April 21, 2001
APPRECIATION: THE INFLUENCE OF JIM SNYDER
When you turn on your TV set in Washington, D.C. to watch the
news you are watching newscasts influenced by a man named Jim Snyder, who died
Snyder presided over nothing less than a revolution in the way news was reported
and presented in the Washington area. Snyder combined substance and style,
technology and talent to transform a station into an industry leader. Some
of the people he hired you can still see on Washington television to this day.
Snyder came to Washington in 1968 after stints at Group W Westinghouse
television and CBS News to become the vice-president of news for Post-Newsweek
Stations, a subsidiary of the Washington Post company and owner of CBS affiliate
WTOP-TV (ch. 9, now WUSA-TV) and WTOP-AM
When Snyder arrived in Washington the newscasts were solid but stodgy, with some
radio staffers doing double duty on television. ABC affiliate WMAL-TV (ch.
7) was owned by the Post's rival, the afternoon Evening Star newspaper.
NBC-owned WRC (ch. 4) emulated the presentation of its network parent. The
face of local television news was white, middle-aged and dull.
Snyder began to tinker with the format and hire African-Americans and younger
reporters. One of his early experiments was a newscast called "The
Big News," with a young sportscaster drafted from radio by the name of
Warner Wolf. Three of Snyder's early hires were J. C. Hayward, Max
Robinson and a Boston reporter by the name of Gordon Peterson.
By 1971 the on-air nucleus was starting to take shape: The newscast was named
"Eyewitness News" and Robinson and Peterson were co-anchors. The
reporting staff included Bob Strickland, Patrick McGrath, Pat Collins and a
grim-voiced crime reporter by the name of Mike Buchanan. They were all
needed because Snyder took a daring gamble in June of 1972: adding an extra
half-hour of news weeknights at 5:30 p.m., creating the first 90 minute local
newscast on the East Coast. Hayward was a pioneer, one of the first women
of color to anchor a major local newscast in a big city. "Eyewitness
News" built a large and loyal black audience and the Peterson/Robinson
appealed to viewers across all race and age groups.
Snyder hired two reporters from Buffalo, Susan King and Chris Gordon.
Steve Gendel was added and so was another Buffalo refugee, offbeat feature
reporter Henry Tennenbaum. Former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and
Frank Herzog were added to the sports staff. Davey Marlin-Jones became the
first full-time movie critic on Washington television. Veteran Bob Dalton
anchored the 1 p.m. (later noon) news and covered local business news. And
columnists like Hugh Sidey and the late Carl Rowan, panelists on the "Agronsky
& Company" public affairs talk show on Saturdays did regular
commentaries on the expanded early evening news. One young conservative
commentator had just started a column on the Post Op-ed page and began
histelevision career on "Agronsky" and as a commentator on
"Eyewitness News." The rookie's name was George F. Will.
Snyder signed Louis Allen from WMAL-TV to give the station's weather the same
substance as the news coverage and to counter the popular Willard Scott on WRC-TV.
When Allen died suddenly, Snyder brought in Gordon Barnes from WCBS in New York.
Bruce Johnson, Maureen Bunyan and Andrea Mitchell were also added to the
The staff behind the camera was just strong. Ernie Baur was considered the
best director in Washington television and a key part of shaping the station's
on-air look. Veteran cameramen like Kline Mengle made the transition from
film to ENG (Electronic News Gathering) and seemed to get better as the years
passed. The quality and depth of experience of the producers, writers and
editors matched that of the anchors and reporters.
Not everyone Snyder hired was a hit: one notable error was Mike Wolfe, brought
in to replace Warner Wolf when he left for ABC Sports in 1976. Wolfe thought
himself brash and opinionated but came across loud and wrong. And on an
anchor desk with the well-dressed, suit-and-tie wearing Peterson, Robinson and
Barnes, Wolfe wore a leisure suit with gold chains and shirt unbuttoned to the
top of his chest. Wolfe was dressed like he was going to cruise area
discos between the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. With clothes from
"Saturday Night Fever" and chest hair from "Austin Powers,"
Wolfe was dismissed by early 1977.
Wolfe's replacement was weekend sportscaster Glenn Brenner, an escapee from the
dead-serious sports town of Philadelphia, where the viewers of KYW-TV did not
like their sports served with one-liners. Brenner was hired for the
princely sum of $22,000 a year.
Later Brenner told the Washington Post: "One day he (Snyder) called me in
and told me I was doing the 6 and 11 on weekdays. 'Starting when?'
Snyder said 'Now.'" "How much does *this* job pay?,"
Brenner asked. "$22,000 a year," Snyder replied. "I think
Snyder still has his lunch money from recess," Brenner said, laughing.
The combination of an integrated on-air news staff, commitment to the emerging
technology of live microwave trucks and minicams that used videotape instead of
film and network-quality promotion created a news broadcast that not only became
the top-rated station in Washington, it captured the imagination of the viewing
public. "Eyewitness News" became the standard by which local
television news in Washington was measured.
Snyder built a news operation so strong that in 1978 it survived both his
departure as news director when the Post traded WTOP to the Evening News
Association for Detroit's NBC affiliate WDIV and Max Robinson leaving to
co-anchor ABC's "World News Tonight." Bunyan replaced Robinson and
Channel 9 continued to be Washington's leading news station throughout the 80's
and the early 90's.
And if you think Snyder's success was a happy accident of time, place and
chance, he took over the Post-renamed WDIV and turned it into the number one
station in Detroit in the early 80's before Bill Cosby ignited NBC's success in
prime time. A heart attack forced Snyder to leave daily local news but he
continued as executive producer of "Agronsky & Company" and
oversaw its transition to "Inside Washington," with Gordon Peterson as
the host and introducing a new generation of commentators to the show.
Until his retirement in 1992, Snyder was a consultant for the Post-Newsweek
television station group.
The irony is that Snyder had little use for consultants when he ran a newsroom.
To Snyder it was a news director's job to know the community he worked in and
what kind of newscast to put together. It was no accident that the full
name for WTOP-TV's news department was the "Eyewitness News Service."
Snyder thought it was important that television news report stories you may not
like to hear but needed to know. The same policy applied to Snyder's
evaluation of his reporters on-air work: he could be tough and critical but also
knew how to lift their spirits and inspire them to their best work.
The day Jim Snyder died the anchors of Channel 9's evening newscasts were J. C.
Hayward, Gordon Peterson and Bruce Johnson, all veterans, all hired by Snyder.
You can find Snyder's people all over the dial, anchoring or reporting on
Washington and network news operations. There are local news directors who
may be better known but few who can say their choices still have an impact over
30 years later. That may be Jim Snyder's deep and lasting legacy.
The views expressed in this column are those of Harrison
Wyman and are not necessarily the views of the Capital Charm Network and Famous
Read Harrison Wyman's previous column
from November 1, 2000: AT NINE, MORE BECOMES LESS
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