As we drove up the steep hill to Hearst Castle midday on May 17, David Middlecamp and I wondered what our next hour or so would be like. The Tribune’s senior photographer and I were to meet with veteran newsman Charles Osgood.
He was to host the “CBS Sunday Morning” show’s annual 90-minute “By Design” episode from William Randolph Hearst’s former estate.
David and I mused that Osgood is obviously intelligent, good with words and a skilled story teller with a velvet voice. But would he be as he seems to be on TV and on his four-times-a-day “Osgood Files” radio vignettes?
Absolutely. Osgood was in person exactly as he seems on the air — approachable, friendly with a ready laugh, gently self deprecating and intuitive … a genuinely nice man who was enchanted by the Castle.
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Interviewing him was rather like chatting with a much-respected great uncle I hadn’t seen for ages.
Osgood talked about how his radio career began, from joining radio clubs in high school and working at Fordham University’s FM station to working as an announcer on WGMS, a good music station in Washington, D.C. The rest is entertainment and news history.
Inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990, the legendary newsman has won buckets of awards, written six books and established himself as a lyrical, rational voice of news.
He talked about the industries he loves. “If you bring the audience into the story, make them care about it so they can relate on a human level …if you can really touch them,” Osgood said, “it doesn’t matter if it’s hard news or soft news.” He looked at me intently and added, “Someone who knows how to write knows how to do that.”
His work keeps him young. “To me,” he said, “it’s just fascinating communicating to an audience. I can’t think of a better way to make a living.”
Osgood groused good naturedly about “talking head” news anchors who don’t use complete sentences. “It takes a noun and a verb,” he said firmly.
He and his staff plan out his “Sunday Morning” shows well in advance, with correspondents filing reports to be linked together with his commentary to create the 90-minute broadcast. However, the schedule frequently changes on the fly when important news breaks. Osgood said with a chuckle, “I’m probably the only anchor at CBS News who actually hopes there won’t be any hard news that day, so we can do our show as we planned it.”
And then there’s the bowtie.
He seemed pleased that I had noticed he doesn't always wear one on his shows (I've seen him in a regular, four-in-hand tie and even in open collar with no tie). But how did the bowtie go from accessory to trademark?
Osgood explained that, about 20 years ago, “I came in to anchor the weekend news and I was wearing a perfect bowtie.” He waited two beats before admitting, “It was a clip-on.”
News writer “John Mosedale asked me, ‘Why don’t you tie it yourself?’” The newsman sheepishly told Mosedale that “I didn’t know how. So John took me into the restroom, made me look in the mirror and taught me how to tie a proper bow tie. He told me to never wear a clip-on again.”
Osgood took that advice.
Later, I asked my photog buddy what he’d seen during the interview that I missed, and what he thought. David said, “I am kicking myself for missing a visual moment … when he was talking about the visual feast that the Castle is and his eyes tracked 360 degrees from floor-wall-ceiling-wall-floor around the library.
“It was an almost child-like-wonder gesture, not something I would expect from a veteran newsman of over 40 years, but I was reassured by it. It gave me the feeling that he walks into new situations with as blank a slate as possible and does not try to color over the top of a new experience with his preconceived notions.”
David continued, “His sense of learning was reinforced with the bow- tie story. A big-headed person wouldn’t tell that story on themselves.”
Osgood also has mastered the art of looking at someone as if they're the most important person in the world, at least for a few moments. It's a great skill for a newsperson, a politician or anybody who loves people.
And what did Osgood think of Hearst Castle?
The next day, I sent him a message asking what five words best describe the Castle. He reportedly grinned and said, “Now that’s going to take some time and thought.” Over lunch, he mused, and then wrote his final selections. They were: “Stunning. Inspiring. Magical. Overwhelming. Moving.”
On the show, he noted that “the enchantment of this hilltop retreat is still alive for those who come and visit.”
Not only is Osgood a nice guy, the man’s got good taste.
Editor’s note: For more about the “Sunday Morning” Hearst Castle episode, go to www.cbsnews.com/sections/sunday/main3445.shtml.