Behind the Headlines with Bud Elliott
Jun 26, 2014 04:00PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
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Behind the Headlines with Bud Elliott
by Kelley Campos McCoy
The landscape of local television news changed significantly with the recent retirement of Bud Elliott, longtime anchor for KSEE 24, the Central Valley’s NBC affiliate. Elliott spent more than two decades at the anchor desk and would still be there, he said, were it not for some medical issues that preclude being able to continue. While he declined to go into specifics about the issues on record other than to say that they are “life-changing” but “not life-threatening,” he spoke at length with Central California Life about a number of different topics, including his experiences in broadcast, his views on the state and business of journalism, and his plans for retirement. An often serious on-air presence with an occasional wry grin and a gleam in his eye, Elliott in person is reflective, warm and funny. For all of his success as a journalist – he has won several awards for his work, including an Emmy – he is also somewhat of a farmer at heart. He even raises his own chickens. “I’m just interested in farms, farming and farming people,” he said when talking about how getting hired by KSEE 24, located in one of the richest agricultural regions on earth, was a stroke of good fortune in many ways. “People working close to the earth, getting their hands dirty … I just have an affinity for those kinds of stories in addition to all the other ones.”
Your first job in broadcasting was in the mid-1960s, when you were a junior in high school and worked as a disc jockey for a local rock ‘n roll station in Albuquerque. You quickly gravitated toward journalism with successive positions in radio then television. What was it about covering the news that appealed to you?
I've always been sort of a newsie. I was always aware of public events and public affairs. I took my degree in history. Today's news is tomorrow's history. History helps tremendously [to] get a perspective on the stories we're covering today. Because it does really all repeat, it really does. It doesn't matter if it's national news, international, local, regional, whatever -- if you have a grounding and an interest in what went before, and what preceded today's events, it helps you really put all of it into perspective, and it helps you, as a journalist, add texture to the story you're covering today.
Once you got into the profession, was it everything you thought it would be?
I've been in a lot of newsrooms, big and small, but the common denominator is the interesting, intelligent, creative people who work in newsrooms. That really gets to you. To be part of that -- and to hopefully be as creative, as imaginative and innovative, to be able to put together a quality, informative product, just like all the rest of those professionals -- that's really what I liked and what I'll miss.
You were hired at KSEE 24 in 1987 after working several years as a broadcast journalist, most notably for CNN 2 in Atlanta and the ABC affiliate in Richmond, Va. What was your impression of Fresno and the Valley when you first got here?
When I flew out, it was Christmastime of '86, and it was a bad fog season that year. I didn't realize it was a bad one; all I knew is that we were lucky to land. When I was picked up by the general manager, he drove me around and I couldn't see anything. He actually took me down Christmas Tree Lane, and I couldn't see anything except some blurry lights. So I thought, is this really California? Then, there's the stark realization that summertime in Fresno is kinda hot -- but it's a dry heat (smiles, mimicking locals). I'd been through several summers in Atlanta. That will melt you. Jacksonville, Florida is even worse. Richmond is no slouch. So [Fresno] really wasn't that bad. It was just different.
It's difficult for many people to think of Bud Elliott without also thinking of your co-anchors, Stefani Booroojian and Faith Sidlow. What makes a good anchor team?
It's an accident, first of all, and I got lucky twice. You don't really have a say in who your [co-]anchor is going to be. Sometimes [management] makes a really bad decision and the anchor team doesn't work out and it takes them a year or two to realize that and the ratings go you-know-where. Then they make some changes. You really rely on your co-anchor to help you in the moments when you either get stuck, or confused, or don't know a fact or just have a complete brain freeze … Stef was the kind of person who would always help. I'm not saying every sentence was a blunder; I'm just saying she let me know right away that she was there to help me and she expected it from me -- to help her. Once you get that established, it gets much easier. We had that rapport, that chemistry, if you will.
You can't fake that.
No, you can't. You can try, but if it's not there, it's not there. And the audience can tell. They can perceive that. I don't know how exactly that comes through the screen, but it does. You want that not to happen because management wants you to be accepted by a whole bunch of people out there in TV Land, and some of them, they hope, have TV rating books -- Nielsen books -- so that the ratings go up. There were a lot of occasions when the ratings did go up with Stef and I. When Faith and I were on the morning show, ratings also increased.
You refer to ratings. Were you always aware of the local competition -- Channel 30, Channel 47 and Channel 26?
Oh, yeah ... As I understand it, 30 took the ratings race in the early 1980s and became Number One, and so we were always chasing them. It's similar in a lot of markets: There's always a dominant station and then those that are trying to catch up … I think that a lot of times, in a lot of instances over the years, our product was just as good as theirs. Meaning that we covered the same stories or other stories quicker, better, faster. When we needed to surround a story, we did. When we had the resources to throw two live teams or even three at a story, we did … And so there were a lot of times we were as good as or sometimes a little better than 30. But most of the time we were just a strong second.
One of the ways television news differs from other forms of journalism, especially if you're an anchor, is that you come into the homes of your viewers every night. Audiences begin to feel like they know you.
Yeah. The reason you are an anchor should not be because you want to be a performer and a celebrity and be well-known in your little fish tank, but because you want to deliver the news. But the nature of [the] beast is that the station that presents you on their news set wants you to go into those living rooms and be accepted, and so they promote you, and promote you, and promote you. And they have quite a large investment in making you the person that [audiences] want to invite into their living room every night at 6 o'clock. So it's a two-edged sword. You become so familiar in people's living rooms that they're almost offended when you're not there, or if you make a mistake, or if you in some way alienate them. Then they're never going to forgive you. And that happens. But by and large, what we're trying to do is sell a product. We're trying to sell a pretty face and some information that the management hopes will be palatable and entertaining enough that accidentally people will also get informed. I don't mean it to sound quite as negative or critical as that, but it's a business.
How do you negotiate that tension -- the fact that you went into journalism for one reason, but, because it’s a business, you are pressured to focus on other things like selling a pretty face? Did you ever feel forced to compromise?
Yeah. I think you're asked to compromise all the time. Journalism, just on its face, is a series of judgments every step of the way on every story. What do you put in? What do you leave out? Am I censoring myself needlessly? Am I showing my bias, my prejudice? Am I not giving a true account of whatever that event was? But on a larger scale, yes, by management you're asked to smile more, or change your hair. Actually, I think the female anchors probably have more [pressures]. You know, what kind of jewelry [should you wear]? What kind of dress? How much bust line do you show? … That's the entertainment -- the showbiz -- side of what we call "journalism." Those compromises, yes, I think can be exhausting. They can be fatiguing. They cause unnecessary fights sometimes. But by the same token, I don't want to sound like I'm whining, because this is the profession I chose. This is the way it is, so deal with it, and quit whining. Quit trying to reinvent it because you're not going to succeed.
How has journalism changed over the years?
Journalism has changed a lot since 1967, '68, '69 when I first [got into it]. But the basics are the same: What is the job of a journalist? To go out and go where the public can't to gather truth -- facts -- and assemble those facts and then report back to the public what it is you've just seen, that they need to know … It's a hard job. And it's resource-intense, and the market in recent years has changed in that our staffs have grown smaller, not larger. Journalism has migrated to the net. I guess that's a natural progression and there's no way to stop it, and really no way to argue other than I don't think good journalism necessarily has figured out a way to present to the public the information they need to have. I think the overall amount and quality of news that is now available on different platforms is not as good as it once was, but I don't think the public realizes or understands that it's not. And that's dangerous, because say what you want about individual newspapers or reporters or TV stations or networks or whatever, [but] our job is to inform the public, and if the public will not be informed through their own insistence on using some new delivery form, I think a free society -- a democratic society -- suffers.
When you look back on your work for KSEE 24, what are you most proud of?
I think the entire body of work, that for the most part was created and broadcast under the standards I described: trying to get the story right, trying to get it true and the facts straight, and the spelling and grammar correct, while at the same time trying to turn an elegant phrase once in awhile.
What were your greatest challenges?
To get the story right. There are a whole bunch of reasons why a story, in its first draft, might not be right. The reporter might not know, the producer might not understand, we might have gotten faulty information off a news release or press release. There are any number of ways. But I think the biggest challenge is to get it right. I think a journalist's really only ultimate job is to get it right. And that means tell the truth. What does that mean? That means "just the facts, ma'am." Just give me the facts. If you can do that much, you've done your job, and everything else is over and above that.
What would you like your legacy to be as a newsman?
Just that I tried to get it right and had a darn good time doing it. I think the thing that possibly sets me apart is that I've always tried to see the humor in some of this stuff. It's a serious business mostly, and usually most of the news that gets on air is bad news -- the plane crashes, and the train crashes, and the corruption, and the mass murders, and the this and the that. You can't really joke about those things, but occasionally we do get stories that we can joke about and present in a little bit lighter light. And I've always tried with those ones to take the liberty to have a little twinkle in my eye, and a little wink, and grin and say, "Stef, are you listening? This is about you."
I imagine that one of the misconceptions about you is that you're a very serious guy.
It's funny -- a lot of [my humor] came out when I moved to mornings with Faith. Faith actually brought [that] out. We really had a good time. And I joined into having that good time willingly. A lot of it was stuff that was inside me and had been for a long time but just didn't have a way to come out. But she kind of loosened me up a little bit, and I wasn't afraid to take the risks of laughing once in awhile. I mean, I've always done that in sort of a wry way, but not a lot, and I can see where the public probably thinks I'm just a serious, mean old man (laughing). Actually in my writing -- in the packages, my reporting -- I tried to get a lot more of that in. Where there [was] an opportunity to grin or to wink, I would. A little irreverence doesn't hurt once in awhile, especially if it doesn't change the overall effect of the story. It just colors your delivery a little bit, and possibly makes it a little more palatable for the public.
You've said elsewhere that now that you've retired, you have some household projects you want to catch up on, you've got a new grandson you want to spend time with, and you have written screenplays, including one you want to convert into a book. What kind of writing do you do?
Creative writing. I've written five screenplays … One, “Seasons of Saul,” did very well in several contests. That's kind of how you judge your writing: If you enter these contests -- and there are quite a few different, legitimate contests -- and do well out of thousands of entries, then you maybe you have something worthwhile, something you can pursue. I've got a couple ideas for some other ones and I'm going to get started on those soon.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I'm pretty disciplined, yeah. Some of the best advice, and I don't know where I read it, is that if you think you're going to be a writer, you have to make it a business. That means you need to go to the office every day at the same time and spend whatever amount of time it's going to be -- three hours, four hours, eight hours. You'd better show up at the office at either 5 o'clock in the morning or 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but sit your butt down and write and make it a business and don't skip a day.
In this issue of the magazine, we ask four of the writers and photographers who provided content to complete this sentence about themselves: "People would be most surprised to find out ..."
If I hadn't done this for 50 years, I probably would have been a farmer. I think it was just blind luck that I wound up in this Valley, which is the most productive agricultural district in the world. So, if I wasn't doing this, I would have been thankful to have landed in the Central Valley to maybe get a little farm or a little orchard or whatever.
Does this interest in agriculture explain the chickens you're raising?
(Laughter) I think that's the farmer in me. I just wanted to have a little taste of farm[ing] in the backyard, and so I did. I built a little coop. The breed is Ameraucana. There are two breeds of chickens that lay blue eggs, Araucanas and Ameraucanas. Those are the only two; all the rest lay white or brown eggs. They're the best eggs.
Did you name the chickens?
No. No, I haven't named them. I got some advice years ago: If you're going to have farm animals, don't name them in case you have to ... (makes a motion across his neck).
Yeah. Exactly. It's much harder if you do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.