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

Al Primo, a behind-the-scenes force in broadcast television who revolutionized local news in the 1960s and early 1970s, replacing the single stentorian man with a group of traveling “eyewitness” reporters and a winning cast of personalities on the scene to create a format still familiar to television viewers today, died Sept. 29 at his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. He was 87.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter Juliet Primo.

Mr. Primo grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of an Italian immigrant, and stumbled into television shortly after high school when he got a job as a mail carrier at a local station. Television newscasts at the time resembled those on the radio, with reports read by anchormen whose attitude and intonation made them known, either derisively or affectionately, as “the voice of God”.

As Mr. Primo rose through the station’s ranks, he began to envision a different way to deliver the news. He put his ideas to work as news director at KYW-TV, a Westinghouse station in Philadelphia, sending reporters out of the studio into the city and naming his signature newscast: “Eyewitness News” debuted in 1965.

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

Back on set, a male-female anchor duo — the first being Marciarose Shestack and Tom Snyder, later a late-night TV regular — engaged in friendly banter with weather and sportscasters. For fans, the local news crew became daily companions, like neighbors or even family. Mr. Primo insists 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 television from Mr. Primo. “He invented local news as we know it.”

From the start, “Eyewitness News” invited hand-wringing about the replacement of “happy talk” with hard news and the rise of what became known as “infotainment.”

Harry Waters, a New York Times writer reviewing the WABC-TV news report in 1970, poked fun at the banter that took place during the show among its personalities, which included anchorman Roger Grimsby and sports commentator Howard Cosell. The newscast may have been called “Eyewitness News,” Waters wrote, but “for at least this eyewitness, the show might be better called ‘Wiseguy News.'”

The “free-swinging line is a novel note for a news show,” Waters wrote, “but whether it detracts from or enhances effectiveness remains a wide open question.”

Mr. Primo, for his part, did not apologize.

“They said ‘that wasn’t journalism’ and ‘he’s using show business techniques,'” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year. “And of course I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. This is television, so we use lights, camera, action – that’s what we do.’ But we also make the news.”

As the “eyewitness” format took over local news nationally, critics objected to the increasingly sensationalized coverage of crime and tragedy. But the template proved so popular that many modern TV viewers have never known local news in any other incarnation.

“It seems so natural now, but it took a visionary like Primo to actually codify it, first in Philadelphia and then in New York,” said Ron Simon, a senior curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

Albert Thomas Primo was born in Pittsburgh on July 3, 1935. His mother, a homemaker, was the daughter of Italian immigrants. His father came to the United States from Italy as a teenager and worked on railroads, in construction and as a digger, while Mr. Primo sometimes helped him in the latter job.

Mr. Primo was hired to work in the mailroom at DuMont station WDTV in 1953 and worked there while attending the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1958. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he “had the advantage of working in all jobs that were in television: cameraman, editor, writer, producer, on air.”

He eventually rose to assistant news director before moving to Cleveland and then to Philadelphia and on to New York. Mr. Primo later became a vice president at ABC, as well as executive producer of “The Reasoner Report” hosted by Harry Reasoner. As a consultant, he helped popularize the “eyewitness” format at local news stations across the country.

Mr. Primo was also the creator and co-executive producer of Teen Kids News, a syndicated news program for young people that debuted in 2003.

His wife of more than 50 years, the former Rosina Pregano, died in 2018. Their son, Gregg Primo, died in 2007. Survivors include two daughters, Valerie Primo Lack of Geneva and Juliet Primo of Old Greenwich; to sisters; a brother; and two grandchildren.

Rivera, who became a reporter on television shows including ABC’s “20/20” and host of the daytime talk show “Geraldo,” might have been Mr. Primo’s most remarkable talent discovery.

Trained as a lawyer, Mr. Rivera, as a spokesman for a Puerto Rican activist group, the Young Lords, which had taken over several buildings in New York’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood, when he said Mr. Primo “spotted” him in 1970.

In an effort to broaden the cultural representation of his newscast, Mr. Primo Rivera training and a job at “Eyewitness News” in New York. Rivera, who saw television as a vehicle for social change, agreed. Two years later, he received a Peabody Award for his investigative report on the misery at Willowbrook, a state-run mental institution on Staten Island.

By Mr. Primo’s account, the news crews he led did not cover the civil rights movement with sufficient force. Melba Tolliver, an African-American reporter at WABC-TV, adopted a natural hairstyle shortly before she was scheduled to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding in 1971 and was told to return to her previous slick look — or be banned from appearing on air. Tolliver refused, the story was leaked to the press, and the station relented.

But Mr. Primo widely recognized, before many other journalists, the importance of cultivating diversity in a newsroom. He recruited Trudy Haynes, who at KYW became Philadelphia’s first black television reporter, according to the Inquirer, and advanced the career of Gloria Rojas, a Latina journalist he brought to WABC. Rose Ann Scamardella, an anchorwoman on “Eyewitness News” in New York, inspired Gilda Radner’s character Roseanne Roseannadanna in the “Weekend Update” news spoof segment of “Saturday Night Live.”

“He was one of the pioneers of integration into local news teams,” Rivera said. “His philosophy was that our people on the air should reflect the community we seek to serve.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *