Each of us have our memories of Billy B., the man who always added a “Y” to your name and understood the Detroit psyche, perhaps better than any journalist ever has. He was the consummate pro, one of the best in the business. He also had his demons. The pressure of being the best in the white hot environment of major market television took it’s toll and in the days before we understood these things as well as we do now, he medicated the uncertainties that always haunt great talent with alcohol. He was competitive and could be vain. But his love for his audience was real. In times of turmoil, we always turned to Bill Bonds.
And Bill Bond’s story begins at WKNR. He was part of Philip Nye‘s Contact News dream team, not averse to climbing a telephone pole with a lineman’s headset to file the story if a payphone were not nearby. He grew up here, earned a degree that didn’t focus on journalism, but taught him how to tell a story. And he could look at through the camera’s cold, dark glass eye and see who was on the other side. Like WKNR, Bill Bonds “knew Detroit”.
Keener13.com co-founder, Steve Schram knew about Bill’s, “amazing talent and intellect, and the punishing demons that haunted his life,” first hand. Bill worked with Steve for a time when both were with WJBK.
“Bill would speak about himself in the third person,” Steve remembers, “describing how good he was going to be that night on the newscast.” That was one of the many facets of this complicated man.
Steve was also with Bill at his family’s table in 2010, when he was honored by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters with their Hall of Fame award. “He was introspective and brilliant that night as he gave his remarks. When he sat back down at the table, I complimented him on his talk. He looked at me with appreciation, but also with a plaintive reflection, saying ‘I just wish I was doing the news again…'”
“Bill was bigger than life,” noted Dick Purtan, another WKNR alumnus, “but infinitely human. He was a rock star…but the glint in his eye always let you know that he KNEW it was a role he was playing. He was smart, funny, combative, kind, bombastic, pompous, self-deprecating and immensely talented…all at the same time.”
Another broadcast journalist who knew Bill well was Vince Wade. Channel 2’s legendary investigative reporter shared this remembrance.
I had the unique and memorable experience of working with Bill Bonds for many years. In the 70s at the height of Bill’s ratings success a Channel 7 news producer made a savvy observation; if you buy his act, the producer said, Bill is the best in the business at what he does. Indeed he was.
Detroit bought Bill’s act for a long time. My theory is thousands of Detroit factory rats, as many auto workers described themselves, identified with Bill’s on-air antics. They knew if they had a bully pulpit like Bill that they, too, would wear expensive but often garish clothes, that they, too, would spout off about the news just as they heard Bill doing. In his ad-libbed comments Bonds was doing what they did so many nights at some watering hole where they were having an end-of-shift shot and a shell (liquor with a beer chaser) while watching the news on the TV screen above the bar. Bill was one of them.
Bombastic Billy was smart and well-read. He knew what he was talking about. One night in the 70s during a national political convention ABC News decided to cut away for local news an hour early. Channel 7’s late-news producer didn’t get the message. Suddenly, with three minutes’ warning, ABC anchor Howard K. Smith said they would be cutting away for local news. The Channel 7 newsroom was in total panic. The anchors raced to the studio. The newscast elements were not ready. As Bill put his mic on he said, “I have no scripts. I have no rundown (of the sequence of stories).” The floor director signaled he was now live. Bill said good evening and ad-libbed for two or three minutes while the staff scrambled to get scripts to the anchors and film clips in the projectors. At home, the audience probably thought Bill was ad-libbing just a little more than usual. Bonds was so keen on the business of news that he could tell the audience the news without a script. Very few news anchors then or now could do what Bill did that night.
Bill fought the demons of alcoholism his entire life. He lived his own private hell over the death of his daughter in a collision with a drunk driver. One time we shared a camera crew in Europe for separate assignments and late at night I would hear Bill in the next room loudly chastising himself over his daughter’s death while he paced the room in drunken agony.
There will be many stories told this week about Bill Bonds. But none of them will capture his uniqueness as a communicator. None of the tales will capture his magnetism, his ability to reach through the camera and grab you by your lapels and say, ‘Listen to me. This is news you need to know.’
Bill Bonds was one of a kind. He brought context to the world around us, often adding his own analysis of the whys and hows. He, like we, were imperfect. That was part of his appeal. But his ability to tell us a story was and is unmatched. A man perfectly suited for his time, who will be forever connected with the story of our lives.