It's David Shumate's call

For the radio voice of Duke football and men's basketball, play-by-play success is measured in seconds.
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October 24, 2018

It’s 7 p.m., and David Shumate is missing his coffee.

He drinks it when he calls Duke games, even those with an evening kickoff, like tonight’s season opener against Army. But on the last night of August, it’s simply too stifling in the Blue Devil Tower booth; the retracted windows—essential to the ambient crowd noise on the radio broadcast—have invited in far too much of the Durham heat for anyone to enjoy a mug.

Not that Shumate, the play-by-play announcer entering his second full year as the radio voice of Duke football and men’s basketball, lacks vigor without caffeine. Even with a decade under his belt as a broadcaster for IMG, he still feels “the nervous energy of wanting to do right by the job you’ve signed up to do.”

“If I ever got there and it was ho-hum,” says Shumate, who’s also the director of broadcasting for the Blue Devil IMG Sports Network, “then it’s time to give it up.”

And so the humid air of the open booth, high above the fast-shadowing field, crackles with what Shumate terms the “organized chaos” of a live call. To Shumate’s left, Jon Jackson (senior associate athletics director for external affairs) handles spotter duties—tracking the ancillary details of the play that Shumate, focused on the ball, might miss. On the right is color commentator Dave Harding ’13, A.M. ’14, the former offensive lineman and current director of Blue Devil Network (the live video component of Duke Athletics). The voices of Harding and Shumate fill most of the broadcast, each play and its aftermath, forcing a tightrope transition from one announcer to the other and back again, the duo conveying all the necessary information and analysis without either talking over one another or creating pockets of dead air, spanning a fluid timeframe of fifteen to forty seconds.

Harding talks like a TV analyst, emoting with his face and hands; when he stumbles over a call, he swats at the air in front of him as if trying to shed a defender. But Shumate is restrained, in part because he’s the play-by-play guy, in part because his hands hold the spotting board that lists stats, biographical information, and trivia for every offensive player on each team who could conceivably enter the game. Each week, he spends twenty hours crafting these boards; his goal is to couch every statement in certainty, to never say “I think” on the air.

From kickoff to the final whistle, Shumate doesn’t sit down, methodically shifting his weight from foot to foot as he stays tethered to the action. It’s a three-hour marathon. Staff cycle through, dropping off end-of-quarter stats, interview subjects, and concessions to review on air. The shorter breaks of radio—a minute versus the two-and-a-half minute stoppages of TV—mean pretty much each instant is spent filling air or planning how to fill it.

Very quickly, some coffee seems appropriate.

It seems silly to ask why someone would want to be the voice of the Blue Devils. Like any sports or sports-adjacent position, it’s the kind of job that people would say, only half-kidding, that they’d pay to have.

And yes, announcers can become legends over time. Take Bob Harris, Duke’s announcer for forty-one years, who retired in 2017 and was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame this fall. As long as he walks around Durham, fans will beg him to recount “Laettner catches—comes down—dribbles—Shoots—SCORES” and the ebullient shouts that followed in ’92—which he can recite from memory. That’s what gets remembered: the cresting, triumphant call; the phrasings, like Harris’ proclamations of “How sweet it is,” that fans invariably glaze in nostalgia.

But the job isn’t just catchphrases and dramatic buzzer-beaters; most games are more mundane, far less dramatic. After all, it is work, requiring excessive preparation, featuring thousands of seconds—and opportunities to misspeak each broadcast.

Moreover, when the medium is audio, there’s no hiding. Shumate’s voice can’t betray the job’s rigors, the fact that except for the summer, he works sixty hours a week, occasionally traveling so much he’ll lose track of holidays.

And Shumate can’t seem anything less than enthusiastic. Even when things go great for the Blue Devils, he’s rarely swimming in praise. Few fans hear the call live, he explains, and those tuning in on an afternoon drive are antsy, mostly hoping for the broadcaster to provide a bare-bones summary before celebrating or sobbing. To attract attention is often, um, not great. “If they become too focused on me,” Shumate says, “it’s probably because I’m not giving them the information they need.

“The fans—to me, they’re like truth tellers,” he says, noting that listeners are attuned to the slightest inauthenticity over the airwaves, any hint of egotism where the announcer puts himself before the broadcast.

The task is to deliver someone else’s story—Duke’s story—and imbue each part, from the opening kick to the final whistle, with warmth and health and context. Shumate does so with the slightest Southern tinge, a there-if-you-listen-for-it accent that underscores his earnestness. His most joyous calls land in the lower register, the lead consonants popping with any sign of physicality—a barreling Duke player is like a “bowling ball”; a stuffed opponent is “going nowhere”—his voice flipping from measured to husky in an instant.

“He understands pace and tempo and how that fits into radio,” says John Roth ’80, a senior editor and producer for Blue Devil IMG Sports Network who’s the sideline reporter for football games and color commentator for basketball. “You can tell from his voice that he’s excited to be doing the game: He brings an energy to his call. But he still leaves room to take it to another level when something spectacular happens.”

Maybe the worst thing for an announcer is to sound insecure, or derivative. Shumate notes, without hesitation, that Harris “is and always will be the voice of the Blue Devils, and he should be,” and certainly, he’s not trying to imitate Harris’ signature drawl. If Harris sounded like he was hosting the listener on his porch each weekend, sweet tea in hand, Shumate talks like the most informed and invested guy in the sports bar.

“Bob was the first person when I first got the job to say, ‘Don’t be me, be you,’ ” says Shumate. He describes the process of announcing as trying to put forth “the best version of yourself.” He’s surprisingly quiet off-air, he notes, and ever-wary of slipping into a monotone, two bad habits for radio. But mostly, it’s crucial for the announcer to not think too much about what, or who, he sounds like.

“You are who you are. You can’t fake that, and the fans can tell if you’re faking that,” Shumate says, “So just go and call the game.”

Whatever makes an announcer forms early. “Some kids envision hitting the home run to win the game,” he says, but growing up in a military family, bouncing around Hawaii, Virginia, and Panama before going to high school in Fayetteville, he dreamed of “being at the big sporting event and having a chance to call the game.” During his undergrad days at Appalachian State, he fell in with the student radio station; by his junior and senior years, he was the women’s basketball announcer.

In announcing, though, there’s no clear-cut path to success: You can’t take a GRE to prove you’re an enjoyable listen, and there’s a limited supply of broadcasting positions. It’s the kind of industry where you might need to call football games as Shumate did: on his own from a stadium’s photo deck (the slab of concrete in front of the press deck), for no listeners, just to get practice.

After graduating in 2006, Shumate took on odd jobs before starting law school at Hofstra the following fall. “I knew I could do it, but I knew I wasn’t as passionate as some of the people who were enrolled,” he says. He didn't indulge his true interests until the first of September, when he tuned in to watch his Division-I-AA alma mater beat fifth-ranked Michigan, the kind of colossal upset that can only happen in college sports. He’d be missing out, he thought, if he didn’t at least try to chase this career.

So Shumate left school, moving back to his parents’ home in Lynchburg. He started freelancing with ISP Sports—earning $30 to call a coaches’ show, maybe $100 for a football game—where he’d drive two hours each way and barely break even. He became an administrator in the Greensboro school system, which brought him closer to ISP in Winston-Salem and left him time in the evenings for announcer gigs. The following year, Shumate moved to Auburn as a temporary fill-in. But when the team’s longtime announcer died from cancer, he stayed on for two years there before moving back to Winston-Salem, where he steadily progressed at IMG College (the multimedia rightsholder for sports at more than ninety schools, including Duke; IMG acquired ISP in 2010). By 2016, when Bob Harris had a few conflicts with basketball games, Shumate was able to step in and show he was capable.

The following spring, Harris retired, having called 471 Duke football games in a row. A decade and a day after watching the Mountaineers pull off the historic upset in Ann Arbor, Shumate stepped into the booth to call his first as Harris’ full-time heir. He had initially given himself a five-year cutoff to chase this dream, but in the intervening years, he says, “I always felt like I was progressing.”

“I think he’s a very mature announcer. Even though he’s only in his second year with us, he’s been doing this for a while,” says Roth. He highlights little things Shumate does—the pauses during big calls where Shumate “lets the broadcast breathe a little bit”—and the best practices Shumate has accrued working with radio teams across the country, which has led to steady tweaks in the past couple years. And Roth credits Shumate, in his role as director of broadcasting, with jumpstarting the Blue Devil Network’s podcasting arm and building out its social-media content, not to mention listening back to all of last year’s games to identify other chances for improvement.

It’s that focus, that need to always refine his skills, that has paid off for Shumate so far, and, he hopes, will continue for years to come. “If you get to the end goal, and you haven’t mastered the craft,” Shumate says, “generally speaking you’re not gonna be there very long.”

Perfection isn’t exactly the goal: Shumate talks about how it was refreshing, when he was starting out, to watch SportsCenter anchors crack jokes when they flubbed lines. But so many things can go awry during a radio broadcast that to avoid the slightest setbacks requires constant awareness—Roth likens it to a coaching staff developing “contingencies” in their weekly game plans.

In Shumate’s case, these schemes are robust. “He’s got a plan for what he’s doing—he knows how to do the whole game,” says Roth. “You come up with a lot of information before you do a game, and you probably don’t use half of it. But he’s got the preparation part down.”

Shumate watches nearly every Duke practice, noting formations that could surprise the opponent on game day that he must explain with poise. He learns the stories of the team's hundred-plus players, listening in at head coach David Cutcliffe’s press conferences, trying to lace every call with “the context that the specific moment meant in the arc of the season, in the arc of how the fan would view it, in the arc of the program,” like Bob Harris would. And he builds out the spotting boards each week, adding in relevant background by hand.

He celebrates the small successes, the ones that listeners might not recognize as successes because they’re handled seamlessly. Like in the first quarter of the season, when Army unexpectedly lines up with the fullback under center and the broadcast doesn’t miss a beat. Or in the third, when Duke quarterback Daniel Jones completes a big pass to Jonathan Lloyd, putting the Blue Devils inside the ten-yard line. Shumate makes his call and hands it off to Harding, who launches into praise for Lloyd and his impressive training camp.

Which would normally be fine, except that Jones has hurried the team to the line and might snap the ball suddenly, and Harding is just starting his thought. A touchdown call might get mistimed—the ambient roar of the crowd spoiling the surprise.

But Shumate has spotted Duke’s heightened tempo, and he reaches out and merely touches Harding’s elbow. He says later that Harding is someone he knows he could do that to—his partner doesn’t cut off his thought mid-sentence like some announcers might but instead accelerates it slightly, giving the reins back to Shumate just in time for the snap, and the handoff to Leon Jackson.

“First and goal off the six, they go quickly—Jackson running right—FIGHTing through tacklers—INTO the end zone for a touchdown!”

The stakes aren’t Hill to Laettner; it’s an insurance touchdown in an opener that Duke will win handily. But the salvaging of the moment reflects the announcer’s greater goal: to do justice to every second of airtime, to make every call as authentic and felt as can be.

It’s this pursuit that helps him work for three hours in a sweltering booth, plus sit around for a nearly hourlong recap, and never doubt what he’s doing. Plus, it turns out that the assumption is kinda true: With this job, even the mundane is worth appreciating.

“I always want to have that perspective of—you want to do a good job, you want to do right by the kids, you want to do right by the fans—but have the perspective that what we have the chance to do is pretty awesome,” Shumate says.

“I’m not sitting up there thinking, ‘Boy, I’d like to get home.’ No—where else would you want to be?”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.