Journal of Mass Communication
at Francis Marion University
Spring 2010, Vol. 4, No. 1
How I Got into Broadcast Journalism:
An Interview with Steve Porter
by Garry Griffith
In the fall 2009 issue of the Journal of Mass Communication at Francis Marion University I wrote about a lifeguard named Jay Woodward. Jay was worthy of an article because he does not fit the typical lifeguard profile. Jay is 51 years old. Reviewing Jay’s article is not my primary point. An observation noted in my article is the premise for this article. That is, there are subjects worthy of interviewing all around us. In this age of instant information, it is posited that everyone is capable of being a journalist1.Therefore, as a journalist, and heeding my own encouragement to look for subjects to interview, I realized that there was a seasoned journalist in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who merits recording his comments on a lifetime in journalism and journalism’s future. His name is Steve Porter and he was kind enough to answer the following questions.
Q: Tell us about your background.
A: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, got an associate of arts degree from St. Petersburg, Florida, Junior College, majored in economics at the University of Miami (two years) and the University of Tampa (one year).I also attended a number of special journalism courses, and various seminars on everything from economics to war and foreign policy. I also became an instrument-rated pilot.
I was the “announcer guy” in my high school because of my voice and participated in speech and debate contests statewide. I continued this activity in college where, as a student, I literally helped build and operate the Tampa Bay area’s educational television channel. We did everything from wiring equipment racks to painting flats to directing shows to performing on camera. In the process, I took my only media related course, “Introduction to Journalism.”
I began my on-air work as a weekend combo on-air/engineer/newsman/janitor at WDCL, a 5000-watt station that covered the Clearwater, Florida, market. After a couple of months, WFLA radio and TV (NBC) in Tampa hired me to work their weekends as both a radio and TV combo-board man and announcer. I left there after I graduated from Junior College to attend the University of Miami.
In Miami, after entering the University of Miami, I began working for WGBS and became their afternoon drive-time all-news anchor within a couple of months. A year later I moved over to WINS and became their afternoon-evening newscaster and writer and produced a number of small documentaries, many of them dealing with the influx of Cubans after the takeover of Fidel Castro in Cuba.
I returned to WFLA to become their first radio news director. I had to design a newsroom and on-air facilities and hire a staff. I also became a co-anchor on their 6 p.m. television newscast. My day ran from 5 a.m.in the morning on the radio until I got off the air on TV at 7 p.m.at night.
I left WFLA to become a TV news anchor and host on a two-hour morning program on KONO-TV (ABC) in San Antonio, Texas. At the time I was 24 years old, married and had one son. During my tenure there, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson became President. Our TV news staff covered all of President Johnson’s activities when he was in Texas because ABC News was not yet a full network operation. We essentially became their Texas bureau when Johnson was at home. That gave me my first taste of network coverage challenges. I also spent many hours in the air, flying with members of the U.S. Air Force at Randolph, Kelly, Lackland and numerous other Texas Air Force bases both as a reporter for KONO-TV and as a producer of training material for the Air Force, although I was not in the service. The overriding story for us at the time was the training of Vietnamese pilots on old T-28 aircraft, medivac training and the covering of wounded arriving and being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center.
Westinghouse Broadcasting took me to Philadelphia in 1965 and I became their first on-air anchorman on one of the very first all-news radio stations in the country, KYW News radio.
That station has been number one in the market almost from the time we began the all-news format and even though it sounds almost exactly as did more than 40 years ago, it is still at the top of radio ratings.
I left KYW to become the first on-air anchorman on WCBS News radio in New York City in 1967.
My six years there included a lot of street and political reporting and gave me the opportunity to travel in order to cover major stories, such as national political party conventions and events that had a direct effect on the citizens of New York City.
I moved over to NBC News in 1973 and anchored the “NBC News on the Hour” broadcasts from New York for 10 years. During that time I produced and anchored many documentaries, won awards and did fill-in reporting and anchoring for NBC News out of the New York bureau.
The company asked me to move to the Washington bureau in 1983 and shortly thereafter I was assigned as permanent White House correspondent.
As one of the inside correspondents who covered the White House throughout the day and on the road with the President, I covered history-making events at home and abroad, and even when the president (Reagan and later, Bush) went on vacation, I went along as well for the duration. Fortunately, on the longer trips, I was able to take my family with me.
When George Bush Sr. was elected, I was assigned also to cover Secretary of State James Baker on all of his international travel. Although my base remained the White House, I was sent out with him, on his plane, whenever he traveled overseas. It was obviously because I was able to operate radio equipment and deliver audio feeds from technically very challenging locations without a technician as well as write and report on the news being developed in places like Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. I also assisted the State Department audio crew with their needs in recording events.
I won most of the major broadcasting awards over the New York and Washington portions of my career, in fact many of the awards I won I really don’t know much about because network executives tend to soak them up as their own property and many reporters never find out about them until many years later.
I left what was left of NBC radio when it became part of Westwood One in 1992, but I remained doing assignment work for NBC TV. It was at that point that both my wife and son became seriously ill and I had to come in from traveling. I helped USA Today develop “Sky Radio,” a live all-news service that is broadcast to airline passengers from satellite, and I did some all-news anchoring for Washington’s big all-new operation, WTOP as well as some talk-radio hosting. The Associated Press asked me to help them begin a 24/7 all-news network operation ( ANR) in 1993 and I became one of the original anchors for them. I also did a lot of regular AP Radio wire writing in between broadcasting.
With the passing of my wife and son, I shifted into neutral for awhile, but kept on working for the Associated Press until I decided to make a drastic change in my career.
In 1994, I bought a share of WRNN, moved to Myrtle Beach, and in January of 1995 began the morning program that is now on the air. Over the years, we sold the station to Pinnacle Broadcasting, which sold it to the present owner, Nextmedia. WRNN began with practically no ratings at all and today consistently ranks number one in the market during our morning program. Of course I also write my personal column and do some reporting for the Myrtle Beach Herald
Q: Why did you go into journalism?
A: I can’t remember the reason. From the time I could tune the little radio on my nightstand, I was always fascinated with broadcast news reporting. I couldn’t wait for the Pittsburgh Press to be delivered every day, and I even wound up delivering it for awhile. During World War II, my father was glued to the radio and as I grew up I listened to the great news people at KDKA in Pittsburgh and to the shortwave band for what was going on in other countries.
Coincidentally, Carl Ide, the main news anchor for KDKA-TV, moved into my uncle’s house next door to ours when I was beginning high school and he would truck me down to the station just to watch and listen.
I went to college with the idea of going into law, but by then I was already working in broadcast journalism and at one point I must have made a decision to keep on going in that direction. I never considered the field of journalism as a career and all my academic education on the subject came through my college courses in English and other courses. I guess you could say I created my own journalism curriculum through actual work and self-education and I remain convinced that a good journalism student is one who concentrates on more important academic challenges than what is taught in journalism school.
Q: Who influenced your career?
A: There is no single individual who has had an overriding influence on my career. I have had the opportunity to meet and work with so many of the best people in the business it would be hard to choose one as a role model. Remember, I was listening to the likes of H.V. Kaltenborn, Walter Winchell and Edward R. Murrow when I was growing up and after that generation came writers like William Safire and broadcasters such as Walter Cronkite. Most of those individuals had very different styles and agendas than today’s media professionals, although I cannot deny that many of today’s young reporters still try to portray events as they really happened instead of how they want them to happen. As Walter used to say, “and that’s the way it is!” So many times today the reporter seems to be saying “and that’s the way we’d like you to think it is!”
Q: What courses should a journalism student take?
A: Well, to be respectful, at least the basics in journalism. After that the number one priority would be to cram in as much English as possible, especially writing courses. Become a stickler on grammar and usage. After that I would recommend a very broad education in history from the big bang until the present, but particularly the post-1900 to present era. Learn to recognize the lessons that our predecessors failed to learn about such things as what causes international conflict, economic recessions and eroding morality. Learn how these mistakes are made over and over again and it will give you a good overview of how to give depth to your reporting. Take math and science. The future is bound up in these curricula and only the reporters who can wade through them and report on them in plain language will be successful.
Q: What is the future of journalism?
A: The future of this career depends on the journalist. If he or she would establish his or her set of goals and disciplines and stick to them, then the field can grow and prosper with the help of all the new technology. The old rules of fairness, truth, and good writing won’t change unless they are allowed to be ignored. Journalism teachers who say times have changed and therefore news reporting must change by bending the rules that anybody with common sense knows exist should be sent back to school. Therefore I must say that being a journalism student today is properly challenging, but it is not easy because of the need to stick to the age-old rules of good reporting while dealing with pressures to become issue-oriented. There’s time enough for a good young reporter to become known for his fairness and accuracy before opening the gate and allowing him to let loose with his own opinions. Since I have come along that road and have been out of the gate for a long time, I must share that the real fun has not so much been the opportunity to express my own views as it has been the great pleasure I have gleaned over the years from shooting down members of our society who are not fair and deal in untruths. It’s a great sport as well as a career.
1. Lee B. Becker, “The Most Pressing Challenge for Journalism and Mass Communication Education” in The Future of Journalism and Mass Communication Education, LSU Printing Services, July 2008, 78-79. Becker wrote, “The fundamental change in the relationship of the journalist to the media organization alters, in a fundamental way what it means to be a journalist. In the past, journalists were people who published or broadcast their messages through media organizations. Now, journalists can distribute their messages themselves. As a result, quite literally, everyone can be a journalist.”
Garry Griffith has his Ph.D.in communication from the University of Southern Mississippi. He is an assistant professor of speech at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. He lives in Myrtle Beach with his wife, Debbie, and children, Anna, Becky, and Nathan.