It's the middle of the day in Baltimore and a frenetic disc-jockey voice breaks into the WFBR programming at the end of a rock 'n' roll golden oldie and says, "We're proud to be part of Oriole fever." Suddenly, the familiar voice of Chuck Thompson, the old smoothie of the Baltimore Orioles' broadcasting booth, is bouncy and alive above fan noise. He is into the play-by-play of a crucial situation earlier in the season—Doug DeCinces of the Orioles at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with a man on base and the Orioles a run behind. Thompson calls a long drive by DeCinces, and there is tumult in the radio booth. Charlie Eckman, the sometime guest colorman, is shouting, "Get out of here, get out of here." Thompson picks up the call as the ball falls into the seats for a game-winning home run, and then the crowd noise takes over.
"Wow!" shouts Eckman, and the mikes pick up the chant of the fans calling for DeCinces to come out of the dugout to take a bow. The ballplayer responds, there is another roar, and Thompson says, "What a great moment in Baltimore baseball history."
It has been like this every hour and every day on WFBR this year. Even the most hardened baseball people in Baltimore agree that the crazy rock 'n' roll radio station that started broadcasting and pushing the team this year is one of the reasons for the excitement about the Orioles—which led to a season-record total of 1,680,561 fans, almost 500,000 more than 1978.
The Orioles were the property of WBAL, the kingpin 50,000-watt station in town, for 22 years until they threw open the rights to bidding last year. WFBR, a 5,000-watt AM operation beginning to feel the pinch of the nationwide trend toward FM listening, hustled after the Orioles, won the rights for four years with a bid reported to have been $400,000 a year and put together a network of nearby stations, including Washington's powerful WTOP, to give the team the kilowatt power to match WBAL's. Now WFBR has moved from the middle of the pack to rank second only to WBAL in the ratings. At the same time, WMAR-TV wrested TV rights from WJZ and despite problems with camera work at home games, has shared in the Oriole success, winning more than half the TV audience for prime-time games in July.
Oh, there's more to it than a hard-driving radio station. This is an exciting team that has won games in rip-roaring fashion—in June, when hopes are always high and impressions are solidified, 11 of the Orioles' 23 victories were decided in the last two innings. It is a team fans could take to their hearts because hardly anybody boosted it as a pennant threat in the spring and because it didn't boast the big-name free-agent millionaires that personify the Yankees. The gas shortage and the cost of living kept people close to home, too, and it all seemed to come together this season in a fallout of enthusiasm that impresses even an old hand like Thompson, 58, who has been the voice of the Orioles for 21 years.
"I haven't seen anything like it since the peak years of the Colts," he says. "The team seems to have caught on with the young people especially." Dale Andrews, WFBR's program manager, says, "There used to be 7,000 old people out at the park. The demographics show that now the 18- to 34-year-olds, our audience, are coming to the games."
There long has been a gap between the world of rock 'n' roll and sports—as if kids made an early choice between a baseball bat and an electric guitar—but WFBR was "audacious enough to try to tie together rock 'n' roll and sports," says Andrews. Game highlights often are interwoven into musical renditions; songs like You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet are stopped repeatedly and the voices of Thompson, his longtime sidekick Bill O'Donnell and No. 3 man, Tom Marr—the station's aggressive newsman who was added to the team by WFBR—are heard describing a great moment of Oriole baseball, 1979. Callers even ask for particular plays, like DeCinces' homer. Marr also does offbeat pregame interviews, and it was his idea to tape the highlights for the postgame show and then play them again during the heart of the day's programming.
If the radio scene is new, the one big constant is Thompson, who is calling the games as he always did—stylishly, accentuating the positive, leaving testy subjects and negatives to the province of newspaper people. Thompson is so accommodating that he cut out two of the phrases that were something of a trademark with him. He would say, "Go to war, Miss Agnes," after a great moment—it was an expression used by a friend on the golf course before attempting a putt—but one day a woman wrote in and persuaded him it wasn't a good expression to use at a time when parents were sending their sons off to fight in the Vietnam War. He also stopped using "ain't the beer cold" for happy moments, because of complaints from Bible Belt drys in range of Oriole broadcasts.
The razzmatazz of the airwaves will continue through the playoffs. Baltimore's local radio and TV outlets will carry the action along with the networks. If the Orioles get into the World Series, though, WFBR will have to use a pickup of CBS radio, which will be employing Vin Scully, the Dodger announcer, with Winn Elliot and an unnamed-as-yet baseball man. But while Thompson is away ("fishing and playing golf," he says), his golden pipes will continue to resound over Baltimore because, says Andrews, "We will keep playing some of those exciting highlights from the season."