It happened about halfway through his taping session with the Canyon Rim Elementary School orchestra.
Craig Wirth, KTVX reporter and life-slicer-upper, was doing a story on grade school musicians, and he was trying to be as unobtrusive as a man being followed around by a photographer, a producer, a newspaper reporter and a school district music supervisor can be.Dressed in a gray suit, gray cowboy boots and a snappy red paisley tie, he looked every bit the TV journalist that is, if your definition of a TV news reporter is broad enough to include a balding, slightly paunchy man who looks more like a grown-up Cabbage Patch doll than Barbie's Ken. He moved around the room easily, comfortably, gathering bits of information for his story while positioning himself perfectly for the camera shots he wanted to be in.
The man handled himself like a pro. Which, to be perfectly honest, was a little disappointing. I mean, this is a man who has made his reputation as a journalistic Everyman, with a "What Me Worry?" approach to reporting that is as non-threatening as it is entertaining. Watching a Craig Wirth story is sort of like watching Jimmy Stewart act it looks so easy, you'd almost think a regular person could do it.
So where, I wondered, was the paranoia? Where were the soulful looks? When was this stereotypical TV news feature going to become "Wirth Watching"?
That's when it happened. Wirth slipped into the orchestra and sat down next to a young violinist named Kirsten. He asked her to teach him how to play the violin, and so she showed him how to hold the instrument and how to draw the bow across the strings. The students seated all around him giggled at his first screeching attempts to coax something musical out of the violin, and he responded with The Look that sad-eyed, hang-dog, how-do-I-get-into-these-situations expression that helps Wirth step through the TV screen and into the hearts of viewers.
"This is hard, isn't it?" he asked Kirsten, who insisted that he was doing "good for a beginner."
From that moment on, the taping session was special. Wirth was no longer an outsider doing a story about them. He was one of them, taking a slice out of their life and sharing it with the world. When he closed his story shuffling awkwardly down a deserted hallway at Canyon Rim talking about how he wished he had taken up the violin earlier ("I could'a been somebody," he laments), one couldn't help but get the feeling that he was speaking not only to viewers, but for them as well.
"I'm in awe of those kids," said the gentle, soft-spoken Wirth, after the shoot. "I'm in awe of everyone I do stories about. That's what gets me interested in them in the first place, I guess. I want to know how they do it whatever it is they do."
But how does Wirth do what he does? How does a TV reporter who has won Emmys for his work in New York City and Los Angeles manage to return to Utah and still be in awe of violin-playing sixth-graders?
"I'm a storyteller," he says, simply. "There may not be as many big news events here as there are in the big cities, but there are just as many good stories to tell."
Which is a good thing for Wirth, because his life has been a series of moves to Utah. Montana born and raised, he grew up thinking of Salt Lake City as "the big time."
"As a kid I used to spend hours listening to KSL on a little radio I had," he said. "My secret ambition at the time was to be a baseball player, but unfortunately I was born with the body of a reporter. So I decided that more than anything else I wanted to be a quiz show host for KSL."
When time came for him to go to college, he came down to the U. of U. and got a job working for Ch. 4 then called KCPX.
"I worked behind the scenes for Fireman Frank," he said, recalling an early children's show on Ch. 4. "The highlight of my career was the day we brough an anteater down from the zoo, and it threw up on camera.
"KCPX fired me three times," Wirth said, laughing. "They never ordered me out because I think they pitied me. But the truth is, I wasn't too good at it."
So he went to Wisconsin, where he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in urban affairs and covered the state legislature for WTMJ in Milwaukee. When they suggested that he put down his microphone and become a producer, he came back to Utah and KUTV.
"I really wanted to be a serious reporter," Wirth said, "but a consultant at Ch. 2 said they couldn't have someone who looks like Tim Conway doing serious journalism. So I became a feature reporter."
Today Wirth realizes that the change couldn't have been more fortuitous for him.
"I wasn't blessed with a great deal of talent in this business," he says candidly. "That's why I was always getting fired. I could never be the great investigative reporter. You could give a mike to anyone, and they would do better at that than me."
But Wirth's quirky, self-effacing feature style caught on with many Utah viewers, and his "Wirth Watching" reports helped him carve out a niche for himself in Utah's television landscape. That's why it came as a bit of a shock to him when, in 1983, he received a memo from KUTV management telling him his contract wouldn't be renewed.
"To tell you the truth, I really don't know what happened," he said of the end of his relationship with Ch. 2. "I had taken a leave of absence, and they just asked me not to come back. I'm not really sure why."
"We made him, and we liked him," says KUTV News director Mike Youngreen today. "I don't remember all the details of why he wasn't renewed, but I do remember thinking that he had already covered every funny story there was in the state. As I recall, that had a lot to do with it."
Wirth insists he feels no bitterness toward KUTV for the snub. "Why should I?" he asks. "They taught me my trade. I'm grateful to them."
The day after he left KUTV, Wirth was offered a job in New York City by station WOR, and "Wirth Watching" moved east to the Big Apple. His New York reports were more serious and more production-oriented, Wirth said, but it was essentially the same style that he had honed on Utah viewers at KUTV.
"You can't develop a style," he says now. "It's either there or it's not. But I do think that my style matured in New York. Heck, I think I matured in New York."
That maturity helped Wirth to three local Emmys in the nation's largest television market, and prompted a job offer from KCBS in Los Angeles. After two years at WOR he folded up the "Wirth Watching" tent and returned to the West, earning one Emmy for his work and a brief stint as a florist on "The Young and the Restless" before the third wave of CBS lay-offs got him.
So naturally, he returned to Salt Lake. Sort of. Actually, he's still living in Hollywood and free-lancing for WOR and KHJ in Los Angeles. But he's also flying into Utah once or twice a month to make KTVX "Wirth Watching" during the Wednesday evening newscasts. ("It works well for Delta," he said of the arrangement.)
Those who remember the reporter from his KUTV days will notice a slight change in the focus of his approach now. As he describes it: "It used to be `Craig Wirth cooks Chinese food' and `Craig Wirth takes out the garbage.' Now we say, `This is the person who cooks your Chinese food.' The focus is on the other person although I'll probably still throw a few peas in from time to time.
"We used to build in the pratfalls," he continued, "but now we just like to let the story tell itself. We're still hoping to bring you a smile, but we're trying not to be too silly about it."
As far as Wirth is concerned, however, the best thing about the new "Wirth Watching" is that it's back in Salt Lake City where it belongs. "Even when I was in New York and L.A., I always felt like it would be more natural to be doing this in Utah," he said. "Things are a little more honest here, and a lot more comfortable. That's why TV people last so long here. Some of them could have gone anywhere, but they choose to stay."