MATTER OF TIME BEFORE ROOKE COMES CALLING

By BILL REYNOLDS
Published 03-07-2000

Let's see:
He is the voice of Providence College basketball.
He is the voice of Boston College football.
He fills in on ESPN.
He fills in on WEEI radio in Boston.
He is the stadium announcer for the Patriots.
He is the stadium announcer for the Revolution.
He fills in on Channel 56 in Boston.
He fills in a couple of times a year on Channel 2 in New York.
He does some Big East women's basketball games.
He did two Boston College basketball games this year.
Have we missed anything?

"I'm just trying to make a living," says John Rooke.

He also might be the penultimate example of where the broadcasting business has gone. Because for all the Chris Bermans and Jim Nantzes of the world, those fortunate few who have been annointed, there are many who are broadcasting versions of migrant workers. Have microphone, will travel. Here a game, there a game, which way to the next game?

Broadcast gypsies.

For the sports broadcasting business has changed. So much of it is freelance now: do the job, then you're on your own. No full-time. No benefits. No perks. No sick days. No paid vacations. No promises for the future. Just the hope of another game to do. This is the reality for so many of the voices we hear coming out of the radio, or hear on television.

And for people like Rooke it means you had better be able to go where the work is, whether that's doing studio work at ESPN in Bristol, Conn., early on a Saturday morning, or going to do a women's college basketball game in the middle of nowhere on a moment's notice. You go where the work is, or else you sit home and listen to someone else do the game.

Not that Rooke ever planned this.

Not on your life.

Once upon a time he had one of those old-fashioned broadcasting careers. The one where you have a full-time job. The one with stability and a sense of job security. Not like the one he has now ó a little of this, a little of that, living from game to game.

He had grown up in Fort Worth, Texas, announcing football games with the sound down on his television in his living room, listening to Jack Buck do Cardinals games on KMOX in St. Louis. Some little kids grow up wanting to play in big games. Rooke grew up wanting to broadcast big games.

He had come out of the University of Texas and gotten a job at a TV station in Waco. Then he became the voice of the San Antonio Spurs for four years, before moving to the ABC affiliate in San Antonio. From there he jumped to Channel 12. He was 28, on the fast track.

That was once upon a time.

The defining moment came three years later in 1991 when his contract at Channel 12 wasn't renewed. In retrospect, it was the first time he came face to face with the changing realities of the business, the realization that he made too much money, thus had become expendable. The fast track had ended.

"It was awful," Rooke says. "Not a good time. Doing the Friars saved me."

So began his odyssey, the one that exists to this day.

He had opportunities to go elsewhere for another TV sports job, but he didn't want to uproot his family. He already was doing PC basketball then, so his plan was to see what else was out there. For a while he was a part-time guy on Channel 10. Then he did the sports talk show on WPRO for two and a half years, sandwiched between Chuck Wilson and Scott Cordishi.

One year he went to work full-time for Cox as a program manager. One year he worked in the governor's office as a deputy chief of communications. He ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature. He did Brown football games in the fall.

And always he's had to hustle.

"For all the jobs I have now," he says, "I've probably been turned down a hundred times. You have to have a thick skin."

He also knows he always has to keep his name out there, that in his business it's always dog-eat-dog with a microphone. Every year there are more people who want to broadcast games, seduced by the glamour and the glitz, all those young guys who see ESPN as Oz. All those guys who would love to steal Rooke's headphones.

To do this, he has a new Website, his own company, JMR Communications. He writes for on-line magazines. He does public relations. In short, he scrambles in the way most people who work for themselves scramble. All for the thrill of broadcasting a game, getting the chance to do something for a living that he used to dream about as a kid.

That's the carrot, the fun part. That's what makes up for all those 6 a.m. wake-up calls in South Bend, all the jobs that fall through, all the uncertainty of a business that has so little security. For being a freelance sports broadcaster is a little like being a modern day Willie Loman, out there on a wing and a prayer with a salesman' s smile. All the job security of Madonna's boyfriend.

So why does he keep doing it? Why go through all the uncertainty, all the running around?

"I've questioned myself a thousand times," says Rooke, "but I love doing games. It gets under your fingernails. It gets in your skin. It defines you as a person. This is what I am. This is what I do."

Up and down the dial.

* * *
Journal photo / GLENN OSMUNDSON
TO AIR IS DIVINE: John Rooke, the voice of the Friars, will travel on a momentís notice to broadcast a sporting event.
Copyright © 2000 The Providence Journal Company
BILL REYNOLDS, Matter of time before Rooke comes calling., 03-07-2000, pp D-01.
©1999 The Providence Journal