'We're Standing By'

Award-winning former FOX 2 reporter Al Allen writes memoir

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When his broadcasting career began in 1969 at KOKY radio in Little Rock, Ark., Andrew Long was willing to do anything for his first job – even change his name.

“The program director did not like the name ‘Andrew Long.’ He said, ‘One: It’s too difficult to pronounce. Two: Nobody’s gonna remember Andrew Long. If you want to work here, change your name,’” he recalled.
So Andrew Long became Al Allen, who would go on to have an award-winning career in broadcast journalism, particularly from 1984-2012 at what is now FOX 2 in Detroit.

“Where I got ‘Al Allen’ from, I have no idea; I changed it right on the spot – and it worked!” said Allen, 73, of Southfield, laughing.

During his career, Allen covered the news in Detroit, most notably the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and the late U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith.

However, people remember him for reporting on the inclement weather so prevalent during Michigan winters – and he wasn’t even a meteorologist. Allen would be standing on an overpass in blizzard-like conditions, talking about how the weather was impacting traffic.

This is recounted in his memoir, “We’re Standing By” (Atkins & Greenspan Publishing $13).

“Out of all the stories I have done at Channel 2 for 28 years, people remember only one. And that was in the early morning when we were out there in the wintertime on the overpasses, it’s snowing like crazy, and it’s cold,” explained Allen. “People see me on the street, ‘How did you do that?’ I tell them, ‘First of all, there was two other people that you didn’t see besides me’ – I had a cameraman and somebody who had to run the truck. That’s all people remember. I was older. How did I do it? I really have no idea, but that’s all they remember.”

He continued: “Those stories helped our news department make FOX 2 No. 1 in the morning. We just slaughtered the competition. The other thing was how we were able to move from different locations in a short period of time. The producer created what she called ‘look-lives.’ We weren’t really live – we’d tape it – and it would give us enough time to move to another location to do a live shot. People would think we were live straight through, reporting from different locations every half-hour.”

“We’re standing by” was Allen’s trademark phrase, something he said numerous times into his microphone, informing the producers at FOX 2 headquarters that he was ready to go live.

An Arkansas native, Allen moved to Detroit in his teens. His interest in journalism began when attending Mumford High School in Detroit, reporting for “Spotlight on Mumford,” an internal news broadcast.

“Back at Mumford, they created an intercom system back in the day and it was an in-house intercom. The students ran it and they asked me to be a part of it. That was in the early 1960s. I started writing, reporting, and anchoring – if you’re gonna call it anchoring; it was just me running my mouth for a couple minutes, that’s all. It was all about the events going on at Mumford. It was totally in-house. I really liked it. I loved to write and I loved to talk,” he recalled.

After graduating from Mumford, he earned his undergraduate degree in journalism and communications from what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He also has an associate degree in business administration from the Detroit College of Business (now Davenport University).

Allen spoke at length about his friendship with Judge Keith, who died April 28.

“We talked about all the world’s problems: social, civil rights, education, politics, crime in Detroit. That was the most memorable event in my life, sitting next to this chief judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Allen. “Damon would always tell me, ‘You didn’t come to my party.” Every year during Black History Month (in February), he’d always have this luncheon in his office. I’d tell him, ‘You didn’t invite me.’ He’d say, ‘You don’t need an invitation; you just come.’ Aretha Franklin would tell me the same thing (about her parties) – ‘I don’t need to invite you; just come.’”

Allen could go on for hours about Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor who served five terms from 1974-94. The controversial Young was known for his blunt statements, frequently using profanity.

“In some ways, Coleman reminds you of Donald Trump… We all had our turns at being cussed out and publicly embarrassed by Coleman Young, but I liked him. We’d have these news conferences at his office and (journalists) wanted to know who’d ask the first question. ‘I got cussed out yesterday; I’m not gonna ask him. You do it,’” recalled Allen.

Young had a nickname for Allen, always calling him Columbo, the slovenly police detective played by the late Peter Falk in his 1968-78 eponymous series and later a series of TV movies from 1989-2003
“One day after he’d been the mayor for a couple of years, I asked him, ‘Why do you keep calling me Columbo?’ He said, ‘You stand in the back of the room with that oversized raggedy-ass trench coat and at the end you ask the most asinine questions.’ I said, ‘What’s your point?’” recalled Allen, laughing.

Allen spoke about how he and fellow journalist Burt Allen (no relation, but Allen claimed they were “partners in crime”) of CKLW fame once threw a Christmas party and invited Young. They didn’t believe Young would show up, yet he did. However, all the alcohol was gone by the time Young arrived.

 “He said, ‘You mother-(expletive) invited me down here to get a drink and it’s gone?’ He chastised us. ‘You know what? Come with me.’ We went to the mayor’s office. He said, ‘Let me show you how to have a drink and how to have a good party.’ He pushed a button and the wall next to him slid open and it was full of liquor. ‘Go up there and get what you want.’ So we did. We started drinking. This was a different side to the mayor that most people didn’t know. We stayed there two hours. I could go and on about him. I liked him. I really did. He had his faults... There’s so many stories about him, good and bad.”

Allen also spoke how journalism has changed since he began in 1969.

“We knew who was sleeping with who, we knew who was gay and who was not, but that wasn’t news to us. We didn’t care. That’s your personal problem,” he said. “Now, it leads at 5. I still say, ‘Why? That’s not news.’ We believed in stories that affected everybody, not salacious gossip you talked about at the water cooler. That’s the way it was back then.”

Initially, Allen, who retired from FOX 2 in 2012, had no desire to write a book.

“But a friend of mine (fellow journalist/author) Karen Dumas was on me about writing a book. ‘Al, you gotta write a book.’ I said, ‘My life is boring.’ ‘No, you’ve got a lot of stories to tell.’ One day I sat down (and) started writing. The more I wrote, it was like, ‘I did do that.’ I put everything together and the book came out. I didn’t expect it, but it came out and it’s selling – that’s the good part!” he said, laughing.

Each chapter of “We’re Standing By” is only several pages long. It’s written like one of Allen’s first-paced news reports.

“I just loved telling stories and true stories. I liked to gather news and I liked to work fast. You don’t have to write a bible to tell a good story,” said Allen.

“The best part is – if you’ve read it – it’s a series of things. What we see on TV today is not all that good. You don’t rush to do a story. You do not deviate from the facts. You make sure what you’re saying is true. The word is the most powerful tool you have. It can build you up and it can destroy you, so you have to be careful what you say and what you write.”

 

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