Associate Professor Bob Wolff of the Communication Arts Department of St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y. was lecturing in his course, Sports Broadcasting, and with a bit of cynicism he was attempting to bring home a vital point to a class of aspiring sports-casters. Wolff described the time he went to spring training as a TV announcer for the Washington Senators and spent 30 minutes a day practicing beer pouring. "I had the real good hands for it," Wolff said. "In fact, I was so well drilled that I could pour with either hand and bring the head up just the way the ad agency boys wanted it. But at the Presidential opener back in Washington, I made a mistake, and the beer slopped over the glass. We did a fine telecast, and the Senators even won for a change. But did I catch it! The thing to remember, class, is that when the One Great Sponsor comes to write against your name, he cares not who won or lost or how well you covered the game. He cares how you poured the beer."
Sports Broadcasting is one of the few courses of its kind given for credit at a major university, and it is now in its fifth year under Wolff. For three hours every Monday, students are instructed on play-by-play announcing and the preparation and editing of sports shows. But perhaps the most educational part of the course is Wolff's forthright discussions of the harsh realities of an intensely competitive profession. "You must play to your own sense and your own standards," he says. "Not many people are going to help you in the broadcasting business. Yes, they should. But they won't. They send you out on the air to sink or swim, and if you aren't aware of that, you will just be gone."
Wolff has managed to keep his head above water throughout a 30-year sportscasting career that included 14 beery seasons with the departed Senators. The first World Series he did was for Mutual Radio in 1956, the year of Don Larsen's perfect game. He also covered the 1958 Colt-Giant overtime NFL title game, Bobby Hull's breaking of the 50-goal barrier, the New York Knicks' two championship seasons and countless football bowls, college basketball games and dog and horse shows. He has worked live radio and television and done voice-overs and cablecasting. Wolff currently telecasts the Detroit Pistons' games, and though he is hardly one of broadcasting's superstars, he is an excellent and candid teacher. When Wolff informs his students, "No matter how good you are in this business, 50% is getting the job. 20% is holding it and only 30% is doing it," they are hearing the voice of experience.
He also tells his students that if they want to do play-by-play, they should begin by building a "power base," by getting on a local radio or television news show so their on-the-air personalities are known to potential employers. "If you call up a producer and he knows your name, he's going to answer your call," Wolff says. "Then you've got a chance to at least audition."
After he finishes telling his class how to get a job, Wolff should invite a large number of working sportscasters into his class—as students, not guest lecturers. His most apt criticism of today's broadcasters is their inability to adjust their styles to suit the differing needs of radio and TV audiences.
The sport most often abused because of this failure is basketball. The wrong way to do a TV game, says Wolff, is like this: "Smith shoots from 10 feet out...he misses. Brown grabs the rebound, passes to Jones...Jones shoots, and his shot is good." Then Wolff gives the correct way: "That's Smith shooting." There is no need to mention "from 10 feet out" or "he misses" because those facts are visible on TV. However, the announcer can use this time to give extra information, such as "That's the first one he's missed tonight." When the goal is made, there is no need to say, "His shot is good." The broadcaster should just give the score and perhaps add, "Smith now has 10 points."
It is Wolff's contention that the TV sports-caster is sharing his feeling with the viewer. He is speaking with him, not to him, because he is commenting on something they are both watching. Says Wolff, "Comments should complement the picture, not describe it."
Wolff also tells his students that, although they are primarily journalists, a little show biz certainly helps. "The sportscaster who underplays is saying in essence: 'Everybody else may be excited, but not me.' Very few fans want to watch a game with a bored friend."
But, Wolff contends, bringing excitement to a telecast does not mean that the announcer should run off at the mouth. Economy of language—once at a premium among radio announcers who had to make every syllable count in describing fast action—is almost absent from television, he tells his students.
To prove it Wolff has a lead-in of 144 words that is typical of those heard all the time on TV. It reads, "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's really a beautiful day for the game. Pitching for the Termites is John Smith. He's a really fine pitcher. Of course, you all know what a great curve he has. But, ladies and gentlemen, let me add that he can really make that ball hum with his speed. He's really fast."
"Eliminate the four 'reallys,' the 'of course' and the second 'ladies and gentlemen' from that lead-in," says Wolff, "and see what is lost. Nothing." By the time he completes his example, Wolff has cut one-sixth of the words from the lead-in as repetitious, boring or uninstructive.
None of those words can be used in describing Wolff's course at St. John's, or—it is hoped—any of his students, should they ever get on the air.