Robert Long became vice president and news director of KNBC Los Angeles through diligence and hard work. But he kicked off a fledgling press career by having a beer with Castro's bodyguard.
Consider it a genius for timing. "A terrible student" by his own admission, he had to complete an essay to attend high school. So Long, a Washington Post
delivery boy, seized the day: Fidel Castro's scheduled meeting with President Eisenhower. "The revolutionary fervor was fascinating and all quite romantic," he admits.
He cut class, went to the Cuban Embassy for the arrival, and, at a Spanish bar afterward, struck up a conversation with Castro's pistol-packing bodyguard. Long said he wanted to meet the Cuban leader. The next day, Long was among the Latino press in a private room, and Castro spoke to him—in English. Long reported what he learned to the American press, and AP and UPI began bidding to have the 14-year-old cover the duration of the visit for them. He never wrote the essay.
Even so, Long entered high school, where he met classmates Ben Stein, Goldie Hawn, and Connie Chung. After graduation, he became a copy boy for Time's
D.C. bureau, which had a Yale contingent, "so I had to go to Yale for a while."
Today, having covered the Manson murders, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and the Rodney King riots, the news vet pronounces himself satisfied. After scoring No. 1 in every time slot as news director of WRC Washington, he returned to KNBC Los Angeles for a second stint.
Colleagues warned of boredom upon leaving the busy capital beat, but they worried in vain. Long traded political backbiting for a recall election, Michael Jackson's arrest, and brush fires. "[It] seems like every time I come back, I bring some calamity with me," he says. During California's recent wild fires, a backfire got out of control, and firefighters had to pull his news team to safety. But not before KNBC's brand-new news truck was consumed by flames.
Calamity aside, Long is delighted to be in a bigger market. "KNBC is about seven WRCs in terms of business magnitude," he says. "L.A. is more diverse in terms of industry."
And diversity is Long's calling card.
Exiting the Ivy League, he became a news writer at WWDC(FM), where he worked with a 23-year-old sports announcer named Maury Povich. Long had a short stint at the AP and a writer/producer gig at KNXT Los Angeles but, at 24, decided to pursue his dream job: Trailways bus driver. Sound insane? Trailways thought so, and nixed his hopes.
In 1975, he left the TV-news business to form Robert Long Productions, producing films and TV series, such as Real People
with George Schlatter and In Search Of…With Leonard Nimoy
with Alan Landsburg. He started building a production center in Istanbul with partner John Furia, former president of the Writer's Guild, but the Gulf War intervened. He took it as a sign and, in 1992, returned to TV news—as executive producer at KCOP and later KCAL, both Los Angeles. "The first thing we are is journalists. The second thing we are is television executives," he explains. "It's possible to go astray if one forgets that."
He also doesn't forget his friends. Before one of his many cross-country moves, Long decided to leave his Emmys behind. He held a cocktail party and gave them away to friends. One statue went to a neighbor, a struggling screenwriter.
Fast forward to 2003. Long, then at WRC, received an e-mail from Real People
colleague Schlatter, telling him that someone was trying to locate him. Who? The no-longer-struggling writer. The man, whom Long declined to idenitify, wanted to return the Emmy that had inspired him. He asked Long to recharge it with luck, and pass it on.