Veteran Channel 5 Anchor Admits He Fell Into His Position At WCSC TV
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
Too measure the life and length of his legacy covering television news in Charleston, you only have to look back as far as the presidents that have been in office during his career. When a young Bill Sharpe first started reporting for WCSC Channel 5 in Charleston, the man occupying the Oval Office in Washington, DC was Richard Nixon. The year was 1973.
46 years later Sharpe is reporting news to his third generation of Holy City residents, spanning the terms of nine different United States presidents, including four who served two terms, and the entire run of former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. For many in the low country of South Carolina, Bill Sharpe is the face of local news. He is a trusted and congenial television reporter, as welcome in your homes, as Walter Cronkite was to millions during his time on the CBS Evening News.
"I've interviewed every president since Gerald Ford. Probably my two best interviews were with Ronald Reagan at the White House. They called me up and said do you want to interview the president. I didn't have to think long. I said yes! This was in 1984. Ronald Reagan was just so nice, very personable."
Sharpe's time with the current White House resident is memorable for a more personal reason. "Believe it or not my interview with Donald Trump when he was running was special to me. I shared a funny story with Trump after the interview. I told him my son is always telling people 'you're fired' (Trump's The Apprentice tag line). He'll come up and say 'my name is William, and you're fired'. I asked Trump, would you mind looking into the camera and telling my son he's fired. He said sure. So he said William, you have a great dad, but you're fired. We have fun with that."
Ironically the man who has become the face of Charleston news, isn't certain how his career unfolded. "Really, I'm not sure. I always wanted to be the next Johnny Carson. I didn't want to be in news and I wasn't even thinking that way. There was no opening for a Johnny Carson type here in Charleston, but there was an opening in news."
A Charleston native Sharpe didn't even have staying in Charleston on his radar. "I had worked on radio some while in college, and I'd come back home during summers. Any local radio station that would have me, I would wind up working for them. That was 1969, '70, and '71. After I graduated from college, I came back home never intending to stay." Sharpe graduated from Emory University in 1972.
For Sharpe it was a un-planned domino effect that lead him to being becoming an on air Charleston TV personality. "When I got back during the summers, I had a friend of mine who said I'm looking for someone to do news. Do you want a job? I said sure. It was on a small country music radio station called the Super Q WQSN." Sharpe's career was slowly taking shape.
Radio was still finding it's own ground in Charleston, with todays country music giant not the powerhouse. "Actually WEZL was just starting up about that same time. So at the Q, I was the afternoon drive news guy. Then I did a talk show for an hour. I loved the talk show, but no one heard us because at night we were just 250 watts. It was small time at night. So I told the guy, I'll give you a year and then I'm going back to the big city, where I can be famous and make big money."
For Sharpe every part time job had a clear cut ending. "I went to college in Atlanta, and I saw Atlanta as a happening place. So in my mind I was going back to Hot-Lanta. I gave my friend at the radio station a year, and quit the job. As it turned out another friend of mine came along and said I need a part-time disc jockey, can you help me out. So I did that at another radio station. At this point it was the summer of 1972, and I did that until the summer of '73."
Just 23 at the time, Sharpe was ready to back his bags. "I told my buddy thanks for the job, but now I'm definitely heading to Atlanta." But fate intervened again. "I was asked to work on another radio station part time, and it was there that I got a call from Channel 5 asking if I'd like to do news. The station was down on East Bay Street at the time. They said do you want a job as an anchorman, and I said sure, what do I have to do. Come in and we'll give you an audition, and see how it goes. I never imagined it would turn into a career."
An Emory graduate, Sharpe didn't go to school for broadcasting. "I have two degrees, one in English literature and one in French."
Like the radio gigs, getting a call for Channel 5 was a series of 'who knows who'. "This guy got my name from a friend of mine, who had gone to school with a friend of mine." Sharpe's work ethic, combined with his easy going manner attracted the attention of WCSC. "The guy who brought me in said, I hear good things about you, why don't you give it a shot. There were a few guys trying out for the position. He narrowed it down to two people, and honestly I knew I had beaten the other guy."
Whether it was karma, fate, or divine intervention, Sharpe's call to Channel 5 was meant to be. "So all I had to do was do the audition. I went to the station, read news like I was on the air and got the job. I've been here ever since, and I never made it back to Hot-lanta, at least not in the manner I originally intended."
Even with a new job title, Sharpe wasn't ready to settle in. "I had no intentions of staying here (WCSC). I really wanted to get to Atlanta. It was exciting and happening, and I was young, single, and had a motorcycle. I had a girlfriend in Georgia who lived close to Atlanta, and I had friends and some family there."
Only a few know a young Bill Sharpe was a rebel newsman without a cause. He often drove motorcycles to and from work in the early days. "I bought three when I was young. I actually bought the fastest production cycle made back in 1975. It was called the Triumph Trident. I knew if I kept that bike I'd probably be dead, so I sold it."
While Charleston is a smaller television market, WCSC has been the leader since signing on in 1953. Sharpe says he and long time fellow anchor Debi Chard were fortunate to have landed at Channel 5. "Debi and I were extremely lucky that we began our careers here, and not at one of the other stations. I'm partial, but Channel 5 is the best TV station in town, always has been. They treat you like family here. I just finished my 46th year here. Started in October of 1973."
Informing fellow Charlestonians is what Sharpe loves best about his job. "I'm bringing news to the people of the low country. I'm telling them what's happening everyday in their community. I'm kind of like a town-crier. Hey, here's a story that's happening in your community. You may not like it, but it's happening. It's a wonderful feeling to be able share news with the viewers. I'm honored to have been doing it this long, and on one station in Charleston."
He adds, "I used to have this saying. Good evening I'm Bill Sharpe. Here's what's making news at this hour. And that's what I and we would do, bring you the news happening that hour."
Over four decades more than just their physical address has changed at WCSC. Channel 5 moved to West Ashley in the spring of 1997. "When I started here (1973) we did news on film, and I had to learn how to edit film and shoot. In the beginning I was terrible at it, but I got better. We moved from that to video tape. Now of course video tape is old. Now we shoot on just plain video."
Sharpe equates todays coverage like being in your face. "All of our reporters have to be ready to go live. We never went live back in the early days, because we didn't have the capability, but now it's all live. I might say something like, finding out more about that shooting in Hanahan, let's go live to our police reporter Harve Jacobs, live on the scene."
Technology and equipment have been two of the best advancements in the industry since Sharpe first started reporting news. "Absolutley. The live work we do today is amazing. We thought video tape was the thing, but now that's so yesterday. Now we have cameras that shoot video, and in high defintion. It's hard to imagine all that's changed over my time in television news."
With multiple local news hours and 24 hour news outlets, Sharpe agrees there is too much news out there. "Yeah probably. But that's what people want now. Either they want more news, or news catered to their time schedule. There's great demand for news today. We're supplying what they want. When I first started there were two newscasts. One at 6:30pm, and one at 11pm."
Sharpe recalls what Channel 5 offered long before any noon time slot. "There wasn't Midday, it was the 'Scene At One'. Let me revise that, when I first got here it was called 'On Camera' with Carroll Godwin. He was the guy who hired me and the big star back then in Charleston news. Later Mike Hiott did the 'Scene At One' for years. Mike did the late weather and the 'Scene At One'. And then 'Midday' started."
Sharpe has witnessed a myriad of changes during his more than four decade career, mostly positive. "It's faster, quicker, and we can take you to the scene." He doesn't want to comment on any negativity in today's news. "I'm a news junkie, so it's hard to ask me what's bad about the news."
After Sharpe had built a solid resume' he began to wonder if his style would work in another television market. "I had some good offers over the years, but Charleston is home. I didn't have to pick up and move somewhere else."
Seeking a career move, Sharpe sought the help from an industry guru. "I"ll tell you a good story. Back in the late '70s and early '80s there was this guy named Al Primo and he was the pioneer of what they called 'Eyewitness News'. If you wanted a job in news he was the man to talk to. So I tracked him down in Connecticut. He lived in a tony (upscale) area of Connecticut. I found out where he lived, knocked on his door. He was affable and friendly."
Sharpe went with a straight forward attempt. "I said I'm Bill Sharpe and I want a job. That impressed him. I thought he'd be pissed off but he was impressed by my actions. I told him I'm from Charleston. So right away he asked me where do I want to go. He was a headhunter essentially, and at the time the biggest in our industry."
Primo worked quickly on Sharpe's bequest. "A week later I had a job offer in Rhode Island. I turned it down because I didn't want to go there. So Al said where do you want to go. I said somewhere else. About two weeks later I get a call from a guy in Columbus Ohio, a really good market. Ohio State is there. I went there in January, and Ohio is frigid that time of year. I couldn't imagine being in the cold, when I knew how great the weather is here year round. Eventually I just stopped asking."
In the beginning WCSC had no idea Sharpe was ready to move on, but eventually got wind of his intentions. "The station (Channel 5) never knew I was looking. Then out of the blue I got a job offer in Virginia Beach. I was about to take that, and I came back and the general manager said what can I do to keep you here. I said I want this, this, and this, and I want to get off the late news. I had been doing the early and late news for a long time, and I want to have a life. Can you get me off the late news. He said you got it."
Perhaps Sharpe's fondest memories include Charlie Hall, Charleston's original television personality. "Charlie was like a father to me. Charlie was an older guy, a great mentor and even nicer person. When the new-age technology came in he didn't embrace it. But he was great at what he did. Many of us helped him ready his broadcast behind the scenes, and let him deliver the weather or whatever he was doing."
For all practical purposes Hall was Channel 5 right up until his death in 1997. "He signed on the staion back in 1953. 'Channel 5 is now alive'. Those were his words. When Charlie signed on the station I was two years old. I, like many in the low country grew up watching him. The idea of working alongside him, was like working with one of your idols. You want to talk about a legend, Charlie Hall was the real deal. I was very fortunate to work with him for more than 20 years."
Sharpe appreciates the work ethic of many of his colleagues, and not just those at Channel 5. "Talk about another legend, Rob Fowler is such a great guy. Rob Fowler and Bill Walsh are both icons. They've both made Charleston their homes. Both are great at their jobs and really love Charleston. I feel the same way about Tom Crawford. He's a stand up guy."
Sharpe has had his share of rough interviews. "I was interviewing Carroll Campbell, the governor of South Carolina via satellite, back in the 80's. He was live in Greenville and we had a live truck there. I asked him, governor you just received a big check from the largest polluter in South Carolina. How do you feel about that? He just took his earpiece out, put it on his lap, took the mike off and just walked away. I asked him a tough question, but then again that is my job."
Apparently Campbell got over it. "Sometime later I was anchoring coverage of Hurricane Hugo, we couldn't get back in the studio, so we broadcast the news from our tower in Awendaw. The governor had just toured the state looking at the devastation. He did come in, and talked with us. He was very gracious. After his tour he talked to me, and didn't seem to hold a grudge."
Upon celebrating his 40th year (2013) at WCSC, the station dubbed the news room in honor of Bill Sharpe. "I'm very humbled and I'm extremely appreciative. I was very surprised because I had no idea the station was doing that." Was it due to his personality, his work ethic, or long standing commitment to Channel 5. "Probably all of the above. I consider myself lucky. I'm still standing here 46 years later."
What is the best advice Sharpe received early in his career. "When I got here I started doing the late news. The guy who was the late news anchor at the time trained me. He showed me the ropes, but it was Charlie Hall who always gave me the best advice. I'd go to him and say something, or mention something that was bothering me, and Charlie would come back with 'don't worry about anything but your paycheck'. He said if it doesn't effect your paycheck than don't let it bother you. So I learned to let the small thing take care of themselves."
Sharpe found further inspiration in longtime CBS news man Walter Cronkite, who often came on after Sharpe and Chard finished the early evening news. "Met him several times. He was generally a nice guy. As I interviewed him late in his career, he was concerned the direction the news was going. He was not a fan of tabloid news. He was always friendly to me. Very professional."
Sharpe admits to being a bit nervous around Cronkite. "Here I was a 26 year old guy meeting a news icon. They flew me up to New York. I interviewed Walter and Dan Rather. When he would say 'this is Walter Cronkite' you knew right away what you were in for. Here I was interviewing a man my family and the country watched every night. I was scared to death but he put me at ease."
On the local level, Debi Chard made the most indelible impression on Sharpe. "Debi is real. A wonderful woman, and a wonderful talent. How she put up with me for 40 years is amazing. At first she was doing news on the radio here in Charleston. When I first saw Debi in the 1970's I thought she is so stunning. She took my your breath away. After I got to know her, I discovered she's as nice on the inside is she is lovely on the outside. Hated to see her step away, but for her personally it was the right move. She left her mark here."
After covering a multitude of news stories both local, national, and globally, what gets Sharpe motivated on a daily basis. "Working with these young kids. Seeing the excitement in their faces and helping them learn the craft. They are receptive. I had several people who helped me when I first started out, so I am trying to pay it forward. I get the biggest charge out of helping them."
Sharpe admired long time Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. "I respected Joe very much. I never got too close to Joe, not for lack of trying. Of course I'm in the media, so I have to ask tough questions sometimes. I always think he held us (media) at bay. But off the record he's always been really nice. What a bright guy he is. He's a contemplative guy. He likes to think. Where someone like Keith Summey is more of a people person, Joe is a little bit more reserved, but granted he's done so much for the city of Charleston."
One Charleston native and revered politician was easier to relate with. "I always got along with Arthur Ravenel. Very friendly. Always there with a hand shake. Of course he'd pronounce his name Rav'nel. But really nice. And of course another politician that I really liked and admired was Ronald Reagan. I have respect for Mayor Riley and how he put Charleston on the map, but the most natural politicians I've ever met are Arthur Ravenel, Keith Summey, and President Reagan."
While he may have longed for Atlanta in his younger years, the low country has grown on him. "I love everything about Charleston. It's home. The only thing I hate right now is the traffic. We're getting to be to big. That's part of growing pains, but I don't like it. The only other thing I don't like about Charleston is the heat in the summertime."
While Sharpe isn't a recluse, he doesn't go out much as he did prior to family commitments. He hardly goes out to enjoy the many local restaurants Charleston has to offer. "When I was young and single I used to go out three or four times a week. But with five kids in the household I don't have that kind of luxury anymore." Sharpe and his second wife raise five kids together.
He picks and chooses his downtime activities. "I don't do much outside the home anymore. I love the Broadway shows when they come through town. I love musicals and try to take the girls to see those type of shows. I'm really a home body. We have five kids living at home with us, so it's a busy household."
Does Sharpe admit to any peculiarities. "I am a grammar nazi. If I see some bad grammar I try to fix it." No doubt he'll be fine tuning this writer's work on when he peruses it."
Sharpe commits to a regular weekend schedule for exercise. "I play a little of tennis when I can. I have an old court in my backyard that needs to be re-surfaced. But it's probably going to stay an old court for some time. I have the old farts come over on Saturday mornings, a bunch of five or six players, and we get together on Saturday mornings if the weather permits."
He stays active in other ways as well. "I live just off the greenway, and I love to ride my bike. I have a bad knee, part of getting older. I used to be a runner, but because of my knees I don't do that, but still like to ride the bike. The good thing about a bike is you can ride it in the spring, summer, and fall. I just don't do it in the winter, because riding in the cold is not near as fun. I ride a lot, and play tennis. That's the majority of my workouts."
Sharpe doesn't see Warren Peper as often as he did when they worked together. "I see him every so often, maybe two or three times a year. He actually taught me a lot during our time together at Channel 5. When I first got the job and was hired by Carroll Godwin. He was the host of a daily show and the main anchor here. Then he hired Warren. It turned out Carroll and I butted heads often, but Warren and he got along well."
Sensing friction with the top dog at Channel 5 Sharpe decided he'd step aside. "Not long after I was here, maybe a year or two, I went to Carroll and said you're the man, you've made your reputation here. Nobody knows me here, so what if I leave. He said that was a good move, but maybe hang around until after the May (1975) ratings book comes out. So I said ok I wait until that time. I didn't have a wife or kids so I had no problem leaving."
In what appears to be a dismal turn of events, Sharpe found his broadcasting home. "Sadly after the ratings he (Godwin) had a massive heart attack and never returned. So they said why don't you stay for a while, and I've been here ever since." Godwin would find work later with WCIV, before a 20 year career as a spokesperson for Piggly Wiggly.
Like Charlie Hall, and Mike Hiott before him, and his longtime TV sidekicks, Debi Chard and Warren Peper, Sharpe himself is a stand up guy. Does he see an end to his run. "I just signed another contract. Maybe in a year or two I'll step aside." After more than four decades as the face of Charleston news, does Bill Sharpe consider himself a legend. "Am I a legend, maybe in my own mind. I'm just a guy lucky enough to have been doing a job I love going on 47 years. Thank you Charleston."