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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2003


Maverick broadcaster Kume shook 'em up

Since Oct. 10, when the House of Representatives was dissolved, bigwigs from Japan's political parties have been making the rounds of the nightly news shows, spelling out their differences and promoting their spiffy new "manifestos" in preparation for the election on Nov. 9. Though they've contained a few touchy outbursts, the discussions have been the usual mix of meaningless platitudes and defensive posturing; which is all the more reason to mourn the absence of Hiroshi Kume.

Actually, Kume, the anchor of TV Asahi's nightly "News Station," is still around, but as many media watchers have commented, he's not his old self, and, in fact, hasn't been for about three years.

In August, the 59-year-old radio and TV veteran announced that he was leaving "News Station" next March for good, and subsequently there has been some discussion about his impact on broadcast news since the show debuted in October 1985. Depending on the source, Kume is either the worst thing that ever happened to Japanese broadcasting or the only newscaster of any real value.

The motto of "News Station" has always been "News that even a junior-high-school student could understand."

This basic idea, coupled with the show's prime-time slot (10 p.m.) and the choice of Kume -- a variety show emcee with no news experience -- made people originally think that the program was entertainment-oriented.

In a sense, it was, but the idea of making news more accessible didn't mean it was dumbed down. The point wasn't just to make the news understandable, but also to convey its significance to the average viewer.

If "News Station" was successful in that regard, it was because of Kume's style. In an interview last month in the Asahi Shimbun, veteran broadcast personality Rokusuke Ei, who was Kume's boss when he was starting out in radio, characterized his former subordinate as a katarite, which is usually translated as "narrator" but literally means "someone who talks."

From the first, Kume demonstrated a "godlike" talent for talking on the air. "He was the ideal broadcaster," Ei said, explaining how the upstart announcer, speaking extemporaneously, without a script, could estimate exactly how many words he needed to get his point across so that he would end exactly at the next commercial break.

When you're that good people don't think about it, they simply listen. During the 18 years he has hosted "News Station," Kume developed a reputation as someone who forces his personal opinions on viewers, but compared to pundits and some of the tougher broadcast journalists, Kume rarely betrays anything like an ideology. What Kume asserts is not his views but his personality.

To his detractors it's the same thing, but they tend to mistake Kume's desire for clarity -- a desire that has been instilled in him through his own professionalism as a "talker" -- for an agenda.

Kume is mainly famous for angering politicians, specifically ruling party politicians, during interviews. He's abrupt, blunt and, some even say, intentionally mean; but that's only because his brief as a broadcaster requires straight answers about topics that his viewers should understand. His personable demeanor (which includes bad jokes) and sarcastic asides are the tools of a professional announcer whose job it is to engage the viewer. Real journalists abhor these devices as being antithetical to the purposes of news reporting, but just as one's understanding of print news is dependent on the writer's diction and style, one's understanding of broadcast news is dependent on the newsreader's ability to convey meaning through conversational speech.

None of the journalistically inclined newscasters do this.

Tetsuya Chikushi, one of Japan's most respected liberal journalists, conveys little as the anchor of TBS's "News 23." Chikushi is intelligent and thoughtful, but he is married to his script. And while he can ask pointed questions he seems averse to being disagreeable.

At the other end, hard-boiled interviewer Soichiro Tahara gets combative for the sake of combativeness, and will even hold up commercial breaks in order to make a point. Tahara's journalistic integrity is unimpeachable, but his methods, which often come across as overintellectual, compromise his effectiveness.

Kume's retirement seems to have been occasioned by his own feeling of insignificance. Three years ago, he took a long leave of absence that was seen as a prelude to resignation, but TV Asahi lured him back. He hasn't been the same since, and his lively verbal style has been replaced by a dashing sartorial style. But then, as former colleague Yuko Ando, now an anchor on Fuji TV, told the Asahi Shimbun, Kume "commands the screen" even when all he does is "lift an eyebrow." Rumors say that Kume is quitting because TV Asahi no longer wants to pay his huge salary, but he himself admits that he is no longer effective. "Certain politicians," he said during the press conference, "won't talk to me anymore." In any case, he's tired.

Fundamentally, there is nothing extraordinary about Hiroshi Kume. The political opinions he does express are mildly liberal, but otherwise he seems middle-of-the-road (his patented sexism has mellowed over the years without actually going away). As someone who understands the power of television, he insists on the kind of immediacy that only television can deliver. He famously does not rehearse, and uses scripts only as outlines. His is not a political mind, but he expects that people who aspire to political office to be as professional in their callings as he is in his. In most cases, they aren't. If they were, they would be happy to spar with him on national TV.

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