Guest post by Christopher Bowers from AO Radio

Professional sport is thought of as a very visual spectacle, but the growth of the internet has made sport come back to life for people with vision handicaps.

In the early years of broadcasting, sports reporting became a staple of radio. Early soccer commentaries were based around a division of the field into eight numbered squares, so the listener would always know where the ball was.

The advent of television killed off a lot of live radio coverage, with radio thought of as a poor substitute for watching on TV. Cricket was really the only form of commentary that survived as an art form in its own right, the lilting tones of the commentator’s voice reflecting the soporific nature of many matches.

But as the internet and smartphones have brought audio to most people’s pockets, the lost art of tennis commentary for radio has made a comeback.
One of the leading companies promoting audio tennis commentary is Tennis Radio Network, which runs AO Radio, the official radio service of the Australian Open championships.

From the moment players walk onto Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on the first day of the fortnight-long Grand Slam tournament, AO Radio broadcasts to the world, describing the action as it unfolds and painting the pictures from one of the world’s great sporting events.

TRN’s Chris Bowers, who is AO Radio’s executive editor and one of the commentators, says: ‘Our challenge is to bring the event to life, which means being the eyes of the listeners. That’s why we describe not just the action, but the arena, the clothing, and distinguishing features.

‘If a listener hears a “splat” sound when a ball is hit, our commentator will often say “… and he hits the ball into the Kia sign on the net” so it’s clear why the sound was different. We’ll talk about players’ clothing, their hair, their mannerisms, though we’re still a bit squeamish about skin colour as that could lead people to think we’re being racist. The voices of our commentators are a constant dance with the sound of the ball, the crowd, the umpire and even the grunts of the players.’

AO Radio has two commentators on air at all times, and Bowers’ rule is ‘one Aussie, one non-Aussie’ to reflect the fact that it’s an international event but on Australian soil. The commentators encourage listeners to write in with questions and comments, and when the on-court action goes into a lull, the on-air voices engage with listeners from right around the world.

‘Obviously most of our listeners are fully sighted people who happen to be away from their television,’ says Bowers, ‘whether through work, travel or other circumstances, but many listeners are blind or partially sighted, and we’re so grateful for their presence. We always get a handful of messages from blind listeners who thank us for the service, and one person last year wrote in saying he had felt cut off from the Australian Open when he lost his sight but that we had brought it back for him. That makes our job so worthwhile.’

The 2019 Australian Open runs from Monday 14 to Sunday 27 January, starting at 10.45 Melbourne time. AO Radio can be found via, via the internet radio finder, or via the ATP website