NEW ORLEANS -- Phil Johnson, the New Orleans television icon who helped build WWL-TV’s newsroom into a local and national powerhouse, giving the station a distinctive and distinguished on-air editorial voice while also winning three Peabody awards for his documentaries, died late Monday after a lengthy illness. He was 80.
A former WWL news director, documentary writer/producer and assistant general manager, Johnson, familiar for his bearded face and trademark “Good evening,” joined the station as promotion director in 1960. It did not take long for him to make his mark. Legendary general manager J. Michael Early tapped Johnson to help establish and fulfill a mission of public service, through daily editorials, established in 1962.
“The Jesuits who owned the station had told him they wanted the station to stand for something,” Johnson recalled in a 2003 interview. “We figured, what better way to show that than by doing a daily editorial?”
Johnson would go on to write and deliver editorials on WWL-TV for 37 of his 39 years at the station. When he retired in 1999, his editorials were hailed as the longest-running series of any television station in America.
Johnson not only dealt in his opinion, he also shaped news coverage in Channel 4’s North Rampart Street newsroom. Roughly eight years after delivering his first editorial, Johnson took over the reins of WWL’s growing newsroom.
He was named news director in 1970 and helped hire and cultivate some of the city’s most-beloved and respected talents: Angela Hill, Garland Robinette, Jim Henderson, Hap Glaudi, Nash Roberts, Jim Metcalf, Eric Paulsen, Sally-Ann Roberts and Dennis Woltering, as well as scores of producers, photographers and engineers. His hires, news philosophy and news judgment helped propel WWL into first place in the local ratings race in the early 1970s, a position it has maintained to this day.
But Johnson’s journalism career had rather austere beginnings. He often jokingly commented that, had it not been for his brother, a police officer who saw to it that his younger brother attended Jesuit High School and stayed out of French Quarter clubs, he might have followed another career path.
“I always said I’d probably be hitting rim shots for strippers down on Bourbon Street,” Johnson joked. “I was a pretty good drummer."
The son of a fire captain killed in the line of duty, Johnson was a proud product of New Orleans’ blue-collar Third Ward. After graduating from Jesuit in 1946, Johnson (who later served in the Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy) earned a degree from Loyola University in New Orleans in 1950.
Soon after, he went to work in the sports department of the legendary, now-defunct Item newspaper, under the direction of sports writer and future Channel 4 sports director Hap Glaudi. It would prove to be a fertile training ground.
Johnson would leave New Orleans briefly for print journalism jobs in Miami and Chicago, not to mention a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1959.
But his hometown would soon call again, at the dawn of the local television era, and he signed on as promotion director at WWL-TV in 1960, which had only been on the air three short years.
“During the interview they asked, ‘What have you promoted lately?’” Johnson explained. “I answered, ‘Mostly me.’ I got the job.”
The promotions job would soon lead to a very high-profile position as editorialist. Johnson delivered his first on March 26, 1962.
“Beginning today and every weekday thereafter, this station will present editorial opinion – a living, vigorous commentary on all things pertaining to New Orleans, its people and its future,” Johnson wrote in that first editorial, calling it “commentary designed to stimulate thought, to awaken in all of us an awareness of our responsibilities, not only to our community but to each other and to ourselves.”
Even with the responsibility for writing a daily editorial, Johnson was not content to stay in the newsroom or in front of the studio camera. His reporting for documentaries produced around the globe earned him and WWL-TV national recognition. That includes a stint as war correspondent, reporting from Vietnam (with photographer Del Hall), Israel and Beirut (with Garland Robinette, Angela Hill and photographer Brian Lukas in 1983).
Johnson’s first documentary project was an inside look at the Second Vatican Council, a program for which WWL-TV was granted amazing access as a non-network news outlet.
Johnson’s international reporting helped earn WWL three of its seven prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards. The first, in 1970, was for Johnson’s special program “Israel: This New Frontier,” which the Peabody judges called an “outstanding attempt to interpret the nation of Israel for the viewers.” The second came two years later, for “China ’72: A Hole in the Bamboo Curtain.” Johnson and photographer Jim Tolhurst comprised the first non-network news team allowed in China since 1949.
In 1982, the Peabody judges recognized Johnson again, for the program “The Search for Alexander,” an effort the Peabody judges said was “professionally photographed, exceptionally well-written and bears the distinctive and distinguished touch of the talented Phil Johnson.”
Other programs took Johnson and his team to Egypt (for a special timed to coincide with the blockbuster King Tut exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art), Paris and Rome. He also produced programs on New Orleans homes, history and architecture.
During nearly four decades in local news, Johnson won scores of other awards and honors, including an Emmy award. He was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Broadcasters Association’s New Orleans Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996, and in 1997, earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Press Club of New Orleans.
In 1999, Johnson’s alma mater, Loyola University New Orleans awarded him its Integritas Vitae Award, the university's highest honor for an individual “with a high moral character in a lifetime of unselfish service without expectation of material reward of public recognition.” Later, Johnson donated his lifetime work, consisting of the original manuscripts of more than 10,000 broadcast editorials to the university’s Monroe Library.
Johnson, with WWL’s blessing, worked tirelessly to shine the spotlight on charitable causes and activities through his daily editorials. He went a step further by helping to found (with noted chef and restaurateur Warren Leruth) the Chefs’ Charity for Children, an annual fundraiser for St. Michael’s Special School. Johnson had produced an Emmy award-winning documentary on the school for children with serious learning difficulties.
"I was at Leruth’s restaurant having dinner, and Warren said he wanted to do something to thank God for helping him," Johnson said. "He asked, 'Who needs help?' I told him about this little sister up in the Irish Channel who was desperately in need of money. He went to see her, and that was it," he said. Johnson went on to become executive chairman of the annual event, which continues to this day, having raised well over $1 million for the school.
Johnson is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, their five children and eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.