Media Watch: Murphy gets the Bills "job of a lifetime"
Having succeeded three local broadcasting legends in the past thirty years, John Murphy—the voice of the Buffalo Bills—has accepted a new position that could make the fifty-five-year-old commentator a legend himself. In June, Murphy left his prestigious job as Channel 4 sports director to work full-time for the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills organization, a multimedia position that will bring him full circle to where his career began: on radio.
The Bills-centric move prompted University of Michigan basketball coach John Beilein—who’s known Murphy since their days at DeSales High School in Lockport, where Beilein played basketball with Murphy’s older brother, Mark—to take a swipe at Murphy’s perennial optimism as we approach the Bills’ 2012 season. “John said, ‘Let me get this straight. Now your rose-colored glasses about the Bills will become redder,’” recalls Murphy. “John and his older brother, Joe, accuse me of being overly optimistic. Every fall, he’ll ask what are the Bills going to be and I’ll always say eight or nine wins, and they blame me [when it doesn’t happen].”
But who can blame Murphy for being optimistic, especially these days? As he puts it, “This is a job of a lifetime.”
Plenty of people would argue that Murphy has had several jobs of a lifetime in his thirty-three-year radio and television career, though there isn’t much memorabilia in his Orchard Park home that reflects them. There’s a photograph of Murphy with former Bills radio voice Van Miller hanging in the laundry room, a Bobblehead of Murphy given to him by two of his six siblings, and a poster of the 1974 Buffalo Braves that a friend pilfered from hotel bar owned by former Braves owner Paul Snyder.
Despite the accomplishments suggested by such informal trophies, Murphy seems more proud of a framed copy of legislation—passed by his late father, State Assemblyman Matthew Murphy—that led to the “I Love New York” campaign. Murphy’s dad wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer after earning his broadcasting degree from Syracuse University in 1978, but it wasn’t in the cards. “I went to [University at Buffalo] Law School for half a semester,” he says, noting that his brother, Matthew, is a Niagara County judge. “I hated it.”
After abandoning his law plans, Murphy took a minimum wage weekend news job at WLVL in Lockport, and a weekday job at WJJL in Niagara Falls for $75 a week (“and a tank of gas for my Toyota Corolla”); he supplemented by tending bar at a Lockport steak house three nights a week. Sports news showed up on his radar when WLVL assigned him play-by-play duties for the Niagara-Orleans schools: “It was like Friday Night Lights. I think I got paid $15 a game, which pretty much covered the bar tab afterwards.”
In 1980, Murphy started working part-time doing weekend news at WBEN-AM, where he was once again called on to help out with sports coverage—this time, the two-hour Bills pre-game show. At the time, WBEN sports was nearly synonymous with Stan Barron who, tragically, got sick during the 1984 preseason. He continued as the station’s analyst until the final preseason game in Indianapolis. “Stan woke up in bed in the hotel with a broken leg the day of the game, his bones were so brittle from cancer,” Murphy shares. “He insisted on doing the game, they carried him into the booth, and that was the last game he did.”
After Barron died, then WBEN owner (and current owner/publisher of Buffalo Spree) Laurence Levite approached Murphy. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to jump in here,’” remembers Murphy. “I said, ‘I’m not qualified to do that.’” But jump in he did, sharing the booth with Stan and Van’s other half, Van Miller. And how long did it take for him to become qualified? “Ten years,” Murphy says with a self-deprecating smile. “It was a couple of years at least. It was all Van; Van was great.” At the same time, Murphy took over Barron’s “Free Form Sports,” which had him discussing sports four to five hours a night.
Murphy remained a color analyst for five years until WBEN lost Bills coverage rights to WGR in 1989. “They just happened to be the four Super Bowl years,” says Murphy, who returned to his analyst position when WBEN regained the rights in 1994. He isn’t happy about missing the Super Bowl years or being teased about it from Miller and Beilein. “‘Well, Murph,’” he says, channeling Miller, “‘the last time you weren’t on the broadcast I think we were in the Super Bowls.’”
During his WBEN tenure, Murphy got his first taste of television when he was occasionally invited to be a substitute sports anchor at Channel 4, which was in the same building. His big TV break came in 1989, when WKBW (Channel 7) sports anchor Rick Azar told Murphy he was leaving, and suggested he go for the spot. Doing the 6 p.m. sports report alongside Tom Jolls and Irv Weinstein, Murphy had to adjust from doing four or five hours on radio to three or four minutes on TV. “You learn how to write more concisely,” he says. “You learn how to edit yourself and what is really important.” Apparently, he did it well; in 1992, Murphy became sports director when Bob Koshinski left for the Empire Sports Network.
In 2004, Van Miller retired, and Murphy had the daunting task of replacing him as the radio voice of the Buffalo Bills. Four years later, rather than take a twenty percent pay cut, he left Channel 7, briefly working for NFL Combine before becoming sports director at WIVB (Channel 4), a position held by Dennis Williams since Van Miller stepped down in 1998. Now, it’s Murphy’s time to move on as well.
Many pro teams, according to Murphy, are moving in the direction of creating, driving, and managing their own content, which makes his job both revolutionary and multi-faceted. A live talk show on WGR (scheduled to debut on July 26) with the new job will give Murphy a chance to get back on radio, which he’s missed. “Radio is great; it’s interactive. And it is something I am comfortable with. I’ve had some fun in TV but I had a lot of fun in radio. Some of the most memorable parts of my career were the stuff we did on the radio,” he says, recalling the night Fred Smerlas was let go by the Bills. “He was very emotional and callers were crying on the air. I thought, ‘That doesn’t happen very often.’”
The job will also give Murphy the freedom to do longer form video pieces on the website without time or deadline constraints, something he got a feel for working for the Bills at NFL Combine years before. “It kind of opened my eyes to the freedom of working for a website,” he notes. “That kind of freedom is part of what makes this the job of a lifetime. And the subject matter is great—the Bills and the NFL. It is the king of professional sports.”
As he has grown more comfortable in the play-by-play seat, Murphy has become more opinionated, and Bills management rarely runs interference. Once, early in the first season of the Gregg Williams coaching era, Murphy candidly called the team’s performance in a 42-26 loss in Indianapolis terrible. The next day he was told that general manager Tom Donahoe wanted to talk to him. “I thought, ‘Here it comes,’” says Murphy, launching into a Donahoe impression. “‘Murph, I just want to tell you I listened to the broadcast yesterday and you guys were absolutely right. We were horseshit. We were horseshit.’ And every time he said horseshit, Gregg Williams flinched. I thought he was going to rip me. It was unbelievable.”
Another time, he aired a tip that the Bills were exposing a veteran player to waivers before they later resigned him. This time, it was Bills General Manager John Butler who wanted to see him—immediately. In the process of moving—with his wife, former Channel 7 reporter and former Orchard Park Supervisor Mary Travers Murphy, and two sons from Lockport to Orchard Park—Murphy dropped everything to meet Butler.
“And he just ripped me for fifteen or twenty minutes,” Murphy remembers. “By the end—I was there for an hour and a half—he was hugging me and saying, ‘We love you Murph, you know that.’ It was unbelievable. He went from ready to strangle me—and he was a pretty imposing guy—to hugging me and kidding me.”
So, how about an opinion on the upcoming season? “I think ten wins,” Murphy says optimistically. If he’s wrong, he can surely expect a phone call from John Beilein.
Alan Pergament writes about television at stilltalkintv.com.