Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Review: 976-1313 (2024)

By Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin

OK, children, gather around. You're about to learn a lesson.

From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, there was no Internet, no ticker on ESPN, and very few all-sports radio stations. So how did fans keep up with their favorite teams? 

By phone, naturally.


Yes, you could call a phone number and you'd get 59 seconds of scores and sports news on a recorded message. It was called Sports Phone, and it was an interesting transitional method of getting information to people. There was a small fee involved, which could add up quickly if you needed a score for one reason or another. A lot of parents of sports-minded children received a monthly surprise when the phone bill arrived.

Not too many members of today's younger crowd have heard of Sports Phone, and they probably would have trouble grabbing the concept. Thus it's nice to see Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin come up with a book on the history of the service. Sure enough, it's called "976-1313." If you were a sports fan, particularly in New York City, you no doubt had it memorized.

Sports Phone used to regularly update its "programming," with the frequency of reports depending on what was going on. For example, for Sundays in the fall, those 59 seconds would be changed every couple of minutes. College football Saturdays were as busy as you'd expect, with extra numbers pressed into service to include more scores. 

But it wasn't just scores. Often they used audio tape to sweeten their reports. It took a small army of reporters and editors to do this constantly, and it was an excellent was for young people to break into the sportscasting business. 

It's amazing just how many people are familiar to me, as so many did so well in their chosen field later on. The list is a long one: Shelley Adler, Gary Cohen, Linda Cohn, Jack Curry, Brian Kilmeade, Don La Greca, Bob Papa, Howie Rose, Andy Roth, Ken Samelson, Peter Schwartz, Tommy Tighe, etc. Those are the ones I know; New Yorkers no doubt can add to the list.

And there was one other employee who didn't pop up on the list: me. I worked for them from 1980 to 1986.You can find my side of the story here. Don't look for me in the book, though. I was a very small piece of the puzzle from my lone outpost in Buffalo, although the face that Western New York was included in the service does come up a couple of times.

Based on this book, most of New York's broadcasters of a certain generation sharpened their skills by talking into a phone. Ever try to give 40 scores in 59 seconds? It made a typical broadcast on radio almost leisurely. Others have gone on to other things, but still remember their days with Sports Phone fondly. 

And that's basically the theme of the book. It's former employees looking back on their days with Phone Programs, which usually was the name of the company on paychecks. The company did several phone lines, depending on the era, which generated plenty of money and profits for those involved .... for a while. The owners of the company could see the end coming as soon as ESPN2 placed "a ticker" on the bottom of the screen in 1995. The scores were constantly updated there, and there was no additional charge to access it. The numbers for calls soon fell off a cliff. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Karpin worked on Sports Phone from 1980 to 1992, while Orgera did/does a variety of other sports-related work in a variety of ways. Their enthusiasm for the subject is impressive. The two of them tracked down many of those who worked in the New York office, and grabbed a few other celebrities who used the number in their work. For example, agent Leigh Steinberg kept track of his football clients by calling for scores, while hockey player/horseman Ed Olczyk liked to call to catch up on the ponies. 

There are a couple of problems with the book from the reader's perspective. It's easy to guess that the book is self-published, since the publisher is listed as "Press Pass Chronicles" - which comes up on a Google search only in association with this book. So the layout has a lot of white space and isn't too efficient. (Note: Can't say I noticed many typos in it, so the authors did a pro-level job there.)

Meanwhile, a lot of the stories sound the same. Yes, the staff was happy to pay some dues there, and look back on it in a nostalgic way. But the tales of working in press boxes work much better than the stories from the office, which might fit into the "you had to be there" classification. Between those two points, we could have probably lost 100 pages and made it a little less intimidating to hold.

By the way, Orgera must have set the all-time record for using names in the acknowledgements. There are 13 pages on that particular subject. As he writes at the beginning, "Since this is my first full-length book and might be my last ..." I'm not sure how he missed his entire high school graduating class .... or maybe he didn't.

I definitely needed to read "976-1313" to complete my knowledge of the operation and to pay a small tribute to an important step in my career. New Yorkers who used the service will have similar thoughts about a unique moment in "broadcasting" history.  

Three stars

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