Ro Brown’s trailblazing career is officially done, but his impact hasn’t dimmed a bit
By TED LEWIS
Written for the LSWA
Whenever Ro Brown is out in public it invariably happens – at least two and usually three, four or more people approach him, either to recall a past encounter or just to tell him how much they have appreciated his work during his four decades-plus as a sports broadcasting presence in his native New Orleans.
On this particular day, it’s Ronald Register, a cornerback on St. Augustine’s 1979 state championship team who wants to say hello. And, as is usually the case, Brown remembers him, greeting him by name.
“Ro has had a tremendous influence on young people in New Orleans,” Register said. “He is the kind of reporter who cares about the players.
“When he interviewed me, I could feel how important it was to him for us both to do well.”
It wasn’t just athletes who were influenced by Brown.
Stan Verrett, a 1984 St. Aug graduate, for two years a colleague of Brown’s at WDSU and now a SportsCenter anchor on ESPN, considers Brown a role model.
“I grew up watching Ro Brown,” Verrett said. “By that time, I knew what I wanted to be, even though there weren’t a lot of other black sports broadcasters on the air unless they had played the game and became analysts.
“Later on, when I got to work with Ro, I leaned on him for advice, and he was so supportive because he knew the whole landscape. I’ve never been around someone who could build such instant rapport with someone.”
Brown’s long and much-appreciated career has earned him the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame’s Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism. Brown, the first African-American DSA winner whose accomplishments are primarily in broadcasting, will be among those honored Saturday night, Aug. 28 at the induction ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center.
For information on all the Aug. 26-28 Induction Celebration events and how to participate, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.
“It’s nice to have people say so many nice things about me,” said Brown, now semi-retired, from his last full-time job as assistant athletic director for communications at the University of New Orleans. “I know there are a lot of hard-working people that I don’t consider myself on the same level with who never got the opportunities I did.
“I got paid to do a job a lot of people would pay to get to do.”
And Brown has done it well.
From interning at WDSU while a student at Loyola, where he became the first on-air African-American TV sportscaster in New Orleans, to a brief stint at KPLC in Lake Charles, where he honed his skills, back to WDSU where he remained for 20 years, through a variety of positions before the final one at UNO which ended in 2019, Brown’s avuncular personality, constant smile, soothing voice and knowledge of just about everything and everybody has been his trademark.
“It didn’t matter who you were, you trusted Ro,” said Ed Daniels, who worked with Brown for nine years at WDSU and who has been a close friend since their college days at Loyola. “That’s his greatest legacy because Ro never dealt in bad information or rumors.
“And he has that great ability to put people at ease, even if it isn’t during a great moment in their lives. That goes back to the trust factor because you knew the guy was going to do right by you.”
One person whose trust Brown earned early on was Lionel Washington.
As a freshman safety at Tulane in 1979, Washington was to be interviewed by Brown.
“I was nervous,” said Washington, himself a Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer who had a 15-year career in the NFL. “Ro stopped after a couple of minutes and said, ‘Man, that is the worst interview I’ve heard in my life.’
“He told me he knew I could do better if I would just relax and listen to the questions. By the time we finished, it was more like a conversation than an interview. That’s Ro – always making you comfortable.”
Added another Hall of Famer, St. Aug basketball star Kerry Kittles, “Ro did community building by spotlighting young athletes and honoring their achievements.
“He has this ability to present himself in such a calm way and his humanity shows through. He truly cares.”
Romalice Joseph Brown has been doing just that for a long time.
He was born in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of five children of Peter and Thelma Brown.
His parents taught Ro many things, but the one that sticks out to him was to always be seeking knowledge.
“My dad especially was always challenging me with questions about stuff he knew I would have to look up – and this was way before the internet,” Brown said. “They were always telling me about stuff – who this person was or what happened at this place.
“They really emphasized learning.”
To help in their son’s accumulation of knowledge, the Browns subscribed to Life, Look, Esquire, and, in a nod towards Ro’s future chosen field, Sports Illustrated.
New Orleans, along with the rest of Louisiana, was slowly desegregating during Brown’s formative years.
Theirs was a comfortable neighborhood, one made possible by Peter’s federal civil service job (Thelma would become an LPN in the 1970s after her children were grown and the death of her husband).
Ro can date when he knew what his career path would be to July 17, 1965. That’s the date the about-to-be-an-eighth grader at Lawless Junior High and the rest of his summer reading, enrichment and education class toured WDSU.
“It was the first time I’d ever been in a TV station, and it struck me as something I might be good at if I got the chance,’ he recalled.
There weren’t many such opportunities, either locally or nationally for African-Americans then, even though there were local black pioneers such as Champ Clark and Larry McKinley, who were on the radio.
“The barriers were starting to come down,” Brown said. “But all of the sports announcers you saw were white.”
Brown was a little young to be integrating the airways then, but he would become a pioneer of another sort – as one of the first students at John F. Kennedy High School after spending his sophomore year at Carver.
That was followed by two years at SUNO and the four years as a medical corpsman in the Navy, although Brown likes to joke that he never went overseas or even spent time on a ship.
Once out of the Navy, Brown focused on his desire to go into sports broadcasting. He restarted college and landed an internship at WDSU thanks to the efforts of Warren Bell, New Orleans’ first black TV news anchor, to guarantee minority reporter trainees as part of the station’s union contract.
“I could ask questions and I could write, but I couldn’t be seen or heard,” Brown said. “That was fine with me because I just wanted to work and learn.
“Also, WDSU was the first TV station in New Orleans (1948) and there were still guys there who had been around since the beginning. For whatever reason, they seemed to like me and were all willing to help me out.”
The year in Lake Charles followed where Brown would work with Daniels for the first time. Then it was back to WDSU.
As the first African-American TV sports anchor in New Orleans, Brown was acutely aware of the expectation level, both internal and external.
“I didn’t want to be just ‘the Black Guy,’” Brown said. “But I went to work every day feeling enormous pressure to be absolutely the best I could be and then some.
“I was representing the people before me who didn’t get the chance I did, and hopefully making it possible for people who looked like me to get their chance, too.”
A style development helped.
Local TV sports was changing in the early 1980s, in large part because of the emergence of ESPN. The person who sparked that was an almost-forgotten figure, Ed Harding.
As sports director at WDSU, Harding ended the practice of just reading scores (and the winners of all races at the Fair Grounds) in lieu of going out and doing stories about people and teams.
“It was ‘local, local, local,’” Brown said. “Sometimes I was doing three or four stories a day, a lot of them about things that hadn’t been covered before like John Curtis.
“Basically Ed told us, ‘Take a cameraman and go out and do whatever the hell you want as long you do it right.’ ”
In the 80s, WDSU developed a formidable team of Brown, Daniels, Buddy Diliberto and Vince Marinello.
“We were four guys from New Orleans who didn’t want to go anywhere else, so we loved what we covered and what we were doing,” Brown said. “It was just a great team.”
Eventually all teams break up, and by 1999 Brown was looking for a new challenge. He got it when a new station manager was asking for ideas about how to change news coverage, and Brown pointed out that public education in New Orleans was the key to all other issues.
He didn’t volunteer himself for the job, but the consensus was that nobody would do it better than Ro Brown.
Brown reported on his new beat for three years before moving on to become director of community relations for the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, then as the head producer for Event Producers which created content for entities such as the Saints, Sun Belt Conference and LHSAA. Finally, after spending 18 months in a Katrina-forced sojourn in St. Louis, he took his post at UNO.
“That was a fun time,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, UNO has sort of fallen off the map since Katrina, but I was glad I was able to do all I could to promote the student-athletes there.”
Along the way, Brown also hosted a radio show while regularly appearing on other local TV and radio shows.
Brown also used his seemingly limitless network of contacts to help others.
When Muhammad Ali died and a reporter was looking for someone to talk to who was involved in Ali’s 1978 championship fight against Leon Spinks in the Superdome, Brown persuaded reclusive Don Hubbard, who shared in promoting the fight not just to give the reporter a call, but to invite him to his home to see his collection of Ali memorabilia.
Brown had many opportunities to work elsewhere, but except for those years in the Navy, where he met Mary Nance, his wife of 38 years, and the two years in St. Louis, he chose to remain in New Orleans.
“No doubt Ro could have been made it nationally,” Verrett said. “But Ro always felt this strong connection to New Orleans, and he wanted to make a difference in his hometown, which he’s certainly done.
“I’ve never met anyone who has anything bad to say about Ro. Everybody loves him.”
In 2012, Brown’s contributions were recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists, who presented him with the Sam Lacy Pioneer Award, named for the columnist who famously campaigned for the desegregation of Major League Baseball and other professional sports.
Brown seldom fit into the category of a crusader himself. But he did his part as an on-air example for others, often spotlighting those who might not have received coverage earlier.
“I’d like to think I had a hand in how sports were covered in New Orleans,” Brown said. “But more than that, I really enjoyed helping people out by telling their stories.”
That storytelling hasn’t been forgotten.
One of Brown’s favorite stories to tell is how often to this day strangers will come up to him, hug him and tell him how proud of they are of him.
“One lady said she didn’t like sports, but she watched because of me,” he said. “Others would tell me how when they were kids, their mothers would call them in from playing outside when I was on the air.
“It’s nice to know that you were important to those people. It was kind of like what I was supposed to do.”
Ro Brown joined 106.1 FM New Orleans and Ken Trahan to discuss his selection for induction and brilliant career. Click here for the podcast.
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