Make that especially as they age and become legends.
It can lead to some difficult public relations problems for station management, which doesn’t want to look like it is throwing Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane out the door in favor of someone much younger.
Or in Buffalo’s case, Rick, Mike, Ed, Don or Irv.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the age-old local TV news problem of how to prepare for the future handled perfectly and clumsily.
On the one hand, the Buffalo Sabres transition plan for its television and radio play-by-play job was handled perfectly.
The beloved Rick Jeanneret is 71. Even he knows he can’t shout oooooovertime forever. He said he planned to work the entire schedule this season and call it a career.
Sabres management apparently realized if they trade goalie Ryan Miller and high-scoring Thomas Vanek, their best known, most popular and arguably most valuable returning player would be Jeanneret. He may have lost a step or two and have more trouble identifying players or making up new goal calls than he has before, but he still can make a 1-0 game in early October seem exciting.
So the Sabres instituted a three-year plan in which Jeanneret would work 57, 47 and 41 games while bringing in a younger Canadian, Dan Dunleavy, to work the other games and replace him as the full-time voice in the 2016-17 season.
It was a brilliant public relations move. It makes the Sabres look concerned about Jeanneret, it prepares fans for his departure and allows them to get accustomed to Dunleavy, who has the unenviable job of replacing a legend.
Who knows if the plan will work? After all, Jeanneret will be 74 at the end of his contract and there’s no guarantee he’ll be up to the job or want to continue it for the three years. Even if he lasts, Jeanneret won’t beat Van Miller as the oldest play-by-play guy in the town’s history. Miller was at least a year older when he gave up the Bills job.
And maybe Jeanneret will prove former Bills Coach Marv Levy right and decide now that he is thinking about retirement he really is already retired and retire after this season.
If it happens, it will be clear that it is Jeanneret’s call and not the team’s and there won’t be any PR fallout for the Sabres. The plan is a win-win.
On the other hand, Channel 7’s handling of 59-year-old meteorologist Mike Randall was a public relations mess. I’m not privy to the contract negotiations, just how poorly it played out publicly.
The station said it signed Randall to a new multiyear deal without explaining that the new deal cut his hours by 20 percent and presumably his salary by that much a week after he celebrated his 30th anniversary at the station. He also relinquished the title of chief meteorologist to Aaron Mentkowski.
Few media secrets last long in Buffalo. Sources revealed the contract details, which certainly suggest Channel 7 is preparing for Randall’s departure after this deal ends or planning to further diminish his role. The reduction of Randall’s hours eventually would have been visible, another reason to announce the plan when the deal was made.
Autumn Lewandowski is replacing Randall shortly on three weekday noon newscasts. Channel 7 General Manager Mike Nurse said Randall “loves the concept” of having a contract that gave him more free time to do other things, presumably like his Mark Twain theater work.
Randall declined comment. Smart. He didn’t need to say anything. To paraphrase Twain, it appeared that reports of his happiness were greatly exaggerated. What 59-year-old man in broadcast journalism would love the concept of taking a 20 percent pay cut?
The move was surprising because Randall is one of the younger old people on-air and also one of the few veterans left at Channel 7 with a loyal following. He also is the glue to the new “Good Morning” that has introduced two young, out-of-towners to WNY.
It isn’t like Randall had many alternatives. Channel 7’s rivals already have enough worries about how to deal with all their seniors and about-to-be seniors without creating a public relations problem.
Channel 2’s General Manager Jim Toellner smartly dealt with former sports director Ed Kilgore by having him drop his 11 p.m. newscasts about two years before Kilgore decided to leave to work for Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Kilgore knew Adam Benigni was ready for the sports director’s job once his contract ran out in a few months and he left just ahead of his planned Channel 2 departure.
Toellner was following the transition playbook of Channel 4 when Van Miller, who was in his 70s, was replaced by Dennis Williams before John Murphy took Williams’ job. Channel 7’s legendary Irv Weinstein also dropped a newscast nine years before he called it quits at the age of 68.
By the time Jeanneret calls his last game in three years, local stations will have to deal with how long to keep several older anchors and reporters in a TV market that loves them and hates change.
The cast of veterans, most of who appear to want to stay on the air as long as possible, include Channel 7’s Keith Radford, Channel 4’s Don Paul, Don Postles, Jacquie Walker and Rich Newberg, and Channel 2’s John Beard and Kevin O’Connell.
“People tend to stay here a long time and become part of the family,” Toellner said.
Of course, some viewers have taken shots at them as they age. But that comes from a small minority. The veterans remain so popular that local stations know they have to deal with their departures in a smart public relations way.
“People just don’t retire, especially popular talent, when they are 65,” Toellner explained. “It can be hard sometimes to have a succession plan. Very often you don’t want longtime talent to leave because they are very popular.”
“You want to have someone waiting in the wings but it is hard to plan,” added Toellner. “There is no mandatory retirement age. The station benefits from established talent because usually they are very good at the job. You can’t force them out and you usually don’t want to because they are very good. … It is something of a balancing act.”
The best concept is to follow the Jeanneret example, plan for the transition and spell out all the details.