Before he came to Washington, Glenn Brenner was a sports reporter at WKYW-TV in Philadelphia. The station had a format that did not emphasize fooling around on camera. The general manager had explained this to Brenner several times, and Brenner had listened.
What the general manager told Brenner was to go on camera, deliver his report in a professional manner and get off. "You mean, do it straight?" Brenner asked. Just conform to our format, the general manager said.
Then, seeking a new look, the station ordered a new set built. The management was quite pleased with the new installation, in which, Brenner noted, the sports desk looked remarkably like a small jury box.
On the night of the unveiling, Brenner was waiting in the little sports jury box. When the anchor team passed the ball to him, he leaped to his feet and shouted:
"We find the defendant not guilty!"
As Brenner recalls it, there was a good deal of laughter from the camera crew. The station management, however, concluded after some thought that Glenn Brenner was not quite fitting in.
That is how Glenn Brenner, 33, with the vocal delivery of a runaway steam engine, the facial expression of a three-candle jack-o'-lantern and an incurable case of the goofing-arounds, came to be the highest-paid sportscaster in Washington, D.C.
In exchange for the high jinks that closed in Philadelphia, WDVM-Channel 9 two weeks ago signed Brenner to a five-year contract that he says will bring his salary to well over $300,000 by 1985. The package includes $200,000 for his children's education, and $100,000 a year for 10 years beginning at age 60. The station also threw in a $1 million life insurance policy, for which the yearly premiums are $15,000. To ice the cake, he got a $50,000 bonus on signing.
The total value of the package, Brenner says, is $3.5 million. "And it's a no-cut contract. If they get tired of me tomorrow, I still get it all."
"Glenn's is the signal local broadcasting contract in the United States," says his agent, Steven Dickstein of Philadelphia, confirming the $3.5-million figure. Ed Pfeiffer, vice president and general manager of Channel 9, says, "As to specific amounts of money, I wouldn't want to comment. But we are enormously fortunate to have him on our team."
Glenn Brenner says he's an only child "and maybe that explains it." Yes, Glenn. That, or maybe the 6 1/2 years of minor-league baseball, or the hours in the jug at Father Judge High School back in Philadelphia, or the stint as a conscience-ridden used car salesman, or the $79-a-week announcing job in Millville, N.J. Or maybe it's that, for as long as anybody can remember, Glenn Brenner was a guy who would do anything for a laugh. And got it.
"The rap on me is that I'm a clown," Brenner said, reclining on a couch in his office at Channel 9 while Frank Herzog, his sporting colleague, tried to write a script behind him."But isn't sports supposed to be fun? I mean, my show would never go in Philly. In Philly they've got to have blood and guts and victims. Interviews with victims. If the victim is dead, move on to the next of kin.
"We're talking about games. It just isn't that serious. Anybody who compares football to war hasn't been in a war. Look at the Oakland-Cleveland game: What did most people notice? Not the score, but the ice and the snow. Who cares about the score when you're waiting for Beth and Eric Heiden to come out? You think of what it was like in the stands. It isn't so bad for the players, at least they get to run around. Of course, the players don't dare complain. I played on one minor-league team where they fined you $50 if you mentioned the weather.It's the same on both sides, the coach said."
Frank Herzog, hunched over his typewriter, chuckled.
"They say that only 25 percent of the audience watches the news for the sports," Brenner said. "My goal is to reach the other 75 percent. You can't do that with scores. I've got three shows a day. The 5:30 show is a layup drill. By 6:20 we've got our prime audience, and that's when I want to be boffo. Then there's the 11 p.m. show, which is easy. Maybe I'll get eight or nine minutes at 6:20, which you could easily fill with scores. The trick is to whip yourself to go beyond that. To try to be boffo every night. You only succeed maybe five out of 15 nights, but you have to try."
When Brenner looks into the camera lens, he says he sees "thousands of tiny faces, waiting to smile." In order not to keep them waiting, he talks so fast his tongue flies off the track and makes a train wreck out of his syntax. He bobs like a cork, jabbing at the camera, and sometimes at anchorman Gordon Peterson, with the palm of his left hand. Sports is the topic, but Brenner is the message. As for the method, it's Johnny Carson Monologue -- the news of the day with a punch line attached:
"George Allen will not be coming to take over after Jack Pardee because when George Allen departed the last time he said some things that left a bad taste in the mouth of owner Jack Kent Cooke. Roughly the taste you get from taking a large bite out of a used oil filter."
"What they were hoping for was 'Love Boat,' but what they wound up with was 'The Poseidon Adventure.'"
"I'm not saying the guy is crazy, but his elevator doesn't seem to stop at every floor."
"I see that the Eagles are going down to practice in Florida to get used to the warm weather. If it was me, I'd send them to practice in Greenland. Then they'd really appreciate the weather down there."
He also specializes in running gags, which sometimes return like boomerangs. Cajoling Peterson for not knowing how a "hat trick" in hockey derived its name, Brenner explained that a player who scored three goals was originally presented with a hat. Peterson returned after a commercial to correct him: 'Now that you've embarrassed yourself, Glenn, you should know that the hat trick was named after the Canadian Maurice Chapeau, the first NHL player to make three goals in one game." The next day (and five viewer calls) later, Gordon Barnes, the weatherman, claimed it was a cricket term. Brenner defused that correction by snoring loudly through Barnes' explanation.
When Brenner incorrectly picked Dallas over the Eagles in Sunday's play-off game, he appeared Monday disguised with spectacles and a false nose.
Periodically, the comedy show is interrupted by Frank Herzog, with an actual report on an actual sport. During the football season, Sonny Jurgensen contributes his expertise (he also wore a disguise after the Eagles win). For a boxing report, Brenner can turn to Sugar Ray Leonard. Channel 9 has the bases loaded with experts, but it's Brenner's humor that drives them in.
WDVM has the top-rated news program in town, and has since the days of Warner Wolf, Washington's first unforgettable television sports personality.
Channel 4 is number two, and trying something different. WRC general manager John Rohrbeck has research that shows viewers prefer film highlights 2-to-1 over interviews with athletes, 3-to-1 over scores and 10-to-1 over wit and humor and analysis and commentary. So WRC's answer is George Michael.
"Glenn relies on his sense of humor," Michael says. "Whereas he'll spend all afternoon writing a funny line and then find a way to work it in, my bread and butter is in videotape. We think that's what people want, and we live and die by the clips.
"There's another difference, too," Michael says. "For example, the night Jack Pardee got fired, Channel 9 didn't interview either Pardee or Bobby Beathard, the general manager he was having the power struggle with. We did. I went to Upperville and interviewed Pardee myself. And we sent Scott Murray to interview Beathard. We had them both on tape for our news. That's the real difference."
Tim Brant, 31, does the sports for WJLA-Channel 7. A former football player at the University of Maryland, he's only been in television for 14 months. "We're gaining rapidly," Brant said. "We're using as much tape as George, and we're not doing and garbage stuff. Look at it this way, Glenn and George have been around the bend, they've both been hired and fired. Ours is the fresh approach.". . . "I don't know what the secret to my success is," Brenner said, watching Frank Herzog bang away at his typewriter. "It sure isn't typing. You've heard of hunt and peck? With me it's more like search and destroy." He lit another KENT III ("The three means you live three days longer"). "We bothering you, Frank? What I always say is don't bother me, I'm polishing up my ad libs. That's because 50 percent of the ad libs are written down. Haha."
"But I'm the same guy off screen I am on screen," Brenner continued, marveling at his own presumed appeal. "I'm the same guy I was back at Father Judge High School in Philadelphia." Pause. "Come to think of it, they put me on waivers after a year.
"Why? Well, I was always in jug. You know, detention. The rule was you had to sit for an hour and not talk. Ha. Me? Also, I was always getting in fights. This was in the Takony section of Philadelphia, which is kind of minor league South Philly. Everybody was in a gang. No guns or anything, but we were real tough.We hung around at a corner store named Lou's. Then Lou sold the store to a guy named Harvey, and that was the end of that. We were too tough to hang around in front of a store named Harvey's.
"My neighborhood was like the bullfights.We all wore stingy-brimmed Stetson hats and T-shirts, and on the weekends we had organized fights. My first main event was with a guy who looked like Too-Tall Jones, whose girlfriend I made the mistake of asking to dance. I was about 5-8 and 12 pounds, but I hit him first, and he went out cold. I thought I was big stuff for about two weeks, until somebody else did it to me. Father Judge was 4,600 boys and priests who belted you around. There was one lay teacher, Mr. Duffy, who used to stutter-slap you in the face."
"Hahaha," said Herzog.
"Then I transferred to Lincoln High School, and when I was 18 I was playing baseball. I started with the rookie league. Then I went up to the A league, and then to Double A. I could throw the hell out of the ball, but as a result I never had to learn how to pitch. Hey, it was travel, it was girls, it was great. I was making $500 a month, and for a while $800. I started going to college a semester at a time. But it was all over by the time I was 24.
"The last year, I played winter ball, and I went 10 appearances without giving up a hit. But I hurt my arm real bad. I went to spring training that year and, of course, you don't tell them you're hurt. What's the use, they're not going to send you to Dr. Christiaan Barnard anyhow. Things weren't going too well. Finally they said, here's what: We're sending you down to Sabinas, for your arm. That's the Mexican League. It'll help your arm because it's warm down there, they said.
"I said, 'Hey. It's summer. It's warm all over the place in summer.' I almost went down there, though, to be the only guy who spoke English. Good thing I didn't because the manager who wanted me slugged an umpire the first week of the season and got thrown out of the game.
"So there I was back in Philly, 24 years old, selling used cars. There's this current-model Riviera on the lot, perfect shape. A guy comes in just out of the service and falls in love with it. Should I tell him? We go for a test ride, and he's nuts about the car, and I'm going to get a big commission. Should I tell him? See, this car was owned by a salesman who did quite a lot of driving in the one year we had it. So what the used-car lot had done was sort of frost over the glass on the odometer.
"We're driving along and I couldn't stand it. "Take a look at the odometer,' I finally said.
"'Pretty good,' the guy says. 'Only 8,500 miles.'
"'Look again,' I said. Because when you looked through the fog it said 85,000."
After two months of that, Brenner answered an ad placed by a radio station in Millville, N.J., and found himself on the radio at 4 a.m. He sounded then, he says, exactly as he does now: "Like somebody who just gargled with Woolite." Radio jobs took him to New Haven, then back home to WFIL in Philadelphia, doing the news all night. To break into television, he moved to Huntington, W. Va., taking a $40-a-week pay cut. That was where he met his wife Suzie, a registered nurse whom he married 3 1/2 years ago. "What a wedding," Brenner said. "I'm Catholic, she's Protestant and the best man was Dickstein, who's a Jew. Father Hartke got chest pains."
They have a daughter, Amy, who's 2, and are expecting another child any day now. "If it's a boy, I like Brett. Brett Brenner, you know? OK, maybe not. Suzie likes Todd. But I can't picture a 60-year-old man named Todd. Are you ready for your pill, Todd? We're going to roll you over, now, Todd. If it's a girl, she'll be named Ashley. We both like that."
Brenner, a sizable galoot who barn-stormed some in his baseball days, considers himself a homebody now. His natural place, he says, is in the studio.
"A network show like 'CBS Sports Spectacular' is interested in the nuts and bolts of sports. I don't want to wind up covering roller-disco games. I don't want to wind up doing the play-by-play on barrel-jumping in Oslo on Saturday and then be back in New York for Sunday's game. Besides, the networks have ratings every Thursday, we get them a couple of times a year. And they've got 600 vice presidents. A guy could get paranoid.
"Anyhow, who cares if you're known in Walnut, Iowa. You can only be in one place at a time, right? The network guys have to be so bland. It's that or be Howard Cosell. Here's a guy who changes his name and puts on a toupee, and he's going to tell it like it is. I admire him, though."
After the evening news, Brenner likes to go for a jog. He runs between 2 1/2 and five miles a night, but his mileage is going down, not up.
"Peterson and I used to run six days a week," he said, "but it seemed like we always had colds. You can overdo it. I'm not going to the Olympics anyhow. I've got an exercise bike. I go to Nautilus. Where do I run? I like to run down Wisconsin Avenue. So I can watch the traffic. It relaxes me. The biggest problem is when I run by the Chicago Pizzeria. By then I'm usually starving.". . . When Dickstein and Brenner concluded the $3.5-million deal, they celebrated with a six-pack of Miller Lite.
"I'm not very money oriented," Brenner said. "I'm driving a '73 VW with a dented fender. I am going to buy a new set of golf clubs, though. I really do need a new set. And I'd like to have a new, big house, closer to the station. The aluminum siding's coming off the one I have now."
Brenner's contract, however, must inevitably make waves. Broadcasting is a field where the auction price of a performer sets his rank in the pecking order. Warner Wolf, now with WCBS-TV in New York City, reportedly makes $400,000 a year. He declined Monday to confirm that figure, or compare his deferred benefits to those of Brenner, whom he has not met. "Oh no, man, I'm not getting into that," Wolf said.
Either Brenner or Wolf is likely the highest paid local sportscaster in the country for the moment. But what happens now when Gordon Peterson, Channel 9's well-regarded anchorman, comes up for contract renewal? Or when Frank Herzog, an accomplice to Brenner's success, renegotiates?
"Compensation is something between me and them," said Pfeiffer, the WDVM general manager. "It's a sensitive area, and it's not easy to sit in my chair. It's true that when you're number one in a market, you expect to be paying more -- for the whole group."
But for individuals "it's so hard to say. In baseball, at least you know the guy hit .350 last year, with 40 home runs and 140 RBI. In our business, it comes down to somebody having to make a few calls. It comes down to finding out what a guy's market value is someplace else.
"It's true that if you have Glenn Brenner, you reach more people. But the nuance is that many stations have one standout. And although some of our people might eventually find careers elsewhere to their benefit, we think that our particular people combine well. The chemistry is beautiful, and it can be spectacular.". . . Herzog, undeterred by two hours of Glenn Brenner being interviewed live two feet from his desk, had finally finished his report for the 11 o'clock news.
"By the way," Brenner said, "Frank's contract is coming up for renewal. Right, Frank?"
"Yeah," Herzog said, rubbing his hands together. "By the way, did you say you've got only two weeks of vacation?"
"Yeah," Brenner said. "How much you got?"
"Four weeks," Herzog said.
"Well, you've been here longer than me."
"Oh, but you can negotiate that stuff," Herzog said.
"You can?" Brenner exclaimed, wide-eyed. "I didn't think you could get away with that."