Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Orioles Radio Returns to WBAL

Orioles return to long-standing radio partner after four year hiatus.

The Baltimore Orioles announced they will return to WBAL as the flagship station for Orioles broadcasts for the next four years. Certainly fans might have thought something was up when the simulcast of Scott Garceau’s show had mysteriously vanished from MASN on Monday right after the Super Bowl.

WBAL has had a long, though not uninterrupted association with the Orioles. After the Orioles’ first four seasons on WCBM featuring legendary Hall of Fame announcer, Ernie Harwell, as the team’s primary play-by-play guy with Bailey Goss and future Hall of Famers Chuck Thompson then Herb Carneal as his partner, the Harwell/Carneal duet moved to WBAL for the 1958 season.

WBAL began its first long association broadcasting the Orioles from 1958 to 1978. The Baltimore franchise was already well on its way to being a launching pad for some of the sport’s finest broadcasters. Bob Murphy replaced Harwell and was the lead announcer for 1960 and 1961. Murphy was inducted in Cooperstown one year after Chuck Thompson having been the original and long serving voice of the New York Mets where he’d cross paths with a future Orioles TV broadcaster, Gary Thorne as his sidekick in the mid 80’s including broadcasting the infamous game six of the 1986 World Series in which Boston self-destructed. Ironically, as an Orioles’ broadcaster, Murphy is more or less just a footnote with Herb Carneal likewise getting little notice for his successful tenure in Baltimore when Chuck Thompson returned to the Orioles’ booth in 1962. He worked with Joe Croghan, the third announcer behind Murphy and Carneal for two years before another succession of broadcasting legends, first Frank Messer worked with the Orioles from 1964 to 1967 before a long tenure with the New York Yankees.

1966 was perhaps the most joyous Orioles season ever as the addition of Frank Robinson to the relatively young team won the World Championship in four games over the highly favored Los Angeles Dodgers. A new member joined the broadcast team who’d be Chuck Thompson’s partner through most of the most memorable years in Orioles history. Bill O’Donnell would serve for the remainder of WBAL’s tenure with the Birds and continue on through is untimely death after missing numerous games in the 1982 season.

WBAL served the Orioles well with one of the region’s most effective radio operations and a strong open channel 50,000 watt signal capable of bringing the Orioles all up and down the Eastern United States after dark.

Prior to the 1979 season, the Orioles contract with WBAL expired and WFBR-AM aggressively pursued the Orioles promising vigorous promotion of the team behind the Orioles Magic theme. WFBR had a weak signal that would not even saturate the entire Baltimore area after dark which was compensated somewhat by WTOP-AM, Washington, DC’s strongest station picking up the slack.

The WFBR tenure proved highly successful in its early years. After the 1982 season, Chuck Thompson “retired” to work on Orioles over-the-air telecasts on WMAR-TV with Brooks Robinson where he’d remain through the 1987. The new radio voice of the Orioles would be well on his way to becoming a national presence, Jon Miller.

WFBR continued with the Orioles through the 1986 season when WCBM-AM shocked the local radio world outbidding both WBAL and WFBR as well as WTOP in Washington for the flagship duties. WCBM handled its responsibilities horribly and with a terrible night signal, the Orioles’ broadcasts could scarcely be heard beyond the Baltimore Beltway in most parts of the metro area. WCBM went bankrupt during the season living the Orioles status in limbo before WBAL stepped in purchasing the Orioles contract and thus beginning their next long tenure with the Orioles starting with the ill-fated 1988 team and covering ever single moment of the dreadful 21 game losing streak to start the season. John Miller was joined by Joe Angel in the booth who’d become an important figure in Orioles broadcasts in his own right later. Comedy writer, Ken Levine, broadcast as Miller’s partner in 1991, the team’s final season playing in Memorial Stadium. Levine’s association at best could be called awkward. Angel returned in 1992 to help present the team’s glorious new stadium at Camden Yards. The following year, Fred Manfra became the Orioles #2 broadcaster, a post he still holds today. Meanwhile, Chuck Thompson returned to the Orioles radio filling in when other announcers had other obligations and occasionally serving as a third voice.

Controversy exploded at the end of the 1986 season, the Orioles first trip to post season since 1983. Jon Miller who had become a huge figure in Orioles’ lore was at the end of his contract. Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos did not want to enter contract talks until after the season had concluded and that a new radio deal was in place. Meanwhile, the owner’s comments that he felt that Miller needed to show more black and orange drew much fire from Miller’s fans. All the while, Miller was in negotiations with the San Francisco Giants, his boyhood team so when his deal with the Giants was announced, it appeared to the public that the popular announcer had been squeezed out.

The Orioles were successful in finding a fine replacement in Jim Hunter who had much national experience broadcasting for CBS radio including NFL football and their Major League Baseball Game of the Week. Miller remained as the primary voice of the Orioles until 2004 when Joe Angel returned to become the Orioles lead announcer. Jim Hunter and Fred Manfra would switch off in the TV booth while the other would work and the secondary radio voice. This arrangement continued until the Orioles had MASN as their full-time TV voice where Hunter would join MASN as host of pre and post game television broadcasts and doing play-by-play when Gary Thorne, now the TV voice of the Orioles had other obligations. Manfra then returned to his familiar number two spot on radio.

WBAL and its sister FM station WIYY, 98 Rock, became the radio flagship for the Baltimore Ravens. Suddenly, the Orioles appeared to be the lesser of the two products in the station’s sports lineup. Much like when the Orioles left WBAL in 1979, the team was looking for a fresh approach. CBS radio stepped forward with a four year deal covering the 2007 to 2010 seasons having the enhanced audio capacity of FM radio looked appealing plus CBS radio could cross promote the Orioles among all their local stations. The Orioles would broadcast on 105.7 which had inherited the legendary WHFS call-letters when the Washington area station had become a Spanish station. After the first season, CBS radio changed formats rebranding 105.7 as “The Fan” with call letters WJZ-FM. “The Fan” would be a 24x7 sports-talk station yet curiously a popular program by Tom Davis remained on their AM outlet but was simulcast on MASN. Jim Hunter’s “Hot Stove Program” did not resurface after the 2010 season.

The Orioles return to WBAL had been whispered all off season; however, given nothing happened and that waiting until the week after the Super Bowl close to the beginning of the magic day when pitchers and catchers reporting – the announcement to change affiliates seems abrupt, but the return to WBAL that has broadcast 41 of the Orioles 56 seasons in Baltimore, it certainly can’t be seen as a shocker to return to the tried and true.

WBAL will face a conflict in August until the end of the MLB season since the station possesses broadcasting rights to both the Orioles and Ravens; however, the situation should have an easily remedy with 98 Rock taking most likely the Ravens since they broadcast the Ravens already.

Perhaps the change to WBAL at this point would seem only natural. The Orioles are doing everything to present themselves as a new improved product for 2011 with the addition of four starters on offense and major upgrades to the bullpen. The team opens its new permanent Spring Training Facility in Sarasota. Manager Buck Showalter brings in an all new coaching staff. Much more management control rests in WBAL than a CBS affiliate run out of the network’s headquarters in New York. The Orioles sacrifice the potential for FM stereo but return to a powerful signal that carries well up and down the coast at night.

WBAL’s Brett Hollander, ironically who came from WBAL from 105.7, will host the pregame “on deck” program – more programming details are forthcoming.

Of course how successful the Orioles’ broadcasting arrangements will be depends first and foremost on the team’s performance. Joe Angel and Fred Manfra continue as the team’s announcers and most of the vast Orioles network through out the mid-Atlantic will remain intact.

Here’s to a successful season for both WBAL and the Orioles.

REFERENCE: Orioles announcement --


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