BY JOHN ROHDE
(The Oklahoman – August 29, 2002)
In the eyes of Walter Cronkite, journalism has slowly decayed into a featurized state.
Cronkite is a “Five Ws” man. He wants the who, what, when, where and why — and he wants them pronto.
“I’m so tired of stories starting, ‘Maud Jones was walking her dog down Broadway.’ You’ve got to go over to the back page somewhere to finally find out the damn dog was run over by a truck,” Cronkite said. “Get the thing told, for heaven’s sake. Everybody doesn’t have to be an O Henry.”
Translation: Don’t bury the lead.
So here it goes:
Hall of fame broadcaster Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was the first play-by-play radio announcer for Oklahoma football, making his debut Sept. 25, 1937, when the Sooners lost to Tulsa 19-7 at Skelly Stadium.
Cronkite described his debut as a disaster, but said the experience taught him a valuable lesson in preparation.
He left WKY radio within a year and eventually became “The most trusted man in America” as anchor for the CBS Evening News.
And that’s the way it was…
It’s been 21 years since Cronkite signed off from the anchor desk, but that familiar voice on the other end of the telephone immediately rekindled memories of the CBS Evening News.
Cronkite is 85 years old and still carries a quick wit.
Speaking from inside his home at Martha’s Vineyard, Cronkite struggled to hear questions over the yard work being done to his lawn.
“Do you hear that?” Cronkite shouted into his phone. “With the equipment this guy’s using, he could have saved those nine Pennsylvania miners in about 10 minutes.”
Cronkite continued to joke as if he were covering breaking news.
After another intrusive stretch of noise, Cronkite deadpanned: “It’s a miracle. They’re bringing the first miner out now.”
Cronkite then pondered how to alleviate the problem. “I could change telephones,” he said, “but that would mean getting up.”
After a loud bang, Cronkite said, “My God, he’s coming through the door.”
Finally, as the mower left the grounds, there was one final roar. “Well, I think that was one of ours that just flew overhead,” Cronkite said. “Now, where were we?”
Cronkite was addressing the state of journalism. With the onslaught of cable television, is there an oversaturation of news?
“I think there’s an oversaturation of scandal and feature stories today on television,” Cronkite said. “I think newspapers are doing a better job, but television has slipped terribly in the importance of the broadcast. Most of the people, according to polls, are still getting their news from television, which means most of them are inadequately informed.”
Cronkite said he misses his days at CBS.
“Oh, yes. Sure,” he said. “I miss particularly the managing editor role on the Evening News. Appearing (as anchor) was not that important. Helping set the day’s agenda and deciding what we used and editing it, that was a journalistic high point. I liked reporting as well. Just doing the news — the live performance — wasn’t important. Working on the desk was.”
VOICE OF THE SOONERS
Cronkite was a measly 20 years old when WKY manager Gayle Grubb hired him to do the first live broadcast of an OU football game.
Cronkite had been a campus reporter for Scripps-Howard News Service and did sports scores on radio while attending the University of Texas in 1933-1935. He gradually dropped out of school to pursue journalism.
After a stint as a cub reporter with The Houston Press, Cronkite was hired as an announcer for KCMO in Kansas City, Mo., where he did simulated play-by-play off Western Union sports bulletins.
But at WKY, Cronkite was hired to do live play-by-play.
“I had never done live football,” Cronkite said. “I had done wire reports on football and, of course, that’s a vastly different thing. It takes a lot of imagination doing that. I didn’t need many facts and just used my imagination.”
Upon his arrival at WKY, and in an effort to better describe the action, Cronkite invented an electronic board that would provide information directly in front of him. Cronkite hired a couple of spotters to identify players.
“The spotters would punch up who was carrying the ball and who made the tackle, and the light would flash,” Cronkite said. “The spotters turned out to be impossible, and I was looking at the board and not the game. My design of the board was far too fancy. It got out of whack. So it was a disaster.”
Grubb was on hand for Cronkite’s debacle.
“He was standing behind me in the radio booth and muttering defecations — several fits of profanity — and getting louder and louder as the game went on,” Cronkite said. “When the game was over he said, ‘Stay here. I want to talk to you.’ ”
Grubb and Cronkite sat on the last row of the bleacher seats next to the radio booth and stayed until the stadium was nearly empty.
Grubb: “Well, what did you think of that?”
Cronkite: “It was terrible.”
Grubb: “What are you going to do about it?”
Cronkite: “First, I’m throwing out this automatic board…”
Grubb: “You mean if you’re going to be going on with this.”
WKY radio was owned by The Daily Oklahoman and Times. Grubb and Cronkite were called in for a 6:30 Monday morning meeting with The Oklahoman’s Edward K. Gaylord. “Grubb was certain we both were going to be fired,” Cronkite said. “Then Mr. Gaylord said, ‘Well, I thought that was pretty darn good.’ ”
“I thought Grubb was going to faint, and I thought I must have misheard Mr. Gaylord. He said: ‘Yeah, I got some good comments. Just keep on doing the good work.’ ”
Before the next game, Cronkite and color commentator Perry Ward (“A great gentlemen,” Cronkite said) memorized names, numbers and hometowns of players on both teams.
“I was going to have it all in my head. I was not going to have to look at any board,” Cronkite said.
In preparation, Cronkite and Ward tested each other throughout the week.
“We’d shout out numbers,” Cronkite said. “I’d shout, ‘Oklahoma, No. 22,’ and he’d tell me who that was. He’d shout, ‘Nebraska, No. 15,’ and I’d tell him who that was. We really drilled and rehearsed this thing.”
The overall improvement was immediate.
“The rest of the season went marvelously — very well,” Cronkite said.
After the season, Cronkite was assigned to the WKY news staff. Within months, he accepted a job as public relations manager for Braniff Airways. A year later, he joined United Press International to cover the war.
After informing Americans through three wars, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, numerous political conventions and the space race, Cronkite stepped aside when CBS imposed a mandatory retirement age of 65 for its employees. Cronkite’s final broadcast was March 5, 1981, and Dan Rather replaced him.
Since then, no news anchor has come close to Cronkite’s popularity. During the Richard Nixon years, the Ladies’ Home Journal polled its readers on which newsman they most trusted.
Cronkite won with 40 percent. “None” was second with 30 percent, while Rather finished at 4 percent.
Although Cronkite attended UT only briefly, he was there long enough to learn he was required to hate OU.
“Oh, yeah,” he said with a chuckle.
Cronkite remains a special correspondent with CBS News. When he’s not giving speeches, he alternates between his homes in New York and Martha’s Vineyard.
Cronkite said he hasn’t been to an OU-Texas game since he left school but has been to “a handful of games” in Austin through the years.
He is speaking in College Station this fall and plans to attend the Nebraska-Texas A&M game Oct. 26.
OU officials invited Cronkite to Friday night’s OU-Tulsa game at Skelly Stadium, site of his sportscasting debut. However, Cronkite reportedly will be out of the country this weekend and also has a previous engagement scheduled the weekend of OU-Texas (Oct. 12).
Sooners athletic director Joe Castiglione extended an invitation for Cronkite to attend any OU game — home or away.