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Bears voice Jeff Joniak won’t hold back in fan-less Ford Field

Joniak and analyst Tom Thayer will be in Detroit to call the season opener. They’ll make sure it sounds like a normal broadcast, though it will be anything but.

Jeff Joniak begins his 20th season as the Bears’ radio voice alongside analyst Tom Thayer.
Chicago Bears

Jeff Joniak doesn’t have a restrictor plate on his engine when he’s calling Bears games. His energy and enthusiasm come roaring through the radio.

Don’t expect that to change Sunday in Detroit, where he’ll broadcast the season opener with analyst Tom Thayer from a fan-less Ford Field.

“I can’t imagine calling a game without fans because you do feed off of their energy. It’s no different than a player on third down,” said Joniak, who will begin his 20th season as the Bears’ play-by-play voice. “But it’s football, and the passion that comes with that just naturally flows out of Tom and me.”

The stadium will sound that way at times, too. NFL Films has soundtracks from 30 of the 32 stadiums over the last four years (stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas weren’t built yet) that an audio engineer in each city will use to authentically replicate crowd noise, including songs and chants.

“I know that it’ll be weird,” Joniak said. “But it’s not like we’re going to be echoing through Ford Field and the players are going to turn around and look up and see who’s talking.”

Talking might be the least of Joniak’s concerns for a broadcast that must adhere to social distancing. Only Joniak, Thayer and engineer Paul Zerang will be in Detroit, and Joniak will wear a few hats. He’ll be his own spotter – no easy task with numerous personnel packages – and information that normally would flow through a producer will flow right to him.

Other members of the crew will work elsewhere. Matt Menke, the usual spotter and conduit from the studio to Joniak, was moved to highlight coordinator and will work from the WBBM studios. Statistician Doug Colletti will work remotely and send pertinent numbers to a monitor in front of Joniak.

Sideline reporter Mark Grote won’t be in Detroit in an effort to send the leanest crew possible. But he will work at home games, confined to the lower level of the stands. The pre- and postgame shows will be done remotely. Analysts Jim Schwantz and Jay Hilgenberg will be at home, and host Ron Gleason will be in the studio to help coordinate.

For Gleason, who doubles as director of news and programming at WBBM Newsradio, the planning has been exhaustive.

“This has been maybe the most challenging year of my career because we’ve done the same thing for Newsradio,” he said. “What people would see in our newsroom a year ago at this time versus today is night and day. So it’s more of the same for the Bears broadcast. It’s a lot of logistics to work out. Our engineering crew has been unbelievable. It’s very difficult.”

It might get trickier. Joniak, Thayer and Zerang will travel to Detroit because of its close proximity, driving up Saturday and returning after the game. They’ll work every home game from the Soldier Field booth. But whether they travel to the other seven road games will be determined closer to those dates.

Gleason said he still was working on where remote broadcasts would originate. For those, Gleason needs to ensure that the crew has access to certain camera shots beyond what the TV feed provides. He has to go through the NFL to hammer out those details.

The hope is that such behind-the-scenes work stays there and listeners detect nothing different from the broadcast they’re accustomed to. Joniak will see to it that it sounds the same. But the environment surrounding it isn’t lost on him.

“All of these things that you take for granted you can’t take for granted,” Joniak said. “We’re not going to be going out to dinner. Tom and I are bringing our own food. We’re not taking any chances. We made it this far without fortunately being infected with this virus. I want to keep it that way.”

Remote patrol

  • Bears-Lions will be called by Fox’s No. 4 team of play-by-play voice Kenny Albert, analyst Jonathan Vilma and reporter Shannon Spake. The crew also will be at Bears-Falcons in Week 3.
  • Deposed “Monday Night Football” analyst Booger McFarland replaces Louis Riddick on ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown.” Riddick is in the new “MNF” booth with Steve Levy and Brian Griese.
  • Kevin Harlan alert: Any game becomes entertaining with Harlan on the call. The Chicago market gets to hear him handle Chargers-Bengals (No. 1 pick Joe Burrow’s debut) on Ch. 2 at 3:05 p.m.