Ron Steele: 50 years on the air - and firmly grounded • Iowa Capital Dispatch (2024)

Commentary

Longtime Waterloo TV anchor found balance between career and life

WATERLOO — Ron Steele has been all about the job for 50 years.

He’s also been all about family. It’s why he’s been at KWWL-TV in Waterloo 50 years. He’s been that good that long and found balance and dedication to his work and his family staying in a relatively small TV market.

“The reason I’ve stayed, without question, is my family and the people I’ve worked with,” Steele said.

He’s now the dean of Iowa news anchors. He was hired at NBC-affiliate KWWL as sports director and began work April 1, 1974. He was promoted to anchor in 1979, 45 years ago. He passed Paul Rhoades. longtime anchor at KCCI in Des Moines, in longevity seven years ago. Steele says he knows of just a couple of anchors in the country who have been broadcasting as long and for the same station.

In a high-stress, high-energy profession, he’s learned how to say “no.” With authority.
Not too many journalists would pass up an exclusive interview with a president of the United States.

Steele did. In September 2012, he had a chance to interview President Barack Obama, then seeking reelection. Ron passed. He had plans to take his family to the Iowa Hawkeyes’ opening football game against Northwestern at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“He was a Democrat; I would have turned down any Republican too. Nobody was going to mess with my trip with my family.” Steele said.

Guess what? He got an interview anyway. “At the end of the campaign, on Election Day, President Obama’s office called me and we did a satellite interview with President Obama on Election Day. I always appreciated that.”

He’s also interviewed both Presidents Bush and President Trump.

In addition to anchoring the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, he’s hosted “The Steele Report,” a Sunday morning half hour news and interview show, since 2013.

Steele was born in Washington in southeast Iowa and raised in Wapello, where his family moved when he was six. He loved growing up in a small town and that’s why he and his wife of more than 50 years, Candy, a native of Waterloo, decided to make a home and raise their children in Hudson, a town of about 2,500 10 miles southwest of Waterloo. They have three grown children and eight grandchildren.

“I said to myself, ‘We are not moving our kids while they’re growing up,” Steele said. He and Candy met while students at the University of Iowa. She is the retiredmanager of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, now MercyOne Waterloo.

Broadcasting a lifelong interest

Broadcasting interested him from his youth. “Radio was a big deal to me,” he said. “I used to listen to WLS, an AM radio station out of Chicago.”

He listened to the station’s Top 40 hits radio show every afternoon. “It just got me interested in radio. I was something I wanted to do.”

He went to the University of Iowa to be a coach and a teacher, but on a dormitory bulletin board, he saw a job opening posted or a disc jockey at the campus radio station. “I applied for that job and got it, and it pretty much changed everything for me,” Steele said.

But he had the broadcast bug even before that. “Growing up in Wapello, I carried a tape recorder with me a lot, just to practice on (sports) play by play.”

A neighbor and mother of one of his childhood friends said, ‘“Ronnie, you have got to go into this business. You’re going to be on CBS someday,’” he related. “That also got the wheels turning.”

Also, he said, “We’d have little league baseball games, they’d have a public address announcer, but they would leave in the middle of the game. I would take over an announce the ball games. People would say ‘We really think you did a great job!’ That kind of got me thinking about it even before I went to the University of Iowa,” he said.

KWWL made him wait

After graduation from Iowa, he initially worked for station WOC in Davenport. But on a trip to Waterloo to visit Candy’s family, “Charles Wilson, my late father-in-law, said, ‘Did you hear Mike O’Connor, the sports director at KWWL is going to be leaving the station?’ That just sent me right out the door to the station with my resume cassette tape.

“I came down the station, sat in the lobby for a long time. They finally came out,” he said. “(Station executive) Jim Bradley came out to greet me, took my resume tape, and I never heard a thing for like, three months.

“Finally, Grant Price,” the longtime news director at KWWL and, previously, at WMT in Cedar Rapids, “a guy who was really instrumental in my success in broadcasting, he called me. He said, ‘We’re going to offer you the job.’ I was kind of upset I hadn’t heard from the for three months,” Steele recalled. “I said to my wife ‘I’m not gonna work for these people; they don’t tell you what’s going on; that’s tacky!’”

But wisdom prevailed. ”I took the job; actually took quite a pay cut from Channel 6 to come here as sports director. Grant Price gave me a unique opportunity,” Steele said. “When I started here, I was 24 years old I think I may have been the youngest sports director in the Midwest at the time. Can’t prove that, but it’d be pretty darn close.”

His first assignment was covering a University of Northern Iowa baseball game — for which he used a 16mm Bell & Howell film video camera with no sound. The film had to be processed and edited.

“In those days, editing meant you had to physically cut the film with a splicer and then glue it together and hope that it didn’t break on the air,” he said. “I look back on those days and I literally cannot believe that we ever got anything on the air. But we did.

“One of the main reasons I’m still working today is the technology,” Steele said. “Now I can take that iPhone and shoot any story at the scene and send it back without having to come back to the station. The technology has been an extraordinary difference from the time Grant Price hired me.”

From sports to news

In 1979, when then-longtime KWWL news anchor Tom Petersen left to become news director at WGN radio in Chicago, it was Price and innovative KWWL executive Bill Bolster, later founder of cable network CNBC, who decided to promote Steele to news anchor. Moving sportscasters into newscaster jobs had been tried elsewhere, with varying degrees of success.

“Bill Bolster and Grant Price were very apprehensive about me moving from sports into news,” Steele said. “So Grant came out to Hudson. We had lunch at a place that no longer exists called Mary’s Cafe. It was in the heart of downtown Hudson. We kind of had this clandestine luncheon. And Grant just said to me, ‘Do you really think you can do this? I think you can.’ And that was really what I needed to hear. I thought I could do it. But when I heard him say I could do it, that really said to me, ‘I’m gonna make this move.'”

Before making the move however, Steele and Tony Powers, a sports reporter with WHO television in Des Moines, were the broadcast team on the initial two telecasts of Iowa Hawkeye men’s basketball games over the Iowa Television Network, an initiative of Bolster to air Hawkeye games over NBC affiliate stations and others around the state, with KWWL as the flagship station. It was an overwhelming success on the cusp of cable sports network days, for the stations and the university, and Steele and Powers got to break a major story, announcing the construction of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Switching to news was difficult at first, but, Steele said, “I had established a lot of contacts over the years, just by interviewing people,” and some of that carried over into news, which he kept building upon.

He’s also grateful for the co-anchors he’s worked with over the years, including Liz Mathis, Bobbi Earles, Ann Kerian, Tara Thomas, Amanda Goodman, Abby Turpin and now Elizabeth Klinge, as well as many quality members of the overall news and production staff.

Steele has never been just a “talking head,” but a reporter in the field. “I have a callous on my shoulder from carrying the camera,” he said. “The cameras were heavy. I love being the videographer. I love being the editor,” as well as interviewing and writing, and the technology has made it considerably easier. “We can do anything a WNBC, or a KNBC, or the networks can do right here in this little newsroom at a medium-sized station in Waterloo.”

Major stories included when he and reporter Joel Dickman went to Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, concurrent with the deployment of Waterloo-based Marine Reservists serving in an artillery battery.

The difficult ones, which stay with him emotionally, are the still-unsolved abduction and murder of young Evansdale cousins Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins in 2013; the murders of Waterloo police officers Michael Hoing and Wayne Rice by James Michael “T-Bone” Taylor in 1981; and the 2009 shooting death of Aplington-Parkersburg football coach and community leader Ed Thomas by a former student who had recently been released from psychiatric care.

One of the most rewarding projects Steele was involved in was the “Iowa’s Child” project, working with social service agencies to do feature stories on difficult-to-adopt children in search of a good home. Steele has been able to keep in touch with many of the now-grown children.

The profession in general and the station face many challenges, Steele said. They include a stagnant local population that makes it tough to hire and retain talent; segmented viewership from the proliferation of cable and online information outlets; and the explosion of social media, all of which make a challenge any local station or traditional news operation to retain its audience and integrity with the public.

Despite those challenges, Steele’s received numerous awards and honors from the Iowa Broadcast News Association as well as regional Emmy awards. He’s a member of the Iowa Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.

And he has no definite plans to retire. He survived a health scare in 2017 when he suffered a mild heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. But as a veteran of 10 marathons and a leg of the 1996 Olympic torch run when it passed through Cedar Rapids, he bounced back, with the help of wife Candy with her cardiac rehabilitation background. And he still maintains a workout regimen.

“They said, ‘What we’ve done, Ron, is given you a new heart and a 20-year warranty, How can you argue with that?” Steele said. “So far, as we speak, it’s going good.”

He jokes he may enter the transfer portal and inform Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz he has some athletic eligibility left.

Home is where you make it, Steele says, and he doesn’t regret where he and his family made theirs.
“The Cedar Valley’s a fantastic place. We love it here,” he said. “You can take any situation and make it good, or bad, depending on your attitude. My attitude has always been, let’s take advantage of what we do have, not dwell on what we don’t have. When you take that attitude, you find out it’s a pretty great place to raise your kids and stay for a very long time.”

Patrick Kinney’s blog,View from the Cedar Valley, is on Substack.This column is republished through theIowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and the authors’ blogs to support their work.

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Ron Steele: 50 years on the air - and firmly grounded • Iowa Capital Dispatch (2024)
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