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John Knicely: A life in television five decades strong 


 

John Knicely: A life in television five decades strong 

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Jeff Reinhardt

Appearing in the March 2018 issue of New Horizon

Anchormen are mainstays of the old local network affiliate television tradition that saw men, almost never women, read news on-air. Much has changed in TV in terms of gender equity. Women anchors, reporters and news directors are common now,. But there’s no getting around the fact that for a large portion of the viewing audience age 55 and above, a man delivering the news was the norm. Though men now share newscasting duties with women as part of co-anchor teams, it’s still a male-dominated field behind the camera.

Just as there’s frequent turnover in other industries, people don’t stay put in broadcast journalism very long. In TV, where ratings and focus groups rule job security and on-air personalities look to bigger markets, station hopping comes with the territory. Plus, reporting-anchoring is often a gateway to other careers, such as corporate public affairs. That’s why WOWT co-anchor John Knicely is that rarest of creatures. He’s been the face of the same station for 26 years. It constitutes the longest run by any one anchor in this market since television emerged in the late 1940s-early 1950s.

His presence on local TV extends back even further – all the way to 1974, when the Sidney, Neb. native and University of Nebraska Lincoln graduate first joined WOWT, not as a newsman but on the sports side. He was a popular Omaha TV sports figure from then through 1981, when he made his only career move outside this market to do sports in St. Louis for three years. He returned to Omaha in 1984, still doing sports, only at WOWT’s chief rival, KETV, where he was part of the top-rated local newscast team that also featured Carol Schrader, Michael Scott and Jim Flowers.

Going from sports to news and connecting with viewers

Then, in 1992, he was part of a media shakeup that made headlines when he and Flowers left No. 1 KETV for then doormate WOWT and he simultaneously made the unusual move over from the sports desk to the news desk. WOWT’s ratings climbed and he’s remained in the anchor chair ever since.

“I had heard of another sports guy who made that transition in another market,” Knicely said of the sports to news switch. “As we thought about it, my wife and I, it was a way to advance and not have to move out of town. With five kids at home at the time it was really appealing. It was, I suppose, taking a chance because you’re known for 20 years in sports and then changing over to news. But we had a really good consultant then. He said, ‘Don’t try to be any different just because you’re doing news now – be yourself’ – which was great advice. You don’t have to be something else.

“The biggest thing was meshing with my co-anchor Pat Persuad. It’s not that it had to be hard or anything. it’s just that I was always sports alone. I produced everything myself – went out into the field and did it and it was done. But in this case you’re working with somebody and there’s kind of a rhythm you need to develop and get into – and a trust . And for Pat, she had a sports guy coming in to do this. She’d had a couple previous anchors that she worked with. She was very gracious. My wife Sue and I made a point to go out to lunch with Pat so that she could get to know us better.”

In broadcast journalism, it’s all about connecting enough with viewers to make them feel comfortable having you, so to speak, in their living room or kitchen or bedroom.

“You make a connection if you’re genuine, if you’re real about who you are,” Knicely said. “There’s a comfort level I think that develops. Of course, not everybody’s going to like your style or like something about you, but that’s the business.

“You think back to the first time you were on TV and how foreign that camera lens seemed to you. You’re wondering, ‘What am I talking to?’ There’s nothing talking back to you or anything. But I think pretty early on I was able to get that and be at ease doing it, and if you’re at ease, then I think your viewer’s at ease, too.”

He actually discovered his knack for communicating to others in high school speech class.

“I got in front of the class to give a speech and I just felt comfortable, right at home. I really enjoyed it. There was something about them responding to what I said. I usually did something that I thought was humorous. You got that instant feedback” not unlike a stage performer.

“I was successful at it.”

Just as many successful communicators imagine they’re speaking to one person in the audience, Knicely said, “I think in a way I do that – it’s almost like the camera becomes that individual. It’s the only thing out there. You don’t really think about the number of people you’re being seen and heard by. but it’s definitely that projection right into that camera.”

He’s not always at his best.

“I think some nights you don’t feel like you connected as well. Maybe the copy didn’t get in early enough for you to look at it and make some changes – because it has to be conversational. That’s really critical.”

A good newscast presentation has to do with intangibles like charisma, chemistry and energy but also measurables like pace. Anything can throw the whole works off, whether a flubbed line or a technological glitch or just not feeling yourself.

Knicely’s consistently resonated with enough viewers – two generations of them – that he’s outlasted countless other local on-air talents. Along the way, he’s carved a niche as a participatory journalist. It started with the “I Challenge John” series he did at KETV and it’s continued through the “John at Work” and “Knicely Done” segments he’s become known for at WOWT. He’s also developed a sterling reputation for integrity.

A man of faith

Off the air, he often shares his values and faith at public functions where he’s asked to speak.

He finds congruence between his on-air and off-air self.

“If I didn’t have my faith, it would be a different story because I may then have to be this person on camera but off the camera a different person. But since I’m the same person in both places that really takes that kind of pressure off because it’s nothing I really have to worry about since I’m still being myself.”

His professionalism doesn’t allow his personal views to leak through his work as a journalist.

“In regard to the stories you do, it’s always objective and both sides of the story. I understand there are different views and feelings and it’s not my job to give my views. If I’m speaking at an organization that invites me to come and speak and they ask me to share my faith, I’m certainly able to do that.”

 

Ageless

As Omaha’s version of Dick Clark, he’s seemingly defied aging by still looking remarkably like he did when he started all those years ago. The former high school athlete – he played football, basketball and golf – has always made fitness a priority and he still exercises most every day. At the station he gets in a workout between evening newscasts at its subterranean workout room, complete with racquetball court and basketball hoop. When his kids were young and visiting dad at work, they’d shoot hoops there.

He’s gracefully aged into Omaha’s longest-lived TV icon. He’s a grandfather several times over. He’s twice the age of most of his colleagues and has more experience in the business than many of them have lived. All of which makes him the dean of area TV journalists.

Still manning the anchor desk at age 66 means he’s also defied a growing trend toward younger on-air talent. His familiar face and age may actually be a plus for audiences since the demographic that consumes network affiliate programs tends to be older and thus he’s the face of a proven, trusted news organization. That matters in an era with a glut of online news and social media, much of it unreliable or unvetted.

Doing it all

Knicely has not only withstood TV’s ageism, he’s gone against the grain by shooting, editing and writing his own stories in the field – a rare practice among anchors. It flies in the face of the stereotype that anchors are talking air heads who can’t string two words together unless they’re scripted for them on a teleprompter, or in today’s studio world, on an Ipad.

“There aren’t many news anchors that go out and shoot a story, edit it, write it, read it. ‘Knicely Done’ – I do all that myself. They’ve given me a camera to use. I know exactly what I want and I know what makes a good story. I know the natural sound you’ve got to mix in, so I can shoot it and produce it. Some of that goes back to shooting sports – I was familiar with angles and shots.

“But it’s a lot of extra work doing it that way. The typical way – you go do the interview, write the story and then hand it off and that’s all your involvement is. But I don’t do it that way. My way, there is that accomplishment and the creativeness you get to express.”

He’s heard the jokes about anchor people and, he said, “I don’t think it applies to me because I’m involved in every aspect and want to be,” adding, “I want to have a good product I present that has my name on it.”

Filing his own stories for “John at Work” and “Knicely Done” has given him an opportunity to stand apart from the pack by getting his hands dirty and showing his personality. For the latter, he did everything from working on a garbage hauling crew to climbing a 2,000 foot television tower to being a middle school principal to flying with the Blue Angels.

“The one thing about it is that it keeps it fresh and new. You’re presenting something in a different fashion. News doesn’t always have to be serious. It can be informative and give you an idea of what’s going on in the community that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. There’s really good things about that approach. And it’s not about you, it’s the fact that this is what’s happening behind the scenes with certain jobs or personalities in our community that you get to showcase.”

The segments also counter the frequent criticism leveled at TV news that it reports too much negativity.

“You hear all the time, ‘Why do you guys only give the bad news?’ Well, we don’t. When the good news kind of goes by and you’ve watched it, I don’t know what happens to it. It’s like, ‘Did you forget that we did a good positive story?’ ‘Knicely Done’ is always positive. It’s highlighting good works in our community.

“Maybe because of the emphasis of the lead story at the  top of the newscast, which is usually a serious story about an issue or some crime or disaster, the good news kind of gets lost. It’s kind of sad that’s the case. Also, you’re exposed to news throughout the day with the different mediums out there and you hear a lot of bickering and negative things going on and you kind of lump it all together with news in general. Maybe viewers are not as discriminating in thinking about it.”

He’s convinced that local news broadcasts, whether over the air or streaming, remain relevant.

“The first thing would be breaking news because it’s happening now and we can bring it to you right now, Newspapers have video and online services, so you can get it there, but not in the same capacity, Then there’s the local issues that develop that we cover in real-time. It could be the school board voting that night on the new superintendent and we capture the results and reactions on camera. We can bring you really anything happening in the city – crime and scams going on right now, things you need to be aware of as a viewer.”

On the lighter side, he’s a pretty good sport who doesn’t take himself too seriously. whether working someone else’s job or accepting a competitive challenge.

“Yeah, you have to know how to fail and live with it. It’s always pretty much tongue-in-cheek. We make it fun.”

He no sooner started the “I Challenge John” pieces, he said, then he was “swamped with letters – I couldn’t answer them all and I couldn’t do them all.” Many  challenges he accepted were from kids. “I lost to a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds.” Once, memorably, he played goalie and tried and failed to stop youth ice hockey players from scoring on him. “My self-esteem just sank. But they were fun things.”

He’ll never forget two challenges.

“A guy had me come out to Carter Lake for a water ski challenge. Well, I water ski, so I thought this shouldn’t be tough. We get out in the boat and he says, ‘See that ski jump over there? You’re going to go over that.’ Sure enough, next thing I knew i went over it. He told me beforehand, ‘When you hit that, don’t pull back on the rope.’ There’s this trickle of water always coming down on the board to keep it slippery – so you can slide. Well, I hit that ramp, pulled back on the rope, and my skis started going straight up. I was looking right up into heaven. I  landed smack on my back and went under water and I thought, ‘Okay, the rescue boat is going to be here,’ and it was and the guys were laughing.

“One humiliation after another.

“Another time, I played chess at Brownell-Talbot against their champion. He was a brilliant senior. He played me with a paper sack over his head in front of the whole student body. They would call out my move and in 10 seconds he had the next move, and he checkmated me, I later ran into one of the professors there, and he said, ‘I know chess and I knew he had you checkmated earlier.’ And so I asked the kid, ‘Why didn’t you do it then?’ and he said, ‘Well, I promised the student body  I’d take the whole hour.'”

Some challenges Knicely politely declined out of safety concerns. Para sailing was one. “I thought, ‘I’ve got five kids, I can’t get up in that thing by myself.’ I even declined parachuting. I’ve done it since.”

 

From the heart

Perhaps the most personal storiy he ever filed was in tribute to the derring-do of his late father, Jack Richard Knicely, an Omaha native who co-piloted B-24s and C-46s in the China-Burma-India Theater. He flew missions over the “Hump” (Himalayan Mountains). The son accompanied the father on an honor flight to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial.

The trip meant a lot to both of them.

“You won’t find anyone more loving of his country than my dad was. In his late age he would get tearful when he would talk about the men and women who served. There was one very dangerous, almost desperate situation that his co-pilot pulled them out of that he would get tearful about remembering.

“That memorial visit was really fantastic because the plane was full of veterans. When we got to D.C.. there was a gauntlet of people cheering as all these veterans walked through and, boy. it was emotional. Dad actually sat next to a guy who also flew B-24s. Pretty amazing. It was so special to see Dad’s reaction to what a great tribute they put together in their honor. It was humbling. It was just great to experience it with him.”

The Greatest Generation holds great store for Knicely.

“I love that description  When you think that they were 18. 19, 20 years-old and without question enlisted right away to do what they could for our country. Totally selfless. We can’t thank them enough.”

His father’s passing offered another opportunity to pay respect to his service, which included years in the Air Force Reserves before retiring with the rank of colonel.

“At his funeral they had a full military salute. As we drove into the cemetery I looked over at all these young military people standing at attention as the hearse drove by. Then they had the gun salute and folding of the flag and presentation. Wow, did that ever hit hardcore .”

Showing another side of things

Knicely’s entrepreneurial news reporting has its roots in a series he did at WOWT about two decades ago.

“Our news director then was John Clark and I asked him, ‘Can you just give me my own camera because it will free me up to get some things that otherwise I can’t get?’ So, he did. It started that way. He had seen my work at KETV. But my going out and finding stories really evolved from when I came over to WOWT in 1992. We had a little time before I could go on the air and so I proposed that I go live in the projects in North Omaha for three days. John assigned a photographer to me who was kind of street smart and we went in and lived in the Hilltop Housing project for two nights and three days and found just a whole bunch of positive stories that you don’t hear about in that community of young women really working hard to improve, take care of their families and get out.

“The one apartment in the whole complex that allowed the bad guys to come in just tortured everybody. That’s the way it was. The idea for the series kind of caught my news director off guard. He was like, ‘Should we do this or not?” He okayed it and we had three good nights of stories out of it. A lot of good positive stuff. We called it ‘Three Days in The Jets’ because the people living there called the projects The Jets. I edited it and wrote it. I used music. Back then, you could use music more. It makes a big difference in a story.”

A purpose-driven life and career

Hundreds of stories have followed. He’s won recognition from his peers for his work. Yet, this nearly 45-year fixture of Omaha media wasn’t even sure he wanted a career in television as late as his graduation from UNL with a broadcast journalism degree.

“My dad was a lawyer. My brother’s a lawyer. Even right to the end of school I was still kind of thinking that, too.”

There already was a journalist in the family though. His mother Betty wrote a column called “Panhandle Mother” for the Sidney Star-Telegraph that John admired and she encouraged his own reporting interests.

Then fate or divine providence intervened.

“Coming out of college, I had two job offers. One was Sioux City TV. The other was Lincoln radio. I took the one in Lincoln because I had a girlfriend in Lincoln. TV would have been the better choice in hindsight. But then three months later there was a job opening at Channel 6 in Omaha and my old college professor Dr. Larry Walklin said, ‘You should apply for that.’ It was a weekend sports job. So I came down here and interviewed.

“I had long hair back then. I got the job in like a week’s time. The opportunity just came. I really think God opened the door for me at that time. There was a sense about it that this is supposed to happen.”

He’s indebted to his teacher for the job tip.

“He didn’t have to call me and find me. I was out of school. But he was so nice to do that and I’ve thanked him several times since.”

An aphorism from his old prof turned words to live by once Knicely entered the real world of working media.

“Dr. Walklin always told us ‘never assume anything.’ In college you didn’t understand what that meant, but, boy, when you get in the business you do.”

Knicely joined a strong, veteran newscast.

“Gary Kerr was the anchor. Dale Munson did weather, Steve Murphy was news director, Ray Depa was assistant news director. Wally Dean was there, too. They were so professional. True journalists. They were just a tremendous example and it was a real learning experience working around them. Wonderful guys.”

The three broadcast network affiliates had the market to themselves.

“It was such a different era back then with just three TV stations. It was very competitive.”

Knicely was off and running in his career. But something was missing.

“I’d probably worked here six months to a year. I had all these things going for me: a great job, friends, fun activities. You’d think you’d be happy because you’re meeting all these goals. But I just had this shallowness inside me. The depth wasn’t there. I was kind of running from God and couldn’t get away. It was like He was saying, ‘John, I have a real purpose for your life,’ and it just resonated for me.

“Things were happening in my family, too, with deeper walks in faith by my mom and dad and my brother. I  grew up around church but I realized, ‘No, there’s some depth they have that I don’t. Finally, I got down on my knees on Christmas Eve. I was working alone. I just said, ‘Alright, Lord, I give you my life – you use it the way you want to use it, and that’s my commitment to you.’ It was a very personal thing. God really spoke into my life. I started reading the Bible. It was jumping off the pages to me. That was 1975. It’s been a long time.”

 

Moving past tragedy and trauma

His faith was seriously tested before and after his born again experience. In his teens his mother Betty was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“She had an operation and never really recovered from that. She was in a coma state. Before she passed away, we all came home and she would acknowledge us. My brother asked her if she’d like to say the Lord’s Prayer and in spite of the fact she was in a coma she came out of it to say that with him. Spiritually, it was pretty dramatic for everybody in the family. With our Christian faith, we’re confident she was with the Lord and we’ll meet again one day.”

His father later remarried a widow, Jan, with two girls of her own and thus Knicely found himself part of a blended family as a young adult.

“I didn’t know what to expect with a new mom introduced to the family, There was an adjustment but we all understood what a blessing it was and it proved to be an absolute godsend for everybody. They were married almost 40 years when he passed away at age 92. Her daughters looked at him as Dad. Jan’s just a very loving, kind person and treated us like her own, especially our kids.”

Decades later, Knicely’s own family experienced a crucible no one should have to endure. His daughter Krista was attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she lived alone off campus, when an intruder broke into her place one night and began assaulting her before help arrived. She called her parents in Omaha, distraught after barely escaping with her life.

“It was traumatic,” Knicely recalled. “We get the phone call that night, ‘Mom and dad, somebody just attacked me.’ We’re here and she’s down in Waco and how do you get through the night until you get down there and hold her. The whole ordeal was a miracle of how she was saved. There wasn’t anybody around. There was no hope when this guy attacked. It was clear he was intent on harming her because she fought with everything she could. The first words she remembered saying when she realized this wasn’t some practical joke or something were, ‘Help me, Jesus.’

“While she was still struggling, being choked, two guys coming to pick her up saw what was going on through the window and one ran to get police officers they’d just pased in the neighborhood. The officers got there and burst in with guns drawn. They told the guy to freeze but he bolted and Krista’s friends ran after him, caught up to him and tackled him, and put a nice welt on the guy for me. He was arrested. It turned out he had done similar things to other women.”

The criminal justice process meant reliving the incident.

“There was the whole ordeal of going through the trial,” Knicely said. “At the sentencing you have the opportunity to speak to the defendant. I wrestled all night with whether I was going to say anything or not. The next day I still hadn’t decided. Then, in the courtroom the next thing I know I’m moving up to the stand and talking.”

He believes what he spoke was inspired from on high.

“I was able to address that guy and tell him ‘what you did is not going to have a hold over our family – we forgive you for what you did, it’s wrong, and you’re going to get the punishment you deserve.’ It just kind of released everything on behalf of my family and Krista my daughter.”

Krista’s moved on with her life but there’s still repercussions.

“She still has to work through that,” Knicely said. “It’s not been the easiest healing. When she was able to forgive her perpetrator it was a transformation and she went on to become Miss Nebraska. Her platform was bringing awareness about violence against women. We couldn’t have known all these positive things were going to happen. We’re still so thankful to this day.”

Stolid, almost never controversial, and still at it

Knicely is in a decidedly young person’s game and he acknowledges, “I’m getting to the end of my career. I’m aware of that.”

His son John surprised him by following him in the business. John junior is now an anchor in Seattle.

“I told him even if he wasn’t my son, I’d watch him. He does a good job.”

Knicely, the “old man,” doesn’t concede anything.

“I feel like I’m just as active as I ever was.”

The work also hasn’t grown stale for him.

“It’s still fresh in many ways and that doesn’t seem possible. But it might be because the content changes every night and there’s a change that happens as you sit down to go on camera and do the news. It’s an opportunity to connect with viewers.

“It’s pretty remarkable that it’s not like, ‘Oh no, not this again.’ But it’s not that way. It’s the people you work with, too, that make a difference. Mallory’s full of life and fun to joke with. Rusty Lord and Ross Jernstrom are fun.”

Knicely’s squeaky clean image has never been tarnished by controversy, He did suffer ribbing for an on-air faux pas when he said crystal meth instead of Crystal Light and the mistake ended up on the butt of a joke on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show.

Years earlier, Knicely was cast as a villain in some circles for jumping ship from KETV to WOWT. Channel 6 was motivated to break up the ratings leader team at Channel 7 and Knicely knew of the strategy thanks to an inside source.

“I was communicating with a person I knew at 6. Then I had a clandestine meeting with the general manager at a very discreet little coffee shop. I realized in talking to him that, yeah, this could happen. WOWT’s concern was a non-compete clause in my contract which said you had to stay off the air for a year in the market. They were content with that. Well, when 6 hired me and Jim Flowers, Channel 7 went right to a judge to make sure non-compete was enforced. But the judge ruled against them, saying Neb. is a right to work state and there was nothing so unique about us that couldn’t be replaced, so we were on the air in three months instead of a year.”

The only time Knicely left for a bigger market was St. Louis. There were other occasions when he eyed a move. When still doing sports at 7, he was the runner-up for the sports director slot at a station in Phoenix.

“But being close to family and being comfortable raising my kids in this community won out and I just didn’t very actively pursue anything. If I was contacted by somebody, I considered it, but …”

Home is where the heart. That’s why he’s here to stay.

Follow John at https://www.facebook.com/john.knicely.

 

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