In October of 1983, standing in a stagnant lunch line at the Orioles’ Memorial Stadium, John Patti ’73 gave an elevator pitch that would determine the course of his next 38 years in radio. John was covering the World Series as a reporter for WNAV when the news director for WBAL filed into line behind him. In a busy media tent with at least 10 minutes before they’d reach the buffet, John took full advantage of his captive audience. “I started pumping him with all I could do, have done, and would love to do,” he recalls. The news director told John to send over a tape, and a few months later, on February 4, 1984, John was hired.
This winter, on February 4, 2022, John broadcasted his last show as WBAL’s morning news co-anchor, capping off a 48-year career in radio, all of which he spent in his hometown—something unheard of in an industry known for its high relocation rates.
When he graduated from Mount Saint Joseph in 1973, John started volunteering once a week at WBJC-FM, a classical radio station at Baltimore City Community College. He ran the board for the late-night shift, pressing play on pre-recorded voice tracks. The program ended around 11:40 p.m., and from then until midnight, John was meant to just play jazz music. “Well, who’s really listening at a quarter to 12?” he says with a sly smile. “I would go on from time to time to introduce the records and give a station ID, and no one ever stopped me.”
From his sneaky start to his most recent tenure as a morning news anchor and all the time slots and airwaves he’s occupied in between, John has worked nearly every hour of every day of the week throughout his career. As a student at Towson University, he hosted an 8:00 a.m. show on WVTS, the Voice of Towson State, and interned in the news department of the Top 40 station WCAO. He worked as a news anchor and reporter for WFBR, WBKZ, and WNAV before landing the job at WBAL. For the past seven years, as co-anchor of Maryland’s News Now, John had his alarm clock set for 1:30 a.m. in order to properly prepare for a 5:00 a.m. airtime.
No matter the station or what time he went on air, John’s approach to storytelling has always remained the same. “Make the newsmaker make the news,” he explains. “Ask the questions and be quiet.” With this mantra in mind, John has captured the sounds of thousands of stories across the state and abroad.
When Baltimore’s Archbishop Keeler was appointed to the College of Cardinals in 1994, John made a pitch to be the reporter sent to the Vatican to cover the ceremony, citing his Italian heritage and language fluency as key advantages. It wasn’t until he asked a very confused cathedral attendant for directions to the restroom that he realized the dialect he learned coming up in a Sicilian-American household was quite different than that of northern Italy. Suffice to say, his plans to translate for the rest of the media during the trip did not pan out.
His reporting of the occasion was more successful. Armed with a handheld recorder, he would collect sound bites on site during the day and broadcast by placing an international call to the station in the middle of the night, to account for the six-hour time difference.
On a trip to Havana to report on the Orioles’ exhibition series against the Cuban national baseball team in 1999, John traveled with $3,000 strapped to his waist in a money belt. He flew from Baltimore to Jamaica to get into Cuba. The cash he carried was the fee for being able to broadcast the game. He spent a week there, marveling at both the beauty of the country and the dramatic contrast of life under communist rule to his own freedoms as a U.S. citizen.
John covered the Ravens’ first Super Bowl win, Cal Ripken’s induction into the Hall of Fame, and plenty of other local and national newsworthy events, but one of his fortes was reporting the offbeat stories that were colorful, compelling, and sometimes downright bizarre. His first National Edward R. Murrow Award was for a story he called the “Mammoth Manure Giveaway.” When the circus came to town, elephant dung amassed in a substantial mound behind the arena and was offered to the public as free fertilizer. John interviewed the gardeners and farmers who showed up to haul away the exotic waste. Listeners laughed at the absurdly practical use of circus leftovers, likely glad to be hearing rather than smelling the story.
John has won a total of 11 Murrow Awards, which are among the most prestigious in broadcast and digital news, but one stands out among the others as being especially sweet. In 2010, John and fellow Gael grad Joe Evelius ’73 produced a program called “Christmas in Maryland,” which also won an international New York Festivals Award. The 14-hour special combined Christmas music with vignettes collected from across the state.
They interviewed the postmaster in the little town of Bethlehem, Maryland, where patrons come from all over to have their Christmas cards stamped and mailed to family and friends. They captured the sounds of a fellow in Fell’s Point who walks the cobblestone streets in Renaissance attire, ringing a brass handbell and shouting Christmas greetings to all within earshot.
They climbed aboard a train on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad that mimics the enchanting set of the well-loved fantasy adventure film The Polar Express each Christmas season. However, the day of their visit, there were no snowy scenes outside to be framed by the train windows.
“It was a hot July day in the engine cab of this steam train, and I’ve got my microphone, trying to get the sound of the coal being shoveled,” John remembers. “It was the hottest day, but when it aired in December, it just sounded like it was Christmas. That’s the magic of radio.”
While radio has certainly changed over the course of John’s career, the “magic” has remained, and John isn’t ready to give it up completely just yet. He looks forward to bringing “Christmas in Maryland” back to the radio as a retirement project. Though, John had no problem giving up the early morning wake-up call, happy to hit snooze on his now 7:00 a.m. alarm as many times as he likes.From the Spring 2022 issue of The Mount magazine.