This week, I sat down with Ted Robinson, a two-time Emmy Award winning broadcaster. Since 2000, Robinson has been lead announcer for NBC's coverage of Wimbledon and the French Open, working side-by-side with John McEnroe. Robinson has also worked as a radio and TV announcer for the San Francisco Giants, Minnesota Twins and New York Mets.
Additionally, Robinson has been involved in major network coverage of both the Winter and Summer Olympics, most recently serving as play-by-play announcer for diving during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Currently, he hosts College Football Central, a College Football pre-and post-game show on Versus.
Enjoy the interview!
MT: Growing up, did you know you wanted to be a broadcaster? What influences factored into pursuing a career in broadcasting?
TR: Well, I was born in New York City, grew up just outside the city, and wanted to be a player, a professional athlete. And my mediocre - at best - high school career ended my junior year when I broke my ankle in four places playing football. At the time, sports medicine not being as advanced as it is now, that was the end of any slim hope I had of being a player. The injury brought finality to the childhood dream of being a professional athlete, and I think I was maybe a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of understanding my place. I realized I would never be a pro.
I had always been fascinated with broadcasting. I was the kid that when I was about 12 or 13, my parents let me have a TV in my room for the first time. I would go up and close the door when the Mets were on, turn the sound down and broadcast the game in my bedroom.
The family would come over and they constantly asked my mom, “Is he okay? What’s wrong with him? Who’s he talking to up there?”
So subsequently with my injury, I returned my senior year and went straight to the person in charge of our high school football program. I said to him that I would like to announce the games and asked if I could be the stadium announcer. He said sure, so I did the stadium PA announcing my senior year of high school and decided this was the path I was going to try to follow.
I was sixteen years old and I guess I was very fortunate that I had clarity at that point. This is what I wanted to do. So I applied to colleges specifically based on studying sports broadcasting; I was very narrow. I chose Notre Dame because it had a studio radio station that students completely ran and worked at. It had very few students that were there to pursue that as a living as Notre Dame did not offer a broadcast major.
So unlike, let’s say Syracuse - which is probably the most well-known broadcast school in the country but you stand in line like you’re at the bakery waiting for your shot - at Notre Dame, you didn’t have to stand in line.
MT: So you started as a freshman?
TR: I started as a freshman. I went to Notre Dame, started at the student radio station my second or third day there and worked all four years in college. I approached college as a vocational school. I knew I wasn’t going there to become a lawyer or a doctor, so my grades were not of the utmost importance. It was more the work experience and I worked at everything.
I was a student manager for a year-and-a-half and was on the field for the Rudy game. I wrote for the student paper, I worked in the sports information office and did broadcasting. That was the best experience...I had an incredible four years there.
MT: And you worked with Charlie Weis at Notre Dame’s student radio?
TR: I hired Charlie at the radio station. We were the same class and our senior year he tried out for the station and I hired him. Very smart sports guy, knew all sports, very opinionated, still is apparently. And he was like me, grew up in the New York/New Jersey area listening to Marv Albert and went through a phase where he thought he wanted to be Marv Albert. Obviously, he made a pretty good career move. [laughs]
MT: You mentioned that you were writing. Did you want to write as well or did you know you only wanted to go into broadcasting?
TR: Writing was Plan B and that’s the thing I always make sure to tell people. While I was very narrow in my focus, I understood the need to have Plan B and I tell kids today, when I go speak to college classes in particular, to write every chance you get. It’s still the most important tool and it transfers into so many other jobs and businesses in life; it’s a handicap if you don’t have the skill. If you can’t write, it is a major detriment to you progressing, I think, in just about any field.
I had to use writing skills because in my first few jobs, I worked in minor league sports for teams where I had to write press releases, media guides and articles, so I was writing as part of my job. Eventually, I worked at radio stations where I had to write for the ear as opposed to the eye which is a different form of writing. So it was important to be able to write.
MT: Did you have internships over the summer while in college that helped get your foot in the door and get you started after school working with these minor league teams?
TR: I had an internship only one summer. I was a caddy most of my life. Internships were not a big thing back then, not like they are today. You basically worked to make money in the summertime.
MT: So you were a looper?
TR: Yeah I was a super-looper...that was me. Caddyshack hit way too close to home. [laughs]
But the summer going into my senior year of college, I got an internship/job with the New York Nets where I sold tickets as part of my job there. I was a ticket salesman and I made commission money doing that and the intern part was on the PR side. So that was my one summer with hands-on experience, but I also made some money.
Really the biggest break I got was in my junior year of college. Notre Dame had a pretty good hockey team and the guy who was broadcasting the games left for a job with the NHL in the middle of the season. They needed someone to finish the season broadcasting games on a local radio station. I got hired and I think I was paid $25 a game, but I didn’t care; it was a job and it was a real radio station, not the student station.
MT: Then how did that “break” allow you to progress your career once out of college?
TR: The toughest job to get to this day is your first job out of college, because all you’re selling is hope. You have no concrete resume or experience, so you’re selling hope. Because an opportunity opened up for me as a hockey broadcaster in college, that was the path I decided to pursue out of college. I had a real tape, a real resume and some real experience. So I wound up applying to a lot of different places. I applied to radio stations also, but I got a break and I got hired just before graduation with a minor league hockey team in Oklahoma City. I packed up, moved there, worked for a year and then went to another team in the same league in Cincinnati the following year.
But that was the point. You basically follow a path of least resistance a lot of the time, because it gets you ahead. I always tell kids to think about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and you want to make sure that you’re getting there. Well, the path isn’t always a straight path. The path can sometimes wander a little bit. Now if you get turned completely in the wrong direction, that’s an issue, but you can meander a little bit on the path and still be okay. That’s what I chose to do.
The hockey world was a path of less resistance for me, it got me going, got me jobs and it got me credibility. Then I was able to parlay that into working for a big radio station here in San Francisco. At 25 years old, I got hired at KCBS Radio.
The concept was to take the job that was offered to you. I think I only turned down one job and it was for a personal reason. If a job was offered to me, Oklahoma City was offered to me, I took it. I was a New York kid, had never been to Oklahoma City in my life, and didn’t want to go to Oklahoma City, but it was a job.
And that’s one thing that concerns me about subsequent generations: I think perhaps young people have lost that willingness, the understanding that if you want to pursue a career you have to go where the opportunity is.
To be a broadcaster - an on-the-air broadcaster - I still think flexibility is an important trait to have. Very few people can pick the place they want to be at 21 years old in this business and make it happen. Circumstances bring you places, like it brought me to San Francisco, and this has become home.
MT: You eventually moved to television broadcasting for NBC where you have worked alongside John McEnroe covering Wimbledon and the French Open and just recently the Summer Olympics in Beijing. How did you reach that level?
TR: To get a job like that at NBC was a culmination of a lot of years of experience and a lot of luck and that doesn’t happen without a lot of good fortune. I didn’t plan for that. It was a completely random occurrence.
MT: What can you tell us about working at NBC with John McEnroe, who is a huge personality? Has he ever caught you off-guard?
TR: Boy, he catches me off-guard all the time. The best part about John is that he is exactly who you hear and see. There’s not a phony bone in his body. John does not act. He is genuine, it’s who he is. He’s incredibly smart. What I think I love most about working with him is that he loves spontaneity and I’m a very spontaneous broadcaster.
I don’t prepare with scripts because that’s acting. I’m not an actor and I don’t try to be one. The beauty of being in sports is that because it’s live and because it’s spontaneous, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And we love that.
The same goes for our commentary. John thrives on spontaneity and he doesn’t want to know what I’m going to ask him. It’s no different than the conversation we’re having or that we might be having over a beer at a bar. And I think that’s what people see.
MT: How does your relationship with your co-broadcaster factor in? Is there a chemistry that needs to be formed beforehand or does it develop naturally with the person you’re sitting next to?
TR: The best kind is the second one. The best kind of chemistry just happens. It happens when you’re actually doing something. You can’t predict it, you can’t plan it, you can’t force it. It just happens.
And from what many, many people have said through the years, it appears to be the case with myself working with John McEnroe. For some reason, we clicked and I’ve done 16 years with him now and it’s been great. There’s some reason that we have a little personal chemistry and rapport that works really well on the air and you can’t fake that. Most people know when something’s trying to be forced.
MT: Do you have a process or pre-game ritual that you go through in preparing for broadcasts?
TR: It depends on the sport. Each sport has its own set of demands. I would say that there are a couple of universal traits, one of which is that the preparation is ongoing. It’s not cramming for a test as much as it is perpetual, it’s continuous. And it’s constantly reading, listening, talking to people, being aware and accumulating files in your head; files of knowledge that you can reach to when you get assigned to a certain game.
MT: Do you ever need to update your internal files or do any last-minute preparation for specific games?
TR: There are some sports that do require last minute cramming...football probably more than any because the volume of people. Like with college football, there are 90 players on a team and far more teams, so you don’t have a base of knowledge to start with that you would with the NFL, for instance, where there are 32 teams and 45 players a team.
Doing tennis doesn’t require a whole lot of book work because there’s really not a whole lot to do. Its two players, it’s doing a little conversing, trying to find out what they’ve done lately.
The other trick that I learned early on that is so valuable is that the broadcast is like an oral exam. You prepare and you prepare and you may only use ten percent of what you prepare. If that’s the case, that’s cool. Don’t force it. Don’t feel obliged to use everything that you’ve studied. Only use what fits.
I was taught as a young guy by a great baseball announcer named Lon Simmons. He taught me that, “You’re here to watch the game. So watch the game and tell people what you see.” Wow, pretty amazing, isn’t it?
Sometimes you get announcers that are so caught in their homework, caught in their numbers and preparation, that they are constantly looking down and reading stuff instead of watching the game.
MT: Were there other broadcasters besides Lon Simmons who you learned from and who have had an influence on your broadcasting career?
TR: Oh absolutely, the biggest was Marv Albert. Growing up in New York in my time, everybody was a Marv Albert fan, everybody did a Marv Albert impression. We used to do “Marv-offs” in the back of rooms in high school, which was basically dueling Marvs. And we still, like when I work with John McEnroe, do that a little bit to this day.
Marv was an incredible influence on anybody in my generation who grew up in or around New York and wanted to be a broadcaster. I had a chance to meet him in college. He was doing sports on the NBC station in New York City and he invited me to come up to the station one night. He sat with me between the shows, and we talked for a while. He could not have been a nicer, more generous person; absolutely the biggest influence.
MT: If you could work with any broadcaster, alive or dead, who would it be?
TR: To work with anyone? That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that question before, Max. There are people I’d like to work more with, but I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head...Vitale! Dick Vitale, there’s a guy. I did work with Billy Packer once, thoroughly enjoyed that.
I know him, I’ve met him, but I’ve never worked a game with him. And that would be fun because I love Dick Vitale’s enthusiasm and how genuine he is about his sport. He’s a great lesson for us. I went to Oregon State to do a game and the press book has a bio for all the players. And one question they always ask is, “Who’s your favorite announcer?” and 8-of-10 college players will say Dick Vitale. Here’s a guy who’s up around 70 years old and you’ve got 18-to-20 year olds that are all saying that this 70 year-old guy is their favorite announcer. That’s pretty special.
MT: What advice can you give to aspiring sports broadcasters?
TR: The staples I always say are learn how to write, keep writing, take as well-rounded an education as you can, do a general liberal arts education. The more subject matters you can converse in or at least have some exposure on, the better served you’ll be in any public forum that you’re either speaking in or writing about. Read as much as you can, open your mind up to as many views, opinions, and sources that you can.
If you want to be in broadcasting, I always encourage people to get involved in theater and do a theater production. You don’t have to make a career out of it, but do it as a learning tool, because theater teaches you how to stand in front of people, how to act with eyeballs staring at you and you learn how to project your voice.
And the last point is being flexible. If an opportunity comes along and it’s not precisely where you want to be or maybe when you want to be there, be flexible. Think about doing it, because you know what, you can always quit. And I don’t mean quitting in the bad sense of the word, but if it isn’t working either for you or for them, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “That’s enough, this isn’t working.” Very few things can’t be changed or can’t be fixed.
MT: Great advice both from a broadcasting perspective as well as overall life lessons. Finally as a Mets fan, I have to ask. Your favorite Met?
TR: Favorite Met was Tom Seaver, who I had the chance to work with as a broadcaster.
MT: Nice, Tom Terrific! The Franchise! Thank you again for sitting down with me today and dishing out some great advice. It has been a pleasure chatting with you.
TR: My pleasure. Thanks, Max.
Guess what B/R Members…
Ted Robinson has joined B/R! You can find links to his blog as well as other content on his member page. If you have any questions or comments about his sports casting, become his fan and ask him!
Hope you enjoyed the interview and stay tuned for next week’s B/R Interview with Brandon Steiner, Founder of Steiner Sports Memorabilia.