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Loud & Clear - Jim Hickey
10/31/2010 - By Chad A. Safran
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
"Trusted. Credible. Complete."
From Michigan to the Middle East, Jim Hickey has covered just about everything in his four decades as a journalist. You may have seen him on ABC News reporting on presidential elections, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the end of Apartheid, among the many national and international events he has witnessed. Currently a correspondent with ABC News Radio in New York, Jim grew up in Wayne, Michigan, a blue collar suburb of Detroit. His father was an auto worker part of the time and a custodian in the Detroit public school system. His mother worked in the Wayne public school system. After graduating from Wayne High School, he attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where his interest in becoming a reporter eventually caused him to change his major and led to a long, distinguished career as a broadcast journalist.
Jim has earned many awards during his time in front of the camera, including multiple citations for excellence from the Associated Press for Excellence in Broadcasting. He has also won Radio-TV News Directors Association Edward R. Murrow Awards for his work. He was even nominated for an Emmy Award for his coverage of the Bhopal Union Carbide Gas Leak.
After his television career path led him around the United States and the world, Jim eventually returned to radio in 1995 as part of ABC News’ radio division, where he has spent the past 15 years as a correspondent. Jim and his wife of 23 years, Dr. Marcia Sue Clever, have lived in Holmdel since 1999. Jim recently sat down with Living In Holmdel to discuss his career and life as a journalist.
LIH: Did you always want to be a reporter and get into radio and television?
JH: I had done a little public speaking in high school but I never thought about being a journalist until I went to college. I went to Western intending to be a language major. I had visions of being a translator or interpreter at the State Department or the United Nations. It wasn’t until after I got to Western that I got into journalism. That came about, basically, because I was homesick.
I was sitting in my dorm room as a freshman on a rainy Sunday afternoon feeling very sorry for myself because I was away from home and didn’t know anybody. I looked out the window and across the parking lot was the student radio station, and it had a big sign in the window, “Help Wanted.” I thought, “Why not?” So I went over there and asked if I could audition. I really didn’t know what I was doing. Growing up in Detroit I listened to disc jockeys, so I mimicked them. They let me cut an audition tape and they took me on as a staff member in the fall of 1964. My first ever radio gig was a midnight to 3 a.m. jazz show. My class schedule was such that I could do that. I did that for my first semester. Then one of my fellow students, who was a year older than me and was the news director of the radio station, asked me one day, “Do you really want to be a disc jockey all your life?” I said, “I don’t know what I am going to do next weekend!” He said, “Why don’t you work for me in the news department next semester, and if you do, I will make you the assistant news director.”
So this friend of mine basically taught me the basics of journalism: who, what, why, where, when and how. He was very knowledgeable. He taught me how to go around campus and interview people and attend meetings. We would ask questions during the open speaking part of the Board of Trustees meetings. Students didn’t do that in 1964 so we made a little bit of a name for ourselves on campus. I was having a lot of fun and thought this is for me, and I witched my major from languages to journalism as I went into my sophomore year.
LIH: You began working in television while still a college student. How did you end up making the jump from radio to another media format?
JH: I worked at a restaurant at the Henry Ford Museum during the summers. Going into my junior year, a relative of one of the waitresses at the restaurant came through. He happened to be the chief announcer at the local radio station in Kalamazoo, WKZO. She introduced us, and we got talking. I told him of my interest in broadcast journalism and that I was beginning to look for my first real job. He went back to Kalamazoo, told his news director that he had met this kid in Dearborn who was coming to Western in the fall and that he ought to take a look at him. I got a call from the news director asking if I could come up to school a few days early and talk to him. I was there in a heartbeat. He hired me in the fall of 1966 as a young writer for the radio newscasts. I did that part time. That soon became full time. Soon it was more than just writing, it was reporting on radio. And soon it was reporting on television (the radio and television news departments were together for the station). By the time I graduated, I was anchoring the 11 o’clock news at WKZO on the weekends. I realized I was learning as much on the streets of Kalamazoo and the county covering news as I was in the classroom.
LIH: Who taught you how to anchor the news?
JH: The older fellows at WKZO. Everyone has mentors; I had several. There was one fellow, Hugh Harper, who we called “The Gray Ghost” because he had gray hair and a gray demeanor. If you know the image of the hard-bitten, cynical editor, this was Hugh. He was tough and he was hard on us as young journalists, but he taught me along with a few others at the radio station.
LIH: Do you feel lucky that you were able to get these opportunities?
JH: Terribly lucky. I was incredibly lucky to be able to be at the right place at the right time. I was fortunate to meet the chief announcer. At the right place, right time. I was at Western. They needed a guy. My class schedule allowed me to cut back and work full time. I’ve always been at the right place, at the right time. I always say the gods of journalism have been looking down upon me.
LIH: How did you end up serving in the army?
JH: I began in January 1970. I was in ROTC at Western, which meant I had a two year obligation to military service after I graduated and had to leave WKZO. Again, right place, right time. In those days, you could ask for assignments but you had to ask for three types of assignments. It was during Vietnam, so you were required to ask for two combat assignments and one non-combat assignment. I asked for artillery, armor, and adjutant general – a paper pusher, the clerks. I got adjutant general. Why? I don’t know. That meant I went to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana for officer basic training for three months. While you were there, you got to request assignments again. I said somehow that I would like to be involved in the media in the military. I was told there was a position available at Fort Benning, which just happened to be where my orders were sending me, but not as a journalist. I was originally going to be a personnel officer for basic training; I would be the first guy draftees would see when they came into the army. I found out this (media) position was open so I called the man in charge of the information office and told him I was going to be coming down in March and I would love to apply for this job. The reason I was able to do this, even though I was assigned to basic training as an incoming personnel officer, was that the army had phased out basic training at Fort Benning. So I was assigned to a non-existent job. I got to Fort Benning and went straight to the information office (IO). I said that these were my orders and that I was assigned to a job that doesn’t exist. I asked if their job was still open, and if it was, could I make an application for it. They said that if the personnel officer didn’t need me for anything else they guessed I could have the job. So I went to the personnel officer and told him that the IO really wants me. The major changed my orders, and I became the radio/T.V. information officer for the infantry school at Fort Benning.
LIH: What did you do there?
JH: We had to put out releases about Fort Benning to the media. Two big things happened on my watch. The first big thing was the court martial, held at Fort Benning, of Lt. William Calley for the My Lai Massacre. I was assigned as one of the media liaisons, which meant I basically had to babysit the media who came in for the trial from all over the world. That was my first experience with big time network television and radio. That was a real eye opener. People like Phil Jones and Richard Threlkeld were there. I said I want to be them some day. The second big thing was the army went to all volunteer and decided it wanted to produce a number of commercials and print ads. The T.V. commercials were going to be shot at Fort Benning. It got kicked down to me so for a month I was the most powerful second lieutenant in the Army, because it was my job as liaison to organize the men and materials the directors and producers needed for the commercials. These old army veterans and high ranking officers were not real pleased having to follow the second lieutenant’s requests.
LIH: How did you then make your way back into television and subsequently land jobs in some of the bigger cities in the United States?
JH: My obligation was running out, and I started applying for jobs and I found out that it was not easy. By that time Vietnam was winding down and a lot of people were getting out of the service. Jobs were hard to find. The news director of the local T.V. station in Columbus, Georgia, where Fort Benning is located, came through my office one day and asked how I was doing. I told him I was having a tough time finding a job. He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you work for me?” So I did. It was a small T.V. station in Columbus. I was amazed at how far technology had advanced in those two years I was out of the business. I had to learn a lot of the stuff all over again. I had set some goals. Once I got into television out of the army, I wanted to work for a major market. I started looking around and I applied to WSB in Atlanta and was hired in 1974. I worked there for two years. The executive producer and I became good friends, and he moved on to Philadelphia while I was still in Atlanta. He called me up one day and asked me if I was interested in coming to Philly. That was my second goal: to work in one of the top five major markets. I said I was there. He hired me about a month before the bicentennial, and that was a great time to be there. Again, right place, right time. My career took off. I was at KYW. I did a lot of reporting. I was New Jersey bureau chief for a while, had a talk show, and did all kinds of things and learned a lot more about the business. And then in 1980 I applied for a job atABC and was hired. I was sent to Chicago as a correspondent. I have been with ABC ever since.
LIH: You spent two years in Chicago before becoming a foreign reporter for ABC news. How were you able to move into that role?
JH: I covered the Midwest. I had achieved my goal, which was joining the network. Now it was time for my next goal, which was to go overseas and become a foreign correspondent. So I told New York that I was interested and that if anything opened up would they keep me in mind. They took note of that. I got a call one day from one of the ABC vice presidents. He said that ABC was opening a bureau in Frankfurt, Germany and would I be interested. They said whoever agreed to go to this bureau would not be covering Germany. It would be a travel bureau. They were opening the bureau inside the airport, and whoever went there would have to keep a suitcase packed; you are going to be on the go. I said I am there. That’s when I began traveling the world. From 1982-1984, I went to the Middle East to the Far East and to Europe. I think in 1984 I logged 96,000 air miles. I covered everything. I was in heaven. It was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
LIH: Did you know any foreign languages at the time?
JH: I knew French, well enough. I had taken French in high school and I had begun to take it in college. In 1982 I was sent to Beirut for quite a while, and in addition to speaking Arabic and English, people speak French so that improved my French as well. I could make my way around. I started to learn a little bit of German and learned a few words in Arabic.
LIH: What was life like as a foreign correspondent?
JH: It was thrilling, and scary sometimes. Beirut was sometimes frightening. I know what the sound of a bullet is. I do know what it is like to be under fire; it really gets your adrenaline going. At the time I was single so you are a little bit freer to take risks as a single person in a war zone. I loved Beirut. I am sorry I was not there before the civil war. When I was there it was blown to smithereens. Being on the business end of Israeli tanks and war planes was very interesting.
LIH: Of all the different stories you covered while overseas, which ones in particular stand out the most?
JH: When I left Germany in 1985, I was reassigned to South Africa. I was appointed Bureau Chief in Johannesburg. That was right in themiddle of the uprisings. That was three years of very intense coverage of the end of Apartheid. Being in the townships, being in Soweto, being in Crossroads during all that time...tastingmy share of tear gas with everyone else. Just learning about that fight and people who were fighting that fight. Some of the people running the government now were young revolutionaries when I was there. That was probably the biggest story I ever covered along with the fall of the Soviet Union.
I was in Eastern Europe at the time of the coup in Moscow, with Gorbachev being thrown out and Yeltsin coming in. I was there for all that change. I had been going through East Germany and Checkpoint Charlie and spending time in East Berlin and Moscow. It was thrilling. I felt like I was in a spy novel. I am sure I was followed a couple of times. And after that Desert Storm, the first war in Iraq, I covered that.
LIH: Was there anything you covered that you saw as a major event that did not get the coverage it should have?
JH: That last year I was in South Africa (1988), interest fell off in the story and it should not have. We were coming up to the end of Apartheid then and eventual release of Nelson Mandela. It was in that last year that a lot of things were happening. Domestic news was taking precedent. People were beginning to show more interest in events happening at home. The economy began to change, and we noticed that overseas. We were beginning to get fewer and fewer phone calls from NewYork, even though we kept saying the story was not over yet. I found myself spending more time in the Middle East because that was getting more interest.
LIH: What was the toughest/most difficult story you had to cover?
JH: A couple of them. I took a trip to Crossroads, which is a township outside of Cape Town. There had been a huge riot and gang fights, 60,000 were homeless. Seventy people were killed, including a friend of mine with whom I had had dinner the night before. He was attacked randomly. He was macheted. That was hard.
Another that was difficult and strange happened in 1985. I had been in South Africa for about three weeks, and one of the first stories I covered was the funeral of an anti-Aparthied lawyer by the name of Victoria Mxenge. She had been murdered, and there was this huge funeral in Soweto. In order to get a shot of this mass of people we stood on a school bus by the side of the road. For some unknown reason, in the middle of this funeral crowd, a Jeep full of black township cops started driving through, started throwing rocks at the Jeep. One of the officers got out of the car and ran. The driver took off and ran over a couple of people. That incensed the crowd even more. They chased the fellow who was running, caught him, and set him on fire.We were on the bus watching this about 50 yards away. I was horrified and there was nothing anyone could do. So, the crowd moved on to the burial field. I went back to my rental car, and someone had thrown a rock through my window. As I was cleaning up the glass, this township teenager taps me on the shoulder and he says, “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to break your window. I threw the rock. I missed. I meant to hit the policeman but I hit your car instead.” There is a guy burned to death in the field yet someone is apologizing to me for breaking my window! I thought that this is what it is going to be like living here. That was a real eye opener.
LIH: How much research had you done about the situation in South Africa? Had you known what to expect?
JH: I had read quite a bit while I was in Germany, but I was forced into the story. I landed at the airport, called the office manager at the bureau in Johannesburg, and said that I was in town. I had my car and was going to go to my hotel room. It was a 15 hour flight from Germany so I needed to get some sleep and told them I was going to be there in the morning. A couple of hours later the phone rang. It was the bureau saying there had been this uprising in one of the townships, they got some really strong footage, and they want a story. So I had to come in. I said, “Okay, how do I get there? Where is the bureau?” I was able to file a story and then I ended up making air 45 straight nights after that.
LIH: What was the most memorable thing that has happened to you during your time as a journalist?
JH: In South Africa, I happened to be in the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu the day it was announced Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. While I was there at Bishop Tutu’s house conducting an interview, the telephone rang. It was someone giving Tutu early word about Mandela’s release. He listened for a moment and then his eyes just lit up and he started cheering. He hung up the phone and began to dance around his living room singing and skipping and shouting sounds of happiness. The Archbishop then grabbed my hands, pulled me out of a chair, and starting dancing me around the room. It was pure Tutu with unbridled joy and happiness. It was a wonderful moment. During the fall of the Soviet empire, we were in Lithuania. We had gotten word that the Soviet army was going to invade a hospital where some Lithuanian men were hiding out so they did not have to serve in the Soviet army. That would violate all sorts of protocol to take people out of a hospital. We staked out the hospital in rotating shifts. Then at four o’clock in the morning I got a phone call from my producer and she said the guys were gone. I said, “What guys?” She said, “The guys in the hospital are gone. The tanks came and got them.”We ran down to the hospital, and there were Soviet tanks everywhere. They had gone in and grabbed these guys to draft them into the Soviet army. That whole oppressive sight was really frightening.
LIH: After nearly a decade as a foreign correspondent, you returned to a position back in the U.S. in 1991 and eventually went back into radio in 1995. What caused the change?
JH: The news division was changing. They were hiring new people, moving people around. They came to me one day in 1995 and said that they were making some changes that may ormay not involve me. They weren’t sure yet and were just giving me a heads up. They wanted me to stay and thought there was a position in the radio part of the news division. During all my years with ABC News I had filed radio reports along with filing for television. The vice president at radio wanted me to come work full time with them. So I did. Again, right place, right time because I had been there quite a long time by then and the correspondents they were hiring were younger. It was just the way things were going. It was time to move on. Probably one of the best moves I have ever made. My life hasn’t been better. I love radio. It’s like I have gone full circle.
LIH: Why do you like radio more?
JH: Two reasons: Of the two mediums, radio and T.V., radio is the more creative, not to take anything away from my T.V. brethren. When you are producing a television report, you have video to help you tell the story. When you are producing a radio story, you don’t have that aid.You have to paint word pictures.You have to write better and tighter because you don’t have the time on radio that you do on television. The second reason is I think it is a very personal thing. When you watch T.V., you generally watch it with somebody. When you listen to radio, generally you are alone; you are in the car, you are in the shower. So when I am on the radio it’s you and me speaking, and that’s how I visualize the radio audience. I want the listener to feel as though it is a conversation between that listener and myself.
LIH: As a national correspondent for ABC News Radio, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
JH: I work the morning drive. I start going on the air around 5, 5:30 a.m. It is my job to compile reports for the network all morning long. I don’t anchor a newscast but I file reports for those newscasts. We also service 2,500 - 3,000 affiliates so when we compile these reports we record them and digitize them and send them out to our affiliates. Then they use them as they see fit. People often ask me when can they hear me and I can’t say when. I have no idea when. I can tell you certain stations.
LIH: How has reporting changed in your four decades as a journalist?
JH: It has changed a lot. A lot of it is technology driven. It began when we started transmitting our stories via satellite. In the days of Vietnam, stories would be filmed in Vietnam and then shipped to New York, then processed through the film developer, and you would see it a day or two later. When we started doing satellite transmissions, that changed everything. Then, with 24/7 news, things changed dramatically. The demand to fill the news time has changed reporting forever, and not always for the good. There are things now that are covered that distress me, that I don’t think are worthy of being called real journalism. Someone said to me recently that there isn’t any real news on T.V. or radio anymore; it’s only opinion. I don’t think they are entirely wrong.
LIH: What is one thing you wished someone had told you when you first began as a reporter?
JH: I suppose how fickle the audience can be or how fickle the boss can be or how the boss reacts to a fickle audience. It’s a tough business because so much are based on not only the meat but the sauce too. If you don’t look right, if you don’t sound right, if you can’t carry the day, you are not there. I suppose it’s like any job, but because of the visual aspects of this one, it’s a little more tricky.
LIH: How long do you think you’ll keep doing radio?
JH: I don’t know. As long as my voice holds out, I suppose.At some point, I have to seriously think about retiring, but there is still a lot to do.
LIH: When you are not working, how do you like to spend your time?
JH: One of the reasons we downsized is because we wanted a smaller house and bigger boat. So we got a bigger boat–a 39 foot Sea Ray. We are members of Patten Point Yacht Club. I am the Vice Commodore there. I am involved with the Two River Theater Company; I am one of two vice chairs on the board there. We are both involved with Monmouth University.Marcia is vice chair of the Board of Trustees. I am on the Communication Council there. And when we can, we like to travel.
LIH: You have lived many different places in the United States and around the world. How did you eventually settle in Holmdel?
JH: When we moved back to NewYork, my wife got a job in Lakewood at Kimball Medical Center. We needed a place that was equidistant between the two, so we landed in Middletown.We bought a house there. We lived there for seven years before we decided to downsize and we moved here.We drove through here one day.We really liked Holmdel. We liked the feel of the place. It’s a great place.
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