Longtime 49ers announcer managed to be great without being good
By Joe Eskenazi
Scientific data does not exist to back my claim -- a grant application is pending -- but I believe that "Road House" is, quantifiably, the best bad movie of all-time. It stars Patrick Swayze as a legendary bouncer brought in to clean up a bar whose owner never thought to institute a "no mullets, no flannels, no sleeveless apparel" policy and features Shakespearian dialogue such as "Pain don't hurt," "Calling me 'sir' is like putting an elevator in an outhouse, it don't belong," and the immortal "I used to fuck guys like you in prison."
So, if it comes down to watching "Road House" or a so-called "good" movie - especially if you're hanging out with your buddies and beer is involved - there's no comparison. It'd be like putting an elevator in an outhouse. When it boils down to the elemental question of "what will be most entertaining?" well, it's "Road House" all the way.
Which brings us to departing San Francisco 49ers radio announcer Joe Starkey, a man who unabashedly admits what his critics have long noted -- his broadcasts are peppered with so many yelps, shouts, and utterances of "Oh my God!" that it effectively simulates being trapped in a hotel room next door to a pair of randy teenagers.
When I began calling U.C. Berkeley games at KALX radio in 1994, the first thing the older broadcasters told me to do was listen to Starkey - and don't do anything he did. Announce the score every two minutes? Starkey could go whole quarters without informing you who was playing, let alone who was winning. Name the formations, who was going in motion, whether the defense was man or zone? That's standard stuff, but not for Starkey. In fact, he also eschewed the practice of noting where on the field a pass was tossed or even how long it was -- in short, describing a visual medium for an oral device such as radio. Nope, none of that.
What Starkey did have was a voice that could double as a foghorn on the Staten Island Ferries and the giddy enthusiasm of a model airplane nut let loose in the Air and Space Museum (after downing a thermos of espresso). He was also clearly a quick-thinking man with a mordant wit who apparently felt no need to toady to management - during one recent dismal 49ers season, Starkey read off a standard promo about how a sponsor would donate $5,000 to needy Bay Area children for every San Francisco touchdown. After a pregnant pause, he expertly ad-libbed, "There's going to be a lot of sad kids."
Starkey is only 67, but his raspy voice and the fact he's been calling games since the Normans upset the Anglo Saxons at home in 1066 ("My God! The cavalry has broken the Saxon shield wall! The peasants are scattering and the rout is on -- what a bonanza!") makes it feel like he's been on the radio forever. And, in a way, he has. In previous generations, broadcasters were characters and every city had its unique voice calling the action. This is more the case with baseball announcers - America's pastime requires filling vast swaths of time with jokes and stories - but a number of football announcers of yore fit the bill as well: Bill King, Myron Cope, and even TV's Keith Jackson. In the days prior to the proliferation of chain stores, America's cities looked different from one-another. And, thanks to men like Starkey, they sounded different, too.
After a lifetime of listening to Starkey broadcasting Cal and 49ers games, I can only recall two of his calls by heart: The Play and Steve Young finding Terrell Owens between a pair of Green Bay defenders as the clock ran down in the 1999 Wild Card game. (I also recall him announcing the winning overtime field goal in Cal's 34-31 victory over USC in 2003, but I honestly don't recall what he said as I was too busy shouting and swerving onto the median on I-580). Starkey's Tourette-like bursts of verbiage were uniquely well-suited for once-in-a-lifetime plays such as this where it didn't really matter what was happening - you just needed to know it was something fantastic.
Starkey will keep calling Cal games, but after this year he's done with the Niners. And whoever his replacement is, it'll likely be a step down, oddly enough. These days announcers seem to all come out of the same pod: Same Rod Balagojevich hair, same mellifluous voice, same offend-no-one line of humor. In other words, Joe Buck. Starkey may have been flawed, but he was an individual. And, above all, when it comes down to the elemental question of "who will be most entertaining" - well, it's him.