Depending on your choice of medium for the Patriots’ preseason opener Friday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, you’ll hear either a new play-by-play voice or very little play-by-play at all.
On 98.5 The Sports Hub, Bob Socci will make his debut as the new radio voice of the Patriots, joining holdover analyst Scott Zolak in the booth. Socci replaces the legendary Gil Santos, who retired following the AFC Championship game in January after 36 seasons as the Patriots announcer, the last 22 consecutively.
Over on the television side, there’s a different kind of change in and on the air. Channel 4 is trying an experimental and innovative approach to the preseason broadcasts. Staples Don Criqui and Randy Cross are gone, as is the standard down-and-distance approach to calling an NFL game.
Instead, Channel 4 sports anchor and reporter Dan Roche will serve as a de facto in-booth host, providing occasional play-by-play but more often leading conversation among analyst Christian Fauria, sideline analyst Matt Chatham, reporter Steve Burton, and, in a separate studio, Patriots Football Weekly reporters Paul Perrillo and Andy Hart.
While it’s not as much turnover as, say, the Patriots receiving corps has undergone, the new voices and styles will take some getting used to — particularly on the radio side.
The Patriots have not had a radio play-by-play voice other than Santos since Dale Arnold in 1990. It’s more truth than hyperbole to suggest that Santos was New England’s voice of autumn, at least for sports fans.
Socci, whose professional credits include Navy football games for 16 years, Patriot League basketball, and, for part of this season, Pawtucket Red Sox games, is an unabashed admirer of his predecessor and admits he’s anxious to make a good impression on those unfamiliar with his work.
“Ask my wife, because she’s heard a lot [about nerves] lately,’’ said Socci, who will be just fine if he comes across as friendly on the air as he does in conversation. “I understand how it is. If you make a negative first impression in whatever field you’re in, or whatever situation you’re in professionally or socially, it’s difficult to overcome.
“I know this is a clichéd line, but it reminds me of the old Joe DiMaggio line about why he played so hard every day: because somebody might be watching him for the first time.
“As a broadcaster, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing the Patriots and Eagles or the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings in April — you want anyone who tunes in to hear you for the first time to have a positive impression of your work.
“I’ll admit, it’s definitely weighed on my mind. All the different variables. What are they going to think of my style, what are they going to think of my voice? I can’t screw up names and numbers.
“I’m human, and I’m going to make mistakes. But once the game starts, I hope those things don’t enter my mind.”
Socci and Zolak have met with the crew and producers about the logistics of the broadcast. What they haven’t done is rehearse, but that’s not unusual. Socci is familiar with Zolak’s enthusiastic style, and because the former’s approach doesn’t differ much from Santos’s, the adjustment should be relatively seamless.
“There will be a lot of similarities between how I call a game and how Gil called a game,’’ said Socci. “Not to say that we sound alike, but in terms of wanting to have enough room to set the formation, recap the play, the nuts and bolts of it, the yardage, the down and distance for the next play.”
Socci offered something of a self-scouting report on what listeners should expect.
“I try to have an attention to detail,’’ he said. “Try to paint a picture. Be descriptive. Interject enough background but don’t try to force things. Show excitement at appropriate times but don’t be over the top.
“I’m not one who’s ever tried to develop a shtick. Hopefully I have a style that’s distinctive and unique. Hopefully be an easy listen. My objective over the course of three hours is not to strain the listeners’ ears.
“I’m also going to try to give Scott as much space as he needs. The first commercial break, we’ll talk it over, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, do you need more time, do you need me to get in or get out, give me a wave, and I’ll do the same to you.’ ”
The nonverbal cues should help accelerate Socci and Zolak’s adjustment to each other. It’s much more complicated over on the television side, where Roche acknowledged, “The innovation comes without a net.’’
“I have a lot of juggling to do, I know that,’’ said Roche, whose calls of the high school Super Bowls on Channel 38 convinced Kraft Sports Productions executive producer Matt Smith he was right for this role. “It’s definitely out-of-the-box thinking, and my first reaction when I was approached was, ‘You want me to do what?’
“I’m going into it ready to do play-by-play, but it will evolve into conversation and discussion. I think by the time we’re done the fans will see it as better than your standard ‘we’re at third-down-and-7 here in the third quarter, Patriots up, 14-13’ sort of thing.”
Roche, Fauria, Chatham, and the rest of the crew have had one rehearsal, voicing over the tape of an old game.
“We did the first quarter, then stopped and talked and got input, and felt our way through it,’’ Roche said. “And then there have been a lot of conversations among all of us about what we think may work and what we should touch upon.
“Personally, I like that, when unfamiliar players are on the field in the third quarter. I can ask Fauria about, say, Zach Sudfeld, and we can discuss what it takes for a tight end to succeed in this offense.
“But in a way, it’s the same for us as it is for the Patriots. You can get all the practice reps you want, but you never really learn anything until game time.’’