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The Last Don

Don Shelby is retiring—and he’s taking the golden age of television news with him.

The Last Don
Photo by Jeff Johnson

(page 1 of 4)

SHELBY HAS BEEN feeding names to me since shortly after we first met for this story, and now there are more than two dozen. Sometimes they are just first names or last names and occasionally they are just nicknames. “Suggestions,” he calls them, people he thinks I should talk to about him, the co-anchor of WCCO-TV’s nightly newscasts and arguably one of the most recognizable names in Minnesota.

Sometimes he’ll hand the names to me in person, half a dozen at a time, scrawled on the business card of someone I take to be yet another suggestion. But generally the names arrive by e-mail, with something like an apology (subject line: “I can’t help myself”). They arrive almost daily, typed with a similar sense of urgency: no “dear” or “hello” and always just signed “Don.” They read like wire copy, ripped off the printer and read on the air: This just in.

The delivery of the names has by now become something more: a running commentary, a confessional. Along with the name of a friend, Shelby writes, “This is a part of the story I have yet to tell you: How hard it is for me to have friends, because I am always afraid that I will have to say something terrible about them on the news.” Along with the name of a nemesis: “He may not have very good things to say about me…. But I am a fearless bastard.”

One night, Shelby e-mails me with a suggestion he won’t name. He says he’d rather pass it along over a Silver Butter Knife Steak at Murray’s, the venerable restaurant and cocktail lounge in downtown Minneapolis, where the Murray brothers display a photograph of him near the entrance and always seat him at the same rear table.

“You ready?” Shelby asks, straightening his tie in the lobby and tugging at his French cuffs. In his right ear, I glimpse the tiny dot of an earring—invisible to his television audience—glinting under the chandeliers in odd contrast to his conservative coif, like misplaced punctuation. He seems to glow from within, likely because he is already wearing his television makeup. Shelby applies his makeup before he even leaves his house in the morning, so that the moment he steps outside he is no longer Don Shelby but Don Shelby, anchorman.

Shelby, at 62, is in many respects at the height of his powers. Since 1985, he has been the co-anchor of WCCO-TV’s 10 p.m. newscast, which in recent years has occasionally overtaken that of KARE-11, the perennial front-runner, to become the Twin Cities’ most-watched newscast. For his reporting, Shelby has won two Peabody Awards (often described as the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize) and several national Emmy Awards. He has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists with the Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the field and by the American Academy of Pediatrics for reporting on child-welfare issues. He has 2,535 friends on Facebook, and his MySpace profile features an illustration of him in the familiar abstracted style of President Barack Obama’s campaign posters.

Shelby earned $1 million a year until last winter, when he volunteered for a 10-percent cut from his radio salary to help WCCO trim costs. This places him among what is likely to be—in the face of an increasingly shrinking mass media—the final generation of highly paid anchors. Accordingly, he is “the last of a kind,” as a colleague of his put it: “a guy with a really big megaphone.”

As Shelby glides through Murray’s dining room to his table, a chorus rises behind him, whispers in his wake: “Shelby,” “Don Shelby,” “Shelby?” Whispered like supplications. If the anchor hears these murmurs, he doesn’t let on.

Shelby orders for both of us, the steak platter for two. And soon a middle-aged woman appears at Shelby’s side, clasping her hands. “I’m Arlene from Rochester,” she politely announces. She is like millions of Minnesotans accustomed to turning on their televisions at 10 p.m. and seeing Shelby there. They have seen his sandy-blonde hair recede, then get replaced, then turn silver, then turn white. When Shelby tells them of a cougar on the loose, they bring in the dog. When Shelby tells them of an approaching tornado, they hide in the basement. When Shelby tells them it’s all okay, they go to sleep.

Arlene tells Shelby, “I just wanted to thank you for your years of broadcasting service.”

Shelby smiles and shakes her hand. But recently he has been troubled and the woman’s statement summarizes his disappointment. The news has become many things over the course of Shelby’s career: entertainment, infotainment, water-cooler conversation. But when was the last time most people thought of it as a service?

With an hour to spare, Shelby rises from the table to return to the station, to pick up his megaphone and broadcast the news. Before he leaves, he offers his latest suggestions, written on the business card of a state public-safety official. They are the names of local spiritual leaders who could testify to his in-depth coverage of their respective communities. Handing me the names, he says, “As long as you’re writing my obituary….”

In slightly more than a year, on December 31, 2010, Shelby’s contract with WCCO-TV will expire, and he doesn’t plan to return to the anchor chair. By the end of this year, he will also step away from the microphone at WCCO-AM, where his baritone voice, smooth and precise, has filled the afternoon air, three hours a day, five days a week, for nine years.

His business card says “anchor/reporter.” But Shelby’s days and nights are filled less with reporting than with speaking engagements for Rotary Clubs, galas for the Minnesota Zoo, and charity auctions of every kind. He is the self-described “face of the station.” He receives hundreds of e-mails and letters a day. Some of them are complaints about Katie Couric, the anchor of CBS Evening News—as if Shelby were the boss of CBS itself.

As the station’s authority figure, Shelby is one of the few anchors in the country who has still a regular platform for opinion during the newscast, in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow. Called Good to Know, these segments feature Shelby offering his personal perspective on the day’s news, shot with a low camera angle to boost his apparent stature. In years past, such editorials were commonplace in television news and were accepted by audiences as informed opinion. But viewers often complain now that the Good to Know segments smack of egoism, as if Shelby doesn’t just know, but knows better.

The size of Shelby’s ego is not news: During the 1984 Olympics, when Shelby was covering the games for WCCO, a family friend sent him pencils inscribed with the motto “Official Egomaniac of the 1984 Olympics.” Shelby doesn’t hesitate to correct his guests or colleagues on the air. He doesn’t hesitate to tell you that he once asked the prominent Minneapolis defense attorney Ron Meshbesher to delay an important press conference, inconveniencing his client, until Shelby could arrive. (Meshbesher acquiesced.) He doesn’t hesitate to ask me, upon first meeting, if he will be appearing on the cover of this issue.

When the 35W bridge collapsed, viewers criticized Shelby as a show-off because he was asking erudite questions about civil engineering. In fact, viewers frequently complain that Shelby uses highly technical terms during a newscast to describe everything from military invasions to climate change, like he knows what the hell he’s talking about.

The thing is, more often than not, Shelby does.

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