6/23: Fred Powers, former gutsy reporter for WGCL-TV, has died
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
WGCL-TV’s former intrepid reporter Fred Powers has died of cancer.
Powers, known has the “human pinata,” was willing to get tasered, attacked by dogs and set on fire. “He relished those opportunities,” said WGCL General Manager Andy Alford. In late 2005, he got news he was inflicted with a rare form of cancer in the tear duct of his right eye. And sadly, he has struggled with illness ever since and has not been on air for some time.
His memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church at 781 Peachtree Street.
His last time before the TV cameras was March 14. Despite the fact he was on disability leave, he volunteered to go on the air after a tornado struck the Cotton Mill Lofts in Cabbagetown. WGCL showed video of his final time on air at about 4:45 p.m. today.
Here’s the note:
Fred left us today…to start a new adventure. He is free of pain and doesn’t have to suffer or worry about fighting anymore. He passed away peacefully around 2pm today. He was surrounded by his parents, four sisters, nephew Evan, and his best friend Colby.
I will update as plans for a service are made.
Full of love and gratitude,
Alford sent this email to employees at WGCL earlier today:
It is with much sadness that I tell you of the passing of Fred Powers. He was a dedicated journalist and was committed to his profession. We were privileged to have him as a member of the CBS 46 family. Fred was always willing to do almost anything to support our efforts at the station including stories where he was attacked by dogs and being shot with a Taser. Most recently he voluntarily provided outstanding on-site reporting of the downtown tornados. We are all better for having worked with Fred. Please keep Fred’s family and friends in your prayers.
Here’s a copy of a story I wrote about him in late 2004 before he got sick.
WGCL-TV reporter Fred Powers has been set on fire, bitten by dogs and hit by a Taser —- all in the name of news. No wonder he’s being dubbed the “human pinata” by TV wags.
“He is, without a doubt, the king of stunt reporters, ” said Mike James, editor of www.newsblues.com, a broadcast news Web site. “What he does is cool, but it’s not news.”
Or is it?
“They’re not just stunt stories, ” Powers countered. “We’re telling stories that have impact.”
Not coincidentally, his biggest stories tend to pop up during the sweeps months of February, May and November. (The current sweeps period ends today.) Because advertisers base what they pay partly on viewership during those three months, a shift of a ratings point here and there can mean millions of dollars for each station.
With such high stakes, it’s not surprising that WGCL promotes Powers as the man who will do anything for a story, showing snippets of his escapades accompanied by a rotating 360-degree shot of the reporter, bionic man style.
“I have to admit I don’t feel comfortable with that, ” said Powers, who often has an urgent, swashbuckling attitude on air. “I don’t want to be promoted as the story. The story should be the focus.”
Although Powers has won local awards for spot news coverage and enjoys jumping into disaster coverage, his “Fear Factor” stunts get the buzz and the ratings that the CBS affiliate covets.
Last month, Powers aired a live SWAT demonstration at a police training facility in Douglas County. He played a suspect holding a cop hostage. The police stormed the house on live TV and shot Powers, wearing a bulletproof vest, three times in the chest.
Powers’ most infamous live demonstration aired in February, when police jolted him with a Taser.
The Georgia State Patrol was about to equip its officers with stun guns, so he approached the Forest Park Police Department, which already used them.
“I want to be Tasered, ” he told Chris Matson, the administrative captain.
“It was, ” Matson said, “an unusual request.”
Powers convinced him that the goal of the segment was to show stun guns were not as dangerous as they appeared.
“We granted his wishes: We gave him 50,000 volts, ” Matson said.
When the dramatic moment arrived, Powers screamed and fell to the floor, immobilized for several moments. “You just freeze up, but five seconds later, I was fine, ” he said.
“I’m just glad he had a lot of law enforcement people around him making sure it was safe, ” said Helen Neill, who was the news anchor that night.
Before the report, Powers said he had an EKG to make sure he was healthy. “I work out, ” he said. “We don’t do anything we feel is going to jeopardize me in any way.”
“Fred offered a good mixture of information, entertainment and a little bit of excitement, ” Matson said. “He was very fair.”
In the 11 p.m. time slot, WGCL usually ranks far behind powerhouse ABC affiliate WSB-TV and NBC affiliate WXIA-TV. The night of the Taser story, WGCL beat WXIA and came in a respectable second to WSB.
Powers was one of the first reporters to be “Tasered.” Not surprisingly, dozens of TV stations nationwide copied WGCL in subsequent weeks.
The CBS news affiliate is a perennial cellar dweller in the ratings.
“People have been watching other stations for a long time, ” Powers said. “They don’t have a reason to turn to us. We have to do something that is so much more to attract them.”
Micah Johnson, WGCL news director, said Powers has always been a “demonstrative” reporter: “We’ve turned him loose here.”
Johnson said he likes stories on topics people think about but have never witnessed. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong taking a very interesting story and pulling people into the TV.”
This style of local news has waxed and waned over the years, said Dick Williams, a news director at WXIA-TV in the 1970s and regular on political talk show “The Georgia Gang” on Fox 5.
It can be effective, he noted, with the right personality.
“Consultants used to call it ‘involvement reporting, ’ ” Williams said. “Fred is the X-Games version.”
Powers is a natural adrenaline seeker. Growing up in Utah, he loved to ski and worked at stations in Salt Lake City, Orange County, Calif., and Phoenix before coming to WGCL in 1997. In Phoenix, he did a few daredevil acts, battling house fires, sky diving and flying a stunt plane.
He said he’s never been seriously injured, but during a demonstration on avoiding dog bites, he did get bitten in the right calf. “It was just a tiny nick, ” he said, but added, “It’s a proud scar.”
Bill Nigut, a former WSB-TV political reporter, said he admires Powers’ “willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause with a cheerful exuberance. And because Channel 46 doesn’t have franchise personalities, I understand why they’re investing in him as one.”
Indeed, WGCL-TV has seen general ratings improvement in the past year with edgier production values and more aggressive marketing, but the station still averages just 12 percent of the viewers that WSB-TV, the ratings leader, typically gets.
Michael Castengera, a University of Georgia broadcast news lecturer, said plenty of news directors sneer at this first-person style of reporting. And of the 20 stations Castengera consults with nationwide (none in Atlanta), only a couple have Powers-type reporters.
“Let’s not pretend this is journalism, ” Castengera said. “This is entertainment. Maybe if we’re very lucky, we give viewers a little insight and thought, too. But more importantly, we give a little enjoyment.”