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Al Primo, creator of ‘eyewitness’ local news, dies at 87

He put reporters on the streets and bantering anchors in the studio, creating a format still familiar to TV viewers today

Al Primo in the newsroom of WABC-TV in New York City in 1968. (Family photo)

Al Primo, a behind-the-scenes force in television broadcasting who revolutionized local news in the 1960s and early 1970s, replacing the single stentorian anchorman with a band of roving “eyewitness” reporters and a winsome cast of on-set personalities to create a format still familiar to TV viewers today, died Sept. 29 at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn. He was 87.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter Juliet Primo.

Mr. Primo grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of an Italian immigrant, and stumbled into television shortly after high school when he landed a job as a mail clerk at a local station. TV newscasts at the time resembled those on the radio, with reports read by anchormen whose bearing and intonation made them known, whether derisively or affectionately, as the “voice of God.”

As Mr. Primo rose through the station ranks, he began to envision another way of delivering the news. He put his ideas into action as news director at KYW-TV, a Westinghouse station in Philadelphia where he sent reporters out from the studio and into the city, giving the name to his signature newscast: “Eyewitness News” debuted in 1965.

“We weren’t going to just preach the news to people,” Mr. Primo said in a forthcoming documentary, “News Primo: Al Primo’s Eyewitness News Revolution,” directed by Brian Calfano, a professor of journalism at the University of Cincinnati. “We wanted to go out and talk to the people because people can tell their stories better than we can write them.”

Back on the set, a male-female anchor duo — the first were Marciarose Shestack and Tom Snyder, later a fixture of late-night television — engaged in friendly banter with the weather- and sportscasters. To fans, the local news team became daily companions, like neighbors or even family. Mr. Primo insisting on hiring minorities to better reflect and represent the station’s audience.

He took his format to WABC-TV in New York City in 1968, boosting the struggling station back into competition with other networks — WABC eventually claimed first place in the ratings — and proving the appeal of a format that soon dominated local news.

“Al is one of the most important figures in the history of broadcast journalism,” said Emmy-winning television personality Geraldo Rivera, who got his start in TV from Mr. Primo. “He invented local news as we know it.”

From the start, “Eyewitness News” invited hand-wringing about the substitution of “happy talk” for hard news and the advent of what became known as “infotainment.”

Harry Waters, a writer for the New York Times who reviewed the WABC-TV news report in 1970, poked fun at the ribbing that went on during the show among its personalities, who included anchorman Roger Grimsby and sports commentator Howard Cosell. The newscast may have been called “Eyewitness News,” Waters wrote, but “to at least this eyewitness the show might better be called ‘Wiseguy News.' ”

The “free-swinging repartee is a new note for a news show,” Waters wrote, “but it remains a wide open question whether it diminishes or enhances effectiveness.”

Mr. Primo, for his part, made no apologies.

“They said ‘it was not journalism’ and ‘he’s using show-business techniques,’ ” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year. “And of course, I said, ‘Yes, that’s right. This is television, so we use lights, camera, action — that’s what we do.’ But we do the news, too.”

As the “eyewitness” format took over local news nationally, critics objected to the increasingly sensational coverage of crime and tragedy. But the template proved so popular that many modern television viewers have never known local news in any other incarnation.

“It seems so natural now, but it did take a visionary like Primo to actually codify it, first in Philadelphia and then in New York,” said Ron Simon, a senior curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

Albert Thomas Primo was born in Pittsburgh on July 3, 1935. His mother, a homemaker, was a daughter of Italian immigrants. His father came to the United States from Italy as an adolescent and worked on railroads, in construction and as a gravedigger, with Mr. Primo sometimes helping him in the latter job.

Mr. Primo was hired to work in the mailroom at the DuMont station WDTV in 1953 and worked there while studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where he graduated in 1958. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he “had the benefit of working in every job there was in television: cameraman, film editor, writer, producer, on the air.”

He eventually ascended to assistant news director before moving to Cleveland and then to Philadelphia and on to New York. Mr. Primo later became a vice president at ABC, as well as executive producer of “The Reasoner Report” hosted by Harry Reasoner. As a consultant, he helped popularize the “eyewitness” format on local news stations across the country.

Mr. Primo was also the creator and co-executive producer of Teen Kids News, a syndicated news program for young people that debuted in 2003.

His wife of more than 50 years, the former Rosina Pregano, died in 2018. Their son, Gregg Primo, died in 2007. Survivors include two daughters, Valerie Primo Lack of Geneva and Juliet Primo of Old Greenwich; two sisters; a brother; and two grandchildren.

Rivera, who became a reporter on TV programs including ABC’s “20/20” and host of the daytime talk show “Geraldo,” was perhaps Mr. Primo’s most notable talent discovery.

Trained as a lawyer, Mr. Rivera was serving as a spokesman for a Puerto Rican activist group, the Young Lords, that had taken over several buildings in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of New York when he said Mr. Primo “spotted” him in 1970.

Seeking to broaden the cultural representation of his newscast, Mr. Primo offered Rivera training and a job on “Eyewitness News” in New York. Rivera, who saw television as a means of effecting social change, accepted. Two years later, he received a Peabody Award for his investigative report on the squalor at Willowbrook, a state-run mental institution on Staten Island.

By Mr. Primo’s account, the news teams he led did not cover the civil rights movement with sufficient vigor. Melba Tolliver, an African American reporter at WABC-TV, adopted a natural hairstyle shortly before she was to cover the 1971 White House wedding of Tricia Nixon and was told to return to her earlier straightened look — or be barred from appearing on air. Tolliver refused, the story was leaked to the press, and the station relented.

But Mr. Primo was widely credited with recognizing before many other journalists the importance of cultivating diversity in a newsroom. He recruited Trudy Haynes, who at KYW became Philadelphia’s first Black television reporter, according to the Inquirer, and advanced the career of Gloria Rojas, a Latina journalist he brought to WABC. Rose Ann Scamardella, an anchorwoman on “Eyewitness News” in New York, inspired Gilda Radner’s character Roseanne Roseannadanna on the “Weekend Update” news spoof segment of “Saturday Night Live.”

“He was one of the pioneers of integration in local news teams,” Rivera said. “His philosophy was that our people on the air should reflect the community that we seek to serve.”

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