"No stage fright", get to know voice of Mallards

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Posted by madcityradio.com on July 02, 2008 at 17:54:47:

Behind the Mike: No stage fright for voice of Mallards

Epiphany at Lambeau prompted Larson's move from theater to press box

In some respects, Ben Larson is no different than the college baseball players who are toiling for the Madison Mallards in the Northwoods League. Like the pitcher from Purdue or the shortstop from Illinois, he's gaining valuable on-the-job training. While they're doing it on the field, he's doing it in the booth.

"I'm learning how to achieve consistency," said Larson, the 29-year-old Mallards radio play-by-play voice from Rice Lake and UW-Oshkosh. "I'm learning the ins and outs and how to deal with them when you're just 'off' on a given night, and the words aren't coming out like you want them to."

After taking a "crash course" in balancing highs and lows last summer, Larson feels more comfortable with the routine entering his second season with the Mallards. On the road, he flies solo, while he shares the mic for home games with Jim Rutledge and Gabe Neitzel, both of whom work for the originating radio station, WTLX-FM/100.5.

"I like to bring a little satire and a sense of humor to the broadcasts -- cracking a joke here and there," Larson said of his on-air personality. "Being informative is the most important thing, along with describing exactly what is happening, and having some time to tell some stories."

A slow-moving baseball game lends itself to that type of conversational approach. By the end of three hours, or nine innings, Larson is also hoping to have developed a little chemistry with his listeners to the degree that when they hear his voice they feel like, "I kind of know this guy."

That's how it felt for Larson when he was growing up in Rice Lake and listening to Bob Uecker, the Hall of Fame radio voice of the Milwaukee Brewers. That was also the case whenever Larson dialed up the former Green Bay Packers radio team of Jim Irwin and the late Max McGee. There was a connection; a familiarity with the product or brand.

When he was in his early teens, Larson recalled taking a tour of Lambeau Field and stopping outside Irwin's and McGee's booth. "A light went on," Larson recounted, "and I said 'That's what I want to do.' "

Such a revelation might have caught some of his buddies by surprise. Back then, they might have guessed Richard Rodgers, the composer -- not Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback -- would be in Larson's future. As a junior, Larson played the male lead (Captain Von Trapp) in his high school's production of the Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein hit "The Sound of Music."

In so doing, Larson got his first real taste of the anxiety that some athletes experience before competition. "I remember having stage fright," Larson said. "The night of the performance, I really thought that I was going to throw up. But once I got on the stage, it was like a switch flipped."

And he wanted to get back on the stage again, which he did the summer following his high school graduation when he was cast in the role of Danny Zuko in a community theater production of "Grease." After failing to make the cut for "Godspell" during his junior year at Oshkosh, he focused on his play-by-play and the pursuit of a career in radio.

Larson caught his first break when he was hired by a La Crosse station which was taking on the ESPN signal. Besides refining his delivery by doing high school games, he was the voice of the La Crosse Night Train, an indoor football league franchise that folded after one season. He also hosted a talk show, which was his ticket to Madison.

After joining WTDY-AM/1670, he expanded from sports talk to news talk; taking on all-comers and topics. Larson disliked some of the preparation, particularly along political lines because he had to do more homework. But he adjusted nicely to the debate format. "Sometimes a topic flops," he noted. "But I was confident I could get calls."

None being more timely than the call that Larson got from the Mallards, who were looking for a radio play-by-play announcer last summer. "My adjustment," Larson said, "was not unlike that of the players who were coming from a college setting and learning the routine and how to prepare every day."

Because the Mallards have such a reputation for their unique promotions and ballpark hijinks, Larson was asked if he has to keep that in mind when he's addressing his radio audience. "While I try to bring out some of the fun in my broadcasts," he said, "I feel the people who are tuning in are the hardcore fans who are doing so for the baseball."

Preparation is a priority for Larson, who will surf the Internet for anything that might enhance the presentation. Like players, he has his own pregame checklist, including touching base with the opposing radio voice. Baseball can be a forum for diversity -- on the field or in the booth. Everyone has a style, a routine.

Larson is no different. "I enjoy trying to meet the challenge," he said. "I enjoy trying to be really good every night. And when I'm not, when I have fallen short, I've learned how to say, 'Tonight, I wasn't very good. What can I do to get better tomorrow?' "

(Cap Times)

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