By R.L. Bynum
Hectic travel schedule the norm for Wes Durham
When football and into basketball seasons overlap, it’s always a crazy time for college beat writers.
None of them deal with the airport-hopping madness that Wes Durham, the unofficial Voice of the ACC, experiences. He’s a sports broadcaster with many hats, and that leads to many flights, mind-boggling itineraries and — in one case — escaping an upset police officer to get to a game on time.
While those beat writers only focus on one school, Durham is the radio voice of the Atlanta Falcons, broadcasts ACC games on TV and is co-host with Mark Packer of the weekday morning-drive show “ACC This Morning” on SiriusXM ACC Radio (371) from 7–10 a.m.
During one stretch that ended Saturday with his final Fox Sports Net football game of the season (Wake Forest at Duke), he called nine games in 15 days in five states, during which he made three trips to the Triangle. That stretch was so frantic that he had to take three days off from the radio show last week.
“To me, you know it’s all coming and it’s kind of normal,” Durham said while on a drive from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to his Cartersville, Ga., home last week. “It’s just that you’ve got to be prepared for it, get organized with it, get your travel set. You figure out a few things here and there and you just dive into it. It’s kind of what I do every year.”
He went from the Liberty at Virginia football game on Saturday, Nov. 10 to the Falcons game in Cleveland the next day to host the Dan Quinn radio show in Atlanta on that Monday. That week, he did basketball games at Duke (vs. Eastern Michigan) on Wednesday and North Carolina (vs. Tennessee Tech) on Friday before doing two games close to home: at Georgia Tech on Saturday (football vs. Virginia) and the Falcons’ home game on Sunday (Dallas Cowboys.)
“I’m a fairly low-stress traveler,” said Durham, who once did six games in eight days when he still called Georgia Tech games during his first year doing Falcons games. “There are a couple of things, like tight connections. I had one of those about three weeks ago that I wasn’t crazy about, but it worked out OK. Those are the kind of things that run your temperature up a little bit, if you will. As long as I’ve got a schedule, it kind of gives me more confidence about what I’m doing.”
He feasted on travel Thanksgiving week with a Tuesday basketball game at N.C. State (vs. St. Peters), then made a brief visit home Wednesday that included a Thanksgiving dinner with family before flying Thursday to New Orleans for that night’s Falcons game against the Saints.
He got back to Hartsfield, taking the Falcons’ team plane, in the wee hours of Friday morning. Instead of going home, he went to his car to drop off some things and pick up other items before flying to RDU so that he could make it to an 11 a.m. Friday production meeting ahead of calling Saturday’s Deacons-Blue Devils game.
Durham estimates that he flies 120 to 125 flight segments a year.
“You can’t worry about certain things that happen, like flight delays,” he said. “That happens. You can’t sweat that. You can’t let that kind of take you out of your day.”
Durham, of course, grew up around broadcasting as one of Woody Durham’s two sons (brother Taylor calls Elon games). The legendary Voice of the Tar Heels passed away in March while Wes was working the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn. Woody, even though it was evident things weren’t going well, had urged Wes to work the tournament anyway.
After graduating from Elon in 1988, the Apex High School alum worked at Radford, and then called games at Marshall for a year and Vanderbilt for three years before he broadcast Georgia Tech football and basketball games for 18 years until the end of the 2012-13 school year.
He’s been the voice of the Falcons since 2004 and has called ACC football, basketball and baseball games on TV for Fox Sports Net and/or Raycom Sports since the 2013-14 school year. His newest gig as morning radio co-host started in March.
It happened once this year, but he rarely does what he calls flying without a net — when the margin for error is small.
In 2005, he broadcast a Georgia Tech home football game against Connecticut on a Saturday night, and then had to get to Seattle to call the Falcons’ game against the Seahawks the next day.
“Everybody says that must have been brutal,” Durham said. “The plan was set. The only thing is, it was one flight and so one flight, you’re kind of rolling the dice a little bit on this. You’ve got the one plane and if the plane goes on time, you’re fine. It lands, you’re going to be fine, things like that.”
The direct flight from Atlanta to Seattle was a little late getting out of the gate at Hartsfield, then the plane took quite a while to taxi to the gate at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He wasn’t too worried because he had set up a car to drive him to the stadium. Also on the same flight and riding in that car was Joseph Person, currently the Carolina Panthers beat writer for The Athletic who, at the time, covered the Falcons for The State of Columbia, S.C.
“He got in the car with me and we were doing pretty good and the driver of the car knew where to take us, except he went the wrong way on I-5 out of the airport,” Durham said. “So, by the time he realized that he had gone the wrong way and turned it around, he drove us right into pregame traffic at this stadium. So, basically, the culmination of a lot of little things made now getting into the stadium a big thing.”
With game time approaching, they decided that the only way they’d get into the stadium before the game started was to get out of the car and walk. It made sense since the car was next to a curb on a city street.
“As we started out of the car, a policeman stopped us and said, ‘You can’t get out of this car because you’re not at an intersection.’ And I say, ‘excuse me?’ He said, ‘it’s a city ordinance. You can’t get out of a car in traffic,’ ” Durham said.
“So, we pulled up another 30 feet and got out of the car and the cop looked at us and yelled at us and we just kept going and the cop never found us,” said Durham, who walked into the press box as the national anthem had ended and the teams were coming out onto the field for the kickoff.
Until that point, analyst Dave Archer, his longtime Falcons radio colleague, thought he might have to do the play-by-play for the first series.
“So, they came out of the break and I signed on like I’d been there the whole time, if you will. I hadn’t, and they knew it,” Durham said. “That’s as close as it’s gotten but, for the most part, it’s all worked out well.”
He’d never want to go through that stress again, but it gives him a good story to tell.
“I’ve had fun telling the story, saying the cop chased me to the press box, embellished it a little bit and things like that,” said Durham, who has learned from experiences like that. “I don’t roll the dice quite as hard as I used to.”
The radio voices of college teams have challenging schedules when the seasons overlap but often have the advantage of flying with the team, which eliminates a lot of travel hassles. Because of Durham’s other commitments, he only generally flies round trip with the Falcons once a season. This season, that will be for the Dec. 9 game at Green Bay.
“Most of the time, because of my schedule, I’ll catch up to them Saturday night or Sunday morning or day of game,” Durham said.
Once the football schedules are released, he plans his travel schedule in July. He has a good feel for the first six or seven weeks of the season but must predict his college football assignments for most of the season.
“I usually build some confidence or build some fear based on where I’ve got to try to go once I kind of do that little drill every year,” Durham said. “It’s OK. It works out pretty good. I’ve been fortunate. All of this has to work as a team and the people at Raycom and Fox have been incredible. The Fox people here in Atlanta are aware of the schedule. The Raycom people certainly are. The Falcons organization is second-to-none.”
He doesn’t mind that he must book all the flights and the hotels, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have more confidence if I’m in control,” Durham said. “I guess I’ve got a little bit of ADD in that light where I want to make sure I’m aware of all the pros and cons of it, if you will. It makes me feel better from a confidence standpoint about my travel if I set it up.”
When he’s home on weekdays, he only commutes about 25 feet to his home studio to do the radio show in the morning. When he comes on the “Adam and Joe Show” on WCMC (99.9 the Fan) each Wednesday afternoon, he’s usually speaking to them “from the country in Cartersville,” as host Adam Gold likes to say, using that same studio.
“It’s good,” Durham said. “It’s really one of the benefits of being in that area. It’s my wife’s hometown and we live two miles from my in-laws, who are just very special people in our lives. That makes it all very, very good. It’s a good, calming lifestyle given what I do during the year when I’m working.”
The radio show has meant long days when he’s working a game on a weeknight. His routine is to go to bed early to be rested for the radio show. The result is that he gets more sleep, not less, than he used to get.
“The show is fun, and I’m looking forward to it every day, so I guess that doesn’t make it like work a lot,” Durham said. “Because of somehow the built-in synergy that Mark and I have — even though we’ve never worked together doing anything before — it’s more of a conversation and then calls and guests as opposed to scripted preparation. In fact, we rarely talk about what we’re going to talk about before we go on the air.”
When he’s on the road, he has done the show from radio studios in cities such as Pittsburgh, Charlottesville and Winston-Salem. In frequent trips to the Triangle, he uses one of Capitol Broadcasting Company’s studios in Raleigh.
“That’s what’s made the show easier to do on the road, including the last couple of weeks during this busy season,” Durham said.
Frequent trips to the Triangle also give him a chance to visit with his mother, Jean, who has been through a difficult year. In addition to losing her husband, she had knee-replacement surgery in August. The holiday season obviously is different this year.
“It will certainly be different, there’s no question about that,” Wes Durham said. “My mom has done remarkably well and we’re all just completely so proud of her.”
This week is an uncommonly slow one for Durham in that he isn’t calling any games until Sunday’s Falcons home game against the Baltimore Ravens. There’s still a quick turnaround since he’ll head to Tallahassee on Sunday night ahead of calling the Troy at Florida State basketball game on Monday night. He’s in Charlotte this week to do work for Sirius XM ahead of the ACC championship game.
The big question Durham is frequently asked is about what, if any, role he’ll have in the ACC Network, which launches next summer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Everybody’s asked, and a lot of people said, ‘boy, I hope that works out.’ I’d like to hope I get a chance. I’m sure the next opportunity, if it’s there, will be exciting, engaging and entertaining. But I’m really looking forward to being part of the last year of ACC basketball on Raycom, too.”
Between now and the launch of the ACC Network, we do know one thing for sure: Durham will be doing his share of traveling.
Newspaper coverage of non-revenue prep sports drops off
The consolidated News & Observer/Herald-Sun sports staff didn’t cover those games, focusing only on regular-season football.
“We don’t ignore high school championships, but with limited resources, there are many great things we just can’t get to,” Sports Editor Steve Ruinsky said via email. “Since basketball and football have such a large number of fans, they tend to get more coverage. We don’t focus on games on any high school sport as much as we used to and hope over time we can find great stories about the athletes who play in every sport.”
There hasn’t been a writer dedicated full-time to prep sports since J. Mike Blake left in August. Jonas Pope IV took over those duties, but still covers recruiting and also a good bit of college sports.
While three area teams were winning state boys soccer titles (Green Hope in Class 4-A, Chapel Hill in 3-A and Voyager Academy in 1-A), Pope was assigned to cover the N.C. Central-N.C. A&T football game, which obviously should also be covered.
Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of The N&O and The H-S, said that a writer dedicated full-time to high school sports won’t be added.
“It’s not in our 2019 budget,” Tomlin said via email. “Jonas will continue to report primarily on preps and recruiting and we will use freelance and others staffers as best we can to cover gaps.”
Obviously, The N&O/H-S goes hard on the sports that get the most page views. One example was the decision to send Duke beat writer Steve Wiseman to Hawaii to cover the Blue Devils in the Maui Classic.
It’s outstanding that the money was spent for that coverage. Relatively small amounts to hire stringers could have been spent to cover Triangle teams that won state volleyball and boys soccer titles.
Unlike for volleyball championships when there was no television coverage, WTVD covered the state soccer championships.
Three McClatchy writers are NSMA nominees
Columnist Luke DeCock of The N&O/H-S is again a nominee for the National Sports Media Association’s North Carolina sports writer of the year award. Joining him are Ed Hardin, columnist at the News & Record of Greensboro, and two writers from the Charlotte Observer: columnist Scott Fowler and Carolina Panthers beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue.
DeCock shared the award in 2017 with N&O colleague Andrew Carter and in 2016 with Hardin. Hardin also won it in 2014.
The nominees for N.C. sportscaster of the year are all play-by-play announcers: Stan Cotten of Wake Forest, John Forslund of the Carolina Hurricanes and Gary Hahn of N.C. State.
Cotten won the award in 2017 and shared it with WRAL’s Jeff Gravley in 2014. The former radio voice of the Canes, Chuck Kaiton, won the award in 2015.
One of two nominees for the New Jersey sports writer of the year is former N&O writer Steve Politi, a columnist for the Star Ledger in Newark.
New CBC podcast, new Saturday 99.9 lineup
Brenden Whitted, known during his days appearing on the “The Sports Shop” (the morning drive-time show on Buzz Sports Radio) as “Research,” is debuting a new podcast along with “Sports Shop” regular Candace Cooper called “Out of My League.”
The hourlong podcast, which will cover sports and pop-culture topics, will be available at WRALSportsFan.com, the site’s app and many other podcast apps. Whitted has been part of the “League Pass Lair” segments on 99.9 about the NBA.
The podcast will air on Saturday mornings on a shuffled WCMC (99.9 the Fan) lineup since Steve Logan did his last radio show of the season last Saturday.
“Out of My League” will air at 8 a.m., with Lauren Brownlow’s “Topics and Takes” shifting an hour later to 9 a.m. and “SportsChannel 8, the Radio Show,” returning to the 10 a.m.–noon slot it held before football season.
Marilyn Payne leaves WRAL
After more than three years as a multimedia sports reporter at WRAL, Marilyn Payne left that position earlier this month. It appears that the position is not being filled. She wrote about ACC football and men’s basketball, among other topics, and produced plenty of video content.
It was fun while it lasted.
A special thanks to @jgravleyWRAL, whose belief in me helped me have the opportunity to join the team, & to @AaronSchoony, @DerekMedlin & @jmgl, who each directly managed me..helping make enthusiastic ideas reality.
For it all, I am very grateful. pic.twitter.com/RAFgwQLTqJ
— Marilyn Payne (@marilyn_payne) November 13, 2018
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
Sammy Batten of The Fayetteville Observer caught up with Jeff Capel after a difficult year. Capel lost his father and has started the rebuilding process at Pittsburgh.
Putting together a roster of so many freshmen can be difficult. But Dana O’Neil in The Athletic wrote about one reason it has worked at Duke so far: teammates get along well.
In an episode of his “The Other 51” podcast, Brian Moritz talked with UNC graduate Mike Waters, who covers Syracuse basketball for The Post-Standard. He discusses the challenges of covering Coach Jim Boeheim and one of the perks: Waters says that it’s one of only four major college basketball programs that opens the home locker room to the press (Duke, Michigan State and Seton Hall are the others).
In The New York Times, Andrew Keh wrote about former UNC star and assistant coach Larry Brown, 78, who is battling team injuries and health issues (five surgeries this year) while coaching in Turin, Italy.
In the North State Journal, Brett Friedlander wrote about the strange family dynamic for the Dorn family. Myles plays football at UNC just like his dad and brother Torin plays basketball at N.C. State. It can look odd when one goes to the other’s campus to work out.
In the Bleacher Report, Dan Pompei wrote about the career transformation for former Carolina tight end Eric Ebron since he shifted from the Detroit Lions to the Indianapolis Colts.
After 30 years of the Charlotte Hornets, Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer set out to pick the top 15 players in franchise history.