One of WSTV-13’s founding fathers has left the fold.
Video Production Specialist Billy Rich retired on Nov. 30, closing out an eventful 24-year career with the City of Winston-Salem.
“I just thought it was time to go,” said Rich, 63. “It’s time to let this younger generation (take over).”
Over the last near quarter century, the grandfather of four has become synonymous with WSTV, which was in its infancy when he joined the city staff in 1989.
“I can’t go anywhere, anytime. (People say) ‘Where’s your camera?” he related. “They think that it’s glued to my shoulder.”
Like it or not, Rich and his camera are inextricably linked. Over the course of his nearly four decade long career in the Twin City, he has made a name for himself, both with the groundbreaking work of the television station, and in his own freelance efforts – from event videography to closed captioning work – where he plans to focus much of his energy during his retirement. By the time the Columbia College Chicago alumnus joined the city staff, he was already a well known figure in the local landscape.
“Billy is an institution,” declared Frank Elliott, deputy director of the city’s Marketing and Communications Department. “…Everybody knows Billy and Billy knows everybody. He’s such a friendly and gregarious guy, so that’s to be expected.”
For Rich, a history buff and member of the Society for the Study of African American History Board of Directors, being able to document turning points in the local timeline has been a joy.
“Over the last 24 years, I’ve shot a lot of history in this town,” said the Warsaw native. “I’ve seen a lot, and some of the things I did I wouldn’t consider glamourous, but it was part of the job.”
Rich came to Winston-Salem in 1974, to join the team at WXII as a reporter and videographer, realizing a long-held dream of entering the field of videography.
“I’m basically lucky because I’ve had the opportunity to see this country on somebody else’s ticket,” said Rich, whose assignments included the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 – the year the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president – and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1988. When he joined JR Snider the following year, the city channel was on the cutting edge, one of only two in the state, Rich said.
“It was an opportunity,” he said of his motivation to take the post. “This was something groundbreaking, a city government having a television operation.”
At first, the station was simply “billboards” alerting city residents to various pertinent city information. The only audio was derived from police scanners, but even then, the station had a following, Rich said. Gradually, he and Snider began to add programming, broadcasting City Council meetings and later adding informational videos, which quickly garnered the tiny outlet national attention.
One of their first films, a spot on the city’s Community Oriented Policing program, landed them an award from the National League of Cities, which was sponsored by A&E that year. It was one of many honors Rich and the station would amass; he has lost count.
“I don’t care about that,” he said of the accolades. “I just do the job.”
Coming from commercial television, Rich brought a strong work ethic and a standard of excellence to the station that was reflected in everything it produced.
“We wanted our stuff or our programming to look like if you flipped through the channels, you wouldn’t see a difference,” he said. “We wanted to put the best on.”
As a result, WSTV became a standard bearer in the field. Rich and Snider fielded visits and phone calls from staffers across the Southeast who were in the process of starting stations of their own. Around the office, Rich, who has held officer positions with both the local and national chapters of the International Television Association, is still well known for his wealth of both technical and institutional knowledge.
“Billy is one of those old school TV guys who always knows how to get something done, whether it’s trying to find a vendor who can fix an obscure piece of equipment or a technical glitch when we’re setting up for a field shoot,” Elliott said. “Billy has just been doing it for so long that he knows who to call. He knows what to do.”
Rich’s long history with the department and the city make him an irreplaceable asset, and his good-natured disposition will be missed among his colleagues at WSTV 13, Elliott said.
“Our department is very small and we all have to get along,” he noted. “That’s one of the Billy’s strong points – he’s always smiling, he’s always in a good mood.”
After decades in the business, Rich says he is as passionate about his craft as ever.
“I get excited about it,” he said of filming. “It’s still in my blood.”
In his retirement, Rich, a self-described cigar aficionado, says he plans to spend more time doing the things he loves best, traveling, fishing, sailing, and visiting family and friends. Despite his retirement, he’s still leaving plenty of time open for videography. Both he and Elliott said they fully expect to see him contributing as a freelance contractor for the city when special projects and events arise.
“You know what? I haven’t gone anywhere,” he declared. “As long as they feel like I can be an asset to the city, to this department, I’ll make myself available.”