Updated: Oct 27
With his distinctive voice and smooth delivery, legendary sports broadcaster Spencer Ross was the soundtrack of my childhood.
Growing up, my dad was Public Affairs Manager at PSE&G and part of his duties were managing a Luxury Suite the company owned at Meadowlands Arena. I was lucky enough to attend almost every event. The suite was in section 108, dead center, behind the press box. I sat behind Devils and Nets broadcasters and was fascinated with how it all worked. The announcers would give me media guides and game notes. I was just as interested in those broadcasting the game as I was in the players.
Spencer called the play-by-play on radio and television for almost every New York area sports franchise, including the Nets, Knicks, Yankees, Giants, Jets, Devils, Rangers and Islanders. He did soccer and horseracing, hosted shows on WFAN and did updates on WINS. Outside the New York market, he called games for Florida State and Boston Celtics. Nationally, he worked for NFL on NBC, MLB on CBS Radio, and the Olympics.
As a student at William Paterson University, well-known for their top-notch radio and television departments, I got involved immediately. The only problem was the faculty advisor taught us nothing. All he did was write memos. We were without guidance. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, we all quit under protest. WPSC immediately returned to the original faculty advisor who launched the station, John Kiernan. We happily returned! Kiernan was a true professional, teaching us the nuts-and-bolts of radio. He previously owned a commercial station so he brought a no-nonsense, business-like approach to the table. He ruled with an iron fist. It was a welcomed change.
I was promoted from Sports Director to Operations Manager, yet still did play-by-play announcing. John taught me almost everything, however, he didn’t know sports. Department chairperson Dr. Anthony Maltese and Dean George McCloud brought in Spencer as guest professor to teach a Sports Broadcasting course. Having worked at the radio station for two years doing play-by-play for every Pioneer sporting event, I was first of 20 students to register.
Learning from Spencer in the classroom was a helluva wake-up call. The first day of the semester, he asked the class “how many of you are involved in the radio or television stations?” I was the only one. He was baffled as to how 19 others could take a broadcasting class yet not be on the air. We hit it off and in the first session I was really the only student who asked questions and participated in the group discussion.
That Friday was the first football game of the season, and Spencer decided to pay a visit to the booth where I was the radio play-by-play man. He thought I had potential and wanted to see what I could do in-person. I was excited to have this legend critique my performance. This dream opportunity soon turned into a disaster as I was terrible. I was ill-prepared and had no clue what I was doing. During every break, he ripped me. "You aren't painting a picture for the listener!" "You aren't telling a story!" "You don't know the formations!" "Why aren't you wearing a suit?" “Why did you arrive 30-minutes early instead of 3-hours early?” His parting words were “bring the tape of this game to class Monday!”
Monday arrives and he played the tape of my awful broadcast. He ripped my mistakes apart during the entire three-hour class. What a verbal beating! If it was a fight, they would have stopped it! But, he told me why I was wrong, how to correct it, and what I needed to do to improve. It was constructive criticism. I listened. I got it. I had my notebook and wrote down every word. I didn't quit, and after class, I asked for extra help. He gave me his phone number.
On his own time, he taught me lessons he learned from his mentor, the legendary Marty Glickman. Spencer helped me prepare roster charts. Told me how to read formations. Explained how to tell a story and paint a picture. He told me that a broadcaster, even on radio who isn’t seen by the listeners, needs to wear a suit because you represent the university. He told me to go to practice during the week to talk with players and coaches. Arrive 3 hours before kick-off. Get on the field and get a feel for the game during pre-game drills.
My broadcast the next week was tremendous. He played the tape in our next class, praised me and explained everything I did right. The following week, he brought in Ian Eagle for a seminar, who was at WFAN and now does NFL on CBS. Later, Erik Spitz held a seminar, who was WFAN operations manager. After the four-month semester, I was the only student to receive an A.
I did radio play-by-play for football, men's and women's basketball, and baseball. I then moved to television and did those same sports plus men’s and women's soccer, and volleyball. My partner on television was Kevin Burkhardt. Burkhardt took Spencer’s course the following semester and was the standout student in another group of 20. He also got an A.
During this same time while still in college, I was working professionally at WGHT Radio in Pompton Lakes, NJ, as Morning Show Co-Host and Sports Director. My first hire was Burkhardt, and we were partners again on the College and High School game of the week for football, basketball and baseball. We made a great team!
Kevin moved on to WFAN, then joined the Mets on SNY, and now is a play-by-play man for NFL on FOX and studio host for MLB on FOX. I was lucky to also work with many other soon-to-be stars at WPSC including Rich Kaminski of 106.7 WLTW, Joe "Monk" Pardavila of 95.5 WPLJ, and IWF Hall of Famer Richard Ross.
Spencer was a great mentor. He taught me professionalism and the art of storytelling. There is no handbook for success. To learn any craft, you must listen to those who were successful in that profession, surround yourself with great people, and do whatever it takes to improve. The lessons I learned from Spencer Ross are still carried with me today.