"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.
These classes quickly paid off. In early 1972, Bowman was hired as a cameraman by a signal in Syracuse, New York. Before long, he went from simply shooting footage for others to covering stories himself, as well as anchoring news updates that aired just before the station signed off for the evening. He eventually became a full-time reporter, working alongside colleagues such as future Today show weatherman Al Roker. In his free time, he attended Syracuse University, where he was a regular on the campus radio station that also featured young talents like Bob Costas.
In 1982, a year after earning his Syracuse degree, Bowman jumped to a station in Buffalo, New York, for a two-year hitch that ended when he was tapped by Channel 7 to serve as a reporter and occasional anchor; he sometimes delivered cut-ins during morning network programming, for instance. Channel 7's newscasts, which had once been Denver's most popular, were on the wane, and Bowman never quite figured out why. "I've always contended that it was a very decent station," he says. "McGraw-Hill [its owner] sank a ton of money into it, and we never covered anything differently than any of the other stations did. I guess it was just people's loyalty to some of the old-timers on other stations, who'd become family fixtures. The thought process was that with all the new people coming to the metro area, that loyalty stuff wouldn't mean anything after a while, but it never happened. People in the business have puzzled over it for decades."
Lousy ratings guaranteed changes, and in 1989, Bowman was sent packing following the arrival of Al Seethaler, a new general manager. Seethaler made this move and many others like it in order to clear room for a number of folks from the Salt Lake City station he'd previously overseen, but the infusion of new blood didn't cure Channel 7's chronic anemia. In 1991, Seethaler and news director Mike Youngren were ushered out after their late newscast garnered what was at the time the lowest-ever audience share among Denver's big three network affiliates. Not exactly a proud achievement.
None of the other Denver TV channels rushed to bring Bowman aboard, so he looked for other forums. He had a brief stint with KOA radio before becoming news director, sports director and talk-show host for KDKO, owned until last year by Jim "Dr. Daddio" Walker; KDKO's dial position is currently occupied by one of two signals simulcasting news-talker KNRC. The station attempted to promote unity in the African-American community by eschewing negativity -- Walker hated rap, and never allowed it to be played -- and by getting heavily involved with assorted charitable functions and events like Juneteenth. In the end, though, these efforts couldn't compensate for financial shortfalls.
"It was one of the few black-owned stations anywhere, but it had to struggle for sales dollars," Bowman says. "Clear Channel, which has eight stations, can go to a client and say, 'If you buy KOA, we'll give you spots on these other stations.' And if you went to KDKO, that's all you'd get -- KDKO. Well, where are you going to put your money? That's how the FCC is killing small, single-owner-operated stations in this country."
With cash relatively scarce at KDKO, Bowman had to supplement his efforts by seeking other employment. He worked as manager of community and government affairs for TCI of Colorado, did marketing for Great Outdoors Colorado, and anchored a syndicated program called Consumer Advantage News, also known as CAN-TV; the show appeared on stations such as Denver's Channel 55, which Bowman and a group of supporters once tried but failed to obtain. More recently, Bowman has contributed articles to the business publication In the Black ("It's Black and It's Proud," August 3, 2000), written for the Denver Daily News, done sports talk on KLZ, the new ESPN Radio affiliate, and dipped his toe into electoral waters. He speaks fondly about his unsuccessful city council run but says, laughing, "I'm sure my political career is over." The same is probably true of any acting aspirations. He appeared as a soccer referee in Ladybugs, a 1992 Rodney Dangerfield flick, filmed largely in Denver, which was tepid enough to send potential agents racing in the opposite direction.
When it comes to reporting, however, Bowman seems born again: "I'm not on cloud nine. I'm on cloud thirty-nine." As such, he displays no bitterness over past treatment. "Was I more militant when I was twenty or thirty?" he asks. "Probably so, but time passes, and your values change.
"To the question, 'Did I replace a black?' -- in reality, I don't care," he says. "I know I have the skills and talents to replace anyone at any station in America."
The hunt goes on: Whereas Jon Bowman was able to find a job, a hefty number of veteran print journalists haven't been so fortunate. The employment market for writers and reporters is as bad as most observers can remember, with magazines folding on a regular basis and newspapers of every size and description trimming their staffs with the aplomb of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In an attempt to overcome this dire situation, Connie Guglielmo, a Bay Area journalist, came up with a novel concept: a Web site, dubbed 8goodpeople.com, that's modeled on a reality show -- except the eight primary cast members aren't wannabe stars marooned on a South Pacific island, or locked in a hotel with nothing to do other than copulate with each other, but unemployed scribes who only want to go back to work. "Instead of pitching our resumés over the wall, we're putting them on the wall," Guglielmo notes. "We want to use our talent to chronicle something that's happening in the economy -- and hopefully, as part of that, to say to potential employers, 'Look at what a talented group of people is out there.'"
Colorado's Dan Luzadder, 54, is Exhibit A. To say the least, his background is impressive. He shared a general reporting Pulitzer Prize in 1983 as a contributor to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel editorial staff's coverage of local flooding the previous year, and he is a member of the Scripps Howard Journalism Hall of Fame, thanks in part to his work at the Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News. He left the Rocky in 2000, after a decade in the trenches, to take a position at Interactive Week, a high-tech mag whose high salaries lured numerous Denver journos ("Show Them the Money," November 16, 2000).
All was well until 2001, when, following a business downturn turned catastrophic by 9/11, Interactive Week closed up shop, leaving Luzadder in the lurch. Since then, he's picked up freelance assignments from the likes of the Denver Post, the Dallas Morning News and the New York Daily News, for which he covered many of the Kobe Bryant-related shenanigans in Eagle County, and he brings home a few bucks by teaching journalism classes at Metro State College. Yet a regular engagement has remained elusive -- so when Guglielmo approached him about 8goodpeople.com, he eagerly came aboard. Luzadder's participation in the site, which features personal essays about the unemployment experience, hasn't resulted in any job offers to date, but it's reinforced to him how many folks out there share his plight.
"This touches a real nerve," he says. "A lot of people on the site can write compellingly about what it's been like for them, so we've all gotten e-mail from people who are also struggling with out-of-work issues. There are a helluva lot of unemployed people out there, and the economy is having tremendous ramifications on everyone." Indeed, plenty of Web surfers in various fields have written in with essays of their own, and Guglielmo has posted a sampling of them in a new section labeled "Other Good People."
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The reach of 8goodpeople.com was extended by press accounts; it's been mentioned or profiled in newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and numerous Web sites. As of last week, more than 12,000 people from 37 countries had stopped by to read about the contestants -- and while no one has landed that elusive job, signs are positive. According to Guglielmo, five of the eight are currently talking to employers about full-time work, four have gotten freelance assignments that came to them as a result of the site, and one person turned down a public-relations position "because she wanted to continue to pursue her journalism career."
In keeping with the reality-show theme, 8goodpeople.com was originally scheduled for a twelve-week run. Three-quarters of that time has elapsed, and everyone involved will have to decide soon if they want to stick around for a second season. Guglielmo says that, at present, most are leaning toward renewal. "I'm a realist," she notes, "but I'd love it for the eight of us, and for as many people in the country as possible, to have a Frank Capra ending."
Luzadder wouldn't object to that, either, especially given the sacrifices that have already been made, and those that could become necessary in the future. His wife, an accountant, had been working part-time prior to Interactive Week's collapse; she's now back to full-time, with Dan doing the Mr. Mom routine for their two kids, ages four and nine, between freelance assignments. He's been in Colorado since 1990, "and we love it here, we'd love to stay -- but the job opportunities are limited. We waffled about going elsewhere in the country, because we didn't want to disrupt everyone, but we're probably at the point where we're going to have to be more aggressive about it and possibly have to leave Colorado."
Not if a bargain hunter comes to the rescue. As he puts it, "I know where you can get a national columnist -- cheap."