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Don Shelby is Out Standing in His Field

He’ll tell you why he doesn’t belong behind WCCO’s anchor desk anymore: He’s a “relic,” he has “too many edges,” he’s needed the rigors of the outdoors to recover from strokes. But local TV news isn’t leaving Shelby behind. He just might leave it in his dust.

Don Shelby is Out Standing in His Field

Don Shelby works in a fishbowl, and not just because he’s on television. His cubicle in the WCCO-TV newsroom is right in front of a big window facing Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Until he steps down from his anchor job and into retirement, an event scheduled to take place on November 22, passersby can still stop and gawk at him most afternoons, if they are so inclined.

On this particular July afternoon, they can see him composing copy for tonight’s “Good to Know” segment, the part of WCCO’s 10 p.m. newscast where, since 2006, he has stepped away from the anchor desk—figuratively, since “Good to Know” is taped earlier in the evening—to deliver a 45-second opinion piece, his own take on some event in the news.

He is the only TV news anchor in the Twin Cities who enjoys such a soapbox. But then he also is the most decorated—awards include three national Emmys and a Peabody—and the longest serving. He has anchored Channel 4’s 10 o’clock news since 1985, when he took over from Dave Moore.

Tonight on “Good to Know,” Shelby wants to talk about a letter that WCCO received from a friend of some murder victims. A day or two earlier, a man in St. Paul allegedly shot and killed three family members and wounded a fourth in a sketchily explained fit of desperation and rage. The friend’s letter essentially says that the people killed were, indeed, people, and deserved more than a just-the-facts news account of their sudden, violent passing.

The letter struck a chord in Shelby. He is trying to compose a 45-second statement that explains why.

The writer is absolutely correct, he says. “We told the facts of the story. We did the proper reporting on that. But we didn’t say anything about who these people were, or what they meant to the community, their family, their friends.” You can’t do that for everyone who dies, of course. Still, Shelby says, he is haunted by the people who die without a proper sendoff from the TV news.

He is absolutely serious. The complaint that TV newspeople will shove a microphone in a grieving mother’s face before her children’s bodies have cooled and ask, “How do you feel?”—that’s crap, he says. He’s been in the business for 45 years, since college in Cincinnati, and he’s never heard a TV reporter utter that phrase.

Besides, “we seldom have to seek out these individuals,” he adds. “They come to us. They gravitate toward the camera, toward the microphone.”

Television has changed something about the mourning process for survivors, Shelby believes: “It is not a legitimate form of grief, they feel, unless it is spoken out loud and on the air.

“That saddens me beyond words,” he adds. “Because there are hundreds of thousands of people, in my 32 years at WCCO, who died, but whose lives were not significant enough, or the manner in which they died was not significant enough—not ‘newsworthy,’ perfect word—so that they didn’t make the news.”

This is the emotive Shelby, a persona now as familiar to viewers as the hard-nosed investigative reporter who launched WCCO’s I-Team in 1980 and led it to win those Emmys. According to his daughter Lacy, a landscape architect now working in New York City, the sensitive Don Shelby has been more on display these last few years, since he suffered a stroke in 2004.

There have been subtle personality changes since then, says Lacy, one of Shelby’s three adult daughters. She talks about the stroke only after learning that he, himself, brought it up.

“His approach to storytelling changed,” she says. “I think the way he saw news changed. It was more about people . . . . He became more sentimental, more sensitive.”

She says he’s also confided that maintaining his “public self”—life in the fishbowl—takes more effort than it did before.

 

Why Now?

Shelby is 63. His contract with WCCO-TV expires at the end of December. Last December, he gave up the afternoon show that he co-hosted for nine years on WCCO radio. He made it plain months before the formal announcement last May that he intended to retire from television, too, by the end of this year. When asked, “Why now?” he is still for a few seconds. Then his explanation begins with the stroke.

Actually, it was four strokes “that killed two-thirds of my cerebellum,” he says. He wasn’t physically impaired, “and it didn’t mess with my speech, but it did mess with my memory and my acuity. So I had to double down on the energy that it would take to get through a normal day.

“Nobody knows this,” he says, “but I have worked harder these last five years just to stay even than I worked the previous 40. Things always came to me very easily. In the last five years, things don’t come as easily.”

He gets dizzy. And while he still is justly famous as a ham who can happily talk about himself for hours—Minnpost media critic David Brauer calls it Shelby’s “charming egotism”—the public self has indeed become harder to maintain.

Every year Shelby does about 100 speeches and hosting gigs for schools, civic groups, charity galas, and so on. “You know how some people get nervous? They just can’t get up in front of a group and give a speech? Since the stroke, that’s happened to me,” he says.

He has long been an avid outdoorsman, with a preference for primitive wilderness excursions: a flint and steel, some fish hooks, some monofilament line, and not much else. But since 2004, some of his solitary expeditions have served an agenda related to the public self.

“The solo stuff is intended to be a little frightening,” he says. Two years ago, on a three-day snowshoeing trek in the Boundary Waters, the temperature dropped to 54 degrees below zero. “I need to push myself to my limits so I can come back and go, ‘A speech? Are you kidding? I just did 60 miles at 54 below. And I made it. This speech ought to be pretty easy.’”

It’s partly due to the stroke that Shelby says he is “done with the daily work.” But the answers to “Why now?” are more complicated than that.

“I’m a relic of another age,” he says. “I’m visibly older. I have white hair . . . . The audience that we seek is ever younger. And unless a large portion of the audience out there wants their grandfather telling them the news . . .” He lets that thought trail off.

 

“Too Many Edges”

In market-research terms, Shelby always has had “high negatives.” Before longtime KARE-TV anchor Paul Magers left for Los Angeles at the end of 2003, he and Shelby tested about even in terms of being recognizable. But when it came to likability, “Majors scored about 98 percent, something like that, and I scored about 78 percent,” Shelby says. “I have too many edges.”

This means that from a business perspective, “I’m not a very good anchorman,” he says. “This isn’t something I’ve been told, it’s me telling you . . . I think I hurt this station. And I think I hurt it more now than I used to. I think ‘Good to Know’ drives the negatives even higher.”

He is ambivalent about the opinion segments, which he says open the door to role confusion. “[Viewers] think, ‘Wait a minute, is he a reporter telling me this? Or is he just spouting off? Is he just ranting here, giving me his opinion? Like, who cares?’

“I’ve always been a team player,” he continues. “And in this day and age, I’m not sure our team can win with me at the point.”

There is yet another angle to “why now”? The TV news business is shrinking in response to falling revenue. Before he left radio last December, Shelby’s combined radio and television salary peaked at about $1 million a year. Without radio, it’s lower. Shelby’s leaving evidently has nothing to do with a salary dispute, but WCCO News Director Scott Libin concedes that after Shelby goes, anchor salaries in his range are unlikely to be seen again in the Twin Cities market.

Shelby compares himself to a baseball player who would happily play the game for free. So it isn’t pay that concerns him. The shrinkage that bothers him has to do with the resources that television can devote to practicing journalism. WCCO eliminated its I-Team last year, unable to afford reporters who spent significant time investigating stories that might not pan out.

To Shelby, it all seems to be getting smaller and softer and less significant. He feels that his “edges” are increasingly out of place. “I may not fit in with what the future of television is going to be,” he says.

 

On Air and Off

Most of this conversation is taking place on a couch in the Green Room at WCCO, where on-air people prepare to go in front of the cameras. In mid-afternoon, Shelby already is perfectly groomed and dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, looking camera ready.

Appearing intermittently from behind a half-wall, hair in curlers, is Amelia Santaniello, who co-anchors the 10 o’clock news with Shelby and the five and six o’clock reports with her husband, Frank Vascellaro. Vascellaro will move into Shelby’s 10 p.m. anchor chair in November. Santaniello, now fully photogenic and ready to go on at five, walks past the couch on her way out the door.

Shelby stops her before the writer can and ropes her into the interview: Does she agree that “Good to Know” probably leads a lot of viewers to see him as biased when he reads the straight news?

She does not. Or rather, Santaniello concedes that people already predisposed to see Shelby as biased or too opinionated might find fuel for that prejudice in “Good to Know.” But that possibility is outweighed by the opportunity to showcase Shelby’s personality, especially when his segments are playful. “That’s what I’ve heard a lot,” she says, “is people saying, ‘Wow, he’s funny.’ I mean, people who know you, or who listened to you on the radio, know you’re funny, but this is a forum where you can really show them.”

She heads for the studio, leaving him unconvinced. The reference to the radio show didn’t help in this context. He knows that some radio listeners referred to him as “DFL Don,” notwithstanding his self-description as a “small L liberal,” with conservative views on matters ranging from budget deficits to gun rights.

To the interviewer, the striking thing about Shelby is that he seems to be exactly the same person who appears on television five nights a week. WCCO reporter Jason DeRusha has already provided a heads-up about this, under the rubric of authenticity: “The only difference between the on-air Shelby and the off-air Shelby is that the off-air one tells really dirty jokes.”

Daughter Lacy says the difference is that the on-air Shelby wears a suit and tie and cufflinks. The off-air one is likely at any moment to clamp spikes to his shoes and climb a tree.

That the off-air Shelby carries a switchblade knife in his pocket might be considered a little jarring. Then again, he has put people in jail in the course of his career. His life has been threatened.

 

The Know-It-All Fears the Unknown

It has become a cliché to describe Shelby as a know-it-all who actually knows it all. Libin’s favorite anecdote along these lines involves a Minnesota soldier Shelby ran into last year on a reporting trip to Iraq. The soldier was teaching beekeeping to local farmers. Guess what activity Shelby happened to know about in depth and detail?

“Why does Don know a lot? Because he’s very curious,” DeRusha says. “He reads nonfiction voraciously. While the rest of us are reading John Grisham novels, he’s reading about energy policy.”

Shelby reads nonfiction almost exclusively. He collects books on polar exploration and Western exploration. He subscribes to the Journal of Primitive Technology because is he fascinated by the thinking process that led to the invention of, say, arrowheads. He also collects books by Mark Twain, but says that he reads even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more or less as historical nonfiction.

No escapist literature at all? “I don’t have any time to escape,” he says. “Not as long as there are things I don’t know.”

One of his fears is “that I will not know something of importance,” he says. “The reason I want to know all of these things is not so I can be some flesh-and-blood Google for the newsroom. It’s so I will know bullshit when I hear it. Too many reporters are unprepared, and they can be bullshitted.”

If an expert on hydrogen fuel cells, say, is talking out of his hat, Shelby wants to know it. So he reads up on hydrogen fuel cells. “Otherwise, how would you know if somebody is just making something up right in front of you?”

 

The Door Stays Open

His retirement plans include more time in the woods; more time with his wife, daughters, and two grandchildren; and more time reading—still on that reporter’s need-to-know basis. Shelby has no intention of disappearing from public view.

“If it is the general manager’s wish,” he says coyly, he might come back and do four stories a year for WCCO. Or something similar for, say, Twin Cities Public Television, Minnesota Public Radio, or National Public Radio.

Or he might do some “one-man-band journalism.” If, for instance, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had happened next year instead of this year, “I might have been the first reporter down there,” Shelby says. “Shoot it, edit it on my laptop, then put it up on a Web site as an FTP for people to pull down. Freelance, you know, and they could pay what they want to pay for that.”

Then there is environmentalism. Since Shelby started WCCO’s environmental series Project Energy in 2005, he says that a number of groups have asked him to consult or serve on their boards.

“There’s all kinds of stuff like that I’d like to do. But they don’t pay. At some point, I’m going to have to work for a living again.” People don’t understand, Shelby says, that those million-dollar paychecks only arrived for the past few years. “I didn’t make big money until recently.”

Asked how much actual retirement she expects to see from her father, Lacy Shelby’s answer is, “Absolutely none.”

“I don’t think Don will go sit in a rocking chair on his front porch,” says news director Libin. “He’s not bluffing about walking out the door. But I hope he’ll walk back in from time to time.”

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