How Frank Deford, the master of going long, learned to write short
Frank Deford became a legend by writing glorious longform features for Sports Illustrated. He could pump out 1,200 words before taking a breath.
Yet since 1980, Deford has become better known to a large audience of radio listeners for stories that come in at just under 500 words.
For a generation and more, Deford has been a Wednesday morning fixture with his sports commentaries on NPR’s “Morning Edition." A collection of his best NPR work now can be found in a wonderful new book, “I’d Know That Voice Anywhere.”
In the foreword, Deford writes that the title was inspired by Hillary Clinton. After being introduced to her at a black-tie White House reception in the ‘90s, the then-First Lady said, “Oh, I’d know you anywhere, Frank. That voice wakes me up every Wednesday morning.”
Deford, 77, never envisioned he'd be waking up folks with such a long run at NPR. “I was thinking more in terms of six to eight months,” he said in an interview with Poynter.
But he immediately found the opportunity inspiring.
“If it had been another proposal to write longform, I probably would have said, ‘No thank you,’” Deford said. [The chance to write short] is what made it so attractive.”
Deford enjoys the challenge of having to boil everything down in a tight, concise package. His NPR commentaries are supposed to run exactly at three minutes. He said if his pre-recorded tape goes three minutes and eight seconds, he'll get a call from a producer saying, “OK, what are we going to cut?”
Like everyone else, Deford learned quickly it's difficult to write short.
“Mark Twain once said — or maybe it was Winston Churchill — 'I’d write you a short letter, but I haven’t got the time, so I’m writing you a long letter,’” Deford said. “It is harder to write short. You have to carefully pick and choose what you want to say.”
“But I couldn’t use it,” Deford said. “Early on, I learned I had to pick a subject and stick with it. You can’t wander.”
Deford also realized he was writing for radio, not a newspaper. As a result, he always tries to introduce a thought at 15 seconds in and then repeat it at 2:15.
“The majority of my listeners are either getting ready for work or in their cars driving,” Deford said. “It’s not like they are hanging on every word. You have to harken back to a thought so they say, ‘Oh yeah, he mentioned that before.’”
If listeners aren’t hanging on Deford’s every word on radio, they will as readers in print. Deford’s new book underscores his brilliance as a writer. No surprise there, right?
What also comes through is the unpredictable nature of Deford’s commentaries. They aren’t as routine as analyzing Peyton Manning as a quarterback. Rather, he ruminates on an eclectic range of subjects, most of which strike him as odd and peculiar. In one commentary, he considers the similarities between Babe Ruth and Winnie the Pooh.
Delving into the quirky language of baseball, he writes: “If a batter hits a long ball, he gives it a ride. Everywhere else, if you provide a ride, you take something along with you. If baseball patois was like the rest of language, you should send a long ball on a trip, rather than give it a ride.”
Deford said he has found his NPR work to be liberating. His only real constraint is an annual column on the Super Bowl. It's hardly his favorite subject since it is difficult to “find something new to say” about the big game.
But otherwise the field is wide open, and Deford is glad to take it.
“I am writing for a much broader audience,” Deford said. “Sure, there are some sports fans, but there’s also a lot of people who don’t know a hockey stick from a javelin. I didn’t have to do the inside sports stuff. I had the whole landscape to cover. It gave me a tremendous advantage.”
Deford’s work also shows the value of daring to be different. His advice to young reporters: Don’t be afraid to take risks.
“Try new things,” Deford said. “People know the score now. All they do is look at their phones. In some respects, it is harder to be a sportswriter now. You can’t fall back on the game. But on the other hand, it gives you more freedom to write about [other subjects].”
Deford still is writing, although he now only does an NPR commentary on the first Wednesday of the month.
However, Deford isn’t retiring. He just finished work on his 20th book, a novel set at a post-World War II family-owned newspaper.
“We’ll see if it sells,” he said.
Deford fans are well-advised to check out his NPR book, which proved to be a fun exercise for him. Selecting the commentaries gave Deford an opportunity to reflect on more than 35 years of work at the public radio network.
“I did 52 of those a year,” Deford said. “I’m tough on myself, but realistically I know you can’t go 52 for 52. I always thought if I could have a good batting average, and hit a few home runs, that would be fine.”
Deford has always done more than fine. In fact, his view of fine set the standard for everyone else.