The Life and Legend of the S.B. Newsman
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Perhaps there is a Sampson-style magic to his perfectly manicured push-broom mustache. Or a sparkle of pixie dust in his bomb-proof, slicked-back, salt-and-pepper hair. Or maybe the stars simply align a little more true when he flashes his trademark high-wattage grin, microphone in hand and a news scoop jumping from his lips, straight into your TV or car stereo. Whatever the causes, there is no denying the power of John Palminteri, the real world’s Ron Burgundy and undisputed heavyweight champion of the Santa Barbara news landscape.
For the better part of four decades, “JP,” as his friends and colleagues call him, has been reporting the area’s news with a pace, fervor, and omnipresence that knows no equal. “He is absolutely everywhere and across all forms of media from the radio to the TV to newspapers to Facebook,” marveled Mayor Helene Schneider recently when asked for her thoughts on the KEYT senior news reporter that the public simply calls “The Palm.” “He is the ubiquitous John Palminteri, and I have no idea when that man sleeps,” added Schneider with a laugh and a dash of awe. “I mean, does he sleep?”
By Paul Wellman (file)
BEARER OF GOOD NEWS: Just ask former news reporter turned City Councilmember Cathy Murillo (pictured smooching the Palm); you always know you are at the right Election Night party when John Palminteri and his cameraman make the scene, their presence all but guaranteeing that a win will be celebrated.
The Palm Cometh
Lady Diane and Prince Charles got married, Natalie Wood fell overboard, Donkey Kong and Frogger dominated the arcades, MTV first hit the airwaves, and a young radio news reporter from Los Angeles took a job in the Santa Barbara market. It was the fall of 1981, and the world was a different place.
Palminteri, just a few years removed from graduating from Long Beach State with a double major in journalism and radio-TV-film, was hustling news and rocking a younger man’s version of his current upper-lip caterpillar. After a couple of short stints reporting, writing, and broadcasting for news radio in L.A. and Riverside, Palminteri was recommended for a job at KTMS 1250, Santa Barbara’s once-proud all-news AM station owned by the most famous of the city’s media moguls past or present, Thomas Storke. It was the era of typewriters and cassette recorders and bulky microphones and Teletype machines, and Palminteri was in love with it all.
Taking a trip down memory lane earlier this year during a lengthy dinner interview at Joe’s Café, the 57-year-young Palminteri mused, “In those days, there wasn’t a news tip I didn’t jump at. Since a young age, if I knew something, I just couldn’t wait to tell people. It really got me going.” And then, after taking a sip from an ice-cold beer on an unseasonably hot spring night, he added with a chuckle, “and I’m not sure very much has changed for me since then.”
The youngest of five children in a full-blooded Italian family, Palminteri grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the middle-class melting pot that once thrived between Watts and Inglewood. The son of a work-at-home Sicilian seamstress and a father who was a career employee for the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Works, Palminteri came of age in a time and place where civic duty not only mattered but was paramount and the average American seemed infinitely more interested in making the world a better place than they do today. Add to that ideal a natural gift of gab and his aforementioned penchant for sharing, and his trajectory toward a celebrated and multifaceted newsman seems like fate.
Even his youthful days as one of the very first male waiters at Knott’s Berry Farm, where his hyper gregarious personality and customer-service-oriented attitude helped break down a reverse gender barrier at the fried-chicken and boysenberry-pie emporium, becomes a clear stepping stone to his now-world-class news chops. As his longtime friend and former colleague John Boitnott said, “He is the perfect example of a guy who is doing exactly what he was meant to do with his life. You have to understand, he isn’t just addicted to news; it is his way of life.”
By Courtesy Photo
PRIMETIME: Though he is quick to point out that he is nothing more than one piece of a much larger news team, there is no denying the most helpful ubiquity of a street reporter who can occasionally pull anchor duty alongside KEYT mainstay Paula Lopez without missing a beat.
A Radio Man Finds a Home
With some gentle prodding, Palminteri admitted that he figured he would spend “a few years tops” working in the Santa Barbara area before returning to the bigger market and bigger paychecks of Los Angeles. But something funny happened in those years at KTMS — he flat out fell in love with Santa Barbara. “I discovered that the quality of life and the spirit of community we have here is something you don’t find everywhere else. It is a special place, and everything can and will happen in Santa Barbara. Every big story I could have ever dreamed up during my college years has landed in my lap here,” he said with a touch of defiance that tells you he is no stranger to people second-guessing his career choices.
In 1988, Palminteri expanded to television when he signed on as the assignment editor at KEYT. Hired by King Harris, Palminteri wasn’t long for the desk job. As he put it, “Breaking news just sets off alarms in my head that I cannot ignore.” He soon found himself where he is perhaps most comfortable — out roaming the streets of Santa Barbara County in search of news as it happens. “Once King decided to unleash me from the desk, I have never looked back,” said Palminteri. It’s a truth confirmed by a recent survey of his news-story output some 33-plus years after coming to the 805. Over the past year, Palminteri generated a jaw-dropping amount of roughly 70-90 individual news stories a month while working for KEYT, as well as regular reporting duties for KjEE 92.9 FM, KCLU 102.3 FM, and 1340 AM.
“In all my years in this line of work, I have never met anyone like John,” explained KCLU news director Lance Orozco.
Even more impressive, striving to unearth at least one enterprising lead a day (i.e., a story that no other local media outlet has), Palminteri — always in a crisp suit and tie and with three changes of clothes, including his iconic yellow fire gear, at the ready — covers everything from the farms of Carpinteria to the cash-flush Coral Casino in Montecito to Santa Barbara’s City Hall to the beer-sogged streets of Isla Vista to the front lines of dangerous disasters like the Tea Fire. “In all my years in this line of work, I have never met anyone like John,” explained KCLU news director Lance Orozco. “He lives, breathes, and drinks news. It doesn’t matter if it’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night or 3 a.m. on a Monday morning; if something is happening, he is there.”
This work ethic is part and parcel to the John Palminteri experience. Just ask his current KEYT news director, Jack Lemon. Lemon came to the station via Milwaukee a year ago and admittedly knew little about the asset he had; it didn’t take long for him to learn. Quickly, Lemon’s eyes were opened to the work habits of the man he now calls “a walking story generator that you can set your watch to.” It was late March of last year, and Lemon got an early-morning text from TV Hill that SBPD SWAT had sealed off State Street near Mission Street and that the incident had something to do with the nearby gun shop. Panicked that he might be missing one of the first big, local breaking-news stories of his tenure, Lemon hustled into the station. “I was in no later than 7:15 a.m. and, by that time, John was not only at the scene, but he was on the story and reporting. … And this is after helping put out the 11 o’clock edition the night before,” recalled Lemon. “I’m already taking it for granted, but, yes, I was amazed at first. If something is happening day or night, he is on it! I now realize that is just part of his DNA. … If even a small part of him rubs off on younger journalists, our profession will be in a better place.”
As for Mayor Schneider’s question about his sleeping habits, Palminteri assured me that he is indeed human and that not only does he sleep every night (in NASCAR pajamas, nonetheless), he also tries to take time each week to not answer phone calls or work a lead. However, he does admit to keeping a police scanner under his pillow — the endless babble presumably working like a bizarre lullaby for his news-addled brain — and when his alarm goes off at 5 a.m. every morning, he wakes up “very excited to find out what happened while I slept …. I am not sure how healthy it is, but I am very excited about what I do every single day,” said Palminteri with a shake of his head.
By Courtesy Photo
The sticker says it all: “Palminteri is Primetime.” The black-and-white, Shepard Fairey–esque image of JP’s likeness has become a visual touchstone in Santa Barbara media lore and pop culture alike. The guerrilla-style pro-Palminteri-sticker marketing campaign, born without the newsman’s involvement but fully embraced by him in the years since, can be found everywhere from beloved pizza joints in San Francisco’s North Beach and subway stations in New York City to cargo holds on FedEx jets and a scooter in Vietnam. Though people in the know are tight-lipped, rumor has it that the original artwork and sticker campaign were the brainchild of a former Dos Pueblos High School student named “Ricky.”
The sticker, which cropped up shortly after Palminteri began his 92 Seconds of News on the highly popular though now defunct KjEE Morning Show with Spencer, Jenny, and Adam in 2003, hints at the vast and varied role that Palminteri plays in the community at large. As radio personality and former Palminteri cohort Spencer Fischer said, “John is a cross between Santa Barbara’s Other Mayor and a human Oscar Mayer Wienermobile; everybody smiles when they see him.”
Need more proof of the Palm’s popularity? Taking a stroll down State Street with the man is the closest thing you can get to walking with Elvis. The demand for his attention from people young and old (ladies especially) is off the charts; he holds court wherever he goes. He has a drink named after him at the French Press (the “John Palminteri” is a blend of iced green tea and lemonade); a Cinco de Mayo event at the Sandbar where, unbeknownst to him, the primary party favors are oversized cutouts of his face; presides over fake April Fools’ Day wedding ceremonies at the Courthouse; and can lead a sold-out Bowl audience less than half his age chanting in buzzy unity, “Primetime! Primetime! Primetime!” In media speak, his market penetration is ridiculous.
While his years spent reporting the news certainly doesn’t hurt, such work is by no means a guarantee for good will from the public. Without a doubt, it is his ever-growing résumé of emcee duties with various nonprofits and charities around the South Coast and assorted other events such as Fiesta, the Downtown Organization’s Annual Holiday Parade, and KjEE’s Summer Round-Up concert that does the bulk of the heavy lifting in endearing him to the community at large.
Quick on his feet and more than comfortable working with a hot mike in hand and no teleprompter, Palminteri (who had a short-lived tenure as a stand-up comedian) is clearly the fan favorite to inherit Larry Crandell’s “Mister Santa Barbara” mantle, though he would be the last to ever suggest such a thing. “Sure, he shows up for the opening of an envelope, but chances are he will emcee it and cover it and, in the process, get a handful of news tips out of the deal. … The guy is a news artist,” said KEYT coworker David Hefferman. “I fully expect at the end of the world that John will be hosting it and quite possibly filing a story.”
The true motivating force behind Palminteri’s public-appearance schedule is something fans of his news work may not know — the guy has a big heart. I spoke with coworkers past and present as well as people from the PR world and various police and fire public information officers, elected officials, and just about anyone else I ran into, and the overarching sentiment was the same — the Palm has a surplus of generosity. It seems that as much as he finds himself in the spotlight’s embrace, it is always other people who come first. “He is giving himself to people all day long,” said Oscar Flores, a Santa Barbara native who has been JP’s cameraman at KEYT since 2010.
And Flores has personal experience to prove it. Shortly after the two began working together, they were on their way back to the station after reporting a story in Santa Maria when the tire on their news van imploded. With Flores at the wheel and JP riding shotgun and working on his laptop, the van spun out of control and into oncoming traffic before catching some air and ultimately flipping. Amid the smoke and broken glass and shell-shocked panic that follows a brush with death, Palminteri made sure Flores was able to exit the vehicle first, actually helping boost the young cameraman up and out and into safety before tending to himself. “He was so selfless that day; I will never forget it,” said Flores. “But now I know that’s just how John is; he puts others before him.”