Friday, July 11, 2014

Re-creation of Baseball Games on Radio

Photo of Frank Soden from the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

The job I left to become manager of the Biograph Theatre was in radio. Lee Jackoway, a veteran radio and television ad salesman who was the general manager at WRNL AM/FM, hired me to sell time for the two stations. That gave me the chance to learn a great deal about advertising; the job lasted a little less than a year (in 1971).

By learning to write commercials, I also got my first taste of professional writing there. Learned a bit about production, as well. Some of my efforts were aimed at being funny, as I sometimes imagined myself as a budding Stan Freberg.

Jackoway, who could be a tyrant, took me under his wing and gave me a bunch of big accounts. That was partly because he liked me, and partly to piss off the senior salesman who he wanted to drive off. I also learned some good lessons about promotion from media buyers and account executives at local ad agencies, too.  

Jackoway sometimes liked to hold court, telling the young DJs and salesmen stories of his freewheeling days as a top salesman, working for Ziv Television. He had been a national sales rep for popular half-hour TV shows, such as "Sea Hunt" and "Home Run Derby." Traveling to markets large and small Lee sold the shows directly to local affiliates on 16 mm reels, literally out of the trunk of his Thunderbird. Lee died at the age of 78 in 2008.

During my stint at WRNL AM/FM the ownership changed from the Richmond News Leader to Rust Communications. Rust promptly changed the call letters for the FM station to WRXL.  

In 1971 WRNL AM carried lots of local sports -- the R-Braves games, college football, etc. A previous station manager there, broadcasting legend Frank Soden, who died at the age of 91 in 2010, was in and out of the station frequently, because he was still the talent for much of the station‘s sports broadcasting.

Bob Gilmore also did some of that kind of work for WRNL, as well. Before coming to Richmond, Gilmore had been the play-by-play man for the Cincinnati Reds on radio. One of my fondest memories from these days took place on an afternoon that Soden and Gilmore were trading stories about their “re-creation” era.

As a kid, I listened to Richmond V’s games on the radio. But in the late-1950s, when they were on the road, the voices I was listening to weren’t coming from press boxes in Rochester or Havana. They were in the WRNL studio in downtown Richmond. In those days for away games Soden and his partner Frank Messer would get the bare details of the game in progress by way of Western Union, or over the telephone. Then, using canned sound effects, they would re-create the game as if they were watching it live. This was done to save the money it would have cost to send the announcers on the road.

A lot of times all Soden knew was that a batter got a single, struck out, or smacked a fly ball that an outfielder caught. He might not have known what the pitch count was, etc. So he would make it up. Sometimes the sender would leave out a play entirely. Again, that called for the announcer to improvise.

With a few other guys who worked at the station as their audience, Soden and Gilmore told several stories about how they covered for times when no info would come in for 20 minutes, and other such calamities. They’d create a rain delay, or whatever they needed to keep from breaking the spell and saying what was the truth -- that they had no idea what was going on.

By 1971 re-creation was a thing of the past. As I remember it, Gilmore said he was the last guy doing re-creation broadcasts in the major leagues, when he was with the Reds in the late 1950s. It was a rare treat hearing those radio yarns, whether they were true or not. 

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