Each week during the football season, we will interview a different broadcaster. The goal is for readers to gain insight into how NFL and college football broadcasters approach what they do, along with some questions tied to the game they are assigned that week. Our third Q&A subject is CBS NFL broadcaster Kevin Harlan, who will call (alongside partner Trent Green) the Denver Broncos at Miami Dolphins game this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Previous weeks have featured Fox’s Greg Olsen and Amazon’s Al Michaels.
What is the toughest position on the field for you to see in your broadcast position while calling the NFL?
Probably the near sidelines, in front of the bench. The corners aren’t that tough. I’ve got binoculars with me for the entire broadcast. Our radio positions are very difficult, but even our TV positions don’t give us the definitive view on the near sideline, literally right below us. Because there’s so much congestion with the coaches and the players, and usually a convergence of offensive and defensive players on the sidelines, that’s a very difficult call to make. A lot of times I’ve got to be patient with who made the tackle. I don’t have a tough time with the corners. They’re usually pretty vacant, and the photographers and camera people are usually away enough that there’s room to decipher what’s happened fairly quickly and definitively. But right below us where there’s all that congestion on the sideline is very difficult.
You have been calling NFL games at a national level for some time. What is something concrete that would explain your growth as an NFL broadcaster from your first game in an NFL booth to today?
Probably making the transition from being a local announcer with the Kansas City Chiefs on radio for nine years to the national level. I had mixed both a little bit when I was doing ESPN college football. I would do their noon game for a couple of years on Saturday, and then I would do the Chiefs on Sunday. When the Timberwolves became an NBA franchise and I was offered that job — I was 28 at the time — I called two people to see if that was a job that I should take. I called Bob Costas, and I called Marv Albert. Both enthusiastically said you’ve got to take it because it means television. So I took that job on their advice, and it turned out to be tremendous advice because of what has happened subsequently. But at the time, I loved my radio job so much. I was doing the University of Missouri, and I was doing the Chiefs. That’s kind of what I dreamt up as a little kid.
So I took the Timberwolves job, and that led to the NBA calling, and then that led to eventually joining Fox in 1994. Marv suggested me for the job, which was incredibly flattering. That’s how I got the Fox job, along with Steve Sabol putting in a word for me at Fox. Steve had heard all my calls with the Chiefs on NFL Films. Things just kind of took off after that, and I was incredibly fortunate that I got some great backing from some well-known people in the business. Along the way, I had to navigate changing from local or regional radio network NFL announcer to more of a national thing. That took some time and took a lot of studying of people I admired when I was a younger broadcaster.
From Minnesota to the main stage: Kevin Harlan’s path to Marv Albert’s chair at the conference finals
What is the first NFL media-related thing you read each morning?
Well, on Monday morning, I read (NBC Sports’) Peter King and I read (Sports Illustrated’s) Albert Breer right off the bat because those two guys kind of give the umbrella view of the NFL. I trust both of those writers implicitly because of their history, the reputations they have, the thoroughness they use in getting all the details that make those columns so compelling. That kind of gets me into it. Then I’m on-site Monday morning (for the Westwood One Sports call of “Monday Night Football”), so I brush up on the local stories by the local beat writers for the two teams I’ve got on Monday. Last week, I spent a lot of time going through Cleveland Browns stories by Mary Kay Cabot and all the other great Browns writers, and the same in Pittsburgh and all the writers that cover the Steelers.
How does the speed of the Dolphins’ offense impact your broadcast?
I love it because it has kind of an NBA feel to it. In the NBA, because it is back and forth, you kind of get a rhythm, and I’m more of a rhythm broadcaster. That just sounds good to me in my head. I like it because it’s a quick snap, a quick read, a quick release, the guy catching it in stride and he’s off to the races. I just think those are thrilling plays. They have two of the most exciting players in the league at the receiving position. The way that Miami is constructed, it has just a good tempo to it, and I like that kind of offense.
I’m not sure how many people in the general sports public know you have called 13 consecutive Super Bowls as the lead audio voice of the game.
This coming Super Bowl in Las Vegas will be the 14th straight Super Bowl that I’ll call. It’s the most consecutive in a row. Jack Buck called 17 overall, including eight in a row. I don’t know if any of this means anything to anybody, but I think if it’s in your business, if you sell insurance or run a business or you’re a writer that has covered 30 consecutive Super Bowls, to you that kind of means something. So in my very small circle of broadcasters, they may know it, and it may mean something to some of them. It means a lot to me.
As a kid, I would sit in Jack’s booth in St. Louis when my dad (Bob Harlan) was with the Cardinals and watch him do games. Jack Buck had actually at one time offered me a job with the Cardinals in St. Louis and personally took hold of that situation and tried to get me to go to St. Louis to be on the baseball broadcast with him and Mike Shannon. My dad and Jack were very good friends during those years, and I know Joe (Buck) well. We will text back and forth, and we’ve grown closer over the years. We were together at Fox, and now we will see each other occasionally in the press box at “Monday Night Football.” The Buck family is pretty important to our family. Joe is a friend, as Jack was to my dad.
Looking at my career in total, the Super Bowls will be one of the things I’ll be very proud of. Here I am with Westwood One, which is part of that CBS Radio family still. There’s probably not a broadcaster out there that wouldn’t want to change places with me. While it may be radio, the call can be accessed in the stadium, it’s on the NFL app, it can be streamed and can be heard worldwide. A couple of years ago, they did a study that said 25 million-plus listen to that broadcast. So for me, it’s an incredible honor, and one that I don’t take lightly. When I get in that seat and put on that headset, I think of Jack Buck, and I think of Jim Simpson (who called Super Bowl I on radio), and I think of the guy that taught me at KU — Tom Hedrick, who called three Super Bowls — and all the guys that have done that broadcast. I feel lucky to be in that seat.
What the Super Bowl means to Kevin Harlan
Is there one sporting event that you have always wanted to call, whether it can contractually come true or not?
When I was growing up, I used to listen to the Indy 500 radio network. I always thought that was such a meticulous broadcast because it took such coordination to pull off. Dave Johnson calling the Kentucky Derby, the famous “down the stretch they come” call, I mean, any sports fan can hear that in their mind and think of the majesty of that event. I think that would be pretty great. I know some people don’t think that my style would fit with golf or baseball, but I’d like a crack at that.
I really admire guys who have done network radio baseball — Jack Buck, Vin Scully and now Dan Shulman. I think the world of Shulman. If a college kid or a high school kid asked me, “How do I get started? What should I do?” I’d say, “If you’re listening for delivery, listen to Dan Shulman.” Dan Shulman has got the best delivery and the best voice in our business. If he’s doing the World Series on radio, I’m listening just because I can always pick up something from him, even at my stage. I love him on college basketball and just think the world of his calls.
How much do you have to regularly evolve as a sports broadcaster?
You’re always evolving. As John Madden said, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. So you’ve got to continually evolve. You’ve got to know the landscape you’re working with, and you’ve got to know the way the trends are in the business, and you’ve got to stay ahead of it. I’ll do that to my last broadcast. That challenge is something that keeps me going.
I tell young people who want to get into the business, if you like that kind of challenge, you’re in the right business. If you don’t like that kind of challenge and don’t look for self-improvement and self-analysis after every broadcast and every season with every person that employs you, you’re going to find yourself behind, and you cannot get behind in this business. It’s a career-long endeavor. I’m always trying to get better. It may not be perfect. It never is. But the goal of trying to be perfect is something that I still love to chase.
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• Greg Olsen: On Tom Brady and his future at Fox, Jordan Love, Justin Fields and more
• Al Michaels: On criticism, dinner with John Madden, working with Kyle Shanahan
(Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)