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Howard Cosell

Career At Abc

In 1956 Cosell left his law practice to do five-minute weekend radio broadcasts for ABC. With Emmy's support, he quit a job that earned him almost $30,000 a year to take a six-week, two hundred-and-fifty dollar contract. Cosell's prospects horrified his father, who, until his death in 1957, pleaded with his daughter-in-law to convince Howard to return to the law. Indeed his son was an unusual figure in the broadcast ranks, in both appearance and behavior. Rather homely and balding, Cosell put on a toupee for his television broadcasts. As Myron Cope reported in a 1967 Sports Illustrated article, the toupee stayed in Cosell's coat pocket until he arrived at the studio. Cosell's voice, which would become widely imitated by entertainers and viewers, was nasal, harsh, and staccato. But if Cosell's first impression paled in comparison to those of his more polished colleagues, he soon overshadowed them in his pursuit of sports stories.

When Cosell entered the profession, the "rip-and-read" style of sportscasting was common, in which the sportscaster read statistics and facts as provided by the wire services. Cosell, however, was determined to provide more commentary and in-depth coverage. He would become famous for telling viewers that he would "tell it like it is." For his radio programs, Cosell began taping interviews on location before the advent of the cassette recorder. That meant carrying a thirty-pound tape recorder on his back. Cope noted that such determined behavior was rare; he wrote, "Cosell's forward progress stems from the fact that, alone among sportscasters of national stature, he works at his trade. He goes out and looks for news and personalities, instead of waiting for gossip at Toots Shor's." Within a year, Cosell was appearing in Sports Focus, a commentary program on evening television that was introduced as a summer replacement for Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. In 1961 he was made the evening sports reporter on New York's WABCTV. Soon thereafter Cosell began announcing boxing matches for ABC's Wide World of Sports. He was quickly making his way up the ladder at the network, despite the fact that he was disliked by some at ABC and faced racial prejudice as a Jew.

A big part of Cosell's success was his revolutionary use of the interview format. He asked difficult questions, as well as gave athletes the opportunity to make personal observations. He also created additional drama by using an accusatory tone. Chet Forte, a Columbia basketball star who would later work with Cosell as a producer for ABC, remembered Cosell telling him not to worry about what he would be asked in an interview. But as Forte recalled in Sports Illustrated, Cosell's first question was "Chet, is it true that some of your teammates hate to pass to you because you shoot so much?" He was also notorious for listening carefully to responses and pressing the interviewee to elaborate on ambiguous or half-hearted comments. Being interviewed by Cosell was often a daunting prospect. On other occasions, the sportscaster's unconventional style was a welcome change. Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith went to Cosell after giving the "Black Power" salute on the medal stand in 1968, knowing that he would have a chance to comment on his highly controversial action. "He asked questions that gave a young athlete like myself enough space to say what I felt," Smith explained years later in Multichannel News.

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsSports JournalismHoward Cosell Biography - Family Influence, Career At Abc, Controversial Commentary, Monday Night Football, Chronology, Broken Ties