Monday, January 04, 2010

Announce This

CBS announced today that they're finally retiring Walter Cronkite, six months after his death. His voice has remained in the intro to the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," but tonight they debuted a new voice in that spot. It's clear they're targeting a much younger demographic with their choice of...drumroll, please...Morgan Freeman.

Freeman must be used to doing the voiceovers for famous white people by now. That's what he did in "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Bucket List," and "Million Dollar Baby," to name a few. Plus, at 72, he was born some 21 years after Cronkite. And 13 years after most of Couric's viewers.

So now CBS has Freeman and NBC has Michael Douglas introducing Brian Williams. It can only be a matter of time before Wilford Brimley is saying Diane Sawyer's name on ABC.

There was a time when this job fell to a professional voiceover guy, the booth announcer who spent a lifetime at a network introducing regularly scheduled newscasts, special reports, and the occasional game show or talk show.

I can still remember working at WYNY, NBC's FM radio station in New York in the mid-1980s. We were located in that same art deco palace at 30 Rockefeller Center that the company still calls headquarters. I made it a habit of wandering down to the fifth floor to the Broadcast Operations Center, the point every broadcast for every time zone passed through on its way to the affiliates. I'd stand in the control room and talk to a friend as he monitored the feeds for both the network and the local owned-and-operated station, WNBC-TV.

Across the room, there was a glassed-in booth where an announcer sat at all times, ready to break in to introduce a bulletin, or record a promotional announcement, or whatever. When I was in there, I was most likely to see Bill Wendell, fulfilling his network responsibilities before going up to the 6th floor to tape "Late Night with David Letterman." Or there would be Don Pardo, the voice of "Saturday Night Live," performing his weekday duties as booth announcer.

When an urgent news story had to be reported, the anchorman and news crew would be in another studio, but they couldn't go on the air until BOC made the arrangements, which meant not interrupting a commercial on any of their time zone feeds, if possible. Only then would BOC cut into all the feeds with a quick read from the booth announcer and then switch to the news studio.

On one occasion, I was in there when WNBC-TV had a breaking news story it had to get on the air. Bill Wendell was in the booth at the time. The BOC director pushed a button to tell Bill what was going on and that they'd be on the air in about 60 seconds. Without looking up, Wendell nodded his head and continued eating what looked like a tuna sandwich.

There were three lights in front of Wendell -- green, yellow, and red. It was almost always green, because that meant the booth wasn't in use or on the air. With 10 seconds to go, the yellow light would come on as a signal to the announcer to get ready. When it did, I saw Wendell reach up to a looseleaf in front of him and turn to a specific page as he finished chewing and swallowing.

He took a quick gulp of coffee just before the red light went on and his mike went live. Without changing his posture one iota, Wendell announced in that famous deep baritone, "This is a special report from WNBC, New York. Now, in the newsroom, here's Chuck Scarborough." Then he took another bite of his sandwich as the light turned green. The anchorman stared doing his thing as Wendell calmly turned the page of the newspaper in front of him and finished his lunch.

Let's see Morgan Freeman or Michael Douglas do that every day.

It wasn't exciting to Wendell or anyone else in the room, as they'd been through this hundreds of times. By that time, I had done thousands of my own radio broadcasts, and probably acted pretty much the same way when I was on the job. But this was still very cool.  I wanted that job.

A few years later, I got my chance. 

I was working in Washington, DC, as the morning man on WCXR, the classic rock station.  I had done a few promotions with WDCA-TV, the independent station in town, and developed a friendship with Mark Feldman, their director of marketing and promotion.  I told him the Bill Wendell story and about my desire to do what he did.  Mark said he could make that happen, but not on a fulltime permanent basis.  It turned out that his voice guy was going on vacation the next week, and he needed someone to record all the intros and outros and promotional announcements and public service announcements for the station.  I accepted the offer before he even finished making it.

It wasn't live, but I treated it like it was, recording everything in one take each day in his little booth, directly onto carts.  When I heard them on the air, I felt a twinge of pride.  Then I remembered that my fulltime job was as the highly-paid host of one of the city's most popular morning radio shows and that this was only a temporary parttime job.  But I would have gladly traded places with the guy who did it for a living.

Unfortunately, those positions exist in fewer and fewer places.  There are no announcers sitting in booths just in case they're needed.  Everything's recorded and digitally stored so it's ready at a moment's notice.  The networks are using big-name actors instead of professional announcers to introduce their newscasts. They're not getting a single new viewer with their big-time actor intros, but I guarantee they cost a whole lot more.

I'm not saying that because I'm still available for work as an announcer. Even with less work to do, there's still plenty of competition in the industy.  But I can offer one thing Freeman and Douglas never could.

I promise to bring my own tuna sandwich.