In Depth

Osgood Adds NAB Award To His Resume

The Poet, Journalist, Author and NAB Winner Discusses a Long, Fulfilling Career

In addition to his broadcast career that began more than 50 years ago, Charles Osgood is a poet, a musician, the narrator of the hit animated feature “Horton Hears a Who!”—and now can add recipient of the NAB Distinguished Service Award to his long list of accomplishments.
As host of “The Osgood File,” airing four times daily on the CBS Radio Network, and anchor of CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” since 1994, Mr. Osgood shows no signs of slowing down. Awakening every weekday at 2:30 a.m., he finds the stories he covers and the people he meets to be a source of endless fascination.

Known as CBS’ poet-in-residence, Mr. Osgood reveals some of his feelings in verse. In a poem called “Powers That Be,” he opined about authority figures:

All our lives we have heard of the powers that be.
The people in charge who control you and me.
Who decide what will happen…and when they decide,
You and I have to just go along for the ride.

But events seem to happen each day and each hour
That aren’t controlled by the ones with the power.
The Prime Ministers, Presidents, Emperors too
Find there’s only so much that they’re able to do.

When it comes to things that in fact do occur,
The powers that be…or the powers that were…
Do not really hold the whole world by the stem.
They don’t manage events…the events manage them.

Mr. Osgood discussed getting his start in broadcasting, his views on the news business and his favorite place to get away from it all with TelevisionWeek correspondent Hillary Atkin. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

: Congratulations on the NAB Distinguished Service Award. You’re certainly no stranger to awards. How do you feel about getting this one?
Charles Osgood: Well, I think this is a very special one. I mean, the list of people who’ve gotten it in the past years is very, very impressive, and—I recognize almost all those names. The only name that I don’t recognize is my own.

TVWeek: You’ve obviously had a very illustrious career. But when you were starting off in the business, what was the world of broadcasting like and what were your aspirations?
Mr. Osgood: Well, my first aspiration was to get a job. … I had been very interested in radio but I never had majored in the subject. I worked at the radio station at Fordham University in the Bronx. [After graduating] I went looking for a job in radio. … I took a job in Washington. I got out of Fordham in 1954, so it’s been a long time, many years now, 54 years. But there was a draft, and I was 1A, and I had taken a physical, and I expected I’d be called up pretty much anytime. But I did apply for a job by answering an ad in Broadcasting Magazine, and I ended up working at WGMS, “Washington’s Good Music Station.” I only knew a little bit about classical music. I had taken piano lessons as a kid, and I knew a little bit about the names and all that, so I was happy to get that job. It was only about six months later that I was going out to dinner with a friend of mine, who was working for the other classical music station—there were two at that time—and his relief [announcer] turned out to be showing up in an Army uniform. It was a very fancy uniform, blue with braids and harps and epaulets and all that. It turned out that he was in the Army band. And I asked him what instrument he played, and he said he played the mouth—he was the announcer of the band. I said, “There’s a job like that in the Army?” and he said, “Yes,” and I said, “When are you getting out?” He said, “Next month.” So I joined the Army to get that job as announcer for the Army band. I was in the Army for three years, 1955 to 1958. And I continued to work at WGMS part-time.

TVWeek: How would you describe the broadcasting world in the late ’50s?
Mr. Osgood: Well, it was quite different. First of all, I was working just in radio, I didn’t do any television at that time, but as I mentioned I had worked at WGMS, the classical music station in Washington. That was owned by RKO General, and I had become program director there. Shortly after I got out of the service, I got to know the brass at RKO General, and I found out that they were going to have a paid television station in Hartford, Conn. And I asked a lot of questions about it, I thought it was a fascinating idea, and they made me the general manager of the first big television station in the United States. That was in—let me see. 19 … 63. And so for the best part of the year I worked in television as the general manager of a pay television station.

TVWeek: It sounds like a great job.
Mr. Osgood: It was a great job, but I hadn’t thought I would be a program director anywhere either, and that’s what I did at WGMS. This station in Hartford, Conn., was really one-of-a-kind. There was nothing else like it. I didn’t know how to run a pay television station, but neither did anybody else. So we got an experimental license to do that and it was fascinating. But among the things that I discovered is that although the idea of being a boss was great in principle, I didn’t actually like doing it. I didn’t like the idea of having to supervise people and tell them what to do, and hire and fire people. I liked being on the air much more. So after I got fired from that job, being a general manager, I found another job in New York at ABC.
Frank Maguire, a friend I had worked with at the radio station at Fordham, was putting together a show called “The Mayer Report” on the ABC Radio Network. I was one of four guys who were hired at the same time. One of the other four was a disc jockey who had worked at WMCA in New York as a DJ, and he had brought along a fellow by the name of Ted Koppel, who was a desk assistant and who had never been on the air, even at WMCA, which was a problem. That’s where I first stepped in.

Ted had aspirations beyond that, and so did I, except his career moved faster than mine did. He was, as everybody now knows, extremely talented. In fact, he was offered a job at WCBS. They were about to go to an all-news format, and they had heard him on the air and were very impressed, and asked if he would like to go to work for that station. He declined, and I think obviously so because he was going to do very well on the course he was on. But he actually proposed that they hire me. He thought I would like working for CBS. And that was 40 years ago.

TVWeek: I bet it’s gone by in the blink of an eye, right?
Mr. Osgood: How did you know that? I mean, the older you get, the faster the time goes by. But I can’t believe it, but I wouldn’t give up any part of it. I am very happy that things worked out the way they did.

TVWeek: What have been the most challenging stories that you have covered over these past few decades?
Mr. Osgood: Because they happen every day, and you go and do these stories every day—you know, I do four radio shows five days a week. So that’s 20 shows a week. And when I say show, I mean—it used to be that we never called them weekly shows, they were broadcasts. And I did these 20 broadcasts by getting up really early in the morning. I still get up at 2:30 in the morning, I have that many stories to do. And I don’t think very much once I’ve done it. I turn to the next one. In fact, even later the same day, people would say, “What stories you did today?” And I can only remember the last one. You have to wipe what you did before out of your mind and go with a clean slate into the next one. So when people say, over the last 40 years, what are the [major] stories you covered, well, you know, they’re all very interesting, but each day is interesting, and you work with whatever has happened that day.

: How do you manage to do four radio pieces a day Monday through Friday, and then anchor “Sunday Morning”?
Mr. Osgood: At 2:30 in the morning I get up and I go in there, and I don’t know when I’m headed in to work what the programs are going to be. I have a producer whose full-time job is to help me organize what I’m going to do. And also, to produce the broadcast. And when I start out, I don’t know. And sometimes, after I’ve finished the first broadcast, I still don’t know what the third one or the fourth one is going to be, but you take a look at the possible material you have, what the interesting stories in the morning are, and what we have available in the way of tape. So that’s the way it goes. And there are some broadcasts among themselves, specialty, that maybe use some music or I write a little piece of poetry or something like that to put in there. But it’s not something that you can really think about very long in advance, and in most cases not something you would think about very much anyway except for those stories that are just, you know, that everybody remembers.

TVWeek: Some stories are continuing and you cover them day in and day out for months or years at a time. Are there any of those that have been especially challenging or stand out?
Mr. Osgood: I find that a very hard question to answer, because you focus on it very intently while you’re doing it, but you have to keep your mind ready to accept whatever the next storytelling possibilities are. And it never lets you down, you know. That’s the thing about the news, it’s a river—it’s continuous. But you don’t want to find yourself saying exactly what you said last week, or last month, or last year. And I think we do tend to repeat ourselves a little bit, but I try to fight it—I tell everybody I’m working with that if they catch me doing that, please let me know, so I won’t do it.

TVWeek: What elements make up a good story?
Mr. Osgood: I think it’s the same kind of thing that would make a good story whether it was the news or not. You know, we do call them news stories, and I think our job is storytelling. So I think that it’s good if it has an element of drama, maybe a twist or surprise; obviously it’s got to have characters in it. You have to try to talk about them in a way that makes you—you know, try to make people understand what we’re talking about. I have two and a half minutes to tell it. That’s not very long.

The broadcast itself is four minutes and change. But there are commercials in there, and the format takes a certain amount of time just to say hello and goodbye.

I think if I find a story fascinating, I should be able to tell it so it will be fascinating to other people, too. If I find it kind of boring or just like yesterday, then I would prefer to find some element in it different than before. You know, the stock market goes up, the stock market goes down, there’s calamities in the news, but those are not necessarily the things that you most remember. I think people are endlessly fascinating, you know. We like to hear about them. And so those are the elements. It helps if it has a beginning and a middle and an end—you have to have some sense of where you are in the story. It’s not just a list of things, you know, the actual information. It’s also a story.

TVWeek: What is that old saw—there are no boring stories, just boring reporters. Is that taught in journalism school?
Mr. Osgood: Now here’s one thing that I think. If the reporter wants to convey the impression that he is one smart guy who knows it all already, or who is a little cynical or he finds all of us rather tiresome and doesn’t mind letting you know, that’s going to be tiresome and boring to listen to. But none of us knows everything, so those things that come as a surprise, it doesn’t mean that we’re not good reporters. It means we’re open to be told something, and we don’t think we know it all.

TVWeek: From television to movies—I understand you’re a big fan of Theodor Geisel’s. Is that what drew you to narrating a part in “Horton Hears a Who”?
Mr. Osgood: What drew me into doing it is I got back to the office from lunch one day, and my assistant said, “20th Century Fox called. They want you to narrate ‘Who’” And I said, “Who? Who was it really?” You know, I didn’t think that was very likely. But the very first book that I’d done was called “Nothing Could Be Finer Than a Crisis That Is Minor in the Morning.” I dedicated that book “To Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, for giving me a new way to look at the Neuss.” N-E-U-S-S. And that was because I was speaking in those rhymes, I was reading those stories to my own kids. And I got a note from him. I didn’t send him a copy of the book. I don’t know how he found out that I had done that. But I got a note from him on Cat in the Hat stationery.
He wrote, “Nothing could be finer than to be an Osgood inspire-iner.”

But it’s been many years since then. When he died I wrote a poem about him and his work, my reaction to it. But this [“Horton” job] came as a total surprise, and they told me that they had thought about using me for this for a while. And it was so fun to do. It’s not that it’s glamorous or anything—I didn’t get to meet any movie stars—but it was fun going into a studio and seeing these pictures and narrating the story to the picture. I think that’s just a fascinating thing to do. And I’m really glad the movie seems to be doing very well indeed.

TVWeek: Not only are you a broadcaster and an author, you’re a poet and a musician. Tell me about how you express all these talents that you have.
Mr. Osgood: I’ve really picked them all up as I go along. I mean, I did take lessons, and I know from B flat, but I don’t read the music, you know, with all the notes, to take a piece of classical music and sit down and play. But when I was in the Army band, my roommate, he was and is a composer, and we wrote some songs together, and he wrote the music to some verse pieces that I had. He ended up doing pieces for “Kojak,” by the way, John Cacavas is his name, and he’s still out in Beverly Hills, and we still stay in touch. Music and poetry, they’re very closely related, they have to do with the sound of it, and meter, and all those things that are common to both. It’s pretty much the same thing.

TVWeek: You’ve written six books and I understand you have a new one coming out. What inspired you to become an author?
Mr. Osgood: Well, most of these books that I’ve done have been collections of pieces, you know, radio pieces that I’ve done, or some of the newspaper columns that I’ve written, or pieces that are portions of things that I’ve done. Sometimes I’ve done collections that actually come from other people. There was a book of World War II humor. I soon have a book coming out that’s called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House,” which is just going back to, oh, starting around World War II and going forward about some of these things that have happened, in politics and candidacies—and not just presidential politics. It’s a pretty good field if you start looking for funny stuff.

TVWeek: What is your take on this current election cycle? Is it different from those in the past? People have been saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” What do you think?
Mr. Osgood: I think they recognize that no matter what happens, no matter which party wins, it’s going to be either somebody who was considered a long shot not that many months ago or it’s going to be the first woman ever or the first African American ever. And the dynamics of the personalities involved, and the time in history and all that, I don’t see how anybody could think it’s not a fascinating time. The way it’s all worked out, it’s just a good story.

TVWeek: I understand that you have a house in France. Does spending time away change your perspective on the United States?
Mr. Osgood: Yes, it does. I think that travel is broadening, I have a home there, so when I go to France I don’t usually tool around. I usually go there and stick around the general area of St. Tropez. I can actually see St. Tropez across the gulf, and it’s beautiful. When we’re there, it’s mostly in the spring and summer, the light is beautiful, as so many bathers have found. The smell is great, you know, the vegetation, the flowers are terrific, there’s wonderful food and wonderful wine….
And the French really are famous for joie de vivre, the joy of life. And so, what’s to not like?

TVWeek: How often do you get to go over there?
Mr. Osgood: I spend a total of about 10 weeks a year. I can do the radio show from there, and I sometimes do. Having been at CBS for 40 years, I get a certain amount of time off, and I take advantage of that. I only miss three or four “Sunday Morning” broadcasts during the summer, so it’s not as if I’m neglecting my duties there. I find that it’s very therapeutic—For one thing, I do these broadcasts in the morning. And when I’m home I have to get up at 2:30 in the morning. But it’s a six-hour time difference [in France], so I can sleep much later.

And that does help. Also, when I’m over there, I find it’s pleasant just to garden and eat, or to go for a walk with my wife or friends. We have people come visit us. We have five kids and three grandchildren, and we see them over there quite a lot, too.

TVWeek: It sounds lovely. Finally, what advice would you would give to broadcasters who are just starting out in the business today?
Mr. Osgood: First of all, I would wish that they have as grand a time in their careers as I’ve had in mine. That they would get to work for people who have been as wonderful to them as my people have been to me. That they get to work with people who are both talented and inspirational on their own. I think the great thing about news broadcasting is that you don’t do exactly the same thing every day. You learn something every day, that’s important too. You meet wonderful people. You work in a business that’s constantly new.

I’m a talker. I love telling stories and I love being with people, and hearing their stories. There’s nothing more pleasurable, as far as I’m concerned. Television always makes fun of talking heads. But that’s what I am—I’m a talking head.