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After years on air, it's anchors away for Hite, Murphy

Two of the area's most-recognizable television news personalities are stepping off the set.

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published December 18, 2007


One man can't bear to hear anyone else use the r-word in reference to his recent job change. The other seems to welcome the idea of retirement from a role he has filled at area TV stations since the mid 1980s.

Between the two of them, Bob Hite and Bill Murphy have more than a half century of experience speaking to Tampa Bay area news viewers through a camera lens. But spend a little time with both men, and you find two longtime TV anchors whose stories couldn't be more different.

Hite, 60, came to Tampa from Philadelphia in 1977, the son of a well-known CBS Radio anchor. Hite gained fame for sailing a 42-foot boat from Chesapeake Bay to fill a job that matched his nautical lifestyle.

In 1985, WFLA-Ch. 8 teamed him with co-anchor Gayle Sierens in a partnership that lasted more than two decades, ending just last month.

Murphy, now 62, found a different path to Tampa. He was hired from the small Monterey, Calif., market to host WTSP-Ch. 10's Murphy in the Morning - a local version of Live With Regis and Kelly.

He left the local news business for nearly three years when WTSP canceled his show, then landed at WTVT-Ch. 13 in 1994 as co-host of its new morning show, Good Day Tampa Bay.

Now, both of those jobs are ending.

Hite left full-time work Nov. 28, capping a 30-year career in a broadcast that was filled with tributes, including kind words from Today show host Matt Lauer and legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite.

Murphy's last day at WTVT is Jan. 4, capping a run that included serving as the station's movie critic and leading its One Tank Trips segments around Florida.

The St. Petersburg Times brought the two broadcast veterans together for a wide-ranging discussion of the TV news game.

Relaxing in a dimly lit control room inside the Media Factory, a TV production company operated and co-owned by Hite's wife, Bonnie, the two journalists traded stories about the days before robotic-run cameras and the electronic cue card known as a TelePrompTer.

Few topics were out of bounds - though we spoke more than a week before Hite would face the indignity of his arrest on a drunken driving charge Nov. 21.

Both men shrugged off talk that their departures signal an end to an era in local broadcasting. Use the word "retirement" around Hite and he'll correct you, even though he often uses it himself.

Instead, each focused on new challenges: Hite will produce documentaries, including specials for WFLA, Murphy will write travel books and develop a Web site - TravelsWithMurphy.com - exploring life outside the confines of a TV anchor desk.

 

Bob, can you talk about how you came to Tampa?

Hite: Well, my life revolved around my old wooden boat, not my career. I grew up the son of a CBS newsman, rubbing shoulders with people like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, and I was not impressed with the business itself.

I was working in Philadelphia in the late '70s, it was February and I was sent out to do one of our very first live shots. The wind-chill factor was 8 degrees, it was freezing rain and snow . . .

At my desk afterwards, the phone rings. And I pick up the phone and I say, "H-h-h-hello." The guy on the other end says, "Bob Hite?" And I say, "Y-y-yes." He says, "My name's Joe Mannion, I'm a news director in Tampa. Would you be interested in working in Florida?"

 

That was a no-brainer, eh?

Hite: All my friends in Philly thought I was nuts, careerwise. But I went from covering murder, mayhem, death and destruction up there to diving with mermaids in Weeki Wachee and manatees and doing my nautical news beat and environmental stories. And the rest is history.

 

Bill, what's your story?

Murphy: Actually, my story is almost the same as Bob's - no, wait a minute . . . totally different (laughs).

I was in Monterey, Calif., which also happens to be a pretty nice place. But it is a smaller market. I was doing news and my heart at that time was in more free-form television. I wanted a talk show, I wanted to get away from the scripts . . .

(Channel 10) called me up and they said, "We want you to come audition in Tampa Bay." I said, "That would be great."

And then I got out the encyclopedia to see where it was.

I'm like a lot of people who dreamed of some day replacing Johnny Carson. We did almost seven years of Murphy in the Morning. And I've just started my 14th year at Fox 13, which, for me, is the longest I've been at any station.

. . . I was out of work (in local news) for almost three years. I did infomercials and I worked at the Home Shopping Network. And I wouldn't trade that experience, by the way, for anything in the world.

 

What did you learn?

Murphy: There's a little monitor that's just out of camera range and you see how you're doing in real time - how much you're selling. You and the producer work on a bonus: If you make your quota, you get a bigger check. So I tapped into a personality I didn't know I had.

I had friends out in L.A. who would just get a six-pack of beer and say, "Let's go watch Murphy on Home Shopping sell cubic zirconias."

 

How is the anchor job different now?

Hite: The staff has grown tremendously and we have many more newscasts than when I first started. But still, when that red light comes on, journalism pretty much stops and acting begins.

Murphy: Hear, hear.

 

What do you mean?

Hite: It's not a natural act to look into a lens and talk to it . . . It's still basically an announcing job; at the very least, an acting job.

Murphy: You know, there are hundreds of people working together to make all this, but you're the final one. None of the bosses - it's you. It's what's coming out of your mouth and what you're saying to these people.

And sometimes, and I know Bob does it, too, you edit from your head: You look three lines ahead and your (inner) voice says, "Oh, crap, I'm not gonna say that." But you've gotta figure out what you are gonna say and then, lo and behold, somehow you say it.

Hite: The business satisfies everything that I'm about. I love to write and tell stories with motion pictures and I'm a bit of a ham. And of course, I'm sitting there with one of my best friends, Gayle Sierens. Gayle is always telling folks, you know, she and I spend more time together than we have with our spouses, and that's true.

Many years ago, I was timing Gayle's contractions with her second child, and with her third child, she worked right up until the day before she delivered. I was afraid I was gonna get some on-the-job training for birthing a child 'cause the contractions were so close together.

 

Bob, how did you balance reporting and anchoring?

Hite: First and foremost, I'm a photojournalist and when I was working just the 6 o'clock news, I was out all day shooting my stories. As the environmental guy, as the feature guy, the military guy, I had felt an obligation to these beats even though I might be working a 70-hour week.

And since it's my hobby, cinematography, that's what I'd be doing anyway. Of course, my family life suffered, unfortunately.

 

Bill, what was Murphy in the Morning like?

Murphy: When I got out of college and I started watching newscasts . . . what I always waited for was the kicker, the final, fun story. There's nothing wrong, if time will allow, with leaving people feeling good or laughing. So Murphy in the Morning kind of became a lighter show.

I got to know Dorothy Lamour, who sent me a Christmas card every year until she passed. I remember Bill Daly from I Dream of Jeannie, what a nut case. But he and I became pals because he was doing dinner theater and we had him on the show. Kitty Kelley, who wrote the Frank Sinatra book years ago, and she inscribed in my book - I still have it - "to Bill Murphy, the only talk show host in America who reads books." Because I read the book cover to cover before she came. I took it very seriously 'cause I really loved doing it.

 

How did that stint end?

Murphy: It was a Friday, and I was told, "Hey, (the general manager) wants to see you." I walked into his office and I sat down and he said, "You don't know me and I don't know you. Nothing personal, but I've decided to terminate you and end your job immediately and, if possible, could you be out of here by 5 o'clock this afternoon?"

That was a warm, fuzzy day for me.

I feel very, very fortunate that half my career, save a year or two, has been at Channel 13 because, much the same as Bob talks about a family (at WFLA), it's also a family at 13.

I still some days look around me and feel like I'm pulling the wool over their eyes - how did I get in here?

 

What don't people understand about what you do?

Hite: I don't enjoy the content that I'm talking about, mostly. You know, both Gayle and I have been brought to tears during the course of our newscasts untold numbers of times . . . Some of the stories are just horrendous.

. . . It's time for me to leave the anchor desk because frankly, especially working the night shift, it takes away from that part of the craft which I love, the fun part, the part that makes you feel good.

 

How do you connect with an audience?

Murphy: I never think about it. I think subconsciously I keep (remembering) something that a professor taught me years ago. He always said, "When you go on the air, and you talk in that microphone, think of one person. Think of somebody you love and talk to that person, because . . . everybody listening to you is going to think, "He's talking just to me."

 

Bob, you had been talking about retiring for many years. Why did it take so long to finally make the decision?

Hite: I just turned 60, and if I signed another contract . . . if I didn't leave now, if I was going to be 63 or 65 before I tried to embark on this next career, would I be able to carry 50 pounds of camera gear along with me? Maybe not. So I had to see what's out there for me.

 

Bill, how did you decide it was time to retire?

Murphy: I heard Bob Hite was retiring and I said, the hell with it - he's quitting, then I'm quitting (laughs).

I crunched a lot of numbers and was thinking, could I, could I, could I? And as much as I will miss many things . . . I won't miss the hours. . . . Quite frankly, I'm a little bit weary of having to go to bed so early on Friday and Saturday when the world is alive.

 

Will you miss the fans?

Hite: If you're at the supermarket, as I have been, someone will come up and start speaking to me as if they're just picking up the middle of a conversation because they saw a story three weeks ago. This stranger is talking about a story that I don't even remember, but . . . you're suddenly engaged in conversation. It's disconcerting at first, but it goes with the territory.

Murphy: There is this whole family out there that I don't know that is my "extended" family . . .

You're in people's living rooms, you're in people's bedrooms, you're in people's bathrooms, and I've never gotten tired of it. I'm always amazed by it, and it's a phenomenal thing to have so many friends.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.