Thursday, March 30, 2006

Because, as it turns out, Silverbrand and I are almost exactly the same age (born six weeks apart in the summer of 1946) and had our first journalism jobs at the same time a few hundred miles apart (I was a writer and editor for the Boston Phoenix while he was getting started in Maine), I happen to know something more about the peculiar point in media history when Silverbrand was beginning his television career.

There were few women on the air in television news until 1971 or so. Boston’s largest TV station, WBZ, had one female reporter, a middle aged woman respected for her reporting skills. But a few years later there was a huge influx of primarily young and attractive women hired to be on the air, at first as “soft” news reporters, then general assignment reporters, then talk show hosts and co-anchor spots on new early news shows, and by mid-decade, the anchor chair on the more established news programs.

Several proved to be very good at television news. The alarmingly beautiful Natalie Jacobson, who became the first woman to anchor the evening news in Boston, is still a popular (and now award-winning) newscaster at the same station, WCVB. Pat Mitchell, who I met when she was the WBZ film and theatre reviewer, is now the head of PBS.

But there were others… On a story, I had to attend a public hearing in Boston concerning telephone company regulation. I arrived an hour or so into it and saw a group of reporters standing in the press section, but I didn’t know any of them. However, there was a tall, extremely striking woman I’d seen on TV, and of course she’s the one I chose to approach, to catch up on what had gone on so far. She smiled her blinding smile at me and giggled. In her long, perfectly manicured fingers she held a reporter’s notebook, completely blank.

Of course, there were male anchors more famous for their handsome smiles than their penetrating intelligence (the urban legend about Boston’s biggest anchor star had him solemnly warning that a missing child should be approached carefully, because he was “acoustic”), and airhead anchors of both genders have since become a living cliché. But at precisely the moment Dave Silverbrand was beginning, this rapid influx of young women into local broadcasting was skewing the system to the detriment of other reporters, before some balance was achieved. Though it wasn’t easy for the young women either, it could be frustrating for young men.

But Silverbrand coped with all the change for 20 years in Maine, and could have stayed longer. “People I worked with years ago are still there,” he said. Or he could have tried to advance to more prestigious and better-paying media markets in bigger cities. “I didn’t have the fever for big city TV,” he said. “I’m kind of a small town guy.”

Since coming to the North Coast to be closer to his California family, Silverbrand has felt the effects of media conglomerates as well as all the other outrages. So besides satirizing his fate in a play, how does he deal with it? “If I had just acquiesced to the way things were, I would be incredibly angry and disillusioned,” he said. “But I learned early on that if something is really important to you, you go ahead and do it.”

Case in point: In 1982, a young Maine schoolgirl named Samantha Smith wrote to Yuri Andropov, then the Soviet Premier, telling him of her fears about nuclear war. He invited her to Moscow, and her trip became a media sensation.

“It was a big global story, one of those stories that I wanted to do so badly, I could ace that story—but somebody else, for those superficial reasons, got to go and do it,” Silverbrand recalled. “I felt so angry and left- behind about that. But I said, Dave, you can come up with your own way to do something like that. You don’t have to wait for somebody else to write your ticket, you can do it yourself.”

So Silverbrand organized high school student trips to Russia and went with them for four consecutive years. “That was even more fulfilling to me than covering Samantha Smith. And that’s the way I’ve been doing things ever since.”

Even when he was the one-person news staff for Channel 6 during the Clear Channel period, and he got a hankering to go to Cuba: “I knew nobody I worked for would send me, but I really wanted to go. I knew I would have to pay my own way, so I did.” He also took a camera. And since he was responsible for providing Clear Channel’s Santa Rosa station with one story a day from Humboldt, he fed them his series on Cuba. “What were they going to do? They had to put something in that slot. And I had just a wonderful time, talking to Cuban people.”

These days Silverbrand also teaches English and journalism classes at College of the Redwoods, and passes on this lesson. “I tell my students, ‘you can do things that are important to you, you can find a way. You don’t have to be told to do it, just go out and do it, and make a difference, and feel good about yourself. If you let others write all the rules for you, you’re not going to get anything done.’ In its own passive-aggressive way, what I did was revolutionary. So I tell them, ‘Just find a way to work the system, you can have an awful lot of fun.’ ”

In the end, that seems to be Silverbrand’s dominant feeling about his career. Veteran CBS journalist Mike Wallace had announced his retirement a few days before our conversation. Silverbrand watched an interview with him. “I thought, dammit, I’ve had as much fun at my job as he’s had at his. I didn’t make nearly as much money, and I didn’t work on a national TV network, but I’ve had a ball. And I’m not done.”

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