Whatever did happen to Spencer Christian exactly?
He had been a key member of the "Good Morning America's" on-air team that toppled "The Today Show" for the first time in TV history in 1995, and before that, a hybrid sports/ weather anchor for WABC/7's "Eyewitness News."
Then, in 1999, Christian disappeared from the New York airwaves.
But just from New York: For the past 22 years, he has been the meteorologist for ABCs San Francisco station, KGO. Nice gig, but a comedown from the ones he'd held for decades before.
Christian is 74 now, and while the years have mostly treated him well, fate — or his own once-abiding character flaw — seemed to have other plans for him.
He grew up poor in Jim Crow rural Virginia (Charles City County), and after graduation from the historically Black college, Hampton University, became an on-air reporter at Richmond's WWBT before jumping to Baltimore's WBAL (Sue Simmons was there at the time). After scarcely a year, ABC sought him out as a replacement for Ch. 7's incumbent weather forecaster, Tex Antoine. Storm Field got the job instead because Christian couldn't get out of his WBAL contract.
He would join Ch. 7 in 1977, where he'd become a rare hydra-headed anchorman — weather at 5 p.m., then sports at 6 and 11.
With the move to "GMA" in 1986, "weather anchor" was his official job title, but Christian did so much more — reporting, personality profiles, and endless on-air banter with his co-hosts, Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden.
During this rapid rise, Christian also tapped a talent for gambling. He became so skillful — or profligate — that he won huge sums before losing even larger ones. Unbeknown to viewers if not colleagues, Christian spent three decades frantically chasing those losses. The IRS foreclosed on his home. The FBI investigated him for money laundering. He declared bankruptcy. He finally quit gambling for good in 2013, then wrote a scathing confessional about his self-inflicted wounds.
Christian — who will retire from TV next year after a half-century run — recently spoke with Newsday.
It's been years since I've seen you, but — as Gandalf said to Bilbo Baggins (in "Lord of the Rings") — you haven't aged a day. Do you have a secret ring, too?
You know, it's crazy, especially after all the abuse [and] sleep deprivation, but I've always tried to take care of my health. I've been a supplements and vitamin nut for about 40 years, and I still exercise. [Laughs] And maybe there is something to that old line about black skin not cracking.
What are your most cherished memories from growing up? Any scars?
As corny as this may sound, the family time memories are the most cherished. I had two wonderfully supportive, loving, encouraging parents who gave me an understanding at a very early age that there would be forces outside the home that wouldn't treat me so kindly, but they didn't teach me to fear the larger world.
What was it like there?
There was no industry at all — no jobs to be had in Charles City county because it was totally rural … My mom [Lucy] was a homemaker. She never had a driver's license and we had only one car that my dad [Spencer, Sr.] drove 60 miles away to work in the Newport News shipyard.
I read somewhere that you were such a good ballplayer that you could have gone pro?
I was a good hitter [with] a high batting average, but my overall skills were just adequate and I was an average defensive player [and] didn't have great speed.
What did you study at Hampton?
I declared math as my major in my freshman year, but I changed my major to English before my sophomore year — I was one of those high school kids with a weird brain, an equal aptitude with math and language skills. I graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in journalism. I declared as a math major because I was one of those high school kids with a weird brain — an equal aptitude with math and language skills. I had no idea I’d have a career in broadcast journalism.
After graduation, you end up at the Stony Brook School on Long Island of all places?
My first year out of college, 1970, I went looking for a job in the news media, but was approached by the headmaster [whom] I told that teaching was not my long term career goal. At the end of the year, I got my first job in broadcast journalism.
As only the third Black on-air person at Richmond's WBBT, did you encounter discrimination as a reporter?
I didn't encounter any direct insults or verbal attacks, but [while covering] a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals landmark school desegregation case, with angry white parents out there marching, saying 'you'll never integrate our schools,' one day a marcher recognized me and said 'Oh, hi Spencer!' then went right on with the march. Somehow my little slice of celebrity superseded this person's racist feelings.
How did you become the station meteorologist?
Like a scene out of a movie. I was in the newsroom one afternoon, preparing a story, when the news director said, ' our weather forecaster of the last 17 years just quit …' It wasn't a role I wanted because I still thought of myself as a journalist.
Nevertheless, WBAL next came calling, then Ch. 7. Weather was obviously the ticket.
I was almost in a state of shock when I was contacted [by Ch. 7] and did have mixed feelings when I first arrived. I was going to be working with these legendary local news figures, Bill Beutel and Roger Grimsby, whom I'd admired over the years [then] on my first day on the job, Grimsby came up to me and welcomed me warmly — and Roger wasn't always known for warmth [laughs]. Right away, the butterflies went away …
You did both weather and sports. How did that happen?
Warner [Wolf] and I had this amazing on-air chemistry [and] he would frequently try to stump me on a sports trivia question which let the audience know I was a big sports nut too. When he left in 1981 [for WCBS/2], the station general manager asked if I wanted to do sports too, so over the next five years I became more widely known as a sportscaster then meteorologist. It was the beginning of an ongoing identity crisis. [Mostly] I saw myself as a utility player [but] preferred sports because there was more substance to it.
Why did you leave for 'GMA' — and, initially, at reduced pay?
The show had offered me this expanded role that I think no other weather person on a national morning show had ever had, and that was really exciting for me.
After Bryant Gumbel, you became the most visible African American on morning television — to an extent, on all of television news. Bryant had faced racism. Had you?
My perception by viewers was probably that as someone nonthreatening; you know, I wasn't the Angry Black man but the Black guy who was going to be your friend. In many remotes, I went to these little towns where they'd never seen a person of color before, but I think my presence and the way I went about doing my job on those assignments delivered an unspoken message to people that might have opened up a few minds. I did see myself as sort of an ambassador — someone who would help deliver an unspoken message about acceptance.
What was the secret to "GMA's" success over those years?
Charlie was the scholarly Princeton guy, but lovable, a little bit square, in a sweet way, and Joan was the ultimate mom — also lovable — then I was the provocateur, whose humor was a little bit edgy.
By 1998, ratings began to curdle at "GMA." What happened?
What happened is Disney bought ABC from Cap Cities. Some of those brilliant Cap Cities executives were — I wouldn't say pushed out to pasture- but their roles were diminished, and the new people who ran ABC News after 1996 wanted to put their stamp on the show by trying to fix something that wasn't broken.
Your role was also diminished. Why?
Frankly I don't know the answer to that because no one ever said to me 'here's why we're doing this.' When I did go to [editorial meetings] it was like, 'why are you here?' I said I'd always come to these, to which they would say, 'well, we don't really need you …'
Have you ever wondered if the gambling led to the split with "GMA?"
I still wonder about that, yeah, whether my departure had less to do with management tampering with the show and more to do with the fact that they thought I was on the verge of a meltdown … Apparently, someone up at the top had enough of a concern.
What happened then?
My first thought was, is there any way I can stay in New York? I love New York and had worked there 22 years and that was my home where I had raised my two kids [Jason and Jessica.] But there was no job for me. [Then] along comes KGO.
Meanwhile, that ongoing gambling problem.
Yes, [KGO boss Joseph Ahern] said 'I can't match what you're making but we'll take good care of you …. Just try to get the gambling thing under control.'
Then you got divorced?
It was a very challenging time. My wife of 29 years [Diane Chambers] wanted one — I did not — which we did amicably. I was under a mountain of debt. It was a tough transition [year].
How did you manage to juggle your compulsion over a 30-year span with the pressures of a full-time, high-profile job?
How I found the energy to pull all-nighters in a casino then come back home at 3 a.m. to get ready for 'GMA,' I don't know … I was trying to convince myself I was not a compulsive gambler but someone who just enjoyed the thrill of it all and sharing it with my family.
When I moved out here, I'd get off the 11 p.m. news on a Friday night and by early Saturday morning, I'd be in Vegas. Then on Sundays I'd go to church — I'm a person of faith — and tried to get divine guidance.
Let me clarify. There are actually two ways of praying. One is to pray as if God is a magician with a magic wand who will just give you what you want [and] the other way is to say, OK, I've screwed this up [now] give me the strength and courage to face the problem head on.
My parents were always so forgiving [and] modeled for me God's forgiveness and unconditional love [so that] when I did something that might bring some painful consequences, I would pray for guidance and the ability to make wiser choices. But finally, after many many years, I just arrived at the realization that you have to suffer a little pain to get out of a hole like this that you've dug for yourself.
What finally convinced you to stop once and for all?
A conversation with my daughter, Jessica, who had just gotten engaged [and who said] 'I don't want you to be a gambler when I bring grandchildren into this world … if you were to collapse in a casino one night and die of a heart attack, would people remember all the positive things about you, or would they remember you as the guy who foolishly pissed away everything he had worked his life for?' That was the Come to Jesus moment or the Come to Jessica one.
Before that, you also get a fateful call from an FBI agent?
The phone rings at 8 [a.m.] and this guy says, 'I want you to know that you've been under investigation.' I'm thinking, investigation for what! What have I done?
He said 'we've been tracking what we call suspicious banking activity and noticed that on days before the weekend, you go to several different banks and take out the maximum amount of money you could withdraw without going over the $10,000 cash limit, and then you'd go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City and make deposits of nine thousand here and eight thousand there [the so-called Bank Secrecy Act requires that banks report cash deposits of $10,000 or more to the IRS to flag suspected money laundering activity.] But we interviewed enough people [to learn] that you have a gambling problem.
Did you ever figure out where the compulsion came from?
My early life was a life of overcoming the odds, right? A poor Black kid growing up in the rural south, under Jim Crow, but from grade school all the way through secondary school, I was academically competitive and wanted to show I was the smartest kid in the class. I was always competing, and most of the time, winning, overcoming odds. Then, I got into this gambling thing and that was the first time I'd encountered something that seemed so tough to overcome. I would win once in a while then lose three or four times in a row. There was something driving me — I've got to find a way to win at this. I think that's what it was.
Where's your head right now?
I've been twice to a casino setting in the last few years on a reporting assignment, and what hit me immediately was how depressing the scene was — seeing people at these tables making their last bet, and walking away, defeated. Nothing about it made me feel that I wanted to be back in it. The things that give me great pleasure right now [are] two adorable little grandsons [in Massachusetts].
You're a wine connoisseur — even did a successful wine show for the Food Network for some years — but did you have any substance abuse problems?
No, I never had an alcohol or drug problem and the only compulsive behavior I could identify anywhere in my life was gambling.
Let's talk about your KGO years — over 20 of them, and after Chuck Scarborough (who's 77) I do think you must be one of the senior news personalities in all of local television.
[Laughs] I'm totally impressed by Chuck's longevity because he still looks great.
You've done more than the weather at KGO too, right?
Yes, For a brief time I had a show here called 'Sips with Spencer' — wine — where I used to do blind tasting to see if I could identify one wine versus the other [and] an afternoon talk show that was a lead-in to 'Oprah.'
Plans for retirement?
I'd like to work until I'm 75 [which] I think the station is going to allow me to do. I [also] want to write another book. I crammed a lot into the last one but there are many stories in there that I could expand upon.
Will you stay in San Francisco?
My grandchildren are on the east coast and wish I could be there all the time but my wife [Lynette Courtney] was born and raised here. Her kids are here and grandchildren too and she'd never want to move 3,000 miles away from them. Of course, I still make a couple of trips to New York every year. I need to get my New York fix [and] walk those streets, feel the energy.