Kyle Hammer, age 23, can't decide which he loves more: baseball or radio engineering. Fortunately he doesn't have to pick one because he is able to combine his love of both endeavors.
After freelancing for a number of baseball teams, Hammer got his full-time dream job as game-site engineer for the Minnesota Twins about a year ago.
"Kyle had a fascination with radio equipment at an early age," said Lee Hammer, father of Kyle and program director of San Francisco's KNBR(AM). "At age seven he would help me home-test some remote broadcast gear, and he loved to put on the headset and turn the dials."
One day Kyle's dad became a "block off the old chip."
"When I was young I'd follow my dad to games and help him plug things in," the younger Hammer said. "By the time I was 13, I was beginning to figure out which mic had to plug into which input. When I made a wrong move, my dad would make a little noise, and that told me I was doing something wrong.
"Years later when I was working and he was helping me out, I was watching him set the equipment up, and he hadn't done it in a while. Then it was my turn to make the little noises to let him know that he was doing something wrong. It was hysterical!
"My father was a huge influence on me."
Getting his game on
Kyle Hammer's employer is the Minnesota Twins, owner of the Twins Radio Network (TRN), comprising 78 stations in five states. "Twins Territory" is second in number of affiliates only to that of the New York Yankees. Working with Kyle in the booth are two others, the air talent; back at the TRN studios in downtown Minneapolis are a producer, two board operators and a couple of interns who assist with the games, pre-games and post-games at home and away.
As a lad "Whether the game is over in 8-1/2 or 15 innings, there are different scenarios that require me to keep in contact with the producer and the studio," Hammer said.
"Is there a player waiting to be interviewed and is he all set with wired or wireless two-way headset? Are highlight clips ready? It's more complicated than you might think."
There are about 187 games each year, 162 during the regular season and 25 in spring training. Hammer spends about four months on the road annually. Because he is not married, he doesn't feel guilty about spending so much time away from the Twin Cities. In the off-season he ditches the cold winds of Minnesota for sunny California, where he picks up extra work in the booth for other teams. He also has two family dogs there that are always anxious to see him again.
"I always like to make things more fail-safe," said Hammer.
"With IP here, ISDN lines are getting harder to obtain, and our broadcasts only use ISDN. The biggest problem I have with IP is that I need it to be stable enough to keep us on the air for five or six hours at a time. There is also a concern with latency. A lot of people at the ballpark listen to the radio in the stands and they need zero latency. What the people hear is important to me.
"I have heard demonstrations of audio over IP and its amazing quality. I just don't know yet how well it will work for a long broadcast with a lot of people on the network."
The young engineer had some other thoughts about equipment.
"There are so many broadcasts that are sports-related," he said. "NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, college sports and more. There are a lot of technical products out there, but not many designed for our market: sports radio. The stuff that is designed for us — particularly the communications gear — is impractical. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why can't we have as much to choose from as the music stations?"
Hammer does not have a degree in engineering, though he is studying with the Society of Broadcast Engineers, the goal of which is eventual certification.
"I don't want to stop learning, and I try to soak up as much knowledge as I can," he said. "Fortunately people are always willing to help me."
The thing about college
"In my experience, colleges don't do a good job of teaching engineering for radio," he said. "At my college the professor worked at a station that was the flagship of the San Jose Sharks. He was back at the station and I was setting up the equipment at the stadium. I called him to see if he could dial me up on the (Telos) Zephyr and he didn't know how to do that. I've known how to do that since I was 10! In college they teach theory, but I want to know how to fix something if it goes down."
Hammer had the chance to do just that when he was setting up equipment for an NFL draft with his father.
Proud papa Lee Hammer "We tested everything and it was fine, but until you go live, you never know," he said. "The head coach came in and sat down at the mic and it went dead. I jumped up and unplugged the cough switch and plugged the mic right into the console and it worked. My job is to know what's the most likely thing to fail."
Hammer is more than just a remote engineer; he is beginning to do a little design work as well. The Twins are building a new stadium, set to open in 2010, and he has made a number of suggestions.
"In Baltimore they built a ballpark about 15 years ago and those designers had very little foresight in terms of wiring," he said. "There were no lines from the booth to the dugout, for example. We can't know what will happen in five or six years. That's why we need to look at these things with an open mind."
In with the new
Because he had an interest in broadcasting from age 6, RW asked Hammer how he suggested the industry bring more young people into the field.
"Just expose them early," he said. "I was fortunate enough to grow up with it and gain the experience of playing with things early on in my life. My middle school had a TV station and every morning we would broadcast announcements as well as news from the previous day and even highlights from our athletic teams.
"I think we need programs like these that allow young people the opportunity to be around the medium. It's up to them to catch the bug."
Andy Price is director of game presentation and broadcasting for the Twins Radio Network. He described Hammer as "a guy who is not just 'plug and play. He is a step ahead of us in terms of thinking about what's coming up around the bend."
Mark Durenberger, a Radio World contributor deeply involved in the design of the Twins Radio Network, was an early advocate of hiring Hammer.
"From the beginning he showed a curiosity about the project and had ideas on how he could contribute. He showed up for his interview with schematic diagrams! His approach to the broadcasts is 'belt-and-suspenders-and-belt'. We've never had an outage with Kyle in the booth. I'm involving him in our technology designs at the new stadium and he definitely supports 'cutting-edge.'"
Not surprisingly, another fan of Kyle is his father.
"I knew Kyle was ready to engineer on his own when he was about 17. I was producing and engineering for the San Francisco Giants, and I flew Kyle down to L.A. for a weekend series with the Dodgers," he said. "On the first day, we got the gear up to the booth, and Kyle set up and pre-tested everything while I just sat and observed.
"If I had let him, he could have run the whole broadcast."
Ken Deutsch is a former broadcaster who says his only connection to sports is having once tripped over a cable at Toledo Mud Hens stadium.
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