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OBITUARIES : George Putnam, 1914 - 2008

Longtime L.A. anchor known for voice, style

September 13, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

George Putnam, the pioneer television news anchorman and conservative commentator whose distinctive stentorian voice was a mainstay of Southern California broadcasting for decades, has died. He was 94.

Putnam, who had been suffering from a kidney ailment since December, died early Friday morning at Chino Valley Medical Center, said Chuck Wilder, Putnam's cohost, producer and announcer.

Beginning at KTTV Channel 11 in the early 1950s, Putnam quickly became a dominant and influential force in Los Angeles TV news. The winner of three Emmy Awards, he reportedly at one time was the highest-rated and highest-paid TV news anchor in Los Angeles.

"George Putnam established the template, the prototype of the local news anchorman that everyone came to accept -- the deep voice, the carefully groomed hair, the friendly I'm-talking-directly-to-you-and-no-one-else presentation," Joe Saltzman, a USC journalism professor, said Friday via e-mail.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
George Putnam obituary: The obituary of pioneer Los Angeles television news anchorman George Putnam in Saturday's California section misspelled the name of his daughter Jil as Jill. She and his other surviving daughter, Jan, are Putnam's children with his estranged wife, Virginia.

"He became a friend ('George') to thousands of viewers, and his 'One Reporter's Opinion' was one friend talking directly to another and explaining how he felt about the issues he spoke about on the news," said Saltzman.

Putnam began his broadcast career on a Minneapolis radio station in 1934.

More than 70 years later, he was still at the microphone with his weekday, noon to 2 p.m. "Talk Back With George Putnam" syndicated radio program.

Distinguished career

Putnam did his last regular broadcast May 8 but returned July 14 for a one-hour broadcast marking his 94th birthday, during which he fielded phone calls from well-wishers, including actress Doris Day.

When Putnam was working for NBC in New York City in the early 1940s, influential newspaper columnist Walter Winchell declared that "George Putnam's voice is the greatest in radio."

But it was on television in Los Angeles a decade later that the tall, wavy-haired broadcaster with the rich baritone voice made his biggest mark.

"George was the great communicator, before that title was ever applied to anyone," veteran KTLA-TV reporter Stan Chambers wrote in his 1994 book "News at Ten: Fifty Years With Stan Chambers."

"His vibrant enthusiasm, commanding appearance and booming voice blended to make him a major force in television news," Chambers wrote. "He not only delivered the news, he cared about it and got involved in his stories."

In addition to his three Emmy wins, Putnam was the recipient of six California Associated Press Television and Radio Assn. awards and more than 300 other honors and citations.

On KTTV in the 1950s and early '60s, Putnam would conclude his early evening news broadcast with his signature theatrical flair.

"And that's the up-to-the-minute news, up to the minute, that's all the news," he would say, then add: "Back at 10, see you then!"

Blurred roles

Putnam was criticized by some for stepping beyond the bounds of his role as a reporter and into that of a commentator.

When L.A. County Dist. Atty. William B. McKesson, who had been appointed after Dist. Atty. Ernest Roll's death in 1956, sought election, Putnam said during his news broadcast: "Many of you have asked where I stand in the race for Los Angeles district attorney. I stand for Los Angeles Dist. Atty. William B. McKesson." He then listed his reasons for endorsing the candidate.

Former President Nixon, speaking on videotape during a 1984 roast of Putnam given by KTTV to celebrate his 50th anniversary in broadcasting, said of the outspoken newscaster: "Some people didn't like what he said; some people liked what he said. But everybody listened to George Putnam. That is why he has been one of the most influential commentators of our times."

Despite his reputation as a staunch conservative, Putnam said in a 1994 interview with The Times that he "never thought of myself as a conservative."

"I detest labels," he said. "I've been called many things in my career: right-wing extremist, super-patriot, goose-stepping nationalist, jingoistic SOB. And those are some of the nice things!

"But those people have never bothered to determine my background: Farmer-Labor Party, Socialist Party, lifelong member of the NAACP, member of the Urban League. I went through the Depression, and my father was reduced to selling peanuts door-to-door. Then, because of that, I fell in love with Franklin D. Roosevelt. I've been a lifelong Democrat. I'm a conservative Democrat."

Decades as a broadcaster

Born in Breckenridge, Minn., on July 14, 1914, Putnam landed his first broadcasting job at age 20 on WDGY radio, a 1,000-watt station in Minneapolis. He began by answering the phone and spinning records.

By the late 1930s, he had moved to New York City, where his professional stock rose considerably after columnist Winchell praised the sound of his voice.

"Winchell made my career," Putnam told The Times. "I went from $190 a month at NBC to better than $200,000 a year."

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