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Graham McNamee: Radio’s First Superstar Announcer

He was a jack of all trades who pioneered sportscasting and live political coverage

Graham McNamee in NBC studio portrait, 1936.

He is mostly forgotten today, but at one time it was said that more people had heard his voice than any other human’s in the history of the world.

Graham McNamee practically invented the art of radio announcing, and was the industry’s first nationally-known celebrity personality.

Born in 1888, he was raised in St. Paul, Minn., where his father was an attorney. He demonstrated an early love of sports and played them all — football, baseball, hockey and boxing — but his mother wanted to be an opera singer, so he also took voice lessons.

After his parents divorced in 1907, he moved with his mother to New York City, where he continued his musical training and sang in church choirs. He found work as a railroad clerk while pursuing a singing career. In 1920, at the age of 31, he made his professional singing debut at New York’s Aeolian Hall, but despite good reviews, his concert and church work continued to be scarce.

Early in 1923, while serving jury duty, he took a lunchtime break and walked over to AT&T’s radio station WEAF, inquiring about singer  auditions. There were no singing opportunities, but the manager liked McNamee’s baritone speaking voice, its clear enunciation and pleasant tone, and he hired him as an announcer on the spot.

Graham McNamee, broadcasting from the WEAF studio early in his career.

McNamee knew nothing about radio and didn’t even own one at the time, but he had everything an announcer needed: a clear and pleasant speaking voice, ample vocabulary and a knowledge of music and sports.

WEAF in 1923 was a crude operation, broadcasting just four hours daily from two rooms with a tiny staff. McNamee’s job was simple. He wrote, “All the man before the microphone had to do was to say, ‘Miss So and So will now sing such a number,’ and at the end, ‘Miss So and So has sung such a number,’ without any comments or explanation of the music.”

McNamee initially adopted the formal style of announcing that was common in early radio — the precise pronunciation and clear articulation of every word, and formal greetings like “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience.”

SPORTSCASTING

In August, McNamee received his first important assignment: the ringside broadcast of the Greb-Wilson middleweight boxing championship match. He realized that the usual stilted announcing style would not be suitable — just saying “Greb hit Wilson” and “Wilson hit Greb” would not convey the story. He started to embellish his portrayal, describing the finer points of boxing based on his own experience as an amateur fighter, and describing people he saw in the crowd.

As the rapid-fire action increased, he became more animated, caught up in the emotion of the moment. Afterwards, letters of congratulation poured into WEAF. “Wonderful, brilliant, we saw it as if through our own eyes,” wrote one admirer. McNamee had found his calling.

McNamee broadcasts a World Series game for WEAF on Oct. 5, 1924.

Live event broadcasting — especially sportscasting — was a new field. Before radio, no one had needed to describe an event in spoken words to a live audience. There were no “old hands” or idols to emulate, and so McNamee and a handful of other pioneers had to create their own style and techniques — many of which are commonplace today.

Soon after the Greb-Wilson fight, McNamee was assigned to the first World Series broadcast, but the task of announcing was given to a well-known newspaper reporter, chosen for his ample knowledge of baseball. McNamee was just there to assist — coaching him in how to use a microphone. However, the sportswriter, for all his baseball knowledge, knew nothing of broadcasting. He described each play in a deadpan voice, remaining silent between the plays. Finally, in the middle of game three, he tired of the chore and asked McNamee to take over.

To fill the gaps in the action, McNamee fell back on his technique of describing the scene. He wrote,

“You must make each of your listeners … feel that he or she, too, is there with you in that press stand, watching the movements of the game, the color and flags; the pop-bottles thrown in the air; the straw hats demolished; Gloria Swanson just arriving in her new ermine coat; McGraw in his dugout, apparently motionless but giving signals all the time.”

His performance so impressed the management that he was asked to announce all the remaining games. Afterwards, more than 1,700 letters of praise poured into WEAF.

POLITICAL COMMENTARY

Graham McNamee is in the press box, covering the Democratic National Convention from Madison Square Garden in New York, June 20, 1924. He was at the microphone 16 hours a day during the 15-day marathon convention.

He became WEAF’s “go-to man” for special events. In December, McNamee was dispatched to Washington to broadcast President Coolidge’s address to Congress over a multi-station hookup. It was the first presidential address broadcast on the radio. As the president spoke, McNamee took notes on the back of an old envelope.

“When the speech was half through, it occurred to me that many would perhaps tune in late and miss much of the message. It would not be a bad idea, I thought, to recapitulate it for them. So, when the President had finished speaking, I went to the microphone and read my summary. It was an innovation that seemed to please our audience, for the letters following showed a most favorable reaction.”

WEAF was now one of the nation’s foremost radio stations. AT&T was using its flagship station as a springboard to launch a network of stations, all interconnected through its own long lines. The staff grew from a handful to over 100 in just three years. McNamee’s voice increasingly was being heard around the country.

In June 1924, McNamee broadcast the first coverage of the country’s two political conventions over a temporary hookup of 18 stations. “Again, no orders were given us by the office — there were no precedents or rules to guide us.”

A Detroit News cartoon combined old racial tropes with new sportscasting ones, imagining how McNamee might cover the war in Ethiopia.

The Republican event in Cleveland went smoothly, nominating Coolidge with little controversy. But the Democratic convention from Madison Square Garden turned into a marathon, as the conventioneers battled through 103 ballots before selecting John W. Davis. McNamee worked the microphone 16 hours a day for 15 straight days, again using his ad-lib talents to depict small details of the event to fill the many long gaps in the proceedings.

Other choice assignments followed. He reported Coolidge’s inauguration from Washington on March 4, 1925. He announced Philharmonic concerts from Carnegie Hall, dozens of boxing matches and college football games, and the 1925 and 1926 World Series.

In 1925, he received Radio Digest Magazine’s Gold Cup Award as America’s most popular announcer.

 

WORKING FOR NBC

In July 1926, AT&T unexpectedly sold its flagship station and fledgling network to RCA and got out of the radio business. WEAF was moved to Aeolian Hall, sharing space with its former competitor, WJZ. In November, the two stations became the flagships for the new National Broadcasting Company and its two networks, NBC Red and NBC Blue. McNamee’s fame rose even more, as he was now being heard over a nationwide hookup of the country’s most prestigious stations.

On New Year’s Day 1927, he called the Rose Bowl game from Pasadena in the first coast-to-coast broadcast. He hosted dozens of other sports events for NBC, including the World Series, championship boxing matches, college bowl games and the Indianapolis 500.

Graham McNamee, left, was the emcee and straight man for Ed Wynn, center, in the popular NBC “Texaco Fire Chief” program from 1932 to 1935. Orchestra Leader Lennie Hayton is at right.

In 1927, while he was broadcasting the arrival of Charles Lindbergh in New York, a crowd broke through the barriers and knocked him to the ground, but he continued talking while lying prone on the pavement.

He covered both 1928 national political conventions and the 1929 inauguration.

His voice was heard by upwards of 50 million listeners for the 1927 Dempsey-Sharkey fight over a 51-station hookup. Later that year, his broadcast of the famous Dempsey-Tunney “long count” fight went over the combined NBC Red and Blue networks and was relayed by shortwave around the world. And McNamee was featured on the cover of “Time Magazine” in 1927.

But as the wildcat 1920s gave way to the ’30s, radio was becoming more commercial, more professional and more competitive. Scores of talented young men were making their way to the top — NBC alone employed nearly a hundred. The “jack-of-all-trades” announcer was giving way to specialists with expert backgrounds in music, news, sports and entertainment.

At the same time, McNamee’s grueling travel schedule was starting to wear him down. He made some notable gaffes on the air, such as calling the wrong players in football games and naming the wrong winner in a 1934 regatta. Increasingly, he was being marginalized — assigned to pre-game coverage, with others calling the action.

 

EMCEE AND STRAIGHT MAN

As his sportscasting star began to fade, McNamee was assigned more studio emcee jobs.

In 1929, he hosted Rudy Vallee in NBC’s popular “Fleischmann’s Yeast Radio Hour.” His big comeback came in 1932 when he was chosen to announce Ed Wynn’s immensely popular “Texaco Fire Chief” program, where he played the straight man to Wynn’s silliness. He also emceed “The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour” and “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Universal Studios signed him to voice their weekly newsreel films for $700 a week. His income had grown in just 10 years from $50 a week to an estimated $50,000 a year — a huge sum during the Depression.

Graham McNamee broadcasts the fire and capsizing of the Normandie in New York Harbor in February, 1942. He died three months after this broadcast. The photo has been colorized.

Still, McNamee was having a harder time keeping up the pace. He divorced and remarried. He was drinking more. In 1935, he was knocked unconscious while broadcasting the National Soap Box Derby when an errant vehicle crashed into the press stand. The resulting head injury hospitalized him for weeks.

Early in the morning of Feb. 9, 1942, McNamee was called out to report on a fire aboard the French luxury liner Normandie in New York Harbor. The ship was being converted into a troop carrier when a welding torch ignited a fire that swept the ship, which ultimately capsized. McNamee spoke live for four hours in the cold, catching a sore throat that he was unable to shake for weeks. By April, it had turned into strep throat. He was hospitalized and was discovered to be suffering from a heart ailment.

On April 24, McNamee signed off a radio show with a prophetic, “Good night all — and goodbye.” The next day he suffered a heart attack. He died in the hospital from a brain embolism on May 9, 1942, at the age of 53.   

Eulogizing the famous announcer, the New York Times estimated he had “uttered 10 times the number of words in an unabridged dictionary during his radio career.”

Graham McNamee was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Radio in 1960. In 1984, he was inducted into The American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame, and in 2011 to the Radio Hall of Fame.

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