounds for games he wasn't at.

It was all fine, until someone who needed to make a call in those halcyon pre-cell phone days needed to reach someone, and walked up to Mixon and said in a less-than-welcoming way: "Hey slim, you gonna be in there all day?"

He doesn't have to worry about that now, but he's definitely not doing things conventionally.

The first problem with working off television monitors is that the standard television broadcast shows a more narrow view of the field. Which is fine unless you want to see how deep safeties are, or players split wide.

"Television has been so influenced by NFL Films that everything is a close up," Mixon said.

They also have the "All-22" feed on monitors in the booth, which show a wider view of every player on the field. Mixon will switch between looking at the two views as he calls the game, but it's not that simple.

The "truck feed" from the broadcast he sees on his monitor is several seconds ahead of what anyone sees at home on their televisions, allowing him to see into the future (as far as his listeners know). So as he's describing the action, he stays a few yards behind each play to make sure he's reacting correctly. So when Packers running back Aaron Jones took off on a long run, and Mixon said, "he's at the 35, the 40, the 45," Jones was actually at about the 42, the 47, and the other 48 as he streaked downfield.

"You have to see the play before you can call it," Mixon said before the game. "Sometimes that means hanging back a half-beat. I don't quite trust the TV all the time, so I want to make sure."



ON THE SIDELINES, VIRTUALLY SOMETIMES

For Balboni, the current conditions run counter to her actual job title.

It's hard to be a sideline reporter without being on the, you know, sideline.

Kristen Balboni

Even at home games, she has to be in the "operational zone," which is the first row of seats behind the large advertising tarps covering the first few rows of the stadium. Because those tarps create a separation from the field, they lovingly (maybe) refer to it as "the moat."

But when she's not behind the moat, she relies on someone on the other side of the drawbridge.

During pregame for away games, Panthers videographer/producer Rob Paul wears what's called a "TVU unit," which is effectively a backpack transmitter that beams a signal to Balboni's computer screen. Combined with the camera he's normally carrying, it's about 30 pounds of gear to lug around (which is part of the reason he has such nice calves).

Rob Paul

When Balboni's not in a stadium on the road, she can still see wide receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel fist-bumping or rookie Jeremy Chinn talking to the linebackers in the tunnel.

She can also pick up small clues or bits of color from her eyes on the ground, the kinds of things that are easy to see when she's on the ground.

"Thank God for Rob and the TVU," she said. "That adds so much to the broadcast because he's there and able to see the things I can't from any screen since the network feed doesn't go the places he can go."



COLORING OUTSIDE THE LINES

As someone who's been with the team since day one, Szoke has a pretty good idea of how things go around here.

Even if he can't always see the people he's talking to.

For home games, his booth apart from Mixon and the rest of the crew allows him some more space (and the appropriate social distance), but isn't ideal for the simultaneous talking. While being breezy with Mixon and Coleman is easy for Szoke — who has raised urbane and witty banter to an art form — if he's not in the same room, it's a little harder.

Jim Szoke

"Honestly, the trickiest part might be getting in and out of breaks at home because I don't necessarily know when that's happening, so I might keep going," he said. "It's just harder to be in the same flow when they're three doors down."

At least for the road games, he's in the same big room, but he said the lack of ambient sound that comes from an actual game with actual people makes it harder to set the scene sometimes. They have what they call "effects sound" that the television broadcast provides mixed in, but it's obviously not the same because nothing's the same in 2020.

"It's kind of weird," Szoke admitted. "It's difficult to have the appropriate level of enthusiasm for what you're seeing when you're inside a glass box."

WELCOME TO THE LEAGUE, ROOKIE

At least Szoke knows what he's supposed to do.

This is Kurt Coleman's first year in a booth, so not only does he have to learn that as he's going along, he has to learn it in a whole new way.

Coleman's no media rookie, as he was one of the go-to guys for reporters when he was a player, able to offer not just quotes but perspective. He's also done enough local radio and events (including co-hosting a "Dancing with the Stars of Charlotte" breast cancer fundraiser with WBTV's Molly Grantham) to walk into the role with some experience saying words to people.

So talking about football plays is easy for him, even if the situation isn't.

Kurt Coleman

For the Tampa and Atlanta road games, he was alone in Charlotte with his monitor, meaning for some of his early reps, the former NFL safety was figuratively on an island.

Now that Coleman has some games in, he can settle in behind his All-22 monitor and break down plays for Mixon the same way he watched tape as a player. So Coleman can point out that on Jones' long run, the Panthers had eight men in the box, one player fell out of his gap, and that left plenty of room to run.

"This part is kind of my wheelhouse," Coleman said. "I know the game of football, so talking about what I see, in terms of coverages and formations, that's what I do."

The Xs and Os of the game come easy for Coleman, but fitting into a broadcast with people who have a background together is a little tougher. Knowing when to chime in requires active listening, which is hard enough for regular people in regular life.

"That's sort of what we all aspire to, isn't it?" Coleman said. "It's not just saying what you have to say. It's listening to others, picking up on what they're telling you, and responding. It's the art of conversation, to not just hearing, but listening to what someone has to say."

Sometimes, the rookie also needs a little coaching, and he gets it from a familiar source.

Coleman laughed and recalled a text from his wife during one of his first games, gently telling him he was talking too fast, to settle down and speak more slowly. She might not have said it quite like that.

"Yeah, she texted me," Coleman said. "As a football player, you're used to instant feedback from coaches. So she's been a great resource for me, as someone who hears me on a regular basis.

"For me, getting a feel for the timing of the game, how to get my thoughts in before the next play, and making that mesh with Mick and Jim and Kristen is something we're still working on, but they've been so helpful to me."

And like any team in 2020, it takes some getting used to doing business in a new way. The goal is that when it comes through your speakers, it takes you there with them. Even if neither of you happen to be there.

Photos by Callena Williams

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