As a kid living in Hawaii from 1968 to 1971, I fell in love with the radio. I was a fan of the Hawaii Islanders Triple-A baseball team (Padres affiliate) and listened to their away games on the radio as they battled Pacific Coast League opponents, such as the Tacoma Tigers and Spokane Indians.
One of my first radio heroes was Casey Kasem, whose syndicated show, “American Top Forty,” was broadcast each weekend from the Honolulu-based AM radio station KPOI. Nearly every week, I would listen to the entire countdown, wondering what song would come in at No. 1. Would it be Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” for the umpteenth week in a row? Or would that gritty new single by the Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar,” finally scratch its way to the top?
Years later, after moving to North Carolina, I was able to work in radio myself, first at WASU-FM in Boone and later at WXYC-FM, while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. The WXYC station at the student union was a fraternity of sorts for kids who cared more about music and radio than they did their grade point averages.
By this time in my life, I had seen a lot of the behind-the-scenes aspect of broadcasting, but that knowledge of the “nuts and bolts” of radio did little to erase its magic.
I still had radio heroes, one of which was Woody Durham, the voice of Tar Heel football and basketball games. When we couldn’t get tickets to a basketball game, or when the Heels were on the road, we could always count on Woody to bring the game to life.
Even if a game was televised, my friends and I would turn the volume down on the TV set and crank up the radio so we could hear Woody call the game. Of course, on satellite broadcasts the video would be a split second behind the radio, making Woody sound like a genius. The ball would be coming down from its arc when Woody would exclaim, “It’s good!” And he would be right – every single time.
Last year, Woody Durham retired after being the voice of the Tar Heels for 40 years. During that time, he called more than 1,800 football and basketball games, including six NCAA basketball championship games, four of those won by the Tar Heels.
Durham visited the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum last Thursday and spoke about his storied career to about 150 admirers.
“I grew up in Albemarle, N.C., and played on one of the best high school football teams in the state,” Durham said. “We had a lot of guys on that team who went on to play football in college … I was not one of them.”
Durham’s love for sports and his experience of working with small radio stations in Albemarle led to his desire to be a sports commentator. That desire led to the job of broadcasting games at UNC before he even graduated.
When my friends and I listened to Durham during broadcasts on the Tar Heel Sports Networks, we all had our favorite Woody-isms. My friend Allison would laugh her head off every time Woody would say that a basketball player “had a notion,” meaning that he thought about shooting the ball but didn’t.
“How does he do that?” she would say. “Woody’s psychic!”
My favorite Woody-ism was how he would call a player by his name a few times and then alternate that by calling him by his hometown and his year in college.
For instance, with Michael Jordan, he might say, “The Wilmington sophomore shoots from the baseline … good!”
I’ve never heard another sports announcer use that device, so I was happy last week when I had a chance at BRAHM to ask him if he invented it or borrowed from another announcer.
“I started doing that in the ’70s as a way of honoring the hometowns of Tar Heel players,” Durham said. “I remember the mayor of Pineville asking to stop introducing Walter Davis as being from Charlotte because really he was a Pineville native who had played basketball at South Mecklenberg High School. The next time the Heels played, Davis was introduced as being from Charlotte, and I started getting letters and phone calls from the Pineville Chamber of Commerce and other folks in Pineville asking me to correct this horrible injustice.
“That made quite an impression on me and I’ve always strived to tell folks where all of the players come from. These towns are so proud to have one of their own playing for the Tar Heels, and I try to never forget that.”
I still listen to games on the Tar Heel Sports Network, and the fellows who now broadcast the games do a perfectly splendid job of bringing the action on the basketball court to life. But it’s just not the same without Woody. When he would broadcast the game, it seemed like he was another Tar Heel fan watching the game in your living room.