In these days of media downsizing and contraction, it's easy to assume the worst when you hear a reporter with 47 years' total experience is hanging up his notebook to spend more time with his family and travel.
But longtime WFLA-Ch. 8 reporter Rod Challenger says it was his decision to retire this week, capping a near 30-year career at Tampa's NBC affiliate today.
Challenger, 65, said he originally planned to retire last year, when WFLA owner Media General offered buyouts throughout the company. But that offer wasn't open to employees working under contract, and officials at the company's home office in Richmond, Va., weren't willing to make an exception.
What a difference a recession can make. Last week, WFLA offered him a buyout months before his contract would expire in August, and he took it. "There was no coercion, it was totally voluntary on my part and I'm happy to have the opportunity," he said. "If I can ease their budget situation and maybe save someone else from getting laid off, that's even better."
He came to the Tampa Bay area in 1975, working first as 11 p.m. anchor at WTVT-Ch. 13, then moving to WTSP-Ch. 10 for a brief stint as news director and anchor before settling at WFLA in 1979. He joined the station's Pinellas bureau in 1984.
WFLA plans to air a tribute to Challenger in its 6 p.m. newscast today. "It's a loss for us," said news director Don North. "It's difficult to replace someone with that knowledge and breadth of experience."
Challenger took a few minutes to reflect on his expansive career, one day before he'll leave the station for the last time to spend more time with wife, Kathy, his two children, his grandchildren and his overseas scuba diving trips:
His first journalism job was working for a radio station near Peoria, Ill., in 1961: "I've covered every president since John Kennedy, up to and including Obama. Except for a break when I went to Vietnam in the Army, I've worked journalism jobs since 1961. I saw John F. Kennedy speak in Peoria and interviewed Hubert Humphrey after President Nixon resigned. The idea that you will be a witness to history or meet interesting people is what keeps you going."
He was originally hired at WTVT as the noon anchor: "But when I came in, the 11 p.m. guy left, so I got that job... I remember of the first stories we did with a live microwave truck at WTVT was at a KKK rally in Riverview; they had a huge cross and right before we went on the air, they lit the cross. It's not that long ago, they were still burning crosses in Tampa Bay."
He's survived two heart attacks (in 1987 and 2003) and bypass surgery in 1991: "You can't see inside your body, but I feel good and I don't have any apparent problems... I see the cardiologist every nine months and he's written letters clearing me for scuba diving ... so, knock on wood, my health is good."
Some journalists dream of working until their dotage, but Challenger isn't one of them: "I know some journalists, like a Mike Wallace, might keep working into their 80s, but I don't want to do that. With the downsizing of newsrooms ... now, we're always chasing the crime of the day. It's a good time to move on."