Utah sportscasters’ voices have been largely silenced by COVID-19, but they’re still keeping busy

(Kim Raff | Tribune file photo) Jazz play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack at the Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah on April 21, 2012.

Utah Jazz radio voice David Locke had a feeling things were about to change, as he began his final broadcast alongside color commentator Ron Boone.

“We opened the broadcast normally, and then we paused, and Ron and I said, ‘This is a strange evening, because this is very clearly the last time we’ll be calling a game with fans in the crowd, until’ — well, we weren’t sure."

That night in Oklahoma City as the Jazz prepared to take on the Thunder was the first domino to fall in major American professional sports. After Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus, not only was that game suspended, but so too was the rest of the schedule in the NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, along with collegiate athletics and essentially every other sport under the sun.

For the broadcasters who bring the sports to fans watching and listening locally, the suspensions were a jolt to the system. They’re typically very used to a set schedule, determined months in advance, of where they’ll spend nights and weekends. Now, that’s all gone.

ESPN 700′s Bill Riley, who calls University of Utah football, basketball, and baseball games, as well as Real Salt Lake matches, says that this is the first time in about 15 years that he won’t call any sport for over a month — there’s nearly always some sport going on that he can do play-by-play for. March and April, with Utah basketball, baseball, and RSL, are typically Riley’s peak season.

Riley still has his daily radio show, which he records out of his house rather than Broadway Media’s downtown studios in Salt Lake City. While some sports outlets cut back on coverage, Riley plans to keep his show, along with Spencer Checketts’ ESPN 700 show in the afternoon, going for as long as they can.

“We’re having to get a little bit more creative, and we’re trying to find good guests that are good storytellers — because there’s not a lot of X’s and O’s stuff going on right now,” Riley said. “We’re going to earn our checks now.”

The Jazz’s TV crew, including play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack and sideline reporter Kristen Kenney, have been focused on the Jazz Rewind series, in which the team’s regional sports network, AT&T SportsNet, broadcasts games from the previous three seasons in normal Jazz time slots. The pair have been working on content to promote the games and bolster the old broadcasts, they say. Color commentator Matt Harpring, who lives most of the year in Atlanta, even when the season is in full swing, joins occasionally.

Bolerjack says the crew plans to work with Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell for an upcoming part of the series.

“It allows me to interact with, you know, Booner [Boone], Locke, Big T [Thurl Bailey], Kristen and others. It’s fun to be able to kind of relive some games that we called in the past and also just talk about what’s happening,” Bolerjack said. “And I think it’s good therapy for all of us, to be honest. I’ve enjoyed it. Something I’ve needed, plain and simple, honestly.”

That work allows them to stay fresh — game-ready, as a player might say. Locke says he’s using some of his time to improve at his craft.

“I’ve tried to figure out what can I do to become a better broadcaster, so I’ve actually been playing around [with] vocabulary and quizzing myself on, for example. various words for movement,” he said. “So, you know, dispatches, advances, swings, whips, delivers, shovels, distributes, drops, transports, transfers, skips." His list is 100 words long, and he wants to vary his delivery more when games return.

But the truth is that without the travel, practices, or the games themselves, there’s just less to do than normal, even with the extra content or self-improvement work. Bolerjack said he spent the first week or so like he was “back in college studying for an exam,” trying to learn as much as he could about the coronavirus and COVID-19. He’s also spending time with family locally, while Kenney said she’s played Pictionary with distant family members using teleconferencing tools.

Locke is still releasing his podcast, trying to keep the conversation as Jazz-themed as possible. His children usually golf and ski, but can’t with courses and lifts closed right now, so he’s inventing new ways to keep them engaged in their hobbies. And when he’s not able to keep himself busy, it’s tough. “I’m going nuts. I like getting things done. I like doing stuff," he said. "I just was not figuring out what that productivity was in this setting.”

He’s made an effort to call at least three people — one friend, one member of the team’s traveling cohort, and one other co-worker — every day.

Riley says he watches two or three classic games on YouTube a day — sometimes local Jazz or Utah classics, sometimes from his Kansas roots, and sometimes from the world of sports overall. “It’s interesting to see how production values have changed in television over the last 20 years,” he laughed.

But every broadcaster interviewed agrees that they miss the work dearly.

“You look back at how much you took for granted. Showing up to a sporting event like that doesn’t even happen now. Watching sports, that doesn’t even happen. Talking about sports, there’s nothing to talk about because there’s no sports,” Kenney said. “I miss my interaction with our Jazz family. I just, I really miss everybody. I miss creating content, storytelling. Just, sports in general. Talking about sports.”

Bolerjack agreed.

“It’s just that it ended so abruptly. It just makes me realize again that I love what I do.”