Big fish in a small media-market pond: These broadcast mainstays in Valley, Charlottesville aren’t going anywhere anytime soon
Story by Chris Graham
When you’re a TV weatherman, a trip to the local burger place can be a challenge not unlike the 10K races that Eric Pritchett runs when he’s not standing in front of a television screen telling us what Mother Nature has in store for us tomorrow.
“What’s it going to do on Monday?” one of the employees at Wright’s Dairy Rite asked Pritchett as we stood in line together awaiting a food order, inquiring about the talk that had been circulating in weather circles about a possible upcoming winter storm.
Another asked Pritchett a little later how another NBC29 weather anchor was doing. The owner of the store came over a few minutes afterward and threw in a question about the morning news show – Pritchett does the 5, 6, 10 and 11 o’clock news, but he answered the question anyway.
This is what happens when you’re a big fish in a small media-market pond.
Eric Pritchett, a Staunton native, has been at NBC29 for 12 years. Ken Slack, a Stuarts Draft native, has been at the Charlottesville-based NBC affiliate for going on 13.
It wouldn’t be right to say that either just fell into the broadcast business – but a lot had to happen to get the two on the air.
“When I was getting ready to leave school, I sent out, like, 40 tapes and resumes to small stations all over the region, and got nothing. Just nothing,” said Slack, a 1992 graduate of Virginia Tech who had decided as a child that he wanted to do something in radio.
He landed at The News Virginian, a Waynesboro newspaper, after graduating from Virginia Tech, then ended up in what he thought was his dream job as news director at the Waynesboro-based radio station WAYB. The gig, unfortunately, lasted just six months – the last six weeks of which went without Slack getting a paycheck.
His last day on radio was on a Friday. In the Sunday paper, there was an ad for an open reporter job at NBC29.
“I had done no TV, used to make fun of TV reporters. You know that. We’d be at the paper, we’d be at the supervisor meetings, and the TV people would be there for 45 minutes, and they’d bail out, and we’d say, Lightweights. It all makes sense now, of course,” Slack said.
“They were looking to beef up their staff. They were basically a one-man news operation on this side of the mountain. And they hired a second reporter, which turned out to be me, and a videographer, and we were off to the races,” Slack said.
Pritchett graduated from what is now the University of Mary Washington in 1993 with a degree in political science and a lifelong interest in meteorology that he nurtured as a college student by taking courses in geography and environmental science.
After college, he took a job at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace working as a historical interpreter, then helped run the first House of Delegates campaign of now-seven-term state legislator Steve Landes before he applied for an opening at 29 in the weather department.
“It was basically a cattle-call audition,” Pritchett said. “I remember going over to Charlottesville in the fall of ’95. There were maybe 60 people – and we were all herded into a lobby area and then brought into a studio. And one at a time, a show was already loaded for us – basically what they wanted to do was to see how well you could in an easy manner communicate and talk weather.
“You didn’t know what your graphics were. You could see the person in front of you. You just had to talk freely and smoothly and get through the graphics,” Pritchett said.
Bob Corso had to do some talking of another kind to get himself in front of the camera.
“I wanted to get in front of the camera – because when I came from Arizona, from Phoenix, I was at a PBS station, I was behind the scenes, I was a producer, a segment producer,” said Corso, a Northern Virginia native and College of William and Mary alum who worked in sales out of college before deciding that television was his true calling.
He took some broadcast classes at Arizona State before taking an internship at the PBS station in Phoenix. The WHSV-TV3 job – which had Corso serving as the weekend news anchor-slash-weather anchor – was his ticket back home.
That was in 1988. This year will mark 20 years for Corso at WHSV – a rare feat of longevity in this day and age in the media business that seems to run two-year contract to two-year contract.
I say it is rare, but then Jim Bresnahan has been at WREL-1450AM in Lexington for going on 19 years now and still seems to be going strong. An Ohio U. grad and two-time published author, Bresnahan landed in Lexington after a whirlwind tour of the media landscape that had him in two West Virginia markets and then Toledo, Ohio, before he put his roots down in the Shenandoah Valley.
“I fell in love with the Lexington area and the Valley. Not too far from all of my family in Ohio, and it’s just a nice, peaceful and friendly area to call home,” said Bresnahan, the host of “Online with Jim Bresnahan,” on which, I will note here, I am a regular guest every Tuesday morning at 11:25 a.m.
And since I’m in full-disclosure mode, I will also point out that I have been a multiple-time guest on “The Country Club,” the WKDW-900AM morning show hosted by Kris Neil, who has been at the Staunton radio station for 15 years.
Radio has been the only thing that Neil has done for a paycheck – he was hired at the station two days after graduating from Stuarts Draft High School in 1992, which makes him a grizzled veteran on the local media scene at the ripe old age of 33.
He would tell anybody who asked him from the age of 4 on that he wanted to work in radio – usually to the surprise of those who knew him.
“As dumb as this sounds for somebody working in radio, I’m actually pretty shy,” Neil said. “So people would usually say, Don’t you have a backup in mind? Maybe you need to think about something else,” Neil said.
You can still see some of the shy Kris Neil when you meet him for the first time – though he seems to be able to turn on the radio personality with the flip of a switch when he’s out doing one of his many public appearances.
“I love getting out and interacting with our listeners. KDW has a great core of listeners. They’re very dedicated – and so many of them have been around for longer than I’ve been on the air” Neil said.
“But it gets strange sometimes when people come up and say, We just wanted to look at you. We just wanted to see you. We’ve listened to you for so long. We just wanted to look at you. Or they’ll tell you, Hey, I wake up with you in the mornings.”
Jim Bresnahan, even with his trademark voice, said he doesn’t get noticed as being Jim Bresnahan from WREL too often in public.
Ken Slack, for his part, said it was “unnerving” at first to be recognized as being the TV-news guy, but nowadays “it doesn’t really happen all that much.”
“I remember one time I was in a church softball game, and there was a guy on our team – I had done a live shot for something about an hour before that, went to the game, and he said, Yeah, I just saw you on TV. And I don’t remember what you were talking about, but you were wearing, like, a red tie. You sometimes think that because people see you or remember you that the things that you’re saying or doing are actually making an impact on people’s lives sometimes. You get over that pretty early on,” Slack said.
One thing that Ken Slack will probably never get over is the ungodly hours that he has to keep. He works the sunrise shift in the Augusta County bureau at NBC29 – which means he has to answer the alarm bright and early at 3 a.m. each weekday morning.
But he does that by choice – the 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift that he works allows him to be home after school with his two children, ages 5 and 8.
“The family is the main reason why the sunrise shift works,” Slack said. “Because a daylight shift in television news means almost every night you’re expected to a 6 o’clock live shot – and that might be Weyers Cave or the West End of Staunton, and by the time you cut down your scripts to run at 11 o’clock, you go home, it’s 7 o’clock, and quickly go through dinner, and a half-hour later, the kids are brushing their teeth and going to bed.
“It is sometimes tough to get up that early in the morning, but the reward is worth it,” Slack said.
Bob Corso also has two young children – and his wife teaches at James Madison University. You could consider children and a wife with a good job roots for purposes of trying to explain why a person with Corso’s credentials is not looking to pack up and move to the next media market anytime soon.
“It’s kind of like we’re kind of settled here now,” Corso said. “I always felt when I was here, and I was single, I always felt, gee, this would be a great place to raise a family. It’s not necessarily a great place if you’re single, but it would be a terrific place to raise a family. Well, now I’m married, and I’m raising a family, so it’s kind of like, I’m not like, boy, can’t wait to get out of here. The Valley is a terrific place to raise a family.
“Not that other opportunities couldn’t present themselves, but quite frankly, we like it here, and we enjoy it here,” Corso said.
Jim Bresnahan put it more succinctly – “I guess when you put down roots, it can be hard to shake them loose,” he said.
The Valley natives have their own reasons for wanting to stay close to home.
“I’ve had some offers to go elsewhere, but they just weren’t the right fit for me at the right time,” Eric Pritchett said. “I can’t promise that I’ll always be here – but certainly it is very nice to be able to work in the area that you grew up in. I think a lot of people that do have jobs similar to mine in the media or weather broadcasting, they kind of strive to go back to where they grew up.”
“Growing up in the area, I really wouldn’t want to leave, anyway,” Kris Neil said. “But at times I’ve thought, maybe a different career move would be alright. And then I think about the listeners, and how dedicated they are. And I guess that’s what I enjoy – you know, the whole area, Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta County. It’s where I hope to always be.”
“You get to a point – it’s not really complacency, but it’s a comfort, because you know that when that call comes in the middle of the night, and there’s an accident at 616 and 796, you know how to get there. Or when you’ve got to find out something, you know who to call, or you’ve got them on your speed-dial, or whatever,” Ken Slack said.
“I don’t have any plans to move on. I enjoy being here,” Slack said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press and The New Dominion.