Think for a moment about what “50 years in broadcasting” means. For Bob Briley, 73, it means:
A career that pre-dated the existence of TV in Spokane by six years.
Being a TV news anchor in the days when “pictures at 11” consisted of an Associated Press photo propped up on an easel.
Doing live commercials for Silver Loaf bread, and darn near choking in front of thousands of viewers.
It has meant one more thing for Briley: Earning a reputation over five decades as the Walter Cronkite of Spokane.
Briley, with his refreshing lack of self-importance, balks at that grand title. This is a man without a Ted Baxter bone in his body. In fact, when telling stories of his career, Briley doesn’t mention the big stories he has covered or the big names he has met. Instead, he mentions his first ever on-camera appearance, in a Silver Loaf Baking Co. commercial around 1954.
“It was an absolute disaster,” said Briley. “I was a little nervous.”
He was supposed to butter a slice of Silver Loaf bread, take a bite, and let the world know how delicious it was. Simple. Direct. Live.
Unfortunately, someone had left the bread and butter in the refrigerator.
“First, the wax paper was hard to get open, and that took about 10 seconds,” he said. “Then, the butter was hard as a rock. The knife simply wouldn’t cut it. And finally when I did force it, the knife clanked on the plate. The butter wouldn’t spread.
“And I took a bite, and my mouth was dry and the bread turned to little round dough BBs. I had to tuck them over to the side of my cheek.”
An auspicious start for the Cronkite of Spokane.
Today, Briley not only has the voice and avuncular manner of the great Walt, but also the endurance. A little more than 50 years since he first spoke into a microphone, “ Bob Briley Reports” is still a regular feature of KXLY-4’s midday newscasts.
“I like to run across people of all ages doing interesting things,” said Briley. “As long as the station will have me, I’ll keep working until I die.”
He was associated with KHQ-6 for 34 of his 50 years in the business, becoming the station’s news anchor before the term news anchor had even been invented.
He was KHQ’s main news anchor from 1957 to 1969, and again from 1972 to 1976. He was also public affairs director until his retirement in 1988, writing, producing and reporting scores of local documentaries on issues ranging from Indian affairs to AIDS to child abuse. After his retirement he continued to do a weekly show on senior issues called “Prime Timers” until 1995, when he went to KXLY, where his daughter, Robin Briley, 41, is the news operations manager.
As a boy growing up in the ‘20s and ‘30s in Spokane, he could never have dreamed of a such a career. But he did dream about broadcasting, and that meant radio.
“I was fascinated with radio,” said Briley. “I used to listen to all of the big shows of the day, like `Amos and Andy.’ I was always kind of taken with the announcers, who introduced the shows.”
He graduated from Rogers High School in 1941, and went into the Army Air Corps in 1942, where he had his first experience with a microphone. He became a flight radio operator and spent a good deal of the war in the skies over Burma, China and the South Pacific.
When he came back to Spokane in November 1945, he did what a lot of young men from Hillyard did: He went to work in the rail yards. But he had larger ambitions, so he also enrolled at Gonzaga University, where he studied English and history before fate intervened. A family friend set him up with an audition at KXLY radio in March of 1947.
“The chief announcer said, `You don’t sound too bad. You’re pretty rough around the edges. Come in after school and learn to operate the board,”’ said Briley. “I had my first shift, noon to 3 p.m. on Sundays, just riding the board and making the station break announcements. Oh, Lord God, I thought I was in heaven.”
He got bumped from that job by another newly returning war veteran, Warren Durham, but he wasn’t out of a broadcasting job for long. He was soon working at KNEW radio, Spokane’s Mutual Broadcasting affiliate. His mentor there was Harry Lantry, known as the voice of the Inland Northwest at the time.
Another mentor, John Fahey (now the Inland Northwest’s best-known historian) lured him to KHQ in 1954, with the promise of a whole new medium.
“Everybody else thought TV would be here today and gone tomorrow, but I thought that wasn’t accurate,” said Briley. “I thought TV would be around for a long time.”
He did both radio and TV announcing for KHQ at first. He even tried his hand at TV directing, with disastrous results.
He was directing a live commercial for United Paint, in which an announcer was supposed to demonstrate the product.
“He was rolling the paint on a piece of drywall and talking about how wonderful the paint was and how it never ran,” said Briley. “And while he was doing this, we had a tight shot of his arm, and paint was running down his arm and dripping off his elbow. I got to laughing so hard, I couldn’t tell the switcher what to do, and he finally took it upon himself to cut to another shot. I was in hysterics. That’s the last spot I ever directed.”
In 1957 he appeared on something called the 11 o’clock news, a brand new concept.
“It was all quite a big deal,” said Briley. “It was five minutes, at the top of the hour. You read it from the wire, or else a couple people in the news department would write it up. We had AP photos, and we set them up on the easel.”
Bob Sweeney, who later became Spokane’s assistant U.S. attorney, was one of the newswriters.
“ Bob ( Briley) was always very calm, even in the center of chaos,” remembers Sweeney. “When the sports scores were displayed upside down, which sometimes happened, he was always very smooth at handling that.”
By 1961, he was no longer classified as a mere announcer: He was now officially a news anchor. He moved into the newsroom, where he was present for the evolution of TV journalism from mere headline reading into today’s highly choreographed ballet of graphics, video footage and words. He was a writer and reporter as well as anchor.
“He had a great news sense and was really committed to the news,” said Al Ruddy, a former KHQ reporter and photographer who is now the associate director of news and information for Washington State University.
“The biggest story we ever covered was probably the Sunshine Mine disaster in 1972 (in which 91 miners died in Idaho). Bob joined us out there, and about the third night the station decided to do a news special. We had three hours to put together a one-hour documentary. That was the tensest night we went through. Bob was always just really solid in a situation like that,” Ruddy said.
Briley managed to fulfill another dream: working as a baseball broadcaster. As a kid growing up and listening to Leo Lassen from Seattle and Mel Allen from New York, he thought that would be “the ultimate.”
So when he got to do the beer commercials for the Spokane Indians broadcasts in the late ‘50s, he was thrilled. Then one night in the early ‘60s, he filled in as the TV play-by-play man for two games when the regular announcer became ill. A few years later, when the Spokane Indians became an L.A. Dodgers farm team, Briley became the regular TV play-by-play man, based on those two games worth of experience. He held the job for five years, until 1969, shuttling from anchor desk to ballpark.
“It was kind of Laurel-and-Hardy type situation, if you look at it critically,” said Briley. “I was not what you’d call an astute baseball man by any stretch of the imagination. But I could do the play-by-play and never get mixed up.”
His interest in figure skating (both of his children were figure skaters) led him into a different kind of play-by-play: He was an announcer for the 1980 Olympic Figure Skating Championships in Lake Placid, as well as at several other world and national championships.
Meanwhile, he had become one of the most recognized faces in Spokane. Yet he said he has never been comfortable with celebrity, and neither has Doris, his wife of 50 years this June.
“You go to the store for 15 minutes, and you end up there a long time, because people are always coming up and talking to him,” said Doris. “He’s a great talker.”
He left the news anchor desk for good in 1976, at the age of 53.
“I think the consultants probably said, `You need to get the old guy off of there,”’ said Briley with a laugh.
Then he entered what was probably the most rewarding phase of his career, as the KHQ public affairs director, producing and reporting documentaries on a wide range of social issues.
“We did a series of good shows on drug abuse,” said Briley. “We put the first Indian affairs programs on the air. We did the first AIDS special. We did shows on Japanese detention camps. We did the first programs on child abuse, with pictures of kids who had been abused. Pretty ugly stuff. We got calls from people who said, `You shouldn’t be showing that kind of stuff on the air.”’
His daughter Robin said many of these shows broke new ground on Spokane TV.
“I think I’m proudest of him because he forged his way into new areas that nobody had done 20 years ago,” she said. “These were things that just weren’t talked about.”
He had his opportunities to move to larger markets, including one chance in the late ‘50s to follow former KHQ announcer Chet Huntley to NBC headquarters in New York. But he said he had no “burning desire” to do so; for one thing, he didn’t want to uproot his family (he and Doris also have a son, Bob Jr.).
He doesn’t regret staying in Spokane. But he does wish he’d returned to Gonzaga to finish up that degree after he took his first radio job.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have to seriously consider finishing college and getting a degree in journalism,” said Briley. “I would specialize in economics or political science.”
Yet he has something more valuable than a journalism degree, say Sweeney and others who worked with him. He has a true sense of civic responsibility. He also has a wall full of awards, including the Silver Circle Award from the Seattle chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which is akin to being named to the regional broadcasting hall of fame.
He has also been something special to his daughter, who used to tag along with him on stories: role model.
“And I couldn’t have asked for a better one,” said Robin.