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Ken Broo, the newest sportscaster at WUSA (Channel 9), says that he has spent all his spare time recently looking for a place his family can move into. “You think I should rent?” he asks.
An appended chuckle implies that Broo, who comes to D.C. after 12 years on the air in Cincinnati, is only feigning worry that he won’t last long enough in this market to justify purchasing a home. But all things considered, Broo’s question is a little too close to the mark to be funny. He may not know it yet—and his jocular tone certainly suggests he doesn’t—but like any future Orioles shortstop, Broo has taken a job that will never really be his.
It belongs to Glenn Brenner.
Brenner, for the uninitiated, took over this city’s local news scene shortly after joining the Channel 9 staff in 1977. His overt lack of reverence for sports news and box scores got him fired from TV jobs in his native Philadelphia, but Brenner’s act killed ’em in Washington. Rare was the broadcast where Brenner didn’t treat viewers to some hint of comedic genius. In one of his more fabled capers he proved that a cloistered nun could predict outcomes of NFL games more successfully than highly touted gridiron pundits. His highlight reel also includes the night he described one inexperienced Mike Tyson opponent as having had “fewer fights than Gandhi.”
Worshipful locals embraced Brenner even more tightly in 1981 when he declined offers to go national and instead signed a $3.5 million–dollar pact that kept him at the CBS affiliate. The deal made him one of the highest-paid non-network “journalists” (a job title Brenner would no doubt giggle at) in the U.S., and he got an even sweeter contract a few years later. But over the next decade, nobody at the station ever dared insinuate that he wasn’t worth every dime.
His premature exit as the result of brain cancer in 1992 spawned one of the most intense periods of mourning this city has ever seen. Then-President Bush confessed his own “personal emptiness,” and even former President Reagan offered up desperate condolences.
Brenner is still missed, nowhere more than at Broadcast House. The station has never recovered from his death, if the Nielsens are any indication. Warner Wolf, a one-time legend at Channel 9 who fared well for himself in New York through the ’80s, returned to D.C. in a gallant attempt to try to end the post-Brenner bereavement. But the weight of Brenner’s legend, combined with the reality that the “Let’s go to the videotape!” style of sportscasting that Wolf pioneered had been co-opted and improved upon by hypemeister/cartoon George Michael at WRC (Channel 4), made his second engagement at Channel 9 a disastrous one. After a bizarre suspension for refusing to stop showing horse-racing highlights, Wolf was shitcanned last year. A lengthy national search ended with Broo saying yes to what he calls “a very attractive offer.”
“It wasn’t an easy decision to take this job,” he explains. “I mean, I’m 43, I have a family set up in Ohio, and I gave up what was a really good gig in a town that I liked and liked me to basically start over here. But this is Washington, not some place like Pittsburgh. In Cincinnati, I could figure maybe Marge Schott was watching me on a good night. Now, when I go on the air here, who knows who’s tuned in? Maybe Bob Dole, or that guy from Arkansas. That’s a very exciting feeling for somebody in this business.”
Washington didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for Broo. He was the target of a fusillade of abuse on sports radio station WTEM (570 AM) all last week. Tony Kornheiser constantly prodded his on-staff toadies and callers on his low-rated radio show to take their best shots at Broo.
“That guy is butt ugly! He could make a blind man cry!” one compliant listener railed, as Kornheiser guffawed.
It’s true that the lanky Broo doesn’t exactly shout hunk—and that under TV lights his hair color might best be described as Agent Orange. But the WTEM vitriol was way overdone. Recent newcomers to WJLA (Channel 7)’s sports team certainly haven’t been so harangued. It wouldn’t take Oliver Stone to cook up conspiracy theories to explain why Kornheiser has been so negatively attentive to the new arrival to WUSA. The recently dumped Wolf started pinch-hitting for Kornheiser on WTEM, so the meanness could be attributed to loyalty to a fellow station employee. A more cynical explanation, however, would hold that Kornheiser inherited a slice of Brenner’s sports-ain’t-that-serious kingdom and isn’t interested in sharing. Although Broo is an unknown quantity here, Cincinnatians recall him as the driest wit among that town’s sports-anchor set. But if Kornheiser actually watched any of Broo’s early D.C. performances, any threat he felt would likely have been put to rest.
Cruel as WTEM has been, Broo’s own employer has been even more heartless. It scheduled his debut on the very same week as the Glenn Brenner 5K, the fifth rendition of what has become an annual running wake to the legendary sportscaster and a remembrance of WUSA’s days of ratings glory. The slipping station promoted the hell out of the Brenner race for more than a month, but it showed no similar vigor toward letting local viewers know a new sportscaster was coming.
To his credit, Broo seems oblivious to the slights, but the huge race buildup has him marveling at the enormousness of his predecessor’s myth. “I guess anybody who does sports at Channel 9 is going to feel Glenn Brenner’s ghost,” he shrugs. “But it’s like Glenn Brenner isn’t even Glenn Brenner anymore.”
His employer’s Brennerfest attracted more than 4,000 runners to Wisconsin Avenue Sunday afternoon, but Broo wasn’t among them. Not only that, but throughout what amounted to a huge sports weekend for the nation’s capital—the Redskins’ draft, the Capitals/Penguins series, the return of professional soccer at RFK—Broo wasn’t even inside the Beltway. He was in Cincinnati.
“I mean, I know there’s a lot going on, but I have a wife and kids that I really miss,” he explains just before heading back to Ohio for a reunion. In other words, there are more important things than sports, which is something Glenn Brenner was trying to tell us night after night after night.—Dave McKenna