Behind Charles Osgood's desk, a bumper sticker is pasted to the wall. "Charles Kuralt," it says, "Should Be King."
You don't mess with the King.Two months ago, Osgood took over from Kuralt as anchor of "Sunday Morning" on CBS. At the time, it was hard to imagine how anyone could supplant Kuralt and his comforting, almost churchly approach to news.
Now it is clear that Osgood does not even intend to try. And that, perhaps, is the secret of his early success.
"It's too easy for people to say, `He's sure no Charles Kuralt,' " Osgood said in an interview at the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan. "So the best I can do is succeed him without attempting to replace him."
Fans of "Sunday Morning" know that during the 15 years Kuralt was host, the program developed its own distinctive rhythm and tone. The stories were long - almost epic by the standards of television - the pacing slow and the mood soothing.
The 90-minute show began with one ritual (Kuralt standing next to a Plexiglas tower inscribed with the stories of the day) and ended with another (nature shots accompanied by a buzzing, chirping soundtrack). The format seemed tailored to Kuralt's rumbling voice and sad-sack demeanor.
Now the show begins with Osgood standing next to the Plexiglas tower and ends with the buzzing and chirping. The format seems equally well suited to his Rod Serling-esque intonation and dapper manner.
Indeed, when asked about potential alterations, he seems uncomfortable, as if merely by contemplating changes he could be accused of bad faith.
"I really have not wanted to be at all heavy-handed about trying to make this show be mine," he said. "I feel as if it's a terrific show the way it is. There are some little things that I may look at, but nothing major.
"I hate to even mention this because somebody's bound to feel threatened by anything that you say," he continued, "but I'm not absolutely sure that the national weather is very useful." (Early in the broadcast, the host always delivers a one-to-two-minute soliloquy on the national weather forecast.)
Not that Osgood, 61, is actually planning to eliminate the national weather; he is just thinking about it. "Nobody has ever complained about it," he said. "On the other hand, people don't stop you on the street and say, `Boy, I love that weather.' "
So far at least, Osgood's hands-off approach appears to have appeased the "Sunday Morning" audience, a group that tends to be older and, presumably, set in its ways.
(Slightly more than half of the show's audience is 55 or over.) For the first six weeks of Osgood's tenure, the show averaged a 4.0 rating, virtually unchanged from the same period a year ago.
To CBS News fans, Osgood's face - and his trademark bow ties - were already familiar. He has served as anchor of the Sunday evening news, as co-anchor of the morning news and has been a frequent contributor to the evening news. But it is his voice that is probably best known.
Every weekday morning, Osgood delivers commentaries called "The Osgood Files" on CBS Radio. Sometimes the commentaries are in prose, sometimes in verse that Osgood himself calls doggerel.
The commentaries - there are four each morning - usually address some offbeat story that Osgood read on the news wires or some equally offbeat issue that happened to catch his attention.
On a recent Friday morning, for example, Osgood offered a poem about a watermelon truck that turned out to contain 2,500 pounds of cocaine, mused on becoming a parent to a stretch of asphalt through the Adopt-a-Highway program and offered praise for a Portland, Ore., police chief who moved with his family to a high-crime neighborhood.
Finally, he took up a story about a man whose arm was broken when he wrestled with store clerks who had caught him shoplifting. The man sued the store and was awarded $13,000 in damages.
"People once used to say that crime does not pay/And at one time that was how it was," Osgood said. "But if crime didn't pay in an earlier day/These days in the courtroom it does."
The first "Osgood File" of the morning goes out at 6:25 a.m. Osgood tries to go to bed by 9 p.m. so he can get up by 2:30 A.M. to prepare. He is used to this schedule, he said, as are his wife and five children, though he acknowledged, "It does mean you're not quite in sync with everybody else."
Osgood's radio contract is reported to be one of the most lucrative in the business - somewhere in the high six figures - and over the past two years it has been made that much more lucrative by the commercials that he reads during the broadcast, for sponsors like Total cereal, Rembrandt toothpaste and Northwest Airlines. These commercials nearly prevented his becoming the host of "Sunday Morning."
CBS News's ethical guidelines prohibit employees from endorsing products, and the host of "Sunday Morning" is a News employee.
When Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, first approached him about the job, Osgood said, he told him that he was committed to doing the radio broadcasts and commercials.
Faced with this dilemma, Stringer, who first met Osgood more than 25 years ago, decided to grant him what is effectively an exemption. While this prompted some quiet grumbling, Stringer said he was not concerned about setting a bad precedent. "It's such a unique set of circumstances," he said. "I don't expect it to create any problems."
For his part, Osgood said: "It is possible you can always devise a scenario `what if ... ?' What if it turns out that the toothpaste that you're advertising contains something that there's a news story about?" But he said that was too unlikely to worry about.
For almost as long as he can remember, Osgood said, he knew he wanted to go into radio. As a student at Fordham, he worked on the college station with Alan Alda; then after a stint as the announcer for the United States Army Band, he went to work for ABC Radio, where he was forced to drop his real last name, Wood, for his middle name, Osgood.
(There was already a Charles Wood at the network.) At ABC Radio in the early 1960s, he met another young reporter named Ted Koppel. The two became friends and together proposed a morning show for ABC television that would have competed with NBC's "Today" show.
"He and I, in our mind's eye and nowhere else, were going to be the news anchors," Koppel recalled.
Osgood moved over to CBS Radio when it became clear, in his words, that he "wasn't going anywhere" at ABC. He soon began to take on television news as well, filling in sometimes for Roger Mudd. His first love remains the radio, he said, but his current gig is pretty close to perfect.
"If somebody were to say to me, `What would an ideal combination of radio and television be?' " he said. "I would think, well, how about four drive-time commentaries and features you could do and then on Sundays you could do an hour-and-a-half Sunday morning show?"