Washington Post Staff Writer
John Goldsmith just happened to be at National Airport doing a feature story on a snowstorm when he overheard a two-way radio call from his station asking another news crew to go to National.
"I just want to remind you that you already have a crew at National Airport," said Goldsmith, recalling his conversation over the radio. "What's up?"
Something about a possible plane crash, Goldsmith was told. He went to air operations and found a very relaxed man who said all he knew was that another TV channel had called and said something about a blue and white business jet hitting the 14th Street Bridge.
"I drove over to the bridge," Goldsmith said, "and a cop let me drive through right up to the wreckage on the bridge. I looked over the bridge rail and saw people clinging to wreckage in the water. Since I thought it was a small plane that had crashed, it looked like everybody had gotten out.
"And then I wondered if this would be the lead story that night."
No, it wasn't a ghoulish thought. It was just the thought of the pressure of doing the lead story on yet another newscast, the inner drive required to do it just-so every time. And perhaps the wear and tear of having done it just right too many times.
"I left Channel 9 shortly after that," recalled Goldsmith. "There was a change in news directors and some other things." But there was also a feeling that he'd had enough of day-to-day news. "I said, that's enough."
That last big breaking news story was the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, a chapter in his life as TV newsman that he still recalls in detail and with emotional overtones.
"I didn't want to be out on that bridge," said Goldsmith, searching for the reasons. "The fact that I was perceived as a feature reporter. I think I behaved like the guy at the Hindenburg disaster, only I didn't fall apart . . .
"About the time I wanted off the bridge they (the station's news directors) said, 'Don't move.'"
His later retrospective on the crash won Goldsmith an Emmy. And his coverage, from the snow-swept bridge, of the crash survivors' struggle against the icy waters of the Potomac River brought him more letters than anything he's done. He especially recalls one of them. "The letter ended," he remembered, choking at the thought, "'Thank you for being there.'"
John Goldsmith is now there, on television, every Sunday morning as host of "Capital Edition." "This show is a great relief to me," said Goldsmith. He works seven days a week, adding his narration to stories in progress, tapping out the copy that leads into and out of the show's segments. "But it's not the same kind of pounding . . . Every last bit of ambulance-chaser went out of me somewhere about the time of the Air Florida crash."
And it's even more rewarding, professionally. The show won six Emmys in this year's competition -- more than any other local show -- including one for best location public affairs show, one for Goldsmith's writing and four other awards for individual excellence.
Goldsmith has been with "Capital Edition" a year. When WDVM management began discussing a new contract with him, Goldsmith recalled, he surprised them by asking for less pay than he might have while seeking increased support for the show itself.
He is effusive in his praise for the show's staff and technical support crew, even going so far as to send a follow-up letter to an interviewer listing all their names and titles. The list starts with Janice E. Thompson, the senior producer/reporter for "Capital Edition," and includes two segment producers, three field producers, a production assistant, a production trainee, four photographer/editors who spend most of their time at Channel 9 working on "Capital Edition," as well as a location sound man, a director and 10 other people (eight technical personnel and two assistant directors) who help put the show on Sunday morning, and not to forget the show's executive producer, Sandra Butler. "If I look good," wrote Goldsmith, "it's 20 percent me and 80 percent the company I keep."
In the spring of 1984, after the program had been on the air only a few weeks, Channel 9 asked Goldsmith whether he was interested in hosting. Goldsmith, who has lived in the District all his 43 years and loves the city, had been working as a freelance correspondent and commentator for Channel 5 and the Cable News Network since leaving Nine.
"They called me," Goldsmith recalled. "I said, let me take a look at it. I said, this is a pretty good-looking show. I'd be happy to take credit for it."
Goldsmith has reason to be enthusiastic. When "Capital Edition" debuted, the show -- which seemed to be in search for a host for the first six weeks it was on the air -- offered more questions than answers. Would a TV magazine program succeed on Sunday morning, particularly one that looked like a local version of "CBS Sunday Morning," which precedes it? Would it suffer by close comparison to "Sunday Morning," one of the most smoothly produced shows on television? And even if you like both programs, wouldn't the second show be something of an overdose?
"I've tinkered with it and brought to it whatever I bring," said Goldsmith. "But the structure is basically sound."
He brings to the show an impish sense of humor, just short of being a wise guy, just short of being cute. "I tend to be irreverent," said Goldsmith, "and almost too loose at times."
He also brings to the show -- and almost any place he goes -- an ever-present cup of coffee, a virtual attachment to his hand. "If what they say about coffee being harmful is true," he said, "I'm finished."
A month before he started as host of "Capital Edition," a 3 rating was about the best the show could hope for. Now figures generally run twice as high. A recent show featuring the Chesapeake Bay won an 8.5 rating with a 31 percent audience share, Goldsmith recalled, meaning nearly a third of the people watching TV that morning were watching "Capital Edition."
Goldsmith professes not to be a ratings-watcher, but marvels at the impact of the numbers and the demographics of the audience they represent. He's noticed, for instance, that more prestigious sponsors, such as Volvo and Northrop, are showing up on the show. "No Ginzu knives," he smiled. And he quotes another broadcaster on how to stage a show that would get a perfect rating -- 100 rating, 100 percent audience share. "The show would be called, 'Do Nielsen meters cause cancer?'"
"Capital Edition" generally gets better ratings than "Sunday Morning," Goldsmith said, acknowledging his better timeslot. "Charles Kuralt hands over a larger audience in his last quarter- hour than we manage to sustain for our whole hour," said Goldsmith. And of course if it's a nice day, the audience for "Capital Edition" might dwindle a bit. Goldsmith acknowledged the situation on the air once, encouraging viewers with Nielsen meters in their homes to leave their sets on if they were going out to play.
Goldsmith gives his show credit for being one of network quality on a local station's budget, succeeding on the enthusiasm and energy of its personnel. "60 Minutes," he suggests, has gone soft of late, failing to make a solid impression in recent months despite its large-scale budget. "We produce our show for what their limo budget costs," he said.
What would he do if he had a "60 Minutes" budget? Or even a "30 Minutes" budget? With unlimited time and money, "I could do remotes from anywhere with a budget to bring in or get to anybody . . . If we were doing a piece on test pilots at Patuxent and if Chuck Yeager is the best test pilot, then we could talk to him, even if he's in New Mexico."
Some of that expansiveness may get an outlet, possibly in the form of syndication. "It's being discussed," Goldsmith acknowledged. "That's all that's happening -- just in-house discussion. I think we could pull it off with minimal change in the show because we're in the nation's capital. I think 80 percent of our stories would go over nationwide, or at least on the East Coast. I'd love to see it syndicated live."
Syndication could have a down side. The show has enjoyed a light rein from Nine's management, Goldsmith said. Syndication would bring even more attention and concern about such things as ratings. "The weight would start to get heavy."
Goldsmith has known the weight of the broadcasting business, in various forms, for nearly 25 years. And he got the bug early.
His father was born in Berlin of American parents and wrote a newsletter on economic matters. "Growing up, I never understood any of that," said Goldsmith. But it was enough to plant the idea of journalism as a career.
Goldsmith leftthe University of Maryland after two years, about the time his father died, and went to work. He has worked with a Capitol Hill news service, been a writer and reporter with WWDC AM/FM radio, reporter and anchor with Channel 5, and started his own production company, specializing in on-location documentary work. He went to Channel 9 in 1979 as a feature reporter and interviewer and was there for three years before leaving to freelance.
Before that first stint with Nine there was a year in which he, his wife and dog boarded a motor home and covered some 14,000 miles. Call it freelancing around the country. Call it R&R.
He and Maureen, an art student at American University, have been married eight years. They have no children and refer to Shana as their dog-ter.
Goldsmith's nonbroadcast interests generally revolve around mechanical things, with recent emphasis on the electronic -- planes and power boats, for instance. His home and office are stuffed with computer and video gear.
His commitment to his work brought him a Peabody Award, the James Scripps Journalism Award and four local Emmys before joining "Capital Edition."
His commitment also seems to require periodic escape, or at least the appearance of the option. He has no agent and says he's never signed a contract for more than one year. It seems to be part of keeping what he does in perspective.
"I consider doing what I do to be very important," said Goldsmith. "At the same time, it's not . . . You have to remember it isn't brain surgery . . . We do the best job we can do but it's not to be taken too seriously."
He smiles his on-camera smile: "Hey, look at us! We're doing a nice little TV show for you."