By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; C01
The newscast unwinds like pairs figure skating - ramrod postures, noisy costuming, dramatic head tilts, a choreography of banter - except the anchors toss around segments about baby-maiming strollers instead of each other. Boxy cameras glide and pirouette around the set of Fox 5 as Brian Bolter hits various marks on the slick studio floor.
"Keep it right here," Bolter says into a camera, sending manicured smolder into living rooms across the District, Maryland and Virginia. "Fox 5 News is just getting started."
The red on-air light switches off. The steely anchor mask scrunches into a fleeting grimace. Bolter scuffs his heel across the floor, as if chipping a soccer ball. The cameras shift, following his lead, as he ascends to the desk. His co-anchor, Laura Evans, perches next to him and mists her tresses with chemicals. He holds up a cracked mirror, which splits his face in two, and musses his hair a bit. Bolter monologues to Evans, clearly enthused about something, tripping over words that are barely audible over the wail of the commercial break.
"It's the sparkling wine that ended the Cold War . . . to this day it's served at state dinners . . . slow-ripening grape . . . it's a Bordeaux-style vintage . . . flavors are more pronounced . . ."
When the red light pops back on, he's back in anchor mode: chin centered over a gold Windsor knot, brow furrowed in stern alertness, surfing the prompter like the California dude he is, his voice swooping up and down the words as they crest and break through sentences about _blankthe Chandra Levy trial and _blanka 300-pound chimpanzee on the loose in Kansas City, Mo.
Invisible on your home television is the tiny flourish at his wrists: silver cuff links in the shape of corkscrews, a talisman untelevised.
The anchor is the avatar of his demographic, the reflected face of the audience that follows him. He's the storyteller, the guy who must gracefully toggle between grisly homicides and end-zone dances, a familiar mug who is nonetheless a mystery.
Bolter turned 40 earlier this year and embodies his restless market, both on-air and off. At Fox 5, he flies solo for the 6 and 11 p.m. NewsEdge shows, which are deskless blitzes built around his youthful, news-junkie appetite for Internet memes, pop music and viral stories that don't necessarily fit Fox 5's more traditional 10 p.m. news hour.
And in historic Annapolis, he has quietly started a side venture: a wine bar on Main Street, six blocks from his house.
For two years now, he's spent his daytime hours developing the business with his wife, Lisa, who will manage the wine bar when it opens in May. They've sunk their savings into this gamble, an investment in their adopted home town but also a Plan B of sorts, just in case, because you never know.
"I'm doubling down on news, putting my faith in Fox 5 and being the main anchor for the long haul, and the wine bar is a way to double down in the community and make sure we don't have to leave," says Bolter, who's been at the station for 11 years. "Television is so tumultuous; it's extraordinarily competitive, and the Internet is ravaging our business. Even people who have jobs at the highest levels in TV feel a little bit of insecurity. . . . This all goes to that new 'slash-careers' phenomenon."
News anchor/wine-bar owner. Survival of the fittest. A race to adapt in the newsroom, a hedge to thrive outside it. Keep it right here . . .
"You have one life to live," he says, "and so you can focus all your efforts on one thing or - in this economy, in the uncertain times we live in - you can take an opportunity to explore the canvas of your life, to figure out other things you're interested in."
Who is this talking head, this overlit face obscured by makeup, this baritone who hints at a deadly intersection in my neighborhood without revealing the exact location until after the commercial break? He's the flat target for viewers' rampant judgment and assumption.
He's just like he is on television.
(He's nothing like he is on television.)'An acquired taste'
When they had Brian, his parents were barely 20 years old and still figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives. There were food stamps, and full-time course loads, and then frequent moves around the country when his father got a job as an Army psychologist: California, Tennessee, Fort Meade in Maryland, then back to California. Bolter taught himself how to ride a bike before he was 5, according to Brian's father, John, and taught himself how to read by the first month of first grade.
"When you grow up poor, you always feel like you have to prove yourself," Brian says. "There's a chip on your shoulder. You're never fully settled."
The family landed in Monterey, Calif., for Bolter's teen years. He was senior class president at Seaside High School, the voice of the morning announcements, a clowning and rebellious know-it-all who was also a whip-smart writer, according to high school buddy Scott Larson. He'd drive his foursome of friends in his Volkswagen Dasher, hair always perfect, a jack-of-all-trades whose ambitions were more abstract than career-minded.
"Brian, like a fine wine, is an acquired taste," says Larson, who owns a graphic design company in Monterey. "On the surface there's a lot of ego, there's a lot of confidence. People can misconstrue that confidence as arrogance. . . . Brian was always about fashion, about his impression - the impression he was leaving on people. He was just a leader, a great writer, had a good imagination, and you could see he had a real feel for media. That was one way he could stand out and be heard. He had a need to be out front."
He lifeguarded, work-studied and bartended at Tropical Isle in the French Quarter while studying advertising and communications at Loyola University New Orleans, then moved back to California and pounded on the doors of ad agencies in San Francisco. Unable to find a job, he took a $4.50-an-hour gig manning cameras and cuing anchors at KMST-TV (Channel 46) in Monterey. He followed reporters on assignment and began to covet the job - telling stories through pictures in a competitive environment on deadline - so he spent his nights and weekends editing others' raw footage into his own practice stories. He put together tapes with segments about dog shows and medical marijuana and fired them off to stations far and wide, some as distant as Alaska and Guam.
He got a call from Fort Smith, Ark., loaded up his car in January 1993 and started his first on-camera job there. After a year and a half of dogged reporting, he jumped to NBC affiliate KARK-TV in Little Rock, where he revved his competitive engine while covering _blankWhitewater, the murder trial of _blankthe West Memphis Three and the occasional tornado.
"I wouldn't say he put me in risky situations, but he didn't seem satisfied with seeing a tornado five miles away," says his friend Dallas Childers, a cameraman who worked in Little Rock and now lives in Baltimore. "One time we got a shot of one and I was like, 'We're good,' and he's like, 'No, someone else is gonna be there. I don't wanna do something that's expected.' Was it the right decision? Everybody in the newsroom loved the shot. It was risky, just like this [wine bar] business venture. But it's something he wants to do."'The persona of an anchor'
No one in news is more visible than an anchor, so Bolter made a chancy move to a smaller market in Quincy, Ill., to try the starring role. He was awful at first, by his own estimation: a deer in headlights, uncomfortable in his own skin, muddying the news rather than narrating it. He kept at it, hired a consultant in Chicago for communications coaching, honed his delivery. But he soon felt constrained by the small news market. He wanted to be on a big stage. He sent tapes to stations in larger cities such as Baltimore, where WBAL news director Katherine Green was taken with his striking features, resonant voice and storytelling ability.
She hired him as a weekend anchor for WBAL in 1997, then brought him to Fox 5 as a freelancer and fill-in anchor when she switched newsrooms. He was good, she recalls, but not "authentic." He'd come into the newsroom, flatten his hair into a more traditional style and never quite connect through the television monitor, Green says. She told him to go on the air without Koppel-ing his hair, and soon he seemed at home behind the anchor desk.
"I think that what happens to younger anchors is they try to be the anchor somebody wants them to be, the persona of an anchor," says Green, now senior vice president and general manager for CNN International. "Once Brian went on the air as himself, he become very authentic. In the end, viewers want somebody they believe is real, not a facade."
Local Emmys and Edward R. Murrow awards followed, and he now anchors three nightly newscasts at WTTG and captains the newsroom's social media presence, compulsively engaging viewers on _blankFacebook and _blankTwitter between newscasts.
"He pretty much launched the NewsEdge concept," says weather forecaster Sue Palka, who's been at Fox 5 for 25 years. "The music, the fast pace - he's the perfect anchor for it. It's really indicative of who he is. Local news has changed so much in the past four or five years, and he's very adaptable. Everything is tighter, geared to how we live our lives. Viewers are multitasking, and we want to grab their eyeballs. He's been holding the ship pretty steady for us."
Bolter's NewsEdge shows at 6 and 11 p.m. were in last place in October - averaging 51,000 and 71,000 viewers, behind competitors WJLA, WUSA and NBC4 - but they (and Fox 5's hour-long 10 p.m. show) are strong among the coveted 18- to-49-year-old demographic, which is more apt to nibble news clips online than allow an anchor to guide them through a full half-hour newscast. He's going after those viewers and is pleased to be getting them. This year he experimented with editorial asides, tacking on 80 seconds of his own commentary after an interview.
"I tried to pretend, to follow the Walter Cronkites of the world, and it wasn't me," Bolter says. "I've never been that quote-unquote 'news' guy. TV is so two-dimensional, so it's very hard to break through. I feel like since my days in Quincy I've been honing my skills on camera, I've tried to become more three-dimensional in how I present the news. Some people like that, but there's a generational divide. Some people like stalwarts - the Jim Vances and Gordon Petersons - and pick that one personality type they like. I've come up in a generation of more emotive anchors who are less concerned about playing it straight."
Four and a half years ago, Bolter was sure he'd snagged an MSNBC job, which would've been the next step toward a network news position, but it didn't pan out. Shortly thereafter he became a father: first his son, Bailey, who is now 4 1 /2 years old, and later a daughter, Barrett, now 20 months old.
And he fell in love with wine. A 1995 Caymus Cabernet did it. A friend brought a bottle to his beach house outside Ocean City, Md. (He still has the cork.) The taste, the origin story of the vintage, the buzzy connection between man and wine and friends - something clicked. He began to read up, to visit local liquor stores and frequent wine festivals. He took a sommelier course and jetted to Napa.
Fatherhood and oenophilia dovetailed in his mind. He decided to savor instead of chase, to sit down on the current rung of his career ladder, to lay deeper roots in the Washington region, to provide his children with a steadiness he never had while growing up.'Sort of transcending'
There are two Brian Bolters. There's the Brian Bolter in other people's living rooms, and there's the Brian Bolter in his own living room.
Here, in a three-bedroom townhouse in Annapolis, he's easing into middle age in board shorts and baseball caps, and cranking hip-hop and British electronica during his daytime off-hours. This Brian Bolter scoops up his kids from day care, snowboards in Tahoe and _blanktweets hilariously ("Brett Favre would make the perfect spokesman for AT&T. He's intimate with his phone and has notorious reception issues"). This Brian Bolter, up until recently, described himself in his Twitter bio as "a one-dimensional TV anchor only capable of dealing in the superficial and sensational."
Wine, for him, delivers the nuance that television lacks. A glass of wine isn't over in 90 seconds. The complex taste of a life-altering cabernet cannot be reduced to a sound bite.
Wine is "sort of transcending," he says. "I think because of the connection to the earth, that it's a living and breathing organism, that every vintage is different, every label is different, every bottle is different, it's always something new, something to explore, and it leads to a lot of what people want in life - better conversations, a deeper connection with other people. It kind of knocks that hard plastic shell off the world."
He and Lisa, who maintain opposite work schedules and mostly see each other on weekends, toyed for years with the idea of opening a wine bar, but committed to it only in June of last year, when Bolter signed another contract with Fox 5. On-air personalities took a pay cut within the past year, according to staff, and the newsroom struggles to do more with less. The Bolters are always trying to do more.
"I've always wanted to be my own boss," says Lisa, 34, a spokeswoman for the state comptroller. "You're in charge of your own fate that way. And Brian's always been the kind of person who is just reaching for more, the next step, the next thing. The status quo thing for him is never really enough."
His status quo is a good job, a job that allows him to leave an impression on the capital of the country. It's not enough. It's only one impression.
The Bolters took out a small-business loan to supplement their savings. They've slogged through license applications, testified before a battery of boards at City Hall and persuaded Annapolis that a Californian's swagger meshes with the colonial blueprint of Main Street.
If all continues smoothly, Red Red Wine Bar will open in May - a 60-seat, 2,400-square-foot, classy-but-not-snobby destination for those who want wine that's cheap enough to enjoy regularly but good enough to maybe change their lives. Bolter wants to connect a customer to the story of a wine as he connects a viewer to the news, for as long as a viewer still wants that connection.