Remembering Bill Bonds
Tim Kiska Remembers Bill Bonds
The death of Bill Bonds is the death of the last surviving member of what you might call the Motor City Media Rat Pack.
Once upon a time, Bill Bonds, J.P. McCarthy and Bob Talbert ruled the conversation in this town.
Check that: Maybe they didn’t rule. But a mention in Talbert’s column or McCarthy’s show would be the prelude for a day of “Hey, I saw your name in Talbert…” or “I heard you on J.P.”
Each stood at the pinnacle of his medium: Bonds in television at Channel 7, McCarthy in radio at WJR-AM, and Talbert in newspapers at the Detroit Free Press. “Larger than life” has been a constant in this week’s coverage of Bonds, but it was also true of J.P. and Talbert.
Their dominance could only happen in the pre-Internet, pre-cable era. Between 1967 and well into the 1980s, two newspapers (the Free Press and The News), three television stations (2, 4 and 7) and one or two radio stations—with WJR far ahead of the pack—had a corner on the local information market.
And since Bonds, McCarthy and Talbert were lucky enough to serve as the most public faces of organizations that were either ascendant, or in a commanding position in their industry, that made them the Three Kings of All Media.
They were a shared Detroit experience, each with spectacular talent, each lucky enough to come along at just the right time.
Bonds has always been public about his success: He would tell anybody who asked that, he, Bill Bonds, was a broadcast genius. But he would also tell you that his fame and fortune came courtesy of the American Broadcasting Company.
ABC owned Channel 7. When ABC’s prime time schedule took off in the 1970s (remember Charlie’s Angels?) , so did Channel 7’s ratings And, by god, ABC was going to own the news in each of its owned-and-operated station markets, which were New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit.
As a result, money was never a problem. Need a jet plane to chase a suspected hijacker with Detroit connections? No problem. Channel 7 once rented a jet to do just that. Actually, the station hired two jets. The first wasn’t fast enough, so producers located another. Need to hire the Channel 2 anchor team because they were handing Channel 7 its hat? ABC had money for that, too. Bonds may have been a great anchor. But it helped to have Diana Lewis, John Kelly, Marilyn Turner, Robbie Timmons, Vince Wade, Doris Biscoe, Ven Marshall and Mary Conway in the mix.
The Free Press’s Bob Talbert had the same kind of luck. Talbert arrived in Detroit in the late 1960s, just as the Free Press was turning into a hip, aggressive, two-fisted challenger to the Grey Old Lady, The Detroit News.
Talbert had an uncanny way of tapping into the city’s zeitgeist, with a great feel for what people might be interested in. And, of course, he was just outrageous enough that his arrival at a restaurant would get people talking. Nobody could figure out if Talbert’s weirdness – odd clothes, making sure everybody knew he was in the room—was for real, or something pasted on as a publicity-seeking proposition.
Talbert was the only one among the trio who wasn’t a Detroiter. But Talbert, always conscious of his status as an outsider, worked overtime at being a local. His omnipresent display of Detroit Tiger stuff was part of the package, as were his southernisms, which played well in a town with southern roots.
As for McCarthy, he stood at the head of a radio station that was its own empire. Its signal traveled everywhere, particularly at night; it had Detroit Tiger baseball, Detroit Lions football, and Detroit Red Wing hockey. Its news department was one of the best in Detroit. Among other things, it introduced election night projections to the Detroit market with Jack Casey in the late 1960s. One of its anchors, Bill Sheehan, became president of ABC News.
A trip to McCarthy’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party would show his clout. It was A-list politicians, top auto execs, ad execs, auto dealers, big shots of every stripe, all getting drunk as J.P. cruised the room, acknowledging his acolytes. It was a treasured invite. Then, you were supposed to go back to work, half-drunk, and tell your jealous co-workers that “Hey, I just got hammered at J.P.’s party.”
His interviewing skills were unmatched, as were his information-gathering abilities. He once jumped on me because I wrote a profile in which I said McCarthy’s birthdate wasn’t available. He had the records of everybody who called his office, going back months, and chewed on me (on air) for an uncomfortable several minutes. He was right. I had the beating coming.
The cross-promotion among Bonds, J.P. and Talbert probably should have attracted the attention of anti-trust lawyers. It was synergy before the word was invented. McCarthy would feature Talbert prominently on his radio show; Talbert would plug McCarthy shamelessly. They would practically break their arms patting each other on the back. Bonds played the game, too.
But Bonds was the most powerful of them all. McCarthy was always said to be a bit jealous of the Channel 7 anchor. McCarthy knew that the real power lay in television. McCarthy could never succeed on the tube, despite several attempts.
Nothing stays the same, certainly not in nature, and certainly not in the media.
Channel 4 brought in Mort Crim, who was at least Bill’s equal in ability. Post-Newsweek turned the station’s news operation into a contender. Then, cable television came along. Over in radio, full-service stations such as WJR became a thing of the past, and its news department has melted away. The Free Press and the News are both facing the trials of the Internet age. McCarthy died in 1995, Talbert in 1999.
There won’t be another Bill Bonds. Nor will there ever be another Bob Talbert or J.P. McCarthy. The audience is too fragmented, each medium in the midst of dealing with challenges of tornado-like intensity.
Maybe it wasn’t healthy for the public discourse to have these three setting the tone.
But one could also say the three were a shared Detroit experience.
With the death of Bill Bonds, that’s gone.