They were the generation after the black-and-white TV pioneers, the Floyd Kalbers and Len O’Connors, and before broadcast news shattered into tiny pieces against the Internet.
Big personalities with big hair and fat 1970s neckties, easy to caricature: Walter Jacobson, feathers flying, squawking indignation. Carol Marin, our avenging angel, wielding her fiery sword of justice. And the king of the roost, Bill Kurtis, orotund and oracular, saved from Ted Baxter pomposity by the glint of self-knowledge.
All have cut their anchor chains, slowly slipping out of the camera’s gaze: Carol bursting into academia. Bill riding off into ranching. Walter, well, slithering someplace even more obscure than CBS.
And now Ron Magers, the last man standing, takes his bow Wednesday night on WLS Channel 7 after 50 years in broadcasting, 35 of them in Chicago, being lauded with days of retrospectives and tributes.
“It’s hard for me to take this all in,” he said. “People are so nice.”
Since when? What Magers is seeing is his own niceness reflected back at him. If I had to pinpoint what kept Chicago watching Magers, night after night, rather than giving him the bum’s rush to Pittsburgh, I would say it was not his niceness — that would get cloying — but his wit, that suppressed grin. Ron Magers was a funny man doing a serious job.
“I grew up in a family with a great sense of humor,” Magers said. “We were always joking. The best thing you could do in my family was bust somebody’s chops.”
Not to underestimate his importance as a newsman. I asked Magers what his most significant story was, and he mentioned, not the well-known Jerry Springer episode, where he and Marin quit rather than work alongside a raunchy TV clown pretending to be a newsman, but something unexpected.
“The Gary Dotson story,” he said, referring to a man who had been convicted of rape in 1979 and sentenced to half a century in prison. Then his accuser, Cathy Crowell Webb, recanted, and Gov. Thompson convened a lurid, circuslike 1985 parole hearing, much of which seemed to center on a pair of semen-stained panties.
“I was reading a science magazine about a guy in Great Britain doing DNA testing for immigration,” continued Magers. “At that time the Gary Dotson story was getting big press. I thought, ‘Wow, DNA could eliminate Gary Dotson.’ I called [defense attorney] Tom Breen and told him, ‘There’s this test that might prove your client’s guilt or innocence, one test, yea or nay.’ I think it was the first time DNA was used in Illinois. I look back on that, it was very cool.”
(“Ron saved an innocent guy from doing 30 more years behind bars,” said Breen, confirming the story.)
He’s had a cool career. Here is a man who partied with Tina Turner, whose keyring is the ring from a tear gas canister thrown at the People’s Park riot in San Francisco,.
“I came to start work the week Martin Luther King was assassinated,” he said. “They were sending out camera crews with armed Pinkerton guards. I looked around and thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?”
Magers, 71, was born in California but grew up in Alaska and Washington state.
“My dad was in the Army Air Corps,” he said. “After the war, he went to Alaska with a bush plane outfit, as an accountant and pilot. By the time I was in junior high school he was manager of a meat packing plant. My mom always worked, even back in the ’50s.”
As did Ron. He was a farmhand when the prospect of an extra dime lured him into his life’s career.
“A friend of mine got a job at a radio station,” he said. “I was baling hay in the 95 degree heat. I made a dollar an hour. He made $1.10 an hour. So I hung around the station and learned what he did. I got into broadcasting for 10 cents an hour and air conditioning.”
That sense of accident, of gratitude, colors Magers’ view of his life.While he was “in and out” of five colleges, “creating problems,” he never graduated. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t get an education.
“Radio led to television, and one of my first really fortunate breaks was when I got my first TV job in Eugene, Oregon, on KEZI television. There were two of us, and the other person was Bruce Handler, from Chicago. He had been to University of Chicago, done his master’s at Medill at Northwestern. In the course of 18 months, he really taught me journalism and television. He shared his education with me, and I just soaked it up. How I could have had a mentor of his abilities was the greatest break I could have hoped for.”
I always wondered why didn’t Ron heed the siren call of New York.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a network correspondent,” he said. “I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase, and knew I had to do that to get ahead at the networks. I didn’t think I would do very well living that way. It wasn’t very attractive to me. I like local television, like being part of a community, like a place to hang my hat.”
In retirement, he’s staying here. As for the news landscape he is leaving, Magers sees it with characteristic clarity.
“It is changing dramatically, no question of that,” he said. “There are so many sources available for people to get news, or what they think is news. We’re bombarded with so much information. The question, which is critical to me, is who are you getting it from? Can you trust them? People have figured out just because you get on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s so. People quote insane things from the Internet.”
“In the journalism business, we’re still trying to figure out where our voices will be heard, how they’re heard, all trying to monetize those things, so reporters can actually get paid,” he said. “I think that’s essential. We need to have professional journalists involved in some part of this process. We just don’t know what process is or how it’s going to work.”
With cutbacks in the field, “some stuff is just not getting done, and it scares me.”
That’s our problem now; Ron Magers has done his share in service of the truth. Time to turn his full attention to racehorse breeding, with time to visit Lexington and Louisville and points beyond.
“I haven’t been to Dubai, yet,” he said.
His parting thought is of gratitude.
“I don’t know how any of it has ever happened,” he said. “I look back on the arc of my career, with apologies to Lou Gehrig, I think I’m the luckiest guy. I truly believe that any successful person, anybody who has had any success can look back on their life, they have to admit they were just plain lucky. Somehow you ended up with a job, you were able to make something out of it. However that happens, I don’t know. What I say about people who anchor news on television, they have some mysterious X factor that none of us can identify, but it makes people who watch television like and trust somebody.”