Creator of 'Talking Heads' TV Dies
WILLIAM C. MANN
Jul. 25, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Longtime television commentator Martin Agronsky, a voice from radio's golden age who created the ``talking heads'' television news format and retired in 1988 as popular as he ever was, died Sunday.
He was 84.
Agronsky began in newspaper journalism, became a war correspondent on radio, then from 1943 until he retired in 1988 was a Washington correspondent, foreign correspondent and commentator for U.S. television.
Agronsky's son David Agronsky said his father died at his Washington home of congestive heart failure. Stricken by a massive heart attack in early June, Agronsky recently returned home after a lengthy hospitalization, his son said.
``You've been one of the few people who fought the battle for the news and for seriousness against commercialism and schlock,'' commentator Tom Oliphant, a permanent panelist, told Agronsky as he ended his syndicated television program ``Agronsky & Company'' at the beginning of 1988 after an 18-year run.
The show, which began as a newscast on Washington's WTOP-TV, now WUSA-TV, was considered the first to use the informal format of reporters talking among themselves rather than interviewing newsmakers. Agronsky described it as a bull session among first-class reporters.
The format, generally with newsmakers participating, became the stock-in-trade of today's Sunday talk shows.
``Agronsky & Company'' ran less than a year as a local newscast, but the concept was spun off into a program syndicated on commercial and public television stations across the country.
Gloria Penner, director of the San Diego Press Club and host of a program on a San Diego public radio station, worked for Agronsky for three years in the 1950s, when he worked on NBC's ``Today'' show, then hosted by Dave Garroway.
Agronsky ``was a perfectionist, sexist, macho, and he knew everybody,'' Penner told an interviewer for an Internet profile. ``It was the toughest three years anybody could have in what was really an apprentice position. ... A lot of what I do today I do because I was so well-trained by Agronsky.''
Martin Zama Agronsky was born Jan. 12, 1915, in Philadelphia, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His first job was in 1936 as general assignment reporter for the Palestine Post, now the Jerusalem Post. Before he retired, he had worked for all three major networks and PBS, generally in high-profile positions.
``Agronsky & Company'' was the nation's top-ranked public affairs program when he retired.
His son said Agronsky's proudest accomplishment was winning the 1952 Peabody Award for distinguished reporting for his work at ABC on the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's efforts to weed communists out of U.S. society. He broadcast his commentary each morning from a studio above a downtown Washington drugstore.
``He lost at least half his sponsors, if not more,'' David Agronsky said. Every day's mail brought more expressions of hate, casting aspersions on his Jewish roots, ``calling him a commie, a traitor,'' Agronsky said.
In the midst of the turmoil, he said, his dad was summoned to New York. ``He thought he was going to be canned,'' Agronsky said. ``Instead, they congratulated him and took him to lunch.''