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Channel 9's Bob Werly retiring after 40 years of exclusives

June 30, 2003

Bob Werly, the 66-year-old eminence grise of Kansas City TV reporters -- that's French for "Energizer bunny" -- is retiring Friday after 31 years at KMBC, Channel 9. But on a muggy afternoon earlier this month, he was anything but retiring.

In hot pursuit of an exclusive, Werly eased his bum knee down a steep incline that led to a levee on the Missouri River. His goal: Get an interview with the fisherman who had reported a body floating in the water.

It wasn't a pretty story. But then, Bob Werly isn't just another pretty face reporting the news. On camera, he's a silver-haired, bespectacled, middle-management type, wearing one of the striped ties he bought after seeing them on "Law & Order." But it's what Werly does in the hours leading up to his live shot that explains his longevity and his ability to stay interested in broadcast journalism after 40 years.

Fred Wickman, former Star columnist and a friend of Werly's for 30 years, said, "He always seemed more like a newspaper guy than a television guy. He was thorough. He asked good questions. Wasn't very handsome."

"He's a throwback," agreed Jim Overbay, who was responsible for his hiring at KMBC in 1971. "An old-fashioned, high-energy reporter."

He doesn't look high-energy, but co-workers attest to Werly's intensity. That and his spare, evocative writing style have made him Channel 9's go-to reporter on the hard news of the day.

Yet he can relish working on the most mundane assignment, as I learned first-hand earlier this month.

He had started this particular day making calls to Overland Park police, but after lunch he called me to say that story was on the back burner and that I should meet him at LaBenite Park in Sugar Creek. (Werly said he got his assignment without anyone knowing I would be following him around. Only KMBC news director Michael Sipes knew, a fact I confirmed with a surprise call to one of Sipes' lieutenants.)

A decomposing body had gotten caught in the backwash of a jetty just east of the Missouri 291 bridge. The fisherman who saw it called 911 and his brother. Then, he and his fiancee went back to fishing, the body floating just a few feet away.

The brother called Channel 9 with the tip. About an hour after that, Werly and photographer Mark Lea pulled up in a news truck. Various law enforcement officers stood around a boat trailer at water's edge. A black body bag lay on the ground.

A man came up to Werly and told him that the fisherman was still out at the levee, about a half-mile east. Moving quickly, he and photographer Lea drove to the edge of a dirt path, grabbed their gear and started walking toward an overlook.

"For TV, this fisherman will make or break the story," Werly said as we walked. "I know it's not the highest form of journalism, but this is the only thing that would make it interesting." The alternative, he said, would be a "bland" interview with one of the officers -- a talking head, not a story.

"Excuse me, sir!" Werly yelled from the overlook. "Are you the guy who saw the body?" The man stood up and started to head toward him, but Werly shouted, "Just stay there! Go back to fishing. We'll come to you."

After shimmying down the incline, the two men walked over to the levee. Lea set up his camera while chatting up the eyewitnesses. Werly whispered, "See? So much of this story is the photographer. He's putting them at ease."

When he started out in the '60s, Werly said, cameramen weren't considered journalists. That had changed by 1976, when he reported the lead story on the ABC network news one evening, a career highlight made possible by a Channel 9 photographer. When news broke that Missouri congressman Jerry Litton, his wife and two children had died in a plane crash, the photographer had rushed to Litton's offices and taken video of weeping staff members.

Werly graduated from the University of Missouri in 1959, then entered the Army. When he took his first full-time job in Elkhart, Ind., in 1963, stories were shot on film and hand-spliced. Editors decided what the news would be, with no input from viewers.

As TV news evolved, so did Werly. He adapted to live shots, viewer research and all the other changes -- including a major professional setback.

It came after Brian Bracco became KMBC news director in 1987. At the time Werly was the medical reporter. It was a nice gig. Peggy Breit, his colleague for the last 21 years, said, "We still call him Doctor Bob."

Bracco gave the job to Kelly Eckerman. "He had fallen into a pattern," said Bracco, now an executive with KMBC's parent company. Werly went back to general assignment duty.

Demoted and discouraged at age 53, Werly could have taken a hint and moved on. Instead, he showed off his versatility and aggressiveness -- qualities the new boss valued. Today Werly credits Bracco with turning Channel 9 around. Bracco returns the compliment, calling Werly "a legend."

Gary Roberts, longtime news executive at KMBC, said, "The great thing about Bob is that he's been through five news directors here, and he's been able to adjust his style to each one."

Indeed, Werly wanted me to know that, unlike some recently departed reporters at KCTV, Channel 5, there was no pressure put on him to retire. He was planning to retire when his two sons, both in college, graduated. But when Werly learned that at age 65 he was entitled to his full pension and Social Security, in addition to his salary, he decided to "triple dip" for a year and get out. He and his wife of 24 years, Kathy, are moving to a lake house in Leavenworth County.

Werly has a wealth of stories, and nearly all of them, at some point, have an embarrassing detail about himself. In 1964, for instance, he was the person who broke the news to Richard Nixon that his old sparring partner Nikita Khrushchev had been ousted as Soviet premier.

"It's not as impressive as it sounds," Werly added. At the time, Nixon was a two-time election loser working in Indiana for the Barry Goldwater campaign. The former vice president had called a press conference and only Werly showed up for it.

The fisherman and his fiancee talked Werly's ear off. As Lea packed up his gear, Werly asked the couple: "None of the other stations have been down to see you, right?" No, they said, and we've got to leave in 45 minutes.

Shortly after Lea and Werly made their way back to the park, at 2:50, an "NBC Action News" truck pulled up.

"Do not tell him about the fisherman," Werly told me sternly. To Lea he said, "Let's go behind the tree and talk."

Afterward, Werly began "logging tape," playing back the interview and listening for sound bites he could use. Lea wandered around shooting "B-roll," the video that goes into the story between sound bites, while anxiously eyeing his rival, who was interviewing a patrolman.

One of the men who had helped Werly get his exclusive walked by. "Hey Bob," he said, "we ain't giving up no information to the other station. You the man, Bob!"

At 3:34, the interviewees rolled by in their car and stopped briefly to talk with Werly. The NBC photographer was up the hill packing his truck, his back turned, as they drove past. Moments after they vanished from sight, a truck from KCTV, Channel 5, pulled up. Even the talking heads were gone by then. The KCTV shooter photographed the river.

Lea could hardly contain his glee. Another exclusive!

At 4:19 a second KMBC truck pulled up, with a laptop-sized editing machine inside and a microwave link for live shots. By then Werly had selected the sound bites he would use and was finishing his script. Lea recorded Werly reading the script, sat down at the laptop and began merging the audio, sound bites and B-roll into a taped piece.

In his spidery longhand, Werly wrote talking points for his live shot. He worked through the 5 o'clock newscast; the newsroom had decided to save Werly's exclusive for "the six."

At 5:45 Lea fed the taped piece back to the station while Werly watched. There was the woman, telling what it was like to be fishing next to a dead body. There was the man, saying that once the water patrol took the body away, he thought the fishing got better.

"Good," was all Werly said.

At 5:59, as he stood before the camera in the park, he saw KCTV's Sandra Olivas at the top of the hill, also preparing for a live shot.

"They may have something I don't," Werly said. "Maybe he was murdered." In fact, Olivas reported that there was little to report.

He and Lea chatted until 6:04, then fell silent. Then: "Larry, the body was found..."

By 6:07 the live shot was over.

"Did you see?" Werly said. "It fell out." He grabbed his dangling earpiece. "It fell out while I was on the air."

Another embarrassing detail -- but more importantly, Werly had scored the tip, the eyewitness and the exclusive.

"This is the first exciting day I've had this week," Werly said, not sounding excited at all. "The part where you feel good about it -- that's the part I'll probably miss the most."