(VIDEO) Catching Up with Al Primo, the Man Behind Eyewitness News

It’s not a reach to call Al Primo a living legend. Primo is responsible, not just for putting Eyewitness News on the map at Channel 7  in 1968, but also for revolutionizing the local news industry. He was a trailblazing manager to be sure.

But before Primo could make his splash in New York, the Pittsburgh native was making a name for himself at his hometown KDKA. During his 12 years, Primo worked up the ranks to assistant news director.

Westinghouse, which owned KDKA, ultimately named Primo to head their Philadelphia TV station—KYW.

It was there in 1965, while looking over his contract, that Primo got the idea for Eyewitness News.
“I noticed that everybody in the newsroom was a member of the AFTRA union. There was a clause in that AFTRA contract that said any member of AFTRA could write, report, and appear on the air with his own story without being paid additional compensation,” Primo says. “The reason there was just an anchorman, a weatherman, and a sportsman on television for all those years was economic.”

Using that loophole to his advantage, Primo assigned each reporter to cover their own beat.

“Putting these people on air gave their story, and them, added importance. It really captured the imagination of the Philadelphia market.”

Eyewitness News was born, as KYW would become a top-rated station.

But the true mark of success is making it in New York.

“Philadelphia was a big tryout city for Broadway in those days,” Primo admits. “You can do pretty much anything you want in Philadelphia and nobody notices.”

After languishing under the radar for three years, he was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime—helm WABC-TV in New York.

“ABC was in such poor condition at that time, I was able to obtain a very strong mandate to do pretty much exactly what I wanted,” Primo says.

He was told by network execs that he had a clean slate, meaning there were no sacred cows, and anyone could be promoted or hired.

“I’m just embarrassed to walk down Sixth Avenue,” the late ABC owner Leonard Goldenson told Primo at the time. “I just want a better product.”

While Primo brought Eyewitness News with him from the City of Brotherly Love, it needed to be uniquely New York. That would happen thanks to living in a hotel.

“Walking down the street you’d see everybody—Black people, Hispanic people, Jews, Italians, Irish, and on the air it was basically three white guys, no women, no minorities,” Primo says. “I decided that I would make Eyewitness News New York a very diverse organization.”

Primo calls it the “right thing to do,” but also the “smart thing to do.”

Thus, Primo turned his news team into a reflection of the city’s melting pot. Minorities were represented by John Johnson, Geraldo Rivera, Rose Ann Scamardella, and Melba Tolliver, just to name a few.

On November 17, 1968, Eyewitness News debuted on WABC. But not before deciding on the final element for the newscast.

“I’ve got all the people hired, got the set built, got the graphics done, and then I wanted some charging, moving, wake up, ‘get out of your chair and pay attention to the news,’ theme,” Primo recalls.

Using the resources of the extensive ABC music library, Primo and his director went to the ASCAP building, spending several hours searching for their opening theme. When they got to the soundtrack from Cool Hand Luke, Primo knew he found his sound.

“There was this one little section that was exactly right, [a] very throbbing, pulsating section,” Primo remembers. “But I think it was only about 12 seconds long.”