Beloved Central New York news reporter, anchor, and neighbor Rod Wood passed away on Tuesday night, just a day after his 81st birthday. He worked in the news business for well over half a century, and became a cultural figurehead in the region through his reporting and his love for community.
I got the chance to work with Rod – albeit from a distance – as an intern at WSYR-TV, a.k.a. NewsChannel 9. Growing up in Syracuse, our house tuned into that station every day for the news for as long as I can remember. The tag team of Carrie Lazarus and Rod anchoring the evening local newscasts was like bringing family into the living room to talk about what was happening around town. To speak no ill of neighboring news stations WSTM and WTVH, NewsChannel 9 had the best newscast in the city and possibly in all of Upstate New York.
A local newsroom has a different culture from the newsrooms of major networks. Major networks have a lot of irons in the fire, trying to balance stories from all over the globe, running around trying to fetch sources and get the headlines out. It seems cold in those newsrooms. Of course you don’t want to create a connection or get too close to your story, but you almost have no opportunity when you work for a network. You just have to do your job as a reporter and make your deadlines.
But local news almost forces you to know your story up close, because you work within smaller confines. You have to know your community. You have to know the people, the places, the events going on around town. No one will trust you if you treat yourself like someone above it all. People who watch local news want to see a neighbor, a friend, someone with a level head who can keep them in the know about what’s happening down the block.
Throughout his entire life as a Central New Yorker, Rod was a consummate friend and neighbor to all who met him. He delivered the news with professionalism, but also compassion and a deep care for his city, knowing his audience. Not only did his viewers look up to him for the news of the day, he looked to them for a fun joke, a good tale, any way to stay connected to the city he called home for eighty years.
During my internship at NewsChannel 9 back in 2010, I spent most of my time on remote hits hanging out in the news van. But there were days when I would work in the newsroom listening to the police scanner for anything that could make the 11:00 broadcast. I sometimes made small talk with the folks who worked at the station, some of whom I’d watched on television for years: Steve Infanti, Jeff Kulikowsky, Dave Longley, Jim Teske, Dan Cummings, Christie Casciano, Carrie Lazarus, and all of the many other reporters who worked to bring Syracuse the news every day and night. Of course, they’re all only human, but as a starry-eyed 19-year-old kid, I looked up to them like wizards of words, giants of journalism. (I still do; hats off to the local news folks of America, the true salt of the Earth.)
But of course, the tallest giant of them all was Rod. He didn’t have a fancy office or anything despite his tenure and position; no one did. His desk was off to the side of the newsroom against the wall, and he had just about as much space as anyone else to do his work. He was part of the gang, and every now and then I’d see him stride over to his space and make himself busy just as if he was another writer on the staff. Yet every time, I was starstruck.
On the last day of my time at the station, I still had not talked to Rod, save for a quick and shy “Hello” in passing. My mentor Anthony Vecchio learned this and laughed, and he brought me right over to Rod’s desk just a little while before the evening news. Rod seemed deep in thought trying to finish up a story, and so I was terrified that I was interrupting him. But instead, he turned around and shook my hand and smiled, and as I sputtered apologies for breaking his concentration, he pulled around a chair and invited me to take a seat. He spent the next ten minutes telling stories about the history of the station, about his time working as a disc jockey and then a news reporter for Syracuse radio, about how the city had changed throughout his life. I’m sure he could’ve gone on for hours if he didn’t need to report the news to thousands of neighbors.
It was a conversation that has stuck with me to this day. I asked Rod before I left how he did what he did so well, and although I can’t remember his exact words, he explained to me that to report the news in a place like Syracuse, you have to know your community. Without that knowledge, you have nothing.
Rod certainly knew his community; 55 years of reporting on it and many more of living in it gave him a wealth of knowledge that few others will ever have again. Though he may be gone, the connections that he made with his fellow Syracusans – local business owners, folks out on the town, and shy college interns – last forever.