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Best: Islanders' radio shift misses big picture

It was a snowy Tuesday in February, and the Islanders were trailing the Predators as I drove randomly around western Nassau County and eastern Queens, having accepted a challenge:

Both to follow the action on a simulcast of MSG Plus' television coverage and maintain contact with the Islanders' primary radio outlet - WMJC (94.3-FM).

The former was tricky, what with the TV guys naturally not focused on painting word pictures. But that became a moot point when the signal itself lost a mismatch against Beyoncé on another station; she had no trouble drowning out Howie Rose and Billy Jaffe.

When I lost contact for good, the Islanders trailed 3-2. It was only later that I learned they had tied it with 11 seconds left . . . and that John Tavares had won it in the shootout.

Such frustrations are not uncommon among fans.

"It's terrible,'' said Matt Scordato, 40, of Hempstead, who lamented both the practical and symbolic aspects. "They seem to do everything on the cheap or halfway . . . It smacks of the minor leagues.''

At least Scordato has a shot at hearing the signal. Radio games are but a rumor for Tom Morgan, 48, of Mount Vernon.

"I think it's taken away a huge avenue,'' he said. "Of nine professional [area] teams, they're the only ones whose games can't be [widely] heard on radio. They never see the forest for the trees.''

All this happened in two steps.

Before last season the Islanders left 50,000-watt WBBR-AM for WMJC (WHLI-AM for day games). They also can be heard on satellite radio and the Islanders' Web site.

Before this season they ditched radio announcers Steve Mears and Chris King to pick up MSG's audio.

The primary motivation in both cases: Money.

Leaving WBBR saved a lot of it, because the Islanders were paying for the privilege of a powerful signal - as the Devils do in their hugely expensive deal with WFAN.

Not sending King and Mears on the road saved more. The two moves saved a total of about $500,000 per season.

"The financial losses of the Islanders are well documented and significant,'' team president Chris Dey said. "We have a long way to go in addressing the total loss.

"But with our radio partners, Long Island Radio Group and MSG, we've been able to take some positive steps to create a more sustainable radio broadcast structure over the past two years.''

Fair enough. But Dey put an overly happy face on it when he said of the simulcast, "I wouldn't say it's perfect, but I think it's a good situation . . . The feedback I have gotten has all been positive.''

In fact, Scordato and Morgan are far from alone. Granted, Islanders radio is a relatively minor element of most fans' experience. But it is an element.

With a transmitter in Smithtown, WMJC's primary range, according to Radio-Locater.com, goes from around Coram to Levittown. (WHLI's range is smaller.)

And for those who do hear games, there is no denying TV and radio calls differ.

"My perspective is it's not a simulcast,'' Rose said. "They are picking up our TV feed on the radio. We don't make concessions to a radio broadcast.''

Added Rose, a Mets radio veteran: "Having seen the less-than-favorable response I think the Islanders have gotten for the simulcast or quasi-simulcast, I hope they reconsider for next year.''

King still appears on the radiocasts, providing between-periods updates; he does not travel with the team. "There are other teams that do it. I just didn't think it would happen here - not in this market,'' he said. (The Stars and Sabres also simulcast TV audio.)

"Howie and Billy do such a great job, but they have a conversational style, so it's much better suited to TV than radio.

"It's a sport that is very different on television than radio, so fans miss the radio call. We do our best, but it is what it is. It's still a television call on radio.''

Hershiser replaces Phillips

ESPN yesterday announced that Orel Hershiser will replace the deposed Steve Phillips as the third man in its "Sunday Night Baseball" booth, joining Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, who enter their 21st season.

The trio will debut on a Mets-Braves game March 23 and call the Yankees-Red Sox opener April 4.

Hershiser is a likable, knowledgeable fellow who should fit in nicely.

Bobby Valentine, another ESPN analyst, would have been a more intriguing, potentially combustible option to succeed his old GM with the Mets.

But one downside with Valentine is that unlike Hershiser, he could bolt at any time for a managerial job. Hershiser could be there a long time, perhaps beyond the Miller/Morgan era.

Magic-Bird film slam dunk

HBO's latest gem, "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals," premiering tomorrow night, delivers both a primer on the rivalry for those too young to remember it and new insights for those who lived it.

As usual, HBO has assembled rarely seen footage - such as Marty Glickman calling a game from the 1978 "World Invitational Tournament," during which Bird and Johnson first met and played together.

But the best part of the documentary by far is the separate interviews of Johnson and Bird. The sit-down with Bird is the real eye-opener; he reveals his humor and passion in a way most viewers never have heard before.

The perspective of middle age has softened the extremes of both men's younger personalities and in the process made them more human and relatable.

Bryant Gumbel offers the most memorable line not from one of the principals: "One of my pet peeves is when people say, 'Oh, Michael Jordan saved the NBA.' "

Here Gumbel uttered an epithet allowed on HBO but not in Newsday.

Then he added, "Magic and Larry saved the NBA."

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