Save Money in this Sunday's paper


WSOC’s Griffin ending consumer watchdog role

By Mark Washburn
TV/Radio Writer
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

More Information

  • Don Griffin

    Hometown: Lexington.

    Education: B.S. in pre-law and political science, UNC Charlotte.

    F amily: Wife and three grown sons.

    Professional honor: Silver Circle Award in 2001 from the Midsouth chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement; Unity Awards.

    Co-workers whisper: He brings in seaweed salad for lunch. That’s why he looks so young.

WBTV (Channel 3) says it’s “On Your Side.” WCNC (Channel 36) says it’s “looking out for you.”

WSOC (Channel 9) is merely the station where Don Griffin works. It doesn’t 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.

Don’t be fooled. You do not want to mess with him.

“I don’t 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 he’s not the shove-a-microphone-in-your-face kind of guy, but couldn’t resist once. He’d 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 truck’s window. He got a sound bite that could not be broadcast.

Another time he was investigating a lottery scam and was at the victim’s 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 didn’t. We did the story, and we used that bit of sound.”

He’s 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 school’s 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 he’d 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 state’s 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 9’s origins

Cullen Ferguson, who retired in 2005 after 36 years at WSOC, was the station’s 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 doesn’t 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 people’s 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. She’ll 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 don’t check out. Some cases are resolved but don’t get on the show because there’s nothing to shoot video on.

Major companies, particularly retailers, resolve complaints when they realize the story is going on TV, Griffin says.

“I don’t go in as a bully. I’m a nice guy, professional,” Griffin says. But when he doesn’t get cooperation, he pushes harder.

In one recent story, a man was told by his Rock Hill lender that he couldn’t sell his mobile home because they had a $38,000 lien on it. In fact, they just hadn’t 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.’ ‘You’re not treating me like I’m a customer.’ That part doesn’t make TV, but he doesn’t take crap off anybody,” Bruce says.

A weeklong victory lap

This is Griffin’s 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 he’d 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. He’d just picked up his mail – and there was a check for $1,800.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more

Quick Job Search
Salary Databases