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WKRC-TV's Jeff Hirsh: 'It Was A Good Run, It Was Fun'

Courtesy WKRC-TV
Jeff Hirsh retires Feb. 28 after 40 years as a Cincinnati TV news reporter.

UPDATE AT 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 28:  Jeff Hirsh's coworkers praise him for being able to do it all. And he did.

In 40 years of Cincinnati television – 21 years at WKRC-TV after 19 years at WLWT-TV – he did breaking news; features; live shots; taped packages; stories about long, tedious court trials and complicated government issues; and wrote and produced several one-hour documentaries.

"It was a good run. It was fun," Hirsh said modestly Wednesday night, on the eve of his final day at Channel 12.

Former coworkers called him brilliant, funny, versatile and "a walking encyclopedia of all things Cincinnati" in my post Wednesday at the bottom of this update.

Born in New York City, Hirsh arrived here in 1979 with three college degrees and two years of TV experience in Roanoke, Va. Channel 5's 1979 anchor team was Scott Osborne, meteorologist Tony Sands and sportscaster Zip Rzeppa. It was two weeks before The Who concert tragedy on Dec. 3.

"I never thought I'd be here forever," Hirsh says. "I was happy. I got (to work) a day shift. I had some offers that I didn't take" from out-of-town stations. Plus, Cincinnati Bengals and Reds season tickets were easy to get, unlike the sold-out NFL's New York Giants he grew up rooting for.

And he liked the variety of work. When I asked him for his most memorable stories, he reminded me of the many documentaries he did with his stations' talented videographers: Going to Auschwitz with a Holocaust survivor; going to Birmingham, Ala., for a biography on Civil Rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth; profiling black and white World War II veterans who didn't realize they were third-grade classmates; and chronicling a season of the Reds' minor league Charleston (WVA) Charlies.

A big sports fan, Hirsh also did a story in 1994 about Joe Nuxhall returning to Birmingham, where he pitched in the minors after his Reds debut 50 years earlier at age 15. He interviewed Nuxhall on the mound at old Rickwood Field, which had vintage advertising on the outfield fence from the filming of Tommy Lee Jones' Cobb movie about Ty Cobb.

"It was during the (1994) baseball strike, and Marty and Joe were in Birmingham doing a game between the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Reds AA affiliate, and the Birmingham Barons, when Michael Jordan was playing for Birmingham. We climbed over the fence to get in. That was a lot of fun," he says.

Solid, dependable Hirsh often covered the major breaking news of the day – the Air Canada plane fire, the Home State Savings bank collapse and the Marvin Warner trial.  

Two weeks after his hiring, Hirsh was watching The White Shadow on a rented TV in his apartment when he saw a bulletin about possible fatalities at The Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum (now US Bank Arena). "I didn't have a phone yet in my apartment. It was before cell phones. I knocked on my neighbor's door and asked if I could use the phone so I could call the (Channel 5) newsroom," he says.

Hirsh spent election night reporting from a campaign headquarters, often in Columbus. "I loved politics in high school. I loved covering government. My goal was always to cover politics for people who didn't care about politics," explaining to them why it was important.

What has made WKRC-TV unique was its veteran TV news reporting corps: Deb Dixon, Joe Webb, Larry Davis and Hirsh. All retired in the past nine months.

"Deb, Joe and Larry were the Class of '18, and I, like, stayed an extra semester," he jokes. "And Rich Jaffe graduated early" in 2016.

Unlike his fellow Channel 12 retirees, Hirsh has a full agenda after leaving the station. He's getting married this summer to his Chicago girlfriend and moving to the Windy City, all around several cross-country train trips. The Cincinnati Railroad Club member plans "to take a 15,000-mile train trip around North America two weeks at a time." Eventually he wants to write or teach (he has taught at UC and Miami.)

"It was a very difficult decision (to retire), but it was time, based on my personal life," he says. "I've got a lot to do."

Original post 4 p.m. p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27: Reporter Jeff Hirsh, a Cincinnati TV fixture for most of the past 40 years, broadcasts his final story Thursday, Feb. 28, on WKRC-TV.

Hirsh came here to WLWT-TV in November 1979, and was part of the top-rated 1980s Jerry Springer-Norma Rashid newscast with reporters Michael Collins, John London, Steve Forest, Noel Morgan and Marty Pieratt. 

He joined WKRC-TV in 1998 after a brief hiatus. (He was paid to stay home and not work by a former WLWT-TV news director who didn't like his style.) At WKRC-TV, he continued to do what he did best – win awards for his government, court and investigative stories for Channel 12's top-rated newscasts with reporters Deb Dixon, Joe Webb and Larry Davis, who have all retired in the past year.

Coworkers called him brilliant, funny, versatile and "a walking encyclopedia of all things Cincinnati."

Three times Hirsh won a national Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Twice he has been honored for best investigative reporting in the U.S., and once for best documentary, according tohis WKRC-TV bio. He also has won 25 Regional Emmy Awards among other local, regional and national honors.

Hirsh was a leader in the Local 12 newsroom with great contacts, Webb says. Hirsh "was the union shop steward and a tireless source of support," Webb adds. I know Hirsh also is a huge baseball fan and train travel enthusiast.

Steve Forest, who met Hirsh at the University of Missouri, still laughs about Hirsh anchoring a Saturday night newscast on Channel 5, right before Saturday Night Live.

"He signed off saying, 'Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow,' which was of course the standard sign-off from SNL's Weekend Update. Yeah, he knew exactly what he was doing," says Forest, a Philadelphia-based corporate communications specialist and a close-up magician who has headlined at Hollywood's Magic Castle.

Here are comments from his friends and colleagues:

DEB DIXON: "Jeff has historic knowledge about so many things.  If I needed to know about politics, the Cincinnati Reds, military history, or anything about trains, I could go to him.  If I had a 200-page document that I needed analyzed, I asked Jeff for help.

"He’s brilliant, funny and has a way with words, such as when he wrote a story as a poem, called 'The Jewish Nite before Christmas.'  If I didn’t know he was leaving to be with the love of his life, I would be sad. He is taking time for train travel, too. We’re going to make sure he wears a Cincinnati Reds 150 hat along the way."

NORMA RASHID: "Jeff is one of the best! If anyone ever needed to get background on a local story, Jeff was the go-to guy. A walking encyclopedia of all things Cincinnati! One of the hardest working broadcast journalists I have ever known, and also the guy with some of the best and goofiest bloopers in the biz. He will leave a huge hole in Cincinnati’s news landscape."

JOE WEBB: "Jeff has a unique storytelling voice. He has a way of seeing things and that makes his stories interesting and very watchable. Jeff has his own way with words. He can be whimsical in one sentence and powerfully frank in the next. It’s hard to make that work but, somehow, he does with style and integrity," says Webb, who worked 15 years at WCPO-TV and 16 years at WKRC-TV.

"When we worked at competing stations, seeing him on a story meant two things: One, I would have to work harder to keep up. And two, we were going to have fun. Jeff is a joy to work with. He took the job seriously but not himself.

"Jeff Hirsh does it all. He tells a light feature as well as anybody. He can cut through the B.S. of government and politics. He can write and produce documentaries. Jeff can do a live shot from the side of a snowy highway. Jeff Hirsh would be a 'go-to guy' in any newsroom at any time in television history. On top of all this, he’s a helluva good guy with a quick wit. Despite some 40 years in news, Jeff is still kind and caring. He’s a good dad and grandfather. He will be missed."

MICHAEL COLLINS: "Jeff was really one of the best. He could do anything, from being the lead reporter on election night from the board of elections, to doing a feature on a train. And he was one of the nicest guys ever."

Many TV viewers didn't know that Hirsh also was an active member of the Cincinnati Railroad Club, which staffed the old control Tower A at Union Terminal and does train excursions for club members. He would occasionally attend events wearing his red Amtrak uniform from working summers during college for the passenger service out of Chicago in 1974 and '75. One of his stories this week was about remains of the Pennsylvania Railroad's long forgotten Torrence Road Station near Columbia Parkway, three miles east of downtown.  

Hirsh has three degrees: a bachelor in history from the University of Michigan; a masters in history from Washington University; and and a masters in journalism from Missouri. His first reporting job was at WDBU-TV in Roanoke, Va., from 1977-79.

Cincinnati viewers have witnessed a changing of the guard at Local 12: Reporters Hirsh, Dixon, Davis, Webb, anchor Brad Johansen and meteorologist Brendan Orr have left in the past year. If you go back 15 months, add meteorologist Scott Dimmich to the list.

Hirsh, Dixon, Davis, Webb and Johansen – that's 150 years of Cincinnati TV news experience which has walked out the WKRC-TV door. Make it 175 years when you add in reporter Rich Jaffe Hirsh, who retired in August 2016. Here's my October column, "Why The Exodus At WKRC-TV?"

Hirsh soon will have plenty of time to ride the rails and watch baseball games. Thanks for all your great reporting, Jeff.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.