The most-listened-to radio station in Los Angeles, KABC Talkradio, has recently completed what it called The Sportstalk Talent Search, a kind of Ted Mack amateur hour for sports junkies who wanted to take their habit public. It was enough to stir the fantasies of every man and woman who can answer questions like how many Ks did Fernando Valenzuela have at Etchohuaquila in '79?
While the contest had a promotional aspect, it was essentially for real. First prize was a $25,000-a-year job as a commentator on Sportstalk, which airs from 4 to 7 p.m. on KABC five days a week. The winner would work with gravel-voiced Sportstalk host Bud (The Steamer) Furillo and his gentlemanly sidekick, Tommy Hawkins, the former basketball star. Second prize was a one-week vacation in Puerto Rico plus $1,000 walking-around money. Third, fourth and fifth prizes: a weekend in Palm Springs.
The ultimate reward, of course, would be instant celebrity, a much-desired commodity in L.A. And, oh, how the cattle came in for the call. Forklift operators and cocktail waitresses showed up at shopping centers for auditions, as did lawyers, part-time actors, a punk rocker and little old ladies brimming with enthusiasm. On and on they droned about how they were "people persons." They cut tapes that described how they talk sports to their spouses and how Carl at the plant told them they knew so much about Steve Garvey they couldn't miss. Joan Caulfield, Bing Crosby's leading lady in a number of films, tried out. So did Phyllis (The Pom-pom Mom) Wanger, who was pushing 60 when she retired as a Rams cheerleader. Johnny Roseboro, the former Dodger catcher, came in for a hearing. So did a guy who was willing to change his name to Sylvia and become talk radio's answer to Tootsie because he knew the station preferred a female. Only in California.
In all, more than 1,800 talkers auditioned. The winner turned out to be a 37-year-old New Yorker named Merrie Rich, who used to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at Knick and Ranger games in Madison Square Garden and of late has been doing sports p.r. She may be the first full-time woman sports commentator on a major U.S. station, a fact that delights KABC.
The station originally restricted the contest to women, which enraged almost every fellow in L.A. who has ever dreamed of sitting next to the Steamer. KABC is No. 1 in the ratings in large part because it broadcasts Dodger games, but in the off-season, women have been bailing out as soon as the female psychologist's talk show gave way at four to Sportstalk. Within a week after the ads announcing the contest appeared on Feb. 14, station General Manager George Green was threatened with lawsuits charging sex discrimination. So he opened the competition to men.
By last month station officials had narrowed the field to 25, who were invited to KABC to face a series of surprise sports questions and to take audio tests. "We asked them what the Dodgers' starting lineup would be," says Green. "A lot of them couldn't get through the outfield. They started laughing and winging it, saying, 'Well, you got me there.' " Another self-destructo was "What's a triple-double in basketball?" (Answer: Double figures in scoring, rebounds and assists.)
Finally, the cattle call became all USDA choice as KABC reduced the field to six women and four men. Among them were a schoolteacher, a part-time actress who once played the Fonz's girl friend on Happy Days, a comedian who toured with George Carlin and a character who has been in the Guinness Book of World Records for eating 100 yards of spaghetti in 28.73 seconds. All had talent.
Green arranged a climactic round of auditions, with each contestant interviewing Elgin Baylor or Gloria Yeager, wife of the Dodger catcher, cold turkey. Twelve judges, brought in from local newspapers, TV stations and sports teams, listened in a nearby room via an intercom and issued grades. Rich, blessed with a voice as full and comforting as those on phone recordings ("At the tone, the time will be..."), easily outscored her peers. In follow-up quizzes she could name only one team (Georgia) in this year's NCAA basketball Final Four, and she thought Cale Yarborough and Darrel Waltrip were Formula I drivers, but Green selected her anyway.
Rich is keeping her apartment in Manhattan, if only because a mere 13 weeks—$6,250—of her salary is guaranteed. She needn't worry. Her commentaries have seemed a bit preachy during her first two weeks on the air, but she's a genuine find, comfy and personable, who, despite an occasional stumble, is adequately informed in most areas of sport. And she still hasn't gotten over that infectious sense of wonder. As Rich said in her debut, "Do you believe in miracles? Well I sure do."