Published: Sunday, June 19, 2011
By Dave Walker, The Times-Picayune
Conan's O'Brien's recent discovery of the Frankie and Johnny Furniture "Special Man" commercial (1989), which culminated in a "Conan" viewer contest to craft tributes to the beloved ad from New Orleans' TV past, also offered one local son the opportunity to craft a subliminal tribute to his father.
WDSU-TV anchor Scott Walker reported a story about the "Conan" contest and included a brief snippet of announcer voiceover not heard in O'Brien's edit of the commercial.
"Bad credit or no credit?" says the voice. "No problem!"
(The full commercial includes Bob Walker doing the voiceover in the beginning. Hear the complete commercial HERE.)
Careful listeners know the voice belongs to Bob Walker, Scott's father and semi-retired New Orleans rock 'n' roll radio oldies king.
"Forty-five years in the business and all I've done, and I'm going to be remembered for that Frankie and Johnny's commercial," Bob Walker said.
Not likely, at least today in at least one household, when the extended Walker family -- which numbers Bob and Judy's three children (Scott, Sherry, Shaun) and four grandchildren (two via Scott and wife Jennifer) -- gathers for some Father's Day feasting.
Bob and Scott Walker gathered recently at a Metairie coffeehouse for a father-son interview. Both said they don't talk about their careers much, so it was an opportunity to share a little family history, as well as track the path Scott took to follow his father onto local airwaves.
Bob Walker's professional prime began in the mid-1960s and was mostly spent in afternoon drive at WTIX AM-690 when that station was a local and national Top 40 powerhouse.
He worked himself onto the air there after hustling his way into a career first at LSU's student-run station then an inaugural professional DJ job replacing a program director unhappily handling a weekend air shift.
"As long as you knew how to empty an ash tray, you were eligible to be on the air," Bob said. "They didn't care."
At WTIX, the playlist was gloriously broad compared to today's frozen-format outlets, a shuffling iPod of the airwaves playing the Beatles to Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys to the Supremes.
"You could hear Dean Martin and Al Martino in the daytime, and in the nighttime you'd hear Jimi Hendrix," Bob Walker said. "It was such a collage of music. It was all popular."
As was Bob Walker's show, providing him rare, for that business at least, job security. He and Judy started their family with Scott in 1975.
With kids came financial demands, so Bob eventually began to book himself as an event DJ, spinning tunes at dances, weddings, whatever the paying occasion.
"I was barely home," he said. "I'd get off the air at 7, come home, eat quick, load up the gear and go play music five nights a week. This went on for 20 years. I guess I wasn't the world's greatest father. But in those times, and in times like these, you have to do what you have to do to keep your head above water."
It also helps, Bob added, to have "a patient wife."
As demanding as the live-DJ jobs could be, some father-son bonding time - and a career vector for Scott -- came about because of them.
"My sound system was a lot to carry, with the speakers, amplifier and all the equipment," Bob said. "I needed help. Scott was doing nothing at 12 years old on a Saturday night, so I said, 'Why don't you come help me?'
"He'd help me with weddings, sitting next to me and watching what I did, watching what I played. After probably 100 of these, he had a pretty good idea of what music worked and what music didn't."
So Bob began to funnel surplus bookings Scott's way.
"At 15, I was usually the youngest person in the (reception) room," Scott said. "You should've seen the initial looks I got from brides sometimes."
It was a great part-time job for a high school kid during Scott's years at Brother Martin. It also gave Scott the microphone bug, which manifested itself in weekend DJing on TIX and his college major (radio-TV, film) at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Having seen the devolving industry from the inside, Bob tried to steer Scott from a broadcasting career.
"He tried to dissuade me from doing anything in the business," Scott said. "I guess it was in the blood."
"He smelled the money!" Bob said.
If so, it was a long-range whiff. Scott worked part time for a Hattiesburg TV station off and on through college, but remembers that his first full-time annual sportscaster salary offer was $12,500, bumped to $16,500 thanks to a job offer from a station elsewhere.
Young TV news people often market-hop, and Scott Walker did. En route from Hattiesburg to Jackson to Gulfport-Biloxi to Mobile to Orlando there was a marriage (to Jennifer, whom Scott met at Southern Miss) and a son. Scott also moved to news from sports during one of those career stops, a decision he does not regret today.
Orlando was the comparative big time, a high-profile slot anchoring a morning news show on an NBC affiliate in a top-20 media market.
Scott was lucky to stay close to home during those years, even in Orlando, a quick air hop away, but the prospect of actually working in his hometown never seemed likely. And the question came up a lot.
"I would always say, 'I don't know,'" Scott said. "I really wanted to say 'Never,' because I thought that's how it would pan out.
"I thought, once I got to Orlando, it wasn't going to happen, that that chapter had passed.
"When I said we were moving back, it took everybody by surprise."
The move came almost two years ago, installing Scott initially as a co-anchor on WDSU's
5 p.m. newscast. He's since taken over anchor-desk duties at 4 p.m. (with Camille Whitworth, who's also his 5 p.m. co-anchor) and 10 p.m. (with Norman Robinson).
Since moving home, there's been the addition of another grandson for Bob and Judy, and Scott's work demands now place him in a position he recognizes from his own childhood.
"It's hard for me right now to not be home with my kids," Scott said. "That's something I battle with every day."
Jennifer, who's originally from the Thibodeaux area and still has family there, has put her own career (mostly) on hold to care for the boys.
Earlier in the couple's married life, she worked in sales and marketing and public relations, and was director of syndication for the Mobile-based TV show "Home Improvement with Danny Lipford." Now she produces New Orleans Baby Fest -- a new fall expo for young families this year scheduled for October 15 at the Pontchartrain Center -- but mostly moms.
"It's a tough job, and she does it exceptionally well," Scott said. "My wife is just like my mom: super-patient."
One unique link between this father and this son is their facility with electronic and social media beyond their primary medium.
Bob launched a website dedicated to New Orleans radio history (find it here: www.walkerpub.com) when most Internet access was still dial-up, and now helps maintain a Facebook page (New Orleans Area Radio & TV Broadcasters) dedicated to the same topic.
Scott is a tireless Twitter practitioner (@ScottWalker6), sometimes posting during newscasts, and maintains a personal website (www.scottwalkertv.com).
"You can engage viewers that way, show them behind-the-scenes video," Scott said. "When you bring people into the inner sanctum, they appreciate what you do a little more."
"We did that too on WTIX," Bob added. "We used to put listeners on the air all the time, ask them questions so you could be a part of their lives.
"You make the audience feel like they're a part of what you're doing."
Another link is their shared experience of participating in TV moments that became viral online sensations.
Bob has "The Special Man," the YouTube version of which has almost 250,000 views (a total that doesn't factor recent "Conan" exposure worth many thousands more).
Scott has the infamous Mobile leprechaun. Anchoring a newscast there in 2006, he introduced a fanciful story by another reporter documenting a supposed local leprechaun sighting. The YouTube video of that one is approaching 19 million views.
Though he's thrilled to be working in his hometown and available for full-family Father's Day barbecues, Scott Walker is clearly a candidate for further career advancement, at least according to one local broadcasting veteran.
"He's going to hate me for saying this, but Scott will be on the network someday, and we'll be a long way from our grandkids," Bob said. "He's right at the age (36) when the networks start to troll."
Scott's bosses at WDSU prefer instead to think of him as New Orleans' next 30- year anchor, though they acknowledge he's got the talent to move up someday.
Moving to a larger stage is "not part of the plan right now," Scott said. "We like it back here.
"I stopped trying to plan things a while ago. If you're always thinking about the future, you're not in the moment."
The location of today's Walker family Father's Day gathering was undecided at the time of the interview, but the decision seemed to be leaning toward dad's house.
"My wife likes to grill," Bob Walker said.
"Any time take we can take the kids to someone else's house and let 'em run around," Scott Walker added, "we do it."
Dave Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3429.
Read more TV coverage at nola.com/tv. Follow him at twitter.com/davewalkertp.