The Message

"Life is taking things in stride," says Jon Bowman. "And if nothing else, I think I've been able to do that over the years."

Talk about an understatement. Prior to his recent hiring as an on-air reporter by Channel 31, Bowman hadn't held such a position since being handed his head at Channel 7 in 1989 -- the equivalent of several lifetimes ago in the fast-evolving world of broadcast journalism. Over the intervening fourteen years, he's managed to maintain a local media presence, working intermittently for a slew of radio, TV and print outlets. In addition, he's earned a reputation for speaking frankly about hot-button topics, including the television industry's alleged marginalization of African-Americans like him, which makes his comeback even more unexpected.

In a 1990 article for the business journal Electronic Media, Bowman tackled the subject of tokenism in TV news head on, writing, "Look around at your station. When you hire a black or other minority person, is it because he or she is the best person you can find, or is it because one of them just left? Is there an unconscious practice of replacing one with one?" He elaborated upon this observation in his response to a questionnaire assembled by the Rocky Mountain News for this past June's election; he ran for city council in District 11, making the runoff but getting eviscerated by rival Michael Hancock in the final vote. Bowman explained that after his time with Channel 7 ended, he and his wife "decided to remain in Denver to give roots to our children" instead of "chasing jobs around the nation." Even so, he went on, "I honestly thought I could get another job in television.... Many TV types have worked at more than one station here; I thought that option was open to me.... Surprise, surprise, that option is not available to blacks."

These comments would appear to hold little appeal for Channel 31 news director Bill Dallman. After all, Dallman needed to hire a couple of reporters following the departure of two others -- one of them an African-American. (Will Jones, who's black, bid farewell to Channel 31 in favor of an NBC affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina, near his hometown of Asheville; Robert Thompson, a Caucasian whose contract wasn't renewed, accounted for the other vacancy.) Moreover, the trend in news markets like Denver is to hire young, attractive hotshots on the rise rather than grizzled veterans -- Bowman is 54 -- and to pay little heed to an individual's knowledge about the area, or lack thereof.

For these reasons and more, Dallman's decision to bring Bowman aboard is thoroughly unconventional -- although, as he points out, "we've made non-traditional hires before. I hired [longtime sports anchor turned news deliverer] Ron Zappolo, which wasn't a traditional hire, and we brought in David Treadwell [a former Denver Bronco with little TV experience], which wasn't a traditional hire, either. I don't know that I'd say we're willing to take chances, but we're willing to make bold moves, and to do things that I see as interesting opportunities that can take us to the next level here. We need to be open to new things.

"I believe in diversity, and that's not just lip service," Dallman continues. "Certainly [African-American weekend anchor] Shaul Turner is a major part of our newscast. But diversity encompasses a lot of things -- diversity of age, of background, of experience -- and that's something Jon brings us. I thought an important element to add to our reporting staff was experience and knowledge of the Denver market. Whenever I have a chance to do that, I will. Maybe it's not the traditional or safe move, but I felt it was the best move we could make at the time."

Dallman's attitude strikes Bowman as exceedingly refreshing, but far from universally accepted. "Many stations, going back to the '70s, have been like, 'If the FCC is going to require us to have one black reporter, then we'll have one,'" he maintains. "All I can say is, I replaced a black guy at Channel 7, and a black woman replaced me, and a black man replaced her, and a black man replaced him, and so on." On the other hand, he feels that "the folks at Fox are too progressive to play those kinds of games. Only the old guard thinks in those '70s terms."

Bowman makes frequent references to this era, which helped shape his worldview. A Chicago native, he grew up with a love of the media but found that most of the standard paths to the industry were blocked for him -- so he came in through the side door. First he took a job at a film rental company, where he was able to use borrowed cameras and discarded scraps of celluloid to make his own movies, several of which earned honors at the Chicago International Film Festival. Then he managed to earn entry into a Community Film Workshop Council program sponsored by the federal government's Office of Economic Opportunity, which was created to provide African-Americans and other minorities with the sort of practical expertise that would qualify them for gigs in the television business.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts