Media Scene

After three decades, WSOC’s Jim Bradley leaves newsy career behind

That quick conversation with his daughter still haunts Jim Bradley.

It was one of the rarest of days – it had snowed in Charlotte – and she ran to her daddy to ask him to help make a snowman.

But snow in Charlotte is a big story in TV, and Bradley told her he had to rush off to work to cover the news. They’d make that snowman when he got home, he promised.

You know how the story ends – it being Charlotte, the fixings for Mr. Snowman were long gone by the time he returned.

Bradley has covered the city’s biggest stories in his 33 years at WSOC (Channel 9), but the Snowman That Never Was has had as big an impact as any. Bradley is retiring and wants to work no more.

Now is the time, he says, to spend time with the family, make up for missed opportunities.

“Next time it snows,” says Bradley, 58, “I’m going to put on a pot of chili and not going out until it melts.”

Magical assignment

Bradley communicates in an easy, measured manner, in contradiction to the near-breathless WSOC style. Colleagues say he is a master at filling time with an authoritative air when something behind the scenes is isn’t going off as scheduled.

Nothing tested that ability like the demolition of the Hotel Charlotte on Nov. 6, 1988.

Opened in 1924 at Trade and Poplar streets, now the site of the Carillon building, Hotel Charlotte was a long-time landmark that had fallen into dereliction. For its implosion, magician David Copperfield taped a TV special, “The Explosive Encounter.”

Copperfield was sealed into a bank vault on the fourth floor. He had about two minutes to escape before the building tumbled.

Bradley was sent to do some chit-chat, then the building was to fall. But Copperfield’s crew wanted to shoot more takes of the illusionist’s peril. Things fell far behind schedule.

Bradley talked about the hotel’s history. About the magic trick. About the excitement. He started interviewing bystanders to fill the ever-growing chasm of delay. He found a woman who’d honeymooned in the old hotel. He kept talking, filling time like a pro.

Finally, after Copperfield popped out of the false back of the vault, ran down the fire escape and hid under the trap door of a stage set up nearby, the building went boom.

A bubble of dust mushroomed over Bradley and the crowd. Copperfield magically popped up, and Bradley mercifully signed off.

“There wasn’t anything about the Hotel Charlotte I didn’t say,” Bradley says. “I didn’t believe I could talk that long.”

Nomadic youth

Bradley’s father was a real estate appraiser who took on big government projects and the family moved often, usually about every two or three years.

They lived in Ohio, West Virginia, upstate New York, Massachusetts – back in the ’60s and ’70s, families didn’t move very often and Bradley got used to always being the new kid.

When he went to Utica College in upstate New York, he joined the campus radio station, the only one interested in doing news rather than being a DJ. This led to part-time work at a local radio station, then the local TV station.

By the time he was a senior in college, a time when most successful students are partying through their final courses, he was working full-time. Bradley attended classes in the mornings and worked 3 p.m. to midnight at the local TV station anchoring the evening newscasts. It paid $130 a week.

“At 20, being on TV where people would know who I was,” he says, “was attractive to me.”

He graduated in 1980, and he went on to TV jobs in Tennessee in Chattanooga and then Memphis. In December 1983, he joined WSOC.

In those days, Channel 9 did two 15-minute local news inserts in the morning, a half-hour at noon and half-hour newscasts at 6 and 11 p.m. Now it produces eight hours of news a day, some of it on sister station WAXN (Channel 64).

He was just 25 when he started. Cullen Ferguson and Bill Walker were already well-entrenched veterans then at the station.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to hang around like that,’ ” Bradley said.

But he did. Charlotte kept changing, the stories kept coming. Unlike so many broadcasters who come through town and use it as a stepping stone to bigger things in bigger places, Bradley found he didn’t want to leave.

“Charlotte just kept growing,” he says. “It was like going to a bigger city without ever having to move.”

Charlotte is now the nation’s 22nd-largest television market in terms of households, bigger than Pittsburgh and about to pass St. Louis.

Reliable, experienced

Mark Becker is WSOC’s second-senior reporter. He showed up at work three months after Bradley, on March 20, 1984.

To Becker, and to others who have been at the station many years, Bradley is known as “Brad.” Becker says Bradley is the go-to reporter on the kinds of substantive stories that fall outside TV’s ravenous appetite for urban mayhem.

“We have a minute, 15 seconds to tell a story,” says Becker. “Brad can take a huge, complicated thing and tell it in a way that the viewer can get it. He gets the story simplified, and I mean that in the best sense.”

Former anchor Bill Walker, who retired in 2005 after 37 years at WSOC, says Bradley and Becker are at the top of the game in Charlotte.

“One characteristic they share is highly intelligent self-awareness,” says Walker. “They want to be the very best at what they do and they understand the possibilities and limitations of their craft.”

Walker still remembers Bradley chasing down evangelist Jim Bakker and his coverage of the Rae Carruth saga.

“Every anchor, reporter and producer who ever worked with him will tell you, ‘You can depend on Brad.’ Is there a higher compliment?”

Cancer cluster

Kim Holt, who wrangles investigations and special projects at WSOC, says bulldog persistence is Bradley’s hallmark.

In 2014, Bradley started looking into a cluster of eye-cancer cases in Huntersville. People told him something odd was going on – there were five cases of ocular melanoma, a disorder so rare that it strikes only five people in a million.

Authorities said there didn’t seem to be anything to it, but Bradley kept at it.

Now there are about a dozen confirmed cases. Authorities are doing environmental testing in search of a cause.

“These were people who couldn’t get a voice,” Holt says. “No one would listen to them.”

Bradley also got results after investigating how Kaplan College enrolled students in its dental assistant program, which didn’t get national accreditation, making the degrees worthless.

After the N.C. Attorney General’s Office began looking into the story, Kaplan reached a $5 million settlement that included refunding the students’ money.

But Bradley likes the story he did on the woman who was being foreclosed on by her homeowners’ association because she’d gotten behind on her dues.

After Bradley told her story, the association worked out a settlement. She got to keep her house.

“That was a pretty good day,” he said.

Years of news

Bradley has covered every president since Jimmy Carter, political conventions, Space Shuttle launches and plenty of hurricanes.

He and his crew were at the coast for Hurricane Hugo. They were doing their stand-up reports in the aftermath when someone suggested they move a little down the street for a better shot.

As soon as they did, a tree fell on the very spot they had been standing on.

He and his crew were awake for days during another slow-moving hurricane. They went to the Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City for dinner after it was over.

They were awakened by the waiter wanting to know if they intended to eat their orders – all had fallen fast asleep at the table.

In his early days, there were typewriters, pay phones, two-way radios. He remembers seeing the first digital pager and thinking it was really cool.

Technology has changed but so has the audience, he says. People don’t want to wait for their news; they want it now. They want it on social media and the internet and they want it sometimes before it’s ready.

“I have concerns that the immediacy doesn’t give you time to vet the information,” Bradley says.

“I don’t want to broadcast it until I know it’s true. I’m old-fashioned, I know. It raises red flags for me because it’s asking for inaccuracy.”

Last day Jan. 3

Bradley’s last day is Jan. 3. He hopes he’ll do his last story with photographer Carl McLean, who shot his first story. McLean started at WSOC six months before Bradley in 1983.

People like McLean and Becker and Walker and Ferguson stayed at WSOC so long because, Bradley says, the station values institutional knowledge over cheap, young talent.

“That doesn’t happen in a lot of places,” he says. “Lots of place would have booted me out during the recession.”

He’s glad he won’t have to go to hurricanes anymore. He’s glad he got to make a career of storytelling. He’s glad his three daughters – unlike their dad – all got to grow up in one town, in one house.

His mother told him to stay humble, and he thinks she’d be proud of how he turned out. He did hard stories, but with compassion.

He hopes to be remembered for being fair, accurate, for telling a good story.

He’ll also be remembered for his trademark uniform, white shirts with red ties. Bradley has inventoried his wardrobe. He has 43 red ties.

Mentoring newbies

He’s at the stage in his career where he finds himself sometimes mentoring the young reporters, ones who show up at age 25 like he did and occasionally need some guidance from the more experienced.

“In this business, the currency often is tragedy,” he tells them. “You’ve always got to remember these are real people with real hurt and real impact. You have to treat people with respect. These are real lives.”

And he wonders whether they look at him the same way he looked at Walker and Ferguson.

“I have kids older than some of our reporters. I’m the old guy now,” he says. “Are they looking at me, thinking they don’t want to wind up being that guy?”

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs