Everyone has a story
Alumnus hosts famous 'On the Road' series
By Matt Markey
That life-changing moment doesn’t always arrive riding on a bolt of lightning. It is not necessarily delivered from the mountaintop, or at the end of the rainbow.
For Steve Hartman ’85, it was just another day at college as he was sitting on the steps of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity house. Inside the house phone rang. It was a call letting Hartman know that he had landed an internship at a television station in Toledo.
“I felt like that was the opening I had been waiting for, the opening I needed,” Hartman said. “With that phone call, my foot was in the door. I said to myself ‘I’ve got it from here.’”
Hartman, currently host of the extremely popular CBS News segment “On The Road,” used that internship to display his skills and land a general assignment reporter post at the station, and he worked there for three years following his graduation in 1985. After that there was a stint in Minneapolis as a feature reporter, which moved Hartman closer to his signature niche, which is telling the stories of regular folks.
“That internship was so key, and that is actually one of the most important things Bowling Green did for me. Bowling Green was the place where I came in touch with that teacher and that led to the internship."“I guess that’s just me,” Hartman said. “A guy I was interviewing once told me that he sees me sitting there on his couch, with my shoes off and my leg tucked under me like it was my home. He said that I came in and it was like he had known me his whole life. That’s the best explanation I’ve ever had for why this works for me.”
Hartman went on to report those human interest stories for WABC-TV in New York from 1991-94. Then he was off to Los Angeles and a four-year run as a feature reporter that included a segment custom-made for his ability to put his interview subjects at ease, cleverly called “The Stevening News.” He also worked as a correspondent for a pair of CBS News magazines, “Coast to Coast” and “Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel.”
“People just seem comfortable talking to me. They tell me things they’ve never told their best friends,” Hartman said about his unique strength as a television reporter. “I guess I developed a reputation in the news business for being able to get people to relax, open up, and help me tell their story.”
He became a CBS News correspondent in 1998 and worked as an essayist for “60 Minutes II” from 2002 until the show ended three years later. His “Assignment America” reports were a regular part of the “CBS Evening News” when Katie Couric anchored that broadcast.
But Hartman’s indelible stamp on broadcast news became most clearly defined in 2011 when he was assigned to lead the revival of “On the Road,” which was fashioned after the long-running series of the same name that was made famous by the legendary newsman and storyteller Charles Kuralt.
"Having grown up watching him, just being mentioned in the same breath as Charles Kuralt was humbling, but I didn’t feel a huge amount of pressure taking on that role, because I knew going in that I couldn’t be as good as him,” Hartman said. “He was a great writer, and he had such a distinct voice that he could read the phone book and put people in a trance.”
Hartman jokes that no one ever expected him to be as proficient at the job as Kuralt was, “and I never let them down.” Hartman added that when CBS launched the “On The Road” franchise with him in the lead, it was one of the strongest compliments he had ever received in his career.
While he was working on “Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel,” Hartman found another avenue to utilize his skill in uncovering the intriguing elements in ordinary people. What started out as a somewhat light-hearted gambit—with Hartman throwing a dart at a map and picking out a random resident of the location where the dart landed and doing a story on them—turned out to be a big hit.
“We found some pretty interesting people and had a lot of fun doing it,” Hartman said. “At first, I expected it might end up being a spoof on a pretty uninteresting guy, but then we got a very good story out of it. I thought that might be a fluke, but after a dozen more interesting stories, it was clear we were onto something.”
He did more than 100 of those stories on virtually unknown people, and even got an assist from astronauts with NASA orbiting earth in the International Space Station. They would spin an inflatable globe and pinpoint a location overseas where Hartman would then head to pursue a story.
“What we found was that the view the astronauts had from space was one of a big, beautiful planet where everybody was the same,” he said. “I went around the world a couple of times and met some incredibly interesting people. It was a privilege to tell their stories.”
Hartman said all of those cold contacts with random individuals throughout his career have not come without a few difficulties.
“I’ve had a lot of people who thought I was taking a survey or trying to sell them aluminum siding. Some of them thought it was a gag,” he said.
Despite all of the rapid advances and innovations in the delivery of the news, Hartman said that there is obviously still an important place for straightforward stories about good people.
“Isn’t it interesting that in this era of Twitter and so on, that the most successful franchise is this boring, old, stodgy style modeled after Charles Kuralt. There are no graphics and no music, but just plain old story-telling. It’s still what people want to see.
“A good story is a good story, and this is basically sitting down on your grandpa’s lap and listening to a good story. I’m always fascinated by that. People want a story with a happy ending, since so much of the news has a sad ending. The news feels like a misrepresentation of who we really are.”
Hartman said he credits Larry Jankowski, associate professor emeritus of journalism, with providing a critical dose of confidence that helped send Hartman on his career path.
“Until he singled me out and told me he thought I could be something special, I considered myself ‘just another student.’ But he believed in me and helped me get that internship that really started me in the profession,” Hartman said.
“That internship was so key, and that is actually one of the most important things Bowling Green did for me. Bowling Green was the place where I came in touch with that teacher and that led to the internship. It was a confidence thing. He wrote me a glowing reference letter, probably too glowing, but I think I lived up to the letter because he made me believe I could do it.”
Hartman, who lives in New York, said his “On The Road” segments require a lot of travel and he remains the only correspondent at CBS who edits his own stories. He said he usually spends Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday shooting a segment and the rest of the week writing and editing it for broadcast.
“It pretty much consumes my life, but I really love what I do,” he said. “When you have your dream job, you don’t spend a lot of your time dreaming.”