Originally posted Friday, March 8, 2019 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Dick Williams said he only felt like choking up twice during the final taping of Fox 5’s “The Georgia Gang” Friday but managed to keep his cool.
“The real emotional part was the torrent of messages on my phone after you posted the news,” Williams said to me in an interview in the HR office afterwards, holding a manila envelope with his contract and departure papers along with a going-away poster. “It really got to me.”
Over 36 years, Williams has taped more than 1,700 of these weekly discussions of local politics and policy in metro Atlanta, reaching back to the missing and murdered children cases in the early 1980s. He has parsed over every major City Hall scandal, pontificated on the tenures of six mayors, assessed the coming and going of the Olympics, picked apart downtown development, multiple stadiums and growth of the suburbs and watched Georgia’s congressional shift from Democrat to Republican.
This week on the show which will air at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, the Gang focused on the potential state take-over of the airport and the growing mayoral corruption case. But it also spent a good portion of its 30 minutes feting Williams and his time on the show through three networks and many opinionated panelists.
“I’m proud that this program stayed on the air 36 years,” Williams said. “That’s pretty remarkable. I’m always gratified by the sheer number of people who watch the show and engage in it across all walks of life and income levels. It’s amazing.”
Williams has had an unusual 53-year- career that featured TV, radio and print. He first worked under CBS News president Fred Friendly and wrote copy for the likes of Harry Reasoner, Charles Osgood and Pat Summerall.
He later moved to TV in Albany, N.Y. (great news town, not a great place to be single at the time, he noted). There, be came the union shop steward, he said, in part because everyone else was married and didn’t want to do it.
Williams was so good at his job, management noticed and hired him to become news director at a station in New Haven, CT. at age 26. “There, I broke the union,” he said, bemused, well aware of the irony. He later worked in Baltimore and Miami before venturing to Atlanta in 1976.
There, he first was in TV but he said he didn’t care for local TV and convinced AJC editor Jim Minter to give him a job. Williams was first an investigative reporter and a city editor before becoming a columnist for the Atlanta Journal for many years. He did a radio show with liberal Tom Houck on WGST in the 1980s. He also purchased the Dunwoody Crier in 1996.
But in many ways, “The Georgia Gang” was his true baby, a job he committed to longer than anything else.
“What amazes me is how Dick can synthesize what happens in a week into some sort of sensible narrative,” said Alexis Scott, a “Georgia Gang” panelist since 2002, a former AJC reporter and editor, Cox executive and later publisher of her family paper The Daily World.
Here are some random bits from the hour-long conversation, which also included his panelists buds Scott, Lori Geary (who will take over as host) and Phil Kent. (Tharon Johnson had to run right after taping but texted me this: “I will remain committed to factually debating controversial topics with a sense of political humor and make sure I wear a bow tie every now and then.”)
Why the bow tie? “Black folks couldn’t tell me and [former panelist] Rick Allen apart,” Williams said.
Will Williams still watch the show? Of course. But he said he will keep his opinions to himself. And he is open to subbing if need be. “They’re going to do what they need to do and put their own stamp on it,” Williams said.
How will Geary handle hosting duties: “We’ll have the opportunity to add more video and add more sound, to make it a little faster,” said Geary.
But Geary is no political extremist: “Sometimes I agree with Tharon and Alexis. Sometimes I agree with Phil.” Scott adds: “I can’t figure out where she is.”
The early days when it was “Sunday News Conference” on WSB-TV: Creative Loafing would make fun of the show by doing a weekly cartoon called “Men in Chairs” where the panelists pointed pens and pencils at each other, Williams said with a chuckle. “I wish I had saved one of those!” he said.
How Kent got to know Williams: “I was editorial page editor at the August Chronicle and got a call from Dick Williams,” Kent said. Williams: “Conservatives are so rare in newsrooms. I wanted to form a consortium of conservative from around the state to bounce ideas off each other. The first one I reached out to was Phil. We became fast phone friends.” Kent would guest on “The Georgia Gang” occasionally, then after he moved to Atlanta was eventually placed on the panel, replacing Rick Allen.
Ties to Bill Clinton: Williams went to Georgetown as an undergrad at the same time as Clinton. To get his Rhodes Scholarship, the future president needed some sort of athletic mark on his resume, but he was not an athlete. Williams recommended Clinton take over his position as chairman of the Student Athletic Commission. That was close enough apparently and Clinton got his scholarship.
Williams said despite their political differences, they have remained friends to this day. (He even moderated a 1992 Democratic primary debate with Clinton at the Carter Center.) “Our connections are mostly personal, not political,” he said.
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