Our morning newsman hits a milestone birthday and decides it's time for a new role atWECT-TV6
By TERESA A. MCLAMB
While long work commutes are commonplace in the northeast, there aren’t many of us in southeastern North Carolina who choose that route. One of the few is Bob Townsend, who has left his Wallace home in the wee hours to arrive at WECT’s Shipyard Boulevard location by 3:30am five days a week, for almost three decades to be on the air before most of us are awake.
After reaching his 65th birthday milestone in July, Townsend decided it was time to back off of the early morning routine, and settle into a more relaxing job as a part-time special features reporter for the NBC affiliate.
During his years anchoring Carolina in the Morning, he said he has enjoyed doing feature stories. “I’d go with a camera and shoot and edit. I tried to tell the story of some of the people, places and personalities of southeastern North Carolina,” he said. “In today’s news business you don’t have the time to spend a lot of time doing that.”
Townsend documented his own knee replacement surgery at Cape Fear Hospital, and later volunteered there. “The hospital allowed me to volunteer in the joint camp and meet with people before they had their surgery. It was inspiring for them to see somebody who had bilateral knee replacement surgery,” which was successful.
He’s enjoyed the many stories he’s done on the USS North Carolina, recalling that he was one of the many school children who contributed pennies toward its move to Wilmington. He’s also inspired by the generosity of area residents, recalling a particularly huge response to the Salvation Army Holiday Toy Drive in 1989 after Hurricane Floyd hit the area.
After the earthquake in Haiti, Townsend accompanied a team of twenty doctors from our area to the country, and documented “what was taking place in the country and how our local hospital and medical team provided a great deal of assistance to them. They actually made two trips to Haiti. Dr. Ken White was in charge of both of those.” He counts White among the many friends he’s made while doing news and feature interviews.
Townsend plans to do one or two features each week. He’s already got the first month lined up. They include a toy maker, the first US grocery store chain, light houses, the grape and wine business and much more. He’ll look to viewers to solicit ideas as well.
When he’s not working on features, he hopes to get in some extra time with his family, particularly his grandchildren, all of whom live within 12 miles of each other.
Born in Richmond, Townsend grew up in the small town of Rowland in Robeson County after being adopted by a couple there. He graduated from Lumberton High School and went to Pembroke State for a semester before getting a job in radio. “I had always had an interest in radio.” After seeing a radio broadcast of a baseball game, he jumped at the chance to work in sports radio and never returned to college. “That was in the day when radio was very popular,” he said.
When WECT had a sports opening in 1971, he applied and was hired by Wayne Jackson. “Wayne gave me a chance.” After six years, he returned to radio for a while and worked at WITN-TV in Little Washington, NC, for a few years. When Jackson retired from the anchor position in 1989, Townsend applied for the job. “Good old Raeford Brown hired me. That was 27 years ago. I started back on the morning show with Shirley Gilbert, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”
During that time, he’s been a very visible presence around the area for both WECT and their sister FOX station. He’s emceed events and broadcast live from many of the regions more important activities including the North Carolina Azalea Festival and many others.
He says in all this time, the tremendous growth of the area has been evident. “The whole area has been discovered worldwide. They tried to keep it quaint, but growth has continued with traffic and industry and variety. [Growth] has been huge especially since I-40 opened up.” He said the many opportunities for employment have contributed mightily.
“I think the progressive leadership here, with the Committee of 100 and some other folks who went out and saw industry and brought in a variety of industry, was responsible for the growth. They could read the handwriting on the wall when it comes to agriculture,” which used to account for much of the region’s economy. He also credits the people who worked to clean up and renovate downtown Wilmington for adding to the area’s appeal. “It went from the sleepy little city to a very progressive market that we’re in right now. It was the leadership that saw the future and realized they needed to act on it. That includes people like the late Dan Cameron…who was really one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He was just outstanding.” Brothers Dan and Bruce Cameron owned WECT for many years.
Along with Wilmington’s changes have been changes to the broadcast journalism business brought about by social media and technology. “You’ve got to be on your game every day. It started when there were more of the CNN type stations, Fox stations, MSNBC and the new equipment that allows you to go live from anywhere in the world by satellite,” he said.
Now, LiveYou technology allows reporters to broadcast live from anywhere there is a cell phone signal. “It used to be you had to have a satellite truck or a microwave truck. Now it can be live by setting this up and connecting to the station through a cell phone which hooks right through to the control room,” he said.
Reporters and photographers are no longer shooting on tape but on the same type of memory cards being used by amateur photographers throughout the world. “Citizens have become natural photographers with cell phones and their video is improving every year. People can buy a Go-Pro camera and shoot video which is broadcast quality,” he said.
The availability of news and information from so many sources means people are depending on mobile apps to pull news. He voices a slight frustration with the rapidly advancing technology through the eyes of an “old geezer,” relating it to the days when we all had to have our grandchildren program the VCR.
Townsend says his many viewers can expect to see him around for quite a while, just not in the early morning hours. “I’m going to work until I can’t walk. I’m a young 65, and I want to continue to work as long as I can.”
He adds, however, that the prostate cancer he defeated six years ago gave him a different perspective on life. “I want to spend time with my grandkids. The best job in the world is being a grandparent.”