The reigning dean of Baltimore broadcast journalists insists he is "just the guy next door."
Well, sure. Al Sanders does live next door to somebody. But he is more than that. In the topsy-turvy world of television journalism, where jobs are at the whim of ratings and managers, Mr. Sanders is a survivor.
This month, he celebrated his 20th anniversary at WJZ-TV. But in the early days, who knew that the man who once went by the name "Scoop Sanders" (as a radio newsman) and "Happy Al" (as a rhythm and blues disc jockey) would still be around today as a respected anchor?
Al Sanders didn't.
"I wasn't thinking 20 years down the road," says the 51-year-old Mr. Sanders, recalling his first days at WJZ.
In fact, he hadn't thought too much about Baltimore at all before being asked if he was interested in a job here.
"I knew that Baltimore had a basketball team. I knew that Baltimore had a football team. I did not know about the bay. I assumed I would be living on the ocean! Obviously, I did not major in geography," says the man who co-anchors Baltimore's highest-ranked news shows.
Now, of course, Al Sanders knows Baltimore and Baltimoreans know him.
"Baltimore got to know Al through his street reporting," says Marcellus Alexander, vice president and general manager at WJZ.
"They became comfortable watching him when he co-anchored with [the late] Jerry Turner. First and foremost, he is a solid journalist, but Al can always be depended on to bring a smile in difficult times or some appropriate levity to daily situations. Often his wit is in a facial expression or in response to others," Mr. Alexander says.
"People know Al is genuine," says Gail Bending, WJZ news director, explaining Mr. Sanders' popularity. "And he has a wonderful sense of humor. As for being a journalist, he is strong and caring -- I know that sounds hokey -- but it's real," says Ms. Bending.
Often labeled a "nice guy," Al Sanders began co-anchoring the 6 p.m. news in April 1977 with the late Jerry Turner. Since Mr. Turner's death on December 31, 1987, Mr. Sanders has co-anchored with Denise Koch on both the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news.
His style has been described as folksy, low-key and comfortable. Not that being at ease in front of millions of viewers came naturally to him. "I had to work at being able to relax enough to let people know who I am," he says, sipping on a can of grapefruit juice while relaxing between the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.
He's mastered the technique.
People everywhere feel comfortable enough to come up to him on the street and start conversations, he says. Mr. Sanders doesn't mind. It's all part of being a celebrity -- although he rejects that label for himself.
"People do feel like they know you, and they always come up and say hello," he says. "I don't mind. I always find it strange when stars talk about going out in public hiding behind big
glasses. It doesn't take that much to say 'hello' back. Not that I think I am a star."
Celebrity or not, he's come a long way from those "Happy Al" and "Scoop" days.
L Mr. Sanders was determined to have a career in broadcasting.
Early on, he told his family he wanted to be on the radio. At first, they didn't take him seriously.
"I told my parents I wanted to be in broadcasting, but that was right after I told my mother that I wanted to be a priest and told my father that I wanted to be a doctor," he says.
Over the long haul, the dream of being in broadcasting won out.
"This broadcasting bug had really bit me," Mr. Sanders says. During his second year of college in St. Louis, Mr. Sanders began knocking on doors looking for a job at a radio station -- although his father warned him to have a backup plan just in case.
"My parents were both government workers. My dad worked for the post office, and my mother worked at a government record center. Although my father did urge me to follow my dream, he also said that I should get a job at the post office -- just in case," Mr. Sanders says.
So to appease his dad, Mr. Sanders did go to the St. Louis post office to take the exam. "I failed it on purpose," he says, smiling at the memory. "I really did want to be in this business."
At the time, though, being on television hadn't crossed his mind. Television was in its infancy when Mr. Sanders -- an only child -- was growing up. For entertainment, his family spent evenings listening to the radio.
So his first job in broadcasting was in 1965 at a St. Louis radio station. He has held just about every job at St. Louis area radio stations, including program director, newscaster, news director and stints as "Happy Al," a morning drive deejay, and "Scoop Sanders," the radio newsman.
His all-time favorite radio job, though, was spinning records at a time when most people are asleep.
"I had a job playing jazz from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. I know it sounds horrible, but I absolutely loved that job," says Mr. Sanders.
He jumped to television in 1971, where he worked at KTVI in St. Louis as a staff announcer and newsman.