Writers turned broadcasters: The top dozen nationally who’ve made their presence felt on-air and in print
In the early years of radio, it was often writers who presented sports reports and called games. For that matter, the first World Series on radio was in 1922 and Grantland Rice, known for his elegant pen and prose, provided the coverage. He had little on-air style to follow and very few had radios then.
Boxing was enormously popular in the early decades of radio and Sam Taub was as well known throughout America for his blow-by-blow descriptions as Keith Jackson would be later for college football. Taub was the sports editor of the New York Telegraph before turning to radio.
New York sports radio fixture, Stan Lomax, started as a writer in the 1920s, moved into radio and stayed there through the 1970s. Chicago pioneer baseball announcer Hal Totten wrote for daily newspapers before broadcasting Cubs and White Sox games. The late baseball commissioner Ford C. Frick started as a scribe and moved into radio where he worked with Lomax at WOR in New York. It’s why the Hall of Fame’s annual broadcast award is named in his honor.
New York Times sportswriter Bob Teague migrated to WNBC Television where he was one of the city’s early TV sports anchors in the 1960s. Another writer turned network broadcaster was Bud Collins, a spirited columnist in Boston who became synonymous with tennis on television.
In the 80s, Lesley Visser and Will McDonough (Sean’s dad) were Boston Globe reporters when they were hired by CBS and NBC respectively. Yes, Brent Musburger also started as a scribe before taking the plunge into television.
But those names advanced in an earlier generation before ESPN took hold, local sports talk radio erupted and jobs opened. At that point, media’s need swelled.
Employers wanted probing, print-like reporting and strong opinions. Columnists fit the bill. By their experiences writing and in doing so in the sports trenches, they were suited to tackle topic-related and debate programming. These folks felt comfortable taking strong sides and defend them.
Television and radio’s need for edgy personalities produced a windfall for newspaper men and women looking for greener pastures and larger paychecks.
So yes, it’s not just athletes who made the move to the booth, writers have too, and in a big way. They’re opinion mongers and they’re everywhere, be it in the studio, TV or radio.
Here are the top dozen who have made major marks. Some like Ken Rosenthal, Peter King and Tom Verducci still write too.
These are the top twelve. There are many others who’ve been successful too. This group has had prominent and visible success both as writers and as broadcasters nationally.
Stephen A. Smith (ESPN)
Smith currently serves as one of ESPN’s most prominent personalities thanks to his bombastic style and hot takes on First Take. It was reported that at $8 million per year, Smith is the highest paid on-air employee of ESPN. He started on the print side, working for several local newspapers early, the Winston-Salem Journal, Greensboro News and Record and the New York Daily News. In Philadelphia, Smith was a columnist with the Inquirer. in 2005, he branched out into broadcasting with ESPN Radio, New York. Part of his program was syndicated nationally through ESPN’s radio affiliation. In 2009, he left ESPN for Fox, returning in 2011. His career then took off. Smith is blessed with a gift for gab and is considered by some as the hardest worker on the network. He’s polarizing. Many like him and others don’t. Stephen A. joined First Take on a full-time basis in 2012 and through the years, he’s faced scrutiny as a result of controversial remarks.
Tony Kornheiser (ESPN)
Kornheiser began his writing career with Newsday, joined The New York Times in 1976 and The Washington Post in 1979. Throughout his time hitting the keys, Kornheiser combined wittiness and seriousness to create a resounding body of work. He continued his work with The Washington Post through 2008, and was known for his Bandwagon columns, in which he outlined the Washington Redskins’ Super Bowl run in 1991. Tony began working for ESPN in a limited capacity in 1988 and started in radio in DC in 1992. Kornheiser was part of ESPN’s pioneering broadcast team of Monday Night Football in 2006 but left after just two seasons, in part because he feared flying. He is best known for co-hosting Pardon the Interruption on ESPN with Michael Wilbon and has won a Sports Emmy for best Daily Outstanding Studio Show in 2010, 2017 and 2019. The show began in 2001.
Michael Wilbon (ESPN)
A Chicago native, Wilbon currently co-hosts Pardon the Interruption alongside Kornheiser, but his career in sports reporting began on a full-time basis with The Washington Post in 1980. His columns for the Post frequently touched on the culture of sports along with reporting on what happened on the field. He was responsible for covering many big events like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the Final Four and the NBA Finals on a regular basis. Wilbon joined the Pardon the Interruption team with Kornheiser in 2001 and joined ESPN on a full-time basis beginning in 2010.
Dan Le Batard (ESPN)
Le Batard began working for The Miami Herald in 1990. He was considered a writing prodigy in South Florida and was elevated to a columnist while still in his 20s. Dan started doing radio in Miami, hosting a local sports talk show. He now presides over a daily sports-talk show across the country on ESPN Radio. Le Batard began working on Highly Questionable, occasionally bringing on his Cuban born father. In 2013, he was joined by Bomani Jones. Le Batard is known for writing about sensitive topics such as the role that race plays in sports and society. He has also been involved in several confrontations with ESPN management due to his eagerness to engage in political discussions.
Paul Finebaum (ESPN)
Finebaum wrote several syndicated columns for local newspapers in Alabama beginning in 1980. He did the unthinkable when he was critical of Alabama football. Paul uttered the blasphemous, saying that icon Bear Bryant lost his grip on the team. Later, on a radio show that he was hosting on the Alabama football flagship radio station, he questioned Tides’ coach Ray Perkins. It didn’t sit well with the school or the station so he left for the competitor across the street. From 2001-12, Finebaum developed a faithful following on his syndicated daily radio show across the south. Paul joined ESPN in August 2013 as host of the The Paul Finebaum Show. The four-hour daily program is heard on ESPN Radio, Monday – Friday from 3–7 p.m. ET and simulcast on SEC Network. During 2011-12, Finebaum continued with the written word, contributing to si.com.
Tom Verducci (Fox, MLB Network)
Verducci is perhaps one of the most recognizable sports journalists across both print and broadcasting today due to his work with Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated. Verducci’s 2002 special report for Sports Illustrated on steroid use in baseball changed the MLBPA’s stance on steroid testing and captured the attention of Congress. Verducci called his first World Series for Fox in 2014 and has recently taken on college football duties for the network as well. Verducci is not only a gifted writer, he’s a prolific one. He spits out stories regularly. He’s seen on Fox’ MLB coverage as well as on MLB Network. Tom told this publication that he gets more challenges from readers for his takes in print, yet more recognition on the street because of his television visibility.
Lesley Visser (CBS)
Visser began working for The Boston Globe in 1974, where she covered several sports and later became the first female beat writer in the NFL when she was assigned to follow the New England Patriots in 1976. Her work with the Globe was recognized in 2009, when Sports Illustrated named the publication’s overall sports department from 1975-1980 as the best sports section of all time. As a broadcaster, she currently works for CBS and in the past was employed by ABC and ESPN. She’s covered a wide range of major events, the NBA, NFL and college basketball, along with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the impact it would have on sports.
Peter King (NBC)
King’s career in sports journalism began in 1980 with The Cincinnati Enquirer. He joined Newsday in 1985, where he worked until joining Sports Illustrated in 1989. There, one of his most recognizable contributions came through his weekly column, Monday Morning Quarterback, which he initiated in 2013. He branched into broadcasting in 2002, reporting for Inside the NFL on HBO, then joined NBC Sports as an analyst on Football Night in America in 2006. King co-hosted the radio show The Opening Drive on SiriusXM NFL Radio from 2008 until 2011 and still serves as a regular guest on several nationwide radio programs. King left Sports Illustrated in 2018 and joined NBC Sports full-time, where he still writes a column, Football Morning in America. He’s also authored five books through his accomplished career.
Dick Schaap (past NBC and ESPN)
Schaap’s storied career began as an assistant sports editor for Newsweek in the 1960s and was one of the driving forces behind today’s tone of Media Day at the Super Bowl when he hired two players of the Los Angeles Rams to ask questions prior to Super Bowl IX between the Steelers and the Vikings. He served as a correspondent for NBC in the 1970s prior to moving to ABC in the 1980s. Dick also did local sports in New York on WNBC-TV. Following his death in 2001, the Sports Emmy Award under the writing category was renamed “The Dick Schaap Outstanding Writing Award.” Schaap also wrote for Sport Magazine and memorably hosted ESPN’s Sunday show, The Reporters.
Woody Paige (ESPN)
Paige began as a sports columnist for The Denver Post in 1981 and became one of its most prominent writers, covering major sporting events across several sports while also writing about historic events outside the sports world. Paige retired from the Post in 2016 after 35 years. But he continues to write on his personal website as well as for several more local publications in Colorado. He gained more visibility as a regular panelist on Around the Horn on ESPN, where he holds the records for most wins and most losses on the show. Earlier, he also co-hosted Cold Pizza and its spin-off show 1st and 10
Skip Bayless (Fox)
Bayless is one of the most controversial voices in sports broadcasting today. He previously served as a co-host of First Take on ESPN alongside Stephen A. Smith. Bayless began his career in sports journalism with The Miami Herald in the early 1970s and has since worked on the print side for The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune and Sports Illustrated. Bayless was voted the Illinois sportswriter of the year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association in 2000 prior to leaving for the Tribune in 2001. Bayless began work for ESPN in 1989 as a panelist on The Sports Reporters teaming with Dick Schaap. He joined ESPN full-time in 2004 working with Woody Paige on Cold Pizza, which was rebranded in 2007 as First Take. Bayless parted ways with ESPN in 2016 and joined Fox Sports in June 2016, where he currently serves as a co-host on Skip and Shannon: Undisputed with partner Shannon Sharpe.
Ken Rosenthal (Fox and MLB Network)
Through his current work for The Athletic, MLB Network and Fox Sports, Rosenthal is perhaps one of the busiest personalities in sports reporting today. As reported in a previous interview with Sports Broadcast Journal, Rosenthal loved writing from an early age and began his career with several Northeast publications in the 1980s prior to joining Fox Sports in 2005 as a writer and on-air personality. Rosenthal serves as one of Fox’ most prominent sideline reporters during baseball season, but he was forced to find alternative means to continue his writing career when Fox shifted to exclusively video in 2016. After writing independently for a brief period, Rosenthal became one of the earlier contributors to The Athletic, where he still writes feature stories while still breaking news such as the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
Jason Whitlock (Fox)
Whitlock began his career in sports journalism by working for several publications in the Midwest prior to joining ESPN as a columnist in 2002. Whitlock also worked for AOL Sports and Fox Sports in the late 2000s and early 2010s. His initial intention was to join Fox Sports in 2013 to help launch FS1, but he rejoined ESPN instead in order to continue writing. Jason assisted in the creation of TheUndefeated.com, which explores sports along with the intersections of race and culture. Whitlock’s willingness to address racial issues has also brought on some controversial remarks over his career, such as when he insulted Robert Jackson in 2006 and insinuated a racial stereotype about Jeremy Lin in 2012. However, his commitment to writing while also carrying a knack for broadcasting makes him an influential voice in sports.
Really fun piece! Caught a typo–TONY Kornheiser is correct in the text but not the head.
As for those pursuing sportswriting careers who went into broadcasting, I thought of Harry Jones, who did the Cleveland Indians games for many years and started out as a sportswriter. And THAT is a rarity–a writer who ended up doing play-by-play, which I think only Musburger on this list made into a career.
I’m thinking also Dave Sims, who wrote for the NY Daily News and NY Times, and broadcasts for CBS.
I would be interested to see the colleges everyone attended. I know that Finebaum and Paige are both University of Tennessee grads. Bayless, Grantland Rice and another unmentioned — Buster Olney — are Vanderbilt boys.