Charles Osgood Celebrates Heroes

Celebrities, People
on January 18, 2004

A glimpse of Charles Osgood’s modest New York office offers profound insight into the life of the anchor of CBS News Sunday Morning and host of The Osgood File, a daily news commentary heard on more than 400 radio stations nationwide.

The man who has interviewed several presidents displays a framed, autographed speech of President Theodore Roosevelt and a President George W. Bush action figure. Just above an electronic keyboard sits the book Words to Rhyme With, in case he needs help crafting one of his famous poems. In this high-tech age, he still uses an old touch-tone telephone and keeps his calendar by hand.

His understated office is full of memorabilia gathered during a career built along a road less traveled. He’s a collection of contradictions: an affable, bow tie-wearing Everyman with a voice as warm and comfortable as a blanket, he also is a cultured intellectual who’s plain-spoken and humble. “Charles is decent, kind and a strong family man,” CBS news anchor Dan Rather says. “He has a wonderful sense of humor, not just in his on-air persona but in person, hour by hour and day by day. Charles is unassuming and unpretentious—he is and has been for a long time a ‘star’, but he’s never assumed any of the unattractive traits and practices that are so often associated with people who achieve that status.”

Although his walls showcase several awards, including the prestigious Peabody Award for broadcast journalism, Charles Osgood, 71, insists that he’s simply a storyteller. “I think a good journalist is a good storyteller,” he says. “I don’t think they are two exclusive things.

“First of all, we never talk down to the audience,” he says. “We talk straight at people. With a couple of exceptions, we don’t use $10 words; we find $2 words that work. I never want to be taken too seriously or take myself too seriously. I like people to think of me as warm and friendly.”

On Jan. 25, the popular Sunday Morning celebrates its 25th anniversary with a 90-minute retrospective that will include the show’s most memorable stories and correspondents. “We’ll show you some things people have asked us about over the years,” he says. “We get a lot of inquiries about the nature piece at the end, so we’ll show someone doing one of those.”

Launched by Charles Kuralt on Jan. 28, 1979, the show remains a much-needed oasis of gentility and decency in a television desert of screaming hosts and shocking plots. “It’s a Sunday newspaper on the air,” Osgood explains. “I imagine the audience being in their bathrobes and slippers with a copy of the Sunday paper on the floor and a cup of coffee. They’re paying attention; they’re not watching you while they’re doing something else.”

Correspondents such as Bill Geist, Rita Braver and John Leonard bypass the sensational news of the week and instead delve into stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. For instance, recent stories have included the tasty cheeseburgers found in Moonshine, Ill. (pop. 2); a restaurant in Washington, Va. (pop. 183), that’s housed in a former gas station; and James Rosenguist, a painter in Aripeka, Fla., who creates groundbreaking work that is massive in size.

While 60 Minutes may investigate villains, Sunday Morning celebrates heroes. “Kuralt used to say that a lot of television was based on finding things that are going to shock and stress—something went wrong or somebody was corrupt,” Osgood says. “We much prefer to talk about those heroes and people who you want to emulate or whose motivations and actions are inspiring.

“I hate the ‘news you can use’ idea. Sometimes it can be useful, but sometimes it’s just emotionally useful. It’s heartwarming or inspiring. It pleases you to know that there’s goodness in the world, and we look for that.”

When writing stories, Osgood imagines that he’s talking to his sister, Maryann, who lives in Rapidan, Va. “I’m talking to someone who knows me well enough to see through me, so there’s no point in trying to put anything over on her.

“Also, there are a few things that guide me,” he says. “First of all, if I don’t understand something, I’m not going to say it. And if you know what you need to say, there’s no sense in using some high-falutin’, smart-sounding language just because it’s there and available. I try to translate everything in plain-spoken English: a lot of declarative sentences, not too many adjectives, just nouns and verbs.”

He uses this simplicity to create a melodic art in which every word matters. “What I admire most about Charles may well be his eye,” Rather says. “He has been called CBS News’ poet-in-residence because of his taste for writing verse, but I don’t think it should be missed that he also has a poet’s eye—for the kind of story that others among us might overlook, and for the telling detail in any piece of news.”

Osgood, the son of a New York textile salesman, developed his love of broadcasting while listening to radio programs such as Dick Tracy, Superman, and Captain Marvel after school. He vividly describes this time in his seventh book, Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack, which comes out in May. “It’s about World War II as seen through the perspective of a 9-year-old who delivers newspapers and has a victory garden and saves tin cans and aluminum foil,” he says.

After earning an economics degree from Fordham University, he spent four years with ABC News before joining WCBS Radio in 1967. He joined the CBS television network in 1971, working alongside Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace. “You could look at this list of CBS News correspondents and I was the only one on the list I had never heard of,” he says.

When Kuralt retired in 1994, Osgood, whom Kuralt dubbed “one of the last great broadcast writers,” was named as his replacement. “When Charles Kuralt left the show, everyone was concerned about who was going to come in,” Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist says. “He was the very best person they could’ve found to replace him. He’s very articulate and intelligent and his love of art and music is deeper than you even see on television. He is able to get along with everybody; he has a common touch.”

Osgood, who lives near Carnegie Hall, rises at 2:30 a.m. to begin working on his four daily radio reports and sometimes works seven days a week. While he says he has one of the best jobs imaginable, his real priorities are Jean, his wife of 30 years, and their five children. “I know a lot of people in this business who don’t have what we call ‘a life’, like friends, family and doing things. They just get up and go to work and that’s it. There are some very famous people in this business for whom that is it.

“I wouldn’t want to do that. I wouldn’t pay the price of doing that to get some other job. I’m pretty happy with this combination of things I have. I appreciate the work; it’s a good job as jobs go.”

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