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Week of 14 December 2001 · Vol. V, No. 17


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"Rock the boat," Bill O'Reilly tells students at COM

By Brian Fitzgerald

"Caution: you are about to enter a no-spin zone," said Brent Baker when he introduced talk show host Bill O'Reilly on December 7.

  Alum Bill O'Reilly receives COM's Distinguished Alumni Award from Danielle Bellini (COM'02), who interned on his show during the summer of 2000. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The College of Communication dean was repeating the line that opens the top-rated television show The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, but those attending O'Reilly's talk at COM really didn't need the warning. They knew of his reputation for controversy and for a conservative point of view -- although he proclaims his independence from all partisan agendas and defends his frequent hammering of liberals as "straight talk."

Friday afternoon, however, O'Reilly (COM'75) was at COM not to air his opinions on world events. After all, this is what he does every night, and he pretty much stayed away from the pressing issues of the day until the question-and-answer session at the end. Instead, he discussed his career path, which he said is not for everyone. Indeed, few COM graduates will end up signing a television contract for $20 million, but along with his humorous stories about his rise to success, O'Reilly did have some sound advice for those entering the cutthroat world of television journalism: "If you're honest and you work hard, things will happen."

O'Reilly also accepted a COM Distinguished Alumni Award, presented by broadcast journalism major Danielle Bellini (COM'02), who worked for The O'Reilly Factor as an intern in the summer of 2000. "You were raised in an American icon: Levittown," said Bellini, referring to his working-class upbringing in the famous Long Island suburb. "Now you are an icon."
So how does one rise from humble beginnings to become a nationally known broadcast journalist? O'Reilly wasn't exactly brimming with confidence when he graduated with a master's degree from COM. "Twenty-seven years ago at this precise time," he said, "I was in this building saying, 'What the hell am I going to do?' " This was during an economic recession, and his mailbox wasn't crammed with job offers.

O'Reilly soon found a job at WNEP-TV, a small television station in Scranton, Pa. He immediately discovered, however, that after he paid his $200-a-month rent, his $150-a-week salary (before taxes) left him little cash for meals. "I said, 'I can't eat. You've got to pay me a little more, or I'll die.' I was a 'no-spin' guy even then," said O'Reilly. So the station gave him extra pay to write commercial segues for Uncle Ted's Monster Fest, the station's late-night Saturday horror movie. During commercial breaks, Uncle Ted, dressed as a vampire, would emerge from a coffin and announce the movie sponsor. O'Reilly recalled that Uncle Ted, usually "blasted out of his mind and taking chemicals you've never even heard of," was also claustrophobic. One Saturday, the television crew thought it would be funny to lock the coffin. Terrified, Uncle Ted pounded from the inside and unleashed a flurry of profanity on live television before the station quickly cut back to the movie, Plan Nine from Outer Space. Uncle Ted then sued the station. "That was my beginning," O'Reilly said to the laughter of the audience. "The nine months I was in Scranton were the longest nine months of my life."

But O'Reilly was doing more than writing scripts for a drunken TV vampire. He was also building a relationship with ABC in New York by sending the network weekly feeds of quirky local news features, many of which were aired nationally. "They were stories such as a woman going crazy trying to get a bat out of her cellar -- that sort of thing," said O'Reilly. "But the network loved it, and the station loved the publicity."

He knew that the key to success was "figuring out how to do the job better than they expected me to do it," he said. "All it took was a little thought -- how to get attention in the middle of nowhere."

He then landed a job at WFAA-TV in Dallas, where he won a Dallas Press Club Award for excellence in investigative reporting. "I went from a station that was the 80th largest in the market to one that was 10th," he recalled. "It was a huge move." Next it was on to Denver's KMGH-TV and an Emmy for his coverage of a skyjacking. After two years, he joined WCBS-TV in New York City, where he picked up a second Emmy for an investigation of corrupt city marshals. He was then promoted to the CBS national network, reporting on the wars in El Salvador and the Falkland Islands from his base in Buenos Aires.

O'Reilly's career as an anchor began at the CBS and ABC affiliates in Boston, and continued at KATU-TV in Portland, Ore., before he joined ABC News as a correspondent in 1986. In February 1989, he took over for David Frost as the anchor of the nationally syndicated program Inside Edition. In early 1995 he was accepted at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. After receiving an M.A. in public policy in the spring of 1996, he became the executive producer and anchor of The O'Reilly Factor on the new Fox News Channel.

The show, which Brent Baker pointed out is "knocking the socks off CNN and Larry King Live," is successful because most news networks are too timid to hire someone with a flamboyant or outspoken personality, said O'Reilly. He told the audience, many of whom were COM students, that "you can get away with being an individualist if you have something to market."

And O'Reilly, who reportedly has an image of Hillary Clinton's face on his office doormat, markets his outspokenness and his in-your-face style. "Networks are afraid to rock the boat," he said. But at The O'Reilly Factor, "we like to rock the boat. In fact, we like to sink the boat."


14 December 2001
Boston University
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