LONSBERRY: On 30 Years As A Rochester Newsman

posted by Bob Lonsberry - 

I came to Rochester because the “Times-Union” offered me $5 more a week than did the “Indianapolis Star.”

It was no more complex or special than that.

I was finishing a four-year Army enlistment, as a reporter and photographer, and for six months I did a job search. In those days, that meant you put your resume and a couple of clippings into an envelope and sent it off to some managing editor somewhere.

And in those days they would write you back, offering either hope or advice or rejection.

In my mind, I wanted to write for one of the statewide, Midwestern or Rocky Mountain papers. I wanted to be a roving columnist, an Ernie Pyle or a Jimmy Breslin, and I wanted a big paper and a big state with lots of people and lots of country and lots of stories.

That’s a big aspiration for a kid with no college and no background other than a year as a small-town sports reporter and a couple of classes at something called the Defense Information School. But I thought I was good and I had the fire in the belly and I had won a bunch of journalism contests.

And the letters were coming back in a very encouraging way. I was partial to the “Denver Post” and the “Daily Oklahoman” and the “Arizona Republic.” All good papers, all wrote back positively, all were the voice of their state.

But it came to me that I should take the job that paid the most money. It was a simple, objective standard that was out of my control, and removed factors like wanting to live near in-laws and my naiveté. So that was it. How much are you offering? And Rochester offered $5 more than Indianapolis offered.

Which horrified me.

My Army years were all in Indianapolis, Indianapolis is one of the nation’s great cities, and I had done a fair amount of freelancing in Indiana. And Rochester, though it was 70 miles from where I grew up, was a city I had only visited three times – to see the Shrine Circus, visit a cousin at Strong Memorial Hospital, and to fly through for a funeral. Further, the “Times-Union” was the smaller Rochester newspaper, and I wasn’t of a mindset to be second fiddle. The larger “Democrat and Chronicle” was the only newspaper I wrote during the job search that didn’t write back.

Two years later I would be its daily metro columnist.

Such was my desire to avoid Rochester that I went to the “Indianapolis Star” and asked if they would match the offer – if they could give me $5 more. The editor seemed a little put out that I would consider writing at any other newspaper, and he asked me what the other paper was. I told him. He angrily stood up and, by way of dismissing me, said that anyone who would write for that company – the Gannett newspaper chain – wasn’t any sort of journalist with whom he would want to associate.

I felt sorry for him a few years later when Gannett bought his newspaper.

But that’s how I got here. Thirty years ago now, I think it was the 9th of September in 1988, I walked into the “Times-Union” newsroom at 55 Exchange Boulevard in Rochester and was assigned a desk in the Suburban cluster. If I pushed my chair back, I would bump into the back of the chair of sports columnist Bob Matthews, who has been my coworker ever since. I covered Brighton, Henrietta, Pittsford, Victor, East Rochester and anything in “the region.” That was the hinterlands, where the cows roamed, and where the “Democrat and Chronicle” had bureaus, resident local reporters, but the “Times-Union” did not. A broad semi-circle that swept from Geneva to Batavia and dropped down to the Pennsylvania border.

Early on, I paid a courtesy call on Mr. Bob Bickel, who ran the D&C’s bureau in Geneseo. He was a giant grizzled man whose writing, about the most mundane of subjects, occasionally rose to literature. He was in Geneseo because he couldn’t stand the bosses downtown. He wanted to be left alone, and he wasn’t particularly glad to see me. But he did deign to give me a briefing on the various towns and villages in the three or four counties with which he was familiar. He sat there, in an old converted movie theater, and listed community after community, with a one or two word description of its spirit and nature. I thought it was preposterous to think that any place could be so simplistically categorized. But, of course, I soon learned that he was right, and now, three decades later, most of the towns are still exactly as Mr. Bickel described them.

In those days, the newspapers competed fiercely. The morning “Democrat and Chronicle” thought it was God’s gift to journalism, and the afternoon “Times-Union” thought it was “the writer’s newspaper.” I resented being the little brother, but I loved that the “Times-Union” with its five editions through the day was “alive,” and that a story I picked up at 7 in the morning would be on the street before lunch, or that something that broke in early afternoon would be hawked on downtown street corners in the Blue Streak edition at quitting time.

Hawked best, by the way, by a man dressed up like a woman, one of a series of fascinating characters who stood at intersections of a then-vibrant downtown selling newspapers by the hundreds.

I loved being a newspaperman, and I threw myself into it. I did my beat, and I picked up every additional story I could. When something needed to be done, I wanted to be the one to do it. Any hour of the day or night, any story, anywhere, three or four or five or six stories a day.

And it worked. The paper gave me opportunity to match my ambition, and I advanced. You’d be surprised what you can do for your career if you’re willing to give up your personal life for a decade or so.

I knocked on Arthur Shawcross’s mother’s door and told her that the cops said her son was a serial killer. I sat with a woman whose younger son had been killed by her older son in a drug dispute, and the only pictures she had of either were their mugshots. I tracked down a genuine Ku Klux Klan man in a barn 90 miles from the newsroom. I learned by close observation at 3 o’clock one morning that when you put a shotgun in your mouth the round holes it leaves in the plastered wall behind you are pellets and the angular holes are bits of skull. I knocked on Amish doors to find relatives of a boy dead of whooping cough. I sat inexplicably in a police chief’s office, waiting for FBI agents with warrants and boxes to stream through the door.

And I loved it. I felt the thrill of the trade, and I had great ambition – specifically, to be a columnist.

The sort of columnist who wrote about people and life. Who could take readers someplace real, where they would otherwise not likely to go. Steinbeck said that a writer’s job was to explain people to one another, and I wanted to do that. I loved the tradition of the big-city columnist, the guy who sat at the end of the bar and wrote stuff so beautiful it made you cry. By the time I was 30, the Rochester papers had given me that chance.

But one night I went to a legislature meeting, city or county, I can’t remember. It was the day a ranking had come out, predicting the hell the city of Rochester would turn into for its children. And I wrote about it. It didn’t strike me as anything unusual. I wrote within the tradition of the big-city columnist. Not a voice I had used previously in Rochester, a voice that sort of held the politicians up as self-important blowhards fiddling like crazy while Rome burned around them.

It was the first time a Rochester columnist had given that generation of bigwigs a punch in the nose.

I did it because they needed it. Not because I thought I had any particularly valuable insight or opinion, or that my personal voice on the matter needed to be heard, but because the duty and prerogative of the columnist – the voice of the little guy – said that the best way to tell this story was by drawing some blood.

So I drew blood.

And there was a reaction. In the newsroom and out. Some of my colleagues thought I was too big for my britches, and some of the politicians thought I ought to be fired. Readers seemed to love it, and the phone – that was how we communicated back then – was ringing pretty steady.

But I didn’t know what bosses thought, I didn’t know if I had crossed a line.

I found out midmorning, in the men’s room.

I was standing at the urinal, across from the newsroom, and the big editor came in. He stood at the other urinal. He looked over at me, said, “That was good. Don’t spare the lumber,” and went back to his business without another word on the subject, ever.

“Don’t spare the lumber.”

It’s a baseball phrase that basically means, when you get to the plate, swing like hell.

I have followed that advice since. Don’t bunt -- put it over the fence. This is not a business of subtleties. If you’re going to say something, say it so they won’t forget it. And if you’re going to go after somebody, make sure they know they’ve been gone after.

That column was my first opinion piece in Rochester. It was not the kind of writing I wanted to do, or that I am best at. But it was popular, and the bosses and the readers wanted more.

So I became the opinion guy.

And I became the radio guy.

Not a path I would have chosen, but probably a path I was called to.

The radio thing came about as a fluke.

My mother was alive then, in the early 1990s, and I was the daily columnist at the “Democrat and Chronicle.” But she couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t click with her as being a real job. Delivering the paper, that’s a real job. Writing the paper, that’s not a real job. And I wanted to impress her. I wanted her to see me as a success. And the newspaper wasn’t doing it.

She listened at night to a radio station out of Boston, WBZ. Specifically, to a man named David Brudnoy. He was a talk-show host, and she loved him. References to him peppered her every conversation. It was clear she was impressed by him.

So the idea came to me to, temporarily, be like him.

I wrote to the man who ran WHAM radio – the news and talk station – and asked if I could fill in sometime when his talk host was away. My argument was that, as the newspaper columnist, I would be a novelty, and people who read the paper would listen in to hear what I sounded like. It was a natural cross promotion, and I might bring new listeners to his station.

He eventually agreed, and I spent a couple of days filling in.

All so that my mother would hear and be impressed.

But the thing was, the radio was easy and fun, and I took it as a challenge to figure out how to do it better. At the same time, I was doing commentary on television, on Channel 10.

And at the same time, I was realizing that the newspaper industry was not interested in a straight, white, male conservative.

It came to me in an instant, as the results of the Best of Gannett competition were being announced one year. I was hoping to win, and use that as an opportunity to argue for a syndicated national column. They announced the top three columnists in the company, from third to first. A guy from Cincinnati came in third, and that made sense. He had had a great year, and had done some wonderful pieces. Then they announced second, and it was me. I was gratified, and thrilled. It was a good showing, and I was thankful, but I was curious who had beaten me. I wasn’t aware of anybody in the company who was turning heads. Then they announced the winner – the best Gannett columnist of the year. It was a lady who had just started writing a gay column. It was the first gay column in a mainstream paper. She won on subject matter. She won on political correctness. And I knew I couldn’t win that game.

So over the next year or two I went through a process that took me fulltime to WHAM, where I believed my views and demographic would not be obstacles.

The problem was, WHAM didn’t want me. At least they didn’t want to pay me. I filled in, sometimes for months at a time, and never got paid. Ever. When they developed an opening, they did a national search, and made it clear that I was not being considered. But I kept coming back every day, to do the show between tryouts by other hosts. Finally, they settled on a guy from Canada. But his visa said he could only work four days a week. That left me with Fridays. By the time the first ratings book was back, he had tanked the station and finally, on January 3, 1995, they gave me the show.

And then it was now.

Or so it seems.

At this stage of my career and life, it feels like I have always done radio, and always been on WHAM. The call letters are on my license plate and in my heart, and I will not leave until I am dead or fired or honestly feel like I’m letting people down.

Radio started hot and hard. I did poorly, in terms of skill, but opportunities came, and they came fairly quickly. The man who ran the company that bought WHAM liked me, and would listen to my show, even if that sometimes meant listening in by telephone. I guest hosted for Michael Reagan, was picked up as one of four hosts rotating a national weekend show, was a frequent guest host for Glen Beck, and even got a crack at replacing Art Bell on the weekends on Coast to Coast AM.

The latter experience came as a fluke when the guy who ran the company gave me a shot. This infuriated the guy who ran the show, who called my house and swore at me, proclaiming my unworthiness for involvement with his broadcast. I proved him wrong the first night, when I interviewed some warlock guy like I didn’t think he was insane. The second night was going pretty well, too, until, after hearing some witch give her crazy thoughts on nutrition or something, we went to open lines. It was in the last segment of that that I hung up on a caller.

He was talking about being at the lake with his girlfriend in greaser days, parking in the night, and seeing some lights in the sky.

The story really sucked.

I told him he could be dull or he could lie, but he could not do both, so I hung up on him.

Thereby proving the guy from the show right.

Five years after I started at WHAM, on a Thursday, the boss passed me in the hallway and asked me if I would ever want to work in Salt Lake City. I told him that I very much would, but that I would not give up WHAM and I would not move from Mount Morris.

That was another thing I’d set in my mind. Unable to decide where to live, and wanting my children to have a hometown, the family decision was that wherever we lived when our oldest child went to kindergarten was where we were going to stay, no matter what.

That was Mount Morris.

Anyway, Thursday he passed me in the hall, Friday he told me I had a morning show, and Monday I started. For a decade – from 2000 to 2010 – I did a morning show in Salt Lake, mostly from studios in Rochester or at my home. I did 5 to 9 a.m. Mountain time and for a couple of years came back to do 5 to 6 p.m. I was the first person in the present era to do two shows a day, but it worked well enough to become the norm in talk radio. The end of the Salt Lake show was a death from which I have not yet recovered. I was able to pick up another show on a Utah station outside our company, but after I doubled that station’s ratings, my WHAM schedule was changed so that I had to quit that Salt Lake job.

In 2012, the company that owns WHAM gave me an afternoon show in Syracuse, which I continue to the present.

All of which says little about what I do every day.

So let me try.

I figured radio out by listening to Brother Wease and Bob Matthews, and trying to analyze what they were doing that was working. Neither are classically good broadcasters. Both are very distinctive personalities. Both are legendary, and are beloved by listeners and by me. They taught me that all you have to be is sincere. If you are just a regular guy, with your distinctiveness and peculiarities, people will like you.

So that’s what I try to do. Just be myself, and be straightforward.

By contrast, when I started on WHAM, the only counsel I got from bosses on how to do it was to not talk about my family, and to not laugh. I got counseled on those things a fair amount. Thankfully, I ignored the advice.

I also have been counseled over the years to talk about one topic per show – Topic A, or whatever the consultants call it. I’ve never done that. I try to have a new topic every segment or two, to keep it interesting. When I occasionally get chewed out for that I try to look real sincere when I acknowledge my shortcomings and resolve to do better and go back to doing it exactly the way I always have.

When I came to WHAM, it was a blockbuster station. The radio business was rich and staffs were big and talented. At WHAM, I was sort of a schedule filler. The formula of the day was to have a local talk show but not to take it too seriously. All day long, WHAM thundered with top-notch broadcasters and I was slipped in there with the warning from the boss that an average radio job was about two years and I shouldn’t expect to stay any longer.

The schedule of my show was moved and shortened and moved some more. But it sort of sunk its roots and started to bloom. For 18 years it was broadcast over the noon hour and across the region people sitting in their cars eating their sandwiches turned it into a family. In time, the show came to be the dominant feature on the station. I was embarrassed by that, and downplayed it, not wanting to offend coworkers or have anyone think that I was putting on airs.

The economy changed and the business changed and at a certain point the station sort of became Bob Matthews and me. I never wanted that, but I wasn’t going to shirk it, and during the tough sailing of the recession my lone focus was keeping WHAM in the black and on the air and in a format and form that were useful to listeners. I was not going to let WHAM die on my watch. In recent years, a boss whose commitment to the station is the same as mine has steadied the ship and brought in attitudes and people that have turned us back into a powerhouse. I come to work still thrilled to give it my best, but knowing that I’m not the fastest horse in the barn and that the station doesn’t rest on my shoulders, and that makes me happy for listeners. 

My thinking is that a radio talk show – at least as hosted by me – should be like a conversation among friends sitting around the kitchen table. The topics, attitudes and spirit that would work there will work on the radio. At the kitchen table, you can talk about anything. You can rage, you can laugh, you can cry, you can pray. You can talk about God or boobs or the president or what you saw on TV last night. And you don’t take yourself too seriously.

I’ve never done that. I’ve never taken myself seriously on this show.

The show, I take very seriously. But I know exactly who I am, and who I am not. I am just some hillbilly out of the Southern Tier with a high school diploma and a funny voice.

What the show is, is the friend and protector of a region. From the worst of city neighborhoods to the greenest of farmer’s fields, across countless suburbs and country towns, welcoming to all and fair to all.

It’s also a pulpit. When I was a young man, I was a Mormon missionary, and walked from door to door knocking, to get people to listen to what I thought they ought to know. Now, the largest radio company in the world gives me use of its 50,000 watt clear-channel station, with various digital platforms and tack ons. I find this is much more efficient than knocking on doors. And every day I use those 50,000 watts to get people to listen to what I think they ought to know.

And I do have an agenda.

I want listeners to know they are loved. That the dumbass on the radio loves them and believes in them. I want listeners to hear things which are true. I want them to hear an affirmation of the best things they feel and believe. I want them to hear a steady support of God, family and country. I swore an oath once to defend the Constitution and to bear true faith and allegiance to it, and I use the radio show every day to, if only for a few moments, keep that oath.

I want listeners to hear reason, to have issues and ideas discussed in an informed and rational way. I want them to learn, whether its history or current events or a Bible verse. I want them to be strengthened in their beliefs and values – even when theirs are in conflict with mine.

I want listeners to have company. I want them to have time with a friend.

And I want them to hear their lives and their region.

I want the show to be the sound of Rochester, to be the defining public space for thought and discussion.

I want people to remember years back when they listened to the show with their dad, or heard a call that made them laugh, or a monologue that left them shaking their head in agreement.

And sometimes, I want to swing that radio show like a club, clearing the infidels from the temple and using the perceived power of public opinion to stop those who need to be stopped and protect those who need to be protected. Sometimes it means calling out the powerful or trying to influence an election. It’s like what a newspaper column used to be. It’s what freedom of the press is meant to be.

The radio show is also one of the greatest blessings of my life. It has allowed me to support my family, and it has given me friendships and experiences I would otherwise not have had. It has allowed me to become a friend to a region, and to be warmed by the friendship of people I may not have even met.

It let me give a hug to Paul Harvey, the greatest radio man of my life. It let me find a voice when newspapering went into decline. It sent me to national political conventions over three decades. It gave me a place and a purpose.

I found the people who worked at the newspaper to be intelligent and informed, and the people who worked at the radio station to be witty and bold. All have bolstered and bettered me by their example. I love the reporters, photographers and radio producers with whom I have worked.

And I am proud of Rochester’s reporters. Much has changed, but the job is still getting done. A generation ago, newspaper reporters didn’t quite see radio and television reporters as their equals. Now, in Rochester, television is the prime practitioner of journalism, and the excellent reporters at the paper try to survive the decline of a medium and a company that can’t seem to get out of its own way. I wrote the last story published in the “Times-Union,” a Blue Streak story pasted across the top of 1A, and I may yet write the story describing the last day of the “Democrat and Chronicle.”

If that day comes, I hope I do it well.

I am grateful for chances I’ve had over the years to tell stories, and I hope I’ve done them well. I see it as a sacred duty. I am grateful for the columns that are still carried in wallets or folded in Bibles and scrapbooks, and the radio segments that have noted those who deserve to be noted, and remembered what needed to be remembered. I’ve written and told stories about birth and death, and the grand adventure between the two. I am grateful to have been able to chronicle the people of this region, and the milestones of their lives. I am grateful they have heard me, and read me, and fed my children.

And I hope the readers and listeners know that it has always been about them and for them. I don’t work for bosses, I work for the audience. Bosses are a means to an end. Everything is a means to an end. And that end is the kind people who would read what I write or listen to what I say. I am always in it for them, and they are always the prime consideration. I work for them, and I hope to live my life without ever letting them down.

I have worked in Rochester news media now for 30 years. I hope for another 15 or 20. And I hope that wherever I go, in this life or the next, I can find something as fascinating and enjoyable and fundamentally heartwarming as this.

After 30 years, my feelings are clear: Thank you.

Thank you, Rochester, for the ride of a lifetime.

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