Feder flashback: When Lester Holt replaced another anchor giant

Tim Weigel, Lester Holt, Linda MacLennan and Steve Baskerville

Tim Weigel, Lester Holt, Linda MacLennan and Steve Baskerville

Thursday’s official announcement that Lester Holt had been named permanent anchor of "NBC Nightly News" marked the culmination of a remarkable career for the veteran broadcast journalist and former Chicago television newsman.

“Lester is the perfect person to meet the moment,” NBC News chairman Andrew Lack said in tapping Holt to replace Brian Williams after a four-month on-air tryout. Holt becomes the first African-American solo anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast.

Twenty years ago, Holt also was perfect person to meet the moment at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, when he succeeded another iconic anchorman — Bill Kurtis. While ratings remained elusive for the 10 p.m. newscast Holt anchored with Linda MacLennan, his 14-year run in Chicago set him on the path to network success and national stardom.

Holt’s legacy here includes a legion of fans and his Chicago-born son, Stefan Holt, who’s now the weekday morning news anchor at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5.

Here is my Sun-Times column of April 12, 1995. (Posted with permission.)

Lester Holt’s Patience Pays Off at Channel 2

As eager as Lester Holt was to ascend to the 10 p.m. anchor throne at WBBM-Channel 2, he recalled the lesson of Deborah Norville.

Mindful that viewers never forgave Norville for appearing to overthrow Jane Pauley from the “Today” show, Holt was determined not to be seen as plotting against Bill Kurtis.

“I never wanted it perceived that I was pushing Bill out the door because you don’t push a guy like that out the door,” Holt said Tuesday on the phone from San Francisco while vacationing with his family.

“Even as this day became clearer, I said: ‘Look, when he’s ready is soon enough. None of us has anything to gain by making this look like he’s dumped.’ So I was very, very patient about it. When it was going to happen, it was going to happen.”

Holt’s patience finally paid off Monday when Kurtis announced that he was stepping down as the CBS-owned station’s 10 p.m. news anchor to concentrate on his independent production company. While Kurtis will continue to anchor with Mary Ann Childers at 6 p.m., Holt takes over Channel 2’s 10 p.m. newscast alongside Linda MacLennan, effective May 1.

Channel 2 news director John Lansing said he was “thrilled to have a journalist of the caliber of Lester Holt. He along with Bill Kurtis are the only 10 p.m. anchor people that I know of in this town who regularly are out on the street reporting. I believe it is critical to our eventual success to continue that tradition.”

Holt said he, too, places a premium on reporting.

Lester Holt

Lester Holt

“My experience in reporting really follows the standard that Bill laid down in that the 10 o’clock anchor is a reporter,” Holt said. “All you have to do is flip on A&E or PBS, and you’ll see Bill Kurtis is still the quintessential anchor/reporter. I’ve reported big stories from around the country and around the world. I’d like to think I bring all that to the table.”

A native of the San Francisco area, Holt, 36, made his television debut at age 16 on a public affairs program on KCRA-TV in Sacramento, Calif. After switching to radio, he dropped out of California State University to join KCBS-AM in San Francisco as a reporter in 1979. He’s been with CBS ever since.

After two stints at WCBS-TV in New York and one at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, Holt signed on at Channel 2 here in August 1986.

Under his new arrangement, Holt will continue to anchor Channel 2’s 90-minute afternoon news block and report for the station’s “News Extra” unit. By adding what he calls “the big show” at 10 p.m., Holt inherits the challenge of boosting the station’s ratings from a distant third place.

“[The ratings] have me as frustrated as I’ve been in a long time,” Holt said. “I think Channel 2 is doing some great television now, and we’re getting better every day. I’m really proud of some of the stuff we do. But to see the ratings, you shake your head and think: ‘My God, what do we have to do? Maybe we do have to go back to sensationalism.’ I’m not suggesting that, but in frustration sometimes you say that to yourself.

“In the last four or five years, we reinvented ourselves a couple of times. I’m not saying any one of those was necessarily bad or good, but there’ve been a lot of changes at Channel 2, and it’s time to steady the course, do what we’re doing to do and be what we’re going to be. I just cross my fingers that [CBS brass in] New York gives us enough time.

“All I can think is that it is a long-term build. It doesn’t take long to shake people’s trust, but it takes a long time to get it back.”

Bill Kurtis and Lester Holt (1986)

Bill Kurtis and Lester Holt (1986)