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Van Amburg, legendary KGO-TV anchor, dead at 86

‘THIS JUST IN’ – Legendary Channel 7 anchor Van Amburg reports on the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.

If you lived in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 80s, you knew the name Van Amburg. He was the controversial, often sensationalistic king of local TV news.

Van Amburg — whose first name was Fred, though he rarely used it on the air — died June 22 at age 86 at his home in El Cerrito with is family at his side, according to his former station, KGO-TV Channel 7.

He took the helm at Channel 7 in 1969 when the station was in last place and local TV news was nothing more than an announcer reading a script. Newscasts were seen as dull public service programs stations did to satisfy the FCC.

Van Amburg revolutionized local TV news, taking Channel 7 to the top, attracting more viewers than the other stations combined.

He was paid handsomely too — over $1 million a year.

Van Amburg ushered into television a new style of local news, emphasizing fire, crime, sex, tear-jerkers, animal stories and an obsession with the occult. National and international news didn’t get much air time.

“He desperately wanted the viewers to believe that the little guy needed a voice, and Van set out to be that voice,” the late KPIX Channel 5 anchor Dave McElhatton said in 1990. “He wasn’t afraid to take a stand. He delighted in taking on cults, terrorists, anyone he thought was taking advantage of the little guy.”

Van Amburg and co-anchors Jerry Jensen, weatherman Pete Giddings and sportscaster John O’Reilly dressed up in cowboy gear, climbed on horses and filmed a promo that depicted them as the “KGO Cowboys.” Van Amburg, the champion of the little guy, wore the white hat, of course.

The cowboys promo became a classic and it is believed to have inspired a scene in the 2004 Will Ferrell movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” where competing San Diego news teams get into a back alley brawl.

One reason for Van Amburg’s success is that he pioneered something that became known as “happy talk,” light banter woven into the serious news of the day in order to humanize a newscast. He’d kid with his co-anchor about a story he just read or razz his weatherman over his neck tie.

Happy talk took off. Just about every station in the country copied the idea, and it’s still apart of TV news today.

KGO’s ratings were so extraordinary that in 1974 CBS sent Mike Wallace to San Francisco to do a “60 Minutes” piece on Van Amburg and the KGO news phenomena.

Wallace said KGO’s 11 p.m. newscast was like vaudeville. Wallace grilled Van Amburg over a story he did one night about a severed penis found on what is now the Caltrain tracks. Wallace asked him if that wasn’t just a ploy to get ratings. Van Amburg, with a straight face, said that somebody was the victim of that attack, and Channel 7 needed to report it.

“We didn’t just cut that thing off and put it out there,” Van Amburg retorted.

Van Amburg covered the big local stories of that era — the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Jonestown massacre, the assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone and the Zodiac murders.

Behind the scenes, Van Amburg feuded with management. They reportedly wanted him to tone down his crusader image. In 1986, KGO decided not to renew his contract. That was the last viewers would see of him. He never worked in the news business again. (Story by Dave Price, Press Club secretary)

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