Kroeger Bringing Passion, Familiarity to Hornets Radio Broadcast
By Sam Perley
A new era of Charlotte Hornets basketball continues to take shape and now another piece is officially in place for the upcoming 2018-19 season. For the first time in 30 years, the sound of Steve Martin’s voice won’t be heard on either the team’s radio or television broadcasts following his recent retirement. One of the most iconic figures in franchise history left big shoes to fill, although his successor is already somebody who sounds quite familiar to local sports fans.
Chris Kroeger, the front man for WFNZ’s “Primetime” afternoon show for a majority of the last four years, will be picking up the headset and doing play-by-play for the Hornets starting next season. In addition to his daily sports radio obligations, Kroeger has also been working on the Charlotte Hornets Radio Network since 2015 as well.
Although just 31 years old, Kroeger is well-versed in the industry and brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the organization. A native Charlottean who attended Piedmont High School and grew up rooting for his beloved hometown team, Kroeger first got his start in radio as a sophomore at Appalachian State.
“We had a student union just like everywhere else and I think I saw a flyer that said WASU was looking for radio DJ’s and I thought that seemed interesting,” recalled Kroeger. “I didn’t have a major at that point. I went to the meeting and if you go through a class for the semester, you can be on air. I thought that seemed fun. I did that and worked at the student radio station.”
He added, “We played college rock music and we got to do talk shows. We would call our football and basketball games at school. We really treated it like a real radio station because it was. That was my first kind of taste into radio and we treated it like it was a real job. We were pretty proud of what we did.”
It didn’t take long for Kroeger to discover that radio was his passion and he soon began taking the necessary steps to start turning his new-found hobby into a potential career.
“For the first semester, you could only do your music shift. You’d take it to and from break, intro songs, things of that nature,” he described. “After a semester, if you did that, you could host a specialist show. If you wanted to do a certain music show, you could do it. If you wanted to do a talk show, you could do it. Me and a bunch of buddies did a sports talk show. I’d probably hate to go back and listen to those tapes now,” he said with a smile.
“We had a great mentor, Dan Vallie, that ran the station and had been in the radio station forever. He was really well-connected and well-regarded. He did a great job of telling us, ‘This could be a job for you. This could be a career for you if you’re passionate about it.’ I think after about that first year, I realized this needed to be my major and this can be my career.”
Shortly after graduating in 2010, Kroeger was hired as a Pac-12 Broadcast Producer and Studio Host for IMG College in Winston Salem, NC, where he was primarily tasked with archiving all the station’s on-air content. He landed his most recent gig with WFNZ in June of 2014, becoming the host of the station’s weekday afternoon drive show from 3-7 p.m.
The following September, he began anchoring WFNZ’s pre-game coverage for each of the Charlotte Hornets’ 82 regular season contests. For home outings, he provided sideline reports, injury updates, statistical notes and postgame interviews for the team’s flagship station as well.
Over the years, countless adjectives have piled up to describe Kroeger not only professionally, but personally as well. His love for Charlotte and the surrounding community is undeniable. He’s knowledgeable and informed on a wide range of topics stretching well behind the realm of sports. His dialogue with radio callers resonates a familiarity that suggests the two sides have known each other for years. Above all though, he’s simply passionate about what he does.
When Martin – who did a combination of both television and radio broadcasts over his 28 years covering Charlotte basketball – announced his retirement in February, Kroeger knew a fantastic opportunity was on the horizon. When he was eventually offered the position, he immediately accepted, although says the new role still hasn’t hit him just yet.
One of the more underrated difficulties of calling sports on the radio is the imperativeness to make the audience feel like it’s in the arena watching the action live. It’s a skill that takes a long time to master, but when done well, creates an emotional bond between the broadcaster and the listeners.
“Radio is such an interesting medium because you connect with those [on-air] voices in such a way,” he said. “No offense to T.V., I don’t think you have the connection with some of the voices because the picture is right there in front of you. I think with radio, you form such a connection. I think for the people that drive around all the time and never get to step inside the arena, you’re the only picture they ever see of Hornets basketball. [Opening night] is going to be a really crazy night. Game No. 1 – I’ll have to start forming those bonds.”
Martin’s retirement brought with it an outpouring of fans that made it known that growing up, it was he who turned them into Charlotte Hornets and NBA fans. Becoming that potential presence in a young person’s life is a heavy thought admits a grinning Kroeger, but not something he’s necessarily unfamiliar with based on his time at WFNZ.
“You know what’s cool about being on the air on WFNZ the last four years?” he asked. “I’ve really connected with a lot of people at or around my age, maybe even a little bit younger than me. We talk about Charlotte being a young sports town. It’s not young anymore. We’re into that second and third generation of sports fans where it’s been passed down.”
“I think it’s been really cool the last few years to be on the air every day and people say, ‘Chris, you speak for us as a fan base.’ Now, I get to take that opportunity to the Hornets broadcast. Now, I get to be that person who grew up listening to Steve narrate 28 years of basketball in this city and I’ll have my own experiences with the team. That’s pretty special to me.”
Kroeger insists that while he’s taking over for Martin, he’s not going to be replacing him. Things won’t be done exactly the same, which is a necessary part of the sports radio industry, he states. There is one particular attribute though Kroeger does hope to emulate from his predecessor.
“Steve was so conversational. That was the beauty of Steve. You could hear him call a game with Matt Carroll at home and it was great. You’d listen to him on the road and he’d be by himself and it was great. To me, Steve called a basketball game maybe the way some baseball announcers call a game. It’s very conversational. They’re weaving stories into their play-by-play and he had that ability to do it because he had seen all 28 years of Hornets basketball. He had this knowledge that was institutional where he could point back to a single game or play that was run even 10, 15 years prior,” said Kroeger.
“The thing I always loved about Steve was you knew when he was excited about a Hornets play or an exciting dunk or shot or game-winning call, but you wouldn’t call him a homer. He called the game right down the middle and when the other team had an exciting play, I think you felt that, too. If you weren’t at the game, I think you would feel, ‘Man, the other team just did something impressive too.’ I think Steve always did a good job of being fair to both sides, but when the Hornets were winning and making special plays, he really brought that to Hornets fans.”
With a new General Manager and President of Basketball Operations in Mitch Kupchak, a new Head Coach in James Borrego and now a new radio play-by-play broadcaster, the Hornets organization is quickly taking on a fresh identity in more ways than one.
“That’s the cool part, too, because I think the team’s established, but clearly from a basketball side of things, you’re trying to take this to another level,” says Kroeger. “It’s really cool to come in here and I guess I’ll kind of be joined at the hip with Mitch and Coach Borrego. It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be different in a good way. It’s going to be a new era.”
A new era in many ways it certainly will be for the Charlotte Hornets franchise and its fans as preparations for the 2018-19 season continue to quickly unfold this summer. Things won’t be the same without Steve Martin on the airwaves, but you’d be hard-pressed to find as fitting, talented and passionate an heir as Charlotte’s own Chris Kroeger.