It was the “Anchorman” era.
In the movies, Ron Burgundy proudly wears the news team’s jacket in his namesake color. But in 1980, Michael Williams and I worked at a television station that required us to wear lurid orange polyester jackets, although pride was not what we felt wearing them.
When we moved to other jobs, the rest of us burned ours or cut them to shreds.
Williams, now the anchorman at WPTV, kept his, a talisman of his first job in the only career he ever wanted.
“I always wanted to be a reporter,” he says. “Even as a 12-, 13-year-old kid, I kept up with the news. I can’t imagine being anything else.”
More than three decades and eight regional Emmy awards later, Williams retains the eager-beaver earnestness he had at age 21, when two days after he graduated from the University of Florida, he bounded into that tiny Fort Pierce TV station, looking like a high school intern. He already had the pipes of an AM disc jockey and the work capacity of the Energizer Bunny.
Today, he’s also got an anchorman’s chops.
To see a television newsroom thrown into chaos, visit when a huge story breaks minutes before a newscast.
Williams and his Channel 5 co-anchor, Kelley Dunn, were expecting a routine evening newscast the night of Dec. 5, when the world learned of Nelson Mandela’s death.
While producers were frantically banging out new scripts, Williams went on the air without one.
Weaving together Mandela’s legacy with his role in South African reconciliation, Williams spoke from memory. He added personal knowledge from a reporting trip to South Africa years earlier, while glancing at a TV monitor to make sure his words reflected the images on a video feed.
Network anchors do this all the time. But local anchors in mid-sized markets?
Not so much.
“That was all ad-libbing, which is the hardest thing we do,” said Dunn later. “With every big story, he has some direct knowledge of it or some connection to it.”
After 35 years as a television reporter, mainly in the news-generating petri dish of Miami, there’s not much the well-traveled Williams hasn’t covered.
Politics, Caribbean coups, hurricanes — lots and lots of hurricanes — the presidential recount, the environment, 9/11, Elian Gonzalez and five trips to Cuba are on the list, as well as the murders, mayhem and malfeasance that make South Florida the nation’s “can you believe this?” news capital.
And he’s smooth as silk besides.
Once, while waiting for Air Force One to land at Palm Beach International Airport, Williams had to fill five minutes — the television definition of eternity.
“And it was all pertinent, not wasted chatter,” said Dunn. “When he was done, people in the studio applauded.”
Almost three years into his job at Channel 5, Williams, 55, has settled comfortably in the anchorman’s chair vacated by Jim Sackett, a local legend who held the seat for a nearly unprecedented 34 years.
Williams promptly found that viewers here care a lot more about their local TV news than in the fractured Miami market.
“Here, people still invest their loyalties in TV stations,” said Williams. “I hope the viewers here feel that I’m someone who knows how to connect the dots in a story, while being the voice of reason and objectivity.”
His authoritative, measured delivery has more in common with the Walter Cronkite-to-Brian (no relation) Williams school of TV news than it does the amped-up, verb-challenged broadcasts on cable channels.
Yet, Williams relishes the adrenaline charge of covering major stories live, in the field or from the studio.
“I like to think my reporting experience shines through on the anchor set because I’m very proud of my career. Anchoring is what I do now, but reporting, being a reporter, is who I am,” Williams says.
He can also manage a lighter touch, when necessary.
Earlier this month, he spent the day in Belle Glade heading up coverage of a high-stepping 5-year-old Glades Day School drum major.
Gently, he coaxed the shy, overwhelmed little boy into finally saying a few words.
After all, this hard news guy is also the doting father of three daughters.
A few days after the Mandela broadcast, Williams limps into the restaurant where we agreed to meet for lunch.
“I quit running because of my knees,” he says with a wince, “and now I bike, but I overdid it this weekend.”
On Saturdays, his cycling group rides about 50 miles from near his home in Miami Shores to Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale. On Sundays, they cut back to 20 or 30 miles.
Williams says with remarkable understatement, “sometimes I go overboard with things.”
Biking is on that list. So is talking. Williams can chat up a stone statue.
“People say, ‘you can talk to a fence post’ and I suppose that’s true, in some extent,” he says, demonstrating by barely pausing to eat during a two-hour lunch at a West Palm Beach Turkish restaurant.
On almost any subject other than popular culture, with which he is woefully illiterate, he can go on … and on and on, joke former colleagues.
“He’s incredibly gifted at live TV,” said Ari Odzer, a fellow NBC 6 reporter in Miami. “He’s able to be instantaneously articulate on any subject. On the other hand, I’d always tell the producer, ‘wrap him now because he’ll talk for three hours, and I won’t get home until 9 o’clock’.”
Williams’ tales, opinions and ruminations spin out like unspooling video tape — if anyone still used video tape.
He believes all media, but particular television news, can do a better job at bigger, broader issue stories.
“It’s very easy for it to all be breaking news,” he said. “If it’s big enough to be big news one day, it should be big enough to cover the next day,” he said.
He’s asked WPTV to loosen his tether to the anchor desk, allowing him to report from the field. He’s covered the 2012 political conventions for the station. Last summer, he guided the station’s coverage on water quality issues in the St. Lucie Inlet and Indian River.
“I’m a very strong voice for big issue stories and a very insistent one. I like doing big picture stories,” he said.
Williams grew up as one of six kids of a Navy captain who flew supersonic Vigilante bombers from aircraft carriers. He expected to follow his father into the Navy until he found out he had poor eyesight and was colorblind.
He spent his teenage years in Key West, then studied journalism at the University of Florida. Like Dunn, another UF grad, he bleeds orange and blue.
In 2002, Williams spent two years at NBC’s News Service, which feeds national stories to local affiliates. Although the job can be a springboard to a network correspondent’s spot, Williams said he pulled himself out of the running.
“I would have enjoyed being a network correspondent but it meant putting all your chips into your career and taking away from my family. I simply wasn’t willing to do that,” he said. “I love, love, love my career, but that pales compared to how passionate I am about my kids.”
The only male in an an all-female household, Williams still lives in the north end of Miami-Dade County where he raised his daughters with his wife, Leisa Colombo Williams. Leisa’s 93-year-old mother has lived with them for about 10 years.
“Even the dog and the cats are girls,” said Leisa, a special projects producer at WSVN-TV in Miami.
He and Leisa are adjusting to their first year as empty nesters now that their youngest daughter left for Florida State University, where their middle daughter also goes to school, which makes for interesting family dynamics during the UF-FSU football clash. Williams’ oldest daughter from his first marriage works in Boston.
Although they’ve looked at houses in Palm Beach and Martin counties, they’re reluctant to move Leisa’s mother away from her doctors or Leisa from her job while paying two college tuitions.
Like thousands of other journalists in the last decade, Williams knows what it’s like to lose a job to digital competition. He was laid off from NBC 6 in 2006, then briefly worked in FPL’s media relations office. He landed back on the air as a political reporter at CBS4.
After three years, he left Miami for the smaller but presumably more secure pond at Channel 5, where his on-air anchor gravitas masks an off-camera geekiness.
“He’s a sci-fi wack job,” said Odzer, one of his best friends.
He’s such a Star Trek fan that he wears a Starfleet commander’s uniform to work on Halloween.
“Don’t ever call it a ‘costume’,” warns Dunn. “Here you’ve got your main anchor man, with credentials from here to there, and he comes in wearing a Star Trek tunic. That’s somebody who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
Says Leisa, “When we were dating, we bonded over Star Trek because we both like all kinds of sci-fi. I have a pair of Vulcan ears. But,” she added, “it’s not like we go to Star Trek conventions or anything.”
“I have zero tolerance, zero, for people who are full of themselves because of what they do,” said Williams, with a laugh, then turns serious.
The days of people gathering to watch time-certain broadcasts are running out, he says. Increasingly, people want news on their schedules, on a variety of platforms.
But in video, no matter how it’s delivered, viewers still need someone to put the disparate pieces of a news event together and tell the story.
An anchor who can connect the dots.
“You like to think,” he said, “that in that strange alchemy between an anchor and the person on the other side of the TV screen, that they say, ‘OK, this guy gets it’. He understands this stuff’.”
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Barbara Marshall is an award-winning writer who has been at the Palm Beach Post since 2002, covering everything from lifestyle trends to travel stories. She is a former TV reporter and anchor, magazine writer and travel TV show producer. She spends her free time patching up a nearly 90-year-old house and negotiating a truce with the jungle that surrounds it.
Jennifer Podis studied journalism and photography, earning a bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan and a master’s from Syracuse University. She has had many roles during her 16 years at The Palm Beach Post — photographer, print and online photo editor, and video editor. While she has covered a wide range of subjects, her favorite place to be is away from the concrete and chaos of the city, photographing any form of nature, both terrestrial and marine.
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