News & Politics

Arch Campbell Remembers His Friend Jim Vance

"When managers and news consultants told him to play it safe, he pushed the envelope. When they told him to cut his hair, he grew an Afro. When they told him to shave his mustache he added a beard."

Arch Campbell, Jim Vance, and Bob Ryan at Nathans in Georgetown in April 2007. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

I don’t know how tall Jim Vance was but he towered over me and everyone else, so of course I remember him as bigger than life. A guy this big only required one name: Vance. I met him in 1974 when I came to work as a reporter at Channel 4. He surprised me because he had an edge in a business that feared edge. He took the measure of the people he worked with and took his time deciding if he respected you or not. It took a while, but once Vance accepted you, he was your friend for life. In 1980 I talked a news director into letting me review movies on the 6 p.m. news. Vance gave me his seal of approval when I finished. “My man” he said, and made my career possible.

Vance loved to talk about his early years at NBC. He asked David Brinkley, the legendary NBC anchor, how to succeed as an anchorman. Brinkley told Vance to be himself. He took Brinkley’s advice and it is the secret of Vance’s success. When managers and news consultants told him to play it safe, he pushed the envelope. When they told him to cut his hair, he grew an Afro. When they told him to shave his mustache he added a beard. The consultants feared angering viewers, and Vance delivered regular commentaries leaving no doubt of what he thought or who he despised. His uniqueness kept him on the air and made him vital to the success of NBC4. He also spoke truth to power and never hesitated to complain about decisions or directions he found wrong. I believe Vance’s complaints prevented managers or consultants from harming the station’s unique character. His presence made Channel 4 unlike any other newscast in the country.

He had bigger-than-life flaws, including drug and substance abuse that almost ended his life. He shared that struggle and our town loved him for it. One morning in the early ’80s he called me at home. “Arch, I’ve been playing poker with Marion Barry and I owe him a couple of hundred bucks. Can you lend me the money?” “Sure” I said, “Come on over.” A half hour later, a couple of really bad dudes pulled up to my house and Vance came to the door. I gave him a check and forgot about it. A few months later, Vance left for the Betty Ford Center. I found a check for the exact amount in my mailbox. We never talked about this until recently, when I went to a celebration of his 45th year at NBC4. Vance got up and discussed his relationship with every person in the room. When he got to me he mentioned that morning and how I never brought it up, and how much it meant to him.

Vance’s office–in the days when anchors had offices–was like a private club. He kept the overhead light off, using only a couple of lamps. The place was thick with cigarette smoke billowing out the door. In my office two doors down I could hear Vance and George Michael smoking and laughing and cursing various people they didn’t like. Vance kept a state of the art stereo system playing cool jazz nonstop. One of his legacies is the music Channel 4 uses at the end of the 6m news on Fridays when they run credits. The cut is “My Mood” by MFSB. Our news director in 1975 told Vance he needed some great music to end the newscast. Vance picked “My Mood.” Over the years various consultants and managers tried to change or drop the music, but viewers always noticed and complained, and it always came back. As long as “My Mood” ends the 6 p.m. news on Fridays, Vance’s spirit endures at NBC4.