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August 8, 1913|
Portsmouth, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||September 26, 1984
Havertown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Other names||The Voice of NFL Films|
|Occupation||broadcaster, sports announcer, news anchor, disc jockey, radio personality|
John Thomas Ralph Augustine James Facenda (August 8, 1913 – September 26, 1984) was an American broadcaster and sports announcer. He was a fixture on Philadelphia radio and television for decades, and achieved national fame as a narrator for NFL Films and Football Follies. Through his work with NFL Films, Facenda was known by many National Football League fans as "The Voice of God."
Radio and television work
John Facenda attended Roman Catholic High School in Center City, Philadelphia and then later Villanova University but dropped out. After leaving school, he found employment with the now-defunct Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper. The Public Ledger also owned a radio station, WHAT. Facenda's radio career began when the announcer for WHAT's Scholastic Sports Review program became sick one day, and Facenda was asked to substitute. Soon after, WHAT hired Facenda as an announcer.
Facenda left WHAT after the station's manager refused to reimburse Facenda $5 (equal to $89.68 today) for a pair of pigskin gloves he wore while knocking ice off the station's antenna (one of his duties). He moved to New York City and worked for a few years as the program director for the Ticker News Service, another radio-based business.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1935 and started working for WIP Radio, where he would remain until 1952. He began his work in television at WCAU-TV (which was then Philadelphia's CBS television affiliate) in 1948. He anchored his first newscast on the station on September 13, 1948. He started working full-time at the station after leaving WIP in 1952. Facenda ended his newscasts with the familiar refrain, "Have a nice night tonight and a good day tomorrow. Goodnight, all." The phrase even found its way into the 1956 film The Burglar, starring Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Facenda's was the dominant news broadcast in the Philadelphia area (beating the combined ratings of the two other network affiliates) and he achieved iconic status in Philadelphia as both a face and voice before his rise to national prominence. His newscasts, originally just five minutes long, were eventually expanded to 30 minutes. Facenda and WCAU-TV pioneered the television news format as it is still practiced today: News-Sports-Weather.
One night in 1965, Facenda went to a local tavern, the RDA Club, which happened to be showing footage produced by NFL Films. He enjoyed the slow-motion game sequences that were already an NFL Films trademark and would later recall:
I started to rhapsodize about how beautiful it was. Ed Sabol, the man who founded NFL Films, happened to be at the bar. He came up to me and asked, 'If I give you a script, could you repeat what you just did?' I said I would try.
Thus began Facenda's association with NFL Films, one that would continue until his death. Facenda narrated many highlight films during his career with the company. His dulcet baritone was the perfect match for the highly dramatic nature of the footage he narrated, and earned him the nickname "The Voice of God." Probably one of the best-remembered (and most frequently-quoted) examples of Facenda's NFL Films narration is something he never actually said: "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field" was a quote sportscaster Chris Berman made up, mimicking Facenda's voice when he said it. Steve Sabol, son of Ed, claimed that "John may have made a game seem more important than it was because he read lines with a dramatic directness" Bob Costas called Facenda's voice "one of the most remarkable instruments in the history of broadcasting."
The Autumn wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea
With a rollicking song he sweeps along
His face is weatherbeaten
He wears a hooded sash
With a silver hat about his head
And a bristling black mustache
He growls as he storms the country
A villain big and bold
And the trees all shake and quiver and quake
As he robs them of their gold.
The Autumn wind is a Raider
Pillaging just for fun
He'll knock you 'round and upside down
And laugh when he's conquered and won.
To this day, Facenda's speaking style remains the sound most closely linked with NFL Films, and, in some ways, football narration itself. The style is frequently emulated, often in a parodic manner, in contemporary sports news, advertising, and even other sports-themed entertainment (for example, Green Day's music video for the 1999 song "Nice Guys Finish Last"). Similarly, Facenda's voice is so closely associated with the NFL that in July 2006, Facenda's son filed a lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that Facenda's voice was used without permission in an NFL Network program promoting the video game Madden 2006.
A room in the internet virtual Professional Football History Museum is called "The Facenda Audio-Visual Room" in Facenda's honor.
End of anchorman career
In the early 1970s, rival WFIL-TV (now WPVI-TV) adopted the highly successful Action News format based on the news broadcasts heard on Top 40 radio stations and heavily influenced by tabloid newspapers. Brief coverage was given to almost every event happening in town. WCAU's ratings collapsed, and, as was a common practice, network executives decided that they needed a younger anchor to complement the 60-year-old Facenda. In 1972, 27-year-old Judd Hambrick was brought in as co-anchor. With the first wave of baby boomers entering broadcasting, Facenda graciously decided to step down and make way for the next generation. His last newscast as anchor for WCAU was on March 23, 1973. Many viewers were upset over the loss of Facenda, and his retirement failed to improve ratings.
After stepping down as anchor, Facenda continued to work for WCAU in various capacities as a narrator, program director, and host of special reports. He was co-anchor for the station's coverage of Pope John Paul II's visit to Philadelphia in 1979. For many years, he was also the familiar voice of the John Wanamaker department store Christmas Light Show. In 1983, he narrated the NFL Films production of "Frontiers and Beyond," the tour documentary of the rock band Journey. Twelve days before Facenda died, he was presented with the Governors Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Philadelphia chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Facenda was named Person of the Year by the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia in 1971 and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1992.