- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Most television viewers in the Washington area have no clue who Robert L. Long is, but he has probably had more influence over what they see every day on the local news than anyone else.

Mr. Long is vice president of news and operations for NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4), the highest-rated station in town. As the newsroom’s top manager, he is in charge of deciding what stories get covered and who covers them.

He is the most successful local news executive in Washington, and that’s largely because of what he hasn’t done.

Mr. Long can’t really take credit for taking WRC to the top of the Nielsens because it was already there when he arrived in January 1999. And he isn’t really responsible for making it the best-staffed newsroom in town because many of its top anchors, reporters and producers have logged decades at the station.

The secret of Mr. Long’s success is that he was smart enough to not try to fix something that wasn’t broken. He avoided playing musical chairs with his anchors and never asked his reporters to file stories on water-skiing squirrels.

His patient, steady management style is the primary reason WRC has remained No. 1, both in terms of quality and viewership. In this day and age, that’s saying something.

It’s no wonder the folks at 4001 Nebraska Ave. NW, where WRC is based, have felt blue since Thursday, when NBC announced it is moving Mr. Long to its Los Angeles affiliate, effective Aug. 18.

The network hopes he can lift the ratings for the Los Angeles station, where he worked before returning to his hometown to run WRC’s newsroom. Truth be told, Mr. Long probably would have preferred staying in Washington, leading the troops he cherished.

“I do know that at almost 59, I am gratified to still be considered able to mount a charger and swing a claymore. Having been summoned, I will go,” Mr. Long wrote in a memo he e-mailed to staffers to announce his departure.

Mr. Long’s tenure at WRC was just one chapter in a colorful life.

He attended Yale University and served in the Marines. As a newswriter at a local radio station in the 1960s, he occasionally received telephone calls from President Johnson, a fan of the commentaries Mr. Long wrote.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he toiled in Hollywood, where he worked on “In Search Of …” and “Real People,” two precursors to “reality” television. He made a documentary in Africa and produced a 1985 made-for-TV flick starring Robert Conrad and George Hamilton.

Mr. Long returned to television news in the early 1990s. “Because I worked in drama and journalism, I knew the difference between them. They are different things, and I like them both pure. I’m a terrible snob that way,” he said yesterday from a cell phone in Los Angeles, where he was meeting with his new staffers.

He has been a larger-than-life figure in Washington’s staid local television scene, a throwback to an era when TV journalists were still called reporters and photographers were still cameramen.

Mr. Long wears hats and favors sweater vests and bow ties. He drinks a martini with lunch. Before every ratings sweep, he sent a memo to staffers in which he vowed to make the competition taste “hot tears of despair.”

“When he’s gone, I fear we’re going to be the ones tasting hot tears of despair,” one newsroom staffer said yesterday.

The situation at WRC looks eerily reminiscent of the beginning of a very dark spell for WUSA-TV (Channel 9) in the early 1990s. The CBS affiliate dominated local television for decades until corporate parent Gannett Co. brought in new managers to tweak the station’s image and anchor lineup. Ratings and morale plummeted.

In addition to Mr. Long, WRC has also lost several of his top lieutenants. Managing Editor Mary Ellen Donovan retired in May. Assistant News Director Nannette Onley Hobson left July 11 to run the newsroom at the NBC affiliate in Raleigh, N.C. Operations Director Michael Whatley leaves next month to join ABC’s Los Angeles station.

Frank Caskin, an executive producer who was also rumored to be out the door, will run WRC’s day-to-day operations until Mr. Long’s successor is named.

Michael Jack, the station’s president and general manager, is scheduled to meet with staffers this afternoon to discuss the changes and to buck up morale. Some staffers fear Mr. Jack wants to make WRC flashier, a la Fox affiliate WTTG-TV (Channel 5).

“We’ve been No. 1 in the market because we have continued to offer news and information that the audience wants. We are not looking to do anything fundamentally different,” Mr. Jack said yesterday.

Mr. Long was asked what his legacy in Washington will be. He recalled September 11, when he missed out on the biggest story of his lifetime because he was traveling in Paris.

“I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, but I didn’t have a single doubt that the newsroom would perform perfectly without me. I think that’s a great legacy.”

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

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