Sunday, October 12, 2003

Listening to Your Inner Voice

Go ahead. Ask Woody Durham a question. He’d love to give you an answer and he has plenty to say – at least if it involves his life, which is an amalgam of college sports, broadcasting and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He’s one of those rare people that started his chosen profession at an early age. Even when he began his broadcasting career at age 16 at WZKY radio in Albemarle, N.C., Durham was aware of his God-given talent as much as any of his most faithful listeners during his long, illustrious career.

“One of the things that I was given whenever they were handing out talents was I was given a good voice,” he said.

That voice helped him land the job as play-by-play announcer for the UNC football and men’s basketball teams in 1971. Now in his 33rd year, Durham, 62, is often referred to as the “Voice of the Tar Heels,” and has become as well-known throughout the state as the star players he talks about.

One time a lady noticed Durham walking down the street, and decided to confess her loyalty by telling him she always turned down the sound on her television and turned up his radio commentary during the games. Durham recalls her asking, “How many times have people come up to you and said that?” He replied, “I quit counting. But I tell you what, it’s a real compliment every time they do.”

While he notices his gifts, he doesn’t come across as conceited. Maybe it’s because he acknowledges the people and influences he’s had while growing up in the small textile community 40 miles east of Charlotte, called Albemarle. Although he lived in a small town, high school football was serious business. People would get off work early on game days, where the stadium was filled with as many as 8,000 fans an hour before Durham and his teammates took the field. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his football coach, Toby Webb, taught him lessons that helped him later in his career.

Pondering a dream of playing college football, Durham realized, “I wasn’t good enough, nor was I big enough to play at the next level ... so I quickly saw (radio broadcasting) was a way to stay involved in sports.”

You may not need to ask, but Durham will tell you how he was the sports director of WUNC-TV for three years before graduating from UNC-CH in 1963. He’ll explain that he never had any intention of working in Chapel Hill, but when he was offered the job in the spring of 1971 it developed into his life and what defined his career.

His career success did not come without sacrifice, often leaving his wife, Jean, to look after his two sons, Wes and Taylor.

“I really have a terrific wife, who realized what I wanted to do and what was necessary for me to do it,” Durham said. “I got home, everybody was asleep. I got up the next morning, maybe I’d see the boys a few minutes and I was gone. Maybe twice a week I’d get home for dinner at night between the shows. It was difficult and she did a good job of doing that.”

Although Durham has said he hasn’t always communicated well at home with his family (because he does it so much on the job), he is grateful that Wes and Taylor understood what he was trying to accomplish. In fact, both of Durham’s sons work in the sports broadcasting field.

On the job, Durham describes his style of broadcasting as “partial-objective” because everyone knows he is a Tar Heel fan. It’s his ability to prepare for work and communicate with his audience – two things he advises for anyone in any profession – that has earned him a faithful following during football and basketball seasons. Dedication and desire for his job were attributes Durham had when he would listen to radio announcers for pleasure as a child.

“I was one of those guys that sat around with a notebook and wrote down all these things these guys were doing and how they did it,” Durham said.

While taking copious notes and storing them in his memory bank, Durham blended particular styles he admired with his own to deliver a broadcast that he was comfortable with. Listeners, in turn, acknowledged his sincerity and authenticity on the job.

“Woody Durham’s pretty much my journalistic hero,” said Will Robinson, a UNC-CH junior majoring in journalism and Spanish.

On Feb. 2, 1995, UNC beat Duke 102-100 in a double-overtime basketball game. Robinson was watching the game on television when his mom made him turn off the TV and go to his bedroom before the game ended at about 1 a.m. Anxious to hear the last two overtimes, Robinson listened to Durham announce the play-by-play on the radio in his bedroom.

“That’s basically something I’ll always remember,” Robinson said. “Ever since then I’ve pretty much muted the TV and listened to Woody just because he’s so good at what he does. He’s got a great voice. He’s really passionate about what he does. You know he loves the Tar Heels, but he’s also very fair with his coverage. He’s extremely knowledgeable compared to a lot of the other radio commentators. I think that he’s very factual, very speedy with getting information across.”

Durham’s acute knowledge of what it’s like to be a fan has created a special rapport between him and his listeners. For instance, toward the end of a basketball game that UNC was losing, Durham said, “It’s about time to go where you go and do what you do.” Listeners at home could relate to this phrase because they each have a unique thing they do or place they go when the score is close. Durham knows his wife cleans her house when UNC is in a tight game.

Whether UNC has won or lost, though, Durham has learned how to keep the game and his life in perspective. That perspective has come from lessons he learned from 26 years being near Dean Smith, the first person he would consult on a big decision today: “Coach Smith’s philosophy is that a program, a consistent program, is much more important in the long run than one game.”