Not the way things used to be

Published 8:43 pm Wednesday, July 23, 2014

By Frank Roberts

EDITOR’S NOTE: Frank Roberts has a long history covering entertainment in Hampton Roads and elsewhere, and his columns are being moved to the Fun & Leisure page, where they’ll be fit in a little better than on the Opinion Page. Today, by way of introduction, he talks a little bit about his media past.

Duke Ellington once said it in a song — “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.”

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That is certainly true in my business.

“There aren’t many hopeful signs for American journalism in these days of declining newspaper revenues,” said Capitol Press Association writer Paul O’Connor, adding that a “major” sign is “the rise of broadcast and Internet coverage of what had always been a print-dominated newsbeat.”

Check the news from big city papers and you’ll see staff cuts, smaller editions, more attention to websites. But publications serving smaller areas are doing quite well. They cover news and events the big guys don’t bother with — community stuff.

As you might know, I spent 30 years with the Virginian-Pilot and another 10 years working freelance.

Under Frank Batten Sr. the work was exciting and fun. The editors I worked with, especially John Pruitt of Suffolk (originally of Tangier Island), were top-of-the-line as journalists and friends.

In my off-hours I was doing concert reviews for the paper and, in my off-off hours I was doing national radio commercials for Studio Center, which, at the time, was the third largest outlet for such things. My proudest hour was participating in a political program with Charlton Heston.

Before joining the Pilot I spent two years with the Jacksonville, N.C., Daily News, which included coverage of Marine activities at Camp Lejeune.

News anchors during my time were top-of-the-line. My favorites were Huntley-Brinkley and, before that duo, there was Edward R. Murrow.

Technically, of course, the tube today can offer so much more. In the 1950s, when I was doing the news in Carolina, I went out by myself, set up a camera, got it going, and then ran over to stand next to the person to be interviewed.

When I returned to the studio I would put the show together — just me and the press wire.

I always shot the video for my 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts, usually covering two to four stories each day. Today’s anchors, often working as a pair and sometimes trying for laughs, seldom leave the confines of their studios.

In Iowa, I conducted an interview show, did commercials, introduced old movies, and co-hosted a game show, all in one day.

And, while I am complaining, let me mention radio. I deejayed at several stations in small, medium and semi-large markets. My first jobs? Playing swing music on the old 78rpm records.

Nowadays, radio is so formulaic — playing top-20 or whatever, without deviating. Deejays are more like obedient servants. And, the idea that turning a record on and running a needle back and forth is — well — ugh! Popular? I guess, but so are trained dogs.

And for those in the business who might tell this senior citizen that I’m outmoded and should “get with it,” they’d better realize that it will happen to them, too (it’s already happening with satellite radio), and one day they will be grousing about the young pups of the future.

A quick joke about retirees, from a retiree: Where can men over the age of 60 find younger women who are interested in them? Try a bookstore, under fiction.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at