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Tuned In: Wayne Van Dine retires from problem-solving

Thursday, May 29, 2003

For nearly three decades, Western Pennsylvania TV viewers have taken their problems to Wayne Van Dine. He's got a theory about his success, one all reporters in his position should consider.

KDKA audio engineer Rebecca Check gives retiring reporter Wayne Van Dine a hug on the KDKA set at One Gateway Center. Today is his last day. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"Approach people with respect and give them a chance to solve the problem without looking like an idiot," Van Dine said. "Some people in this market tried to look tough or shook their fist at the [camera] lens. None of that made sense to me. Are you trying to solve a problem or impress people on the air?"

Van Dine, 65, retires from KDKA-TV today after almost 50 years in the news business. At 4, 5 and 6 p.m., the station plans to air features on his career, which began in Pittsburgh when he joined WIIC (the forerunner to WPXI) in 1969. Prior to then, the Kittanning native worked in radio in Weirton, W.Va., and in radio and TV in Steubenville, Ohio.

At Channel 11, Van Dine said, he was rarely assigned to cover news stories because of the contacts he developed over the years. He even went so far as to play basketball with the head of the Secret Service in Pittsburgh as a way to build a rapport.

In 1973, Channel 11 executives asked him to start a consumer affairs beat dubbed "Action Line."

"There was no blueprint for this," Van Dine recalled. "A few stations around the country were trying it. I experimented with it, and it took several months to find my way, how to go about solving these problems and using this medium effectively."

WTAE and KDKA both offered Van Dine jobs at their stations, and he joined Channel 2 in 1978. Over the years, the name of his franchise changed ("2 on Your Side" when he was promoted alongside consumer reporter Lynn Sawyer, "Take it 2 Wayne" in more recent years), but never its goal: To help people who could be helped.

"Many times, I told people, 'I'd love to tell your story, but I'm not seeing any way I can be of any help.' People would come to me with court cases they'd lost and wanted me to say the judge made a bad ruling. It started to take on a life of its own, and there were times the solution was far beyond anything I ever dreamed."

In one case, that involved a bank forgiving a $250,000 loan. A trailer court owner had gotten behind on his payments and had trouble with the Department of Environmental Resources on top of that. The trailers on the land couldn't be moved, and the environmental problems had to be corrected at a cost that would be roughly equal to the amount owed to the bank. Van Dine met with the bank's decision-makers off camera.

"I'm going to propose something preposterous, and I'm not trying to paint you into a corner," Van Dine told the bank executives. "If you say no, I won't report this on the air to embarrass you."

His proposal: Sell the trailer park to the residents for $1. They would qualify for loans and grants to fund the environmental fixes. Seeing that their loss would be a wash, the bankers agreed.

"It's easier today only because I've gained more respect over the years," Van Dine said. "If you get a reputation for being fair and giving a guy a fair shake, that's very empowering."

Helping others was satisfying, Van Dine said, whether it was with problem-solving segments or taking over the KDKA Turkey Fund after commentator Al Julius was let go in 1991.

KDKA news director Al Blinke said the Turkey Fund will continue, as will the station's problem-solving franchise, with John Shumway leading the "KDKA Troubleshooters."

Promos for the revamped franchise will likely air next week, but they probably won't go to the lengths of one of Van Dine's more memorable spots. It featured him running out of a phone booth and tearing off his suit to reveal a Superman-type costume with a number 2 in place of the "S." A woman on the street watching the filming looked at Van Dine and said, "You're the worst damn Superman I've ever seen!"

"I wasn't a bit insulted," Van Dine said, chuckling. "I love the humor of every situation, whether it's at my expense or not."

The woman's commentary wasn't seen on the air, but Van Dine said it should have been. "The promo would have been more effective. People love real things."

Van Dine said being real helped boost the ratings of "Pittsburgh 2 Day" (from a 2 rating to a 13) during the nine months he co-hosted with Patrice King Brown in the show's early days.

It was early in Brown's TV career, and she said Van Dine urged her to be herself.

"He knew I was new to this business, and I was nervous, and he was very encouraging," Brown said. "Wayne has the biggest heart. He is probably among the most generous people I have ever worked with."

For viewers and interview subjects, Brown said Van Dine created a sense of trustworthiness.

"The thing about Wayne that peopled love is, they know what they're getting," Brown said. "He would fight for the little guy, and companies liked him too because whenever he gets results, he would also credit them."

Van Dine and his wife, Rose Marie, who will celebrate 44 years of marriage in August, have four children and five grandchildren. Daughter Gwen Cartier, a medical technologist, and her two children live in Scott.

"I've been just incredibly blessed," Van Dine said. "It scares me sometimes. I often wonder why."

Van Dine, who plays golf at the pro level, won't increase the amount of golf he plays in retirement. He's been part time, working two days a week, since June 2000. He'll continue to dabble in music, playing with an eight-track digital audio recorder that turns him into a one-man band.

Viewers probably won't see Van Dine on KDKA after tonight. He believes retirement means you say goodbye for good.

"The relationship's been wonderful, but I just thought it's time to ride into the sunset on my lawn tractor. ... I just hope to be remembered as somebody who did right, if I'm remembered at all."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com

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