His obstacles were many. Some might have said insurmountable. He was a painfully shy black man with a hearing problem, trying to break into major market radio and television in the ‘60’s. Yet Garry Armstrong went on to accomplish amazing things in his illustrious broadcast career.
Whereas racism was certainly a factor in Armstrong’s career as a person of color, it was never really a defining issue to him. ‘I was just so driven to succeed, racism was never a major thing on my radar,’ he says. ‘I was much more aware of my hearing difficulties. It was more personal.’ Armstrong worked hard on his diction, taking speech therapy in college, to counteract his hearing deficiency.
The Brooklyn, NY native cut his broadcast teeth at Hofstra College radio station. He was a terrific writer, but his shyness made him hesitant to attempt on-air work. But that was overcome by his ability to conduct interviews with major celebrities, such as Johnny Carson, Arthur Godfrey, Merv Griffin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Griffin told the young reporter, ‘Well done. You have a future in the business. You listened to me!’
After college, at ABC radio network news, he transcribed radio interviews from news legends such as Ted Koppel and Bill Beutel and became the youngest producer at the network. He edited the copy of biggies such as Paul Harvey, Edward P. Morgan and Howard Cosell.
In 1968, ABC sent Armstrong out to cover major events, such as the iconic Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. His most memorable ‘war story’ was when he sat around a campfire in Vietnam, chatting and eating beans with then President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Shortly thereafter, he landed an on-air job at a small TV station in Hartford, CT. ‘It was so small that there were only 2 on-air people,’ explains Armstrong. He became the all-purpose news reporter, and learned how to shoot and edit film. Once, however, Armstrong learned a humbling lesson when he returned from scoring a scoop to discover he’d forgotten to load film into the camera.
Ultimately, Armstrong was hired as a general assignment reporter at Boston’s Channel 7, where he flourished throughout his 31-year tenure. He established a rapport with both the black and white communities during Boston’s divisive school desegregation period. Yet his reporting career was certainly not without incident.
For example, while covering a story in South Boston, he was accosted by an angry crowd. His first thought was to get the film back to the station, so he made sure it got into the news van.
But the crowd was chanting racial epithets at him, including the N-word. Armstrong defused the situation in Mel Brook-sian fashion. He turned to the crowd and said, ‘I’m not an ‘N’. I’m a Samoan!’ And the crowd backed off.
One time, as Armstrong was covering the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day at Fenway Park, people behind him were getting rowdy, swearing and hitting him on the head just before he went on air. ‘I lost it,’ reveals Armstrong. ‘I was swinging at the guy as we went back live.’ He thought he’d surely lose his job, but when he got back to the station, General Manager Sy Yanoff approached him exclaiming, ‘Garry, way to go. That’s such great stuff. You went with the moment. That’s what’s so great about you.’
Another time, a radio station reported that Armstrong had been seriously injured in a race-related mêlée. When he called the newsroom to say he’d be back soon with the film, the assignment editor was shocked. He thought Armstrong had been taken to the hospital, and stopped the station from going on the air with a bulletin reporting on his reporter’s alleged beating.
Despite all the celebrities, political leaders and newsmakers he covered, Garry, the seasoned reporter, turned into an awed beginner when he interviewed his movie idol John Wayne during the Duke’s visit to Boston in the early 70’s. Afterwards, Garry repeatedly asked his Channel 7 colleagues if they knew who shook his hand until they suggested he calm down and get back to finishing his story.
The 3-time Emmy-winning, Silver Circle inductee has had a wonderful broadcast life. ‘We were so fortunate to have been in radio and television in that era,’ Armstrong opines, ‘because you could do long-form television news. You could have as much time as you needed to tell the story.’ Now, when he tells young journalists how it was, all they can say is, ‘Boy, you were lucky!’
BY: Roger Lyons, Boston Television Examiner
Roger Lyons is a veteran of the Boston television market. He has worked at many stations in news, public affairs, promotion and advertising. Roger has numerous Emmy nominations, many other industry awards.