WBTV (Channel 3) says its On Your Side. WCNC (Channel 36) says its looking out for you.
WSOC (Channel 9) is merely the station where Don Griffin works. It doesnt fit into a snappy slogan, but what that means is that for three decades Channel 9 has resolved about 10,000 consumer problems, helped jail a few scammers and kept up this watchdog refrain: Be careful who you trust.
Griffin, 65, retires Friday, just a few weeks shy of his 31st anniversary at WSOC. One of the most recognizable news personalities in Charlotte his Action 9 reports run in the 5:30 p.m. segment when Nielsen estimates 100,000 people are watching consumer reporter Griffin is known for his laid-back, ever-gentlemanly manner.
Dont be fooled. You do not want to mess with him.
I dont sit as judge and jury on any of these things, Griffin says. I just ask businesses to be fair with people.
And when he asks, they usually comply.
Unscrupulous car dealers and contractors are the bread-and-butter of the consumer beat.
Griffin says hes not the shove-a-microphone-in-your-face kind of guy, but couldnt resist once. Hed been trying to interview a contractor notorious for taking deposits and not doing work.
One day, Griffin spotted the man walking to his truck. He sprang, asking questions with the microphone up to the trucks window. He got a sound bite that could not be broadcast.
Another time he was investigating a lottery scam and was at the victims house when the crook happened to call from Jamaica. Griffin got on the phone, identified himself and started asking questions.
He threatened me, said, I will come up there and shoot you in the head. He didnt. We did the story, and we used that bit of sound.
Hes a country boy
Griffin grew up in Churchland, a Davidson County community 60 miles north of Charlotte. As a boy, he worked for a farmer for $1 a day. He attended Dunbar High School in the waning days of Jim Crow, graduating in 1967 in the schools last segregated class.
His parents were factory workers in textiles and furniture. His grandparents had a small farm and were the only black landowners in their area. Across the road from their property was a field where Griffin remembers the Ku Klux Klan gathering one night when he was 9. They burned a cross.
Sending a message back to the Klansmen, Griffin says, his father and his uncles fired their shotguns into the air.
And those cowards ran.
Started in another era
Griffin pulled into Charlotte in 1972 with $300 in his pocket that hed saved from bagging groceries at the A&P. He attended Central Piedmont Community College for computers, then transferred to UNC Charlotte where he got a degree in pre-law and political science. He was the first in his family to graduate from college.
He caught the TV bug when he landed part-time work at WCCB (Channel 18). He started on the technical side, then auditioned for a weekend news job. He got it and began anchoring newscasts, which in those days included sketching weather conditions on the map with a Magic Marker.
After college, Griffin landed at WRAL (Channel 5) in Raleigh, where he became a footnote in Carolinas broadcasting history. WRAL bought the states first news helicopter, named it Sky 5, and sent Griffin aboard on its first assignment covering a marijuana bust in North Wilkesboro.
He fell into consumer reporting at WRAL, then joined WSOC in October 1982.
Action 9s origins
Cullen Ferguson, who retired in 2005 after 36 years at WSOC, was the stations first consumer reporter, when the segment was called Action Line.
It started out in 1970, I think, Ferguson says. It stayed Action Line for a couple years before somebody got a brilliant idea that line rhymes with nine. Then it became Action 9.
Ferguson doesnt remember much glamour associated with the job. He remembers spiders.
I would go out in crawl spaces looking at terrible duct work that some jack-leg heating-and-air-conditioning person did, dragging lights under peoples houses, he says.
Feeding the news beast
Griffin cranks out four reports weekly for Action 9, and never comes up short.
TV news has an insatiable appetite, he says.
His producer, Mary White, has been sifting complaints and helping on his stories since the day he arrived. Shell be there when the new consumer reporter, Jason Stoogenke, takes over next month.
Don and Mary White must have been joined at the hip at some point, says Bill Walker, the longtime WSOC anchor who retired in 2005. Don and Cullen were the faces and voices of Action 9. Mary is everything else.
Many of the cases they investigate never make air, sometimes because the facts dont check out. Some cases are resolved but dont get on the show because theres nothing to shoot video on.
Major companies, particularly retailers, resolve complaints when they realize the story is going on TV, Griffin says.
I dont go in as a bully. Im a nice guy, professional, Griffin says. But when he doesnt get cooperation, he pushes harder.
In one recent story, a man was told by his Rock Hill lender that he couldnt sell his mobile home because they had a $38,000 lien on it. In fact, they just hadnt updated the paperwork when the lien was paid off. After he was unable to resolve the problem for months, the owner called Action 9.
They told him he might never be able to sell the property, Griffin says. He, too, got the runaround when he contacted the lender. When he made it clear that the story was going on TV and the lender was going to be named, the missing paperwork was discovered within a week. When the sale went through, the lender even picked up the closing costs.
Chief photographer Bill Bruce sits beside Griffin at work. You should hear him talk to these people on the phone. He says, This story is going on TV. Youre not treating me like Im a customer. That part doesnt make TV, but he doesnt take crap off anybody, Bruce says.
A weeklong victory lap
This is Griffins last week at Channel 9. He will be saluted by a series of biographical reports in the 5 p.m. hour of Eyewitness News, what news director Julie Szulczewski calls a weeklong Donfest.
His last Action 9 story aired last week. It took 12 years to finish.
In 2001, Mike Ray called Griffin because hed been ripped off by a contractor for $1,800. Griffin told him to forget about going to small claims court and helped him file a criminal complaint.
When the contractor was convicted of fraud and sentenced, the judge required him to pay restitution to his victims.
Ray called Griffin a few weeks ago in astonishment. Hed just picked up his mail and there was a check for $1,800.
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