Getting Caught Up with Retired USA Today Sports Media Columnist Rudy Martzke

rudy martzke
For 23 years beginning in 1982, Rudy Martzke authored a strikingly influential sports broadcast column for USA Today. His widely read critiques covered a period of striking transformation, beginning when network television was still in its monolithic heyday, through the eruption of cable, the dominance of ESPN and the nascent days of digital video.

Through many of Martzke’s years with USA Today, the publication had an average circulation of some two million readers and Rudy’s column was often what broadcast executives, producers, announcers and television fans read first.

It was said that Martzke’s assessment of image conscious networks could result in upgrades or downgrades of announcer assignments and even firings.  Rudy’s columns were saliently placed, on page two or three of the popular sports section, not buried or clustered somewhere toward the end of it.  They were almost bullet-point formatted, easy and quick reads.

In our Q&A, we covered his reminiscences and his views on broadcasting today. His formatted answers to my questions are redolent of his popular columns at the prime of his national influence.

For many years, sports sections of most newspapers paid little attention to the doings of radio and television. Print editors often viewed electronic media as competition. Yet, USA Today at the height of its readership, dedicated prominent space to coverage of sports on television. Why?

TV Sports was a niche for USA Today, unmatched by most newspapers. My editor, Henry Freeman, realized that readers had virtually an insatiable appetite for knowledge of sports announcers and sports events on TV. They wanted to compare their opinions to those of TV columnists, and as I was with the one national newspaper, I had an advantage over others in my profession.

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, you covered sports media’s transformational times; from the dominant years of ABC, NBC and CBS to the birth of Fox and the ascendancy of ESPN. Reflecting now, what surprised you the most?

First was fledgling cable network ESPN making such a big splash with viewers, even before it added Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA and college sports. Remember, ESPN’s biggest early viewer draw was Australian Rules Football.

Second was largely unknown Fox Network grabbing the NFL’s main TV package, the NFC, from CBS, which had televised the league since the 1960s. The result rocketed Fox to the level of NBC, ABC and CBS.

Third blockbuster:  CBS stealing the AFC from NBC and emerging with success because most of CBS’ top markets had NFL teams.

Fourth:  CBS taking the NCAA Tournament from NBC and building college basketball to a major player in TV Sports. Check the number of fans’ pools for the NCAA Tournament.

It is said that media executives picked up your Monday morning USA Today media column with trepidation. Drawing your ire could be quite damaging. Can you provide examples of fielding complaints from network executives?

Network TV executives Neal Pilson and Lesley Ann Wade of CBS, Mike Weisman and Dick Ebersol of NBC, Dennis Swanson of ABC, Harvey Schiller of Turner Sports and several ESPN officials. I also respected Sean McManus of CBS and Mark Lazarus of Turner at the time (now NBC) – but I can’t recollect Sean or Mark calling to complain.

You covered colorful personalities in their heydays; Brent Musburger, Al Michaels, Dick Vitale, John Madden, Howard Cosell and others. Despite their wealth and glittering successes, many didn’t take well to critical comments in your column. Who of the visible broadcasters was most difficult for you to cover?

ABC’s Howard Cosell. As big of a name as he was, Howard had the thinnest skin of any announcer I covered. Examples:

Following my first review of ABC’s Kentucky Derby telecast in 1983, ABC PR man Irv Brodsky called to provide a Cosell complaint. As a wordsmith himself, Cosell didn’t like my praise of long-time commentator Jack Whitaker on the show. According to Howard, ‘’Therefore, you know nothing about television,’’ was relayed to me.

I told Brodsky I’d like to meet Howard in New York, and he’d find out I’m an okay guy. Irv said, I’ll try to work on it.’’ The next Friday Irv called and said, ‘’Now you’ve done it. You’ll never get to meet Howard.’’ I said I didn’t even write about Cosell in my column that day. Brodsky said that I had noted research that showed that CBS’ Monday Night Football radio team of Jack Buck and Hank Stram had an audience of 7 million.  Added Brodsky: ‘’Howard says that means 7 million people are turning down the sound on his ABC Monday Night Football telecast.  Of course not. The radio listeners mainly were in cars and trucks.

I eventually got to meet Howard. Our relationship eventually grew, following the bumpy initial meeting. It was in Milwaukee as he was leaving the TV booth he had shared with Al Michaels and newcomer Earl Weaver at a Brewers’ game in 1983. I introduced myself to Howard and wondered what he thought of Weaver’s first telecast. Cosell stopped, looked at me and blurted, ‘’I have the highest respect for Earl Weaver,” then added “none for you.” He then walked away with two bodyguards, one a woman. She turned back and sneered at me. Not a good time.

Among other broadcasters who either complained to me by phone or in person about my criticisms of them were Pat Summerall, Chris Berman, Joe Garagiola, Gary Bender, Ken Venturi, Peter Alliss, Lanny Watkins and David Aldridge.

What mistakes by announcers stuck to your ribs more than others?

Misinformation such as the wrong player; calling a pass complete when it wasn’t; analysts talking over the point when the play-by-play man needed to take over to call the play; obvious clichés. I would have an all-cliché team in my Monday review column. Agent Art Kaminsky told me he would send the all-cliché lists to his clients as no-nos.

Columnists today often expect play-by-play and color commentators to reference athletes’ indiscretions whether on the field or off the field. Announcers though will often say it’s their job to call games as they’re played between the lines. What are your thoughts?

I prefer announcers that stick to calling the game/event. But if an indiscretion is major, and quite recent, it is okay to bring it up in the category of full disclosure.

Of the younger announcers today, those whom you didn’t have opportunities to cover, whose work impresses you most?

CBS’ Ian Eagle, Spero Dedes, Carter Blackburn and Trent Green; Fox’s Thom Brenneman and Mike Pereira; NBC’s Heather Cox; ESPN’s and CBS’ Debbie Antonelli; TNT’s Chris Webber and Brian Anderson, and TNT/CBS’ Grant Hill.

Earlier in your career, while working for the Spirit of St. Louis, a franchise in the old American Basketball Association, you had a hand in hiring Bob Costas as the team’s radio voice. It was essentially his first broadcast job after he graduated Syracuse University. What was it about a young Bob Costas that impressed you?

As the Director of Operations of the ABA Spirits of St. Louis in 1974, I could immediately tell he was very bright, had an extensive knowledge about all the major sports, possessed a first-rate announcers’ voice. He was experienced in play-by-play at the Syracuse student radio station and clearly stood out among the 30 or so broadcaster tapes to which I listened.

Costas turned out to be smarter than I thought. A few weeks into the ABA season I read a story on Bob in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He said he didn’t call Syracuse basketball games, he called the school’s hockey games. But he did call one basketball game into a tape recorder. And then he went back to the school radio station and enhanced his voice on the tape. So Bob Costas put one over on me, not that he since has become one of the best sportscasters of all-time.

Who in your estimation are the five best network play-by-play announcers of all time?

My all-time greatest sportscasters, not necessarily in order:

CBS/NBC’s Bob Costas, CBS/ABC/NBC’s Al Michaels, CBS’ Jim Nantz, Brent Musburger and Jack Buck, Fox’s Joe Buck, ABC and NBC’s Curt Gowdy and Harry Caray of the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.

Today, almost every game is on television, cable or is webcast. Are announcers commodified? Does one too often sound like the next?

Because there are so many games/events on TV in many sports today, there is more chance to be commodified. During the football season I clip the list of the game announcers from USA Today so I can tell who’s on the broadcast as I watch the DirecTV Red Zone.

Rumor had it that Dick Vitale called you every single day. Yes, Dick is loquacious. Yet, if so, what in the world could he possibly share with you every day?

I regard my frequent mention of or quoting Dick in my TV column as helping his career. He usually called me on days I was writing my column. At the same time I told Dick that I couldn’t get a quote from him in every column, that I had to balance out the column with other items. But there was one call from Vitale that stood out.

He called from his daily stop for breakfast at the Broken Egg at Sarasota Beach in Florida.  ‘’Rudy, you won’t believe who just walked in here,’’ Dick barked. I said I was working on another matter. He said, ‘’Let me put him on my phone.’’ The next voice was, ‘’Rudy, my man.’’ Instantly, I knew that it as O.J. Simpson’s voice. ‘’O.J., what are you doing there?’’ I asked. He told me he had played in a golf tournament in Tampa the previous day, was heading back to South Florida and happened to stop at the Broken Egg, not knowing that Vitale was there.

After I hung up, I remembered another O.J. story that resulted in an embarrassment for me. After the killings of O.J.’s former wife Nicole and Ron Goldman, I was asked to fly to New   York and appear on the Maury Povich show the next Monday. After my 10-minute appearance on a panel, I was in a taxi heading to the Manhattan offices of the TV networks. My cellphone rang. It was my Northern Virginia friend Jerry Foster, who had watched the Povich show. Jerry said, ‘’You should keep better company.’’ I asked why? He said there were two graphics below the shots of me on the TV screen. ‘’First one was, ‘Rudy Martzke, USA Today.’ The second was, ‘’Friend of O.J. Simpson.’”

Last, what top tips would you give budding announcers who are launching their careers now?

Find as many jobs as you can in sportscasting at an early age. They really help on your resume to impress prospective bosses. The half dozen sports writing positions I had in junior high and high school helped pave the way for me in obtaining interviews with two newspapers following graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism School.

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Jersey Jerry Foster
Jersey Jerry Foster
6 years ago

Love him or hate him; Rudy was the BEST at what he did! As his friend for 30+ years, I can tell you he ALWAYS told it as it was, no sugar coating in his column

6 years ago

But he short arms his putts!!!