Interview: Stan Bunger

[This item was originally posted to The Media Drop]

In the last week or so, I’ve used the LinkedIn service to make contact with some people I see and talk to regularly, people I haven’t spoken with in a while, and even some people I probably would never have been able to reach directly without the service. I’m currently using the site to expand the abilities I have to provide content on this site, and it’s been more than helpful.

One of the people I was able to contact through the site is Stan Bunger. Those of you in the San Francisco bay area might be familiar with Stan as he is a morning news anchor on KCBS 740am on the weekdays. For those of you who aren’t necessarily familiar with Stan’s work, he was nice enough to provide me with a wealth of information on his career and background, so here goes.

Background: Stan graduated from West Valley College in Saratoga, CA in 1975 with an associates’ degree, and moved on to S.F. State, where he graduated in 1977 with a degree in Radio/Television. He was able to get started in radio shortly after graduation, and has been working in the industry for over 26 years now. He is married with a son and daughter, and they live in Alameda, California. While he roots for the San Francisco Giants, he “despair[s] of ever seeing them win the World Series.”

TMD: Your bio at KCBS points out that you’ve been in broadcasting for about 24 years, including (now) a second stint at KCBS. How did you get your “break” in the field? And as a follow up to that, who is someone you’d consider very influential on how you’ve developed yourself as a co-anchor on the news?

SB: I didn’t originally set out to be a broadcast journalist. When I entered college, I thought I’d become a marine biologist and maybe be the next Doc Ricketts. It didn’t work out that way, and I wound up hanging around the student radio station at San Francisco State Unversity. I wasn’t a very good DJ, but the news department seemed like fun. Upon graduation, I actually couldn’t find a job in the broadcast business, and went to work for a finance company. A few months later, a college friend called to say he’d heard of a job opening at a radio station in King City, California. I think I may have been the only applicant, but at any rate, that’s where I started. I rode my bike in each morning, turned on the transmitter, spun records, and gathered news. There wasn’t much news to gather: one day, I remember running a story about a collision between a car and a shopping cart at the Safeway store.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of really bright and talented people. If I had to narrow the list of influences, I’d probably choose two very different people for whom I worked at the same radio station. KXRX in San Jose was, in the 1970’s and early ’80’s, a remarkable example of the kind of radio station that is now pretty much gone from the scene. It was an independent news/talk station. I was hired by Peter Laufer, an enterprising globetrotting journalist who taught me how to tell a story. And when Peter was replaced by Don Schrack, I learned a different but still valuable approach to storytelling, as well as the discipline to work in the relentless all-news format. I owe a great deal to both of them.

TMD: I also read that you left KCBS in 1992 to pursue technology reporting, and had some success doing that – what made you return to “your roots” at the station, and more importantly, giving up your status as a technology-specific reporter?

SB: Well, it’s like this…I have a couple of kids and a mortgage! Seriously, the “tech bubble” was starting to burst in 2000 when KCBS approached me with the opportunity to return. There were a number of signs that technology journalism (at least, the broadcast variety) was going to be a shrinking market. For example, here in the Bay Area, the home of Silicon Valley and San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch, I’m only aware of one TV station which has ANYONE working as a fulltime technology (or tech business) reporter. So, I decided to hedge my bets and return to a form of journalism I believe has a strong future.

TMD: With regard to technology, what three things that you might have been on the “leading edge” of seeing did you think would be really important to our culture/world – and actually did? Are there two or three things that seemed really fantastic at the time you saw them that turned out to be a bust?

SB: Personal Video Recorders (TiVo, ReplayTV)–the first time I saw one of these in a lab, I was blown away. Not that this cures cancer or ends war, but it’s pretty remarkable stuff, and I think it is already changing our media society. I think wireless data networking is still just a blip of what it will be, and the changes it will bring are pretty awesome to consider. Ditto for “radio frequency ID” technology (like the “FasTrak” system many of us use to pay bridge tolls electronically). RFID is going to start showing up in more and more applications, some of which will make huge changes in industries like retailing. What strikes me about all of these is that they bring with them often-unforeseen social issues: privacy, job losses, etc.

Things I thought would change the world but went “klunk”? I’ll admit that when I first saw a “TV station in a box” system called Trinity (made by a now-defunct company called Play) that I truly thought we would see the Internet filled with “citizen broadcasting”–everything from niche content to Wayne’s World. It never happened, and I’m no longer convinced it will, despite the relatively low cost of media-making tools. I’m still not sure why “smart card” systems have been so slow to catch on here in the U.S. Same with GPS applications; it seems like we should see far more uses of GPS technology.

TMD: What story or stories most impacted you while you were reporting on them?

SB: I’ve covered a number of natural disasters (’89 Loma Prieta earthquake–I was on the air at Candlestick Park when it hit, 1991 Oakland firestorm–I spent the night behind the police lines watching truly amazing stuff), but the story that really hit me was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. I had been “relieved of my contract” the day before by a Dallas radio station and had gone out for a long bike ride to clear my head and consider what to do next. When I got home, my wife told me there had been an explosion in Oklahoma City. It was, at first, weird to have a major story nearby and no place to go to work. I then called a few of my old Bay Area contacts and was told to get moving. So, I headed to Oklahoma City as a freelancer. It was stunning to see what had happened, heartbreaking to hear the stories of the survivors and rescuers, and infuriating and saddening to realize this had been done by man rather than nature.

Having said that, the ’89 quake probably had the most impact on me, but on a delayed basis. As I said earlier, I was on the air when it happened, and spent most of the night co-anchoring KCBS coverage. It was, without a doubt, the station’s finest hour. We were, as many listeners told us, a beacon of stability during a really scary time. All quite exciting and gratifying, but a few weeks later, I realized that I was coming down from a high I couldn’t expect to achieve again. Would I need to wait for another deadly earthquake to feel like I was doing something meaningful? Some how, the routine nature of anchoring all-news radio didn’t seem all that challenging anymore. To be honest, it took me a coupleof years to realize that much of the value we offer to our audience is *in* that routine: we’re simply THERE every day, and while that may not be sexy, it is very important.

TMD: You’ve been working almost exclusively, from what I can tell, in West Coast (or more specifically, Bay Area) media outlets. Have you ever seriously contemplated moving into other markets or even to television as a news anchor?

SB: Well, there was the 3-year Dallas experience. An old boss and mentor hit me with an offer I couldn’t refuse in 1992, which was why I left KCBS the first time. I’m glad we had the opportunity to leave Northern California; it came at a great time for my family (the kids were young and we gained new friends and new perspectives). But I’m equally glad it ended so we could come home. Now that we’re approaching the “empty nest” years (our youngest is a high school freshman), I can dimly imagine the possibility of moving again. But it would have to be a very remarkable offer to get me to leave the Bay Area. I grew up here, and it really is home.

TMD: I know it’s cliché, but what one solid suggestion would you give to students in high school or college who might be pursuing a radio or television career?

SB: Please, please, please: focus on writing. It’s the foundation of everything, and if you can write, you’ll be so far ahead of the pack in so many ways. The other thing I always tell students (and I’ve done some teaching at my alma mater, S.F. State), is to become as broad a person as possible. Take classes in departments WAY outside your major. Pick up unfamiliar magazines and journals and read them. Engage people in conversations about things unfamiliar to you, rather than sticking to the safe and familiar. You never know when that knowledge you just gained is going to come in handy.

TMD: And finally – have you ever done an interview via email before, and if so, how did it go?

SB: Funny you should ask–I don’t think I have ever done this before. It’s probably a good thing, because as wordy as I am via e-mail, I’m ten times worse with the spoken word…:) In addition, I was able to do this in about 5 separate spurts interrupted by domestic duties, which is pretty cool.

Thanks to Stan for taking the time out of his schedule to put some solid answers together for The Media Drop. Definitely very insightful, and ended up a lot better than I thought it would, even though putting together “follow up” questions might take a little longer via email.

Hopefully, this will be the first of many successful interviews for the site. Stay tuned for more!

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