SOUTH KINGSTOWN – In 1952 Jim Norman began broadcasting football and basketball games for the University of Rhode Island as an undergraduate student.
Sixty years later, Norman, the retired URI director of sports information and commercial radio “Voice of the Rams,” has become a familiar voice to generations of fans who listened to his play-by-play of Ram athletics and synonymous with radio broadcasting in Rhode Island.
After receiving more than 60 major awards in his lifetime, Norman will be inducted into the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame on May 10 at the West Valley Inn in West Warwick. It will be his fifth hall of fame honor. But next Thursday’s induction is one of the most meaningful to him.
“I’m thrilled with it and yet humbled,” Norman said. “I’m being inducted by my peers – broadcasting people.”
Norman, then of Perryville in South Kingstown, first discovered his love of sports and broadcasting as a 10 year old boy in 1945. His father, James E. Norman, one of the first R.I.State Police troopers and former South Kingstown Town Council President, brought his young son to his first Boston Braves baseball game. It was then that Norman got hooked on the sport.
At his Perryville home, Norman began listening to the Braves – who are now the Atlanta Braves – on the radio. After playing with the radio dial, he discovered he could listen to baseball games from across the country.
“That’s how I really began to get interested in sports,” Norman said. “Even now, I can name the 1948 World Series Boston Braves starting line-up. That’s how interested I was.”
As the years went on, he would practice broadcasting while doing chores – such as mowing the lawn, taking care of the chickens and working in the garden on his family’s Perryville farm.
Attending the old South Kingstown High School, Norman pitched on the baseball team. Often during games, Norman would sit on the end of the bench and broadcast the contest using a Coke bottle which served as a makeshift microphone.
As time went on, Norman eventually asked the late Principal Jim Wright if he could borrow the school’s tape recorder to broadcast football and basketball games. It was soon suggested he play the tapes back at assembly – a free period in the school day.
Norman noticed one result of his broadcasts – classmates began to cheer.
As Norman’s confidence grew so did his abilities. When he began his first semester at URI as an engineering major in the fall of 1952, he approached the general manager of the student radio station –WHOE— and asked to try out as sports broadcaster.
“He put me in the studio, started up the tape recorder and I beat out the senior that had been doing it,” Norman recalls.
For the next five years, Norman would broadcast URI games along with working as student manager for the late coach Bill Beck’s baseball teams and pitching batting practice. He later led the move to today’s WRIU-FM. He also worked part-time in the university’s sports information office under the late Tom Doherty, learning firsthand the tasks of his eventual profession.
Norman is recognized as one of the most involved students at URI. He also served as editor-in-chief and sports editor of the student newspaper, The Beacon, which preceded the Good Five Cent Cigar. As the vice president and social chairman for his local fraternity, Phi Kappa Theta, Norman helped progress PKT’s move to national status as Phi Kappa Psi.
The general manager of WEAN in Providence, formerly owned by The Providence Journal, then called the former Dean of Students, the late John Quinn, and asked him if he could get in touch with Norman to air the play-by-play of URI’s 1955 Refrigerator Bowl football contest played at Evansville, Ind. The event became Norman’s first commercial radio broadcast.
The day after his graduation in 1957, Norman began working the “graveyard” shift from 3 a.m. to noon as a newsman and sports announcer for WEAN and WPJB-FM. He later served as the two stations’ sports director from 1963 to 1971 while also working at URI.
A URI ROTC graduate, he began two years of active duty a year later as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and his career continued to prosper in the military. Norman was assigned as the public information officer for Ft. Belvoir, Va., and subsequently served 23 years of active and reserve duty, retiring in 1980 as a Major. During summer training periods for most of his 21 years as a reservist, he was assigned to the Chief of Information Office at the Pentagon.
From 1960 to 1961, Norman studied for his master’s degree in communications from Boston University. At that time, Boston’s WGBH-TV appointed Norman as its nightly news sports and weather reporter. He was also one of three graduate student supervisors and on-air announcers for WBUR-FM in Boston.
While at BU, he received a phone call from the late URI Professor Robert Will, head of the department of speech and dramatic arts, the latter commonly known as the theater. A faculty member was going on sabbatical and the department needed a replacement to teach radio-TV and speech courses. Norman returned to URI and his South Kingstown hometown.
When the original professor returned, Norman moved to URI’s public relations office as the School’s first director of broadcasting and eventually was appointed director of State Technical Services, a Federal program based at URI. In 1971, he became the third sports information director (SID) in URI history, following Doherty.
From 1971 to 1995, Norman played two roles – SID and the school’s commercial broadcaster for varsity football and basketball—the latter role for 34 years (1961-95) as the “Voice of the Rams,” working 1,286 games, and never missed a contest.
As a sports broadcaster, his voice reached millions. In 1973, his Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Bowl” broadcast—featuring URI as the first collegiate football team to play in Europe—from Rhein Main Air Force Base in Frankfort, Germany was picked up by Armed Forces Radio and simulcast by the Voice of America.
Later, his 1989 broadcast of the Yankee Conference game between URI and Villanova played in Milan, Italy was heard in New England and across Pennsylvania.
During his 22 years as SID, he received numerous honors, including College Sports Information Directors of America’s “best in the nation” plaudits for his URI publications. He was awarded lifetime membership in CoSIDA in 1994. He also served as president of Words Unlimited for nine years and worked to develop the organization of sports writers and broadcasters into one of the most active media groups in the nation..
In 2003, URI named the Meade Stadium football press box the “James W. Norman Football Media Center.”
Following his retirement as URI’s SID in 1993, Norman continued as the Rams radio voice and special assistant to the director of athletics until 1995. He and his wife, Roberta, continue to reside in Kingston, a home they have cherished for years, and where they brought up their three children.
Broadcasting games in his backyard as a young kid, Norman never expected to become so successful.
But he had a motto he stuck with – “work hard and never, never give up.”