Success has meant not leaving Baltimore
By Chris Kaltenbach (The Baltimore Sun, 1/11/1998)
Baltimore was just supposed to be a brief stop on the way to big-time TV success.
Some brief stop. Two decades later, Marty Bass is still plugging away on WJZ, Channel 13, doing the weather, playing Costello to Don Scott’s Abbott, firming up his reputation as one of the most irrepressible (some might prefer incorrigible) talents on Baltimore’s airwaves.
A native of Kentucky, Bass has spent the past 16 years as co-host of WJZ’s morning show, a ratings champion that outdraws the competition by a greater margin than any other local weekday news show. While Scott is no slouch, much of the show’s popularity can be attributed to Bass, who has one of those bombastic personalities people either love or hate.
Judging by the ratings, not many people do the latter.
“I think the reason we are a success is familiarity,” says Bass, whose on-air shtick has ranged from throwing his toupee into a wastebasket (in 1987) to scolding a rival station for what he felt were misleading claims about their weather forecasts (in 1997). “The audience knows what to expect. There’s a certain synergy there,” he says.
In addition, he suspects, viewers believe he and Scott are just like them.
“We are honest with each other and with the viewers about ourselves,” he says. “There’s not a lot of inside-the-locker-room discussion or humor. Whatever we talk about is what you and your neighbors could relate to.”
Bass arrived at WJZ in late 1977, four months removed from Southern Illinois University and four months into a gig as a feature reporter for KENS-TV in San Antonio. Hired to do the weather, Bass had good reason to suspect he wouldn’t be staying at WJZ long: The station already had a weatherman, Bob Turk.
“I took the job really to get in with Group W,” Bass says, referring to WJZ’s parent company, Westinghouse.
“It was made crystal clear from the beginning that there was no chance of ever getting the late news here, the 6 and 11. So I figured, that’s fine, I’ll get a foundation with the company. Actually, I had my eyes set on San Francisco. But after a while, it became pretty obvious that I was working out here.”
So Bass became a victim of his own success — but, he insists, a happy victim.
“I came here with the intentions of using it as a platform to move on,” he says. “I never realized the platform to move on to would be here in Baltimore.”
From weekend weatherman, Bass was tapped by his bosses in 1982 to co-anchor their new morning show — first alongside Oprah Winfrey, who would soon leave the station and fade into obscurity (well, not exactly ), and then Scott, with whom he had been working weekends for about two years.
“I try to bring my act up to Don’s level on a daily basis,” says Bass, who cites his partner — along with local broadcast legends Al Sanders and Jerry Turner — as his biggest influences.
As much as Bass has enjoyed his time in the Baltimore limelight, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In December 1985, he was arrested on charges of soliciting a lewd act from an undercover Baltimore police officer. He was cleared the next month after a judge ruled it was unclear just what Bass — who claimed he was researching a story on prostitution — had asked the woman.
“It was real interesting on many different levels,” Bass says of the controversy, which made him the subject of national news attention and the target of every wiseacre in town.
“I am the sum total of all my life experiences,” he says. “If that’s a part of it, then fine. I like who I am now. I like how I am as I approach 45 years old.
“Every once in a while, somebody will come up and say some kind of stupid thing, normally to try and impress a date. But they gave me a long contract [at WJZ] because I’m a good ad-libber; don’t get in this ring with me. I usually hit him with, ‘That’s been over 10 years ago. I’ve grown up, why don’t you?’ That usually puts an end to the conversation real quick.”