A familiar name from '60s TV news turns up on radio

January 30, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Every now and then, a patient in the heart surgery recovery unit at Sinai Hospital recognizes the silver-haired volunteer with the penetrating eyes, and begins to ask, "Aren't you . . .?"

Rolf Hertsgaard just points at the television set hanging from the ceiling and nods.

"You see the recognition in their eyes, and it is very gratifying," says the man whose dignified visage and deep voice presented the evening news on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) through the 1960s and into the early 1970s.

Against all expectations -- especially his own -- Mr. Hertsgaard has returned to broadcasting in Baltimore, giving newscasts on the radio. Since Jan. 2, he has been heard at 6:55, 7:25 and 7:55 a.m. on WITH-AM (1230).

"It's been four taxing, dangerous, exciting, awful weeks . . . and unfortunately, I'm starting to enjoy it," deadpans Mr. Hertsgaard during a recent interview.

He'll be 73 in June, has had open-heart surgery and says his voice, hearing and eyesight aren't what they were. Yet he still has the look of an old-fashioned anchorman -- the kind who looks like your uncle, not a model for a hair-product commercial. The kind who reads the news carefully and seriously.

It was in 1973, after 13 years in the anchor chair, that WBAL fired Mr. Hertsgaard. Only 51 at the time, he was bitter and outspoken in his criticism of the station's decision to opt for a "younger image." He asserted that TV news was being handed over to less professional, more glib anchors who could make "allegedly funny comments."

Mr. Hertsgaard still has little good to say about TV news.

"They're not really alive," he says of today's anchors, including those at the network level. "So many of them today, you can tell they're just reading off a TelePrompTer. . . . Why aren't anchors expected to at least look at copy before they go on the air?"

He has no desire to return to TV, saying, "It would take 14,000 fortunes to get me to have lunch with someone from TV."

After leaving WBAL, Mr. Hertsgaard did free-lance work in television commercials for Blue Cross, carpet companies and other local businesses. Then he took a job as morning news announcer on WITH-AM. About three years later, when he learned the station was about to automate him out of a job, he bought a Polock Johnny's sandwich shop at 33rd and Greenmount in Waverly.

He told a Sun interviewer at the time that he was simply bored with broadcasting.

Mr. Hertsgaard successfully ran the franchise for about 10 years, noting that "there was always a Hertsgaard in the place" because he involved three of his seven children in the business. But in 1986, he retired to "an A-frame in the woods" in southern Pennsylvania. "I really enjoyed retirement. I have to be truthful, I really did," said the twice-divorced Mr. Hertsgaard.

After a year, however, he started to seek out activity. He began doing volunteer work on Friday and Saturday nights at Sinai, and two years ago moved back to Baltimore, where two grown daughters live.

But TV and radio remained just something he watched or listened to -- until late last year, when he got a call from a WITH representative asking if he'd consider returning to the news business.

The station, which in recent years played big band music, this month shifted its identity to "Softer AM 1230," where hits of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are aimed at listeners 45 and older.

"We figured all of our listeners would remember Rolf," explains station manager Gerry Liss.

But Rolf wasn't interested.

"Are you sure you want me?" he says he responded to the overture. Then he tried to duck the proposal by setting what he thought was an impossible condition. "I said I'm almost 73 and couldn't possibly consider going into the studio in the mornings. I said the only way I could do it would be from my home, thinking, 'Who would do that?' "

No problem, came the station response. "I dug my own grave," jokes Mr. Hertsgaard.

Now he is up at 2 a.m. every day to scan the newspapers and news services that have been connected to his townhouse in the Pikesville area. He writes his own newscasts at a typewriter.

"When people hear me, I'm standing in my bedroom, doing the news over a telephone line," he says.

After almost 20 years away from a microphone, he acknowledges the first couple of days were hard.

"They started me on the day after New Year's, when there ain't no news anywhere, anyhow," he says. "On the second day, I was absolutely panic-stricken, realizing, 'I'm on the air, again!' I had the terror of the microphone that anybody would have. The third day, I started to enjoy it."

The former TV anchor says he is trying to combine a straight presentation of the news with a personal viewpoint stemming from his long experience.

In grudging recognition of how TV has changed, he says many viewers perceived him as too serious in the past. But, he asserts, "I've become a fun-loving person."

Mr. Liss says the station has been gratified by the response of listeners and advertisers to the re-emergence of Mr. Hertsgaard. "We're in it, hopefully, for a lengthy relationship," says Mr. Liss of Mr. Hertsgaard's news position.

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