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Downs’ 50 Years in Broadcasting: It All Began in a Tiny Station . . .

Times Staff Writer

The year was 1939, the city Lima, Ohio. There, Hugh Downs, 18 and scared stiff, began reading copy into a microphone at radio station WLOK, which pumped out 100 mighty watts.

A glorious moment, he recalls.

“People were hearing me from as far away as the farthest reaches of Allen County,” says Downs, now regularly heard and seen on ABC’s “20/20" and who today celebrates his 50th anniversary in broadcasting.

It has been quite a ride. From that $12.50-a-week start, broadcasting has made him wealthy, with both the money and wattage rising as he went from Lima to Detroit--Mike Wallace lived in his apartment building then--to Chicago to New York, and then to television.

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He has been able to see the world, loop an F-104 jet, start and end NBC’s broadcast day on several occasions and, on one memorable night in 1960, host “The Tonight Show” when Jack Paar tearfully stalked off, angered by the NBC censor’s axing of a key part of a harmless joke involving a loo.

He has even been in a “Caesar’s Hour” skit by Mel Brooks in which he, Caesar, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner did nothing but successively introduce each other as members of a “serious” TV drama that never materialized.

Funny thing is, after Downs returned home from the audition stint at WLOK, his father said this: “Well, I want you to continue looking for a job for another week, and if you can’t find a job, go with the radio station.”

Downs, whose TV moments through the years will be highlighted in a segment of Friday’s “20/20,” mused about all this recently in his offices at ABC News on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Though Barbara Walters has been co-anchoring “20/20" with him since 1985, he started as a solo act, called in as the get-in-there-fast anchor a week after the show’s disastrous debut in June, 1978, when the news magazine and its first hosts, Robert Hughes and Harold Hayes, print men with no broadcast background, bombed in a chorus of boos.

One critic likened the fast-paced first effort to “ ’60 Minutes’ on speed.” ABC News President Roone Arledge quickly moved to end such carping. He resolved to revamp the format and slow the pace, and he put in a call to the calm, unflappable Downs, who happened to be in New York substitute-hosting for David Hartman on “Good Morning America.”

At the time, Downs, after nine years of hosting NBC’s “Today” show, where he first worked with Walters, was hosting a PBS series on aging, “Over Easy.” He had seen the first “20/20,” discreetly says he was “puzzled” by it, and had an inkling that Arledge “wasn’t calling me to ask about ‘Monday Night Football.’ ”

“I really had a fear that they were calling me in to paper over a disaster, and then (would) quietly pull it after four weeks or so,” he recalls. So he asked for and got from Arledge a promise that the retooled “20/20" “wouldn’t be yanked off the air for at least two years.” (The ABC News chief has since made the same promise with regard to the new Sam Donaldson-Diane Sawyer news series, tentatively called “Prime Time,” that bows Aug. 3 at 10 p.m.)

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With that assurance, Downs signed up for “20/20" and, still under contract to host “Over Easy,” commuted each week from New York to San Francisco, where the PBS series was produced.

“I kind of lived on a 747 for about 18 months,” Downs says.

He nonetheless remains a fan of plane living, at least if he is at the controls. He once spent a summer with Richard Bach, former jet fighter pilot and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” author, making a documentary about modern barnstorming, “Nothing by Chance,” based on Bach’s book of that name.

He has pilot ratings for single- and multi-engine aircraft, seaplanes, gliders and even hot-air balloons--the last, he says, “a mad sport.”

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Downs, who has homes here, in Carefree, Ariz., and in Great Barrington, Mass., spends much of his spare spring and summer time in a glider, thanks to a work schedule that is far less demanding than the one he had in the ‘50s.

At one point then, he would substitute-host for Dave Garroway on NBC’s “Today,” host a couple of “Concentration” game shows in the afternoon, then finish his day as Paar’s announcer on “The Tonight Show” when it was aired live from the Henry Hudson Theater here and ended at 1 a.m.

“This is the first time in my career doing only one show,” says Downs.

He smiles when asked how long he wants to continue in broadcasting, now that he has 50 years logged.

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“It’s funny,” he says. “Every time I yearn for a lot more free time, I think of this Walter Mitty-like dream that ABC will pay me enormous amounts of money to come in once a year to do a show. But it’s not in the cards.

“So, if the audience doesn’t tire of me, I’ll probably just keep doing this. Because there’s nothing else I’d rather do, and no place I could go in the industry that I would consider up.”


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