KNBR Rips 49ers Announcer
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 25, 2005

THE BROADCASTING marriage between KNBR and the 49ers has gotten off to a rocky start.

This week, talk show hosts Ralph Barbieri and Tom Tolbert lambasted announcer Joe Starkey for his mistakes during the Saturday night broadcast of the 49ers exhibition against the Denver Broncos, and then played excerpts from the broadcast to prove their point.

I couldnít agree more. Iíve long felt Starkey is the worst football announcer Iíve heard. Heís especially bad on the Cal broadcasts, where heís notorious for the ďthe pass is completedĒ call, without giving any idea of who caught the ball or the distance until well after the play is over. In the Holiday Bowl disaster (I was listening on my car radio, en route to a TV taping), he first described a pass to Robert Jordan as a completion, then back-tracked to say the pass had gone off Jordanís hands and, finally, told the audience that it was actually an interception. The third time was the charm, apparently.

But, to have this kind of criticism on the station which carries the 49ers games is incredible. Contrast that with the way Barbieri and Tolbert treat the Giants announcers. They never criticize and, in fact, even call them by affectionate nicknames.

So, whatís going on here? Simple. KNBR never wanted Starkey as the announcer for the 49ers games but the 49ers insisted Ė and they have the broadcast rights. So, Barbieri, who has shared my dislike of Starkey, and Tolbert are free to fire away. Indeed, it wouldnít surprise me if KNBR management wasnít encouraging it, hoping there will be enough public backlash against Starkey to force the 49ers to eventually agree to replacing him.

THEREíS ANOTHER problem with that agreement: Because KNBR is committed to covering the mediocrity that is the Giants, the 49ers exhibition games are relegated to KNBRís FM outlet and their 1050 AM station.

On the surface, that doesnít seem logical because the 49ers are without question the No. 1 pro team in the Bay Area, dwarfing even the Giants, who are No. 2. Iíve known that for years, because of the volume of mail, now e-mail, Iíve gotten on the 49ers, and thatís also reflected in marketing studies the 49ers have done.

There are other factors, though. One is that KNBR retains a small interest in the Giants. A more compelling factor is that baseball broadcasts are more important.

The 49ers games, regular season and exhibition, have all been televised for many years. The Giants are all televised, but baseball games are much better on the radio. Even when baseball games are on TV, Iíll often listen on the radio instead, because I can do other things (Iím the family cook and dishwasher) while Iím listening, and radio announcers give me inuch more specific information, instead of the clichť-ridden garbage you often get from TV announcers. Baseball radio announcers are often the face of the team, which isnít true for football.

This equation may change later in the football season, because the 49ers may face some home blackouts if they donít look good in the first half of the season, which will increase the importance of the radio broadcasts. But by that time, the baseball season will be over, so the 49ers broadcasts will be on KNBR.

The main reason the 49ers went to KNBR was because of the relentless promotion the station does during the week. KGO couldnít do that, because their talk/news format during the week makes them the highest rated station in the area. It would have been foolish for them to interrupt that format. But KNBRís format is all sports, except for a morning show whose format is indescribable, so the promotion theyíll do for the 49ers fits right in. And, of course, sports fans are accustomed to looking for KNBR, so that was a natural, too.

So, no matter how much Barbieri and Tolbert criticize Starkey, the 49ers arenít going to try to break the KNBR contract. Will it force them to change announcers? We can only hope.

ON ANOTHER 49ers topic, those of us in the media continue to marvel about the difference between practice play and game play for the top two quarterbacks.

In practice, Alex Smith has looked very smooth, making all his throws. Tim Rattay has been inconsistent, making some throws, missing badly on others; he threw an interception right at defensive back Shawntae Spencer in Wednesdayís practice. Until this week, The Chronicle had been running a ďquarterback trackerĒ graphic on Smith, Rattay and Ken Dorsey; on the days when Iíve covered camp for the paper, Iíve consistently given Smith an up arrow and Rattay sideways arrows.

Yet, in the two games that have been played, Smith has looked very flustered and Rattay has played very well. On the basis of that, coach Mike Nolan wisely decided to make Rattay the starter for tomorrow nightís game, to give him a chance to work with the first string offense, so heíll be ready to start the season opener. The third exhibition game is the most important because coaches donít play their starters long in the last one, for fear of injury; Nolan said yesterday that heíll play his starters for only two series in that game.

Though one of the favorite cliches for coaches is ďYou play like you practice,Ē that doesnít always hold true. There are always some players who donít look good in practice but come alive when the game starts and players who look good in practice but crumble in games.

I hardly think that Smith is in the latter category because he played so well in games in college. Itís just taking him time to adjust to the speed of the pro game.

Some 49ers fans have been quick to rule him as a failure. Iíve had e-mails comparing him to Jim Druckenmiller and Ryan Leaf, which is unfair. Druckenmiller was always a bad fit for the 49ers because he wasnít mobile, and the 49ers were running a version of the Bill Walsh offense, which puts a premium on quarterback mobility. Theyíre still running that offense, and Smith, who ran out of a spread offense in college, is a very good runner. In fact, when he plays in the regular season, Nolan will probably use some plays with Smith running out of the Shotgun. Leaf? Attitude was his big problem, but Smithís attitude couldnít be better.

In retrospect, it was unreasonable to expect Smith to take charge so soon, but in time, I think heíll be a fine quarterback. It makes sense to start Rattay now because he gives the 49ers the best chance to win. Nolan couldnít tell his team, in essence, that he was giving up on them to develop a rookie quarterback. But Smith remains the teamís future.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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