Tom Brokaw announced his retirement from NBC News after 55 years on Friday, January 22, 2021. It was a big announcement in so many ways. It brought to a close a long and stellar career of a youngster from South Dakota who made it to the highest position in his field…and held that position for over two decades. Brokaw became one of a triumvirate of big hitting network anchors at the time competing with ABC’s Peter Jennings and Dan Rather at CBS. Back then these men wielded quite a lot of editorial power in their national newsrooms. They had a very hands-on approach, deeply involved in the story selection, story telling and the direction of the coverage, down to the words they spoke introducing the story coverage. In other words, their fingers touched almost every part of the coverage. And they were each exceptional writers in their own way.
Brokaw’s retirement announcement caught me by surprise. I actually thought he had already retired back in 2004 when he departed the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News, turning it over to Brian Williams. Despite the fact that he was often on NBC and MSNBC after 2004, I figured those were guest appearances in post retirement “special assignments” that tapped his long lens of political and historical context. Which, they were, but he just hadn’t retired yet.
That said, Brokaw’s announcement and subsequent reviews and appreciation for his career reminded me of my one experience with Tom. And, since this blog is “The Life of Riley,” I want to share my experience of one full day once upon a time in the mid-90’s in my life as the director of creative services for WPXI-TV, NBC’s local affiliate in Pittsburgh.
Since it occurred 25 or so years ago, I reached out to the key people involved in the project to corroborate my memory and add other color to the story. I wrote to our news anchors, David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan, our general manager, John Howell, Howard Zeiden, director of sales, Mark Barash, programming director, and, of course, Karen Lah, my promotion manager.
NBC News execs had reached out to the local affiliates saying that Brokaw wanted to get into the markets in a more personal way. They invited us to pitch a reason and a plan for why he should come to our city and broadcast NBC Nightly News from our location.
At Channel 11, we were already in the throes of producing a project on crack cocaine, which was devastating the city of Pittsburgh, particularly the African American neighborhoods. NBC responded with interest on the topic and asked for more details.
The station put together the plan that would weave Tom into our coverage: Channel 11 News would produce a series of special reports on the highly addictive and debilitating drug and how it was ruining people’s lives and communities in Pittsburgh. These reports would run over a week leading up to a live town hall. To heighten the awareness of the project, Brokaw would co-host the live, one hour prime time special with Peggy and David. We called the project and live town hall “Pittsburgh Crackdown.” Of course, my team was in charge of marketing the expansive project and taking full advantage of the cache that Brokaw brought to it.
NBC confirmed his involvement. Our team turned to pulling the plan together, from the news, programming and overall marketing strategies. It became a major station project that required all hands on deck.
Obviously, bringing the attention of NBC Nightly News to Pittsburgh was a big darn deal for the station, the city and for bringing attention and understanding to the horrors this drug was bringing into our communities. It was the opioid of its time.
When the big day arrived, it started early. Karen and I waited at the airport gate as the first ambassadors for the station and the day ahead. Shortly after the plane docked at the flight ramp, Tom was the first passenger to walk out of the gate door carrying a light book bag over one shoulder. He saw us without “seeing” or really acknowledging us, but he walked straight over to us and our welcoming smiles. He saddled up next us, turned back to the gate door. Without introduction, because, well, he could tell we were there for him, and he knew that we knew who he was, he said, “My assistant was sitting back a few rows in coach so she’ll be a minute. We didn’t check any bags so we’ll be ready go when she gets off.”
Quite a few passengers deplaned before his female assistant came out.
“There she is,” I remember him saying and then I understood how he was traveling so lightly. She was carrying a fairly potent but overhead appropriate suitcase in which I’m sure she had everything he needed for the road trip. Her name escapes me now but she was cordial as we introduced ourselves. I offered to help her with the bag but she declined.
The only other thing I remember about that early morning was the four of us riding in the limo to the station. Karen and I were riding backwards, facing Tom and his assistant. Most of the conversation was about the day ahead of course, but Tom did mention that he had just helped his daughter move in to her college dorm…at Duke.
Aww crap, I thought. Really? Duke?
I swallowed hard before saying, “That’s great for her. I grew up in Durham about a mile from Duke campus.”
“Really,” he said matter of factly. “Where did you go to college?”
Then he turned to his assistant and moved on with the business of the day.
I don’t remember what was going on in the country and world at that time, but Brokaw’s mind was always on the upcoming NBC Nightly Newscast. His 6:30 p.m. deadline pressure was always there. Although we had our huge list of deadlines for the day as well, we could readily imagine the gravity of difference between doing a live remote national news broadcast and a local newscast. It was a notch or two or three higher than the daily pressures our local news team faced.
In thinking back, David put it this way. Brokaw “had to do an interview with us, a photo shoot…plus a big speaking engagement, and THEN, he had to anchor the Nightly broadcast live from our mezzanine,…THEN that crazy live town hall at Allderdice.
“So, a VERY busy day. I can understand why he was a tad grumpy. Mr. Friendly though, he wasn’t. I do wonder if I’d met him under less trying circumstances how it would have gone.”
Bearing all of that in mind, I would describe Brokaw’s demeanor that day as all business. As David said, he certainly wasn’t warm and friendly, but he wasn’t hurtful, just very matter of fact, to the point and very aware of the ticking of the clock in his day. He wasn’t on an ambassador of the network mission. He was on a let’s get her done and get out mission.
All in all, the occurrences of that day added three memorable moments to the legend and lore of the TV station. Things that we share and laugh about through the misty eyes of the past whenever we get together. For the Brokaw and Pittsburgh Crackdown day I would parse them into “The Big Window,” “The Photo Shoot” and “Live Almost Mayhem.”
The Big Window
Days before Tom ever set foot in the station, an NBC advance crew came to town to spec out the best location from which to anchor the show. They were very impressed as most are with the view from our second floor lobby of the city, the rivers and Three Rivers Stadium. It was a view that I never tired of seeing. Channel 11 was situated then high atop Television Hill on the Northside of town. A bitch to get up or down when it snowed, but one of the best views for a TV station in the country, a view perfect for Tom’s background.
They decided, why fight it. They wouldn’t find anything better, or more convenient for the efficiency of the day. There was only one problem and that was the reflection off of the window glass that stretched floor to ceiling and twenty feet wide. They determined that the window needed to come down for the show. Now, the glass was over an inch thick, and like I said, about twenty feet wide by nine or 10 feet high. The crew asked us if they took care of removing and replacing the window at NBC’s expense would the station be okay with it.
Sure. Why not.
Well that spread throughout the building like the new variants of COVID19. It was all our crews could talk about for days on end. The decision showcased the bigness of the network. Huge plate glass window twenty feet up in the air on the front of our building causing reflection! No problem. Just remove it for the day. Spare no expense if it was for the good of the show. Damn, they’re good.
So, the morning of the big day, local crews came to the front of the building with their truck cranes and for hours worked on taking this huge plate glass window out. Turns out it was in sections, but still each was immense.
That was already underway when Karen and I arrived in the stretch limo with Tom at the front entrance. We escorted him past all of the commotion, into the building and introduced him to our management team. Then we showed him to an office all set up and wired for him to to communicate with NBC News, read and write scripts and keep up with the day’s coverage.
I didn’t see him again until early afternoon when we had scheduled David and Peggy’s interview with him. Following that, we would take photos of the three of them. Our video and still photography crews had pre-lit their positions in our second studio and were ready and waiting at the scheduled time.
The Photo Shoot
At the appointed time, Tom and his assistant came to the studio. After their brief interview, we moved on to the photo shoot. Peggy recalls, “The still photographer, Bob Suder, was trying to get a shot of the three of us. And, as Bob was prone to do, he was taking quite a long time and making micro adjustments; ‘Chin up Peggy. Slight tilt right Mr. Brokaw. David, lean in an inch to the left….a little more.’ Mr. Brokaw eventually got impatient.”
David added, “Bob didn’t understand that you don’t make the network anchor wait for you to take a million Polaroids before you actually start shooting real film.
Eventually, as David tells it, “Tom stood up, said “I think you’ve got it” and just walked away!”
We were all left standing there looking at each other thinking, did that just happen? And wondering if we did, in fact, ‘have it.’
“But Bob DIDN’T have it” David added. “And the best shot of Brokaw had to be superimposed between me and Peggy for the magazine cover!”
The final photo was used as the cover photo on our station magazine, “Inside Eleven,” that we direct-mailed to over 250,000 homes in our market. It was pretty important for us to get that. And, to get it right. Thanks to the new digital technology of the time, our graphics designer was able to piece together the best shot of each person and made for a great cover.
That five word statement, “I think you’ve got it,” has lived on ever since. It’s a memory that stitches us together all of these years later.
Live Almost Mayhem
“THEN,” David continued, “that crazy live town hall at Allderdice.”
We had put a lot of work into gathering a diverse audience that mixed in station people, local leaders, VIPs and community activists involved in fighting the spread of crack cocaine in their communities. We had secured the auditorium at the historic Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood for the live telecast.
Howard volunteered to head the station’s security side of the event, collaborating with local police. He had performed this role in quite a few projects at his prior station in Baltimore. I contacted Howard to see how much he remembered. He wrote me back saying that he “remembered that evening like it was last night” and he gave precise bullet points on his responsibilities and actions:
- Coordinate all access points with the Pittsburgh Police prior to event to limit access to the venue and review their procedures and who would be there…Uniform and undercover.
- One hour before the doors opened, we had a walk through with the Police and the dogs to check for explosives.
- And close and lock doors so we only had one open entrance, but doors still had to be able to open from the inside for the fire code.
So, per Howard, we were very buttoned up for almost any occasion. And then…
“Approximately 30 minutes before the start,” Howard said, “one of the sales people acting as security, contacted me on the two way radio, saying that a lady saw a man with a gun sitting in the front row. I immediately went to the lead detective in plain clothes and gave him the information.
“We (he) took two uniforms and I just followed. We went to where the young man was sitting. The plainclothes cop asked him to take his hands out of his pockets slowly… and to follow him.”
They went into a room off of the auditorium. It turned out that he did, indeed, have a gun and it was loaded. He also had a couple of joints.
“He was arrested for the marijuana and given a summons for carrying a concealed weapon without the proper permit,” said Howard.
And that was before the telecast had even begun. Rumors of this circulated between us all as we counted the clock down to taking the air. By the time it circled through it had spun into “Howard brought a gun.” Of course, he did not. Needless to say, we were on edge.
The town hall was produced with all of the best intentions: 1) Define the Crack problem for the TV audience. 2) Discuss solutions with experts, and 3) Open up the floor to the community to comment.
We were in control of the intentions #1 and #2. It was the “open up the floor to the live audience” that got more than uncomfortable. GM John Howell remembers, “One woman wouldn’t give up the mic. She was pissed!” As she talked about the way crack was killing people in their community, the anger steamed up. It was very real. For us in charge of the event, it was becoming too real and very scary. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And, of course, we were in charge. WE had invited everyone to be there, including our special guest, Tom Brokaw.
Backstage, our concern grew as the hour ticked towards a close. We snatched Tom off of the stage and led him out of the back door to a waiting limo. As he left he deadpanned, “Well, there’s your town hall!” He didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the station team. He and his assistant hopped into a waiting car with John and zipped off to the airport to catch the flight home to New York.
Meanwhile, Dave and Peggy landed the show, the crowd calmed down and dispersed as did we.
I’ve wondered since what Tom said the next day when he reported back to work at NBC HQ at 30 Rockefeller Center. Who knows how he answered when someone asked how it went in Pittsburgh. I’m hopeful that he said something like, “They really have their shit together at WPXI. They had it well organized, everything came off without a hitch. Oh, and I thought I was going to die thanks to some guy who went to Carolina.”
But, more probably he answered, “I think they got more than they wanted” and moved on with his day.
As I read back through this it doesn’t paint a great picture of Brokaw that day. It doesn’t square up with the many wonderful things that people have been saying. But, we all have days, and I don’t mean at all to say that this was what he has been like every day. I can’t believe that to be true. But it is an honest depiction of that day.
I will say that I have a deep respect for him and the work he did over 55 years in a business that I loved, and one that provided information to the American public at large, reporting what was going on at the time while innovating with new technologies to bring that information to the air as fresh, accurate and as close to the action as possible.
I think about what this story means to me and why I spent so much time remembering, writing, rewriting and sharing this with you. Well, it turns out that it gave me a reason to get up with some great friends and former colleagues, and join together again in memory of one day in our lives as broadcasters. Brokaw’s retirement was just the catalyst. And, when you write these things down, they are immortalized in some way. I guess that I wanted to do that, more for me than you. But, hopefully, it was worth your time.
Since I finished my career with 20 years at WSB-TV here in Atlanta, I would like to add that Tom got his first big break when the news director at Channel 2, then the NBC Affiliate, recruited and hired Brokaw back in 1965. “It was a transformational moment for me,” he said of the experience, “because it was all hell breaking loose in the South.” It’s a fact for which the station remains very proud of to this day to claim Tom Brokaw as an alumnus in our long history.
Here’s a five minute interview with Tom as he describes the importance of that opportunity in his career. He speaks about what it was like for a young man who had never been to the deep South to get a call to come to “one of the best TV stations in the country.” How he took that leap against the advice of others, packed up his car and jumped into covering the very heady stories of racial discrimination and the Civil Rights movement. The stories he covered for WSB-TV brought him to the attention of NBC News and he was off to New York within two years.
Tom has been honored many times over during his career. Here’s a link to a video of the night he received the “Great Americans” award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Go to 4:30 minutes into the presentation and you’ll see the video that they prepared to introduce Tom. It’s formidable and worth watching.
I close with this note. In 1998, when Tom published his book, “The Greatest Generation,” I was given a chance to snatch a few copies from NBC. Tom was gracious enough to autograph three copies, one for me and Julie, one for Julie’s mom, and one for my mom and dad. I had let him know our parents were that generation. They had lived through the Great Depression and WWII, and Dad had joined the Marines and fought in some of the fiercest of battles in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima. Tom wrote an extra personal note for them, thanking Dad for his service.
We’re very proud of those books and his autographs.
As always, thanks for reading. Hope that you enjoyed the time you spent.