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Part newsman, part storyteller, all heart

September 29, 2006|Joseph Saltzman | Special to The Times

It is safe to say that television news will never see the likes of Ralph Story again.

The veteran radio and television personality who died of emphysema at 86 on Tuesday in Santa Ynez could take any news story and turn it into a pithy comment on humankind, using all the tools usually associated with such print humorists as Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman or James Thurber. His commentaries were filled with humor, pathos and irony along with the understanding that human beings are capable of making enormous mistakes in judgment and in action. He could be devastating in his critique, but the audience never minded because Story was like a member of the family, albeit a smart one. They knew that what he was saying was never mean-spirited.

Story was lucky he met Dan Gingold at Channel 2 in the early 1960s. Gingold immediately saw that he was the ideal host for a weekly TV magazine show Gingold had conceived -- a show that would look at Los Angeles, historically and currently, in amusing, critical and often outrageous ways. Gingold hired two of the best writers in television -- Jere Witter and Nate Kaplan -- to work with Story (whose main job was appearing on "The Big News"), and "Ralph Story's Los Angeles" was born. It was an immediate hit, and was so beloved that the station broadcast it twice a week. It became so popular that a local comic once said that he never worried about Los Angeles because, after all, it wasn't his town, it was "Ralph Story's Los Angeles."

It is hard to explain today, when the television audience is so fragmented, how popular "Ralph Story's Los Angeles" and "The Big News" with Story's "Human Predicament" segment were 40 years ago. For a young print journalist finding himself in TV for the first time, it was a heady experience to go anywhere in Southern California and say, "We're from 'Ralph Story's Los Angeles' " and be treated as if royalty had just arrived. All that would change in the 1970s when the news media would lose the trust and loyal following that newsmen such as Story had built up during the 1960s.

Story was the last great storyteller in Los Angeles television news. There doesn't seem to be a place anymore for an articulate, intelligent commentator whose sense of irony could turn any news event into a fable for our times.

He came into television news in a different time when subtlety was cherished, when there was time to reflect about the world in which we live without worrying about the latest car chase or celebrity sighting, when words carefully written and articulated had meaning and substance, when an honest man could look into the camera and talk to the audience about what he thought without worrying about fast cuts and live remotes.

In an age when local television news is filled with verbal babble and detailed coverage of the most trivial of events, there doesn't seem to be a place for a Ralph Story anymore. And that is a great loss, not just for television news, but for all of us.

Joseph Saltzman is professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center ( He worked on "Ralph Story's Los Angeles" from 1964 to 1970.

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