Eric Scott has been broadcasting since before his 15th birthday, but don’t call him a radio journalist. Though he is best known for his role as news director for NJ 101.5, for Scott it’s not about the medium. “To pigeonhole yourself in one medium or the other is both impractical and unwise,” he says. “While we are the biggest radio station in the state, and the number 1 news talk station in America, we are content providers. Our goal is to provide across multiple platforms, one of which is radio.”
Lately, Scott may have been seen on the Internet more than he has been heard over the airwaves. His interviews with Governor Chris Christie have drawn national attention since he is the only reporter to interview the embattled governor one-on-one about the Bridgegate scandal.
Scott will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, April 3, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $50 for members, $70 for nonmembers. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Scott grew up in the small farm town of Springville in western New York, about 35 miles southeast of Buffalo. His family were farmers and carpenters, though his parents had more unusual occupations. His mother was a baker and his father played pro football for the Buffalo Bills in the early 1960s. Later he owned a printing company that printed materials for the Bills. “I grew up doing whatever it was that you needed to do,” Scott says. “By the age of 8 or 9, I was already shoveling you-know-what out of barns. I was picking potatoes, picking green beans, and baling hay.”
He wasn’t a farm boy for long. His radio career began almost as soon as his voice changed, at age 14, to the deep and accentless baritone he still has today at 44. “I was doing public address announcements for a Catholic church picnic, and this guy walked up to me and said, ‘hey, how would you like to be on the radio?’ I didn’t have anything else going on, and it paid better than flipping burgers,” Scott recalls.
He then went on to be a disk jockey and newsreader for the local radio station. “I have pretty much done nothing else ever since,” he says. Forgoing college, he began his career in journalism working for WCBS in New York then as a U.N. correspondent for NBC.
The story that stands out the most for Scott is the same one that stands out for most journalists of his generation. Scott says he was supposed to go to a meeting in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, but wasn’t feeling well enough to travel. When he arrived at the NJ 101.5 studios that morning, all the newsroom TVs were showing the impact of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.
“I don’t see at this stage of my career anything that would overshadow the intensity of the emotions on that day, and in the days and weeks following when the towers fell,” Scott says. “I stayed on the air all day long.”
Scott’s work has had a big impact on New Jersey politics. Ever since he started the show in 1991, the state’s governors have taken questions from Scott and the public once a month on “Ask the Governor.” The New Jersey Star-Ledger has called the sometimes contentious program a “rite of passage” for Garden State politicians.
Politics junkies inside and outside of New Jersey are well aware of the Bridgegate affair, in which a Christie appointee at the Port Authority and a Christie aide shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge and caused a days-long traffic jam in Fort Lee in September. Port Authority officials appointed by Christie at first said the closures were a “traffic study,” but E-mails and text messages revealed the traffic problems were the point, not a side effect, of the closures.
After news of Bridgegate broke in December, Christie held a lengthy press conference to say that he had thought the closures were a legitimate traffic study, and denied ordering the traffic jam as political retaliation against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor. Thereafter, he has avoided questions on the issue, but he has gone on the “Ask the Governor” show three times since the scandal broke, and Scott has continually pressed the governor on what he knew about the “study.” On the February 26 show, Scott asked Christie why he didn’t ask more questions of Bill Baroni, one of the Christie allies implicated in the affair.
Christie seemed to be annoyed by Scott’s line of questioning. “You folks are the only people at the moment who are asking me about this,” Christie said. “I’m not going to give in to the hysteria.”
The sharp response from the famously combative governor is not going to stop Scott from asking more Bridgegate questions. “This is not the first time that a governor has become annoyed with a series of questions,” he says. “I remember a couple of times, Jim McGreevey got so angry with me that he almost stormed out of the studio.”
Scott has had more pleasant encounters with political figures. One day, early in his career, Scott was sitting in the cafeteria at the United Nations building, when in walked a flustered Margaret Thatcher, who sat down next to Scott to unwind, chit-chat, and have a cup of tea. “She plunked herself down in the chair in a very unladylike fashion,” Scott says. “We had conversation about what an awful day it was in New York, how she hated the weather, and how she loved coming to quote-unquote The Colonies. She didn’t know me. We sat there for a good 10 minutes just exchanging pleasantries and talking of nothing of significance.”
That brush with a historically titanic figure was exciting for Scott, who is something of a history buff. His speech at the Princeton Chamber will include an overview of the history of business in the Princeton area. Scott, who lives in Lawrence and has two sons, says he appreciates the rich history and culture of the area. “The business community of Princeton is responsible for and a driver of industry in the Garden State,” he says. “I love looking at things the way they are, and the way they were.”
The radio station Scott works for is a big part of the area business community. With studios on Walters Avenue in Ewing, New Jersey 101.5 features Jersey-centric programming and covers most of the state. The station also has a live internet stream and puts out several podcasts.
Asked whether he thinks radio can thrive against competition from digital media, Scott disagreed with the premise of the question. He believes digital formats represent an opportunity. “I don’t view it as a threat to radio,” he says. “I view it as the future of journalism, and reaching beyond our terrestrial boundaries. We are excited about the possibilities that presents.”
One of those possibilities is reaching a larger audience. Scott says national audiences will listen in to his show via the internet to hear a national figure like Christie. Another audience is former New Jersey residents who tune in to stay in touch with their home state.
Scott says anyone starting a career in the news business shouldn’t worry too much about the format in which their work is published.
“There is no radio anymore,” he says. “You’re going to be doing multimedia reporting. The biggest advice I have is to not get caught up in all the hype of online blogging. Just because somebody says it doesn’t make it true. You still have to fact-check. It is better to be right than to be first. I know we’re in an on-demand world, where someone is always demanding the answer right now. But if you’re wrong, it destroys your credibility. If you’re right, no one is going to remember that you weren’t first.”