Published on March 15th, 2016 | by Stephen Kilbey
John Hindhaugh and the art of sports commentating
John Hindhaugh has been commentating on sports for over two decades, working his way up from hospital radio to owning and running sportscar racing’s leading station: Radio Le Mans. But talking to millions of listeners every week is no easy ride.
Hindhaugh always loved radio, he always wanted to be on it. Like many, he grew up listening to live events and shows, and wanted to be apart of it somehow, whether it was through music, or sports.
“The audience will never forgive you for any technical issues”
“I got into it through the backdoor,” he told Elephant Sport. “There wasn’t a shining moment that brought me to it, but there was always something special about listening to sport on the radio, desired by people who care about it.
“I would sit up late into the early hours of the morning as a kid and listen to boxing commentary. It was a big deal listening to something from the other side of the world, live. I love the feeling of a big event.
“And when I started I always felt speaking to people and broadcasting came naturally to me more than most, I didn’t find it that difficult. It’s a way of me expressing myself, I enjoy the buzz and thrill of analysing something on the fly that is by nature unpredictable.
“My ambition was originally to be Noel Edmonds, I thought he was an excellent presenter. He did a lot of good features and was a good music presenter. In the end though, that didn’t happen, I didn’t become a music jock. The big break for me was going to the States to broadcast on motorsport, and that’s what I’ve stuck with.”
So, in 1979, Hindhaugh made a career move and started broadcasting on hospital radio in Sunderland. He was tasked with all sorts of jobs, getting involved in many different sports.
“I wanted to cover different things. You rocked up at various places, and built up a network of contacts.
“That meant I was doing cycling in Newcastle, I did basketball for the Newcastle Sporting Club and Eagles, I did ice hockey for the Newcastle Cobras and rugby commentary for the Newcastle Falcons. I had no idea what to expect sometimes, from week to week.
“It’s really hard, when you work in so many sports. I’d never played basketball, ice hockey, I didn’t have a grounding. But I got involved doing onsite stuff and eventually turned it into my full career.”
Hindhaugh agrees that whatever it is, people think it’s easy, because people think that anyone can just talk about sports. But it’s hard to flow, be objective and excite people – especially when they are listening over radio and can’t see the action.
You have to be able to paint pictures, which can be extremely difficult; many of us take that for granted.
“What people don’t realise is that commentating for a team, as an example, means that not only do you have to be prepared and know everyone and everything about that one club, but you need to know what it’s like when a club you only see once a year comes to town.
“You have to know all the names and study their form. It’s so hard to research in any depth when you are working at small local events.
“But it meant you have to be rounded, as a presenter and commentator. If you think back to Barry Davies and David Coleman – they did everything – not just football: athletics, hockey, all sorts.
“You had to be versatile. Back when I started, there weren’t many of us, being a commentator then was a skill, and a specialist commentator was in some ways were closing off opportunities.
“Ironically, I started doing motorsport commentary because there were so few people doing it.
“Nowadays it’s broadened out, as at each ground for a Premiership game or an F1 race there’s two or three sets of commentators. When I was doing football there weren’t as many positions, there was only one broadcast a week.
When it all goes wrong
Aside from being knowledgeable, you also have to be prepared for the worst to happen. Broadcasts can and do go wrong, but that’s when commentators really earn their money.
“I think it’s the times when things don’t run smooth that you get more of an indication of how good a commentator is. The audience will never forgive you for any technical issues or issues with the event, it’s what you do to fill that dead air, that’s your job.
“If you stop feeling nervous before events, and don’t feel the pressure, then the magic is gone”
“Sometimes, you only have one camera filming an event, or you don’t have a full list of who is playing or riding, or driving, but you just have to make up for that. Often, fans have more information as it happens, and a better view, than you do.
“And sometimes you have to find things to say when you have nothing to talk about while an event is being delayed.
“You come home exhausted when those things happen, but you think ‘I did alright there’.”
In recent years, Hindhaugh has become the voice of endurance racing across the globe, on Radio Le Mans as well as for other platforms like IMSA Radio and ESPN.
Broadcasting from a football ground is one thing, but commentating on a 24-hour race, sometimes for the entire event, and sometimes without TV-cut pictures, is another all together.
Round the clock
“Doing what I do now, is extremely hard. It’s so tiring, and because you’re talking about sometimes over 100 cars, all with three drivers [in rotation], it becomes a blur trying to remember form from previous races. One weekend I’ll be working in America at Daytona, the next in Italy for a GT race at Monza.”
During a season, Hindhaugh may broadcast live from five 24-hour races in different countries, with completely different sets of cars. Each one is also set over the course of a whole week, with practice and qualifying sessions to work on too.
“You have to have extreme stamina, and you have to be interesting to broadcast for long periods.
“For every driver, you need more than one or two snippets of information. You also need to know different ways of describing the same things. If you keep calling Arnage corner at Le Mans ‘a tight right-hander’ for 24 hours, it’ll get boring.
“One thing I learnt is to write down loads of adjectives for the same thing and having them in front of me. So I’ll have the words: tight, narrow, 90-degree right, a squeeze. It’s little things like that you need to prepare, and prevent yourself from sounding the same every lap.
“Broadcasting is not easy, and that’s why those of us who are good at what we do, are few and far between.
“That’s why if you stop feeling nervous before events, and don’t feel the pressure, then the magic is gone and you should stop.”