Bill Kurtis: "It's all about storytelling"
By Bill Stamets
I'm evangelist for documentary," intones Bill Kurtis with I an aw-shucks twinkle in his eye. The 58 year-old, five-nights-a-week cable host presents 150 hours of Arms & Entertainment Channel Documentaries yearly. With a five year talent service contract, Kurtis is the flagship face upfront and the avuncular voice over the largest share of nonfiction tare in television today.
"We want to be the place for contemporary documentary with a highly identifiable brand which stands out in the spectrum of television programming—we benefit from the sameness of entertainment product," says Kurtis, taking a lunch break between taping stand-ups and strolls across his cyber-set that simulates a handful of A&E series venues. Kurtis, a 30-year veteran Chicago anchor and CBS news correspondent, brings a Cronkite cadence and boyish curiosity to three A&E shows he executive produces and hosts: The New Explorers with Bill Kurtis, Investigative Reports and American Justice. From his Chicago studio, he also hosts A&E's Inside Story, L.A. Detectives and Unexplained Stories—the last a psychics-and-UFOs show which tilts the line-up toward tabloidism.
Kurtis is lauded as "a one-man documentary machine" by the website APB Online on its "Media Patrol: Reviews of Crime Reporting, Books, TV and Movies" page. Starting up Kurtis Productions, Ltd. in 1990, Kurtis is an anomaly among news talent for owning & operating his own shop, located in a post-industrial quarter near Chicago's loop. Anyone familiar with The New Explorers won't be surprised to learn that Kurtis has decorated his 5,500 sq. ft. loft facility with masks, spears and carvings collected from his farflung expeditions. He employs a fulltime staff of fourteen and draws upon a pool of ten producers, five editors, and five camera/sound crews. Although on March 27 the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago saluted Kurtis with a black-tie gala-waiters served hors d'oeuvres on trays decorated with tiny TV's playing A&E clips-this media celeb cuts a profile lower than Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, Chicago's richer and louder purveyors of nonfiction TV.
Kurtis was raised on American military bases. "We played with real M-1 's with the firing pins removed," recalls Kurtis, whose family eventually settled in wholesome Independence, Kansas in 1956. "I had two good parents who loved me and they sent me out into the world without many demons inside to fight," said Kurtis at the recent gala. "No anger, no anxiety, no stress. You're able to listen [to] and learn [from] the world around you with a sense of wonder." Movietone and Paramount newsreels gave young "Horty" (short for Horton, as only close kin and Kansans call him) a hint of the world past the wheat fields. He saw Osa and Martin Johnson's travel films of African adventures that taught him: "One could go away to far away places and come back and tell stories about it." Kurtis later put his own adventures as a foreign correspondent in Kenya, Rhodesia, Poland, El Salvador, Tehran and Saigon into Bill Kurtis On Assignment (1982, Rand McNally), a thoughtfully penned memoir illustrated with his photos.
For his stage debut, Kurtis remembers addressing a junior high assembly where he experienced "fright, nervousness, then achievement" capped by "the satisfying sound of applause." In his senior year, he won a national "Voice of Democracy" award. By then his communications career was already underway: at age 16, he was a paid Little League reporter on radio station KIND. Kurtis got a B.S. in journalism at the University of Kansas, then went on to law school in Topeka. "Lawyers were respected and television people were not-TV news had not come of age in 1962," says Kurtis, who passed the bar and planned to work at a Wichita law firm. That legal background would later help him cover the trials of Charles Manson, Angela Davis and Daniel Ellsberg, also providing him an authoritarian vantage he couldn't foresee until a lethal tornado hit Topeka on June 8, 1966. Part-time weatherman Kurtis stepped before a live camera at WTBW and urged: "If you live i n the north part of the city or the northern edge, for God 's sake take cover." A marathon of emergency coverage ensued that earned Kurtis a street reporter's job at WBBM TV in Chicago.
"From that defining moment, I have regarded my profession with a spiritual respect," writes Kurtis in his foreword to Thirty Seconds to Air, A Field Reporter's Guide to Live Television Reporting (Iowa State University Press, 1999) by Bob Arya. "It showed me how important television can be," Kurtis explained in an interview for ID. "The words you say can literally mean life or death. I won't even participate in [on air] April Fool's bits," he added. (This seriousness, though, was at least partially tempered by a 1982 People magazine report about a disturbing-the peace charge i n the newscaster's youth. It seems that one night college student Kurtis stole some loudspeakers and cruised around the University of Kansas campus, blasting h is own laughter!) A mature Kurtis lent his voice to We Interrupt This Broadcast... (Sourcebooks, Inc., 1998), a coffee table book with two CDs containing 38 historic sound bites from radio news archives. Kurtis narrates lengthy commentary, sounding almost like he's on location , reporting on the century's breaking stories.
Chicago Tribune television critic Steve Johnson once called Kurtis's singularly vocal signature as "orotund, Ted-Baxter-with a-brain tones." As for his on-camera mien, Kurtis quips, "I've been baby-faced all my career." In 1973, after three years in L.A. as a CBS network correspondent, Kurtis returned to Chicago to co-anchor Chicago newscasts with Walter Jacobson. Competing with "Happy Talk" formats, WBBM-TV promoted its hardhitting duo with the slogan: "It's Not Pretty But It's Real."
Kurtis is especially proud of Watching the Watch Dog, a 1982 documentary critiquing techniques of investigative journalists. "We made 60 Minutes abandon the ambush interview," he claims today. "Television demands pictures and the ambush interview provides dramatic pictures," Kurtis stated in his self-critical special. "The danger, of course, is that it's best suited to drama, and not to elicit the truth." He expressed similar concerns after covering the now infamous clash of police and protestors outside the Hilton Hotel during the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. The footage simply overwhelmed any voiceover. "I puzzled about how to report the scene until I realized it didn't matter," he wrote in Bill Kurtis On Assignment. "As reporters we were riders on a subliminal force... We eventually learned that to fight the pictures was useless. The most effective reports shared an experience with the viewer, as if we were both watching the same images."
A&A recently hyped its documentaries with the tag line: "The closes you'll get to the truth," Kurtis has a winningly square way of getting us closer. In "Los Angeles: Anatomy of Riot," a 1992 Investigative Report, Kurtis drives around South-Central with one hand on the wheel and a microphone in the window. We're O.K." Turning to the videographer in the front seat, Kurtis adds, "You've got glass all over you." The windshield is smashed and stores burn and later, Jurtis walks up to a young African-American woman at a mall. "Hi, talk to me. Have you ever done this before?"— "No." "What's happening?"—"We're looting." "Now, you know that you're looting. Now, you know that's not right, dontcha?"—"Yeah, but still we need some of the stuff so we're gettin' it"
In "Mystery of the Ancient Ones," a 1996 segment in The New Explorers series, Kurtis hikes up an Arizona canyon with archaeologists who pick up a 700 year-old pine cone. An out-of breath Kurtis exclaims: "Oh my goodness!" In post-production he narrates: "Just when I least expected it, another clue."
The A&E format can have its awkward moments, too. Kurtis tapes his stand-ups for "The Nazis' Secret Killing Squads" in the Holocaust Museum. "What drives men to the slaughter of innocents? That's next when Investigative Reports continues here on A&E." At the commercial break, there's a "You Tell Us" graphic asking: "Should an international criminal court be established for the prosecution of war crimes?" Viewers can e-mail their views to "AandE.com."
Despite tight production schedules and speedy news cycles, Kurtis's work ages well. "I'm looking for an end to a documentary and you're telling me it's the beginning," he banters with an ideologue du jour in "Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution," a 1995, two-hour Investigative Report. He makes no forecasts about his subject here, unlike bombastic biographer Jeff Kamen who calls the Republican from Georgia "the single most brilliantly self defined, most meticulously vectored on-a-straight-line political leader America has ever seen, at least in the last half of the 20th century." Kurtis's solid documentary recaps Connie Chung's scoop from the House Speaker's mom (she said her "Newty" called Hillary a "bitch"): "I can't imagine Edward R. Murrow would ever lie to somebody's mother in order to get their story," scolded Gingrich outside the White House.
Kurtis often invokes Murrow's "golden age" of the American television documentary. "During my 30 years at CBS. I watched documentary units shut down at all the major networks," stated Kurtis in an A&E press release last May. "But cable programmers like A&E discovered that viewers actually wanted information, ushering in a golden age of documentaries."
Certainly the intrepid Kurtis has aired more hours—and ruffled fewer feathers—than Murrow. And A&E's agenda-lite packaging is unlikely to antagonize sponsors or subscribers. Centrist and sincere, Kurtis may be in a short line to earn the tag "Murrow of the '90s." Kurtis himself reports he's "riding the greatest wave of documentary storytelling in television history-five nights a week."
Bill Stamets is a freelance writer and photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader and other publications. A Super-8 filmmaker, he also is a part-time instructor at Columbia College, teaching film aesthetics, criticism and experimental film.