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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Old-school radio personality Jack Harris busy on and off the air
A throwback sound and work ethic keep him on the go.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published January 17, 2008
Jack Harris, one-third of the on-air morning team at WFLA-AM 970, balances five broadcasting jobs with charity work and personal appearances.
[Ken Helle | Times]
[Brendan Fitterer | Times]
Jack Harris, center, is at ease with personalities such as Bucs coach Jon Gruden and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, as well as regular local residents.
TAMPA, 8:30 a.m., Studios of WFLA-AM 970
Just 2 1/2 hours into his first show of the day, Jack Harris has hit his stride.
Surrounded by six TV monitors tuned to CNN, Fox News and even the Spanish language channels "The girls they show are hot," enthuses one engineer, Harris prods a listener to his AM Tampa Bay radio show for the answer to a contest question. As a hint, he asks what one might use to pry their producer - a man of, um, generous proportions - out of his home.
When the caller replies correctly with the name of a local forklift company, the room dissolves in laughter and another successful radio bit has been completed.
"Years ago, you'd show up an hour early for your show, grab every local newspaper and wire service printouts, and that's all you'd have," said Harris, relaxing with co-hosts Tedd Webb and Sharon Taylor in a spacious studio at Clear Channel's Tampa headquarters.
"Nowadays, you can come in minutes before you go on, and Web sites like Fark.com and tbt.com give you more material than you can handle."
As it turns out, that kind of flexibility is important for Harris, who may be the hardest working man in local media.
At recent count, he had five steady jobs: co-hosting AM Tampa Bay from 6 to 9 weekday mornings; delivering commentaries each day on ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28's 5 p.m. newscast; co-hosting The Mayor's Hour for Tampa's city government channel with Pam Iorio once a month; helping announce the Tampa Bay Storm arena football games; and helping with radio broadcasts of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.
A fixture in the area since 1970, Harris shrugs off his success as mostly being in the right place at the right time. Except for about 13 months working in Washington, D.C., he has spent nearly 38 years here, working for Channels 8, 13, 28, 44 and Bay News 9 in television, along with WFLA-AM, WRBQ-FM and WFLZ-FM on radio.
But at a point when many radio jocks are teetering on the edge of burnout or worse, Harris is working as much as ever, squeezing in a raft of endorsements and charity hosting gigs that can stretch his workdays into 17-hour marathons.
"I really am kind of an old hillbilly," said the Logan, W.Va., native during a later interview. "I don't have, you know, a Walter Cronkite sound, or a Bob Hite sound, for that matter. I don't have those great pipes . . . I'm kind of an 'everyman' - everyman look, everyman sound."
To get a sense of how this 66-year-old still keeps such a hectic media schedule, I tagged along for a moderately busy day, which kicked off with Harris' WFLA show. Topics ranged from spirited talk about Catherine Zeta-Jones ("She's gonna go down in history as the woman who killed Michael Douglas," Webb said about her rapidly aging movie star husband. "Have you seen him lately?") and the need to adopt homeless dogs from rescue shelters during Christmas.
Walk down a long hallway in the Gandy Boulevard complex and you'll pass jocks performing for each of Clear Channels' seven other stations (the sole exception: WBPT-FM 95.7, which airs comic Steve Harvey's syndicated show from New York).
After the show's end and a quick tour, Harris is out the door.
Jumping into his blue Lexus for a quick trip home, he'll check his voice mail (an admitted "quasi-technophobe," Harris only makes outgoing calls on his cell phone, which is always packed with unheard messages) and perhaps indulge in a brief nap.
Those midday catnaps are the secret to surviving a day that starts at 3 a.m. and might not end until well past 10 p.m. "The worst is when I don't have an idea for my Action News TV spot when I try to take one," he said. "I just lie there and think 'What am I going to say?' "
11:30 a.m., Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center
From the beginning, Pam Iorio knew she was in trouble.
The Mayor's Hour started as a bit of pro-Tampa fluffery broadcast live as a call-in show monthly at City of Tampa Television studios when Dick Greco was the star. But with Iorio, the show is videotaped at different locations around town.
So, on a sunny December morning at the Performing Arts Center, Harris and the mayor perched on high-sitting chairs in the lobby of Carol Morsani Hall, ready to trade Christmas gifts.
She gave Harris a wiggling snowman figure. In return, Iorio got an apron.
"I'm speechless," she said, calculating the impact of holding up such a gift on television. "You can see how pleased Jack is with himself."
This may be a subtle key to Harris' success. Not only has he landed in the right place at the right time, again and again, but he has benefited from friendships with some of the bay area's most powerful people.
His first regular TV gig on local TV newscasts came in the '70s, when pal Paul Catoe, now head of the Tampa convention and visitors bureau and former general manager at WFLA-Ch. 8, was the station's chief meteorologist. Catoe had his buddy fill in on Thursday afternoon weathercasts, until one day three tornadoes hit the area at the same time and Harris' wacky weathercast had to lead the news.
Later, Harris had a beautiful woman dressed as a caddy pick a pointer for him from a golf bag before he started the forecast.
"That was too much," Harris said later, chuckling. "The general manager walked in and said no more weather. No way!"
By 1984, Harris already had turned down a job offer to serve as WFLA's primary sports anchor when an executive at WTVT-Ch. 13 virtually offered him a job hosting their gigantically popular Pulse Plus midday talk show before they met. Later, Catoe helped create a midday show for Harris at WFLA called Harris & Co., which lasted eight years.
He even landed a job announcing the Tampa Bay Rowdies games after the team's first announcer, who was a friend, suggested he call the second half - despite the fact Harris had never seen a soccer game before.
As much as viewers and listeners love his folksy, unassuming style, people who hand out broadcasting jobs may love it more.
"I'm sure that helps," noted Harris, who will only say about his income that "you can get into six figures in radio here - pretty well into six figures."
Well aware that some may call his shtick old school or even a little corny, Harris may also have the smallest ego in media.
"I have a little talent to do certain kinds of things, but certainly not enough so people say, 'We have to get that guy,' " he said. "It's more like, 'Who's here? That guy is? Okay, we'll take him.' "
6:15 p.m., St. Joseph's Children's Hospital
From the moment Harris walked in, the requests for pictures and autographs began.
The occasion was heartwarming: 100 kids gathered for the hospital's sprawling charity event Kids Are Heroes.
Just 30 minutes earlier, Harris had been in a cramped studio at WFTS, ranting about an AOL.com report that dubbed Clearwater one of the worst places in the country to retire. (The punch line was AOL's main reason for selecting the city: Too many retirees already live there.)
Minutes after finishing the segment, he pulled on a tie, shrugged into the same burgundy velvet sport coat he wore at The Mayor's Hour, and drove just a few blocks for his final gig of the day at St. Joseph's.
As with his work on the mayor's show, Harris doesn't see the script until he walks in the door. Turns out, dozens of children are waiting to receive community service awards for everything from giving hair to Locks of Love to raising $90,000 for brittle bone disease research.
Harris takes pictures with many families. Some kids may have approached him at their parents' urging, but 12-year-old Benjamin Carpenter, using a wheelchair because of spinal muscular atrophy, swears he's the Jack Harris fan in the family.
"He doesn't reiterate things often, and he always has a different point of view," said Benjamin, a patient ambassador for Shriners Hospitals who also started a book donation program. "I like that."
Harris does so many of these unpaid events, he can't guess how many fill a year; when things pick up in October, he might have a function every day. Still, this is old-school Radio 101 - building your connection to fans with personal appearances while helping a worthy cause.
Harris won't leave here until past 10 p.m., until he has finished reading the name of every kid honored, at a time when many of his morning show colleagues are already climbing into bed. Suggest this might be another reason why he has lasted so long, and he comes up with another explanation.
"Probably my greatest talent, and it's been true in TV and radio, I have a facility for making other people look good," Harris said. "In lieu of talent, I try to bring the best out of people. That's one thing I know I can do really well."