Albert T. Primo was my first news director. At the age of 18 and still an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, I was part of the WABC Channel 7 Eyewitness News Class of 1971.
Now, after my fourth news director job in 12 years, I decided to explore the realm of career possibilities, including a fifth gig as a news director. I headed to Old Greenwich, Conn., to have lunch with the “Godfather of Local News.”
It was a day after Primo's picture and story appeared on the front page of the Greenwich Time newspaper extolling his recently published autobiography, Eyewitness Newsman. I met up with him at his Primo News Service office along with our longtime friend and colleague, John Kosinski. Al was busy signing and preparing copies of his new book for mailing to those who had already made their purchase on Amazon.com.
Shaking hands and waving to passersby as we walked to a nearby bistro, the 72-year-old Al proved he is as much as celebrity—if not mistaken as a politician—on the quaint main street of Old Greenwich as he is in the news business. Al had done a book signing in Old Greenwich the previous week, and excitedly claimed that more than 20 people actually came in to buy his book and have the creator of Eyewitness News sign it.
I read the entire book on my flight back to Florida. Al's book is very entertaining reading, especially if you are in the business and even more so if you know Al. He tells about his unique rise in the business and the behind-the-scenes stories of how local TV news started.
Unlike the typical news director's 18- to 24-month tenure, I realized Al served as news director only twice—a few years at KYW Philadelphia, where he developed the Eyewitness News format, and then a few more at WABC New York, where Roger Grimsby, Bill Beutel and the Channel 7 Eyewitness News Team made history by perfecting it.
After his rise within ABC, Al spent many years coaching and consulting local stations and its news directors. One thing is for sure: There is only one Primo, and there was only one real Eyewitness News Team.
On Nov. 9, many EWN alumni will gather to celebrate the 40th anniversary of WABC Eyewitness News. Had it still been there, the reunion would appropriately be held at Chip's. Now, beneath a towering luxury high-rise sits a fancy Starbucks, which replaced the sacred watering hole on Columbus Avenue across from the old studio at 77 W. 66th St.
Al will be there and plans to have plenty of his books available. He is sure to retell many more of his personal stories of the early years at New York's No. 1 station, including Geraldo Rivera punching Grimsby after one of Roger's typical on-air comments; his hiring of Brooklyn's Italian-American princess, Roseanne Scamardella; or the “accidental anchor” Joan Lunden and the controversial New York Yankee turned author and sports anchor, Jim Bouton.
Even I got a brief mention in Al's book, noting my “working the desk at Channel 7 skyrocketed him to news director at WRGB in Albany, N.Y.” where I put a young, edgy food gal on television for the first time. Her name: Rachael Ray.
I got to spend a most memorable and insightful afternoon with Primo sitting at the window table and gabbing about the biz for a few hours. Long before we even identified “branding” in local news, I was lucky to learn the business under his stewardship and among some of local TV's best newsmen and women. I also realized that local news is still very much alive and well, and that it's always been all about change and innovation. The challenges today offer just as much opportunity as when Al started his career at Pittsburgh's KDKA in the 1950s.
I love being a news director—there's no other job like it in the world. And when I was asked in an interview at Fox News only the day before, “Who do I most emulate?” I was baffled. But it occurred to me at lunch a day later that it was this man—the Eyewitness Newsman, Al Primo. Even though I happily paid for lunch, Al proudly presented me with a copy of his book inscribed with a personal message.