The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

June 16, 2008

Jones, McKay and Russert

A group of classic broadcasters died last week.

The probably least known of the three was Charlie Jones, a sports announcer for most of his career with NBC-TV. Jones, who died at 77 June 12, came to NBC from ABC when the American Football League switched networks to NBC in the mid-1960s.

Jones was a versatile announcer, covering, while at NBC, the NFL (he called the famous Packers–Steelers Yancey Thigpen game at the end of the 1995 season, the Packers’ first division title team with Brett Favre at the controls), a college football national championship game, baseball (he also was the first announcer for the Colorado Rockies), college basketball, Olympic track and field, golf, tennis, figure skating and other sports, including the 1970s oddity "Almost Anything Goes."

If you didn’t know who Jones was from his face, you knew him from his voice. Jones came from the generation whose voices were shaped by smoking and adult beverages. (The most notable example of this may have been the gravel-voiced Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most, who smoked so much that he once set his own pants on fire during a Celtics game he was announcing.)

Despite that, if you’ve ever wondered why so many sports announcers lasted long into their 70s, or why there are so many second- and even third-generation sports announcers, it probably has to do with Jones’ quote: “I never felt like I ever went to work. I’ve got the best seat in the house.”

A memorial service is being held for him Wednesday at the La Jolla, Calif., Beach and Tennis Club, where, his will states, ties on men are banned.

The other, better known, sports announcer, was Jim McKay, who made the words “The thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat” a household phrase while hosting ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports.”

McKay, who died at 86 on June 7, introduced a lot of different sports (more than 100 in 40 countries, according to ESPN) to a lot of households. When “Wide World of Sports” debuted in 1961, sports on TV was basically limited to college or pro football, pro basketball and baseball, with a rare pro hockey game thrown in. “Wide World of Sports” introduced viewers to sports now shown on TV all the time, including golf (he announced each of the four majors, including the Masters for CBS, where he worked before he went to ABC), track and field, gymnastics, horse racing and auto racing, plus the Harlem Globetrotters, jumping various large objects with motorcycles, Irish hurling, lumberjack sports in northern Wisconsin, snowmobile races in northern Wisconsin, Mexican cliff diving, and Little League baseball. (He also announced perhaps the two most improbable U.S. Open golf wins of all time, both won by Wisconsinite Andy North. The two U.S. Opens were two of the three golf tournaments North won in his career.)

McKay also brought the Olympics to millions of TV viewers as the host of ABC winter and summer Olympics coverage. The worst, from anyone’s perspective, would be the 1972 kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. McKay covered the entire 15-hour crisis and had the duty of announcing that all 11 had been killed — “They’re all gone,” he said.

The best, besides introducing U.S. viewers to gymnastics dynamos Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, would have been hosting the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. This story has been told before, but the medal-round game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was broadcast on tape delay, so McKay introduced that evening’s broadcast and the two intermissions while he must have been ready to explode inside, sitting on what might have been the greatest team sports upset of all time until the third period could be unfurled on tape.

McKay was one of a seemingly dwindling number of sports announcers who never, ever thought that he was bigger than whatever event he was covering. He never spoke down to viewers (unlike his ABC colleague Howard Cosell), but he also never treated whatever sport he was covering, however obscure, as being beneath him. To quote Sports Illustrated, he was “preironic,” someone who thought of sports as “fun than funny.”

The saddest media death of the past week was Tim Russert, host of NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” who died at NBC’s Washington studio Friday. Russert, 58, was the longest serving host of TV’s longest continuously running program (“Meet the Press” premiered in 1947).

Russert came to the media from politics, where he worked for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. For that matter, he came to the media as an executive, not an on-air face, but his position included running NBC’s Washington bureau, with which came “Meet the Press.” When Russert took over “Meet the Press” at 41, the program had been on the air three years longer than Russert had been alive.

Cuomo and Moynihan were Democrats, yet Russert was rarely accused of liberal bias, although some of his interview subjects confused tough questioning for bias. Russert was famous for reading back, or playing back, quotes from whatever politician was on the hot seat that week when they were directly opposite whatever said politician was arguing at that moment. “Meet the Press” became known as the “Russert primary,” although, as with McKay, you never got the feeling he felt he was bigger than the story he was covering — in other words, he earned his status because he did the work, not because he was famous.

Russert’s most famous single moment came during NBC’s 2000 election night coverage, when he figured out that the key to the presidential election was going to be Florida. He grabbed a whiteboard at one point and wrote “FLORIDA FLORIDA FLORIDA” to emphasize his point. From that point on, we all got to learn about how presidential elections are really state elections and not national elections, butterfly ballots, hanging chads, people who lacked the sense of shame to not go on TV and admit they may have voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore, what happens when state Supreme Court races are partisan races, etc., etc., etc.

Russert obviously loved politics, but not to the exclusion of everything else. He wrote a best-selling book, Big Russ and Me: Father and Son: Lessons of Life, about his father, from whom he got his blue-collar work ethic and values. He was married for 25 years and had one son, Luke, with whom he had recently vacationed in Italy. Luke Russert said “Meet the Press” was Tim’s “second son,” though not his first-born son. An MSNBC tribute to Russert Saturday told the story of how he and Boston newspaper columnist Mike Barnacle had visited former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and his wife in their home in Montana. Barnacle talked about Russert’s delight in discovering a bar known as the “Roadkill CafĂ©” (motto: “From your grille to our grill”) that had Russert’s preferred Rolling Rock beer.

As the Associated Press put it Sunday, “The abrupt void Russert leaves is unprecedented in network TV news. … There was no immediate word on who would host "Meet the Press" next week, or in the weeks after that.”

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