Home Business Al Primo, creator of ‘eyewitness’ local news, dies at 87

Al Primo, creator of ‘eyewitness’ local news, dies at 87

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Al Primo, a behind-the-scenes force in television broadcasting who revolutionized local news in the 1960s and early 1970s, replacing the single stentorian anchorman with a band of roving “eyewitness” reporters and a winsome cast of on-set personalities to create a format still familiar to TV viewers today, died Sept. 29 at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn. He was 87.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter Juliet Primo. Primo grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of an Italian immigrant, and stumbled into television shortly after high school when he landed a job as a mail clerk at a local station. TV newscasts at the time resembled those on the radio, with reports read by anchormen whose bearing and intonation made them known, whether derisively or affectionately, as the “voice of God.”

As Mr. Primo rose through the station ranks, he began to envision another way of delivering the news. He put his ideas into action as news director at KYW-TV, a Westinghouse station in Philadelphia where he sent reporters out from the studio and into the city, giving the name to his signature newscast: “Eyewitness News” debuted in 1965.

“We weren’t going to just preach the news to people,” Mr. Primo said in a forthcoming documentary, “News Primo: Al Primo’s Eyewitness News Revolution,” directed by Brian Calfano, a professor of journalism at the University of Cincinnati. “We wanted to go out and talk to the people because people can tell their stories better than we can write them.”

Back on the set, a male-female anchor duo — the first were Marciarose Shestack and Tom Snyder, later a fixture of late-night television — engaged in friendly banter with the weather- and sportscasters. To fans, the local news team became daily companions, like neighbors or even family. Mr. Primo insisting on hiring minorities to better reflect and represent the station’s audience.

He took his format to WABC-TV in New York City in 1968, boosting the struggling station back into competition with other networks — WABC eventually claimed first place in the ratings — and proving the appeal of a format that soon dominated local news.

“Al is one of the most important figures in the history of broadcast journalism,” said Emmy-winning television personality Geraldo Rivera, who got his start in TV from Mr. Primo. “He invented local news as we know it.”

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