Bill Gamel is signing off the air at WCBI-TV after more than four decades in broadcasting. Gamel was an anchor for WCBI's "Mid Day" and "Sunrise" programs. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
December 16, 2017 10:04:13 PM
The first time it happened, it was an unfortunate accident -- a miscalculation.
In April 1986 Jeffrey Rupp, then a young anchor of WCBI's live half-hour "Mid Day" program, was breaking in a new co-anchor, Bill Gamel. However, Rupp blew through the scripted material too fast, leaving him and Gamel with about five minutes of unscripted time to fill at the end of the show.
What ensued, Rupp said, was the "slow, painful death" of that particular episode.
"He threw me under the bus," Rupp said jokingly. "It was a Monday, so I started talking about what I had done over the weekend. That took up about one minute. Then I turn to him and ask what he had done. He said, 'Nothing.' That's it. One word."
Their rapport improved exponentially and quickly, with Rupp's and Gamel's "Mid Day" antics becoming legendary locally. It also sparked a friendship that has stood the test of time.
"The unscripted part became our favorite part of the show, and we started deliberately timing it to where we would have it," Rupp said. "Unscripted live TV is nerve-wracking because you don't have a safety net. So one of the most important things is trust. We trusted and respected each other. Plus, Bill has that rare combination of being really good at what he does and making it look like there's nothing to it."
The duo molded "Mid Day" in their own image for nearly 15 years, with Gamel wearing other hats at the station -- among them Bill "the Thrill" who covered sports for a time. By 1995, Gamel had also become one of the founding anchors of the station's "Sunrise" program.
Now 71, he will sign off the air for the final time Monday, retiring from a broadcasting career that has spanned 44 years.
"It's hard to imagine life (at WCBI) without Bill," said Aundrea Self, now the evening news anchor who co-anchored often with Gamel on the morning and midday shows over the past 20 years. "Long after he's gone, people will still remember him, and he'll never be able to walk through Walmart with any peace. But that's just the way it is."
Becoming a broadcaster
An Alabama native, Gamel's deep, soothing voice found its first mass audience in 1973 when he started working as a Rock n' Roll disc jockey for a Selma radio station.
He took a second job a year later at a Selma TV station, where he said his management asked him to use different names in his respective roles. He started using the pseudonym Michael Scott on the radio, but his voice was already so recognizable and prolific, it was too late.
"It didn't fool anybody," Gamel said. "People would call in and say, 'I know who you are.'"
When his TV general manager Tommy Bond left Selma for WCBI in Columbus in 1980, Gamel soon followed, working off-camera in the newsroom for two years before taking a five-year hiatus from television.
Gamel returned to WCBI in 1986, this time in front of the camera, as "the Ed McMahon to (Rupp's) Johnny Carson."
On "Sunrise" alone, Gamel worked with 11 co-anchors and 13 meteorologists -- some of whom, he said, became dear friends.
"I enjoyed working with everyone, but I feel like it takes time to develop a really strong on-camera relationship," Gamel said. "It helps if you genuinely like the person. And the better you know somebody off-the-air, the better you work together on-air."
For Self, working alongside Gamel came as a great honor. A Starkville native, she grew up watching him on WCBI. When she interviewed for a producer's job at the station in 1998 and Gamel sat in, Self said she was "totally star-struck."
Two years later, Self had also become an anchor, and she and Gamel often sang on the set when the cameras were off -- honing a rendition of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" that fit perfectly within a commercial break.
Self said Gamel's quite the dancer, too, and was known to cut a rug in front of his coworkers -- on one condition.
"He never would let anybody catch him dancing on camera," she said.
Self described Gamel as endearingly shy and "one of the most humble people I've ever met."
Gamel had kind words for Self, as well.
"Aundrea's a pro," he said. "Plus, she's a sweetheart."
In 44 years, Gamel has seen plenty of changes in the industry. From having to develop film for newscasts to embracing live shots with digital technology, the practice of television news has become ever faster.
Certain elements of the job, though, are timeless, he said.
"People are people no matter what the era, and when it comes to maintaining your wits and thinking on your feet -- if you could do it then, you can do it now," Gamel said. "Don't get flustered when things go wrong because something will always go wrong."
Still, as he got older and it seemed "the new anchors were getting younger," he started easing into retirement. Four years ago, he bumped down to two morning shows a week and later just one.
Some stories were harder to report than others, and Gamel said his wife of 17 years, Susan, always proved a vital sounding board on rough days.
"The stories that always get to me are the crimes against children and the elderly -- people who can't defend themselves," he said. "I'm the type that would suppress those things when it's much better to talk about it."
Susan braved Bill's grueling schedule, too, which included his rising at 2 a.m. many mornings to get to "Sunrise."
"Now we have to get used to seeing each other every morning," Susan said.
Though at peace with retirement, Bill admits he'll miss the cameras and his coworkers. What he will miss most, though, is the audience.
"It's sounds cliche, but putting a smile on at least one person's face every day made it all worth it," he said. "That's what did it for me. People would comment to me every day that they enjoyed something they saw on the show, and that's what told me I was where I needed to be."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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