Joe Starkey: A Man For All Seasons

He's The Voice Of The 49ers.
And The San Jose Sharks.
And Cal Football.
And The Sacramento Surge.
What A Bonanza!

By Jason Jackson
From The Bay Area Radio Digest, Summer 1992

So you think you have a busy schedule?

Just for the sake of argument, try this as your itinerary. Start with Calgary, then Hartford, Boston, New Jersey, New York, Columbus, Winnipeg and Sacramento during a frantic two-week span. Then, we'll suggest that you work two jobs during this trip. Did we mention that this is your slowest, most relaxing period of the year?

Did we mention that this is what Joe Starkey's life has become — a frantic mix of hockey, football and airline food?

Starkey spent the past hockey season as the San Jose Sharks' first television announcer, wrapping up his ice duties in early April. A couple of weeks earlier, he began his second season behind the microphone for the Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football (broadcast over KRAK-AM 1140, Sacramento). Soon, he'll begin preparation for 49ers and Cal Bears football.

Mind you, Starkey still does two sports reports per hour every weekday for KGO Newstalk 810. That's right — he's also their sports director. You begin to ask yourself if the man ever sleeps.

“It's reaching the point where, realistically, something will have to be eliminated,” says Starkey with a sigh.

Of course, twenty years ago you would have never believed that Starkey would be faced with this problem.

“I was running the Northern California region of Union Bank for industrial relations,” explained Starkey from his Walnut Creek home. “It was a good job. That's the main reason why I felt I was in good position to give broadcasting a try.”

“Sportscasting was always something in the back of my mind,” said Starkey. “Things were going along kind of smooth and I got this degree, then got a logical job in the nine-to-five world ... I just sort of let it roll me along until I found I had enough of an interest to at least give it a try.”

So, with little more than an MBA in Industrial Relations from Loyola University in Chicago and a burning desire to call sports action, Starkey “made a few phone calls and knocked down a few doors on business trips.”

“I sent off maybe two or three demo tapes,” said Starkey. “I knew the odds were stacked against me and I needed things to be in just the right position to be able to get a major-league job without any experience.”

The right situation turned out to be with the California Seals of the National Hockey League, owned by the tight-fisted Charlie Finley. “This was a hockey team that nobody cared about,” Starkey laughed.

“Finley didn't want to spend any money on an announcer and he certainly didn't want to move anybody from another part of the country. I had the unique perspective of being a former Chicagoan who knew the sport. I grew up with it and played it all my life and felt I could broadcast it. The combination made me irresistible because, besides, I was willing to work cheap.”

“I had done a little bit of work for free on KUSF,” continued Starkey. “I worked the USF Dons basketball games for two years — no pay, just for the experience. I would do their home games and we did some road games if they were fairly within reason, in California or maybe in Oregon. But that was it.”

Suddenly, Starkey was working in the big leagues. His first game was only a week after he was named announcer of the Seals.

“My wife always said she could tell how nervous I was because my voice was at a much higher level,” said Starkey of his first game. “It was a very difficult circumstance. When I look back on it, I doubt anyone else would have even kept me after the first game.

“You're talking with somebody who had no broadcasting experience and my knowledge of the NHL had really slipped since leaving Chicago for California four years before. I had to try to acquaint myself with a sport and two teams that I knew nothing about in the space of one week, plus do all the things that are basic to broadcasting.”

Not only did Starkey lack broadcasting experience, but he was also lacking someone to help guide him through his first game.

“Since it was a road game, there was no production help of any kind,” chuckled Starkey. “I was sent by myself to broadcast this game up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and sink or swim. It was a rather unnerving experience.”

“It took me about a half a season to start to feel comfortable,” recalled Starkey. “The one advantage I did have was that I've always had a good memory. I could just memorize the names and do the basics very quickly. After that, it was filling in the rules and details of learning how to be a broadcaster.”

Twenty years later, Starkey's resumé reads like a road map of America. He's done football with the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos, basketball with the Golden State Warriors and professional soccer — yes, soccer — with the Oakland Stompers. And that's just scratching the surface.

“I'm sure I could name all the teams I've worked for, but it would not be easy,” said Starkey. “I'd have to slow down a bit.”

“One of the things that makes it look like I've done so many teams is that I did strictly freelance, much like Barry Tompkins does now,” explained Starkey. “My way of earning employment was just to broadcast teams. If they hired me, I'd go to the game.”

“Now, with the base of KGO that I've had for well over a decade, it made a difference until the last few years, where it's gotten real busy again. For many years during the 'Eighties, I only did Cal.”

It is with Cal, particularly its football program, that Starkey is probably most well-known.

“I've done it for so long,” said Starkey. “I started with them in 1975 and that's unbroken in all those years. I've developed a real affection for the school and the people who work there and I understand how difficult it is at a place like Cal to succeed. I take it more personally when they win or lose above probably anyone else.”

Nonetheless, Starkey admits that it's quite a thrill to be the play-by-play man for the 49ers. “How often does somebody walk into a position where, in your first year as a play-by-play guy, you do the Super Bowl?” said Starkey emphatically. “That was sensational.”

“I'm eternally grateful that they would make that decision under very difficult circumstances after Lon Simmons left. They didn't know whether I could do it. I'm sure they were wary of whether or not they should bring somebody in with only college experience. And the fact that they did ... I'm delighted.”

Another team that Starkey was associated with was the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League from 1983-85.

“I really enjoyed doing Invaders' games,” Starkey beamed. “Beyond Cal, I would say the most enjoyable experience of my career was the USFL. The players were remarkably down to earth; they weren't caught up in the egos and arrogance we see so much of in professional sports these days. They just played for the sheer joy of playing.”

It was Starkey's passion for the USFL that eventually led him to the WLAF and the Sacramento Surge.

“That's exactly why I took it,” said Starkey of his job with the Surge. “The general manager of the Surge was an executive with the Invaders. Many people on the staff are former Invader people. When they asked me if I'd be interested, I didn't even ask if I'd make any money off of it. It sounded like fun and I said I'd love to do it. Plus, the opportunity to make an annual trip to Europe and broadcast a game in, say, Wembley Stadium ... it's just too much fun to turn down.”

Ironically, Starkey first decided to give broadcasting a try because he wanted to call baseball games, a sport that is absent from his list of accomplishments.

“Everything started happening in so many different directions that I just never got back into it,” said Starkey of baseball. “Things just kept opening up in other fields and so I would take them on, and suddenly baseball would be an impossible thing to add on because of other commitments. But if I had an ultimate choice, there's no question that I would love to do the Chicago Cubs or the Oakland A's. I think those would be great jobs.”

It would seem as if, with his extensive knowledge of several sports, Starkey would be a natural for the networks. He's not so sure.

“I don't know if that's even in my best interests,” said Starkey of a network job. “There are so few jobs at the networks that one week, they've got you covering motocross or something else you don't like. Only being handed somebody like Al Michaels' job for a million a year would be enough to attract me, to tell you the truth.”

“I have no great burning ambition to go any farther than this,” continued Starkey. “I really enjoy being involved with teams. You get to know the people, you get to become part of the history of the team and watch it develop from year to year when things go bad and things go good.”

And if there's one thing Joe Starkey knows, it's what its like being involved with teams.

Copyright © 1992 by Radio Digest Publications. May not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without the expressed permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


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