Bob MacKenzie: So Long to a Real Individual

Categories: Media

The eulogies for longtime KTVU feature reporter Bob MacKenzie will be sure to mention his wit, charm, and, of course, ability to reel in audiences as only a storyteller can. All of this is true -- but, first and foremost, MacKenzie was, in a business moving increasingly toward homogeneity, an individual.

So it's a bit counterintuitive that the death of such a noted individual seems to aptly illustrate the unfortunate trends of society and media writ large.

MacKenzie, 75, was a short, rumpled man with Hobbit-like floppy hair in a field that favors anthropomorphic Ken dolls with coiffures harking to Mad Men. He was legitimately funny and empathetic without being maudlin. Unlike so many modern newscasters, for whom the height of repartee is "back to you, Jim," MacKenzie could string together the nouns and verbs. He was a curious man who enriched viewers by allowing us to see the world through his eyes. He made quality television.

They're not making Bob MacKenzies anymore. Smart, unconventional-looking men who hope to invest time and emotion in compelling and quirky stories more complicated than standing in front of a ruptured water main and looking serious are not finding their way onto local news broadcasts.  

The drive toward homogeneity is not entirely recent. For decades, news broadcasters in New York and the Deep South have spoken in the broad, flattened tones of "newsreader English" you might hear locally in Northern California. Yes, Dan Rather might have talked about goings on in "Mizz-urr-rahhh," but, more and more, newscasters look and sound the same no matter where you go. This is the case with sports broadcasters as well. The Myron Copes and Joe Starkeys and Keith Jacksons have given way to the Joe Buck pod people. (One can still find unique local baseball announcers, however. For now.).

This must be what consultants, research, and polling indicate viewers want. And perhaps we do. Americans seem to like the idea of small towns and unique, local businesses, but we haven't exactly kept those afloat either.

After 30 years of his telling us quirky, poignant, and fascinating stories, viewers came to feel they knew Bob MacKenzie. It's hard to say that about the folks following in his footsteps. As we wrote following the passing of Dave McElhatton, "I'm not about to digress into media criticism here, but I will say this -- it's hard to imagine that folks will feel nostalgic about the current state of affairs 30 years hence. And if they do -- heaven help us."

Around 15 years ago, your humble narrator was taking his dog for a walk at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline. You see interesting things at a giant dog park, but you don't often see a floppy-haired man wearing a tan suit. This is not an appropriate sartorial decision in a place where gregarious dogs have waterfront access. It turns out the only reason to dress in such a manner at the dog park is if you're doing a segment on it for KTVU. And you're Bob MacKenzie.

The notion of YouTube was in the realm of Star Trek stuff in 1996 -- we were just a few years out of the trees, kids. I haven't seen the segment since it aired. But I do recall MacKenzie being genuinely happy when he found out that your humble narrator and the guy next to me had never before met and had struck up a conversation while our dogs swam in the canal. If memory serves, my dog, Steve, was depicted chasing a ball in slow-motion, to the accompaniment of classical music. And, all but certainly, the "bumper" for the segment on the news broadcast was something akin to "Coming up later, Bob MacKenzie takes a trip to doggie heaven."

That's my individual nostalgia for Bob MacKenzie and his warm, personal brand of local reporting. But you didn't have to be an interview subject to feel like he was speaking to you.

We're lucky to have had him on our TVs for so long. We won't be seeing this sort of thing again. Except on YouTube.

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