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Tuesday, August 22, 1995

Voice of the Jayhawks still clear

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It all started at a 50-watt radio station . . . Yep, Max Falkenstien's broadcasting career began the same way Ted Baxter's did.

Back in the early 40s, Falkenstien's biology class at Liberty Memorial High trooped over to KFKU, then the KU radio station.

"Each of us had to make some kind of comment -- it must have been a boring show," Falkenstien reflected the other day, "and a lady came up to me afterward and asked me if wanted to be in radio because I had such a clear voice."

Today that voice, still clear, is as familiar to Kansas University sports fans as a Jayhawk, and just as distinctive.

Max Falkenstien, 71, is about to begin his 50th year -- that's right, 50th -- as a broadcaster of KU sports events.

"It's hard to believe," Falkenstien said. "It doesn't seem possible, really."

How many people, after all, have had the same part-time job for five decades?

Although credited with founding the KU Sports Network not long after World War II ended, Falkenstien quickly gave up the network because he really wasn't interested in earning a living as a play-by-play broadcaster.

"I made the decision fairly early to advance in broadcasting management," he said. "Maybe I should have gone to Chicago or New York to be a big-time sports broadcaster instead of a being a station manager ... but I just did sports as something extra."

Actually, Falkenstien has had two full-time careers.

He was program and station manager of WREN radio from 1955-67, and he was head of news and sports at WIBW radio and television for four years after that.

Then after a one-year stint as the first general manager of Sunflower Cablevision, Falkenstien spent 22 years at Douglas County Bank, retiring as a senior vice president last December.

If a shift from radio to banking seems like a strange transition, it makes more sense when you know Falkenstien has a degree in mathematics.

Like father, like son.

Falkenstien's father, Earl, was business manager of the KU athletic department for 33 years.

"That was my entryway into KU athletics," Falkenstien said. "My dad knew all the athletes, and I'd go to Robinson Gym and and he'd introduce me to them."

Yet Falkenstien never really put any of those former Jayhawks on a pedestal. The man he most admired was Dr. Forrest C. (Phog) Allen, the legendary former KU basketball coach.

"Doc was more my idol than any of the players," Falkenstien said. "He was so felicitous and warm. He always liked me a lot, I think. And I liked him."

Neither Allen nor Falkenstien were left out when gab was gifted.

Falkenstien first gabbed for his supper when he was a junior in high school. He walked into WREN, then a Lawrence radio station, and asked for a job.

"A guy named Earl Bratten gave me some news copy to read and I got the job," Falkenstien said.

He worked before and after school and on weekends, usually 40 hours a week, and earned $90 a month.

"The first time I ever went on the air was a Sunday morning to give a promo for an Eleanor Roosevelt broadcast," Falkenstien said, smiling. "It was just a 30-second plug, but I was so scared when that red light came on."

A few years later, Falkenstien was scared again. He was in Ontario, Canada, a radar officer in the U.S. Army Corps. In 1945, his outfit was training for the planned invasion of Japan.

Falkenstien certainly wasn't looking forward to that. Invasions can be dangerous to your health.

"We would have been in the second wave, not the first wave, but then Truman dropped the bomb ... I'm probably here because Truman dropped the bomb," he said.

Falkenstien was mustered out in March of 1946, returned to Lawrence and went to work at WREN. His sportscasting career was about to begin.

"There was an NCAA Tournament game in Kansas City and Earl asked me if I wanted to do it. I said OK, and that's how my sports career started.

"I'm sure I'm the first sportscaster to start on an NCAA Tournament game. Most sportscasters today start out doing Colby-WaKeeney games."

The next autumn Falkenstien re-enrolled at KU and continued to work for WREN which had decided to broadcast KU football for the first time.

"They asked me if I wanted to do it and I said, 'Let's give it a try.' And the first game I did was a nothing-to-nothing tie with TCU."

The next year Falkenstien formed the KU Sports Network with State Farm Insurance, convincing stations in Wichita, Colby, Dodge City, Pittsburg and Coffeyville to join the net.

That network still exists, but 1947 was Falkenstien's only season on it.

"I gave it up voluntarily which might have been a mistake," he said. "WREN sponsors started to complain that I was on a number of stations, and it was suggested that I should concentrate on WREN."

Falkenstien continued doing KU games on WREN and later WIBW as an alternative to the network broadcasts until 1983 when athletic director Monte Johnson sold exclusive broadcast rights to Learfield Communications.

That left listeners with no choice and Falkenstien apparently out in the cold.

"That was gonna be it for me. Monte felt it would be good to wipe the slate clean and he brought in Bob Davis from Hays," Falkenstien said. "Then in August, (KU) asked if I wanted to be the color commentator. I'd never done that, but it was either that or I'm off the air."

Over the years, Falkenstien has been off the air a few times. He isn't Superman, after all. He missed a Kansas-Oklahoma basketball game a couple of years ago with what turned out to be a gall bladder problem.

"I've missed two or three other basketball games with the flu or something," he said, "but I also did a lot of games with the flu."

He also missed a Kansas-Kansas State football game a few years ago in order to attend a banking convention in Hawaii -- can you blame him? -- and he's been absent a couple of other times over the years for various reasons.

Although officially retired, Falkenstien still works part-time at the bank, does some public relations work for Brandon Woods Retirement Center and plays racquetball and golf as often as he can.

In his spare time, he is collaborating with Doug Vance, KU's director of media relations, on a book that will chronicle his 50 years of Kansas sports.

Tentative title: "Now Don't Make Me Laugh."

"He says that all the time," broadcast partner Bob Davis explained. "Before every game he always says, 'Now don't make me laugh. You'll make me hoarse.' He's always worried he's going to lose his voice because he likes to laugh."

As long as he likes to laugh, Falkenstien vows he'll continue to wear a headset and microphone at KU football and men's basketball games.

"I still enjoy it," he said. "The relationships with the coaches and players is something I've enjoyed. Wherever I go, these guys from the past always seem glad to see me, and I'm glad to see them."

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