Daniels Essay: Bridging the Worlds of Local TV News and Media History

George Daniels, University of Alabama

On September 10, 2020, Janet Hall anchored her finalist newscast at top-rated Birmingham television station WBRC-TV.   At the end of the 6 p.m. newscast, Hall’s co-anchor Jonathan Hardison introduced a three-and-half-minute “goodbye” video that reviewed highlights of Hall’s 40-year broadcast career that began in Mobile, Ala.   

As she left the studio of Central Alabama’s Fox affiliate, Hall walked into Alabama broadcast history.  As big of a day as it was for Hall and her many colleagues, her retirement from WBRC was not that unusual.  Seven years prior, Hall’s co-anchor for 33 years, Scott Richards, made a similar exit.  Down the street at Birmingham’s NBC station, WVTM-TV, Mike Royer left the station where he had anchored the evening news for decades. 

The difference between Royer’s exit and those at WBRC was his was not a retirement from television. A year later, Royer was back on the air at the University of Alabama-owned independent station, WVUA-TV, hosting the Law Call program. Based in Tuscaloosa, WVUA is part of the hyphenated TV market that includes households in the state’s most heavily-populated region.  The Birmingham-Tuscaloosa-Anniston market is the 45th largest in the nation.  

With the contracts of on-air anchors and reporters constantly being negotiated, the goings-and-comings in local television news are so great that a departure rarely is big news. But, the longevity of the on-air talent’s career can sometimes be a motivator to make it newsworthy beyond that station. 

In 2016 when I learned that a bunch of my former colleagues at WXIA-TV, the NBC station in Atlanta, Ga., were leaving on the same day, I immediately sought more information. Fifteen people leaving a station on a single day was, in fact, big news.  Having spent the majority of my career producing newscasts with all of these folks, their departures really hit me hard.  This is how my very first published article in a media history journal began.

From Personal Response to Academic Research

I was pleased to team up with my co-author Gabriel Tait, who worked with me to analyze the full interviews of each of eight of the colleagues who were leaving. He was the “independent observer” of the stories of these former colleagues of mine. We were pleased to have a first paper accepted for presentation at the Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communication’s (SWECJMC) Southwest Symposium in 2016.

Our initial submission to Journalism History relied only on the good-bye stories of my former WXIA-TV colleagues.  But, the reviewers saw a much bigger story in the collection of farewell stories in local television. They strongly recommended we cast a wider net.

While it wasn’t easy sifting through dozens of television news employees’ farewell stories available on local station websites or streaming channels such as YouTube, the additional stories resulted in a much stronger research article. One criterion for selecting a story was the longevity of career. But, the second criterion was that stories contain ample collective memory of news events the departing employees covered.

You can read the result in the March 2021 edition of Journalism History.

The Road to Legitimacy as a Media Historian

I must be transparent in noting that this is not only my first published article in the field of journalism or media history, but it also is the manifestation of my legitimacy as one who does media history.

When I was in graduate school, I was discouraged from taking courses in media history or historiography, and then at a media history conference, one of my colleagues openly questioned why I was there. Despite the fact that I had experienced sifting through microfilm of old newspapers or combing through collections of personal papers of key leaders and personalities, I was not perceived to be qualified to be presenting at a media history conference. Despite the fact that I have been formally trained to do oral histories and have completed many of them, I was not embraced in this sub-field of journalism and mass communication. 

Doing media history does not mean one only does media history. While I have more than a dozen published research articles on issues of media management, technologies in the TV newsroom, service learning and community engaged scholarship, and more recently, issues of race and diversity in media, I believe journalism and media history to be an approach to much of my work going forward. 

This research on good-bye stories connects to an interest I have as an avid reader.   In my personal library, I have a nearly full shelf of books written by on-air television personalities, both at the local and network TV level.    

Going Beyond the TV Personality Book

I recently purchased a book by Roger Mudd just a few weeks before he died.  The Place to Be was published more than a decade ago, but Mudd’s story of his nineteen years, five months and seven days in CBS News’s Washington Bureau was quite enlightening.[1]   It contrasts with the approach Walter Cronkite took in his 1996 memoir, which became a #1 New York Times bestseller.[2]  Mudd and Cronkite’s stories were quite different from the book-length offerings by Byron Pitts and James Brown. The CBS Sports personality tells readers upfront that Role of a Lifetime is part memoir and part self-help book.[3]  

As African American men in the TV business, Pitts and Brown connected with me in sharing their professional journeys because they shared my strong faith that guides all my decisions. Now anchoring ABC’s Nightline, Pitts at one time worked in the same market at a competing television station. Reading his story of overcoming a stuttering problem in his time,[4] I was ready to moderate a question-and-answer session where Pitts was the special guest here at The University of Alabama campus. 

It’s funny reading one of these books when it’s written by a former co-worker. ABC anchor Bob Woodruff and his wife Lee teamed up to tell their story after Bob Woodruff suffered a traumatic brain injury when an improvised explosive device went off while he was embedded with the military in Iraq.[5] I once worked as Bob’s producer when he was a weekend reporter at WTVR-TV in Richmond, Va.  Today, Woodruff and his son Mack do a National Geographic show, Rogue Trip, on Disney’s streaming platform, Disney+.

These books all by television personalities are replete with personal memories. One could assemble collective memory about a particular story or reporting environment from these printed works. But, the fact is most broadcast journalists, especially at the local level, are not inclined to write a book about their broadcast careers. Writing a book is quite an undertaking.  So, the video retrospective is one way to collect and capture their memories in a way that a broader viewing public can appreciate. This is why our research on good-bye stories is so important. Collective memory scholars might not think there is much value in TV news reports. What we’ve shown in our article is there is scholarly value in the exit interviews completed as a long-time broadcast journalist leaves his/her assignment.

At a larger level, this research has offered me a unique opportunity to bring together my two professional worlds in television news and mass media scholarship in academe. Even in writing this essay, there was a place for some introspection and the possibility of professional legitimacy. There was a learning experience in designing and re-framing one’s research. In the midst of it all, perhaps we have broadened the canvas of academic research.

Notes

[1] Roger Mudd, The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and The Glory Days of Television News (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008).

[2] Walter Cronkite, A Reporter’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).

[3] James Brown, Role of a Lifetime: Reflections on Faith, Family and Significant Living (New York: FaithWords, 2009).

[4] Byron Pitts, Step Out On Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 163.

[5] Lee and Bob Woodruff, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing (New York: Random House, 2007).

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