In this story from April 2000, broadcaster Charles Osgood reveals how perseverance—and a few nudges from the Man Upstairs—led him to his life's calling.
Maybe it looks easy, what I do on CBS News Sunday Morning. Maybe it sounds easy, what I do on The Osgood File weekday mornings on CBS Radio. People tell me it seems as if I was born to be on the air. Little do they know.
It’s true our Creator endows us with the talent and temperament to do whatever he has in mind for us, but I’m afraid it was a challenge to get me to see that. I never took a broadcasting or journalism course in school.
At Fordham University I majored in economics. In my spare time I worked at WFUV, the school’s FM station in the Bronx, N.Y. But that was an extracurricular activity I thought might help me in establishing a career in the business side of broadcasting. Who knew that this would be my calling? Not me!
Even when the first job I landed after graduation was as an announcer at WGMS, a classical music station in Washington, D.C., it didn’t register. Even when my assignment in the Army turned out to be the announcer for the U.S. Army Band’s concerts, I had no idea it was leading me anywhere.
I still thought management would be my career. And I seemed to be heading in that direction. After my stint in the Army, I became program director at WGMS. I was in management—finally.
Then came what I thought was my great opportunity. RKO General, the owner of WGMS, was starting the first experimental pay-television station in the United States, in Hartford, Conn. I was named general manager. Unfortunately, subscription TV, as we called it, was an idea whose time had not yet come. And I soon found out my time had not yet come either.
I’d had visions of becoming a pay-television tycoon. One day, I thought, I would be to that medium what Bill Paley, the founder of CBS, had been to network radio and TV. But the Lord had other plans, apparently. I got fired. My boss came up from New York and gave me the bad news. I was crushed. I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
While I looked for a new job, my wife and I moved in with my parents in New Jersey. I got rides into New York City with Dad’s carpool. He was a textile executive. I was an unemployed pay-television tycoon. That’s because there wasn’t any pay-television except at the station I’d been fired from. I wasn’t even sure what kind of work I was looking for.
A couple of months passed, and I began to wonder if I’d ever work again. This was not exactly my peak of self-esteem. I’d see panhandlers on the street and identify strongly with them. I thought, There but for the grace of God go I.
Speaking of the grace of God, one day I ran into an old friend from Fordham University on the street. Francis X. Maguire had worked with me at the college radio station. He had a job selling jingles. Frank had even tried to sell me a jingle when I was running the pay-TV station in Hartford. But now he was working, and I wasn’t. So he gave me names of contacts, even went with me to see some New York broadcasting executives.
Believe it or not, a few weeks later, my old friend Frank became a New York broadcasting executive himself. ABC Radio hired him to co-produce a new show called Flair Reports. For on-air talent, they were looking to hire five or six people to do news sidebars. Since they wanted the show to be new and different, they didn’t want people with a lot of news experience. I certainly qualified for that.
Frank urged me to come by the next week for an audition. “Write something and bring it in,” he said.
“What should I write?” I asked. I’d never written more than a business letter.
“Write about whatever interests you,” Frank told me. “Be yourself.”
In The New York Times, I found what I thought was the perfect story. It was the obituary of a 100-year-old former Metropolitan Opera diva. She had last sung half a century, half a lifetime, ago. I did my best to rough out some copy.
At my audition, I read the story into the microphone, feeling as if my mouth were full of cotton. I could see the producers in the control room. Frank was the only one smiling. The others looked at me with No in their eyes. What did they care about a dead diva?
I left the studio dejected, knowing that I’d just done a terrible audition and blown a good opportunity. Frank caught up with me as I was walking down the hall. He looked me right in the eye and said, “You’re hired. I know you can do this.” His colleagues didn’t want to hire me, but Frank had insisted. He knew what I could do, even if they didn’t. Even if I didn’t.
The same day he also hired a 23-year-old desk assistant from a local radio station, who hadn’t been allowed on the air there even once. Frank was a pretty good judge of talent, though. The kid was Ted Koppel. Anyway, that’s how I went, at age 30, from being one of the youngest TV-station general managers in the country to being its oldest cub radio reporter. I stayed at ABC doing Flair Reports and hourly newscasts for five years.
In 1967, I moved over to CBS. I started at WCBS radio in New York, where I did newscasts in the middle of Pat Summerall’s morning disc jockey show. (I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true!) Then the station changed formats to all-news, and I became an anchor for the first time. Pat Summerall did the sports cut-ins. While still at WCBS, I began doing a radio network feature, Newsbreak.
One thing led to another, and I moved full-time to CBS News. Those were the days of Cronkite, Collingwood, Sevareid, Moyers and Kuralt. I was the only CBS newsman I’d never heard of. My first TV newscast, filling in for Roger Mudd on a Saturday evening, was painful. I had never anchored TV news before, anywhere. I was so nervous and bad that Mike Wallace called me into his office and gave me some pointers. Helpful they were, too.
This led in due course to The Osgood File and then six years ago, when Charles Kuralt retired, to CBS News Sunday Morning, a broadcast that seeks to show the positive, noble side of human nature. While not every single one of our stories has a happy ending, we try to make each one uplifting.
I consider myself the luckiest man in broadcasting. But believe me, it didn’t come easily. Maybe I was meant to do this, but I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. Good thing the Lord stuck with me, or else I might never have found the work I love. And that, I have to say, is one of the happiest endings I know.
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.