The Lesson of Bill Bonds

I may live somewhere else now, but make no mistake, I’m still an “East-Sider” from Detroit. Those that know me personally certainly can attest to that. And when “East-Side Detroit Dom” comes out, it’s usually because I’m seeing the big guy beat up on the little guy… something that us East-Siders would never tolerate. We still know how to open up a can of whoop-ass on somebody when needed.

The East Side of Detroit is comprised mostly of working-class people like my father who worked at the Ford plant for 38 years. I will always cherish the values of hard work, integrity, authenticity, and spirit of the underdog that defined growing up there.

One of the staples of my childhood was a news anchor on the local ABC station named Bill Bonds. The man was literally walking history. He interviewed presidents from the Johnson days all the way to now. He covered the Detroit riots in the late 60’s that literally started in the neighborhood where Bill grew up on 12th street. Bill Bonds was literally a part of my memory for every major news event that I saw growing up.

But Bill Bonds wasn’t just a reporter – he was one of us – a real Detroiter – and everything he did was through that lens.

When he interviewed someone of authority, he would speak as one of us. He would ask “why should we believe you…?” and “how can we trust you?” – the “we” being us – Detroit. And whenever he saw the little guy getting beat up by the big guy, he would call the big guy out on TV.  You didn’t watch Bill Bonds to get the news… you watched Bill Bonds to get his take on the news.

It was this combination of brilliant journalism combined with authenticity that led Bill to massive ratings success. He knew how to connect. Working class people in Detroit had a voice, and we would sit at home and watch Billy give-it to authority when they were out of line, literally to the point where people would talk to the TV “go get ’em Billy…”

This wasn’t an act of his. Every bit of it was real.

One of the thrills of my life was to get to know Bill and his wife Karen over the past 10 years. Bill and I would have lunch regularly and talk about broadcasting, life, politics, and such. I learned something new with each conversation. Well into his 70’s, Bill was as sharp as a tack, witty, humorous, and a brilliant story-teller. And I was always captivated by his answers to my questions about what made him tick – and why he thought he connected so well with the audience.

The formula was simple. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. And his manager throughout most of his career was another brilliant lady named Jeanne Findlater (who I also had the pleasure of speaking with on occasion through the years), and she would protect Bill from the corporate types who wanted to mess with his formula. She literally would tell the ABC bosses “don’t mess with the franchise…” when Bill would write promos about the resilience of Detroit, when corporate would rather have him talk about how “action news has you covered”. Bill wrote and performed brilliant promos… he wrote and performed brilliant news. But the key is his “performance” was authenticity. And his manager protected the environment around him so that he could do what he did so well.

Sadly, we lost Billy today. He passed away this afternoon from a heart attack in his home.

The lessons he taught us run deep, and are especially applicable to radio. Be your authentic self on the air. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Have a genuine and real point of view. And if you’re a manager of a true talent like this, don’t let corporate mess with the franchise – protect real talent like this so they are free to perform and succeed.

This is the stuff that legends like Bill Bonds are made of.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Karen and his family. I feel like a part of my childhood passed away today with Bill. How many people could say that about ANY radio or TV talent today?

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