Local radio icon makes final call

Norm Hitzges retires after decades at the mic

By David Mullen

Dallas broadcaster Norm Hitzges, at the core of local sports media for nearly 50 years, is retiring from radio. He made the announcement on the June 15 edition of “The Norm and D Invasion,” co-hosted with Donovan Lewis on 96.7 FM and 1310 AM KTCK “The Ticket.” 

Norm Hitzges (above, right) has every reason to celebrate an unparalleled career.
Photo courtesy of The Ticket

His last day on air is Friday, June 23.

Hitzges’ pleasantly piercing voice turned pensive. “It’s been incredible to be afforded the privilege of having a voice in this city for 48 years,” Hitzges told me, while pausing to collect thoughts from an extraordinary career. 

“Nobody even conjures up the possibility of that when you start. But you start and keep going.”

Born to Polish parents, Hitzges grew up in the Buffalo area, played sports and graduated from Canisius College. “Looking back, it’s almost crazy. I’m the only child of two poor people. Not to the point where they were indigent. They worked, they carried their load and I think they had some small aspirations for their one child. I wish my mom and dad could have been along for this ride.”

And then, the popular “Pole” — known by generations as the voice of Dallas sports — picked up the pace like a favored thoroughbred headed for the finish line.       

“When I was just a kid, I loved sports. I … loved … sports,” Hitzges said, with the signature emphasis listeners are accustomed to, making the term “sports” sound like it is in all caps and ends in Z. 

“I was the nerdy kid that had a small transistor radio — actually, it might have predated transistors — and so my mom and dad wouldn’t hear it, I’d put the radio under my pillow, smacked out the pillow so that there were no feathers in the middle and laid my ear down to hear the Tigers broadcasts and Ernie Harwell.”

Like so much in Hitzges’ career, his experience came full circle. “Years later, I got to know [the late Hall of Fame Detroit broadcaster] Ernie Harwell well. When I did Rangers’ games, I’d have him on as a guest. Several times, we went out to lunch. He’d come to town, and I’d say, ‘Ernie, let’s go for Mexican food.’ He never said no.”

Many opportunities in the decidedly competitive broadcasting industry come without warning. Early on, Hitzges dabbled in sports, did some teaching and was the play-by-play voice of Sul Ross State University in Alpine when the big chance came. 

“I got an enormous break on Christmas 1971. I was doing a paper for Texas graduate journalism school on the Humble — but don’t pronounce the H — Football Network and Eddie Barker was one of the broadcasters and I went to interview him when he was the news director at Channel 4.” Barker had gained notoriety in Dallas during the local coverage of the Kennedy assassination, was the first reporter to interview Marina Oswald and became news director at the CBS affiliate KRLD-TV (now KDFW Fox4) in Dallas.    

Hitzges continued, “I did the interview and he asked me, ‘What are you going to do after you get out of school?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, Mr. Barker.’ He said, ‘How long before you get out?’ And I said, ‘As soon as I finish this paper!’” Barker invited Hitzges to come back the next day for an audition. “I had never worked a day in TV. After it was over, he said, ‘That was good. Thank you. We will be calling you.’” Hitzges thought, “Yeah right. Fat chance.“ Barker called a week later. “I got to start at CBS in Dallas. It just unfolds from there.” 

Hitzges was fired in a shakeup of the KRLD-TV news department. He protested and approached the news director demanding the cause. “Because our consultants have determined that they don’t think you will ever be a major market talent.” With those words, an exceptional radio career in the No. 5 U.S. media market began.

While he worked on Texas Rangers TV broadcasts and at ESPN, Hitzges is best known for his radio shows. He began at public radio station KERA, where listeners were suddenly exposed to an hour of sports talk instead of discussions of politics, science and the arts; at talk radio station KLIF, just when news talk radio was flourishing nationwide; and at The Ticket, where the spontaneous and sometimes sophomoric antics continue to flourish.   

At KERA, bringing sports talk to an audience more cerebral than fanatical, it seemed as if Hitzges had to return to being an educator. “That’s how radio has changed,” Hitzges said. “Back then, there was no internet. You arrived before the morning paper in most places. But KERA was a jewel. One hour straight. No breaks. Tony Garrett hired me there. Tony, like I, had been fired by Channel 4 that spring in 1975.”   

Hitzges was apprehensive about joining KERA. “One hour of sports on public radio? What are the chances that this is going to work.” 

He prepped for the KERA one-hour show for a week. “I have always used an 8 1/2-inch by 14-inch yellow pad,” Hitzges said. He still works from the same yellow pad holder he bought in 1980. After his first show, Garrett asked him back, sans the note pad. “Just talk,” Garrett told Hitzges. Garrett, a local media icon and winner of the George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award, paid Hitzges $15 per show. 

“The morning sports talk show on KLIF was the first all-sports morning show in the country,” Hitzges said. “It predates all of the all-sports stations. I think people thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. An audience as narrow as sports, they are turning over morning drive to sports?’ I don’t know why it worked, but it worked. It became a staple for 14 years.”

Atlanta based Cumulus Media began acquiring radio stations and bought several local stations, including KLIF and KTCK The Ticket. “Cumulus was a big deal. Dan Bennett — my friend and boss — said ‘I’d like to move you down to The Ticket.’ I didn’t want to go. And he said, ‘You have a contract.’ That pretty much ended that discussion.”

Like brown wingtips anchoring a black tuxedo, no one could fashion that Hitzges would fit in at the frat house on the other end of the radio dial. “I was not a fan of this radio station [The Ticket]. I thought they  went over the edge too much. At times, the language and the topics bothered me. By the way, that occasionally still happens. But I got settled in pretty quickly and I got to understand how hard these people work. To sound funny, to sound like a knucklehead, and then, the next segment, to sound like an expert takes work. It wasn’t long before I realized that I hoped I could fit in here. I admire the people. The people here made me a better talk show host.” 

No one in Dallas covered horse racing like Hitzges. His “Picks of the Pole” and mock race call prior to the Kentucky Derby became a local institution. He was frequently visible at the betting windows at Lone Star Park, and his passion was ingrained. “My mom worked six days a week, eight hours a day, standing on her feet in a laundry and got $1 an hour. My dad tended bar six nights a week standing on his feet. My dad never made $250 in a week in his life. But as a teenager, we found horse racing. It was what our family did for a good time. We didn’t have a lot of money. ‘Two-dollar players, man!’” 

 The holiday “Norm-A-Thon,” a day-long radio marathon featuring major sports personalities, has raised nearly $9 million helping area homeless through Austin Street Center. Hitzges is a member of the Texas Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

An avid traveler, Hitzges and wife Mary will continue to explore new destinations during his retirement. “It’s beautiful. A lot of the people are beautiful. You see things you never see anywhere else. You get to a place, and you think, ‘man, this is fantastic,’ and then you think that there are probably 10 more places like this. And you just keep going. ”

Reflecting on a nearly half century career as the beacon of Dallas sports, Hitzges has not yet etched his final thoughts on his 8 1/2-inch by 14-inch yellow note pad. “I think it’s coming. This is such a whirlwind. In my mind, that churn is already going on.”

During the last decade, Hitzges has battled through knee and hip issues and has recently been treated for bladder cancer. On his June 15 broadcast, he said, “Today, I am announcing my retirement. … I want to assure you this is not health related.”

After 48 years serving as DFW’s talking sports encyclopedia, Norm Hitzges, 78, has every reason to celebrate an unparalleled career. Hitzges once again turned pensive when I asked him how he was feeling. “I’m feeling celebrated right now. I’m feeling very humbled and honored and celebrated.”