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Local broadcaster's podcast calls attention to COVID-19's impact on sports

Eric Coughlin
Special to The Detroit News

Jeremy Otto scrolled through Twitter and watched as his summer gigs evaporated, one after another.

“I was hearing that stuff was canceled on Twitter, and that’s how I found out I was losing out on jobs,” Otto said. “There was a day, right after they postponed the NBA season, where I lost four or five of my gigs in a matter of six hours.”

Otto, a Livonia resident, is the TV play-by-play voice for Detroit Mercy men’s basketball, but his fingerprints are all over other corners of the Metro Detroit sports media world.

Jeremy Otto, of Livonia, launched a new sports podcast during the coronavirus outbreak called "In the Absence of Sports." Otto has already recorded and published 12 episodes.

His second season with Detroit Mercy had just wrapped up when the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to the sports universe. On Otto’s docket for spring and summer were public address work for Michigan and Madonna sports, a weekly podcast for the Catholic High School League, play-by-play and podcast duties for professional soccer’s Michigan Stars, and whatever else he could dig up until football work for the CHSL started up in the fall. And it was all now canceled or up in the air.

Otto, 26, had been able to scratch together a living in sports media by relying on a relentless work ethic and utilizing key connections he had made along the way, but now he found himself with a lot of time on his hands and no hustles to fill it.

Where some would see opportunities lost, Otto saw an opportunity gained.

“I know people are craving sports content because sports are over for now,” Otto said. “That’s really why I started this podcast.”

Twelve episodes in and with more on the way, “In The Absence of Sports” has a sparkling 5.0 rating on Apple Podcasts and has reeled in a diverse group of guests affected by the lack of ballgames. Heavy-hitters like Tigers radio play-by-play man Dan Dickerson and Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson have chimed in, but Otto has also unearthed interesting stories from guests like former Michigan basketball player Jordan Morgan, Madison Heights Bishop Foley football coach Brian Barnes, Olympians, an MLB scout, college football recruiting writer Allen Trieu, baseball writer Emily Waldon and Ryan Field of ABC 7 in New York, among others.

“I’m trying to bring out something positive with every guest,” Otto said. “Everyone’s seeing a lot of negative right now and I can’t be 100 percent positive, but I’m trying to find stories about what their lives are like now, go behind the scenes to get stuff that’s a little more positive. I’m trying to bring some lightheartedness into it.”

Positivity is a key theme in Otto’s life right now. On top of losing work, uncertainty swirls around his wedding that's scheduled for May 23. His new podcast is a welcome distraction from the stress.

“It’s a crazy time on all fronts," Otto said. "We’ve been on edge about it. As long as someone will marry us, we’ll get married, and then maybe do the big party later. We want to do it safely, but who knows what will be allowed and what won’t a month from now. It’s exhausting.”

Topics on Otto’s podcast can be vastly different depending on what’s going on in his guest’s life right now. The challenges of raising a pet are discussed in Johnson’s episode, and escaping Turkey before the entire country went on lockdown is described in Morgan’s episode.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate to get the guests that I do,” Otto said. “I figured they might be more likely to come on a podcast now because they’re sitting at home bored. Some guests I have relationships with and then they help me find my next contact, but a lot of it is trying to contact these people blind. I go on their personal websites, try to find their email, reach out on social media. I’ve been surprised at how many I’ve gotten.”

Reaching out to a personal connection is how Otto landed his first guest, Dickerson. Otto interned in the Tigers radio broadcast booth years ago and considers Dickerson a friend.

“He (Dickerson) treated me so well,” Otto said. “He respected me, and that’s something you don’t really know for sure going into an internship like that. I ask him for career advice, he listens to my play-by-play work and tells me what he thinks. He used to do play-by-play for Mercy and he gave me a really nice recommendation that led to that job.”

Otto grew up in St. Clair Shores and went to U-D Jesuit where he started helping out with student-run broadcasts. One time the upperclassman doing play-by-play didn’t show for a game, Otto stepped in and a career was launched.

“I was a shy high schooler, kind of leery of that play-by-play role,” Otto said.

That shyness gave way to a smooth, polished sound on the mic, whether delivering play-by-play or hosting “In The Absence of Sports.” Podcasts have exploded in popularity during the last decade and the quality level hasn’t always kept up with the variety of topics one might want to explore. All a podcast requires is a recording device and internet connection, but Otto has ensured that “In The Absence of Sports” delivers professionalism.

Chasing down relevant guests, hiring a voice-over artist to record an intro and Otto’s own clean delivery make “In The Absence of Sports” seem like a well-funded operation that’s been firing on all cylinders for years, even though it was hatched only a month ago.

“I jokingly tell people I feel like I have a full-time job with this podcast,” Otto said. “I wake up, try to book a guest, do an interview, edit the podcast, post it and then promote it. At first I didn’t know how many I would do and now I’m pumping the brakes on how many guests I book because I’ve been having to release the podcasts too fast.”

"In The Absence of Sports" isn’t paying Otto’s bills, at least not yet, but despite all the industry troubles, he remains committed to sports voice work.

“I’ve kept a pretty good mindset. I haven’t considered switching careers," Otto said. "If anything, it’s just a wake-up call to stay on your toes and roll with the punches in this business. It’s an opportunity to grow.”

Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.