NEW YORK — Spending 20 years in a bus might not be everybody's idea of a great time, but to Charles Kuralt it's "about the best job in television."
"The freedom of it is what's so nice," the CBS "On the Road" correspondent said in an interview. "There have been no assignments in all these years. They just let me go and find the stories myself. They literally don't know where I am during the week. I'm just wandering."
After all those segments Kuralt has done out there in small-town U.S.A., it's almost startling to see him framed against the Manhattan skyline in his office at CBS.
Indeed, Kuralt was antsy to get back to Dallas where the bus was waiting for him.
But someone at CBS had noticed it had been 20 years since the first "On the Road," so he was in New York putting together a retrospective of the touching, funny and inspiring stories of "jus' folks" that have made him a broadcasting institution.
"20 Years on the Road With Charles Kuralt" airs Wednesday night on CBS (8-9 p.m., Channels 2 and 8).
Kuralt said picking the best of the segments for the one-hour special was "maddening."
"I wish we had two or three hours," he said. "I think the result will be lovely, but I'm going to carry around a great regret at all the stories we have to leave out, and all the good people we're not going to be able to mention."
He had already decided to include "Coming Home," the story of the Chandlers, poor, black, Mississippi sharecroppers whose nine children all went to college and got good jobs. All came home for Thanksgiving, and Kuralt and his crew captured a touching moment out of an American dream-come-true.
Another that had to be included was "The North Platte Canteen," a reminiscence by residents of the Nebraska community where every World War II troop train that passed by was met with coffee, baked goods and the town's good wishes. More than 40 years later, the citizens still hear from former soldiers who remember.
Also included is "Small Towns," an interview with Douglas Duncan, the editor of the local paper in Shelton, Neb., who recites his wry observations of life in a small town: "You know you're in a small town when . . . " For instance, "You know you're in a small town when Third Street is on the edge of town."
Kuralt said he started "On the Road" 20 years ago thinking of it as a three-month project that would get him away from the competitive, deadline-oriented reporting that he didn't like anymore after 10 years in the business. The idea for "On the Road" came from his days as a cub reporter at his hometown newspaper in Charlotte, N.C.
"When I was there as a kid, I wrote a little column, a little bit like 'On the Road'--'People.' 'People' was a little bit more original title for a column in 1955 than it is today. And it was just the same," Kuralt said. "It was about people who weren't well-known. Cops and cab drivers and kids, folks around town. And I'd always thought that might translate to television."
It did. Except for a stint as anchor of the "CBS Morning News" and a continuing job as host of "CBS Sunday Morning," Kuralt has spent most of the last two decades "On the Road."
Once his pieces began appearing on television, viewers started sending in story suggestions. But many stories he would just stumble on, he said.
"The secret is you mustn't be on a deadline," Kuralt said. "It's hard if you're used to covering news, because you're used to being in a hurry all the time. But you just have to force yourself to go slow and not have to get to Omaha tonight. Don't make plans. Don't figure out where you're going to be tonight. Because if you're not careful, you drive right past terrific stories."
After 20 years, he said, even the people way off the main road know who he is. In fact, Kuralt said, "It's almost as if they're expecting us to show up. They don't register much surprise. They're sometimes sort of pleased that CBS has found its way to their small town, but they know it's an interesting place, so they're not so surprised that we're there."
However, at a press lunch last week in New York, Kuralt mentioned that sometimes expected compliments don't materialize. He recalled arriving in one town, seeing a woman all full of smiles and expecting kind words when he opened the door of the bus. Instead, she said, "I'd like a couple of loaves of rye today."
"We've been mistaken for the bread truck, the book-mobile, the mobile X-ray unit," he said. But that's OK with him. It helps keep things in perspective.
Asked what kind of stories he likes best, he replied: "The ones that give me a lump in my throat . . . the ones about people who succeed against the odds . . . the outrageous, eccentric ones that suggest something about the character of the country and its people."
Kuralt was also questioned about economic conditions at CBS and whether the many cutbacks at the network had affected "On the Road."
"We're not a high budget item," he responded. "If there was the slightest cutback, we would cease to exist."