You are on page 1of 12

Eric Eskola: Former Capitol Reporter at WCCO This interview was conducted at TPT headquarters in downtown St.

Paul at March 25, 2011. Jon Collins: Thank you very much for meeting me and talking with me. Eric Eskola: Well, Im flattered to be asked, thats nice. Collins: Essentially, lets start talking about where your first was. How did you start out in journalism? Eskola: My mom got me a job, well hooked me up with the news director at KDAL in Duluth at the time it was KDAL Radio and TV, CBS affiliate, and they needed a film librarian and my mom was at a party with the news director of KDAL at the time and they got to talking and she said he had a son who wanted to get into the business and I was just out of high school starting freshman year at UMD and got hired as the film librarian. Back then we had 16mm film, not videotape, so I would break down the big reels of film from the 6 and 10 newscasts and put them on a little reel and then put a piece of tape on them and then label what it was; aerial bridge. And then I would type up a file card and put it in a canister and date the canister. And I got the filing system so screwed up that only I could figure it out. And so I became indispensible to them and they couldnt have fired me if they wanted to. And for the radio side I got into a little news production and then that kind of mushroomed into some backup sports work and I worked there pretty much 30-40 hours a week all through college. So I had a marvelous opportunity to work in the business at a CBS affiliate while I was going to school. And so by the time I graduated, that was in 71 when I started so by the time I graduated in 75 I had a full time job waiting for me, and continued on and became the radio news director in my last year there. And in 1980 I was hired in WCCO in the Twin Cities. WCCO Radio. Collins: And were you from Duluth originally? Eskola: Born in Duluth. My dad worked for Jeno Paulucci, the pizza and Chinese food magnate. And so we moved a little bit. I was born in Duluth, lived a little bit in Jackson, Ohio and Windsor, Canada. And then came back to Duluth for high school in college. Collins: You said your mother helped you get your first job. Eskola: Yes. Collins: Did she kind of have some idea about that or did she have some

connections in the industry? Eskola: No, she just happened to meet the news director at a party. I think it was total happenstance and she encouraged me to apply and go down and I was very nervous not knowing if I was ready or not. But she was very encouraging to do that. And it worked out great. I was so lucky. Unbelievably luck to get that job during college. Collins: Was it something you had an interest in before college? Is that what you were studying in college? Eskola: Well, I was a speech major. They didnt have journalism major at UMD. I took journalism classes but they didnt have a major back at that time. I was interested in broadcasting ever since the Kennedy assassination. I remember very vividly in November of 1963, I would have been in the fifth grade I think, yeah, I was in the fifth grade, and President Kennedy was shot and I went home from school. Everybody was let out of school. And I just sat right with my face to the TV all weekend long just fascinated and scared and afraid that Lee Harvey Oswald was in my room and watching the reporters and watching the news and the footage and that left a big imprint on me and I was kind of interested in doing that. I did some sports broadcasting as well and came to be more interested in the news and politics instead of the sports so I pursued that part of it. Collins: Thats kind of the drama of news in journalism, especially the Kennedy assassination. You see the ups and the downs and the internal dramas. Eskola: Oh yeah it was so traumatic for the nation, but for a fifth grader, then Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas. And a funeral. And Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses and sort of having to choke back tears when he announces the presidents dead. I mean it had a big impact on the nation obviously including me. Collins: Do you remember when you were younger especially how the public perceived of journalists? Do you remember what the perception of them was or what your own perception was? Eskola: Oh I trusted them. I think the Kenney assassination and the moon shots. When I was in grade school, the space program, and the Mercury astronauts and going around John Glenn orbiting the earth three times and going through the 60s to 1969 with the walk on the moon, that was another thing that really captivated my interest and I was so interested in that that I watched a lot of the news coverage of that. And I had teachers in grade school that encouraged current events. And the space program was so important and so dramatic and so glamorous so that was another thing that peaked my interest in current events. And my parents always had magazines and books around and they were interested in current events to I picked a lot of that at home too.

Collins: How did you move from being the librarian to the more editorial positions? Eskola: Well it was just a matter of being there. 90% of life is showing up. And you know how this is, once you get in a place if you show any initiative at all, you can move up and so I ended up working there nine years. And so I got more and more involved in the radio side of it and I enjoyed radio more than TV. I did TV work but what imagined in my minds eye didnt really turn out on the screen. I didnt think I was very good in TV, doing stories and packages and stuff. I felt I had more fun and I felt better doing radio so I kind of focused on the radio end of things. And as I say I ended up in the radio news director the last year I was there. Collins: What is it that you like about more radio? Why does it appeal to you more? E: Well I dont know. TV is so collaborative. And back then you would put the 16mm film in a processor. We had our own processing plant in the newsroom that would expose the film and process the film for the newscast and it had to be edited and radio was much more spontaneous. You could just call somebody, get them on the air. TV was a big production with a lot of people involved and I kind of liked the flexibility of radio better. Collins: From the time that you started college to the time that you moved to WCCO there was a lot of stuff going on in the nation as far as civil rights. Do you remember kind of how the sort of coverage was? And how you would kind of try and position it? Eskola: Well the big national news events during the 70s were the Vietnam War and Watergate. I would say. The end of Vietnam and Watergate. And of course Watergate turned reporters into kind of these white knights on horses exposing corruption at the highest levels of government. And so reporting was a, I dont know if it was a popular profession but it was again a highly glamorous profession. And I think the news media had great credibility in the Nixon era for exposing Watergate and with Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post and all the reporting that was attended with that. They made a very popular movie about the Woodward and Bernstein episode. And womens rights was big, the feminist movement in the 70s was coming about. So it was a great time to be in the business. And I again, I was so lucky to be around at that time and learn from experienced, back then you could make a living in Duluth as a reporter. You could raise a family on a reporters raises. Im sure you cant now. I think youre 22, 23 years old and spend two or three years there and move on. But back then you could raise a family and have a career in Duluth and I learned from some very veteran reporters some very good lessons and that really helped my development too.

Collins: Did you see shifting values in the newsroom at this time? With the womens movement and civil rights? As how things were covered. Eskola: Well they hired women. I think a generation earlier. Im not sure how many women were reporters. There would be a woman doing the talk show with homemaking tips and stuff. But when I was there in the 70s the newsrooms began to be populated with more women, minorities, and all of that was to the good. And I think a generation preceding; I think it had been a white mans job. Collins: Do you think that changed the coverage at all? Eskola: Oh Im sure it did. Im sure different eyes seeing it different ways. Only to the good I would say. Collins: As you decided whether you wanted to stay in Duluth or move to WCCO, what brought you there? Eskola: Well, bigger market, legendary station. CCO is one of the great national legacy, was anyway, one of the great legacy AM stations. Nationally known for great news and big time personalities and it was again a great honor and a break to be hired there. I mean there were countless Minnesota broadcasters would have just killed to work at CCO. And I was exceedingly lucky to get a job in the newsroom back in February of 1980. Collins: What was the newsroom like back then? Eskola: Well it was a very efficient, knew their business, knew the market, had a very good sense of what they were about and what the mission was. And very professional. We had run a professional operation in Duluth so I wasnt unaccustomed to that but it was big-time. And it was really fun to be a part of. We had a 30, I always forget if it was a 30 rating or a 30 share, but we had, back in 1980, CCO had this enormous lock on the market. And it was just big time radio and it was really fun. Collins: I remember growing up my grandparents always had WCCO on. Eskola: Sure. Collins: All day long in the kitchen. It seemed like a kind of overwhelming presence. Eskola: Yeah, I think it was. The market has changed and percentages have shrunk and everything, but at the time it was very dominant. Collins: Did you notice any shift from your working to WCCO and how you

interacted with sources or the relationship the stations had with sources or government officials? Eskola: Well I was general assignment. In Duluth I had kind of specialized in the political coverage. Just cause I was interested in it and we made a point of doing good political coverage in debates and election night and coverage of the conventions. And we did all that. And so I came down here as a general assignment reporter in 1980 and so I just kind of did the days news. If there was a fire or if there was a city council meeting or somebody had a news conference or whatever it was, I just did the daily news. Then in 1985 the capitol reporter Jan Falstad left and I started covering the capitol in 1985. And I was there for 26 years. Just left last year. So my bread and butter years at CCO were the 26 years I spent at the capitol and covering politics mainly on a daily full time basis at the capitol. Collins: Have politics always appealed to you? Eskola: Yeah, I was always interested in it. Its got some basic things to it that I like. Theres a contest, theres a winner, theres a loser. Its a definitive period of time, a campaign runs this long, a legislative session runs this run, you can measure what they did, there are winters. Theres losers. Theres accomplishments. Theres failures. Its measureable. And I felt that that was good as a reporter and enjoyed the drama and I enjoyed being at the sort of center of decision-making. And very much enjoyed my time at the capitol. Collins: Are there any experiences that really, really stand out to you over the years? Eskola: Well the Ventura years were unbelievable. And the ironic part of Jesse Ventura for me was, is that one of the things I did in Duluth my last year there was I did ring announcing for a few wrestling matches when Ventura was in the ring. When he was wrestling in Duluth and so years later here I am covering the state capitol and here comes Jesse Ventura into my life as the new governor of the state. Collins: Small world. Eskola: Oh. And Im a big pro wrestling fan, and to have Jesse Ventura as the governor was, I cant tell you how weird that was. But it was four years of a lot of stress because he could make news everywhere. On a website, on Larry King, on his way to the car, at a speech somewhere that you normally wouldnt cover that the governor made. You had to be with him as often as possible because news could break out at a moments notice. So it was stressful in that way but it was endlessly fascinating.

Collins: What was the equipment that you were using like during your whole career? Eskola: I didnt use the digital stuff. I had a couple digital machines but the controls were too small and I didnt like them, so I used Marantz cassette decks and had a dozen of them. And in various states of repair, but I was a Marantz cassette guy. Collins: And how big were those at the time you started? Eskola: Oh, at the time we started? I dont know maybe a foot long by eight inches maybe, or six inches. Collins: And even until last year you were still using the cassettes. Eskola: Yes I was. I went out of business using the cassettes. They served me well. They served me well. Collins: And you know journalism is one of those things that you talk to people about it and they will bring up how it has an impact on all your relationships around you, the fact that you have to work these odd hours, that sort of thing. Has that been your experience or the experience of your colleagues? Eskola: Well, the capitol is a pretty insular place, as you know. And youre spending more time there than you are with the family during the height of the legislative session. So I was always struck by the capitol press corps is very competitive, but there is a sense of camaraderie there that I enjoyed very much. And enjoyed talking with my colleagues and being with them on a daily basis was a lot of fun. But were very competitive and want to get this loop as much as anything but within that there was a good camaraderie and the capitol is a little community. I think you almost have to go through it to understand what its like and being out of it now I found out theres a great life beyond the capitol. Im sure you have too. But its a very unique place and it was a lot of fun. I think it turned my brain to mush in the end. Collins: Whys that? Eskola: Its a stressful place. Its a stressful place and 26 years is among the longer periods of time anybodys been there. So it was a time for a change. Collins: I imagine that youd be able to predict some of the responses to some certain press conferences by the time you were done there. Eskola: Theres certain sameness, rhythm to the place. But theres always new issues and it was a great learning, fantastic learning environment. I got an incredible general education covering the capitol. Cause I was a generalist. Like

in the newspaper game sometimes you specialize in healthcare policy or taxes or whatever. I had to be a generalist and skim the cream off of every subject area. So I know a little bit about a lot of things. Which I think served me well and served me well as a citizen because I can carry on a conversation at a superficial level on a lot of subjects based on my legislative career. Collins: Are there any times that stand out to you where legislators were mad at you? Or angry about some sort of reporting? Eskola: Oh, once in a while, but I think if you do a fair job and I worked hard to be fair and get peoples side of it and nothing beyond the garden variety reaction. Collins: And how did the press corps change over the years, do you think? Eskola: Let me think. Well the type of coverage changed. When I first got there the coverage was following bills through every committee and a lot of the process stuff. And that changed over the years to more not as much coverage of the blow-by-blow movement by movement of bills and so forth. Ventura brought in a whole personality coverage that was unique to him. And I was there through Perpich, Carlson, Ventura and Pawlenty. You know, Minnesota is a little bit unique in that the capitol is in the major city, Twin Cities, so its pretty easy for the news operations to have somebody at the capitol. Youre not sending somebody off if youre in Illinois you have to get down to Springfield and put somebody up in a hotel. And a whole different expense. Here the capitol is in the main population center so its a little easier for folks to get to so I always felt that Minnesota had more than its share of capitol and political coverage and a lot of that I think had to do with the proximity of the capitol to the main population center. Collins: Was it as bustling at the time that you got there as the time as you left? Eskola: Was it as bustling? Collins: As many reporters? Eskola: Yeah, I think so. There may be a little fewer. But I was there year-round; Channel 4 was there year round. The two newspapers were, public radio. Some of the other TV stations ducked in and out in session only, but then they covered the political campaigns closely. Like I say I think Minnesotans profited from having a pretty good consistent flow of political and government news from the capitol and I think most the outlets provided that. Collins: Does the change in blow-by-blow bill coverage, does that change at all what the public impression of what the political process is? Eskola: Well, I think the issue became one of bigger picture and maybe more context. Instead of the blow by blow, maybe a little bit more of what it means and

one of the things you do in journalism is if youre doing it well, you serve as a kind of a sieve for the busy everyday citizen. Based on my experience and my knowledge, heres whats important and heres what isnt. And I can provide that service for you because Ive been around now long enough and I can separate the wheat from the chaff. And if youre good you do that in an objective manner. And so I think more and more the reporting is theres this fire hose of information coming in but heres what was important today. And I think as people get busier and busier I think thats a good goal for reporters to, or a good role for them to serve is kind of a, its a gate keeping function and theres less and less of a gate keeping function, with websites and specialized cable networks and stuff. I mean you can basically build your news consumption based on what you believe and what you think is important but I think one role that the mainstream media can still play is to serve as kind of an editor for people. Collins: What characteristics or skills do you think really helped you in your career? Eskola: Well I think I was good at asking questions of political leaders. I think at a news conference setting I think I was pretty good at getting quotes from people that were useable quotes. And of course in radio thats the whole game is getting usable quotes to put on the air. So I by necessity I worked on that and I think I was pretty good at that. I think I had a knack for telling complicated stories in a streamlined way and again in radio you have to do that. Youve got 40 seconds or 50 seconds or whatever youve got. And youve got to distil endlessly complicated material into a few, relatively few words and I never did it justice but I could do that. That was a couple things I could think of. Collins: It seems like WCCO was kind of emblematic of the industry and the way it moved. When you first went there it was a relatively big newsroom, wasnt it? Eskola: I think we had between eight and nine, I think we probably had seven to ten people all the years I was there. Collins: What changes were there in that direction over the years? Eskola: Well, I dont know that there was much difference. I mean the staff has gotten younger. It was amazingly consistent over the years that I was there. Not that many people left and it was a veteran group that knew its business and I think it was remarkably consistent over the years that I was there. Collins: With the competition, from instance WCCO, theres no capitol reporter anymore is there? Eskola: I think Pat Kessler does some. I think they put a broadcast line into Kesslers office and I think he does some Q and A with the newsroom. I dont think they have a daily year round person anymore, no.

Collins: How do you think the entire Internet and the fact that news is coming from websites and newspapers and radio and television? Does that impact the way that things were covered over the years? Eskola: Well, Im learning this world first hand because Im home now and I still have to do preparation for the Almanac show that I do on Friday nights on Channel 2. And so Im availing myself of the senate TV channel, Minnesota channel, the Uptake stream stuff, Politics in Minnesota carries the best of the blogs. The newspapers have websites. The parties have websites. Its just neverending. Theres so much. And so I can spend several hours a day keeping well read on the political and government news which is great for me because I like to keep up to date for doing the TV show still. I always felt that I was trying to tell folks, as I say, what was important that day and why it mattered. And thats a simple goal but that was it was. Collins: And thats kind of updated for now. I see Almanac does quite a bit online. Eskola: Yeah, didnt mention that. Mary Lahammer has great presence; she has a show on Wednesday nights, Almanac at the Capitol. Theres a never-ending amount of material thats available. Citizens can avail themselves. If you want to know whats going on in Minnesota government and politics with a little effort you can certainly avail yourself of information. Collins: I didnt ask this before but I should have. What were your colleagues like when you were coming up in the broadcast world? Eskola: Well they were older. And they were very generous with their time and I learned a lot from them watching them and hearing from them. Bill Kruger was the editorial director at KDAL in Duluth and anchored the radio news and he was a mentor of mine and a wonderful journalist and a great fellow. And I had Jean Lahammer from the Associated Press, Betty Wilson from the Star Tribune, Bob Whereatt from the Star Tribune. Lot of veteran reporters. When I got to the capitol that kind of just followed around to get my bearings and they were great help, and brilliant journalists and great people. And I found them, as I say, I found them to be very generous with their time and counsel. Collins: In the last 15 years a lot of the veteran journalists have gone to other careers. Do you think that changes, those of us how are younger anyway, learned and use this as our career? Eskola: Well, you know every generation brings something new and special. Ive always felt like the younger reporters are very valuable and bring new eyes to it and new energy and questioning. If youve been there a while you fall in kind of the rhythm of the place, and its always been done this way, and as you said earlier, Ive seen this movie before and heres how Its going to end and I think that younger people come up and they look at it a little differently with a different

set of values and as I say, youthful enthusiasm. And I always felt that the younger reporters were quite a valuable part of the scenery. Collins: And that was always at the capitol, right? You always had some younger people coming in and some older veterans around. Eskola: Oh sure. I enjoyed seeing the younger reporters, I though it was good to have them. Collins: Last question, I really appreciate you talking to me. Do you think that the public perception of journalists as this kind of strange archetype, do you think that that has changed over the years, especially since Watergate? Eskola: Well yeah, Watergate was a high water mark. And I think many institutions in America are under, what would you say, are being questioned. And journalism certainly is one of them. There are commercial and economic stresses on journalism now that are; I mean the whole occupation I think is being reinvented. And theres a kind of a spasm of how our journalistic enterprise is going to make money. Is there a role for mainstream journalism anymore or is it all opinion journalism, or is it all just peoples opinions and no original reporting? I mean, all of these very basic questions and the values that it brings to a democracy and very basic questions are being asked now with the economic pressures on journalism. Is the media too liberal? And again, is the mainstream media even relevant anymore. Theres all these questions that I think have caused the public to question journalism. But as I look at the surveys, people are consuming as much news or more than ever. So I think theres an appetite for it, its just consumers arent just sitting back and accepting the spoon-fed stuff anymore. They want to be an active part of the interactive, is that the? Collins: I think thats the term. Eskola: I think they want to be interactive with it and its for people smarter than I am to figure out the new model and all that. I think theres still a craving for information and certainly a need in a democracy to provide good information, but how thats going to shake out, I dont know. Collins: Is the fire a lot stronger than it used to be? Eskola: Oh yeah. The Kennedy assassination, there were three channels. If President Obama was assassinated, there would be 200 channels with something on it. And every website. No, I dont think its any contest. Theres so much stuff now that its, as I say, its hard to filter it sometimes and I still think theres a role for the mainstream media to do that but through a lens of interactivity with the consumer. Again, I dont have all the answers. Collins: Sure. Its telling to me that public radio, which really does this sort of

objective serious reporting has grown so much drastically, especially in Minnesota over the years. Cause that kind of provides a not antidote, necessarily but some sort of alternative to this opinion based journalism thats everywhere on the Internet. Eskola: Yeah, I think theres room for everything. Thats whats great about America. If it has a value, if it has a market, itll find an audience. So theres room for a lot of stuff. And the challenge for the news media is figuring out a model that will allow the New York Times to have a bureau in Tripoli, or the Wall Street Journal to be in Pakistan with a reporter and all of that. Its an interconnected global world, that great clichs. Its a time of entrenchment in the media business and it has consequences for democracy. And a well-informed public. Collins: Is that something that we talk about enough? Eskola: Well I think its talked about in the industry. Collins: Not the business side of the industry much. Eskola: I dont know what the business model is. Theres great reporting available. I was on a panel with a guy a couple of weeks ago that runs a website that traces the quality of medical reporting. So you can read the story and then go to his website, and then he was experts grade the report. Was it factual? Whatever the criteria are. A great service. And theres an audience for that. Smarter people than I am will come up with the model, but its important. Collins: Any other experiences or recollections about your time in the industry for all last 20, 30, years. Right? Eskola: Yeah, 40 years in October. Collins: 40 years. See Im bad at math. Any other experiences that stand out to you? Eskola: I had a great interview in 1976 with Morris Udall who was an Arizona congressman who was running for president. It was Duluth-Superior of course, so he was running in the Wisconsin primary against Carter in 1976 and he came to KDAL to be interviewed as he campaigned for the Wisconsin primary. And I was all excited about the interview, and I studied hard and read and made phone calls and worked very hard in preparation with my list of questions. And we went; I bet we went 45 minutes. And I questioned him on some stuff, and threw stuff back at him and knew some stuff about the primaries that were going on in Indiana and some other states. And we finished the interview and he looked at me and said, Erik, good interview. And I think he meant it was a good tough interview. I dont think he meant it was a paddy cake interview. I think he

appreciated the craft. That was a big moment for me. It was 1976 so I was, what. 23 years old or whatever I was. And Ill always remember that. Collins: Thats kind of that, is that a lost art to a certain degree do you think? Eskola: Oh I dont think so. I think theres a lot of great interview techniques. No I think there are many great interviewers out there. And Im not one of them particularly but that day I did a good job. And that he said something about it, a professional Washington politician, said that to me that it was a good interview. And like I say, I think he meant it, at least the way I took it was, you didnt throw me a bunch of softballs and I hit them out of the park, you asked good, hardhitting questions and we had a nice discussion, thats how I think he meant it. Thats how I took it anyway. And it was meaningful to me. Collins: Thats great. Well thank you so much for talking to me, I appreciate it.