‘It’s been a great ride’: Live 5’s Bill Sharpe retires after 48 years in TV

Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 1:16 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 28, 2021 at 6:57 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - When Bill Sharpe signs off from Thursday’s 6 p.m. news on Live 5 WCSC, he will wrap up nearly half a century on television.

What keeps someone coming to the same job for 48 years?

“I love it. I just love the work,” Sharpe says. “I bring the news to my people, to the people of the Lowcountry, people I grew up with.”

He says he can’t think of a better privilege. He also credits his co-workers for keeping him on the job.

“All of these people are fun people to work with,” he says. “So in addition to being able to bring the news to my people, the Lowcountry, I get to work with these funny, wonderful, smart and talented people.”

Sharpe joined the Live 5 News team on Oct. 3, 1973, when he was 22 years old. Over five decades, he received numerous awards including feature and investigative reporting and has been part of newscasts that earned Emmy and Peabody Awards.

Bill Sharpe on the Live 5 News set in the late 1970s.
Bill Sharpe on the Live 5 News set in the late 1970s.(Live 5/File)

In 2017, Sharpe and his longtime co-anchor, Debi Chard, received the Masters Award from the South Carolina Broadcasters Association. It was the first time the award was given to a team rather than an individual.

READ MORE: Gov. McMaster presents Bill Sharpe the Order of the Palmetto

Then, the following year, the two were inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Silver Circle, which honors those with at least 25 years in the industry.

Earlier in August, he earned his most recent honor when the SCBA named him Anchor of the Year.

When WCSC-TV Vice President and General Manager Dan Cates announced Sharpe’s plan to retire to the station’s staff, he called Sharpe a “comforting voice in the darkness” and also “the voice of hope, joy and triumph as good news in the Lowcountry has far outweighed the bad.”

“I have never worked with anyone who commands breaking news as Bill Sharpe does. His passion, energy, and dedication is just as strong in 2021 as it was in 1973,” Cates said.

Bill Sharpe joined the Live 5 News team in October 1973. He retires Thursday night after 48...
Bill Sharpe joined the Live 5 News team in October 1973. He retires Thursday night after 48 years at WCSC-TV.(Live 5/File)

Career began in radio while still in college

Born Oct. 15, 1950, he grew up in West Ashley and spent his entire life and broadcasting career in Charleston.

Sharpe graduated from St. Andrews High School, which is now West Ashley High. He earned a degree from Emory University in Atlanta in English Literature with a minor in French.

Sharpe’s mother was an English teacher and his father was a longtime principal. So, a career in the education field might have been a safe bet. But he says he thinks his detour into broadcasting was accidental.

It began at Emory University when he worked for the campus radio station. One day, about 53 years ago, his mother told him about a friend of hers who owned a radio station.

READ MORE: Charleston Mayor Tecklenburg proclaims Wednesday as ‘Bill Sharpe Day’ in Charleston

“‘I think you need to talk to him about a job when you come back during summer vacation.’ So if Mother said it, you did it,” Sharpe says.

He called Chuck Smith, then-owner of WTMA radio.

“He said, ‘Bill, we do have an opening for a morning news guy. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ So that’s how it started,” Sharpe says.

That was back around 1968.

When he graduated from Emory in 1972, he returned to Charleston, never intending to stay for more than a year. He worked at another radio station as afternoon news anchor and hosted a talk show.

“The only problem with that little radio station was it was 250 watts and we were on the marsh,” Sharpe recalls. “Beyond the roaches and the fish in the marsh, there weren’t many people who heard us, but it was great experience.”

In 1973, while he worked at yet another radio station, he took a call from a man he called “a big gun” at Channel 5, the late Carroll Godwin. Godwin asked him to come in an audition for an 11 p.m. news anchor slot.

“I said, ‘I don’t know. Let me think about it,’” Sharpe says.

So he went to his parents’ home and told them about the call.

“I said, Mom and Dad, this guy, Carroll Godwin, wants me to audition for the 11 o’clock anchor slot at Channel 5. I said, ‘But, I mean, I’d have to cut my hair and shave every day,’” he says. “And my mother and dad looked at me like I had two heads and said, ‘What, are you going to pass up a chance to get into the TV station you grew up watching and we now watch because you’re worried about getting a haircut and shaving every day?’”

So his mother, whom he says was a driving force in his life, made her wishes clear.

“She said, ‘Here’s what you do: You call him tomorrow. You shave, you cut your hair, and you go in for that audition. Do you understand?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Mother,’” Sharpe says.

He went in for the audition and sat in front of a camera. In what he called the “arrogance of youth,” something he says he had “a lot of back then,” he said he knew he had the job. Sure enough, about a week later, Godwin called to say the job was his.

From film to digital, typewriters to computers

Many things are different in 2021 than they were in 1973. Technology, Sharpe says, changed the most.

“I started on an electric typewriter. We would type out the scripts,” Sharpe says. “I started shooting with a Bell and Howell Camera – film – and then shooting with a big stand-up camera. We called it ‘SOTS,’ sound on tape, but it was sound on film back then.”

When Bill Sharpe joined the Live 5 News team in 1973, the news was shot on film, not videotape.
When Bill Sharpe joined the Live 5 News team in 1973, the news was shot on film, not videotape.(Live 5/File)

A film editor taught him how to splice film to edit and they would put the final product on a long reel like you’d see in a movie house.

“During the 11 o’clock news, we had a projector, and the projectionist would run the news stories just like you see in the movies,” he says. “The only problem was if he got out of order, you were up the creek because that film was going to roll off no matter what. So we had good days and we had bad days.”

Film was replaced by videotape and tape vanished as digital recording took over.

Microwave technology allowed for live remote broadcasts in the 1970s. Then came satellite shots, which allowed viewers in the Lowcountry to witness breaking news around the world as it happened.

Another big adjustment came in the late 1970s or early 1980s when Channel 5 brought in the teleprompter, a device that projects the news scripts onto a two-way mirror in front of the camera lens. That meant that for the first time, anchors didn’t have to constantly break eye contact with the viewers to look down at the scripts on the desk in front of them.

Bill Sharpe traveled to Rome in 1978 with Charleston Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler for the...
Bill Sharpe traveled to Rome in 1978 with Charleston Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler for the selection and installation of Pope John Paul I.(Live 5/File)

Technological advances with electronic news gathering had film give way to videotape and made live shots via satellite possible for the first time. Sharpe was at the forefront of live reporting when he traveled to Rome in 1978 for the selection of a new pontiff, Pope John Paul I. He traveled to the Vatican with Charleston Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler and even had an audience with the new pope shortly after he was selected.

“Here’s this Charleston boy who goes over to Rome to cover the new pope and he’s there with the Pope!” Sharpe says.

He jokes that he’s a dinosaur “still living in the Jurassic age” when it comes to computers.

“I loved my little electric typewriter. So going from that to a word processor on a computer took some adjustment,” he said.

The two hardest stories of his career

Sharpe can easily name the two most difficult stories he covered over his long career.

The first, in September 1989, was Hurricane Hugo, which made landfall in Charleston County as a powerful Category 4 storm. He recalled years after the storm watching legendary Live 5 weatherman Charlie Hall as the storm approached. He remembered seeing Hall become more and more somber, uncharacteristic for the normally jovial co-worker, over hours before the hurricane approached.

Live 5 Weatherman Charlie Hall and News Anchor Bill Sharpe sign off from WCSC's downtown studio...
Live 5 Weatherman Charlie Hall and News Anchor Bill Sharpe sign off from WCSC's downtown studio on East Bay Street shortly before Hurricane Hugo made landfall on Sept. 21, 1989.

As updated forecasts and data kept coming in, he said Hall became depressed and upset because he knew how bad Hugo was going to be.

The storm devastated Charleston.

“We had no power. I didn’t have power for two-and-a-half weeks, and I was one of the lucky ones,” Sharpe says. “So, I thought what else can I do? I’ll work. So, I get here about seven in the morning and work until seven, eight at night for the first 10 days, two weeks.”

The station simulcast on a radio station, passing along the most basic information for those likewise without electricity: Where to find fresh water, where to find a hot sandwich, where traffic lights are working, which hospitals were operating.

Carol Cox and Bill Sharpe provide a live update from Live 5's transmitter facility in the days...
Carol Cox and Bill Sharpe provide a live update from Live 5's transmitter facility in the days immediately after Hurricane Hugo. Widespread power outages and flooding at the station's downtown studio forced the team to anchor from its Awendaw transmitter site.(Live 5/File)

“We gave all that information to the people of the Lowcountry and that was tremendously gratifying. But it was tough,” he says. “I remember the stress got to me a few times and I would go off by myself and cry just break down in tears.”

READ MORE: Live 5 anchor Bill Sharpe reflects on Hurricane Hugo

He said one of the most remarkable things about Hugo’s aftermath was the politeness of the people in the Lowcountry.

“You know Savannah highway, how busy that is! I would go to an intersection at Savannah Highway, a very busy intersection. The lights were out. But cars coming in different directions would pause as if to say, ‘You go first.’ ‘No, you go first.’ I’ve never seen such kindness on the part of low country folks.”

He still gets emotional talking about the story that hit him harder even than Hugo.

Fast forward to June of 2015, when a gunman opened fire at the end of a Wednesday night Bible study at Mother Emanual AME Church in downtown Charleston.

That story, he admits, really got to him. The news director at the time asked him to write a piece to end the day’s coverage. He wrote it but had to pause every 10 or 15 minutes just to break down because of the nature of the tragedy.

The news director liked the finished piece and wanted to run it that night, but Sharpe knew he’d never be able to get through it on live television. He recorded it for that night’s 11 p.m. news, but even then, it took a few takes to get through it without breaking down, he remembers.

“That was the toughest time in my journalistic life,” he says.

When they caught the suspect, Dylann Roof, he remembers shouting on the air, “They got him!”

Then came the bond hearing.

“I was covering the bond hearings live. I was on the set and I said, ‘Let’s go to the bond hearing live.’ And family member after family member of the victims would get up and each one would say, ‘I forgive you for what you’ve done,’” Sharpe says. “To the young man who’d done this, ‘I forgive you for what you’ve done.’ After that happened about four or five times, it started to get to me again.”

To this day, his voice breaks as he remembers the moments.

“I mean, here are people who just had their mothers, their daughters, their grandparents, their nieces, their uncles, their relatives, killed by this racist, racist man, and they’re forgiving him because their religion, because Jesus taught them,” he says, overcome by the memory of it. “It’s still hard for me to talk about. But Jesus taught them to forgive, and they did. So, when they come back to me, I had the same reaction I’m having now. I had to steady myself.”

It took him about 10 seconds before he was able to speak.

“That really touched me,” he says. “Still touches me to this day.”

From anchor to advocate

Sharpe is the father of a son with special needs, William, whom he calls the apple of his eye. Together, the two have entertained followers of Bill Sharpe’s Facebook page over the years.

But it has sometimes been a difficult road for the young Sharpe and sometimes at the hands of his classmates.

Bill Sharpe and his son, William, walk in one of the Lowcountry's holiday parades.
Bill Sharpe and his son, William, walk in one of the Lowcountry's holiday parades.(Live 5/File)

A local lawmaker years ago approached Sharpe and asked if he would advocate on behalf of those with special needs, something to which he was quick to agree.

“There’s nothing worse to me than a bully in school,” he says. “I mean, we’ve got kids growing up there in their formative years, and they have to deal with a bully, either a physical bully or a mental bully. Both can be equally bad. And I saw what it did to William, and it’s not just special needs kids who are bullied. It’s a lot of kids. It angered me, just angered me.”

READ MORE: Live 5 News anchor Bill Sharpe testifies before lawmakers on school bullying

He traveled to Columbia to testify before lawmakers at the State House about a bill being considered to tackle the problem of bullying.

“I thought strong measures should be taken against bullies at school. I still think they should,” he says. “You just can’t tolerate that kind of damage to a person’s physical wellbeing or to his or her psyche. You can’t, you can’t tolerate that because a bully can leave lifelong bad impressions on a kid who’s very impressionable.”

In retirement, he says he plans to spend a lot more time with William and his other children.

“I look forward to taking him on fishing trips and you know things we haven’t had time to do much,” he says.

Live 5's Bill Sharpe has a laugh during a commercial break while on the Live 5 News set.
Live 5's Bill Sharpe has a laugh during a commercial break while on the Live 5 News set.(Live 5/File)

So what’s next? One plan his wife might not like

Sharpe jokes about looking forward to no deadlines and being able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants…at least until his wife, Katherine, gets “fed up” and suggests he find another job.

“First thing I’m going to do – my wife hates this – is I’m going to grow a beard,” Sharpe says. “Now my wife says, ‘You know, you’re a decent looking guy right now. That’s why I married you. But when you a grow a beard, you look like you’re 94!’”

So, he says, he’ll see how that goes.

Joking aside, Sharpe says he will never forget the gratitude to Live 5 News and the viewers who have turned to him for almost 50 years.

“I’ll never lose that feeling of what a privilege it was to talk to them and how wonderful it is to be able to do that. It’s been one of the blessings of my life to be able to do that,” he said. “It’s been a great ride and I am nothing but grateful for the chance to survive in this crazy business and do what I love doing almost more than anything else, and that is, bring the news to the people of the Lowcountry.”

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