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The Oracle

Twitter, religion and the perfect sentence. After 31 years, Gene Cox is still searching.

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VETERAN anchorman Gene Cox looks out from the driver's seat of his sleek sedan onto the sprawl of eastbound Midlothian Turnpike just before it reaches the broadcast studios of television station WWBT, Richmond's NBC affiliate. This stretch of Route 60 is long past its glory days as a shiny strip of new-car dealerships and suburban shopping centers. On a recent Thursday morning, it's a baked wasteland of faded asphalt, cheap motels and a strip club.

Cox dispassionately points out the blemishes while he cruises. He's intimately familiar with the road's evolving topography. The NBC-12 station on Midlothian Turnpike — its gaudy mishmash of satellites on the front lawn beaming signals to the sky — began broadcasting in the 1950s, when the area was a vision of futuristic prosperity. This turnpike, after all, was the first gateway into Chesterfield County, an enabler of white flight.

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When Cox took the anchoring job at NBC-12 and moved to Richmond in 1978, eastern Midlothian had blossomed into a regional retail Mecca, the broadcast studios flanked by newly opened Cloverleaf Mall and Best Products. That glitz is gone.

But Cox is still here, driving along, and he distills the regional history into bite-sized nuggets delivered in his trademark Appalachian drawl. Did you know Midlothian Turnpike was the first paved road in Richmond? “Nobody knows that, and it won't do you any good, but I just throw it out as a part of trivia,” Cox says, deadpanning the area's aesthetics.

“There is nothing of beauty here,” he says.


 AT 69, Cox is riding the long twilight of his career. He's anchored NBC-12's evening newscasts for 31 years, and is one of the longest-running on-air anchors in the country — a remarkable feat in a cutthroat business known for high turnover and short contracts. Careers live and die based on the ratings book.

Cox has navigated three ownerships in his tenure at NBC-12 — there was longtime insurance company owner Jefferson Pilot; then, for a brief stint, Lincoln Financial; now, slick broadcasting conglomerate Raycom Media. He's stayed on the air through it all: layoffs, major industry-wide changes in broadcast technology, the mushrooming of the newsroom staff and the birth of a 24-hour news cycle constantly cranking content out of the studio.

“He's a survivor in a business with very few survivors,” says Bill Oglesby, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University who's worked for NBC-12 as well as ABC and CBS affiliates. Oglesby notes — as does Cox — that a good chunk of Cox's staying power has to do with the broader stability of the station's front-line anchor team.

 

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Cox waits on the NBC-12 set for Vancouver Olympics programming to finish before the 5 p.m. newscast. He's known for his wry jokes and mentoring around the newsroom — and for the fact that he doesn't wear makeup.

But the keystone is Cox, practitioner of understatement, stickler for straight shooting. He delivers the news in a brisk, almost disinterested tone. No matter the story — from inaugurations to double homicides — Cox narrates without emotion, purposefully disconnected. Yet he's also known for unfurling that unexpected gem of a phrase — a dry joke that combines whimsy, self-deprecation and swagger.

“I hate a dip in the jet stream,” he quips to meteorologist Jim Duncan on a recent newscast.

Or, he puts a reporter on the spot. Mark Hubbard, a former reporter and anchor with NBC-12 who worked on and off at the station from 1988 to 2004, recalls one incident vividly. Covering a flood early in his tenure at the station, Hubbard found himself interviewing an area farmer in the middle of a field. After Hubbard wrapped up his live report and the farmer began walking away, Gene Cox had a question:

“I know another guy in Dinwiddie with the same last name. Is he related to that farmer?” Hubbard recalls Cox asking.

Hubbard panicked, turned around and shouted back to the farmer: “Hey Bob! … Are you related to so and so? Gene Cox wants to know.” It turned out the farmer was no relation, remembers Hubbard. “Gene was kind of notorious for asking anything,” he says.

Cox has left his own trail of flubs — he looks away from the camera too soon, or fumbles a sentence, or is a little too flip — but it's all part of the charm. (In a recent “Score of the Decade” issue, Style Weekly named Cox anchor of the decade, in part for his relatable appeal.)

 

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Cox poses for a promotional shot at NBC's New York studios with Roger Mudd and Tom Brokaw, co-anchors of “NBC Nightly News” in the early 1980s. Cox says he had ambitions of rising to a network position but lacked the confidence to apply. “By the time I thought I was ready I was too old,” he says.

With Cox, what you see is what you get: His on-air qualities come across as unpackaged and sincere, and that translates into viewer trust, observers say. “He's so comfortable in his own skin that he puts people at ease watching him,” says longtime co-anchor Sabrina Squire, who describes Cox as “unadorned.”

The proof is in the numbers. NBC-12 consistently has led the Nielsen ratings of local evening newscasts for years, and Cox's long visibility is strongly associated with the station's rise. “If there wasn't an audience, he wouldn't be there,” says Lisa Schaffner, a former anchorwoman at WRIC-TV 8 who was Cox's competitor for more than 20 years.

“Gene has a loyalty base,” says Jody LoMenzo, a Richmond-based public relations consultant and former broadcast writing professor who has worked as a producer and news editor for the ABC and CBS networks. “If you were to do a Richmond factor and look at all the things that make up identifiable factors in Richmond,” she says — “Ukrop's, the monuments on Monument Avenue — Gene Cox would be on that list.”

But like so many Richmond institutions of late, Cox's time on-air is dwindling. Raycom Media shook up the NBC-12 newsroom in December 2008, laying off several on-air and off-air employees, including longtime sportscaster Ben Hamlin. Hamlin had worked at the station since the late 1970s and was a longtime front anchor with Cox, Squire and Duncan.

“I don't know that they planned to have a team in place for 25 years,” Cox says of the longevity that group enjoyed. Cox laments the loss of Hamlin, a friend, but he's optimistic about the future of his team. “The rest of us are going to hang around a while,” he says. “As long as it works, I think we'll all work.”

The biggest change so far for Cox came seven months ago, July 31, when he officially left the 11 p.m. newscast to go part-time while continuing to anchor the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. broadcasts with Squire. The phasing to part-time in his contract was mutual, Cox says.

“I look at my age and I was getting up there,” he says, “and I thought this is really a young person's world, I need to step aside a little bit.” He also acknowledges the downside: “A lot less money of course, but I should be retired anyway.”

 

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After his stint as anchor at then-CBS affiliate WMAR in Baltimore in the mid-1970s, Cox made the move to Richmond, a smaller market, in part because the Baltimore station “was not embracing new ideas in television, and it was getting left behind,” Cox says.

As for the unknown of how his tenure at NBC-12 will play out, Cox demurs. “I don't expect they will ask me to stay, being an old guy, but if they did I'd love to,” he says. At another point, he spins a typical Coxian quip: “I don't want to be where I'm not wanted.”

Cox seems to garner admiration and respect from his younger colleagues. In the station's green room earlier this year, after Cox makes a special appearance on the “First at Four” newscast to discuss Style's anchor of the decade label, Nancy Kent Smith, NBC-12's news director, tells him the newsroom dropped what it was doing to watch — an unusual occurrence.

“I can tell you that we love him and that he is certainly a valued member of our team,” says Smith. Smith has worked with Cox since she joined the station in 1987, and she offers high praise for Cox's intelligence and ability to adapt to changing technology — a rare gift for an aging newsman.


COX HAS more than adapted. In the past few weeks he's caused something of a stir in some very hip social media circles. Yes, Gene Cox is tweeting.

On the real-time, live-chat-like forum called Twitter, which allows broadcasts with a maximum of 140 characters, Cox serves up distillations of pop culture both old and new, along with a little philosophy and a lot of ham:

“Deep down, we all want to be followed. Twitter answers that primordial need.”

“Life ain't easy for a boy named Sue.”

“It's 3:45. Do you know where your children are? All of them?”

“Snow falls on the just and the unjust. What Matthew 5:45 means today.”

 

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Cox cuts a look with former NBC-12 weather anchor Janet Peckinpaugh, circa 1980. “He is maybe the archivist of the newsroom,” Sabrina Squire says of her co-anchor. “He holds onto these little things and makes sure everyone gets to see them.”

Within days of Cox's first tweet in late January, the local Web site RVANews.com introduced its “Ask the Gene Cox Oracle!” — a randomized Cox-tweet generator. Plug in a question and the generator promises to “delve deep into his eternal wisdom, and retreive [sic] a bright, shining nugget of truth.” At press time, Cox had 811 Twitter followers.

Cox is characteristically curmudgeonly about the hype. He deletes posts that are boring: “If it doesn't suggest a thought of some significance I don't want to play with it,” he says. “And I don't want to read it, either.” But neither is he fooling himself. “With a limitation of 140 characters one is precluded from going into deep thought, which works to my advantage,” Cox says, letting out a deep sigh.

The truth is that Cox stays on top of technology and social media because he has to. “I never sit around in the newsroom and talk about the way things used to be,” he says. “Why? Nobody cares. Why should I bore them?” Immediately after saying this, Cox talks about the way things used to be: “You know when I came here we all had a typewriter on our desk.”

Twitter seems to be a new-age vehicle for Cox's one-liners — and his contradictions.

It is also allows Cox a little opining, hearkening back to his 30-second editorial “Afterthoughts” that wrapped up NBC-12's 5:30 p.m. news in the early '90s. In his self-published collection of writings based on those broadcasts, “Glazed Donuts,” Cox rails about in-laws, Hollywood, cats, politics, butterflies, milk, grass, killer toys, Nintendo, Girl Scouts and the misuse of the nonstandard word “irregardless.”

Does it bother you that the dictionary includes words that aren't?” Cox writes. “[T]here are thousands of perfectly legitimate words, most of which we don't even know. Why not learn those before inventing others that mean nothing?”

Correct usage with a side of cheek is something of a passion for Cox. His mother was a teacher of English, French and Latin, and Cox himself taught middle-school English in a Baltimore suburb before he dived into broadcasting. He's known for mentoring young TV reporters on good grammar and usage — or just correcting them.

 

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Longtime anchorwoman Sabrina Squire, on set with Cox during a newscast. “People in Richmond prefer Channel 12, and that's the truth,” Cox says.

His new book, “Six Pigs in a Tub: A Grammar Repair Kit,” which Cox initially is self-publishing, is a slim, cartoon-illustrated pocket guide that he says is “greatly influenced” by William Strunk and E. B. White's classic tome on usage, “The Elements of Style.” But Cox's emphasis is on the spoken, not written, word. Speaking is “what we all face every day,” Cox says. Chapter One: “To my friends who say things.”

The book is Cox's herald for clear speech in a fallen world littered with linguistic garbage. Cox doesn't care for what he calls the “consultant-driven” bells and whistles that station branding imposes on news writing — the traffic alerts and the consumer advisories and the this-just-ins. “I understand why we do it,” he says. “But that doesn't mean that I'm terribly fond of it.”

The best writing Cox ever did, by his own estimation, was a mid-'90s series of meandering portraits of sleepy local towns — such as Scottsville, Kinsale and Mineral — called “Our Kind of Town.” The reports aren't particularly dogged — just Cox, letting folks talk — but they stand out for him, he says, because “I had no boundaries on it.” When Cox first joined the station, he wrote most of his own copy, he says. Now he writes only occasionally.

Like all the other changes, he's accepted this. But he still has opinions about it.

“We're into this pattern in TV news writing nowadays where you're so penned in by graphics and stings and promotion, that you can't write a good sentence anymore,” he says. “You've got to sprinkle all this crap on it before you can say it.”

HIS TWEETS may be Sybillike, but the true Gene Cox — the man behind the oracle — may be found before dawn, in his garage.

He calls it his “office” or his “environment,” and it's nestled in a gated community off Old Gun Road in Midlothian. Here, the Renaissance man in the anchorman is apparent. Various machine tools and work stations dominate the space. Cox frames the watercolors of his wife, Ellie, who is painter, and he's invented several patented or patent-pending devices for framing. On the garage wall, near a 1950s Ronald Reagan ad for Chesterfield cigarettes and a faded piece of United Press International wire copy, hangs an old flyer for a miter saw Cox once created: the Cox Cutter.

In early morning conversation on a recent Thursday — beside a space heater over a lot of coffee — Cox waxes poetic, offering up cultural references gleaned over the years, such as Dick Tracy's radio watch, historian William Manchester and televangelist Benny Hinn. Dressed in jeans, a baseball cap and glasses but otherwise looking just like he looks on-air, Cox illustrates these riffs with the help of strategic Google searches on his MacBook.

He tokes on a pipe that he lights up far too often as he waits for the overnight ratings come in over his BlackBerry. A copy of “Bible Babel,” the latest book by Virginia Commonwealth University religion professor Kristin Swenson, sits beside an open dictionary. A self-professed “horrible speller,” Cox laments misspelling Pontius Pilate's name — as “Pilot” — in his self-published crime novel, “The Sunset Lounge,” the story of a local TV reporter who attempts to solve a series of Richmond crimes and gets mixed up with a topless dancer named Flossie. Flossie also is a born-again Christian and an aspiring missionary.

“The Sunset Lounge” didn't sell as well as “Glazed Donuts.”

Undeterred, Cox plans more fiction. He says he has six completed books up his sleeve, including at least one other crime novel and a book titled “The Inventor,” which is based on a phone call Cox once received to the NBC-12 station from a man who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine. “It's kind of edgy,” Cox says.

He's less sure about another manuscript, “The Salvation of Ricky Sparks,” which he says he may never publish because it deals head-on with a touchy topic for an anchorman: religion. Cox's father was a Baptist preacher who moved his family throughout towns in Appalachia during Cox's youth and who for a long time wouldn't let young Gene see movies — the first exception, Cox says, was Judy Garland in “A Star Is Born.”

 

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Cox gets up early, around 5:15 or 5:30, makes a pot of coffee, lights his pipe and retreats to the garage. He's written books here. Memorabilia hang on the walls; his wife, Ellie, and neighbors come in and out.

Cox questioned his father's teachings early on. “In times of drought the church would have prayer meetings and pray for rain,” Cox says of his childhood. “I knew that sooner or later it was going to rain. It always had.”

Cox says he's “still searching” when it comes to religion. He's a skeptic, but not a nonbeliever. “I have not reached any definitive conclusions about anything,” he says, although he's read extensively on the topic — books by retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong and religious scholars Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Bart Ehrman.

“All this scholarship, it comes down to one thing for me,” Cox says: “Here in 2010, what happened? Where is God's interaction with man? Why did all the miracles stop? Where did he go? And the answer is, was he ever there to begin with?”

He extends his questioning to recent catastrophes: “I see this terrible tragedy in Haiti and I hear frequent references to God saved this person, God saved that person, and that's just so ridiculous. What about the others? Where was God in the Holocaust, as his chosen people were being slaughtered? None of this makes sense to me.”

Cox later expresses some concern about having gone on too long in his conversations with a reporter about his views on religion. “I wish I hadn't talked about it so openly,” he says. He doesn't want to offend, or be misinterpreted.

In the “Afterthought” to his book “Glazed Donuts,” Cox explains why his on-air commentaries ceased after four years. “Some of the themes that seemed so fresh in the beginning had begun to reappear,” he writes. “Was I running out of ideas? Perhaps. But another factor entered into the decision to shut down: Many viewers had become offended by some of the things I said or they thought I said. A television anchorman can spend only so much time offending his audience.”

Farther down the page, Cox signs off: “My advice is to read the ones you like and ignore those with which you disagree. After all, that is how most of us live. G.C.”

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