Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff Award.
Life on the radio: Hogs' Elson stays on the go
Arkansas play-by-play announcer Phil Elson prepares prior to a game against North Dakota on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Phil Elson is about to embark on one of the busiest times of his year, and that's saying something.
Elson's passion keeps him busy. He serves as the radio play-by-play voice for the Arkansas baseball and women's basketball teams, and is a producer for Game on with Wess Moore, a radio call-in show in Little Rock. During his off-season with the Razorbacks, Elson lends his voice to the football team at Henderson State, a prominent Division-II program in Arkadelphia.
On Thursday Elson will be court-side at Bud Walton Arena as Arkansas' women's basketball team hosts Kentucky. On Friday he will be in the booth for the Razorbacks' baseball season opener against Miami (Ohio) at Baum Stadium and also will sing the national anthem on the field in pregame.
Scott Inman will call baseball games Saturday and Sunday because Elson will be in Knoxville, Tenn., where the women play Sunday afternoon.
Elson is used to the rigorous schedule. During one weekend in November, he drove to Fayetteville from his home in Little Rock for a basketball game on a Friday; then drove about 200 miles to Arkadelphia for the next day's crosstown football rivalry game between Henderson State and Ouachita Baptist known as the Battle of the Ravine; then returned to Fayetteville on Sunday for another women's basketball game.
“I truly go into those games telling myself, ‘You better not call the team you’re covering today the name of the team you covered yesterday,’” Elson said. “That’s where people get mad. When you call the Razorbacks the Reddies, I will get some upset listeners, even if it is just a brain fart and is unintentional.
“Who could blame me if I said ‘Razorbacks’ 400 times yesterday, then said it once on a Saturday?”
As the voice of some teams with lower profiles, Elson is a bit of a throwback to the golden days when radio men were among a program's most important assets. The SEC Network's digital network shows almost every Arkansas game in every sport and even small colleges have started to simulcast games online with sites like YouTube, but there still is a greater reliance on radio.
“A lot of our alums at Henderson didn’t come to our games, so a radio guy was really important for us,” said Kale Gober, the former athletics director at Henderson State. “I was willing to pay for it and asked (station manager at Little Rock sports radio station 103.7 The Buzz) Justin Acri, ‘Who is the best out there?’ He said, ‘Phil Elson, but you won’t be able to get him.’
“I called Phil and the first time I ever talked to him on the phone, I offered him the job. Really it was just off that recommendation from Justin, whose judgement I trusted. He proved to be even better than Justin had said. He’s got that rich, deep, God-given voice that you can’t teach. On top of that, the thing Phil does that makes him so good is he immerses himself.
“He would come down to Arkadelphia several times during the week and spend time with our coaching staff and spend time with our players, sit in on meetings so that he could talk about what they had practiced.”
Elson began his broadcasting career in his hometown of Pittsburgh after he dropped out of Indiana University. He thought he would play baseball for the Hoosiers but said he didn't take it seriously enough. He transferred to Point Park College in Pittsburgh, but eventually quit college and entered the workforce.
He finished his degree coursework in December with a three-hour English course at Henderson State. Some paperwork is all that stands between Elson and the bachelor’s degree he began working on in 1994.
“I was literally that close to getting my degree all those years,” Elson said.
“I wasn’t going to be a Major League Baseball player and I probably wasn’t going to be a Minor League Baseball player, but I still feel like I have a legitimate shot at being a Major League Baseball play-by-play guy or a Division-I all sports broadcaster. I got an early start on that because I wasn’t playing college baseball.”
His broadcasting career took him to seven states in seven years, culminating in a job calling the Arkansas Travelers’ minor league baseball games in North Little Rock beginning in 2001. He was the Travelers’ first radio man to go on the road with the team. He also wrote press releases and did other odd jobs for the team.
It was while in central Arkansas that Elson began to branch out and tried his voice at other sports, usually at the recommendation of someone else.
He was offered a job calling women’s basketball games at Arkansas-Little Rock and the Henderson football games without ever sending in a demo reel, or ever calling a game in either sport beforehand.
“I’ve been lucky in my career that I’ve been offered jobs without producing a demo to give anybody,” Elson said. “I got my first minor league baseball job without the rookie team in Utah ever hearing me do a game; I’d never done a full broadcast before they hired me.”
Elson doesn't hide that baseball is his passion. He jumped at the opportunity to call the Diamond Hogs' games when longtime broadcaster Chuck Barrett gave up those duties following the 2014 season.
“At that point I was looking for a change,” Elson said. “Some things had happened in my life and some things had happened with the Travelers where it seemed like if a change were going to be made, that was the time.
“I think broadcasters, overall, are just looking for a passionate and large audience. Money has nothing to do with it, enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have much to do with it. I know there are exponentially more people listening on a Razorback baseball broadcast than there were on a Travelers broadcast. Whether or not that actually means anything, I think to the psyche of the broadcaster who’s doing the game, it does mean something.
"You will find that same passion and intensity around this state that you’ll find in a hardcore Major League Baseball fanbase.”
Elson was a shoe-in for the position. Not only had he served as a fill-in when Barrett's own basketball and baseball schedules overlapped, but he was the next-best baseball man in Arkansas.
There was a learning curve, however, transitioning from the Texas League to the SEC.
“Chuck gave me some great advice: This is a Razorback broadcast, this is not a baseball broadcast,” Elson said. “There’s a subtle difference there. I had done a baseball broadcast when I was with the Travelers, so that was difficult for me.
"I am not a homer, have never been a homer, but you will know for which team I am calling a game. It’s a Razorback broadcast first and foremost. There are people who are listening who are not necessarily baseball fans, but they are Razorback baseball fans. I do think there are a lot of fans who come from that perspective."
Barrett put in a strong endorsement for Elson. So did Gober, who by that time was working in Arkansas’ athletics department.
“I told the guy who was hiring that position, ‘I’m not sure what you’re looking for and radio is not my world, but I want to put in a word that he’s a wonderful person,’” said Gober, who now is in administration at the University of Central Arkansas.
Elson has established himself as the Razorbacks’ baseball voice, a feat given Barrett was the team’s first radio play-by-play man and held the position for 23 seasons. Elson overcame a brief and abrupt departure from the booth during the Razorbacks’ 2015 run to the College World Series for what was described by his employer, IMG College Sports, as a personnel issue.
Elson declined to comment on the matter, still unsure of whether he was allowed.
It was late that regular season that he considers his favorite time with the Razorbacks so far, when Arkansas beat No. 1 Texas A&M on the road twice in the same day to win a series. It validated his decision to move away from the minor leagues and illustrated what he loves most about college sports, no matter the college campus on which he finds himself.
“What’s tantamount in Major League Baseball? Winning,” Elson said. “That’s all that matters. In the minor leagues, that’s probably fourth on the list. It’s all about developing talent, so while winning may matter to a few people, in the grand scheme it doesn’t really matter at all.
“College sports are about winning. I remember seeing everyone celebrate that Texas A&M win and how much it meant to them. The emotion behind that, that’s when it really hit me: when you’re around a winning college team, it can be a lot of fun.”
Win or lose, Elson considers this his favorite time of year.
“I still get nervous before going on the air, especially on opening day," Elson said. "I put pressure on myself to make sure it’s a good broadcast and I hope that comes through.”
A version of this story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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