I still remember vividly that December night in 1979. The Who was to perform at a concert in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. But before it started, eleven fans were crushed to death when the coliseum doors opened. All the concertgoers had “festival seating” tickets, which meant it was a free-for-all for them to race to the best seats. Opening the doors resulted in a stampede as everyone clamored to get through.
But what I remember most is number-one-rated local news anchor Al Schottelkotte’s statement in the midst of all his coverage chaos. “I’ve just been informed that my son, who was at the concert, has returned home safely”.
Wow! I was a junior in high school then but I remember thinking how ballsy it was to say that. To personalize a story back then, in any fashion, was verboten and that’s probably why it stood out to me. Schottelkotte was a Cincinnati fixture. He was the only local news anchor that I know of who’s name was the actual title of the newscast – “Sssssix O’Clock, innnnnn the tri-state! Time For the Al Schottelkotte News.” I grew up watching Al. Well, watching him, but not really seeing him. From the moment he said “Good evening” to the tease into the first break, you never saw Al’s face. Every story he aired was covered with film of local or national news stories. Every day without fail. And between every story was the dancing nine, an early attempt at graphic animation of the Channel 9 (WCPO) logo. The nine would flip on screen from the left one time, next time from the top – silently. Sound effects were still a few years away! It sounds kinda silly today but at the time, it was so cool – and state-of-the-art.
Al was famous for acquiring every high school yearbook from every school in the tri-state area. Each time someone died, whether killed in a car crash or crushed at a Who concert, up came their high school yearbook photo. Any time someone was involved in a crime, whether victim or perp, up came their high school yearbook photo. Every time without fail. I literally remember getting my freshman high school photo taken and thinking, “God, I hope this picture never shows up on the Schottelkotte News.” No joke.
I spend a lot of time talking about “personality-driven” newscasts. And in a way, Al was a pioneer in that. Don’t get me wrong. His newscasts were 100% rock solid hard news. But the news and the style in which it was presented was so identified with him that there simply would have been no show without him. If that’s not building a show around a personality, then I don’t know what is.
Al wasn’t much to look at. And his voice wasn’t your typical deep, booming news anchor voice. But his face, his voice and his show were immediately identifiable. Al was his own brand long before anyone thought up the word. Don’t get me wrong. He was classic ’70’s local TV… scratchy film, a mixture of black & white and color stories, lousy audio… all the elements we knew and loved from TV at that time. But as ratings go, he owned the era.
As the decade changed into the ’80’s, Al’s star power began to fade and a new news leader emerged – George Clooney’s dad, Nick at WKRC. (Who’d have though we’d eventually refer to powerhouse news anchor Nick Clooney as “George Clooney’s dad!?”). And a few years later, Jerry Springer and Norma Rashid eclipsed Nick at WLWT (which is where my career in news begins). The solo male anchor newscast with the dancing nine became something of the past as everyone now had co-anchors, big hair and storm centers.
I can now tell you – an exclusive you heard here first – WLWT actually auditioned Al and Jerry as a possible co-anchor team. The audition was shot out-of-town and was a huge secret at the time. I happened to have seen a brief clip accidentally. But nothing ever came of it.
I suppose anchorpeople come and go. I’ve worked with a lot of very famous newspeople. But the local news anchors that I grew up watching in Cincinnati, Al Schottelkotte, Clyde Gray, Sheree North, Nick Clooney and, of course, Jerry & Norma, they’ll always be larger-than-life stars in this viewer’s eyes.
I wonder if my high school yearbook picture is still on file at Channel 9…