Chris Cote Talks Surf Commentator Criticism and Why Being On Air Is Harder Than You Think

Chris, deep in the US Open mayhem. Photo: selfie

The Inertia

Chris Cote looks like what Ross Williams would look like if he let himself go,” reads one anonymous comment I found floating around the internet. Another reads, “Chris, i love the key MUTE when you’re commenting the heats.”

Anywhere surf commentators go online, an army of critical internet trolls will inevitably follow. It always seems that the comment sections of posts related to or containing surf commentators are reliably filled with negativity ranging from how terrible to how boring the commentators are. Throughout my life of being a big consumer of sports – not just surfing – I’ve always wondered why the online sentiment towards surf commentators tends to skew so negatively. In most major sports, oftentimes the broadcast commentators are beloved parts of the fan base. At the very least the sentiment appears to be more balanced.

So why do surf fans in particular treat commentators like internet punching bags? To get to the bottom of it, I went to an industry veteran, Chris Cote. From being an ex-pro surfer himself, to the editor of Transworld Surf, to becoming a broadcast staple in the world of action sports, Cote has seen it all. He’s received his fair share of hate from the internet and he’s not afraid to poke fun and jump into the fray of a comment section himself. Cote broke it down for me, from why he thinks commentating a surf broadcast is harder than you think, to the most memorable hate mail he’s received, to how you can get your foot in the door as a commentator (that’s for all you online trolls who think you could do it better).

My perspective is that there’s a particularly disproportionate level of negative criticism of announcers in surfing compared to other sports. Do you agree? Or is it just me?

I always did agree with it. I actually read Joe Buck’s autobiography. He cops it a lot and it almost seems like he relishes in it, being beloved and equally hated. And reading that was eye-opening, in a way. With surfing being relatively small, the pool of commentators is smaller as well. So you’re going to get a lot of the same voices and the same people, a lot more time with them, nine hours a day sometimes. There are not a lot of other sports, maybe cricket or golf, where you’re literally broadcasting for nine to 10 hours. There’s a lot of time in the span of a day to flub a word, say something stupid, repeat yourself, or get tired. It’s a lot harder than people give it credit for. But it’s also a lot of fun, if you let it be.

I feel like it’s a small, vocal group that hates on announcers. It’s kind of funny. We’re the outward facing entity. So if the waves are bad, or whatever, your surfer didn’t win, it’s really easy to just go after the announcers because we’re the ones talking about it. But I think, overwhelmingly, when we’re at events, whether it’s skate, surf, or snow, for the most part, in person, you get a ton of cool interactions, compliments, and interest in what you do.

More often than not, (the haters) are people that just want attention. I don’t validate my job or my skills with online comments. It’s just entertainment. And when they stop talking, that’s when there’s a problem.

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Are the announcers scrolling the comment section during an event?

I don’t work extra hard to try to read all the comments, but during events I’ll go to comment sections (of other pubs). I’ll go to the YouTube comment section. And if I’m not working events, I like to be in the mix. From my experience, I’d say half of us read them – look at them, aren’t bothered by them, laugh at them. The other half just ignore them, pretend they don’t exist. And that’s their way of dealing with people being lame on the internet. I fully welcome constructive criticism – notes by fans, by viewers, by experts, whatever. And I have changed things about my commentary style because of comments that have come through. But most of the time, it’s just stuff like, “You suck. I hate your voice.” 

Has there been any one comment that stands out?

My favorite online troll story was early on when I was at Transworld. This one dude, every day, would leave comment after comment. Then it started getting into family stuff. Just super lame. Finally, I talked to our IT guy, and I was like, “Yo, can you track this?” He tracked it down to a flower shop in Newport Beach. So I called the shop and said, “Hey, this is Chris Cote calling from Transworld. How’s it going?” The dude went silent. “I’m assuming you are – whatever his fake name was.” He says, “Yeah…” And I say, “Did I do something to you? Did I drop in on you? Did I hook up with your girlfriend? Like, what’s up?” He was quiet, and just goes, “Dude, I’m the biggest fan. I don’t know, I started doing it and you started replying. I got caught up in it.” He was so apologetic. That was kind of the thing that made me realize, your haters are almost bigger fans than the people that love you or enjoy your work. They’re taking the time to actually react and put it out there.

What are some of the challenges of a broadcast that those watching from a distance don’t realize?

It’s a real test in multitasking, especially in my position as a play-by-play guy. You’re doing air traffic control. You’re setting up the heat, you’re talking about stats, you’re building the storyline. You’re trying to keep things moving, you’re trying to get the best out of your color analyst. I’m trying not to repeat words. I’m trying not to delve into commentary tropes or cliches. And I’m trying to be entertaining and fun. You’re keeping track of time and commercials, basically everything that’s happening on screen. You are orchestrating what the viewer experience is. And while you’re doing it, you have a director or producer in your ear. So you could be mid-sentence and the producer’s going, “Alright, we’re going to cut to the John John Florence interview in 10, 9, 8…” So as you’re talking, the countdown is happening, you have to wrap that sentence up and get into this piece of content, go to a commercial, or throw to the sideline interview. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I think it’s a pretty underrated skill.

You have to master the art of multitasking in a totally different way than you would ever really do it. I’ve done career days at high schools and done some training with future commentators. I tell them to talk about something and then I whisper stuff in their ear. They can’t react to me. And it’s really fun to watch people fail immediately. It’s a very quick turnaround when people realize that it’s actually pretty difficult to be entertaining, informative, and keep the train on the tracks while getting orders in your ear. That difficulty is the reason why there’s only a handful of play-by-play surf announcers out there – maybe five or six at a high level in the world. It’s a very niche job.

At the Volcom Pipe Pro a few years back, we would get guests in the booth. Let’s just say some scary-ish, Hawaiian pro surfers, who think you’re kind of a joke and that the job is very easy. They got invited into the booth and quickly realized that there’s a lot going on. I’ve had guys that can charge third reef Pipe at a very high level – fearless, smart, gnarly guys – come into the commentary booth and they’re shook immediately. After 20 minutes, you walk out the booth together, and more than once, I’ve had really great conversations with these guys that say, “I get it. That job is way harder than it looks.”

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Do you ever have to bite your tongue and be careful to not say what you’re thinking on air?

For sure. You can say, “The waves suck,” or “This skate park sucks.” But how does that incentivize someone to keep watching? We’re going to have the contest anyway. But when I say, “The waves look fun,” or “It’s challenging, but there are some sick waves out there,” I completely mean it. I love watching surf events in, quote, bad waves, because those are the waves that I surf a lot. That’s where most of us surf. So there’s always something good. There’s always something positive happening in the water. The commentators get criticized a lot for what I have now taken as my mantra, “toxic positivity,” but I’m a positive person. I can find something good about any type of conditions, about the performance on the waves.

You’ve been announcing for a long time. Do you ever get sick of it?

Yeah, there are groundhog days for sure. But at the same time, I’ve done every job. I’ve been a pizza cook. I’ve worked in a factory. I’ve raked leaves. I’ve unloaded trucks. I know that I could be doing something much harder and much more demanding than talking about surfing. So I appreciate it.

I was just at an event. It was day seven or eight and the alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. You’re just thinking, “Oh my God. We got to do this all over again.” But then you get the energy from good things that happen out in the water or at the skate park or on the mountain. Somebody does something rad that energizes you.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a commentator?

I asked Joe Turpel the same question and his path was pretty clear. He volunteered at NSSA events on the beach all day. There’s a lot of events that can’t find announcers or people want to get paid and they can’t afford it. Practice on your own surf videos, or turn on a contest, put it on mute, just see what happens. See if you can flow with it and talk about it. There’s a contest every weekend online. So there’s always time to practice. But I think just getting involved at a local, regional level early on helps.


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