BERNSON REPORTS HIS OWN STORY
by Gary Roedemeier
I don't know if this is a book review or a movie review; I do know, if you pay the $25, you get both.
I've always thought that Kentucky is a feature story waiting to happen. And in 1969 a Jewish kid from New Jersey drove a 1965 Chevy Corvair across the Ohio River bridge and became a teller of those stories.
Barry Bernson had followed his father's footsteps to the University of Iowa and was quickly sent home, suspended for academic indifference. Bernson, as I will now refer to our subject, returned to Jersey and somehow got two jobs, working the morning shift at a radio station and nightside at the Paterson newspaper. It was a life changer. After working 10 months with four hours sleep, Bernson returned to Iowa City and reinvented himself as honor student.
All these salacious details of triumph and tragedy in local journalism are recounted in Bernson's jewel of a memoir from Butler Books. But this is a multimedia effort.
He recounts his journey into the golden days of television with his legendary dry wit. But then, he provides dessert. It's a DVD with his 10 favorite television features. He somehow got four stations to cooperate.
You might remember the horse that drove the Lincoln Continental on WAVE. Then there was that guy who could cup his mouth and make sounds like a chain saw or an 18-wheeler on WHAS. And of course, our man scoured the streets of Chicago for the Barry Bernson look-alike contest at WMAQ. And finally there's a Fox 41 story of a wonderful lady and her flowers.
So, I guess this is the movie review part. Bernson is a consummate storyteller, with a surprising economy of words. But he is also very much a video presence. He is the king of the cutaway. There is that sarcastic smile, the Bernson smirk. We can switch away to a look of puzzled admiration. And then there's the Bernson blank, perhaps reflecting what was going through his mind at the moment.
No matter how unusual or eccentric his subject, Bernson always treated them with gentle respect.
The videos are fun, and in some cases, sweet and very touching. Everybody has a story, it just takes a great reporter to tell it. Of course recounting one's life in video carries considerable risk. We watch Bernson age from that youthful shock of curly hair to a high hairline. But the smile, the sense of humor is always there.
This is a man who was once considered by ABC as their answer to Charles Kuralt. It was their loss that they didn't call back. Bernson reinvented morning television in Louisville at two stations. And he has a great memory for those on camera and off camera gaffes that are so much a part of live television.
And in line with full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I get a passing mention on page 85.
And finally, for those with a sense of nautical history, Bernson has named each of his chapters after a loosely corresponding chapter in "Moby Dick," and I do mean loosely.
It's a whale of a tale. My only complaint: At 95 pages it could be longer.
Bernson Two? I'm waiting.
Gary Roedemeier anchored the evening news at WHAS-TV for 25 years. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he has won five regional Emmys.
Bernson's Corner: A Reporter's Notebook
By Barry Bernson, Butler Books, 96 pp. and DVD included/$24.95
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Exploring his corner of the world: New Albany resident Barry Bernson reflects on a lifetime of stories
by Amanda Beam
NEW ALBANY — Don’t think local TV journalist Barry Bernson is retired. Although he left the co-anchor chair of “WDRB in the Morning” last year, the New Albany resident continues to stay busy.
Just this month, his first book “Bernson’s Corner: A Reporter’s Notebook” was released and has already topped Louisville’s best selling nonfiction list.
On Saturday, Destination Booksellers in New Albany will host a book signing featuring Bernson from 4 to 6 p.m. The book, which describes Bernson’s life and his many experiences as a features reporter, will be available for purchase. The book also includes a DVD of his top 10 features segments.
From chronicling the dramatic aspirations of prisoners to covering a car-driving horse, Bernson’s 47 years in the news business has been dominated by unique human interest pieces about everyday people. His book reflects upon these varied tales, while it also allows him the chance to tell his own American story.
“This is really just one reporter’s career arch if you will,” Bernson said. “It’s not meant to be a great philosophical statement about American society or even journalism. It’s just my story.”
Bernson’s narrative began in Pompton Lakes, N.J., where at the ripe old age of 7 he began writing and distributing a local neighborhood paper called the “Bernson Babbler.” Later, he would graduate with a degree in journalism from the University of Iowa.
In 1969, he traveled to Louisville and began, at first, as a radio news anchor for WAVE-970. Television news gigs soon followed, and in 1972 he became a full-time feature reporter for WAVE-TV.
After a nine-year stint doing both features and movie critiques at an NBC affiliate in Chicago, Bernson returned to Louisville in 1985 where he continued his special kind of journalism for, at first, WHAS-TV and then the WDRB-TV morning show. He has won numerous awards for his work that include Ohio Valley Region Emmy awards, Louisville Magazine’s “Best Morning TV Host” and a myriad “Best Feature” honors from the Associated Press.
“The things that make good TV stories are, first of all, interesting people.” Bernson said. “An interesting person makes a story no matter what.”
His book details several of his most memorable interviews. Above all others, Bernson said the story of Homer Luster is his favorite. In 1988, he interviewed Luster about his amazing ability to mimic the sound of almost any mechanical engine. Like many good pieces, Bernson said it succeeded so well because the story told itself.
“If you remember me from a TV story, then I’ve succeeded as a personality, but I’ve failed as a storyteller. So I’d much rather you remember the story I did rather than what I did in the story,” Bernson said.
After four decades of meeting and observing everyday people, Bernson said he doesn’t think America has changed. People still want the same things as they did in the past.
“I think people live their lives essentially the same way. People try to just get food on the table and they try to do something interesting in their spare time. You know, if I find that interesting, maybe someone else will too,” Bernson said. “Fortunately, I’ve found people who do interesting, unusual things.”
Even though Bernson’s interests lie in adding these rare tales to his extensive collection, he now spends his mornings as an audio-book narrator at Louisville’s American Printing House for the Blind. In 2003, the American Foundation for the Blind named him the nation’s best narrator of nonfiction talking books.
“I read whatever they hand me. Interestingly, I just this week finished the memoir by Roger Ebert, who’s in my book. He actually was the movie critic after I hung up my movie critic hat,” Bernson said.
Upon completing the recording, Bernson emailed Ebert and told him of his narration. In 2006, Ebert lost his voice following surgery that removed his lower jaw. Bernson said he was glad to supply a voice to his old friend’s book. The long-time movie critic now uses a voice synthesizer.
In addition to his audio-book narration, Bernson will also be delving back into broadcast journalism. Talks are under way regarding a Showtime documentary that he might help assemble next year. And next Thursday, he’ll be returning to local TV as he appears as a guest co-host with Rachel Platt on WHAS-11’s “Great Day Live.”
As for the book, Bernson dedicated it to his descendants. Through his writings, he hopes all of his future progeny will know exactly who Barry Bernson was.
“If someone wants to know how one journalist operated in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, it’s in there,” Bernson said. “That’s why I dedicated it to my descendants, so my great great-great grandchildren can say, ‘so that’s what he did.’”
— Amanda Beam is a freelance journalist who lives in Floyd County.