Glenn Brenner, Channel 9's maestro of fun, begins his ninth year at WDVM this month, gliding along with a pun in a style that cost him his previous job in Philadelphia.
By refining this light-hearted approach that didn't fly in Philly, Brenner has become a key player in the top Washington news-sports-weather package. And unlike a lot of sports people, in his "ya-gotta-see- this" features he's pulling with both oars.
His philosophy of not taking sports too seriously, and of making an effort to appeal to non-sports folks as well as fans, is working so well that when Brenner tells of how sweet it is, his tale verges on the mushy.
To him it's "simple math. Seventy-five percent of the people who watch the news are not interested in sports. Every news director I've ever spoken to tells me this. Three-quarters of my audience is already bored with what I have to say before I get on camera. I've got to try and keep them from going to the restroom or making a bologna sandwich or whatever they do when sports comes on. So, I use humor and oddities in sports.
"Let's face it. We all have the same stories. It's just a case of who tells them the best. If that's the case, why not try to appeal to the most people possible?"
Whenever Brenner is called upon to explain his style, he spends so much time talking about his use of one-liners and clowning that often lost in the mix is the fact that he has always tried to feed the sports junkie first.
"I don't agree that you should be cavalier about providing the information. That's the bottom line," he said. "Providing the sports news is a responsibility. I get the work done first and then play.
"It's different for a sportswriter. When a pern picks up a sports section and puts down the rest of the paper, he or she is in that 25 percent. They're serious."
He feels sports buffs get annoyed with him because he doesn't treat some information as if it were from the Dead Sea scrolls. "Sports are games people play," he said. "If sports become a reality, then what does reality become? If you're not going to have fun at a football game, don't go. Your blood pressure shouldn't be higher after a game than it was before the game. It's a recreational activity, and that's how fans should relate to sports. Athletes, now, have to take it seriously. It's how they earn a living.
"When I start taking myself too seriously, that's the beginning of the end. We all go through a period of taking ourselves seriously. I just try to catch myself before it spreads. You have to stay in touch with that little voice inside you. The day Brenner becomes conscious of Brenner, you can stick a fork in him."
After eight years of wheeling it his way, Brenner talks freely of "coming on a bit too strong" when he first replaced Mike Wolfe. "I was trying to cram too much into the show," he said. "I had no sense of discipline, no pacing. If I could think of a funny line in every story, I'd do it. And, you don't have to be funny all the time.
"I don't have my diploma yet, but I feel I'm just a few credit hours short. The main thing I've learned in these eight years is: Don't force it. If it's not there, it's not there. Someone once said of a talent in this business that 'she's not afraid of being boring.' It's not that she was boring, it's that she wasn't afraid of being boring. It takes guts not to force a line, and I'm still afraid of being boring."
As an example of the kind of oddity he likes to draw from game clips, Brenner recalled that in the Cowboys-Rams playoff game this season, Dallas quarterback Gary Hogeboom was on the sidelines, reduced to sending in signals to starter Danny White. During one set of signls Hogeboom's left arm was fully extended when a player slammed into it as he rushed onto the field, reinjuring Hogeboom's shoulder.
"Here's a guy who started the previous game but never got to take off his warmup jacket and he was injured. I feel that's interesting to viewers even if they didn't care at all about who won or lost the game," said Brenner.
Items like that keep enough people watching WDVM during the sports segment to help the station not only win the local evening and late night news ratings but also capture five Chesapeake Associated Press year-round sports coverage awards in the last seven years.
That also elevates Brenner into the comfortable and healthy salary bracket that makes him very happy. Five years ago he signed a five-year contract for $3.5 million. About two-thirds of that includes 10 deferred payments of $100,000 a year, which begin in 22 years when he's 60; a million-dollar life insurance policy, and $200,000 for the education of his three children.
Last year, with a year to go on that pact, he signed a new contract for five additional years, guaranteed through January 1991. News of that package and the signing has not surfaced. Part of the deal was to keep the whole thing quiet and the numbers private. So all Brenner will say about the agreement, which went into effect this month, is: "It was for a healthy increase. I don't want it to sound like a big clich,e, but I couldn't be happier. It would be impossible for me to be happier anywhere else.
"This is my kids' home town. That's important. I have this deep-seated need for roots. The only way I'll leave this place is if they put a gun to my head. But I'll deny I said this the next time my contract comes up for renewal."
There's a lot of feedback from fans who enjoy his sports-can-be-fun approach, but the reaction he likes best is for a woman to say something like, "I never watch or like sports, but I watch you."
There are a lot more things in Brenner's life that he holds sacred than he cares to talk about. He's not the irreverent guy he seems in front of the camera, although many of his close friends say he's the same on and off camera -- except the language is more pungent in private. He once quit a job selling used cars because he "couldn't knowingly rip people off."
On weekends he and his wife Suzi, daughters Amy, 7, and Ashley, 5, and son Matt, 2, go bike riding, to the movies and all the "typical dad stuff. I wrestle a lot with Matt. He's a real sociological kid. Knows the difference between right and wrong -- just doesn't care."
One idol he talks about freely is his anchorman, Gordon Peterson. "Seriously, he may be the best ever. Here's a man who has integrity and a total pride in the product. No one pays more attention to detail and is more unselfish than he is. He should be Dan Rather, Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw.
"There are guys out there with better hairdos and less gray. He could coast and come in late, but not so. He's just that concerned with the integrity of the package. The single most important factor in my getting off to a good start in this market and then staying there is having him sit next to me."
Peterson says what viewers see is "just a continuation of what goes on in the newsroom. Our relationship on the air is just the same as it is off the air. Everyone sees him as a very funny guy, and he is, but he's also very serious about his work. He sits alone in his room working on his show for long stretches, shaping those lines. He's a very good writer. Of course, once he wanders from his script you never know what's coming. But, he makes it fun."
Before Brenner got to sit next to Peterson he had his share of laughs as he made his way along a bumpy road into adulthood. After one year he was invited to leave Father Judge High School in Philadelphia, having garnered 30 jugs (detention class) for "messing up too much."
He then switched to public high school, where, at 6-foot-5, he attracted about 35 college basketball scholarship offers. He leaped instead at a $2,500 bonus offer to pitch for the New York Mets. "I would have given them $2,500."
After six years in the minors climbing from the rookie league to AA with a strong fastball and little else, he gave up the game with some strong urging from a nagging arm injury. Then at 24, after having attended Temple University one semester each year while playing baseball, he took a fling at selling cars. Couldn't stomach it.
At Temple he followed his sportswriting idols Sandy Grady, Jim Barniak, Stan Hochman and Bill Conlin, and took some communications courses. After the used- car job, he answered a newspaper ad from a radio station in Millville, N.J. "I lied so bad to get that first job. I told the boss I was an announcer from Philadelphia," he said. "I didn't get upset when he took that to mean I was a Philadelphia announcer. I had never even been inside a radio station. I was to put together the morning news package, and I couldn't even type. During the interview I drew a copy of the control board so I could go home and memorize the buttons and switches and practice on it.
"That job paid $79. It cost me $50 -- for gas. It was 55 miles one-way from my home." He moved on to New Haven, Conn., and back to WFIL in Philadelphia before he took a $40-a-week pay cut to break into television in Huntington, W. Va. It was there that he met Suzi, a registered nurse.
It wasn't long before he returned to Philadelphia, this time for WKYW-TV. The station didn't like his humor. Philly fans take their sports much more seriously than Brenner served it.
Just before he left, the show got a new set. The sportscaster had to sit in a piece of furniture so confining that Brenner felt it resembled a tiny jury box. So the first night on the set when the anchorman cued him in, all 6-foot-5 of Brenner leaped up and blurted out: "We find the defendent not guilty."
Shortly after that the station let Brenner know he wasn't fitting in. But the WKYW-TV news director called then- news director Jim Snyder at WDVM-TV and told him Brenner was available. After looking at a few tapes, Snyder called him to Washington and gave him a job weekends.
Mike Wolfe's departure handed him the weekday slot and it's been fun ever since. The station likes his style, the way he fits in with Peterson and the resultant ratings.
Brenner now has only two spots a night. Following a brief cut-in during the 5 p.m. news, he does seven minutes during the 6 p.m. news and four minutes in the 11 p.m. package. He likes the seven-minute stint best: "Have time to do whatever you want, anyway you want to." At 11, he has to "get 10 pounds into a five-pound bag, and getting Brenner into that makes it even tougher."
He's sure a network job is not in his future. Why? "For three reasons. On the practical side, I'd have to take a 50 percent pay cut. I don't like the loss of control over what I do and how I do it. Here, they let me do what I want to do. I answer to two or three people. At a network that would be 30 or 40 people. I wouldn't like that at this point in my career." And, he adds with a smile, "Nobody is knocking down my door with an offer. I wouldn't fit in anyhow, except maybe as an analyst, but these days you have to be a big sports star to get one of those jobs."
But his plush contracts have enabled him to spread out into a new venture. He owns a piece of a new suburban restaurant, Jameson's Bethesda Steak House. "It's a nice informal place for guys who don't like to put on a coat and tie and drive to Georgetown."
His partners are Sugar Ray Leonard, Leonard's business manager, Mike Trainer, and investment advisers Dan and Marty O'Connor and Jim Cralle. The restaurant manager is Dennis Murphy. Brenner goes on about the place as if he were in front of a camera: "The food is very good. I like being around people. I go there about three or four times a week for lunch or dinner between shows and on Saturday night. I'm in a business where people come to have a good time and I have a good time being with them." Recently his annual WDVM sports staff party was held there.
But he quickly adds that the restaurant is just a sidelight. The main job is at WDVM, where his main dish is being clever. "You can't be clever every day. But you can try. But you do have an obligation to be right. It takes hustle and desire to get things right. It doesn't require talent. Other things do.
"In this business it doesn't take much to lose your credibility. And, I want to save some of those credibility mulligans for a putt on 18."