Lunch at the Village Square Cafe at Cross Keys the other day, and who’s there but about 250 combined years of Baltimore broadcasting.
There was Rudy Miller, who started as a weather forecaster at WBAL-TV and anchored WMAR-TV’s news before finishing here as a talk show host on WCBM radio. She’s retired now, lives in Florida and sat at lunch with Helene King, former news producer at WJZ-TV.
Nearby was Frank Luber, who started as a reporter at WCAO radio during that station’s rock ‘n’ roll heyday, went to WJZ for a couple of decades and earlier this month ended a long stay as morning man at WCBM radio.
Luber sat with Richard Sher and Ron Matz, each of whom started in radio but spent their high-profile years at WJZ’s “Eyewitness News.” Matz retired a few months ago. Sher will resurrect his “Square-Off” Sunday talk show next spring on WNUV-TV.
(I joined them with my own modest broadcasting background, about three decades on the air, including commentaries at WJZ-TV and a few radio gigs.)
For each of us, the piling-up of all those years is a reminder of the changing nature and values of modern broadcasting. Time was, the most successful Baltimore broadcast stations were invariably those with the most familiar household names.
Familiarity came with longevity, and experience, and the trust that developed between reporters and their audience. Listeners understood the stories were coming from people who knew their way around town.
But the economics of broadcasting have changed dramatically. In the heyday of WJZ’s Jerry Turner and Al Sanders anchor team, for example, they were drawing half a million people to the 6 o’clock news.
The station’s 6 p.m. broadcast today draws less than 10 percent of that figure, and those numbers are reflected at every other local TV news operation around the country.
With the dwindling number of viewers, stations have had to bring in young people. Their salaries are a fraction of departing veterans’ paychecks. Many are just beginning to learn the rudiments of a solid story, and one day they might even be able to find City Hall all by themselves.
If they stay in Baltimore long enough.
“We were lucky to be working when we did,” Miller said the other day. “It was a great era, wasn’t it?”
TV news was still pretty young back then, and the three network affiliates pretty much dominated broadcast news coverage. Now there are news options everywhere, including phones which people check dozens of times a day and thus no long feel the need to turn on the TV.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.