GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Terry Dullum has been in your living room for 39 years.
The 65-year-old Hillsboro native hasn’t been there the whole time, of course.
He comes and goes, popping by each evening to deliver the day’s top news or to introduce people to his never-ending circle of friends – like Kermit the Frog.
“I spoke with Kermit just a couple weeks ago. Not just anyone gets to talk to Kermit,” says Dullum, flashing a trademark smirk that’s been a staple on local television since the mid-1970s.
A fixture at WDAZ-TV in Grand Forks for nearly four decades, Dullum’s career as a broadcast journalist has been as remarkable as it is lengthy.
The 1966 Hillsboro High School grad helped WDAZ win the national Edward R. Murrow Award for coverage of the Red River flood in Grand Forks in 1997.
Dullum has carried the Olympic torch, flown with the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds and appeared on the daytime soap “General Hospital.”
He’s interviewed more celebrities than he can remember and stopped counting how many stories he’s covered for WDAZ when the number hit 5,200.
When Dullum isn’t covering the day’s top headlines, sometimes he’s making them.
WDAZ and its parent company Forum Communications announced in July that the station’s 5 p.m. newscast would no longer feature Grand Forks anchors – including Dullum.
Although Dullum still chairs the station’s 6 p.m. newscast, the earlier broadcast now uses anchors from WDAY-TV in Fargo.
“The decision was not made by anyone in Grand Forks,” Dullum told readers in an online blog post July 14. “Certainly, not by me.”
Dullum doesn’t sound like someone who regrets criticizing his employers.
In a sit-down interview Tuesday inside WDAZ’s studios in Grand Forks, the longtime reporter and news anchor says the change doesn’t benefit viewers in his city.
“I feel that we’re a Grand Forks station and we should have a Grand Forks newscast,” he says.
Dullum defends his city with a passion that’s mirrored by those he serves.
An online petition was launched demanding WDAZ bring back the 5 p.m. newscast to The Grand Cities with Dullum in the anchor’s chair.
“I’m really grateful for our viewers,” Dullum says, reflecting on his storied career.
“You hear it all the time, but it’s really true. If people weren’t watching, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Dullum sat down with Banner reporter Cole Short for a quip- and humor-filled interview Tuesday to discuss growing up in Hillsboro, a career spent serving the public and what lies ahead for the veteran journalist and WDAZ.
Q: Were you born in Hillsboro or just grow up in town?
I was born above the old Johnson store (on Union Block) when it used to be a hospital.
Q: Wow. So you were REALLY born and raised in Hillsboro. Did you grow up in town?
My parents farmed. But my dad died when I was young and we moved into town after that. I think it was around the third or fourth grade.
Q: How much do you remember about the town?
Everything. I’m not that far away and my mother still lives there. It was a nice town to grow up in. I had great teachers, terrific teachers.
Q: I’m guessing they didn’t have a broadcast journalism program.
No. But I had a teacher named Bea Anderson, who was wonderful. I go back almost every day to something she taught us, whether it’s proper sentence structure or how to write in an inverted pyramid for newspapers.
Q: You graduated from UND. Did you head there right after graduation?
After high school I spent the summer at KMAV (in Mayville) before I was drafted in the army.
Q: What did you do at KMAV? I’ve read you’re a fan of big band music.
I had an air shift and would sign on. They had a middle-of-the-road format and I worked there six or eight weeks in the summer before I was drafted.
Q: Tell me about your military service.
I was at Fort Benning, Ga. I was a clerk typist but also worked in the recording studio after they found out I could write and talk a little bit. So I recorded scripts for classes … and army training films. I was a private, but I was probably the only private in the army who had his own jeep and his own driver, who outranked me.
Q: So you left when they took away your jeep and driver?
(Laughs) My time ended and I was honorably discharged. I don’t know what happened to the driver. Or the jeep.
Q: Did you plan on pursuing a degree from UND to be a reporter all along?
Not exactly. I was interested in music and went to Concordia (College) for a year. I thought I’d be a music teacher. But you find out pretty quickly you don’t have much talent compared to other people. The other thing I wanted to do was this.
Q: Did you land at WDAZ as your first job?
Actually, I went to Bismarck and worked as a reporter for two years.
Q: Did you return to the area for more money or to be closer to family?
They fired me. (Laughs)
Q: Really? (Laughs)
They said they didn’t like the way I looked on television. I should have sued them. This is probably more information than you bargained for.
Q: No. This is great. I’m speechless. They said you weren’t attractive enough?
No. Just that they didn’t like the way I looked on television. I figured, well, they didn’t want me here. So I contacted WDAY news director Norm Schrader who said Chuck Bundlie (the station’s first news director and anchor) was looking for someone in May 1975. It all worked out.
Q: So you were a news reporter to start with?
I was hired as a general assignment reporter. I did cut-ins during “The Today Show” at 7:25 and 8:25 and then we had a 10-minute news show at noon.
Q: Your style of reporting is, well, different. You often inject yourself into a story. How did that come about?
I found out pretty early that you can break the biggest story of the day – bust city hall wide open – and you’ll have the lead story that night. The next day, nobody remembers. But if I did a story on someone’s puppy or kitty or their hobby, they’d talk about it for days, weeks, years. After that, I thought if that’s what people want, maybe that’s what I should be doing.
Q: You have to have a certain polish to be able to do that style of reporting though.
It all comes together in the editing room. (Laughs) I had really good bosses who have always understood what I was trying to do.
Q: Do people call you up and request you for stories?
I don’t do as much reporting anymore. But yeah. They call me up with tips.
Q: Take me through a typical day for you.
Up until a couple weeks ago, when we were doing the 5 o’clock newscast, I would come in at 9 or 9:30 and start working on that. I would talk to the reporters throughout the day and do as much as I can. I still do “The Dullum File,” although that is now monthly.
Q: The station’s 5 p.m. newscast had some really unique material. Stuff you can’t find elsewhere.
A couple weeks ago I talked to Kermit the Frog and they tossed in Tom Bergeron (from “Dancing With the Stars”). Once you’ve done this for a while people get to know you and trust you and like doing interviews with you.
Q: But the newscast also had a lot of local news unique to Grand Forks.
We would bring on groups like the Humane Society, nonprofits and other charities. I liked doing that for groups who really need it.
Q: You seem to be pretty active in the community. I read somewhere you appeared in the play “Dearly Departed” at the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre earlier this spring.
I’ve become more and more engaged. We did Toys for Tots the last three or four years and that was really successful, heart-warming. We did our first food drive a few months ago that was also really successful.
Q: Do you see yourself as a celebrity? Yourself, WDAZ sports director Pat Sweeney, the Grand Forks Herald’s Marilyn Hagerty and her Olive Garden national tour. You’re sort of local celebrities, right?
For lack of any real celebrities, yeah. (Laughs)
Q: How old is Sweeney?
I don’t know. I would tell you if I did.
Q: Are you guys friends, enemies?
I was at his wedding. Does that count?
Q: Back to the fame question. You go to the Red Pepper and order a turkey grinder. Do people come up and just start talking to you?
Q: Does that bother you?
It’s fine. People are nice, although I’m usually unshaven and in a baseball cap. I think it’s a sign people accept me.
Q: People seem to like you. I understand you had a lot of support when you battled cancer a few years back.
I had prostate cancer coming on five years ago now. We caught it early. I had surgery but didn’t need chemo or radiation.
Q: I suppose you had to announce that, really, so people wouldn’t think you were …
Q: (Laughs) Well, sure.
My news director asked if I wanted to keep it quiet. I said “Why? What’s the point of that?” I put it on my blog so people would know why I was absent. I had a lot of support.
Q: Have you ever considered leaving WDAZ for a bigger market?
My wife (Ginny) and I have never been too intrigued by the Chicagos of the world. I just never liked the idea of having 10 people in line for my job. And that’s really the way it is. I have been fortunate here and they’ve treated me well. I never had a desire to move on.
Q: Last April, there was a Bismarck (N.D.) news anchor who dropped the f-bomb on his first day of work. He didn’t get a second day. Are you familiar with A.J. Clemente?
We follow each other on Twitter.
I swear to you. I like A.J.
Q: You’ve never had any similar episodes though?
It should have happened to me but it hasn’t. I’ve been lucky.
Q: How often do you flub lines on live TV then?
Daily. Hourly. (Laughs) It’s not the point to do it perfectly. The idea is to communicate the story to somebody. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Q: You have covered not only celebrities but a range of prominent figures: Queen Elizabeth, Pope John Paul II, presidents like Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton.
They all went on to do great things after I interviewed them.
Q: That’s amazing though.
To me, if you stay in one place long enough, the people will come to you. They really will. I’ve had good luck with celebrities and others.
Q: You really carried the Olympic torch? Was that in 1984 or thereabouts?
That sounds right. I damn-near dropped the thing. Actually, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. You don’t travel very far because it’s a relay.
Q: OK, “General Hospital.” Now how did THAT happen?
When you work for any station or network, they’ll sometimes invite you to be part of a show for the sake of publicity. We were doing a trip to talk to actor Sam Anderson of Wahpeton (N.D.) and they agreed to put us on the show. I think it was about 20 years ago.
Q: What was your role?
I happened to go out the day when Jasper Jacks (a fictional character played by actor Ingo Rademacher) was coming back after a nine-month hiatus. I was cast as manager of an upscale European casino who handed him an emergency phone call.
Q: Do you recall your line?
I do, actually: “Urgent call, Mr. Jacks.”
Q: Do you feel you’ve been unfairly typecast and only able to play European casino owners from now on?
(Laughs) Well I’ve never really gotten a callback.
Q: So how about your involvement with the Muppets?
I was at Disney World for its 20th anniversary. … There were maybe six stations invited and I got to interview Scooter and Gonzo right after Brian Henson had taken over for his father. That was fun. And then there was Kermit just the other day.
Q: When did you assume an anchor’s chair at WDAZ?
It was in October 1997 after the flood. Our real anchorman got laryngitis and I was standing in the hall and somebody said “It’s you now.” Somebody had to sit there and do it.
Q: Was that easy after being on the air for years?
No. It was hard – and emotional. Your town was flooding and your downtown was on fire and people were evacuating. But it was important to be there so people could see someone was still there. It was a strange mix of journalism and community service.
Q: That can endear a community to the people who cover them, though.
That happened a few years ago in Minot, the same thing.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
Not a lot. I like to read. I like music. My wife and I used to travel quite a bit.
Q: A few years ago, Robin Huebner filed suit against KVLY in Fargo claiming age discrimination after a younger anchor was asked to fill her time slot as anchor. Do you worry you’ll lose your boyish good looks at some point?
It’s too late for that. If it was based on that, I would have been gone long ago. But the situation with Robin, management can’t admit it, but in this industry there are different rules for women. It’s unfair. Robin and I are buddies. You just hate to see that.
Q: Speaking of rocking the boat, the change to eliminate the 5 p.m. broadcast in Grand Forks. You were vocal about that. After so many years here, did you feel you had enough cachet to speak out?
With age comes a certain degree of (pauses) not caring. (Laughs)
Q: But it’s got to feel good to know viewers support you.
Well, first of all, I found out it’s not my television station. So there’s that. Do I agree with every decision that’s made? No. But it is what it is. I liked doing our 5 o’clock news show because we put a great deal of energy into it and we did a lot for the community.
Q: You’re not going to hear what’s going on at the Grand Forks Humane Society from a Fargo-centered news cast.
No. It was very much local television. And people were supportive of it – insanely so.
Q: A petition on Change.org was started by Nancy Hennen, sister of radio personality Scott Hennen, to get WDAZ to reverse its decision. Could that ever work?
I don’t know. I know the comments are looked at. Will it ever change anything? Probably not. But I like it when people are heard. This is still America and people should be allowed to say what they want.
Q: WDAZ lost its weekend and 5 o’clock newscasts. Should we be afraid of losing more?
I have those fears as well. But I can tell you we are starting a new show, which is a good sign. So there’s still a commitment here in Grand Forks.
Q: New show? What’s the inside scoop on that?
It’s very early in the talking stage and has no title. Maybe “Something Something” or “Something Something Something with Terry Dullum.” It will be a feature show on Sunday mornings. I think things like that will help the Grand Forks presence.
Q: So that’s the future of WDAZ. What’s the future for Terry Dullum?
I don’t know. I still have some energy left and some ideas. I want to keep doing this. I waiver some days and think it’d be nice to go to the lake instead of going to work today. But I still enjoy what I’m doing.
Q: Do you feel fortunate to have the career you’ve had even if an end isn’t in sight?
Very. I have gotten to do a lot of things I’ve always wanted to do on television. I’ve pitched ideas and somehow they bought them most of the time. I’ve really been lucky, but there are a few more things I want to do.