Extremely longtime news anchor Bill Balleza is calling it quits after 39 years at Channel 2, 46 years in Houston, and 49 total years in news broadcasting. I will speak personally here: Bill Balleza is one of the genuinely fine people and legit news journalists that I’ve covered in Houston.
Something you might not know, he’s wickedly funny off-camera. So here are five serious questions for Balleza, then I’ll give you an off-camera story about him (and me).
CultureMap: What was your single favorite day as a broadcaster?
Bill Balleza: I was working on the floor crew behind one of those big studio cameras while I was in college. In those days a studio announcer sat in a small booth and tagged out commercials and read public service announcements. One night the studio announcer got sick at dinner and the program director pressed me into service.
It was my first time ever on the air. All my family in San Antonio was listening as I said, ‘Sale good through Thursday at your neighborhood H-E-B.’ I also did ‘Joske’s of Texas, by the Alamo. Open tonight ‘til 9.’ That was my favorite day.
CM: How did you get into broadcasting?
BB: I had no idea what I was going to be. I told the college guidance counselor that I wanted to major in something that required as little math as possible. She said, ‘Broadcasting has no math requirement.’ I told her to sign me up.
CM: Is TV news better or worse than 25 years ago?
BB: TV news has come full circle. When I started, a reporter shot film, wrote the script, and edited the pictures. They called us, ‘a one man band.’ We’re back to that again 50 years later only now they call us, ‘a multi-media journalist.’
The reason is that TV news revenues have been siphoned off by cable, the Internet, Spanish language television, and a rapidly declining TV news audience. We used to win the 10 pm news with a 17 rating. Now we win with a 1.9 rating. The television news platform is slowly dying.
CM: You’re retiring with 49 years in the business? Why couldn’t you use comp days, sick leave and vacation to reach 50 years?
BB: I wanted to make it to 50 years in 2021 but Dave Ward informed me there was room in this town for only one 50-year broadcast career. He said I should settle for 49 or ‘I’ll kick your ass.’
This frightened me after learning from reading his book that he had spent six weeks in the U.S. Navy. He had a sore on his butt they couldn’t figure out how to cure so they discharged him. That’s a true story.
CM: What will you miss most about TV news, and don’t say “my talented co-workers.” Be specific.
BB: I will miss the day-to-day of challenge of meeting sometimes impossible deadlines, virtually disappearing on the news set when Dominique shows up with a new hairdo, and traveling long distances on stories in coach with three stops each way and sharing a hotel room with my photographer.
Now for my story about Bill Balleza that says a lot about the both of us.
About 20 years ago, Balleza and I went to the same fertility treatment center. During the process, guys must go to a special office to deposit a sperm sample. They assign you a private room, you take matters into hand, and leave a cup with the receptionist. You must do this a few times.
I was embarrassed to visit this office. I wore a hat pulled down, sunglasses, and a sweatshirt with a high collar. I would have worn a sombrero and Groucho glasses and nose if it didn’t draw attention. On the sign-up chart, I wrote fake names like James Bond, Cosmo Kramer, etc. I checked other names on the sheet, there were other obviously phony names.
Except two lines above me … “Bill Balleza,” practically in capital letters with a Magic Marker. I know he’s on TV, but even here?
I asked Balleza if I could tell that story, and why did he use his real name on the sperm sample signup sheet?
Balleza: “I used my own name at the fertility clinic because I didn’t want to end up having my wife inadvertently impregnated with 007’s swimmers.”