Marathon Dan: Roan, who’s retiring next week, has done it all in 38 years at WGN
WGN will celebrate Roan all next week on its 9 p.m. newscasts and especially on its “GN Sports” shows at 10:30 p.m.
Dan Roan isn’t one to make himself the story. In 38 years as WGN’s lead sports anchor, he has preferred telling the stories of others. But during ‘‘The Nine O’Clock News’’ on Nov. 22, 1987, Roan played an unwitting role in a mystery that remains unsolved.
While Roan was talking over the highlights from the Bears’ victory against the Lions, WGN’s signal was hijacked. TV screens went black, and Max Headroom suddenly appeared.
A person wearing a mask of Headroom, a fictional British character who was popular in the 1980s, moved back and forth on the screen in a hack that lasted 33 seconds. When WGN reclaimed its signal, Roan was as stunned as anyone watching.
‘‘Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened,’’ Roan said upon reappearing, ‘‘so am I.’’
With that, he calmly restarted the segment and carried on. But Roan wasn’t done with Headroom just yet.
‘‘The FCC called me the next day, like I had anything to do with it,’’ Roan said this week. ‘‘Radio talk-show hosts wanted me to tell them what happened, and I said, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ Those guys, to this day, have not been caught. It was a hell of a prank, I’ll tell you that.’’
It also was just a chapter in a hell of a career that will end Thursday, when Roan, 69, will give his last sportscast before retiring. WGN will celebrate Roan all next week on its 9 p.m. newscasts and especially on its ‘‘GN Sports’’ shows at 10:30 p.m.
Roan might not be comfortable with all the recognition. He eschewed the attention-grabbing antics of local TV sportscasters he competed against, but that didn’t stop him from jumping into a pool to celebrate the end of spring training every year.
‘‘I don’t look at it as having any particular kind of style,’’ Roan said of his broadcasting. ‘‘I just try to report the facts in an entertaining way. I just did what felt natural and comfortable. It served me pretty well to this point.’’
His career is unique by today’s standards. Roan has had two jobs, and he was hired by one person. After Roan graduated from Illinois State in 1976, news director Paul Davis hired him at WCIA in Champaign. When Davis moved to WGN, he brought Roan in 1984.
His first assignment was a memorable one. He covered a men’s tennis tournament at the UIC Pavilion that featured John McEnroe. From the east balcony, Roan began talking to the camera with the light on and McEnroe playing below.
‘‘McEnroe stopped the match, looked up and started yelling,’’ Roan said. ‘‘That was my intro to Chicago sports. I almost screwed up the whole tennis match. We stopped the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field [in 1990] in the same way on a rooftop across the street. They had to call up there and tell us to turn it off.’’
WGN hired Roan as a sports anchor and reporter, but he ended up with a sizable play-by-play portfolio. He called DePaul basketball, filled in on Bulls and Cubs broadcasts and called Notre Dame football during the Irish’s national-championship season in 1988. The school didn’t have a network TV contract, so WGN was able to air a handful of games that season.
Roan was on the call for Kerry Wood’s first game with the Cubs, Glenallen Hill’s home run that landed on a rooftop and Sammy Sosa’s 66th homer. His Sosa call went to the Hall of Fame as part of an exhibit on the 1998 home-run race with Mark McGwire, though it ‘‘went by the boards when the boys got pinched for steroids,’’ Roan said.
Still, Roan remains in awe of his experiences after growing up a Cubs fan in Keokuk, Iowa.
‘‘Most of the people were Cardinal fans around there, and I would go to bed listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call the Cardinal games,’’ he said. ‘‘Fast-forward, and I’m sitting next to Harry doing a game or filling in for Harry. It’s insane when you think how far this little trip has taken me.’’
WGN’s superstation status back in the day gave it a national following, and Roan was recognized in every town he went. Consider this: WGN launched in 1948, with Jack Brickhouse entering on the ground floor and becoming the lead sports announcer. He retired in 1981, and Roan came aboard less than three years later. In 74 years of broadcasting, WGN Sports has had two frontmen.
But WGN Sports isn’t what it used to be since the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox took their games elsewhere after their 2019 seasons. The Hawks, Bulls and Sox went to NBC Sports Chicago exclusively, and the Cubs, who were with WGN uninterrupted from the beginning, launched Marquee Sports Network. In one fell swoop, WGN’s stable of sports was bare.
‘‘It was hugely depressing,’’ Roan said. ‘‘To have the rug pulled out from under you, it really hurt. I will tell you this: If you ask [Bulls and Sox chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf today, he would say he wishes the Bulls and the Sox were still on ’GN. There’s a lot to be said for over-the-air TV.
‘‘I understand the dynamics and the financials of all the other stuff. But Chicago is so special because everybody cares so much about these teams. If you can just turn your television on and watch something that you care that much about, that’s a different kind of a thing.’’
WGN stays connected to sports with Fire games and its nightly, half-hour ‘‘GN Sports’’ show. But for a station that had everything there was to have, from college to pro, it’s still painful for Roan.
‘‘We all saw it coming, but you always think, ‘There’s got to be some way where we wind up with a piece of this pie,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘For us not to have any Cub games, I don’t know. Marquee is different than what people are used to. Some of it’s good, some of it is not so good.
‘‘For me, that was part of having the fun taken out of it. The other part was the pandemic. All of a sudden, you don’t have access to any players or any people, for that matter. I was in my basement doing sportscasts every day, there’s a delay and the timing was bad. It took the steam out of it for me.’’
Roan had considered retiring last year, but WGN brass asked him to stick around. The sides eventually settled on Thursday for his last show. Roan doesn’t have any specific plans for retirement, but they certainly will include his grandchildren.
‘‘I’ll probably just decompress for a little while, play a little golf,’’ he said. ‘‘We have grandkids, one in the city and two five blocks away from us. So we’re gonna be seeing plenty of them.
‘‘I’ll see what it’s like to hang out for a whole summer. Very few of us get a chance to do it, and I finally get my opportunity after 45 years.’’