WJZ's Sher to retire

TV/RADIO COLUMN

February 11, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Richard Sher, the Baltimore television news anchor now best known as Oprah Winfrey's former co-host, is to step down from WJZ-TV in April after more than 28 years to pursue a new career in commercials and other ventures.

"I have been thinking about it for a long time," Sher, 62, said yesterday. "I have wavered on this. ... But I want to try these things." Station officials and Sher separately said his decision to depart is voluntary, and that they asked him to stay full-time. Instead, he said he intends to free-lance for the station.

Alternately caustic and compassionate, the Baltimore native has done almost everything a journalist could do on the air at WJZ. He arrived there in 1975, armed with more than a decade's experience on radio -- including chores on country music, rock 'n' roll and religious programs -- and two degrees from the University of Maryland.

And he soon became indispensable at WJZ. For 18 years, he was host of the Saturday evening public affairs debate program Square Off, a local precursor to today's highly charged cable opinion shows. Additionally, he was a midday anchor and often substituted for the station's marquee anchors, the late Jerry Turner and Al Sanders.

For more than five years on WJZ, Sher was co-host for People Are Talking, a daytime talk show with a young Winfrey that merrily dipped into the mire of sex and dysfunction. (He was convinced he was the star of the show, as both Winfrey and he recount it.) All the while, he was reporting stories for the evening broadcasts.

"He's someone who's manic about news, in a good way," said news director Gail Bending. "He doesn't shut off."

When Sally Thorner joined WJZ in the early 1990s, the 5 p.m. news ratings needed shoring up. His presence on the anchor's desk stabilized the audience. But he never won the prime anchor's slot that he coveted.

In recent years, Sher would sometimes narrate stories reported by parent network CBS. He's covered plenty of political stories and occasionally filled in as an anchor. But his trademark has been his ability to coax personalized tales of woe from bereaved families. "I covered more murders, more violent crime than anybody around," Sher said. "They used to call me Dr. Death, because I did so many of them."

He is credited by the station for his extensive appearances on behalf of Baltimore charities. Bending also said Sher helped to defuse a dangerous situation in late 2001 with his soothing handling of a Harford County man who took a friend hostage and called Sher demanding airtime for his political beliefs. After consultation with local police, Sher spoke with the man for a few hours and the station aired a story, ultimately leading to his surrender. "He's not a calm person," Bending said, "but he can be very calming, and, in an odd way, kind of comforting."

Now, Sher said he wants to help his son Greg Sher, often heard on WBAL-AM radio, to establish a new home-mortgage business. He wants to see more of his family. And, he said, he wants to represent "high quality" advertisers and to serve as a paid public speaker.

He seems to be something of a natural pitchman: "Anybody who needs me -- I'm here [at the station] until April 16th."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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