Neill McNeill: Dean of Triad Anchors
During my forty years in broadcasting I’ve known anchormen to say that TV is in their blood, but Neill McNeill is the first one to tell me TV was in his baby formula. More on that later.
Neill McNeill, a native of Raeford, had an interest in radio and television from an early age. While attending UNC Chapel Hill he reported and anchored at WKFT in Fayetteville, then upon graduation, he landed a full time job with WGHP-TV. After filling in on the morning and noon news programs, Neill became the regular anchor of various weekend and weeknight newscasts before succeeding long time evening anchor Fred Blackman, who retired in 2001. Today, 32 years later, Neil co-anchors four newscasts each day, reports and produces the “Newsmakers” series, and writes or edits many of the stories he reads on-air.
Because of his longevity, Neill is perhaps the most popular television personality in the Triad, but he is also well liked and respected by his colleagues and management. “Neill is an extremely knowledgeable journalist and an overall great guy,” said his co-anchor Katie Nordeen. “He’s been a mentor to me over the past two and a half years and I’m lucky to call him a friend.” WGHP General Manager Jim Himes added, “Neill is a skilled and seasoned journalist who really knows the Triad. His stories give perspective and have great depth. It is wonderful to have such a leader inside our newsroom to help coach and teach. We look forward to another 32 years!”
Neill and I spoke by phone late last month.
JL: What did your parents do for a living?
NM: Dad worked in the planning department at Burlington industries, which was the largest employer in Raeford. My Mom was a public school music teacher. She also directed the choral groups, taught music theory, and music appreciation. I sang in all of her choral groups. She was a big inspiration for me. She got me in front of people doing narration parts, and that helped me develop an interest in performing in front of people and telling stories.
JL: When did you catch the news bug?
NM: Probably in Jr. High. Every night at 5:30 we’d eat dinner while watching Andy Griffith, then we’d all move into the den at 6 o’clock and watch Charlie Gaddy on WRAL news and Rich Brenner doing sports. One of the reasons we watched Charlie religiously is because my Mom and Dad listened to him on WPTF radio. In fact, Mom claims to this day that she used to feed me my bottle and listen to Charlie Gaddy in the morning.
JL: Who specifically influenced you to go into broadcasting as a career?
NM: It was a minister in the Presbyterian church I grew up in. His name is John Ropp. I remember listening to his radio sermons on Sunday mornings. What a great voice he had, and what an effective minister he was. He would share stories with our youth group about how much fun radio was. But again, growing up watching Charlie Gaddy and Rich Brenner was a big influence. I don’t even know how to describe being able to work beside Rich for 26 years. He’s a guy I grew up watching ,and he would later become one of my best friends.
JL: Neill McNeill is such a great name for TV. Is that your real name?
NM: It is my real name. I was named after my father and he was named after a great uncle. Whether it’s a good name for TV is a matter of opinion. When I first applied at WITN in Washington, NC right after I got out of school, the news director said to me, “Have you ever thought of changing your name?” Later on a news consultant asked me the same thing. So if I had it to do over again, I’d probably use my middle name which is Adams, and I’d go by Neill Adams. But I was always worried about what my family would think if I changed my name. Once I asked my Mom, “What if I had called myself Neill Adams?”, and she said, “I would have been cool with that” (laughs).
JL: How has local TV news changed over the past 32 years?
NM: Technology has been the biggest change. We now have these portable units that can send high def video and audio back to the station from the field, and you don’t need a live truck. I wish we had those twenty years ago.
JL: What’s the most difficult story you ever reported?
NM: That was when I got the first interview with Phil Bradshaw, who was the husband of Sandy Bradshaw who died in the plane crash in Pennsylvania on 9/11. That affected me emotionally because here’s a guy my age who had two young children, and all of a sudden his wife was just gone.
JL: What’s the most rewarding thing about being a news anchor in the Triad?
NM: Being able to tell good stories and helping to change people’s lives for the better.
JL: Have you ever been confused with another local TV personality?
NM: Yeah, WXII’s Cameron Kent a couple of times, and Cameron will tell you he’s been confused with me too. I also get confused with our morning anchor Brad Jones. People will say to me, “Hey Neill we enjoy watching you in the morning!”
JL: What was the most embarrassing thing you ever did on air?
NM: The most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done on air wasn’t on WGHP, it was on WFMY. Early on in my career we were doing a live shot at the airport and so was WFMY. We had just finished our live shot and I thought channel 2 had finished theirs as well. So I walked over to their camera and waived into the lens.
At that moment, WFMY went live from that camera to go into a commercial break. My news director had a talk with me later and said, “Try and stay off the other station” (laughs).
JL: What would you have been if you hadn’t gone into TV news?
NM: Probably a lawyer. I think a lot of the same skills apply. I’ve also thought sometimes about the ministry. I would enjoy the speaking part of being a minister, but I don’t know if I would be very good at the pastoring part.
JL: 32 years from now when you’re still anchoring the news in the year 2047, what would you like for your lead story to be?
NM: I’d like to say, “We’ve found a cure for cancer, we’ve cut childhood abuse numbers tremendously, and we’ve gone three years without a mass shooting.”
I hope I’m around for that broadcast.
In the meantime, if you see Neill on the street, please don’t call him Cameron or Brad. And for God’s sake, don’t let him get near WFMY’s camera. !
JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).