WBOC’s Steve Hammond marks 30 years of telling us the news

Steve Hammond on the WBOC news set. (Tony Weeg Photo)

If a man came into your home more than 22,000 times for a 30-year span, you’d have to know him pretty well.

His face, voice, mannerisms and would be truly familiar. To gain your access, he would have to be someone you like, and the two of you would have had to build deep rapport, over so much time and so many encounters.

Since 1987, Steve Hammond has been that household visitor. Anchoring up to three television news broadcasts each workday, the Baltimore native turned Eastern Shoreman is perhaps the single-most recognizable figure on Delmarva.

People feel like they know him. They like him. They trust him.

As viewers, we’ve watched him grow in the anchor chair, from fresh-faced boy to dignified news presenter. From light duty, such as anchoring coverage of the Delaware State Fair, to explaining the complex Pfiesteria scare in the Pocomoke River to explaining the crimes committed by monsters such as Thomas Capano, John Thanos and Thomas Leggs — Hammond has been The Man.

Then there are the TV moments that we witness, where we feel we are among a family: Smiling, on-the-set back and forths with Scorchy Tawes, playfield banter or serious exchanges with the co-anchors, terse questions with reporters live in the field.

To be on TV nearly every day for 30 years, in the same television market, is almost unheard of these days. Reporters grab their experience and move on, hopefully winning larger paychecks in bigger markets with more viewers.

Even the TV folks who want to plant roots in a small market have trouble staying on the air – the viewers get sick of them.

No one seems to be sick of Steve Hammond.

Magic in stories

Unlike most people from TV, Hammond is even taller in person than he appears on TV. And though he’s approaching his mid-50s, he appears a lot younger. There is no trace of gray in his hair and he maintains a remarkably calm and open aura.

He is someone who knows his role in the community and is unfailingly pleasant around people who are viewers.

When he arrived at WBOC in 1987, he never imagined it would be a lifetime gig. After cutting his teeth, it was expected he would return to Charm City, where the nightly TV news reports are often filled with crime coverage.

“I grew up in Baltimore,” he said, “and returning to Baltimore was always intriguing to me. But I didn’t want to be one of those TV journalists who was on the air every night talking about who shot who and why.

“That’s something I’ve always really liked about working at WBOC – it’s not all bad news, crime all the time. We are here to tell stories. We can find magic in the stories that we tell.”

Hammond began as a manager at WBOC, serving as the station’s first-ever Dover Bureau Chief, where he oversaw a couple of reporters.

“I wasn’t a reporter per se, I was a manager –23 years old and managing people,” he said. “Talk about life lessons. But I grew into the job.”

Hammond was only in Dover for seven or eight months when a weekend anchor job opened in Salisbury, and he became the Saturday and Sunday night anchor. In those days, that role was one of the more difficult in the business, as the anchor presented the news, the weather and even read the sports.

“I was by myself,” he recalled. “Back then you did everything. I wrote everything. And I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it.”

Then, about six months later, weekday anchor Mark Hubbard left for a bigger station in Richmond. The popular Hubbard had been paired with co-anchor Cathy Unruh to make one of the more formidable news teams in any local market.

Sally Cannon, a Salisbury local who herself had worked as a WBOC news anchor, was news director. Hammond was promoted to succeed Hubbard and was paired with Maria Hull Bynum and then Lisa Spicer.

Hammond quickly developed an on-air bond with sports reporter George Evanko, which bordered on the macho and entertained viewers.

Decision to stay

The presumption was he’d anchor a few years and – like Hubbard – move up in the business.

“That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it in TV news, you’re supposed to move up, that’s what people do,” he said.

But Hammond liked Salisbury and the Shore and the people he worked with.

“As the saying goes, I got the sand in my shoes and at the time, when I first started, and I had been here a few years and I started looking for another job, there were some opportunities, but I wasn’t thrilled with them. And WBOC kept promoting me.

“I guess it was only about 15 years ago when I made the decision, ‘Well, this is where I’m going to be’ – I was going to stay on the Peninsula,” he said.

While Hammond likes to talk about the TV news business and the stories that fill his broadcasts at noon, 6 and 7 p.m., it’s obvious he likes talking about his family even more.

His wife, Heather, is from a prominent Worcester County family with deep Eastern Shore roots.

His sons, Graham, 15, and Hunter, 12, attend Worcester Prep in Berlin – “both really good young men,” he said – and are deeply involved in soccer and tennis. The family lives west of Fenwick Island.

“Family is the most important thing in the world to me so we spend a lot of our time together,” Hammond said. “Whether it’s sports – playing, watching – we are together.”

Love of family and a love of work seem to be what keeps him even mannered and content.

“At the end of the day, I really like what I do. I tell this to people all the time – every day is different,” he said. “Some of it’s really sad, some of it’s uplifting. Some of it’s a real grind like with any job, but I truly enjoy what I do.”

Constantly in the spotlight

It’s impossible not to be fascinated with TV news people. They come into our homes every day. We learn good and bad news from them. They can single-handedly change or affirm our perceptions about our neighbors, our leaders and our communities in one sentence.

They reflect who we are and what our community is. They have a power that’s overwhelming and should always be put to good use.

Because of this, most TV anchors are self-aware and downright shy in public.

“I have never been one to reveal a whole lot of myself, because I feel like it’s irrelevant,” Hammond said. “People aren’t watching to learn about Steve Hammond they’re watching to learn about the news of the day, so I never wanted it to be about me.

“I’m pretty guarded. I’ve always been that way. I feel like a lot of people feel like they know me. I feel like I’m very approachable.” he said.

Does he feel the pressure of so many eyes on him and his work, of so much scrutiny on his reporting and that of his colleagues?

“My job is to inform and educate. That’s what I do,” he said.

Does he feel the pressure of being the anchor, of the 30-year commitment, of the expectation that he will always be the one sitting there delivering the biggest local stories?

“I don’t feel that way at all. There are plenty of people in this building who can do what I do,” he said.

“What I have is institutional knowledge that most people here don’t have – knowledge of past stories and of people. I think that is of value. But I think that I can provide a bit more context and perspective than others, but I don’t really think about it.

“I try not to think about those pressure-packed moments because it doesn’t do me any good. I have to keep my head clear and focus on what I need to focus on.”

Industry always changing

Like newspapers, the TV news world is changing fast. The local markets are not immune and must fight to keep up.

“It’s a fast-moving world, information flying around the world at lightning speed,” Hammond said. “I worry that more journalistic shortcuts are being taken, I worry sometimes that independent information isn’t being verified and things are just being along with an attitude of ‘let’s just go with it.’ The 24 -hour cable news operations have changed the landscape.”

Hammond has more deadlines than ever. WBOC recently added a radio station to its media holdings, and Hammond is called upon to deliver news on yet another platform.

“I do TV newscasts, radio newscasts, promos for ‘Coming Up Tonight,’ have editorial meetings – it’s 10 deadlines a day.

“I am constantly aware of what time it is and whether I can get this next newscast in, in the next 3 minutes.”

All reporters hate the inevitable “proudest moment professionally” question. Hammond is no exception.

“It’s about the bigger picture, not one specific thing,” he said. “We won a national Edward R. Murrow Award with the coverage on Pfiesteria, where we did a half-hour show life from along the (Pocomoke) River. But what I’m more proud of is the consistency – whether it’s covering storms for days on end, hurricanes or big snowstorms, whether it’s Thomas Leggs and the Sarah Foxwell (murder) case or the rocket explosion at Wallops. You have to be there every day and you have to get it right every day. People trust you to do that.”

Steve Hammond is marking 30 years on WBOC-TV News. “At the end of the day, I really like what I do. I tell this to people all the time – every day is different,” he said. “Some of it’s really sad, some of it’s uplifting. Some of it’s a real grind like with any job, but I truly enjoy what I do.” (Tony Weeg Photo)

 

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

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