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Catching con men and releasing swans were part of the Action 9 beat

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

In working on a profile about Don Griffin, who retired last month after 30 years as WSOC’s (Channel 9) consumer reporter, I talked to Cullen Ferguson, who was the station’s first Action 9 correspondent beginning in 1970.

Ferguson, who retired from Channel 9 in 2005 after 36 years, remembers his decade on the consumer beat as a busy one, chasing crooked contractors and unscrupulous car dealers with a wind-up Bell & Howell 16 mm camera.

“One that stood out was a con man who came through town and set up a construction company,” Ferguson said.

He’d talk people into home improvement projects, dump a load of materials he’d bought on credit and never return. Ferguson tracked him to a fancy office in the First Union building in 1972.

“I showed up unannounced, and his secretary said he wasn’t there. Lo and behold, out through a side door into the hall came a guy with a mustache and slicked-back black hair chomping on a cigar,” Ferguson said. He asked the man for an interview.

“Con men think they can get away with things, so he talked. ... It turned out he had a different color Lincoln Continental for every day of the week. He was living in a gated community at Lake Wylie. He had taken the roofing company for $25,000 in materials.”

Though the man denied any wrongdoing, Ferguson’s interview was so good he managed to get six minutes to tell it on TV, a long time by today’s standards.

It just so happened that a postal inspector was watching that night. Because the man advertised in The Charlotte Observer, which is sent through the mail, the inspector reasoned that he could be charged with mail fraud. He was, and went to prison.

To promote Ferguson as the Action 9 hero, they once sent him out to a dude ranch in Arizona to film him galloping on a white horse in a cowboy outfit. “I was supposed to jump from the back of my horse onto the horse pulling the runaway buckboard, and put my arm around the damsel in distress, and ride into the sunset,” Ferguson said.

A stunt man hired to do the jumping broke his leg on the first take. He wouldn’t get paid unless he did it, so he managed to crawl aboard the wagon despite his injuries. Ferguson doubts anybody at Channel 9 kept the film.

Not all the stories were serious.

“Once, somebody came to Action 9 concerned about a swan named Henry at Freedom Park. Some people felt he needed a mate. I found out where there were suppliers of swans and did a story. We purchased the swan and it was flown to Charlotte by Eastern Air Lines. We carried the swan down to the shore and let it out of its box,” Ferguson said.

“We did a video and we set it to music. This male swan out in the lake all by himself, then the female gets out with tousled feathers, and they immediately go into this figure-eight mating pattern and dipping their beaks in the water. I made a romantic thing out of it. Henry had a mate.”

Media Movers

Morning host Paul Schadt on WKKT-FM (“Kat” 96.9) has been named to the Country Radio Hall of Fame, the first Charlotte on-air personality to receive the honor. He will be inducted at a ceremony in Nashville in February. Schadt has been spinning country music in Charlotte since 1981. ...

Quite a Charlotte connection on “Fox Friends First,” the hourlong warm-up for the Fox News Network’s morning show. This week the network announced that Ainsley Earhardt and Heather Childers will be the official hosts of the 5 a.m. news show. Both grew up in Charlotte and both attended Sharon Elementary School, though at different times. Earhardt moved to South Carolina during her childhood and graduated from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Childers, who worked for News 14 Carolina before joining Fox, is a UNC Chapel Hill grad. Another Charlotte native, Anna Kooiman, has appeared regularly on “Fox & Friends.” She and Childers both graduated from Myers Park High School. ...

Joining WPEG-FM (“Power” 97.9) in the midday shift is Adrien Lake, better known as Vonyetta. She comes from WHXT-FM (103.9) in Columbia and replaces Artie Goins, who moved to sister station WBAV-FM (“V” 101.9) where she does “Artie in the Afternoon.” ...

Von Stokes of Charlotte, a financial officer, appeared on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” this week and faced a question that didn’t take any guessing: “Which NFL team has the adorable-sounding mascot ‘Sir Purr,’ who is described as having ‘nimble feet, a great smile and one huggable belly?” Stokes answered correctly that it was the Carolina Panthers. ... Millie Martin of Rock Hill will be featured on “My Grandmother’s Ravoli,” 8 p.m. Wednesday, Cooking Channel. She’ll be demonstrating Southern dishes like hot cabbage, sweet potato pie and mac-and-cheese. ...

Anniversary of note: WDAV-FM (89.9), Davidson College’s classical station, is marking its 35th anniversary. ... “John & Andy,” a documentary by Kathryn Frye about the killings of Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers John Burnette and Andy Nobles in 1993, will be rebroadcast on the Government Channel (Channel 16 on Time Warner Cable) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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