Footnote to chapter and verse
As race has grown, so has the coverage
By Bill Griffith, Globe Staff, 4/12/2002
Viewers under age 35 may not realize that the Boston Marathon once was a rather simple affair conducted annually on the April 19 Patriots Day holiday.
In those pre-running boom days, the race remained an annual curiosity. ["It must be spring, dear. The saps are running again."]
Marathon headlines were huge in the next day's paper. So, too, was the international prestige accorded the winner. And the crowds that lined the route from Hopkinton to Boston were as big as they are today.
In all other ways, the Boston Marathon was a small-time affair, with less organization and fewer financial resources than your hometown's annual 5-kilometer road race.
The Boston fields were small -- 232 runners entered in 1962 and 1,219 in 1972. And, relatively speaking, so was the coverage. Before 1972, there was only one winner to interview. Women officially joined the field that year. The masters (over-40) and wheelchair divisions were added in 1975.
At that time, it was an enterprising TV station that did anything more than send camera crews to the start and the finish, interview the winner, and call it a day. Newspapers would send a half-dozen reporters out to "find stories."
But one thing never changed in the early days: Through 1968, the race always was held on Patriots Day, the local holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War. In 1969, Massachusetts decided to recognize the holiday on the third Monday in April, and the race moved with the holiday.
Gradually, that third Monday in April came to be known as "Marathon Monday," and, as the event grew -- peaking with a field of 38,708 for the 100th running in 1996 -- so, too, did the media coverage.
Since 1982, Channels 4 and 5 have presented start-to-finish coverage of the race -- an undertaking that required a pool arrangement of cameras and represented a total staff effort unprecedented in local television. Channel 7, originally a member of the pool, has gone its own way in recent years, covering the event extensively as a news story.
But, at all local media outlets, everyone works on Monday. Both Channels 4 and 5 begin at 5 a.m. with reports during the early news shows. Channel 5 follows the Marathon exclusively from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., then adds a two-hour highlight show at 7. Channel 4 goes live from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. to show back-of-the-packers finishing. And WBZ radio will go live from 11 a.m. until race's end.
"If you can't get excited about covering this, you're probably in the wrong line of work," said Channel 5 producer Matt Smith. "The Marathon is a good-news story and the premier local event of the year." Smith, who has been working full time on the station's coverage since March 1, actually started planning this year's coverage the day after last year's race when he and co-producer Don Makson reviewed and critiqued their telecast.
Smith alerts this year's viewers to tune in promptly at 9 a.m. "We've got a spectacular opening video that epitomizes what WCVB's coverage will be about," he said. "We are excited because this piece sets the perfect tone." Producers always like to promote their shows, but Smith's alert is worth heeding. (Hint: the video will be replayed at 11 a.m.).
You can bet its theme will be slanted toward patriotism and Patriots Day.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Boston Athletic Association decided to wrap Monday's 106th edition of the race in the flag and emphasize the event's Patriots Day roots.
It was a decision that didn't go unnoticed at Channel 4, either, where news director Peter Brown will be working the race for a 20th year, as will sports director Bob Lobel.
"The race will be the race and will write its own story, which we'll describe as it unfolds," said Brown. "But you are going to see a lot of red, white, and blue when we go on at 9 a.m." Brown says to expect huge flags parading down Boylston Street, nationally acclaimed Mass. state trooper Dan Clarke singing the national anthem, and a flyover.
Channel 5 co-anchor Mike Lynch, who celebrated his 20th anniversary on the air during the recent men's basketball Final Four, will be covering his 21st Boston Marathon. Anchoring with Natalie Jacobson at the finish will be a far cry from his first Boston race.
In that one, he remembers sitting on a milk carton on the sole press truck and calling in reports. "In those days, there were no helicopters [to relay the pictures] so we relied on fixed cameras at the start and at traditional checkpoints like Ashland, Natick, and the hills," Lynch said. "In between camera positions, I'd be doing play-by-play via walkie-talkie."
Now he's on for six straight hours (9 a.m.-3 p.m.). "Our producers prepare me so well it's hard to fail," said Lynch of the material on the elite runners. For their part, Channel 5's producers call Lynch a master at hosting live TV.
But Lynch also is a diehard runner ("2 or 3 miles a day, six days a week") who understands what the race means to the majority of Monday's participants. "It's the highlight of most runners' post-high school athletic career."
As always, the flying machines that Brown and all the television people truly are concerned with are the helicopters that relay video signals back to the stations. High ceilings may be coveted in the Commonwealth Avenue apartments that the marathoners run past, but they're a necessity if we are to get pictures from the cameras that accompany the lead men, women, and wheelchair athletes.
While Channels 4 and 5 fight for local supremacy, and tell a lot of the stories of average runners and the many competitors running for charities, ESPN2 will beam the telecast nationally and focus on the competitive aspect of the event. Larry Rawson will call the race (he's done 28 straight Bostons and has been with the ESPN crew since its beginnings).
"We've got a lot of good material on the top runners," said Rawson. "If people are wondering why so many foreign runners are competing, consider that a Russian family of four can live comfortably on $1,000 a month. In Kenya, that figure is $250. In Ethiopia, it's $100."
So not only do the announcers talk, but so does the money.
Bill Griffith's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
This story ran on page F8 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002. © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.