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Close-up: Dennis Morgigno

Morgigno's career marked by community connections

Dennis Morgigno. Photo courtesy of Cox Communications San Diego

For nearly two decades, Dennis Morgigno and the station he helped launch, Channel 4 San Diego, have been inextricably linked.

You could hardly mention one without thinking of the other.

And now, fittingly, both are leaving the spotlight together.

With Channel 4 having profoundly scaled back its original programming, Morgigno has decided to retire. His last day at Cox Communications will be Friday.

"My job at Cox is done," Morgigno said from his fifth-floor DiamondView Tower office, partially filled with stacks of videotape cassettes, the relics of a 40-year career in broadcast journalism. "My primary reason for being here was to do Channel 4, and we did that very successfully for 15 years.

"I always said, the day they come and tell us that it's over, I'm going to go shake their hand and tell them ‘thanks.’"

Currently the director of communications for Cox's California operations, Morgigno could read the writing on the teleprompter in 2011 when Cox Communications lost the television rights to air the San Diego Padres.

With the departure of the Padres, around whom Channel 4 was built in 1997, the station lost a sizable revenue stream and was left with a giant hole in its programming schedule.

Cox was forced to severely downsize. Now only a small production office and a few original programs remain.

Morgigno acknowledges it was the right business decision, although it was accompanied by bittersweet emotions.

"(Channel 4) allowed us to do some good journalism, some good entertainment," he said. "Some of the things the other affiliate stations, because of their economic realities, couldn't do, we were allowed to do. So when I knew that was going away, it was a huge sense of loss because I knew it wouldn't be replaced, and it hasn't."

That sadness was quickly followed by gratitude.

"We had 15 really good years. Who gets that?" he said.

Morgigno's journalism career began in 1973 -- not in front of a camera, but behind a typewriter.

A self-described "news junkie" who wanted to start a school newspaper in third grade, he worked as a vacation relief reporter for the Merced Sun-Star between his junior and senior years at California State University Fresno.

Assured of a full-time spot at the paper upon graduation, Morgigno was all set to return to the Sun-Star when the professor of his radio/television news writing class, who also was the news director at KMJ-TV Channel 24 in Fresno, offered him "an A in the class and 3 bucks an hour" to write for the local NBC affiliate.

"I ended up staying for five years and when I left, I was the main anchor," Morgigno said.

During his tenure in Fresno, Morgigno worked as a writer, a weekend producer, an assignment editor and, finally, an on-air reporter.

Morgigno moved to San Diego in 1978 right as the industry was experiencing an unhinged revolution of sorts, parodied in the Will Ferrell movie "Anchorman." He even admits to having sported the bushy mustache and big hair of the main character, Ron Burgundy.

Morgigno can verify that the events in the movie, though exaggerated for laughs, were based in reality.

He was present outside a hospital emergency room when a Channel 10 reporter and a Channel 39 reporter nearly came to blows over a story. He remembers the wild, weekly parties attended by members of all the local stations. And he recalls the arrival of the female co-anchor ruffling more than a few butterfly collars.

"All those stories and all that bluster was there because everybody was so passionate about what they were doing then," he said. "The initiative for the joke is that, misplaced as it might have been, we really cared about what we did, and we were competing with each other. Tempers flared at times and passions flared all the time. It was actually fun. It was a good time."

"We all thought we were doing important work, and we were having fun doing it," he said. "We were lucky, and we knew it."

Morgigno said it was when the industry was doing some of its best work because staffs hadn't been cut and writers/producers weren't forced to do two to three stories a day. Reporters could ask for, and get, several days to work on a special report.

Networks used to pay local affiliates to run their programming, giving stations multiple sources of income.

"News broke even, at best," Morgigno said. "You made your reputation on news. You made your money elsewhere."

In the 1980s, that changed with the proliferation of cable and the rising cost of television production. Networks began charging affiliates for their shows, and the only source of income was from ads shown during news broadcasts.

That forced stations to expand the number and hours of their news programs while simultaneously cutting staff. It meant more time to fill with fewer reporters and producers.

"It was like taking a big glass of water and pouring it into a pizza pan," Morgigno said. "You had to cover a lot more territory, so your depth was (very thin). But it was all economic."

By the mid-1990s, Morgigno had had enough. He left his last anchoring job in 1995 and considered leaving the business.

Instead he started consulting for Cox Communications, and when then-General Manager Bill Geppert floated the idea of creating a local channel, Morgigno had plenty of ideas.

“(Geppert) knew if we started telling stories about San Diego that we would engage people, and he was right," Morgigno said.

They created the award-winning program "San Diego Insider Magazine," which Morgigno anchored, and launched the in-depth interview show "Forefront," which Morgigno co-hosted.

It was the type of comprehensive journalism Morgigno enjoyed during his early days as a reporter.

"I make no bones about this -- Cox revived my career," he said. "I was done after 1995. I was disgusted. I wanted nothing to do with it.

"When I started working with (Cox), and when Bill and (production manager) Dan (Novak) and I started talking about a channel, I got excited again."

At about the time Cox Communications was considering airing a local station, San Diego played host to the 1996 Republican National Convention. It gave Morgigno and Novak the chance to showcase their production skills as they put together special programming for the convention.

Cox then won the rights to broadcast the Padres in 1997 -- and the company had its anchor tenant with which to launch a new station. Channel 4 quickly became the destination for all things sun, sand and blue.

The station featured "One on One," a player profile show hosted by Jane Mitchell, and "Padres Magazine," hosted by Jerry Coleman -- talent Morgigno helped recruit.

"He really branded Channel 4," said Dave Bialis, Cox's current general manager. "When you thought of Channel 4, you thought of the Padres, and when you thought of the Padres, you thought of Channel 4."

Morgigno also helped in creating Channel 4's innovative partnership with the NFL during the 1998 and 2003 Super Bowls, which were played at Qualcomm Stadium.

In 2003, the San Diego Press Club honored Morgigno with the Harold Keen Award for career achievement in journalism. Last year, the club honored him again with the Directors Award. He also has received numerous Emmys.

"The thing about Dennis is he's always high-quality," Bialis said. "When he sees things that are not high quality, it bothers him. His integrity is off the charts. If something has to be done, he wants it to be done accurately and done well."

Morgigno doesn't know what the next sound bite of his life will be, although he still wants to work, even if only part time. For now, he's going to do what any 61-year-old, newly retired broadcaster would do -- golf, bike and play guitar.

He will co-host Channel 4's "Cox Presents: A Salute to Teachers" at least one more time this fall, but he will miss being behind the microphone.

"We got to do this for 15 years, and we did it really well," Morgigno said. "We provided a place where good writers, producers, photographers and editors could come and do their craft when they thought, 'Nah, I can't do that in this business anymore.'

"The thing I enjoyed most about my career was when I was interviewing someone and you saw their eyes light up. I think I'm good at getting people to open up, and I will miss the challenge of finding the right questions to ask."

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