"You can't ever really understand diversity unless you understand what I consider the four inhibitors in our lives: Sexism, Racism, Homophobia and Ageism. I think this country is totally infected ( by these barriers ) . Until we, as a country, can get past these four most negative sides of ourselves, diversity is not going to mean very much." -; Warner Saunders
It is not often that one gets an opportunity to interview a Chicago legend. But last month I found myself going through the revolving door of Chicago's NBC Tower on my way to spend time with a man as familiar to millions of Chicagoans as the Wrigley Building or the "L." He is none other than Warner Saunders, broadcast journalist, talkshow host, TV anchor, sports reporter, educator, community leader and activist.
A prominent and respected broadcast journalist and television personality in Chicago for some 32 years, Saunders' distinguished career is indeed the stuff of which legends are made.
In 1993, Saunders celebrated 25 years in broadcasting, and a truly memorable quarter of a century it was for this celebrated Chicago native. In that same year, Warner was inducted into the prestigious Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. No stranger to awards and honors, the previous year of 1992 had seen Saunders receive one of his 17 Emmys for excellence in News and Programming. The 1992 award was for a half-hour education program aptly entitled, "Can't Get No Job Without No Diploma." A member of the Chicago Academy of Television Arts and Sciences "Silver Circle," Saunders has won acclaim with divergent honors such as his "Media Award" for the acclaimed sports piece: "Du Sable-The Uncrowned Champions," and his recent 1999 Jane Addams Award from Hull House for outstanding service to the community. His Public Affairs show on NBC, titled "Warner," was honored with the Illinois Broadcasters' Association Public Service Award.
A graduate of both Xavier University and Northeastern University, Saunders' fascinating success story began with a long stint at Chicago's WBBM-TV Channel 2 in the 1970s during which he both served as WBBM-TV's Director of Community Affairs and also served as host of the long-running and critically acclaimed late-night talk show Common Ground. The popular Saturday night talkfest was a hybrid of Kup's Show, originated by another Chicago legend, Irv Kupcinet. The show was later taken over by Carter Davidson and called At Random. Future hosts included John Madigan and Paul Cahill before the name was changed to Common Ground and Saunders became host. The show's concept was a roundtable discussion which emphasized free-flowing conversation among the guestsit often lasted until the wee hours of Sunday morning. The show was host to prominent politicians, local and nationally famous entertainers and celebrities, newspaper writers and columnists, radio and talkshow hosts; truly an eclectic mix of newsworthy personalities encompassing both the famous and the fairly obscure. Saunders' engaging personality and the breadth of his knowledge in many divergent areas kept the show interesting and timely. Common Ground enjoyed a long run at the top of WBBM-TV's ratings for many years.
After making a switch from WBBM-TV to NBC 5, Saunders became an assignment reporter and weekend anchor. One of his most ambitious projects was his public affairs talk show, Warner, which ran on NBC from 1983-1990. It was patterned after Common Ground, but never seemed at achieve the same level of popularity. Saunders was also a sports reporter for Channel 5, eventually being assigned the co-anchor position on the NBC 4:30 p.m. newsbroadcast in June 1991. In 1995 Saunders also assumed co-anchor status on the 5 p.m. news as well. Today Warner co-anchors the 6 p.m. news and 10 p.m. news with his beloved colleague, Allison Rosati. Saunders is a sociology teacher as well, having taught at The National College of Education-Ind. University NW in Gary and he has also taught at Northeastern Illinois University. Saunders is also part of NBC 5's Cultural Diversity Teaching Team.
Perhaps the most imposing thing about Warner is his size. I felt quite diminutive standing beside him. I knew I was in for a very interesting time the day I recently sat down to chat with him about his life and career. His comfortable office provided the backdrop for a lively and animated discussion.
WCT: Warner, of the many accomplishments you achieved, one of the most outstanding was your work as host on the talk show Common Ground. Can you share some memories of that period when you were still with WBBM-TV Channel 2?
WS: Prior to 1973, I was just doing little guest appearances on the show. I actually took it over in 1973, and it was really just a part of The Community Affairs Department, no one really cared about it. It didn't have any real backing at the time. They weren't keeping ratings after midnight on television, so there was no way of testing as to whether there was an audience for it. Most television executives didn't believe there'd be any kind of an audience for it. After Kup ( Irv Kupcinet ) left, it kind of went into the doldrums. So nobody was watching anyway, so they just said ( for my part of it ) "just do whatever you want to do." And that's what I did.
I'd been a social worker for many years and working in civil-rights activities and social work on the West Side and I had all these radical friends. And so I'd just bring them on in, to talk. You know, like nobody had seen them. I never thought it was that much, you know. I mean, I had all kinds of people on that were considered the radical community at that time. That's kind of how it kind of got started. It really was kind of groundbreaking at that time, because it was done differently than any other show.
I can't take any real credit for it, because I was just doing it. I didn't have any plan whatsoever, I mean I never even thought much about it. I just did it. I'd be out in the community and I'd see some radical person like a Fred Hampton from the Panthers and I'd say, "Come down Tuesday afternoon. I want to tape you and talk about this." And he'd go, "They're not goin' let me on television." And I'd go, "Look man, I'm running this thing, and you're on TV." And they'd come down, and they'd do it, and they'd be surprised that they were on television that night. And kind of the word spread. Then it got to people who were coming into town who were actors and a variety of people then wanted to because it was a two-hour show and it gave people an opportunity to really express themselves without a time constraint attached to it. Since I was controlling the helm, you stay there two hours or you could stay there ten minutes if you wanted to. All I was interested in was that it was good conversation, and we'd just go from there. It had a freedom to it that I don't enjoy now. ( We both laugh )
WCT: In all of those Common Ground shows that you did, could you tell me two or maybe three of the most interesting personalities that you remember?
WS: John Ehrlichman from Watergate infamy. Ehrlichman appeared to be very arrogant and self-centered, and he had just gotten out of prison. When he walked in, he kind of looked at me funny. He asked the guy who did his booking for him, "Why'd you set me up with this show?" He came with all sorts of assumptions. And I was so ready for him. I had read the book, and I was all set for him. And I asked him "Are you rehabilitated?" And he turned cherry red and he asked, "What do you mean am I rehabilitated?" And I said, "When you go to prison and you get out, we assume that you have a certain amount of feelings about why you were put there, and hopefully, you are able to rehabilitate yourself in prison." I hit him with more minutia, and it was like he ( Ehrlichman ) went from Superman to man on that show. We ended up rather liking each other, and even went out to dinner after that show. And so I remember that show very well.
I also remember doing a show with Eartha Kitt. She had just written a book and she gotten into a lot of hot water with the Johnson administration for criticizing Vietnam. And I had read the book, which was another habit of mine. If an author came on, I made sure that I had read the author's book. So I'd read every page of her book, and so I quoted something out of the book, and she said, "I never said that." And I said, well here's the book and it's right here on page __, and I showed it to her and I said, "it's right there." And she said to me " I said I never said that." And I said, "well, somebody's lying here, either this book, your publisher or you." With that she gets up, takes off her microphone and walks right off the set, saying, "I've never been so insulted in my life!" We stopped taping, and Kitt got all the way outside and got in the car. Apparently she turned around and came back and huffed in again and sat down ( and I was doing another interview at that time ) , and she said, "I want to complete this interview!" So, I said, "Well, sit down and we'll complete the interview," and so we did. She's an interesting personality, she truly is.
WCT: Warner, clearly your accomplishments are astounding: 17 Emmys. 32 years in broadcasting. You are a member of The Chicago Academy of Television Arts and Sciences "Silver Circle." What is that?
WS: Those who have been in television more than 25 years, and according to the television academy, have contributed something to the body politic in those 25 years. So I join a long list of people who have been in, so it was truly an honor.
WCT: It's quite an honor to be interviewing a man that many Chicagoans consider a legend in the field of broadcasting. How do you feel about that adjective?
WS: ( laughs ) Well legends don't look at themselves as legends. The newsroom is a very interesting place to be. There are rollicking egos all out there. We're all nosy people, and we're the kind of people who are really irreverent, and we have a tendency to downplay and be cynical about everything. So it kind of runs through the newsroom. And anybody who comes in here and tries to get above that is immediately pulled back into the muck of the newsroom. So this is a good place to be, because if you want to play games and act like you're holier than thou or better than thou, don't come into a newsroom. ( We are both laughing ) You'll come down to earth.
WCT: Very quickly?
WS: That's right. Some producer will yell in your ear, "You idiot! Didn't you see how you missed that?" You might come in feeling pretty special, but when you leave, you leave fairly humble.
WCT: What was different about your public affairs show for NBC called Warner, which ran from 1983-1990? How did it differ from Common Ground?
WS: The time constraint on it was greater. There wasn't really a lot of time to stretch out and do the show adequately. It was an attempt on their ( NBC's ) part to reproduce Common Ground here ( at NBC ) . And it just never worked out the way we wanted it to. Secondly, NBC didn't really view me anymore as a talkshow host. I was hired as a reporter and an anchor. And so therefore they didn't see me in that capacity and so much of their efforts were not put into presenting me as a talkshow host but rather as an anchor and as a reporter. So the show kind of went by the wayside.
WCT: In your long career as a reporter, TV anchor, broadcast journalist, talkshow host, what would you cite as the most personally rewarding assignment?
WS: That's easy. I was sent to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela's release from prison after spending 27 years in prison. ( Warner points to a picture that is part of a grouping on the wall showing he and Mandela in Mandela's home. ) That represents the first day he ( Mandela ) was out of prison. Mandela went to his home in Soweto and we followed him there with camera crew. That's a conversation we're having sitting down talking to each other in Mandela's home in Soweto. That was clearly the most rewarding time I've ever spent in television bar none. Standing outside of Victor Verster prison, and watching Mandela walk out with the other 15 men who were in prison for all that time. And they walked out in the order that they went in, so Walter Sisulu walked out first, because he had been in prison 28 years, Mandela came next because he had been imprisoned for 27 years, and so on. They had all been dressed up by an Indian tailor ( there are lots of Indians in South Africa ) , and he fitted them all up with tailor-made suits. So when they walked out of prison, they looked like the first-class diplomats they were going to be. They walked out hitting the ground running. They looked the part of future leaders of that country ( South Africa ) . And it was just a magnificent time being there seeing that country arise out of the depths of what it had been in for all those years. And to see Mandela be free was still such a thrill for me; I get goosebumps thinking about it right now. To see what he accomplished in those years was amazing. I mean, it's up there with the situation that happened in Poland with Solidarity, the fall of The Soviet Unionit has that kind of import. And I was privileged to witness it, and to report it.
WCT: Is there a professional goal you have yet to reach?
WS: David, this may sound strange, but I've never ever really sought a professional goal in this area. I've never said, "I'd like to do this, I'd like to be this, I'd like to be that." I have been so fortunate and things have just happened for me, almost by divine guidance sometimes I think. Because I've never sought out to be one thing or another. So there is nothing that I haven't accomplished that I thought that I might have wanted to accomplish because I never really had that many goals to accomplish anything. So, I'm here now, and whatever happens, happens. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.
WCT: Warner, what was the toughest job you ever had?
WS: Hmm. Driving the Cottage Grove bus at 2 in the morning. Now there was a tough job! ( We both laugh ) Today in comparison to what some people do for their own livelihood; they would, in the bat of an eye, change places with me. So I'm super-fortunate. I had some pretty low-down jobs in my life, but I think that's necessary. I think that brings fabric to your life.
You know they say the view from the bridge is a lot different than the view from the water. And that is indeed so. Therefore, once you have fabric in your life, you are able to empathize with other people's situations.
WCT: Do you feel that the gay/lesbian community is heading for rough waters in the upcoming decade due to the change in administration that Americans are facing?
WS: I think that movements transcend matters such as who's president and what administration is in power. I think the power and the growth of the gay and lesbian community will not depend on George Bush, but will depend on the activity and the strength of the gay and lesbian community and the courage of that community to follow its convictions. I don't care who is in office. I think largely being concerned about who's in office is a deterrent to the goal at hand. That of having gays and lesbians being 100% accepted into society for who they are. That depends on the strength and the courage of the gay/lesbian community to assert itself. Sometimes it's even better to have an oppressor in because oppressors often galvanize the oppressed more than someone who may have been considered a liberal does. So it may be a blessing in disguise in that it galvanizes that group to be even stronger in their resolve.
WCT: I know you were a member of the NBC sports team from 1983-1990. Was that a happy time for you? Can you give us a highlight?
WS: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Well in 1983, the Sox won the Western Division Championship, in 1984 the Cubs won the division championship, and in '85 the Bears won the Super Bowl. But maybe the highlight was, in 1984 to be at a press conference that the Bulls called to introduce a youngster by the name of Michael Jordan. Maybe that was the top one, but we didn't know it at the time! Who knew? Who knew that he would become the greatest basketball player of all time? That was a true highlight. Of course, following their ( the Bulls ) rise to the top. It was great fun, but lots of work. Most people have no idea how much work sportscasters do. It was really a hard job. There's so much travel involved with it. Sportscasters have a very tough job.
WCT: Warner, what was the hardest part about being a street reporter?
WS: Well, the hardest part was that I came into this business as a Community Affairs Director sitting in an office over at Channel 2. And the next day, I'm in a newsroom with the title of reporter, and I'd never done a report in my life, I'd never been out as a reporter. Nor had I ever anchored a show. So the toughest task for me was to learn how to report on the run, and learn how to anchor on the run. I'd never done it before. To simply learn the mechanics of television was a challenge. I remember one night it was almost midnight and I was standing out there, knee deep in some toxic waste. And I remember I called my wife up and I said, "You know, I don't know if I can do this. I think I made a big mistake. I think I should have stayed as The Community Affairs Director. ( We both laugh ) I don't know that this is going to work." And when I look back on it, if I had known how much pain and how difficult the learning curve would have been, I don't think I would have done it. But it's good I didn't know.
WCT: Was there ever a time when you wished you weren't a reporter? A time when you wished you weren't in broadcasting?
WS: Yes. Those very first years ( at NBC 5 ) it was extremely difficult for me, because I was extremely inept. And although I was learning each and every way, I think I made every mistake that you can make. I think I made all the mistakes you can make, but I made them right out there in public in front of everybody in the third largest market in the country. Most reporters and anchors make those mistakes in some small town, so by the time they arrive here they have far more experience than I had. I was unusual if not unique. I had a reputation and a name in this city, because of Common Ground, and because of other stories I had done. And so therefore, they ( NBC brass ) thought, this person's already got a name, he's already popular. Maybe he will bring an audience here. But I had to learn how to do the job first. In a newsroom, they're pretty unbending about teaching you. Most people say, if you arrive at this level, you'd better know what to do already. So I had a few friends out there ( and I still have ) who took me by the hand and showed me how to work in this business, and I'm forever grateful to them. Linda Yu, Mike Jackson, Jim Ruddlepeople who were already stars in their own right, who would kind of take me by the hand and help me out along the way because I didn't know very much. ( Laughs and shakes his head ) I look at those early tapes, and I think, "I really ought to burn them."
WCT: What is the most common misconception about a news reporter's/ anchor's job?
WS: Reporters receive a tremendous amount of criticism for what we do. But, one, nobody ever tells us "you've got to slant a story this way, you've got to slant a story that way." Nobody ever does thatthat's a big lie. It never happens. Secondly, I think everybody out there tries to be fair, they do their best to be balanced and they do their best to be accurate. Everybody out there, from the most inept reporter to the person who is the best. All try to do that. And I think that given the time constraints and all of the difficulties that we havethere are so many procedures you have to go through to get that one-minute-and-30-second story on television, Chicago is blessed with an enormous amount of talented people at every one of the television stations. Enormous talent is there. If the general public knew what it took to get these stories out, I think they'd have a lot more empathy for what we do. We cover this city with more stories and better stories than I think almost any city in the country.
Notwithstanding his innumerable contributions to the fabric of Chicago journalism, Warner Saunders forever affirms his continuing commitment to the goal of challenging the barriers to diversity: Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, and Ageism. As a teacher of diversity at Channel 5, and in the universities where he teaches, this is clearly a top priority for him personally and professionally as well.
His story is fascinating and inspiring, his manner comfortable and embracing. He is a broadcast journalist legend, and I can't think of a man that I've ever met for whom the phrase "a gentleman and a scholar" is more fitting.