WBOC’s Steve Hammond: ‘Trust is earned’

Hammon MAIN

In a mass-media world where TV news stars are beholden as near-royalty, being the top anchorman in the No. 143 Nielsen TV Ratings Market might not seem like the “big time.”

Your daily newscast is going to 160,000 homes in a three-state area, not the millions of households touched by the networks, or CNN or Fox News.

Despite its comparatively small size, the Salisbury market has something none of its similar counterparts can claim: It has an abundance of truly interesting news, it has a loyal television audience that covets that news and it has Steve Hammond, a small-market anchor with the skills, command and personality to play alongside the national stars.

Hammond’s reporting has earned him many awards, including a prestigious national Edward R. Murrow Award. In addition, he’s received numerous honors from the Associated Press and the Radio Television News Directors Association.

But as Hammond says in his own biography, “Earning the respect of colleagues in the business is nice, but it’s not nearly as important as earning AND keeping the trust and respect of our viewers.”

Yes, the “trust” consideration. Walter Cronkite was lauded as “the most trusted man in America.” Hammond would undoubtedly qualify as the most trusted TV newsman on Delmarva — when he says it, people believe it.

Hammond grew up in Baltimore, graduated from the University of Delaware, and found a professional home in Salisbury nearly three decades ago. When you travel around Salisbury, or anywhere on the Lower Shore, and ask people what they think of their local anchor, those people will invariably talk about him like he’s a member of the family.

By entering people’s homes — electronically — nearly every day for years and years, and by being the entity that delivers good and bad news, while seeking to put all news in a local context, Hammond has made himself the voice of our community.

It’s an amazing legacy, for sure.

Q. You’ve been at WBOC more than 25 years. Could you have ever imagined that you’d have such a run?

A. It’ll be 28 years this March, and I had no idea I’d still be here. It’s been a great run!

I originally thought I’d be at WBOC for two to three years and then move on. But I got “sand in my shoes” and realized that Delmarva is a great place to live and to raise a family.

I also realized at some point that WBOC is a great television station. Many people don’t really get that.

These days most stations are part of a group of stations with a corporate owner trying to please shareholders. WBOC’s owner, Tom Draper, is a local guy who cares about this area. He takes enormous pride in the station and pumps a lot of money right back in to it.

Our Newsplex is now 7 years old, but it is still one of the most technologically advanced newsroom/studios in the country. We often have people from stations all over the country visiting and looking at our operation.

Tom’s vision, deep pockets and commitment to doing things right get much of the credit. That combined with the incredible group of people I’ve worked with over the years make this a great place to work.

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Q. How has your industry changed in that time?

A. The industry has changed dramatically, thanks to incredible leaps in technology.

When I first started at WBOC, our remote cameras were big and bulky and attached by an “umbilical cord” to a recording machine with a ¾-inch tape in it.

Now the cameras are much smaller and lighter, and everything is recorded on a small memory chip. All editing today is on computers.

To be honest I have a hard time keeping up with all of the technology. I used to take pride in being able to do virtually every job in the newsroom. Those days are long gone.

The switch from analog to digital technology has made a huge difference.

These technological advancements mean the news is delivered much faster, and we can quickly get video from places all over the world. But faster doesn’t always necessarily mean better.

The TV news industry, particularly at the network level, has changed dramatically in terms of what actually qualifies as news. I’m an old-school journalist who wants to know what’s going on around the world.

There’s way too much emphasis on celebrities or other “fluff.”

Q. It seems like people are watching TV news now online, or delayed, and less live. Do you factor that in somehow in the way you present the news?

A. No, it really doesn’t affect how we present the news on TV.

When we first started posting stories online in the 1990s, we often would wait until a story aired at 6 or 7 p.m., then we posted it on wboc.com.

These days information flies around the globe at lightning speed. A story often gets posted on our website, Facebook or Twitter as soon as we can. There’s no holding back.

Whether it’s online or TV, when it’s ready to go we go with it.

We often supplement our TV stories with more information on our the web. If people want to learn more about it, we encourage them to wboc.com.

It’s all about synergy. We tie everything together … TV, website, Twitter, Facebook.

Q. You obviously have the best equipment available to do your job — top-notch equipment.

A. Technology makes all the difference. We do more news now with fewer people thanks to all of the technological advancements in our industry.

Our cameras are remote-controlled. We use iPads instead of scripts on the desk. There are many things behind the scenes that make our jobs more efficient.

I’m not a fan of all of the changes, though.

Most of our journalists in the field today are what we call a “one-man band.” They now play the role of reporter, videographer, editor, and web reporter. When you have one person doing so many things at once, there’s a greater chance of mistakes and stories of poor video/audio quality.

I’d like us to go back to having two people, a photographer and reporter, as a team working on a story.

But I’m not the guy making those decisions … or writing the check.

Q. A lot of people in your business hate high-definition because you can see every pore on their faces.

A. I don’t pay much attention to it. It’s not really a big priority, as long as I don’t look disheveled.

The move from standard- to high-definition initially was odd, especially as TV’s got bigger.

Honestly, there’s not too much I can do about my many imperfections.

What’s funny is all of the strange things people say when they see you in person for the first time … “You look better in person.” …  “You look better on TV.” … “TV adds 30 pounds to you! You’re much thinner in person.”

I get all kinds of comments, and most of them are very nice. But there is that rare occasion when I’m left wondering if a person realizes how rude they sound, and awkward it is for me, as they comment in a loud voice about me or my appearance in a crowded grocery store checkout line.

Q. What’s the biggest news story you ever covered?

A. Tough question. There are so many. Big storms always come to mind because so many people are affected and rely on us for important, sometimes life-saving, information.

Hurricane Sandy was a big one that obviously caused a lot of devastation. I’m proud of our wall-to wall coverage, especially during tornado warnings as we worked to keep people informed, calm and safe.

The bi-state shooter, as it was happening, was a big deal as Lamont Norman drove down Route 13 from Laurel to Salisbury, shooting at people, killing two of them.

There’s the list of high-profile killers I’d rather forget like John Thanos, Thomas Capano and Thomas Leggs.

One of the most memorable stories for me was when I went to Somalia to cover local troops helping with the humanitarian relief mission. It was an eye-opening trip to a part of the world I otherwise would never visit.

It was about eight months before the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. We did a series of stories about the local men and women serving there. It was just before Christmas, and we delivered presents from home.

But our visit took a strange turn when I asked to visit a local village where the humanitarian aid was making a difference. The U.S. military agreed to let us tag along on a flight to a remote Somali village to drop off a big load of rice and wheat.

The village was considered relatively safe, but there were no military troops there. The plan was for us to stay behind and make contact with the one English-speaking person in the entire village of 30,000. He was in charge of distributing the food to the starving people.

We would shoot some stories with him and then hop on the next relief flight scheduled to arrive there three hours later. Long story short, we ended up getting harassed by a bunch of the local thugs.

I’ll never forget staring down the barrel of a machine gun mounted on a pickup truck as three crazed Somalis, stoned on khat, tried to steal our camera equipment.

Luckily, the British Royal Air Force had a C-130 gunship nearby that came to our rescue. The plane swooped down … buzzed the packed-dirt runway next to us.

The bad guys jumped into the pickup and took off. Crisis averted.

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Q. What’s the favorite story you ever covered?

A. I will always remember flying with the Blue Angels. It it unbelievable to fly up the Chesapeake Bay at .95 mach or pulling a 5 G turn. Absolutely thrilling.

I enjoyed sharing the story of Dr. David Nichols. He was the doctor who flew to Tangier Island every week for 30 years to treat the islanders. He spearheaded efforts to build a state of the art medical center on the island.

My second story with him a few years later was very sad and emotional because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I presented him with a WBOC Jefferson Award a few weeks before his death. He was an incredible man who had a profound impact on me. A dedicated Christian who accepted his fate with such peace and grace.

He helped and inspired a lot of people … in life and in death.

Q. Think about it: You’ve delivered news on every major story that’s occurred on Delmarva in the past 28 years. Are you ever amazed at the amount of news and information you’ve dispensed?

A. I hadn’t really thought about it until a man asked me one day how many newscasts I’d anchored. I didn’t have an answer but later calculated that it’s around 18,000-20,000 newscasts.

That’s a lot of information.

Q. Did you always want to work in television?

A. My exposure to television began at an early age. My mom was a longtime vice president at Maryland Public Television, my sister was a talk-show producer at stations in both Baltimore and Philadelphia, and my brother wrote and produced music for TV.

So I had been exposed to it early on.

But my first real “wow” moment was when I did a summer internship at WJZ-TV. After my first day in the newsroom I was hooked. I loved the hustle and bustle, and pressure of getting everything done just before 6 a.m.

The one thing I’ve always liked about my job is that every day is different. I walk into the Newsplex never knowing what’s going to happen that day.

Q. How did you choose TV? Why not newspaper reporting?

A. I never had any exposure to the newspaper business. After my time in the WJZ newsroom, I never even considered it. The immediacy of TV news hooked me.

Q. Walter Cronkite is still talked about as being the “most trusted man in America.” Is it important to convey trust to your audience?

A. It’s absolutely important that viewers trust me.

I’m not quite sure how you convey it. Trust is earned. It takes time and you have to work hard to make sure that your reporting is accurate and fair.

Over the years, I think I’ve earned the trust of WBOC viewers.

Q. Has that red light ever come on and you blanked?

A. I don’t remember it happening too often. But I have to say I was momentarily speechless last month when the Antares rocket launch ended in a huge fireball.

I was prepared to ad-lib about the rocket, its stages of flight and the International Space Station mission. Suddenly everything changed.

For the first 5 to 10 seconds, all I could say was “Wow” and “Oh no.”

Paul Butler, Dan Satterfield and I slid into our wall-to-wall breaking news coverage and just talked about what we saw.

I was glad Chopper 16 was there to provide incredible pictures as a wall of flames spread from the launch pad.

Q. How are you able to speak into a camera when a director is talking into your earpiece? Seems hard.

A. It doesn’t happen as often as people think. Election night and breaking news is when it happens the most.

When it does, producers are concise with their directions. “No video” … “Lost the live shot” … “Toss to break.”

If  we’re in breaking news and I don’t hear them clearly, I just pause and ask them to repeat it. Viewers know what’s going on, they understand.

Q. How tempting has it been to leave this market? Lots of your co-workers have gone on to big jobs in journalism. When did you decide this was the place for you?

A. Over the years I’ve had other opportunities, inside and outside of TV news, to leave this market. I decided a long time ago that I was going to not move around from city to city like many people in the business do.

Plenty of TV news people live a nomadic lifestyle where they never put down roots. Two years in Norfolk, another two in Atlanta, then off the New York. That’s not the way I wanted to live my life.

I haven’t been seriously tempted to leave Delmarva in a long time. I love it here, and always have.

My wife, Heather, grew up here. She’s worked hard to establish and grow her business, Hammond Wealth Management. My sons, Graham and Hunter love their school, friends and sports.

Delmarva is our home, and there’s no need to change that.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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