A Radio News Junkie’s Regret

By Bruce Putterman
The CT Mirror


HARTFORD — I remember the moment I first fell in love.

I’m in college. It’s September 6, 1980… I find my way to WVBR, a commercial FM radio station, in Ithaca, NY, staffed largely by Cornell University students.

I am immediately infatuated with everything about radio: the records spinning on the studio turntable, the red “On Air” sign, the disc jockey introducing songs with casual wit, shelves lined with thousands of albums.  But what really stirs my imagination is the UPI teletype machine… rat-tat-tatting news from around the world.

I sign up for the station’s training program.  Most trainees want to be DJ’s.  I’m not that cool.  I want to be a reporter.  A radio reporter.

Over those first few weeks of training my infatuation deepens into love.  I love interviewing local dignitaries, writing stories, editing tape, creating news packages, and after about six weeks, delivering my first full newscast.  It is the greatest sense of exhilaration I have ever experienced.  I think I’ve found my calling.

And I’m pretty good at it.  I pick up a lot of shifts, and I am hired to be the morning drive newscaster for the entire summer of 1981.  In 1982 I anchor our continuous Election coverage… In 1983 NBC News hires me to cover a local press conference announcing that a Cornell professor has won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Of course, there’s a few hiccups in my blossoming radio career… like when I decide that “Putterman” is not a very snappy radio name and I write a memo instructing my colleagues that they should now refer to me on air as… Bruce Putnam!  I love that name… it’s close to Putterman, but rolls off the tongue more easily … the staff at the station mock me mercilessly.  And the only person to EVER call me Bruce Putnam on air… is me.  But overall, my radio career is taking off.  I love radio and radio seems to love me back.

With graduation in sight, I’m ready to take my love affair with radio to the next level.  I send a writing sample and air check tape to Merilee Cox, News Director at the ABC Radio Network.

She writes back.  Your writing is a little passive and you have too much sibilance in your S’s.  My heart sinks.  The letter continues… but come on down to New York for an audition anyway.

An audition!  At ABC Radio News.  To be a reporter.  To pursue my passion.  It’s my big break.  A once in a lifetime turning point.

I schedule the audition during spring break.  When I arrive at the ABC studio at Lincoln Center Ms. Cox puts me in a room with a phone and a tape deck and gives me a simple assignment: Write a story previewing the upcoming home gardening season, sourcing two experts on tape.  You have in 30 minutes.  Go.

I call the PR department at the Burpee Seed Company.  No one is available to talk.  I have 28 minutes left.  I call an editor at Better Homes and Gardens.  She’s at lunch.  I start sweating.  I call the Cornell Ag School.  It’s spring break!  I panic.  And I don’t recover.  I fail the audition.

On the four-hour ride back to Ithaca I reflect on my future.  How can I bounce back from passive writing, sibilant S’s, and a failed audition?  I have a plan in place by Binghamton: the lifestyle of a broadcast journalist is highly unappealing.  I’d probably have to start in some third-tier market, far from family and friends.  Yeah, and there’s no job security, there’s odd hours, there’s a lot of moving around.  It’s a tough way to raise a family.  Just as well that I tanked the audition. I decide to break up with radio before radio breaks up with me.

The following week I apply to a few advertising agencies in New York.  Soon after, I accept a job at Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample, working on the Bounty paper towel account, starting in June 1984.

I enjoy the advertising world and experience some modest success.  I am promoted quickly.  In 1987, I become the account executive on the agency’s most important client.  In 1988 I accept an invitation to be a paid staff member of the advertising department of the Dukakis presidential campaign.

But all through those years I am haunted by the love I left behind, the road not taken.  What if I had pursued broadcasting?  After all, many of my WVBR colleagues are enjoying incredible success in broadcast journalism.  My good friend Brigitte Quinn is morning drive anchor at Newsradio 88 in New York, Peter Schacknow is an anchor at the CBS Radio Network, and Keith Olbermann is a rising star in sports broadcasting.

Over time, the feelings of “what if” recede as my career evolves in interesting and challenging new ways.  My work in the ‘90s is not as exhilarating as my first love, but it offers the sustainability and deep satisfaction of a more mature love.

One Friday evening, in the winter of 1998, I’m waiting out a flight delay at the bar in the tiny airport in Traverse City, Michigan… the self-proclaimed “cherry capital of the world.”

A reporter approaches.  She’s young… like fresh out of college young.  “Excuse me, I’m Beth Bennett, from WPBN-TV News… can I ask you a question on camera.”  She is both exuberant and exhausted.

“Sure,” I say.

“What do you think about today’s announcement that Northwest Airlines is adding service between Traverse City and Alpena?”

Not being from the area, but wanting to help this earnest young reporter put a wrap on her day, I tap dance: “Oh, I think it’s great for the economic development of Northern Michigan.  It’ll have a huge positive impact on travel efficiency throughout the region.”

She gets what she wants, and then sits down next to me.  She shares that she is from Chicago, and came up to Traverse City to take a TV reporter job right after graduation six months ago.

I mention that I had also toyed with the idea of becoming a reporter out of college.  “Why didn’t you pursue it,” she asks.  And I say, “Because I didn’t want to be you, slogging around some God-forsaken place, far from my family and friends.”

Ouch.  As soon as I say it I regret it.  Yes, I am wiped out from two days of client meetings, I am exasperated that I won’t get home until after midnight, and I am not yet totally at peace with the career decision I made 14 years ago… but that doesn’t mean I should go around deflating young career ambitions.  Plus, I’m not a mean-spirited guy.  I am deeply embarrassed.  The incident… the name Beth Bennett… and a tinge of guilt… stick with me for a long, long time.  For whatever reason, it’s an indelible stain that doesn’t fade away.

Thirteen years later, in April 2011, my 17-year-old son Alex and I are sitting in an auditorium at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, just outside of Chicago.  Alex has also been bitten by the journalism bug, but of the print variety.  We’re waiting for the information session for prospective students to begin.

A woman walks out on stage, and greets the crowd.  “Welcome to Medill and Northwestern.  My name is Beth Bennet, Director of Journalism Education.”

I snap to attention.  I squint to see if this is MY Beth Bennett, the reporter from Traverse City.  I’m not sure.  I can’t wait for the presentation to end.  As soon as the final applause starts I abandon Alex and race up to the stage.

I fire off a round before any of the other parents: “Did you used to work in Traverse City?”

She’s startled at the question: “Yes, I did.  And it was the worst year of my life.”

I catch a whiff of validation… and I recount the story for her.  I tell her how guilty I have felt for that “I didn’t want to be you” comment.

She looks at me with those same earnest eyes and smiles.  “I don’t remember the incident, but you were right.  I didn’t want to be me either.”  She tells me she left broadcast journalism years ago, after stints in Green Bay and Milwaukee, and is now happily ensconced in a stable, fulfilling career right near where she grew up.

I speak with Beth one more time… at Alex’s graduation from Northwestern this past June.  By then I realize why the “I didn’t want to be you” comment had been gnawing at me for all those years.

Yes, it was rude… but it was also untrue.

I really DID want to be Beth Bennett.  But I lacked the courage to push beyond my comfort zone.  I really did… and do… wish I had taken a risk for the sake of young love back then… even if that love was destined to wither after a few years.

The truth is… I had lashed out at Beth Bennett in 1998 because she took that risk and I didn’t.

And yet… another truth is that I have a great life… including a career as a nonprofit consultant that allows me to give to others, and that allows me to prioritize family, which has always been so important to me.

For me, it’s the right destination… but because I didn’t fight through a setback after that failed audition, I missed out on what might have been the most exhilarating part of the journey.

Bruce Putterman is the publisher and CEO of The Connecticut Mirror, a nonprofit, non-partisan, digital-native news organization covering public policy, government, and politics in Connecticut. He got this job four months after telling this story, and 35 years after his last job journalism, as a college student at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He can be emailed at: bputterman@ctmirror.org