The Gene Honda Interview

May 18, 2012

If you’ve been to a White Sox or Blackhawks game anytime in the last ten years or so, you’re most likely familiar with today’s interviewee’s booming voice. Gene Honda is the announcer for those teams as well as the voice of DePaul basketball, the Chicago Marathon, the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament and the NCAA Final Four. Honda has also done voiceover and on-screen work for various media outlets, including Chicago’s WTTW-TV, and “Chicago Works,” the city’s 24-hour information station. He is also an instructor in the city’s After School Matters program, teaching sports broadcasting to teens at Chicago’s Curie High School. Honda is also a University of Illinois alum, who was inducted into the Illini Media Hall of Fame in 2008.

Do you have any pregame rituals before you announce for the Blackhawks or the Sox or any other teams?
Especially for the Blackhawks, but for both, the first thing you better do is go online someplace and try very hard to get the right pronunciations for the visiting teams. More so for hockey ‘cause you only get one shot at it. For hockey, you’ll get them for one night and maybe that’s it unless it’s a division rival.

Where do you find the pronunciations?
 Major League Baseball really doesn’t have one. They’re pretty bad about having a pronunciation guide. They have one they print out that’s given only to the media. The irony of that is they’re just printed up in February when they report for spring training. The problem with that is it’s based off a sporting man roster. That’s great, except that by the time they start a season, the roster changes, and come September, when you can expand your playing roster form 25 to 40, a lot of those guys weren’t there at the beginning of the season. The first thing you do is go and contact their sports information director who’s there at the ballpark, or their PR director. In the pros it’s called PR. In college it’s sports relation director. And then you ask them.

Do you ever hear from the players or management if you mispronounce a name?
It was funny because it happened to be a player that wasn’t even new. We’d said his name the same way time and time again and all of a sudden last season they said, “Oh by the way, they’ve changed where they want you to put the emphasis.” I’m trying to think who that was. He’s with Cleveland.

Hopefully it wasn’t Jim Thome.
There’s a funny one. In the major league baseball pronunciation guide it has him as “Tomi” and you said it correctly, but every time I’ve heard it from other announcers, broadcasters say “Tom-ay.” Like Mel Tormé. So when the White Sox acquired him I went to our PR director and I said, “Okay, so how do I say his name?”We drove over to meet him and our PR director said, “This is our announcer. He’d like to know how you say your name.” And instead of answering he looks at me and he says “You’re the announcer?” And I said “Yeah.”

“You’re the one that goes Frank Thomas?”

And I go, “What are you doing listening to that?

But it is “Tomi.” And by the way, that introduction started the nicest friendship with me and him and his family.

Well,he seems like the nicest guy.
He is. And so is his family. For three years I helped him and his wife do a fundraiser in Peoria in honor of his late mother for Children’s Hospital of Illinois. It’s a great fundraiser.

When you get to the stadium do you warm up or how do you prepare?
Not really. Except I have a couple of cigarettes before I go upstairs. You go to the copy book and see if anything’s been changed. The nice thing is I’m used to that routine.

I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this but of all the places you announce, which is the most comfortable?
I wish there was such a place. You get a little nervous every time, even still. And you know what? I kind of like that. I know there are people who don’t like getting nervous but if I’m not a little nervous it means I don’t care. Having that little edge can be an advantage. The only place I’m comfortable is where I’m sitting right now, in my office at home.

Tell me about what you do with After School Matters.
I’ve been lucky enough to be an instructor with them for 11 years. I teach in a sports broadcasting class. The students are apprentices, they’re paid. We train them to be able to produce the components that are required for a weekly sports television show. It’s been a ton of fun, a lot of work. I tell them I hope one of these days some of them get involved directly with broadcasting, although a lot of them go into other areas. But the one thing I always tell them is, “I hope you get into this business, it’s been very good for me, but if not I hope you take from this that anything you can do to expand your ability to speak in public will help you in any job you decide to undertake.” That’s the advice my father gave me and it’s what led me to broadcasting.

Was public speaking part of your father’s career?
Very much so. My late father was an architect and for almost 40 years he worked with Bertrand Goldberg who was the architect for Marina City, River city, and for Astor Tower. Dad was a good public speaker. He was also an interpreter for the U.S. Army during World War II so he valued the ability to speak in public, to represent his firm. I’m sure what he really meant for me to do was take a speaking class in college. Instead his idiot son wandered into a radio station.

That’s really cool that both you and your dad made your mark on Chicago.
Oh, I don’t know about me yet. That story is still being written.

Who are some of your favorite announcers either living or dead in pro sports or college?
Wow. I never thought of that. If you grew up in Chicago your idea of a PA announcer was Pat Piper over at Wrigley Field. Back then it was all informational. Pat Piper was the last living PA announcer who was a carry-over from the days when they had multiple announcers lining the field with megaphones to inform the fans of who is batting and player changes. You couldn’t do it with just one: you needed about seven around the field to inform that section of what’s going on. And then all of a sudden came microphones. Pat made the transition.  Ed Bradley was cool. Part of the reason Dad wanted me to go into speech training was his belief was that I talk too fast, which I think I still do. But one of the things that you find is if you slow down you can enunciate better and that’s one thing I do pretty well. Ed Bradley was so crisp and clean: even under duress, it was there.

What have been some of the most memorable games you’ve announced?
The Illinois/Arizona game, Rosemont 2005. I had to work that game and be a neutral party. That was the game where Illinois was down fifteen points with five minutes left and I’m sitting there going, “You idiots are going to screw this up!” I thought, wait, a minute, lose that thought, concentrate on the job. When I announced three point basket by Garett Williams, I couldn’t figure out why the building was moving. I looked up and thought, "Hey, they tied it, how’d they do that?"  The All-Star game for the White Sox in 2003 was an amazing game. And I’ve had the pleasure of working the year the Blackhawks came from five goals down to win the cup, Jim Thome’s 500th home run.  And then the whole Stanley Cup run was amazing. In some ways that was more enjoyable than the White Sox because there was more time in between games. With the White Sox after the World Series you go, "Wow it’s over!" because you play every day. With the Hawks it stretches things out when you don’t play every day.

When was your big break?
First, getting hired by a radio station that actually paid. Working at a college station, even though it was a good college station, to get that first job is always really important. It gave me a chance not only to work for a real company, plus  the program dictator that hired me had been a program director and disk jockey in Los Angeles so he knew the business a lot better than a lot of other people. There were some hard lessons to learn, and if it weren’t for people like him, I would not be in a position to do a bunch of different things like I get to do now. I love not just doing sports, I love being able to do other things. The Channel 11 pledge is a good example. You don’t want to get pigeonholed as just being one thing. What’s nice is that thanks to things like the pledge and After School Matters, I’m not.

What are some of your favorite teams that you don’t call for?
Illinois.  I’ve always been a Chicagoan, a city kid. Yeah, that means you cheer for both baseball teams, just maybe not when we play each other.

What would people be surprised to know is difficult about your job?
The research. For example, tonight I get to interview an actress in town working on a project. Kathleen Robertson is in town working on “Boss.” You have to do research and know something about your guest. Same thing with the pledge drive. If I don’t put in a good three plus hours researching the artists, the background, all of those things, I’m dead when I get on. One of my father's jokes was, "Boy you’re lucky that all you have to do is homework." When you have to get a job, that’s worse. And it’s funny, we hide it. Instead of calling it homework, we call it "research." Research my ass, it’s homework. The only difference is you’re getting paid for it.

How do you spend your free time?
I should be cleaning my house! Yesterday was the first full day that I’ve had off in about a month. I’m not complaining but I spent ten days on the road, five in New Orleans. I was announcing the Final Four and then the NCAA was kind enough to ask me to do the men’s national hockey championships. I have no idea where but somehow they got the idea I could do hockey. And so I went to Tampa. It was wonderful. They’re playing the tournament games and there’s a beautifully renovated arena. So there’s ten days. I came home, then I have my last week of teaching. I have our closing celebrations and there were also two Blackhawks playoff games, so spring cleaning got pushed aside. So what do I do in my spare time? Things like that. I still love golf. I still play hockey Monday nights.

What is the most difficult sport to call?
College basketball, because you can’t lapse. There’s always something to announce -- points, fouls, whatever the action is. They give you the best vantage point. You’re sitting right at center court. But it’s also tough to see. But if you do miss something, there’s someone there to help tell you what you miss. In baseball and hockey there are pauses, but when things happen in hockey they happen fast. I played hockey in college so you’re at least used to the pace, you know what you need to prepare for. You better be aware of when on the clock things occur.

The way you have to watch changes [when you announce]. You don’t get to watch as a fan -- it’s your job. In some ways, if you do your job correctly, at the end of the game if someone asks you who won you may not have the answer. We joke about this. Throughout the years, you get to know all of the scoreboard people, and there are a lot of them. It now takes a full television production staff to do all of the images and things you see, and we joke that we’re ruined for life; we’ll never be able to watch a sporting event the same way. You’re wondering ,“ Why did they do that there?” or “How did they do that?”

How were you cast in The Dilemma?
They were doing all the scenes at The United Center, at a Blackhawks game. When it came time to find the announcer, that was me. Right place, right time. In true Hollywood fashion, I had to audition for the part.

I would imagine Vince Vaughn is familiar with you.
But the director wasn’t. You feel a little weird walking in to audition for your own job. And there were four members of the Ice Crew who also auditioned, so then it’s like, hell, if they make them audition that’s not so bad.

Everyone said it must be cool meeting Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, which it was, but my thrill was not meeting them, it was meeting the producer/director. How often do you get to meet Ron Howard? Talk about an interesting individual. Just mention his name to people you know and you’ll get an idea of how old they are by how they refer to him. Is it as Opie? Is it as Richie Cunningham? Or is it as the guy who directed...pick a movie.

The funny thing is that was my second movie. I’m on a once every twenty years schedule. The first role was a Japanese businessman [in Opportunity Knocks.]  There’s a woman who runs a casting agency specializing in Asian Americans. One of the toughest things when she was getting started was finding males. So she asked, "If you have free time, can you go to a couple of auditions?" Sure. And I actually got a couple and that was one. The weird thing was, I had to learn how to speak Japanese. So I had to get the lines translated for me. My mother was alive at that point and I’m going through the lines with her. And then we got to one which included a lot of cursing, and mother was a very proper woman and when she heard those lines she said, “I’m not teaching you how to talk that way” and she hung up on me. And I called her back and I said, “Mom, it’s just for a movie, it’s not a big deal.” And she said, “You’re not learning those words from me,” and she hung up again. She passed away never having seen the film because she knew what those lines were.

For any sport, are there particular player names you enjoy saying?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say Frank Thomas. After hearing a lot of other announcers, especially in basketball where they shout. I may be splitting hairs, but there’s a difference between shouting and projecting. So anyway, years pass, and here comes this imposing figure, he’s huge. The bat looks small in his hands. He’s warming up and we’re not allowed to use nicknames, the guys on the air are calling him the Big Hurt. So where do you take his name? I’ll take it where I can take it: down. So it became Fraaaank Thomas. For some odd reason, that’s the presentation people remember. The White Sox were kind enough to invite me to the ball park the day he was going to announce his retirement. He had requested I introduce him the way I just did. So we were in a hallway and he comes up and gives me a huge bear hug and says, “Well you’re only going to have to say it one more time, unless you work at old timers games.”

How does it feel to be the 314th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It’s always an honor to be asked to be interviewed because it means someone is interested in what you do and how you do it. So I thank you for being curious. There are people that think what you do is something that comes natural, and maybe it is, but I think people don’t understand what sort of work it takes to get to that place. And I always say I’ve been very lucky. But I had one producer who looked at me and said, “No, you’re not. You know what luck is? Luck is when ability and opportunity meet.” What a nice way to say it. You feel like you’ve put in the work to earn your position.

It’s been a pleasure. I’ve been a White Sox fan my entire life and so your voice is a constant presence.
When I got hired I was working for WLAK and that’s when the opening occurred for the White Sox. I’d been there a year and you’re looking for any positive way to get your name out. Long story short, I sent an audition tape over to the Sox, I heard later they got 600 tapes off one paper article and they picked mine. It was an audio cassette. No pictures, no nothing. They weren't expecting to see this face when I walked in the door. It surprised the hell out of them, but when people ask about equal opportunity, that’s pretty equal. That’s another thing I tell my students, you’re ability to speak can really make a difference in how people perceive you. So thanks.