Just off the second floor concourse of Soldier Field is a 10-foot hallway lined with large, black, empty cases of sound and recording equipment. Separated from the cacophony of the preseason crowd just outside the door, the tiny hallway offers a respite for those at work on a cool September evening.
Amidst the quiet of the hallway stands a former Bears offensive lineman. Tall and muscular, he arches his back, pulling his shoulder blades together to stretch away the tightness. Wearing tan pants, a blue-and-orange collared shirt and matching hat, he grabs a chicken sandwich and chips from a black, heat-sealed bag. He stands content as he eats – the sandwich never had a chance.
"We both love football," he says. "I've been a Bears fan my whole life. I was the kid going to training camp, sitting outside the fence. When I got drafted by the Bears, I didn't just pick it up. It was already in me."
He finishes his chips and discards the bag. He lifts his cap and rubs his shiny dome, as the crowd erupts inside the stadium. After wiping his brow, Tom Thayer slowly saunters through a doorway marked in black letters atop a silver plaque that reads Home Radio.
The Bears' radio booth is a nondescript room, 10 feet wide by 25 feet long, with plain gray carpeting and matching walls. To the front is an open window looking out onto the playing field. Three small desk lights illuminate the counter at the front of the booth, as well as the heads of the fans that sit directly below the window.
At the counter is Thayer, the Bears' radio color commentary announcer, and to his right Jeff Joniak, the play-by-play man. Joniak is dressed like any other business professional: gray dress pants and a tucked-in, button-up shirt with blue and tan stripes. Behind the front desk is the elevated sound booth, three steps that lead to a wide soundboard, where the sound technician does his work.
Both parts of the radio broadcast team stand, along with the other four men in the booth, during the national anthem, which elicits a roar from the crowd upon its ending.
As soon as the last words of the "Star Spangled Banner" are sung, Joniak and Thayer get to work.
Joniak begins his call of the game in his made-for-radio voice – a smooth yet piercing cadence filled with the energy of the crowd around him – naming off the starting lineup, coaches and referees. His statistician and director, sitting to his right and left, respectively, sit in low-back rolling chairs, as does his radio partner. Yet Joniak stands as he works, a position he does not leave through the entirety of the game.
Through a pair of binoculars, Joniak lets fly the call for the game's first play, an interception by Bears cornerback Zack Bowman.
"Are you kidding me?" he yells, his emotion as genuine as that of the roar of the fans.
As Joniak finishes the play call, he looks over to Thayer, signaling the passing of the baton. Thayer quickly begins his analysis, using his hands to describe the intricacies of the play as if he were speaking one-on-one with each listener. His hands dive left and right, swing around in a wide arch and then finally fall flat, giving a visual description to match his words – like a school teacher.
At 11:01 in the first quarter, Robbie Gould gives the Bears a 3-0 lead, and the historic notes of "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" ring out through the stadium speakers. The crowd chants the lyrics, as Thayer taps a pen on his desk in beat with the voices below.
At the first timeout, Joniak slides his headset off and asks Thayer whom the Browns quarterback was throwing to on the interception, but before the former offensive lineman can respond, the program director yells, "Stand by! We're coming back!"
The two men immediately go back to work. Joniak still stands, using his binoculars to view in detail the formation, players and action on the field. Immediately following plays, he looks down at one of two laminated sheets – what he calls flip charts – that show a series of squares with Browns player names, positions, colleges, hometowns, career transactions, salaries, 2008 stats and career stats. In essence, a cheat sheet for him to quickly glean information about opposing players on the go.
Often, as a play is ending, Joniak turns away from the field to view the flat-screen television just to Thayer's left, which is running on a five-second delay and allows both men an instant replay of the action that just took place on the field.
This tape-delayed broadcast of the game is crucial to the product. If Joniak misses something during the play, like who made the tackle, he can immediately turn to the screen and procure the missing information. It is also the screen Thayer utilizes to develop instant analysis of each play.
The two men have a chemistry that comes from years working together in the booth. Many times, Joniak doesn't even need to look in Thayer's direction when it comes time for color commentary. They often smile at each other as they speak, both genuinely having a good time as they work.
"It's because we both love football," Thayer says after the game.
The connection between the two continues throughout the broadcast, a back and forth that can be classified as controlled chaos. At commercial breaks, the director holds up a card in front of Joniak that reads Break – Standard Commercial Cue, and below it This is the WBBM Chicago Bears Network.
During the break, the men all converse as they might on a fishing boat. They make fun of each other like old friends, smiling and laughing all the while. Joniak attempts to fire a piece of trash into the receptacle behind him, which rims out and bounces onto the floor.
"I can't shoot with my left hand," he says. The director then holds up his finger, and both men slide their headphones back on. The finger stays suspended until they're ready to resume, at which time he gives a thumbs-up and Joniak goes back to work.
Shortly after, Bears running back Kevin Jones jumps as he gets tackled out of bounds and twists his ankle. As he lay on the field, the booth goes to a commercial timeout. Thayer immediately pulls off his headphones and says, "First rule of thumb is you never leave your feet."
The former player is spot on with his analysis, as the injury turns out to be season-ending for the Bears' ball carrier.
Thayer also assists Joniak in his play-calling through the use of hand signals, especially for penalty flags he misses during the call. Thayer whips his hand forward, mimicking the throwing of a flag.
On numerous occasions, Thayer is required to do commercial spots, which are much more forced than his analysis of the action on the field. He looks uncomfortable doing it, as if this were the only part of his job that he doesn't enjoy. As he finishes his read, he flips the card to his director – like a poker dealer releasing an ace from the deck.
Shortly before halftime, quarterback Caleb Hanie completes a 43-yard pass to wide receiver Johnny Knox. The crowd erupts so loudly that Joniak's voice is drowned out in the booth, like someone telling a story during a rock concert.
With 30 seconds left in the half, defensive tackle Marcus Harrison gets the first sack of the game, which elicits a "Down he goes!" from Joniak, his intense emotion seeping into the microphone just inches from his lips.
"You just get absorbed in it," he says afterward, referring to the energy of the crowd and game.
At halftime, the entire booth clears out and the men all eat. Joniak laments on the preparation and work that goes into a game-day broadcast.
"Pregame is three hours, which is a one-hour commitment," he says. "Then we've got to do a live TV show for FOX. I have to interview Lovie for TV and radio, then do a live TV show, get something to eat and be back on the air a half hour before kickoff. We do the game and then an hour of postgame, go down and interview Lovie, get a break and then the TV show at night at 10:30."
As the waning cries of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" blast from the stadium speakers, the two men and their crew enter the booth for the second half.
Shortly after, the Bears score their first TD, which is the first chance for Joniak to give his signature call: "Touchdown! Touchdown Bears!" The vigor of the call matches that of the raucous crowd.
With it being the third preseason game, the energy in the booth winds down in unison with the lack of energy on the field. Timeouts are met with Joniak clapping and talking, plus Thayer making fun of the haircuts of the others in the room. At one point, Joniak hears a phantom whistle from the referee.
"Now I'm hearing things," he says, eliciting a deep laugh from Thayer.
For an outsider looking in, the job itself is not glamorous – a bunch of men sitting in a cramped room – but obviously rewarding to the radio team. They get paid to watch their favorite team play each and every game, with access to coaches and players alike. They guide listeners through the action of the game, using a seamless synergy to deliver gratifying broadcasts – a tiny room from which the words of two men are sent into the air to be heard by millions.
"It's great," Joniak says after the game. "It's the greatest job you could ever have."
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Jeremy Stoltz is the editor-in-chief of The Business Ledger, the business newspaper for suburban Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.
From the Magazine: Joniak and Thayer
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