Radio disc jockey. Voice-over talent. Singer. Sportscaster. Most people would be happy to have any one of these professions. Johnny Holliday has done them all—plus a few more—and he’s made them look easy.
Born Johnny Holliday Bobbitt, the Kensington resident burst onto D.C.’s radio scene in 1969 when he was hired to host WWDC-AM’s morning-drive show. It was a bygone era when commuters on an unclogged Beltway would chuckle at Holliday’s rich catalog of family-friendly sound effects, rapid-fire banter and snappy jingles.
“When I flew into Dulles, my boss said Harden and Weaver were my competition. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Holliday knew what he was up against. In those days, Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver ruled the morning roost on WMAL.
Within a few months, however, the new kid in town managed to pull up right behind the legends in the number two spot. “I could never best those guys. I gave them a good run for their money,” says Holliday.
Crowning the list of accomplishments is Holliday’s success as the radio play-by-play man for University of Maryland Terrapin football and basketball games.
“For more than 40 years, Johnny has brought joy to Terrapin fans across the state and the entire world with his play-by-play of football and basketball,” says Damon Evans, the athletic director at Maryland. He calls Holliday “the consummate ambassador for the Terrapins.”
Being part of the NCAA’s Big Ten has made Holliday mindful of how he fits into the big picture. “The game dictates the enthusiasm, the emotion. I stay out of the way of the game,” he says.
For years, Holliday supplemented his career as a cast member in musicals produced at local dinner theaters, acting, singing and dancing his way into the hearts of appreciative audiences. He also caught on as a pitchman for local car dealers like Jim Coleman Cadillac. And he’s got annual charity golf tournament named for him.
In early 1975, after reading a piece in the Washington Post about an elderly woman in the Blue Ridge Mountains who had lost everything in a flood, Holliday embarked on a mission of mercy. He and daughter Tracie, then 11, hired a pilot to fly them to her house, where they were met by a Red Cross truck brimming with food and clothing.
“They had just put electricity in her house,” Holliday says. “When my daughter had to go to the bathroom, it was an outhouse.”
On the way home, their Cessna 172 crashed upon landing. Holliday escaped before it caught fire but suffered a ruptured spleen, broken nose and hand lacerations. But, true to his indomitable spirit, he was back in action two months later.
Holliday’s resume includes other plum voice-over assignments. He was the announcer for Sunday morning talk shows like “This Week,” the ABC show featuring Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, and appeared for years on MASN’s Washington Nationals pre-game and post-game shows.
A near-death experience as captain of a commercial fishing vessel inspired this Bethesda man to follow his own board game company.
Surprisingly, broadcasting was not his first love. He wanted to be a coach and a teacher, but his family lacked the funds for college. “So, I took menial jobs, trying to save up enough money to go to school,” he says.
One of the jobs he found was helping stock shelves at his grandfather’s drug store in sleepy Perry, Georgia. There, a customer who owned the local radio station offered him a job at $32 a week, and Holliday fell in love with the work. That launched a trajectory that took him to four major cities before arriving in D.C.
For all the heaping accolades and the attaboys, the Kensington resident has managed to stay grounded. “I’ve got a wife of 62 years. I’ve got four daughters. I’ve got 11 grandchildren. If it goes to my head, they’re all there to tell me,” he says. “I have never looked at myself as being different than anyone else. I just happen to be in a profession where you’re always in the public eye.”
In the wake of COVID-19 forcing an unprecedented restructuring of society, the prospect of announcing games surrounded by empty seats isn’t something he dwells on. In the event the cavernous Comcast Center in College Park is empty, Holliday, who calls basketball games courtside, says, “I’ll have to speak softer.”
Still at the top of his game, the healthy 82 year old declares he’s not in the retirement zone. He feels blessed for having skill sets that serve the public and treasures the deep friendships he has nurtured along the way.
“But there will always be young people coming up who are good or better than you. It always ends sooner or later,” says Holliday. “For me, I hope it will be later.”