Breaking News: Former Detroit television reporters who've moved on to the national screen say this competitive news market prepared them well for network broadcast jobs
By Jim McFarlin
Anne Thompson has a vivid mental image of her years as a street reporter for Detroit’s WDIV-TV. “When I think of my days at Channel 4, I think of me standing on an overpass with the wind blowing through my hair, telling you that it’s going to snow,” she recalls with a laugh.
Those days, she is delighted to report, are long gone — but never forgotten. Unlike Bill Bonds, Bernie Smilovitz, or Eli Zaret, all of whom once left the Detroit TV news market for bigger stages and greener contracts only to return to the fold, some reporters, sportscasters, and meteorologists do make the big leap. They hone their broadcast skills long and well enough on one of our city’s network affiliates to become part of a national network team themselves.
What’s more, they’re making important news at television’s major-league level. They’re covering the environment for NBC News, like Thompson. “As we like to say around here, it really is the story of our lifetime,” she says. They’re outing pedophiles on “To Catch a Predator,” hosted by former WDIV and WXYZ (Channel 7) reporter Chris Hansen, the most talked-about series on Dateline NBC. They’re anchoring NBA studio shows for ESPN, like ex-WDIV sportscaster Fred Hickman, or tracking hurricanes and major storm systems for CNN, like former Channel 4 meteorologist Reynolds Wolf. They’re covering the war in Afghanistan for FOX, like onetime WXYZ street reporter Dan Springer, or handling Olympics coverage for NBC, like Detroit native and WDIV alum Andrea Joyce.
But wait, there’s more. Among other former WXYZers, Mike Huckman is now pharmaceutical reporter for CNBC, former consumer reporter Chris Lawrence is an L.A.-based correspondent for CNN, and Chad Meyers is a severe-weather expert for CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Until this summer, irrepressible sportscaster Van Earl Wright, who worked for both Channel 4 and WDFN-AM radio during his Detroit stay, was part of the studio host rotation for FSN Final Score on FOX Sports Net.
Of those who were interviewed for this story, all readily acknowledged that time spent on the air in Detroit was an excellent training ground for career advancement.
“I thought Detroit was a great place to be a reporter,” says Hansen, 48, who grew up in Bloomfield Township and was graduated from Michigan State University. “There was something going on every day, and the challenge was to come up with something that nobody else had. It was really, really competitive, and I’m sure it still is, but back then it was fun and competitive every day.”
“I had a source who used to call Detroit ‘the Super Bowl of law enforcement,’ and he was right,” adds Thompson, who quipped, “Bernie Smilovitz tells me to always answer ‘47’,” when asked her age. “When I think back on my days at Channel 4, especially working as the ‘Nightbeat’ reporter, I covered absolutely everything, from [skaters] Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan to serial killers in Oakland County. The two things I really didn’t cover, which would have been naturals, were the auto industry and the environment, but quite frankly just living there it becomes like osmosis. You don’t realize how much knowledge and interest you have until you leave.
“I was in Detroit for 11 years and it was an absolutely wonderful experience,” Thompson says. “The best friends I’ve made in my life I made in Detroit, and they are still my friends to this day. I am the correspondent who, when there is a story in Detroit, raises my hand and says, ‘I’d like to go. Please, I’ll go back!’ Almost every day I go to the Freep and Detroit News Web sites to see what’s going on. It’s still a very big part of my life.”
Wolf, who delivered morning weather forecasts and “a little bit of everything” for WDIV from 1999-2001, also keeps close tabs on happenings in Detroit: He met his wife, the former Erin Cogswell from Commerce Township, while working here and returns several times a year. “A great thing about the market, about Detroit, is every time I go back to visit my in-laws it’s amazing to me how competitive the market is,” he says. “It is far and away, in my opinion, the best local television news market in the country.
“You’ve got remarkable talent, incredible professionals who really care about the craft and the community. The competition is off the charts, because on any given night one newscast is just as good or better than the others, and I didn’t find that in any other market I’ve been in. There’s certainly no other place like it.”
After 11 years — the equivalent of lifetime employment in local TV unless you’re an anchorperson — Thompson would have been content to spend her career in Detroit. She credits former WDIV general manager Alan Frank with helping to keep her network dream alive.
“I thought I was going to stay,” she says. “You could fill a couple of offices with all the résumé tapes I sent NBC over the years. And I’d get these nice letters back saying, ‘Thank you, but have a good career in Detroit.’ I always wanted to go to the network, and I really believe the reason I’m here is because of the opportunities I had at Channel 4. When the Today show wanted a story in Detroit and didn’t have a correspondent in the area, they would call and ask for somebody to volunteer. I started volunteering because that way my mom back in Boston could see what I was doing, and one thing just sort of led to another. It was a very smooth transition in that sense.”
Thompson’s environment beat, which she helped carve out for herself at the network, has taken her around the world in search of good stories — even to Greenland, where she joined Today for reports on behalf of NBC-Universal’s first “Green Week” initiative.
“Getting a network job really is a lot of hard work; you have to put in the preparation,” she says. “But as the saying goes, preparation plus opportunity equals luck, and that’s exactly what happened to me. It happened at a point in my career where I was way too old, had way too much experience and, dear Lord, I was never going to win a Miss America pageant. Everything just sort of fell into place.”
As it did for Hansen and “Predator,” now in its 12th episode for Dateline NBC. The series was inspired by a conversation Hansen had with WDIV investigative reporter Kevin Deitz, his lifelong friend and the man who essentially assumed his job at Channel 4. “We were chatting one day and he said, ‘Have you ever heard of this online watchdog group called Perverted Justice?’ ” Hansen recalls. “He explained what they did, and I got to thinking, if we could use their decoys in chat rooms and combine that with our ability to do hidden-camera investigations, it could be pretty compelling.”
So compelling that Hansen recently received one of the most glowing TV tributes any modern-day broadcast journalist can earn: He was turned into an animated caricature on South Park. “I have two teenage boys who are not that impressed by the fact that their father’s on TV, but when South Park did an episode where I was a cartoon character, I had made it in their eyes,” he says. “I had my ticket punched.”