Q&A with Sports Broadcaster Craig Elsten
One of the most versatile and accomplished sports broadcasters in San Diego, Craig Elsten is also a Triton. A 1995 communications major at Marshall College, Elsten is a 15-year veteran in the San Diego market as a play-by-play announcer, studio host and print journalist, covering the NFL, MLB and local universities. He is currently the voice of UCSD Men's Basketball on ESPN 1700 AM and has covered everything from baseball to water polo online at ucsdtritons.com. In February of 2013, Elsten will reach his four-year anniversary as host of UCSD's online radio show Triton Talk which features weekly interviews and updates with Triton coaches and student-athletes. A native of Long Beach, CA, he and his wife, Mitzi, live in La Mesa and have an 18-month-old son, James. Elsten recently took time to talk about his career, his observations regarding UCSD over the years and provide some advice for aspiring broadscasters.
Q-What's the most interesting aspect of calling the UC San Diego Men's Basketball games on ESPN 1700 AM?
ELSTEN-I enjoy the competition. Our guys are perpetually giving up the edge in height, size and athleticism when they play in the CCAA. Despite this, Coach Carlson's Tritons play with great intensity and always seem to be right in the game, even when they come up short.
Q-When you were a student at UCSD did you have a notion that you would someday be calling collegiate and professional sporting events in your professional future? If not, when did you start thinking this would be the direction you'd want to take with your career?
ELSTEN-I grew up in Long Beach as a sports fan and enjoying the radio work of three Hall of Fame broadcasters: Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Bob Miller. By the time I was a junior in high school I thought I would like to do play-by-play. One of the reasons I came to UCSD (along with all the reasons everyone else goes here) was because the student radio station KSDT gave me the opportunity to start calling games right away. By the time I was a freshman on campus in 1990-91 I was already calling men's basketball games with Tom Marshall as head coach, Darvin Jackson at point guard and Tim Rapp averaging 22 points a game at shooting guard. Our men's team made the D-III tournament twice while I was calling games as an undergraduate.
Q-As someone who has a unique perspective, what are some of the most significant changes you've seen with UC San Diego Athletics as well as the campus in general since you were on campus?
ELSTEN-RIMAC was being built when I was graduating from UCSD. The physical improvements I think helped better integrate the sports and student experience on campus. Moving to Division II was also an important step. The biggest changes I've seen in UCSD Athletics have come from within. The athletic department is much more serious and proactive now than when I was a student. It would be great if the student body got more engaged in the teams on campus.
Q-As a prominent member of the San Diego media, how would you describe UCSD's current and future place in the local sports market?
ELSTEN-Fighting for space and attention along with everything else that's not the San Diego Chargers. Ratings competition and the consolidation of print media have led to a sports market that is probably 80% Chargers coverage, 15% Padres and 5% everything else. Even a highly successful and popular team like SDSU basketball had to fight for years to finally gain a foothold in terms of coverage.
I also work for the Sockers, who have won 46 games and three championships in a row, and used to get the type of coverage in the newspaper that the Lakers get in L.A. Now they're lucky if they get two lines in the paper two days after a game. The UCSD programs, if/when they move to the Division I level, will be in a much more favorable position but will still be part of a battle to gain media attention. Luckily online coverage is robust and allows for those who are interested in something other than what a program director or station manager dictates to find what they want.
Q-Sports broadcasting is a very competitive business. What advice would you give aspiring announcers as they're starting out?
ELSTEN-If you want to do play-by-play, you need to do play-by-play. That may sound trite but there's no substitution for getting actual "reps" doing a game. A piece of advice that I was given very early on in my career I've used throughout: no matter what I was doing to earn money, I tried to keep at least one small job that let me do play-by-play somewhere for someone. It's really easy to get knocked off your career path and shunted into doing something else.
Whether it was for some independent video company doing a Little League game on a mud field, or high school sports, or whatever, I always managed to keep at least a little nugget of play-by-play in my portfolio at all times.
A second piece of advice is you have to be versatile and flexible. Every sport is different and requires a different set of tools for play-by-play. You may go into the pursuit of a career saying, "I'm a baseball guy" or basketball, or any particular sport. Don't limit yourself, because then you're greatly limiting your opportunities to find work. Know all the sports and be willing to cover/announce anything, no matter how humbling it might seem.
Q-What are one or two facets of the profession that listeners/viewers would find most surprising?
ELSTEN-I think one thing people would be surprised by is how unglamorous and often unsettling it can be to go inside a professional locker room. You're in someone else's workspace and personal space as an intruder. There are all sorts of things you don't particularly want to see, or sometimes smell. After a football game it's hot, steamy, and 30-40 people are wedging their way between 53 large naked men, trying to get them to say something reasonably profound while they're talking to you in shower shoes and a white towel. Before a baseball game, millionaire players are doing their best to not talk to you, while they get ready for a night at the office. It's your job to be casual and cordial but also get what you need. Some people love to cozy up to athletes and just hang out in a locker room, but I've never been like that. I'd rather get in and get out.
Q-Is it difficult jumping back and forth, as you do regularly, from play-by-play to studio host to journalist?
ELSTEN-I think of it as many facets of the same jewel, so to speak. The principles of journalism and storytelling cross over from one outlet to another. I think being good at play-by-play means you're used to spontaneous presentation, so doing a studio show shouldn't be too much of a stretch. Covering events is exciting and being a good writer is the foundation for all the work I do. I take each job as they come and enjoy each for what they offer.
Q-Over the many years you've been involved with both men's and women's basketball, who are some of the players you've most enjoyed watching? Why?
ELSTEN-A lot of the guys who played while I attended UCSD stick in my memory. I mentioned a couple earlier. Tim Rapp was the first "star" player I ever covered or announced, he was a 22-point per game scorer, outside shooter who went on to play professionally in Australia after he graduated. Darvin Jackson was the point guard while I was here and was a very steady-handed player who could rise to the occasion late in the game. Many years later another point guard, Kelvin Kim, reminded me of Darvin. Both of those guys helped lead their teams into the tournament and those are the memorable years, of course.
On the women's side, I have to say Chelsea Carlisle, so successful, a daring player on the court who could drive to the hole or shoot from way outside. Also, Annette Ilg, a whirling dervish of energy who was always borderline out of control but held that edge.
Q-For several years, you've also served as host of UCSD's weekly online radio show, Triton Talk. As the interviewer, what makes for a good guest?
ELSTEN-Subject matter, and a willingness to open up and be conversational. A good interview is going to be compelling to the listener either because the subject or person is interesting to them, or because they are being drawn into the conversation in a natural manner. I try and make our interviews conversational and then see where the stories take us.
Q-Who are a few of your favorite coach and athlete interviews over that run? Why?
ELSTEN-I've always enjoyed my conversations with the head coaches on campus, each has brought a different insight into the Cove Studio. I really couldn't single one out amongst the current staff because they truly all are quality people and interesting to talk to about their teams and sports. On the student-athlete side, I'm proud to have met Vance Albitz and covered his career, he's one the great human beings and young student-athletes I've ever met. There were dozens of others but he's one that stands out (hard to say for a 5'6" guy but it's true).
Q-What would you consider the highlight of your career to date?
ELSTEN-Another difficult question because many moments stand out. I've been with the Sockers since they restarted their franchise in 2009 and helping build up what they have done from a broadcast standpoint really from the ground up is something I'm very proud of. That's not really a singular highlight though, more of a long successful run.
In baseball, calling MLB spring training games for MLB.com, and covering the 2001 Padres as the pre/postgame host for KOGO, interviewing Rickey Henderson after his amazing homer to break the all-time runs scored record (he slid into home plate). Also from that same season, helping anchor our coverage of Tony Gwynn's final game, a truly memorable night in San Diego sports history. In college baseball, definitely covering Stephen Strasburg's junior year at SDSU and calling all but one of his starts that year. Nobody was more dominant.
In UCSD sports, going to Compton and calling the game that sent the Tritons to the College World Series a second time. I've done a little PA work in the last few years, and getting the chance to work on five Poinsettia Bowls, two Holiday Bowls and the Battle on the Midway are all memorable moments. But I really like to think the best highlights are still to come.
Q-If you could announce/cover any sporting event in the world, what would it be?
ELSTEN-I'm really thinking about this one and it's a tough choice. From a "cover an event" standpoint, I'd think it would be a Summer Olympics. So many stories to follow...the travel, the multiple sports...if I was working an Olympiad that would be incredible. From an announcing standpoint, I'll be self-indulgent and say an NBA Finals. I love calling basketball and indoor soccer the most from a purely technical standpoint, and the NBA is the highest level of basketball in the world, the NBA Finals the highest level of competition. It's hard to limit yourself in these open-ended questions! My most honest and complete answer, though, would be to be calling "my team" in their championship game or series. I prefer being a team's/school's announcer as opposed to the swoop-in neutral network guy.
Q-Who do you consider the premier play-by-play announcer in the profession today? Is there anyone you've tried to tailor your style after?
ELSTEN-If there's one event to call in the world on TV, regardless of sport, you could give the job to Al Michaels and you're going to get a top-notch broadcast. The play-by-play announcer that blows me away with his ability time and time again is Mike Emrick, the national NHL announcer. He's overlooked because his sport is less popular but I bet he could do all the other sports too. Kevin Harlan is the most ridiculous combination of detail and energy working in the country. And of my three broadcast idols, two are still working and producing HOF-level material, Vin Scully and Bob Miller.
I'm a voracious consumer of play-by-play as well as a creator, and I'm not above taking note of what others are doing and trying to incorporate certain technical elements. Harlan is an example of that. He wedges more detail into a line of play-by-play than anyone else in the business, and that challenges me to think about painting a more vivid mental picture with my words. But unquestionably I've always patterned myself the most after Chick Hearn. I'll even still use a couple of his pet phrases from basketball PBP and consider it a tribute to him when I do. More than just the words, it was his high-energy style and willingness to be an objective observer and critic of the game he was watching. Chick was always doing the broadcast for the FANS and not necessarily the owner or the team and he was always willing to call it as it stood, praise the opponent if they were doing well or criticize the Lakers for their poor play.
Q-What's the most embarrassing thing you've done or said on the air?
ELSTEN-Again, there are unfortunately many choices I could make here. Almost all of them involve a microphone that was supposed to be dead but was live. Once we were on the air on KOGO from a Padres game and interrupted a pregame or postgame show, I forget, to carry a speech from the President. As a news station this is what we had to do. Someone back in the studio was supposed to have potted us down while the speech was playing, but forgot, or inadvertently turned the mics back on. Long story short, I let out a nice belch that helped punctuate one of President Bush's remarks. The Dave Shelly and Chainsaw show ran that clip for some time.
Q-You and your wife, Mitzi, recently had a son, James. What has that experience been like?
ELSTEN-Incredible, transformative, and in that way not at all atypical for any other set of parents out there. James is 18 months old now and every day there are new revelations in language, comprehension, behavior and activity. He's so much fun to be around and you get to see the world again through new eyes.
Q-Technology has set off a whirlwind of changes in the media world over the last decade. What do you think of the direction your profession is headed and what changes would you predict over the next several years?ELSTEN-Everything is moving toward a more personal consumption experience for media. Already we can through social media gather our friends and converse, like the various topics and events that we like and shut out/ignore the rest. I firmly believe that experience will be carried over and integrated into every other platform of media, from TV to radio to mobile devices. Any outdated media platforms that fail to get with the times will be left behind.
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