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A hard-fought journey: Voice of the Browns Jimmy Donovan enters 24th year in the broadcast booth

Jim Donovan
Erik Drost
/
Wikimedia Commons
Jimmy Donovan, 66, will be starting his 24th season as the voice of the Browns. That ties him with Gib Shanley (1961-84) for the franchise’s longest tenured radio play-by-play broadcaster.

Longtime Cleveland sports broadcaster Jimmy Donovan marks a milestone this fall. He'll begin his 24th season as the voice of the Cleveland Browns, tying Gib Shanley as the franchise's longest tenured radio play-by-play announcer.

Commentator Terry Pluto recently wrote a series of Cleveland.com articles about Donovan's hard-fought journey — both professionally and personally.

A young hockey fan with a tape recorder

Pluto said that journey began when Donovan was a young hockey fan in Boston, muting the TV and calling Bruins games into a tape cassette recorder. He realized he needed to record crowd noise to make it authentic.

"His father had tickets to the Bruins, and he asked if he could go. And so here's a 12-year-old Jim Donovan sitting next to his father at the old Boston Garden doing, 'Goal go by Phil Esposito!' And it began that way," Pluto said.

Then, Donovan used those tapes to try to get jobs when he went to Boston University.

"And so he played those tapes and they go, 'Those are pretty good.' So they gave him a shot at the Boston University hockey team doing those games on the student [radio] station," Pluto said.

Working his way up

Pluto said after college, Donovan paid his dues at small TV and radio stations.

"His first job was in St. Cloud, Minnesota, doing about 100 events a year, different hockey [games] and basketball and baseball, and living in this guy's basement because he was making no money," Pluto said.

Donovan then went on to a station in Burlington, Vermont.

"An agent, Ken Lindner, spotted him. And that got him the job [WKYC Channel 3] in Cleveland back in 1985 doing the the weekend sportscast."

Pluto said Donovan was also asked by NBC to call some NFL games on the weekends.

"When the team came back in '99, that opened the door wide open. Who's going to be the play by play guy? And Jim desperately wanted that job."
Terry Pluto

The Browns come home and open a door

Meanwhile, the Browns' radio play-by-play announcer, Nev Chandler, passed away from cancer in 1994. The next year, owner Art Modell announced the team would be moving to Baltimore.

"So when the team came back in '99, that opened the door wide open. Who's going to be the play by play guy? And Jim desperately wanted that job. He even went out and made a tape of a Notre Dame football game, something real fresh on radio, because he didn't want to be just considered off his TV tapes. So, he prevailed," Pluto said.

The next challenge: leukemia

A year after beginning his job as the Browns' play-by-play announcer, Donovan was diagnosed with CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia).

"By 2009, he needs a bone marrow transplant. They found the donor, a guy who was a corrections officer down in rural Virginia. They become big buddies, by the way. They visit each other. He comes up and joins their family. And that transplant works."

But then came more adversity for Donovan.

"Just as he's coming out of [the transplant], he develops melanoma on his earlobe. And so that's a setback," Pluto said.

"The last 10 years have been pretty good, but he's always getting his numbers checked," Pluto said.

What makes Donovan so special and beloved in Cleveland?

"I think he has an enthusiasm for the team, but when they're playing poorly, he'll let you know. People are just drawn to his calls. I think one of the great calls was when the Browns clinched the playoff spot in Pittsburgh. And he said, you know, the Browns make history. They won their first playoff game. 'It had everything except you fans. Just too bad you couldn't have been here.' I thought that was really nice because this was during COVID," Pluto said.

Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.