Athletics NZ Correspondent Murray McKinnon toasts his 50th anniversary as a stadium announcer this month. Steve Landells takes a look back with Murray on his lengthy career on the mic.
Athletics fanatic Murray McKinnon used to entertain the watching spectators at Mt Smart Stadium by giving impromptu athletics commentaries. So when one impressed spectator suggested he should try stadium announcing the former 2:28 marathon runner decided to take up the advice.
After local officials gave him his first opportunity at Mt Smart Stadium in October, 1969 – some 50 years on Murray is still calling the athletes, and is showing no sign of giving up after devoting more than six decades of his life to the sport.
Starting his running career as an Auckland Grammar School student aged 14, Murray ran the mile and cross country before later developing into a marathon runner as a senior athlete.
Coached by Don Macfarquhar and running 100 miles a week – which included weekly training on the famous 22-mile loop to Waiatarua – Murray has happy memories of completing the iconic training route.
“We started a little earlier than the top guys on the loop but I used to like to spend some time running behind Peter Snell (the three-time Olympic champion) just to watch his piston legs go up and down.”
Murray evolved into a respectable marathon runner, placing in the top ten at the national championships. Yet his true forte was his encyclopaedic knowledge of the athletes.
“I can reel off the names (of the athletes) like a horse race commentator and go right through the field,” he says. “I often identify the athletes by the colour of the singlet in the same way a horse race commentator recognises the name of the horse by the jockey’s silks.”
Beginning his odyssey as a stadium announcer at the age of 23, he has little recollection of his initial forays into his chosen field but recalls his first big breakthrough later that summer at the 1970 New Zealand Track & Field Championships at Mt Smart Stadium.
“It was the first year the championships went metric,” recalls Murray. “I asked Joe McManemin, who was the meet announcer, if I could be involved. He said turn up on Friday morning and I’ll have something for you. I turned up and he introduced me to Lance Cross, a famous broadcaster who called many of the great moments in New Zealand sport including Murray Halberg’s gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Away we went and I was live with him for three days.”
Proving a natural on the microphone, Murray has acted as a stadium announcer at almost every New Zealand Track & Field Championships over the past 50 years and is the man of the mic at the Porritt Classic and Potts Classic plus countless weekly Saturday meets at Mt Smart Stadium and many leading cross country and road events.
He also worked as a stadium announcer at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, but does he have a highlight?
“I’ve called some of the huge internationals meets like when Carl Lewis (the nine-time Olympic champion) came to New Zealand and other stars such as Frankie Fredericks, Allan Wells and Don Quarrie,” he explains. “Yet my highlight was commentating on Sir John Walker’s 100th sub-four-minute mile at Mt Smart (in 1985). Radio went to take a live commentary from me. I had to be very careful, I couldn’t pause because it was non-stop and going out on live radio at the same time I was doing the stadium commentary.”
Spending hours tirelessly researching ahead of the big meets, the days can be hectic as a stadium announcer as he often combines the role by with inputting results for the newspapers and grabbing interviews for his work as Athletics NZ correspondent.
Yet what is Murray’s secret to be a quality stadium announcer?
“A good voice with good diction, good delivery and a good knowledge of the sport as well as the ability to call it correctly,” says the two-time Athletics NZ President. “It is also always important to remember you are there to keep the crowd informed.”
Occasionally he has been caught out by looking down and continuing to commentate on a race after a false start has been committed.
But he has not knowingly committed any major clangers, although he says they have been a few close calls.
“I have been a bit naughty with the on-off button on the microphone,” says Murray, who celebrates his 74th birthday in December. “Sometimes I’ll put the switch to off and say something crazy just to keep people entertained in the room around me. They say, ‘one day you will get caught’ but I never have.”
The fundamentals of the role of stadium announcer have remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years – although technology has advanced to the point that today he is connected with the photo finish where he has access to almost instantaneous finish times, which allow him to quickly inform his audience.
He has worked with many top class stadium announcers including Lloyd Buscomb and Richard Willis and he has a very simple answer to the question why has he carried out the role for so long.
“I don’t get paid for it, so I guess it’s just giving me a lot of enjoyment,” adds Murray.