WDAZ: Your Home Team

Published December 11, 2010, 12:11 PM

Back in the Game - And In Grand Forks

GF Herald Feature
Charley Johnson is back where he started in the media business — in a newsroom in Grand Forks.

By: Ryan Bakken, Grand Forks Herald

Charley Johnson is back where he started in the media business — in a newsroom in Grand Forks.

His first job out of college in 1972 was as a KNOX Radio reporter. Since Tuesday, he is the co-anchor of the WDAZ-TV nightly newscasts.

“This job is in my comfort zone,” said Johnson, leaning back in his chair with his feet on the station’s conference room table.

“I’m happy to be back in the news game. I hope others see it that way, too.”

He wasn’t out of the news game for long. Johnson resigned as general manager of the combined KXJB (Channel 4) and KVLY (Channel 11) news operation in May. It’s a topic he doesn’t want to discuss.

“All I can say is that sometimes you just have to resign,” he said.

However, it’s been three years since he’s been on-camera. When the two Fargo-based stations consolidated their newscasts into one report in 2007, he went off the air. Instead, he concentrated on his job as the top executive, overseeing the entire operation, not just the news department.

He’s not the top executive at WDAZ. He’s not even the top official in the newsroom, as co-anchor Cassie Walder is the news director.

But the title and authority seem to matter little to Johnson, who is as breezy off-air as he is on it.

“I didn’t think landing a TV job around here was possible because I pretty much had used it all up already,” he said about replacing Milo Smith, who left in October to work for the UND Alumni Association.

Barking up the right tree

Although Johnson is 60 years old and been in Red River Valley for almost 40 years, he’s a newscaster version of Dick Clark, physically unchanged. His hair is gray only at the temples and his face is almost wrinkle-free even before he applies the obligatory-but-detested makeup for newscasts.

On the air and off, he has a low-key delivery, relaxed-yet-authoritative, commanding but with a soft tone.

“You need to be comfortable to people because they’re inviting you into their living room every night,” Johnson said.

Yet there’s an imp in there, too. In his first WDAZ newscast, as Walder read a story about a dog sled race, Johnson barked in the background, loud even to be heard by Walder but not by the microphones.

“It shows he’s comfortable doing TV news,” Walder said. “He put me at ease, just like he puts viewers at ease.”

Search was short

Johnson was in his early 20s when he became KXJB’s news director and anchor, sitting next to sportscaster legend Jim Adelson.

Asked to explain his quick ascension, Johnson said, “I was there and semi-dependable.”

He was the rare television long-termer until his separation in May. Suddenly, he was feeling what many others are feeling nationally in the job-poor economy.

He was not prepared “financially nor emotionally” to retire. So he applied “all over the country” with television groups, receiving no interest. He then sought management jobs outside of media, also with no reciprocal interest.

“I had an epiphany with the quick rejection letters — they didn’t think of television as a business or me as a manager,” he said.

But when he learned of Smith’s resignation, things happened quickly. He contacted Walder via Facebook, inquiring: “Would you ever consider an old guy like me?”

For Walder, the search was over before it could start.

“When I saw his message on Facebook, I just caught my breath,” Walder said. “My heart literally skipped a beat. It was hard to contain my excitement.”

Walder said Johnson brings experience, knowledge, respect and credibility to the station. “It’s not just what he brings to the on-air side, but also in helping reporters and weighing in on news decisions.”

At home in newsroom

Johnson won’t live in Grand Forks. Instead, he will commute from his Moorhead home. He and wife Mary, a nurse, are too settled to move, he said.

“I leave home at noon and I get back home at 12:30 in the morning,” he said.

Because of his time on the road, he bargained for a four-day workweek, from Monday through Thursday.

“My favorite part of television has always been the newsroom,” he said.

WDAZ and the Herald are both owned by Forum Communications Co.