When Bernard Gershon started his undergraduate studies at New York University in 1974, he was headed to medical school. Along the way, however, he was drawn to radio reporting and traded a stethoscope for a microphone.
He has since made a less dramatic transition, moving to the Internet. As senior vice president of ABCNews.com, he is still devoted to the news business, but his roots are firmly planted in radio.
That goes back to his childhood, when, as he tells it, "I was always a news junkie. As a little kid, my friends were listening to top-40 radio, and I was listening to wins."
At NYU, besides being a biology major, he maintained a non-academic minor in news writing, working for the campus radio station as a hobby. Then it became a bit more than a hobby. He eventually became the news director for WNYU-FM, and he was off and running-literally. "It became fun. It became addictive," he recalls. "I got the news-radio bug and started chasing fire engines in New York."
He started out in the business in 1976 doing free-lance reports for the Associated Press at $10 a pop. Besides AP Radio, he worked free-lance for other radio stations in New York, covering an assortment of urban-oriented stories: the New York City blackout in 1977, the hunt for and eventual capture of "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, the New York City transit strike in 1980. "It was just a great time to be a reporter in New York," he says.
Gershon landed a full-time reporting spot at WOR-AM in 1982 and rose to become news director there four years later. He then spent six years at WCBS-AM radio, moving on to ABC News Radio, where his Web career started to take off.
It all began modestly enough in 1995, when, as general manager of ABC News Radio, he helped start ABCRadioNet.com with the assistance of RealNetworks (then RealAudio). "It was primarily network content, so you could get time-shifted news. Occasionally, we would stream live events," he recalls. "It was a novelty."
Like executives at other media companies, Gershon saw this as something ABC News Radio needed to do to protect its own space on the Internet, not necessarily the next big thing. "I thought this was going to be cool," he recalls.
He got his first real inkling of radio's potential on the Web after he persuaded local ABC radio stations to stream their signals on the site in 1997: Web listeners were tuning in via PC for blocks of time as long as 30 minutes or more.
Gershon made the full transition from radio guy to Web-head last year, when he was named vice president and general manager of ABCNews.com. And he's acutely aware of the very different dynamic the news Web site presents: "The thing about this is to tell a story using audio, video and interactive elements and really tell a story in a very deep way. It's a lot more complex."
But he sees his radio background as an apt training ground. "Radio was excellent training to be a 24-hour news operation, and it's very much the same online. You want to produce as much information as humanly possible."
ABCNews.com is accomplishing that with aggressive growth on the editorial side, increasing its New York- and Washington-based staffs by 50% over the past year.
Last September, veteran ABC News anchor and correspondent Sam Donaldson started doing a half-hour interview show three times weekly on ABCNews.com. The show went to a daily format within months as Donaldson enthusiastically embraced it. "I can have a great time because nobody in my shop is watching," he says.
But his presence has millions of Web surfers watching, boosting ABCNews.com traffic. ABC News correspondent Chris Wallace recently started doing monthly features, and Gershon says other ABC News personalities are being considered for new roles on the Web.
Next, ABCNews.com is planning comprehensive coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions, with Donaldson doing interviews as part of a two-hour nightly package. PC users will be able to pull information on individual delegates and access 360-degree images of the convention halls, according to Gershon.
It's part of the overall effort to take ABC's online news coverage to the next level, in a still undefined segment of cyberspace. "The range of opportunities is huge," says Gershon. "I'm sure we haven't even thought of some of those opportunities yet."