‘“Triad Today’” keeps the communication lines open

by Brian Clarey

After 35 years in the business, Jim Longworth has mastered The Look. He’s laying it on camera one right now.

He sets his jaw and tilts his head slightly down, creating a faint shadow from the overhead spots that deepens his brow and accentuates the thin lines that bracket his upper lip, the parentheses around his mouth, his angular jawline and the softly chiseled suggestions of dimples on his face ‘— not unserious dimples, mind you, but more the kind of facial feature that conveys hard-earned gravitas tempered with a sense of mirth.

His hair is perfect.

The image beams back to him from a 27-inch color monitor, a perfectly framed talking head. He centers himself in the screen and with his eyes he makes a connection through the camera lens and the cables that come out from the television screen. That’s The Look: those deep brown Mona Lisa eyes that seem to be looking at you wherever you stand, seeking you out and holding you fast in their gaze.

When he drops his head like this and connects his eyes to the people you can’t help but look back. It’s magnetic.

Longworth sees his image from behind his desk, sees it without looking at it, and makes minute adjustments to his moving portrait, all the while keeping up his end of the pre-taping conversation with his guests, film director Phil Smoot and Libby Grimes from the Greensboro Center for Creative Leadership, and also flirting with his wife, Pam Cook, who’s in the corner by the Teletype machine.

‘“I have an internal clock, you know,’” he says. ‘“I hope you quote that, Brian. Over 52 years I’ve developed two things: an internal clock and lines on my face.’”

‘“You want me to tell them what else you’ve developed?’” Pam asks.

‘“Oh no,’” he says. ‘“No family secrets.’”

They still act like newlyweds though they were married back in June 2004.

He checks the time.

‘“Yeah, we need to go ahead and roll.’” He turns to Libby. ‘“If I say something wrong just correct me.’”

‘“Won’t this be edited?’”

‘“No, it won’t be edited. You are an on-site editor.’” His voice is authoritative and commanding. He turns his gaze back to the camera and deploys The Look.

He’s ready. Episode 106, segment two.

Countdown. Five’… four’… three’….

‘“All right, we’re back on Triad Today.’”

He keeps things going, a quick intro and on to the meat of the piece: the film industry in the Triad and the yet-to-be-released National Lampoon film Pucked, which was shot in the area.

He’s a good interviewer ‘— asking short questions and giving room for answers, looking at his guest without cheating to the camera and keeping the ball moving between anchor and guests like a horseshoe play under the hoop in a three-man pickup game.

It’s a formation the Winston-Salem native knows all too well.

Jim Longworth always knew he wanted to ride the airwaves. While still a teenager he covered Forsyth County high school sports for radio station WSJS and was the voice of Ernie Shore Field. He began pursuing a communications degree from UNCG and earned a position as a staffer at WSJS before he graduated in 1976.

From there he went into television, working on the production crew for the ‘“Old Rebel Show,’” a children’s show that ran from 1967 through 1977 on WFMY, remembered and beloved by area citizens of a certain age.

Longworth, in a written statement on the website, says of his first job in television:

‘“At first it was my job to run the camera and mop up under the bleachers after the show. The latter was extremely important because during every program we had about 80 to 100 screaming kids in attendance, and each of them was given milk or juice to drink. When they got very excited, fluids were spilled under the bleachers, including bodily ones!’”

He also kept his hand in the world of sports, updating scores on the old vidifont machine as they came in.

Next came a short-lived stint at an advertising agency writing commercials. But within a few months of taking the job he got a call from WFMY that brought him back to television. He did late-night weather forecasts and worked on the production of ‘“Newsreel 2’”a documentary-style broadcast that also resonated with viewers.

‘“Anybody who’s lived here forever will remember ‘Newsreel 2,”” Longworth says.

Then things started to happen for the young broadcaster. He went to WSOC in Charlotte where, among other accomplishments, he created a character named ‘Jim Nasium,’ a mustachioed malcontent, for the children’s show ‘“Kidsworld.’”

‘“[He was] a character who hated children, hated exercise, he hated everything,’” Longworth recalls, ‘“and yet somehow through all of that he was able to show the kids the right thing to do.’”

From there he moved to the ABC affiliate in Richmond, Va., where he hosted a regional morning show called ‘“FYI’” that aired right before ‘“Good Morning America.’” He also took an active interest in politics.

‘“I worked with six different governors on various initiatives,’” he says, including a campaign by Gov. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who served from 1990 to 1994, proposing to limit the sale of handguns to one per household per month. Wilder, the first African American to be elected governor in the nation’s history, faced strong opposition.

‘“Virginia was the number one source state for handguns,’” Longworth recalls. ‘“It was a real challenge because the NRA put up $200,000 against us and the governor could only give me sixty.’”

The law, at the time one of the strictest handgun control statutes in the nation, passed in 1993.

After a long and successful run in Richmond, Longworth, now pushing 50 years of age and with a desire to reconnect with his family, decided to return to his Triad roots in 2002. He wrote two books, volumes called TV Creators that featured conversations with writers and producers who create small-screen drama. And with thousands of hours of airtime under his belt he quickly found a niche here for his talents and vision.

‘“I was discouraged to see that all the local stations in the Triad had abdicated their public service role,’” he says. ‘“That’s why I started ‘Triad Today.’ It’s an old-fashioned talk show’… there’s nothing to it.’”

‘“Triad Today,’” now in its third season, is something of a family business ‘— Longworth owns the show and is the executive producer as well as the host. He books the guests, does his own research and even sells advertising. His wife Pam, herself a veteran of television news and sales, acts as associate producer and chief comic foil.

There really isn’t much to it. The set consists of an arc of a desk, three cameras and a simple blue backdrop in the minimalist style of Charlie Rose. No special effects or live studio audience. No wacky sidekick or running gags. Basically it’s just televised conversation, and it’s the only show of its kind in the state.

‘“I’d like to see more local stations have programs like this,’” Longworth says. ‘“It’s nice to say we’re the only public affairs show in North Carolina ‘— it’s fun to brag about it, but it’s sad that we’re the only one.’”

He’s at the desk now, shuffling papers in preparation for his next segment, a roundtable discussion with weekly regulars Leonard Simpson of WXII and our own Ogi Overman, six minutes of verbal free-for-all.

Longworth serves up the first subject: school redistricting. He throws the ball to Simpson, gets it back and passes it to Overman, who returns it to Longworth and he runs with it for a while himself. He executes a similar play for each of today’s subjects: the decline of the Furniture Market; the merger between Jefferson Pilot and Lincoln Financial; free speech at UNCG; the revocation of the grandfather clause for Guilford County’s topless bars. He segues into a commentary, a short blast of opinion read off the teleprompter with concern, conviction and, yes, gravitas.

Besides the weekly show, Longworth speaks to groups about responsible television. He is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles, the group that judges the Emmys every year. He also produces another half-hour local show, ‘“Connections,’” focusing on Winston-Salem and Forsyth County schools.

In the studio Longworth turns to his producer, Rozan Tinker, and delivers instructions for the next segment, an extended interview with Daniel Truhitte, the actor who played Rolf in The Sound of Music.

‘“We’re gonna do the regular show for this week,’” he says. ‘“I’ll tease it and I’ll open it. Keep it rolling.’”

‘“I’ve got to talk for twenty minutes?’” Truhitte asks.

‘“Don’t worry,’” Longworth says. ‘“I’ve got so many questions we don’t need the answers.’”

And it’s five’… four’… three’….

Longworth checks his image, sets his face and administers The Look.

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