By Mark Brown
(WINDSOR, ON) – When I was in grade school, growing up just south of Detroit, we had an assignment in English class on interviewing. One of the questions on the assignment asked which famous person would I like to interview. There was only one person that came to my mind, and still does after all these years.
Bonds, the former anchorman at WXYZ-TV, Channel 7, in Detroit, died of a heart attack December 13, 2014, at the age of 82. When I heard the news, my mind went back to that day in grade school, and some of the questions that I wanted to ask him, but never got a chance to.
Bonds ruled television news in Detroit during a career that spanned four decades. He forever changed the way the news was presented, and was the TV personality with whom the common man certainly identified.
Bonds was the ultimate Detroiter. He had a personality that matched the Motor City; tough, compassionate, never-say-die.
Raised on the city’s east side, he was, by his own account, not a very good student, preferring instead to goof off with his buddies. But, he always knew that he wanted to be a journalist.
Graduating from the University of Detroit Mercy, he worked for several Detroit-area radio stations, most notably at WKNR-AM (1310), or what was known as Keener 13. The station was known for its just-the-facts style of news presentation, unlike the blood-and-guts style of reporting from its Top 40 rival, CKLW-AM (800), in Windsor.
But Bonds thought he had more to offer, and he claimed he didn’t have a great radio voice, so he set his sights on television.
He unsuccessfully auditioned several times for Detroit’s TV stations, but Channel 7 took notice after Bonds covered a tornado in Macomb County for radio. Bonds interviewed victims, the governor, and others, then climbed a telephone pole with his tape recorder, and hooked it to the wires with alligator clips, feeding his stories back to the station.
WXYZ hired him soon after that, at a time when the station’s news division was a laughingstock. But management saw something in Bonds and began to build a team with him. Channel 7 began to gain credibility.
When Detroit exploded in insurrection in the summer of 1967, WXYZ covered the story wall-to-wall, and things just went up from there, for Bonds. By 1973, with Bonds as anchor, Channel 7 was number one.
ABC owned WXYZ, at the time, and they had Bonds working for their stations outside of Detroit; briefly for KABC-TV in Los Angeles and WABC-TV in New York. But Bonds would always end up back in Detroit.
People tuned in because of the way he presented the news. Before TelePrompters became commonplace, Bonds believed viewers would trust an anchor that looked them in the eye, so he made eye contact important. He certainly had no problem inserting his own opinion into some of the stories he covered and, for that reason, he became both the most loved and hated personality in Detroit television.
Bonds strove to make sure his A-game was on, and he made sure everyone he worked with was as well. If you were a reporter doing a live shot, you’d better know your story inside and out because, if Bonds asked you a question and you couldn’t answer, you looked like an idiot.
He’d cajole producers, writers, reporters, and crew members. There’s a clip on YouTube showing Bonds throwing a profanity-laced tirade over a poorly-written script for a newscast promo.
One newscast I watched when I was younger had Bonds suddenly stop speaking and bark, “Let’s go, prompter!”
As tough as Bonds was on others, he was certainly the toughest on himself.
His battles with alcoholism were very public and he battled the bottle on and off for over 20 years. The death of a daughter in a drunk-driving accident in the 1980s didn’t help matters, either. He went to rehab several times, once after he challenged Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to a boxing match on live TV. Bonds later apologized to the mayor during a visit to his office.
It was a very public drunk-driving arrest that cost Bonds his job in 1995, but he would later return to the station to do commentaries and host specials.
Despite all the demons Bonds faced, there was no question that he was the most dominant news anchor in Detroit. Why? Because he asked the questions that we wanted asked. He held newsmakers accountable for their actions and called them out on their BS. He was, you could say, the last of Detroit’s old-school newsmen.
I was an assignment desk intern at Channel 7 in the fall of 1996; my last semester pursuing a communications degree at Wayne State University. Bonds was gone by then, which was unfortunate. Although I would have found him intimidating, I would have loved to ask him some of those questions, from my assignment in English class, so many years ago. Questions like: What made you want to go into television? Or, What was the most difficult story you had to cover?
Bill Bonds; a newsman with the personality of the city he covered and loved.
We will never see the likes of him again and local TV news won’t ever be the same.