Radio Legend: Graham McNamee

When the first international radio broadcast aired in 1919, few could have predicted how popular radio waves would become for transmitting news and entertainment. Within a few years, the airwaves were full of programs, broadcasting everything from news, to music and sports. These programs would have been impossible, however, without the voices that carried them to homes around the globe. This month, we’re featuring radio legend Graham McNamee, and the ways he influenced the medium as a whole.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

                Long before he became a national radio sensation, Graham McNamee wanted to be an opera singer. Born in Washington D.C. in 1888, McNamee was raised near St. Paul, Minnesota, and trained early in his youth to use his voice: Aside from singing in his church choir, McNamee was also given formal voice lessons to help develop his voice for opera. He left home in the early 1920’s to pursue a singing career in New York City. At first, McNamee took any work that he could find in the City, but struggled to find a place within a major opera company. Eventually called to serve jury duty while out of work, McNamee was walking on a lunch break from the court when he saw a help wanted sign in the window of WEAF/New York. On a whim, he entered the studio offices, and attempted to audition for the station as a singer. Instead, he was asked to speak through a microphone, and hired as a staff sports announcer on the spot. His ability to annunciate, combined with his vocal tone honed during opera training made him perfect for the job, and despite having no experience with sports, he was slated to call an upcoming boxing match.

                Sportscasting had existed prior to McNamee, but not in the form typically thought of today – rather than the colorful, often animated language of modern sportscasters, sports coverage in the early 1920s was typically performed by newspaper writers, who would only update the radio audience after a significant play had occurred. These updates were also usually given in a monotone, matter-of-fact manner that McNamee did not favor. While his fellow announcers sat in silence, McNamee began not only to describe the sights and sounds of the game to his listeners, but to describe what was happening on the field as he saw it: His enthusiasm was well-received by the audience, and he quickly became the pioneer of modern play-by-play sports coverage.

McNamee’s popularity with radio audiences skyrocketed during the 1920s. He covered many of the major sporting events of the 1920s, including several world series, the Indianapolis 500, and many Rose Bowls. In time, McNamee became the most well-known radio personality nationwide, even covering presidential inaugurations and political conventions. His popularity continued throughout the 1930s, and several other sportscasters from competing radio stations began to take cues from McNamee, delivering rapid and dramatic coverage of sporting events to their listeners. Even after McNamee passed in 1942, his legacy lived on in sportscasting, as future stars of sports radio emulated the play-by-play style McNamee had single-handedly designed. Today, McNamee is remembered with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in the Radio Hall of Fame, and the Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions to radio, sports, and broadcasting as a whole.

Want to know more about broadcasting in America? Check out our titles on radio in American cities.

Did you know an aspiring opera singer created the broadcasting play-by-play? Let us know in the comments below!