A conversation with Bill Kurtis

Feb 7, 2018


Bill Kurtis
Credit NPR

Bill Kurtis is a well-known anchorman, news reporter, and narrator, and scorekeeper for Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He reported on such stories as the Charles Manson case, the Speck murders and broke the story on the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He spoke with WVPE’s Jennifer Weingart on the phone on Monday.



Jennifer Weingart: I’m talking to Bill Kurtis who will be in South Bend on Thursday giving a lunch talk at Notre Dame and for Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! At The Morris on Thursday night. Bill Kurtis, thanks for taking the time.

Bill Kurtis: Thanks, Jennifer. Nice to be here.

JW: You’ve been in a lot of different roles over the years, what has been the most memorable?

BK: Well I think my journalistic years, they span 50, and they go back to 1966 when I came to Chicago with WBBM, CBS. And I was here for four years and they were just exciting and the best place a reporter could be.

We burned the city, we witnessed the assassinations, the democratic national convention and the conspiracy trial. Can you imagine packing all that into four years? And those were the first years that I hit the streets in Chicago and then went out to L.A. where I covered the Manson trial, in Chicago the Speck

And then I retired 1996. Retired is a crazy word because I started my own production company and we produced five, I guess it’s 600 documentaries for A&E cable and series that lasted 100, 150 shows; Investigative Reports, Cold Case Files, American Justice I hosted. It’s been quite a year, and then of course I got to top it all off with Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! And slip into a more humorous kind of role, I say ‘just for fun.’ So that sums up my career pretty fast.

JW: You’re going to be at Notre Dame for a Lunch talk on Thursday. What should people coming to that expect?

BK: A review of my career, that’s what they’ve asked me to do. I’ll bring some clips, show the big stories that I’ve been involved in, perhaps have broken. The agent orange story, a PBS series called New Explorers, a science show we did 100 shows on, the King riots, as I mentioned, Speck and Manson and then I’ll try to intersperse in between, reflections on how it’s changed from the days when I started to ‘modern media.’

JW: What’s next for you? Are you going to continue with the things that you’re working on or do you have something new that you’re looking at?

BK: I, I’m intrigued by radio. I’ve done television. I’ve done the documentaries that I wanted to do and all the series and PBS and travel and things like that. And I still enjoy them and maybe I can do them sort of, we call them one-offs.

But radio first of all, needs something because they’re not making any money, people aren’t listening to it, everything seems to be switching over to the iPhone. And I like it as a venue because it’s much easier than television, television you have to have pictures and with radio you just write and speak. And I like writing. So, watch for me on the dial.

JW: One other thing about your talk at Notre Dame, I’ve been told you sent ahead a banner?

BK: I did.

JW: What’s the banner about?

BK: Well, you’ll give away my secrets, but I believe that one of the answers to climate change and global warming is to utilize the prairie and wild plants.

I have some acreage north of Chicago where we will be experimenting with the Chicago botanic garden with a wild wheat seed. So the holy grail is this plant that adds value to a prairie. The weeds are there. There’s no plowing, so you save the topsoil. And that is my contribution to the students of Notre Dame to start the businesses and try to, try to help this proliferate. It was developed by the land institute in Salina, Kansas and we’re going to try it out in this cold temperature.

JW: Ok, a banner about grass.

BK: Tall grass, that’s right.


The full version of the interview includes some voicemail limericks and Bill Kurtis' reflections on how Chicago and the news business has changed over the years.

Kurtis will be speaking at the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business Jordan Auditorium on Thursday afternoon, February 8, from 1 to 2. The event is open to the public.