Sports For the Uninitiated: The Story of Len Berman (‘64)
Len Berman is a celebrated sports broadcaster best known for his career on the NBC screen, but he was once a young sports-obsessed boy, an avid member of the Stuyvesant Glee club, and a would-be engineer.
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Name: Len Berman
Date of Birth: June 14, 1947
Graduation Year: 1964
Occupation: Sports and radio broadcaster
Bio: Born and raised in Queens, Len Berman’s interest in sports was piqued in his childhood. Though he spent some time studying engineering in university, he pivoted majors to become a communications specialist, joining several news and sports broadcasting networks. He has won eight Emmy Broadcaster awards and six New York State Sportscaster of the Year awards and is a member of the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Stuyvesant alum Len Berman (‘64) took a career test while at Stuyvesant, which said his math skills and introverted personality would make him the perfect engineer. Fifty years later, Berman is a decorated media broadcaster whose résumé is studded with positions at America’s biggest sports broadcasting networks, including NBC and CBS. Though it did not occur to him in high school, Berman built his career on his passions—sports and broadcasting. He got to where he is today simply by taking advantage of the opportunities that came his way and doing what he enjoyed.
For Berman, the Stuyvesant of the ‘60s was characterized by extreme academic competition that made having a healthy social life challenging. “A chemistry teacher yelled at a kid [...] and said, ‘Why are you talking to that kid next to you?’ And the guy said, ‘Well, that's my friend.’ [The teacher] said, ‘He's not your friend. He’s the competition. He's trying to take your spot in college.’” Stuyvesant’s collegiate obsession stood in the way of friendships. Additionally, Berman didn’t participate in many extracurriculars. Thus, he had trouble finding a sense of community at Stuyvesant. “I liked to go home and play basketball and stickball in my backyard and in the neighborhood,” Berman recalled.
As an avid math and science student, Berman was initially guided toward engineering as a career path. However, then-Stuyvesant English teacher Sterling Jensen was the first to provide him with an alternate vision for his future. “[Jensen] once said to me that I had a great voice and I should be an actor,” Berman said. Since Jensen, one of the founders of the classics-oriented Broadway-based Roundabout Theater, was also a prominent actor at the time, Berman took his advice seriously. He wasn’t interested in pursuing acting, but Berman shared, “That was the first time that maybe I thought of broadcasting. I give a tip of the cap to Sterling Jensen for that.”
Though relatively light on extracurriculars, Berman explored other mediums of art through his participation in chorus. “The only club I actually joined was the Glee Club of all things. Then I wound up in the All City Chorus,” Berman shared. “At the end of [every] year, we [did] a concert with the All City band. [...] I performed two years in a row, one year on Carnegie Hall stage and one at Lincoln Center. That’s a great memory.” In addition to participating in the large chorus, which included singers from across the city, Berman engaged in a much more intimate musical group with only a few other students: “Four of us who were friends from Queens, we asked the music teacher if he could teach us a barbershop quartet, and he did. We would stay after school and we sang barbershop quartet,” Berman recounted.
In college at Syracuse University, where he initially enrolled to study engineering, Berman picked up another extracurricular activity that involved both sports and broadcasting. “My first day at Syracuse University, I went to the college radio station. It seemed like a fun thing to do,” Berman recounted. “Who doesn't like [...] being on radio? [It] was pretty naive to think that I could either major in that or do something with it.” While struggling in his degree, Berman set his sights on a career where he could remain on the air.
Initially, his parents weren’t thrilled at the prospect. “I remember coming home and [saying] ‘I want to major in radio and television.’ And my father, who knew a little bit about the media, said no. I’ll never forget his response. He said, ‘There’s only one Walter Cronkite’—he was the big newscaster at the time,” Berman recalled. Despite this initial pushback, Berman found a way to pursue a career in broadcasting while switching his major from engineering to more practical and enjoyable fields. “My brother, who had gone to Syracuse before me, brokered a deal that I would co-major in English and economics,” Berman shared. “His theory was [that] English would be good to master if you’re going to be a broadcaster. [...] Economics would be good because you could go into business.” Berman ended up graduating with a degree in these two majors and worked at the Syracuse radio station for four more years.
While working for Syracuse’s radio station, Berman did not have access to the high-tech equipment that would later become commonplace in his broadcasting career. “I was the play-by-play guy for Syracuse Basketball. I didn’t have a color analyst and I didn’t have an engineer. So I would take this box of equipment from WRAE radio and take it down to the broadcast site, and [...] it was like a glorified telephone call for a couple of hours,” Berman explained. “And I would start my stopwatch and thought I would do the whole broadcast based on my stopwatch.” One instance involving a faulty transmitter resulted in what Berman has christened “one of the best” broadcasts of his career. “The game was at St. John’s,” Berman recalled. “I got back to Syracuse and they said, ‘Did everything go ok with the broadcast before the transmitter blew?’ And I said, ‘What, did the transmitter blow?’ And they said, ‘Right before the opening tip.’ So I basically announced the entire basketball game to myself, and I will tell you right now that that was one of my best broadcasts. I challenge you to find one mistake I made.”
Though he initially struggled to move from his job as a newscaster in Dayton, Ohio, to a more prominent position, Berman eventually moved on to broadcasting jobs at NBC, CBS, and the now-defunct HBO Sports. While on the air, Berman tried to describe sports for the uninitiated so as to provide avenues for all to understand what was going on in the world of sports. “I knew my mom was listening, especially at 6:00 p.m., so I would try to tell the sports so at least she would know what I was talking about, and it was subtle,” Berman said.
While at NBC, Berman started a program called Spanning the World to address this exact issue. “One thing I didn't realize as a young person was [that] not everybody’s a sports fan. [...] The non-sports fan is kind of bullied into thinking that he’s in the minority because [you have] a 24-hour radio, you have the tabloids, you have all sports television networks, ESPN and all these other networks. But believe it or not, a lot of people are not sports fans,” Berman noted. This was part of the reasoning behind his advent of Spanning the World, a television program that simply aired the biggest jokes, mishaps, and mistakes in sports that occurred over the previous week. “Spanning the World [was something that] everyone could understand, even if they didn’t understand the intricacies of sports,” Berman remarked.
While Berman finds his Super Bowl and World Series broadcasts to be most memorable, he also had a lot of fun broadcasting the sports he knew nothing about. “I actually got to do the play-by-play for fencing at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and ask me what I know about fencing. I'll give you the answer—nothing,” Berman recalled. “In fencing, [the players] are all lit up electronically. So if you touch the other guy first, the light [on their lamé, or uniform] goes off. Invariably, both lights go off at the same time all the time. So [...] the referee has to get up there and explain to the audience what happened, but he has to do it in French.”
Despite Berman’s unconventional dream to pursue a career in broadcasting, he was able to push past the doubts of those around him, harnessing his talent with his voice to embark on the career journey of a lifetime. Berman’s style of broadcasting was distinct and his approachability served as a model for the sportscasters of the future while earning him a plethora of awards—including eight Emmy Broadcaster awards and six New York State Sportscaster of the Year awards. Like Berman, current Stuyvesant students should take advantage of the opportunities their school provides to explore career paths that align with their passions, whatever they may be.