Chris Burrous was my mentor, my colleague and my friend of 11 years. He passed away on Thursday. His deep impact on my life — and I know I’m not alone here — has left me in shock, a feeling that will not wear off anytime soon.
Chris was more than a unique broadcaster or a friendly guy. He was truly one-of-a-kind: One of the most-devastating aspects of his passing is knowing that he was the only person who could really do what he did and do it well, he did it with a warm, friendly, authentic demeanor that was inspirational and infectious. Still, what he had cannot be learned or replicated: There was no one else like him — and may never be anyone like him again.
I first came to know about Chris in 2006 when he was the weekend anchor and a general assignment reporter for KMAX-TV (Channel 31) in Sacramento. While flipping through the channels, I landed on the new weekend edition of the station’s morning show “Good Day Sacramento.” Chris had managed to get ahold of a giant Chupa Chups lollipop, and he wanted to see how long it would take for the station’s intern, Alan, to lick it. All of this was done on the air. None of it was news. But it was different, engaging, funny and had an aura of spontaneous authenticity.
Good Day is a local institution that has long embraced the idea of breaking down the barrier between the talent on set and the audience at home. Producers invited Good Day’s to call the station on various topics. Someone had the idea of putting a fax machine on the set where viewers could instantly send in letters and thoughts. When email started to take off, Good Day rallied around that too, and for a brief while the show ran its own AOL chat room.
Chris took all of these ideas and expanded on them: When he launched Good Day Weekend, he opened a Yahoo Messenger account where viewers could interact with a producer in the broadcast booth (sometimes, this producer was actually a station intern). He once gave out the number to his station-funded cellphone, only to toss the phone over his shoulder when viewers started calling it en masse. He asked viewers to call in with their opinions, and he was not afraid of going over the allotted time for a segment if those viewers had interesting things to say (during a segment on office romances, a viewer who managed a strip club called in. Chris kept him on the air for more than two minutes — a long time in TV). Likewise, Chris was not afraid of cutting off viewers who were boring or obnoxious; viewer emails that were critical of a segment, of him or that he otherwise found unfavorable were read and then placed in a shredder — all of it on the air.
Chris loved being different, because he knew that, if done right, it would mean an authentic, engaging show that would keep people hooked. He roped me and a number of other viewers in. He made us want to be active participants in the broadcast, not just passive viewers, and thousands of people took him up on it.
In 2007, Chris put out a call for people to point their webcams out the windows of their homes as part of a new initiative called the “Weekend Weather Warriors.” The idea was to show weather conditions in various parts of Good Day’s broadcast area. In reality, it was to compensate for what was then the station’s lack of remote cameras outside of its one camera on the roof of the station and various Caltrans cameras sprinkled along major highways. But Chris saw it as an opportunity to get people involved, and I was the only person who fell for it.
Chris called me on the air to ask what the conditions were like in my town while showing a Yahoo Messenger feed of a webcam I had pointed out my bedroom window. He took this feed several times during the show. For viewers, it was probably an interesting mention of a city that was rarely mentioned on TV, but for a young college student who had spent his whole life with an interest in broadcasting, it was a magical moment that came with a feeling of palpable recognition.
Chris understood his viewers better than anyone else on television. He knew that the thousands of people who tuned in to the show he helped create did not come with a cookie-cutter lifestyle that could be easily grouped into a demographic. The more interesting and authentic you were to him, the more he wanted to engage with you. I guess he found me to be interesting, because we kept in touch long after that weather segment ended.
When I launched a personal blog, he read it, and when I moved that blog away from the general musings of my own life and started covering technology and local media, he used it as a launching point for various news segments — both on Good Day and later on his interactive morning show “CBS13.com.” We had late-night conversations on Yahoo Messenger, exchanged hundreds of emails and text messages, had a few phone calls and went out to lunch more than once. In 2007, when I said I wanted to work in the radio industry (back then, this was a real dream of mine), he invited me to sit in on a live airing of the “Bruce Maiman Show,” where he would be tapped to serve as a substitute host on local AM juggernaut KFBK. The following year, he invited me to do a tour of the studios where Good Day is and CBS13.com was produced. A few months later, he agreed to speak to one of the journalism classes I attended to offer his own unique insight on the news industry.
Upon learning that a young person wants to break into journalism or broadcasting, most people in the industry have the same advice: Don’t do it. You’ll be daunted with long hours and little pay, they’ll tell you. They allege it’s a high stress, low reward environment.
Chris took the opposite approach. He loved working with young people who had that spark for broadcasting and news. He encouraged anyone with an interest in the field to take it, and he helped open the doors for a lot of us. That intern who was sucking on a lollipop in 2006 was “Alan the Intern,” who later went by his real name, Alan Sanchez, when he became a general assignment reporter for Good Day. One of the interns who interacted with people on Yahoo Messenger while working in the broadcast booth was Cambi Brown; she is now a general assignment reporter for Good Day.
I never worked with Chris directly at Good Day, but he put me in touch with a lot of people and actively worked on my behalf to help me break into the industry. He encouraged the station to waive a specific requirement on when college interns can apply to work at the station; the internship didn’t materialize because someone Chris had introduced me to left KMAX for the Fox affiliate KTXL and offered me a job, which Chris strongly encouraged me to take.
Anyone who supervised Chris would tell you at the time that he was far from a model employee. Chris, sometimes, pushed the envelope too far — when TMZ launched their TV show in 2007, one of their first stories focused on a controversial Good Day segment where Chris visited a homeless encampmentand gave a transient woman McDonald’s and beer.
Controversy also seemed to find Chris when he wasn’t trying: That same year as the TMZ incident, Chris and his team at CBS13.com were thrust into the national spotlight when radio personality Rush Limbaugh criticized the program for running a poll asking if a song called “Barack the Magic Negro” that Limbaugh played during his show was racist (Limbaugh later ran a poll of his own, asking if Chris and others on the show were “morons”).
Chris had more than one sit-down with station management in Sacramento over his antics. It was not something he was unfamiliar with: He often confided, to me and to others — and once, to Good Day viewers themselves — that sometimes pushing the envelope came with consequences. Before coming to Sacramento, Chris worked at a television station in Bakersfield, where he was eventually fired for dressing up as the town’s mayor during an event at a local bar.
Chris was not afraid to admit when he was wrong, but he did so by also complaining when he knew station management to be wrong. Managers are tasked with, among other things, keeping order and working through chaos. More often than not, Chris brought the chaos, because he thrived on disorder — not for the sake of being rambunctious (though he was), but for the sake of being real. It was intoxicating, and it helped shape my own attitude and behavior very early on in my career — which, more than once, got me in trouble and earned me my own trips to a news organization’s equivalent of the principle’s office.
Some of our conversations over the years amounted to little more than ranting about how managers didn’t “get it” and how we’d both kind of do our own things anyway. But Chris also had the ability to maintain great, lasting relationships with certain people who did “get it” or could otherwise provide his career with some kind of value. One of those people was Steve Charlier, a former manager at KMAX who later became an executive with the Tribune Company. Chris was not a huge fan of Charlier’s management style, but he liked Charlier and he saw maintaining a friendly relationship with him as one way to get ahead in his career.
Chris told me more than once that his ultimate dream job was to land at a station in Southern California. He grew up in the Central Valley, where television markets tend to be smaller than they are in the rest of the state, and he idolized people who worked in Los Angeles news. Specifically, Chris wanted to work at KTLA, a station whose morning show served as the framework for KMAX’s Good Day. KTLA was owned by the Tribune Company. Charlier was in a position to make it happen for Chris.
In early 2010, there were no opportunities at KTLA for Chris. But Charlier did reach out with an offer for Chris to work as an anchor the morning show at WPIX in New York City. New York is a larger market than Los Angeles by just one step, and Chris saw it as a major opportunity to move up in his career — because, as they saying goes, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. He put in his year at WPIX before asking for a transfer to KTLA to be closer to his parents(Chris was a family man first and a broadcaster second).
KTLA staffers were initially apprehensive about “the new guy from New York,” particularly since his transfer was approved by a member of an unpopular executive team in Chicago that many at the company did not like (I know this from first-hand experience; KTXL, where I worked for two years in my first TV job, was owned by the Tribune Company — and like the station, the company was a mess). But once they saw him in action, they accepted Chris and eventually revered him as a talented broadcaster who was an engaging jack-of-all-trades, seamlessly moving from his recurring segments on local eateries to covering breaking news in an instant, or otherwise filling in wherever he was needed.
For almost a decade, viewers in Los Angeles have had the opportunity to get to know the Chris Burrous that we all saw on display during his nearly five years in Sacramento. He was not above stopping what he was doing in public to take photos with viewers. When a viewer wrote about a recipe she’d created, he called her after the show and asked to stop by her home so he could learn how to create that recipe. There were dozens of people he invited into the studio to observe his work process and take in the magic that is television news. If he could poke holes in the invisible wall between broadcasters and viewers, he actively sought to poke those holes.
Broadcasters who push their own celebrity aside to make their audiences feel loved and special are a rare breed these days. Chris was that and so much more. He had a keen awareness of the magical bond that broadcast radio and television could create between audience and talent, and he let nothing — not ratings, not management, not even himself — stand in the way of nurturing that relationship.
The details of Chris’ passing are still largely unknown, but his death is the subject of a police investigation where overdose is suspected. In coping through these last 24 hours, I’ve largely tried to avoid learning more about how he died because it is almost guaranteed that those details will come out and that it will be hard for all of us to stomach. Not too many of us are ready for that just yet.
Part of the coping mechanism in dealing with his loss has been to reach out to mutual friends and former co-workers. Until yesterday, I had no idea that Chris struggled with certain forms of drug addiction — I never saw it first hand, never suspected it, and we never discussed it. But others, apparently, did know about it. Some tried to intervene, but most did not. It is not entirely clear to me that strenuous intervention efforts would have helped: Chris was the type of person who believed he was right until he was proven wrong, and even after acknowledging a mistake, the consequences rarely mattered to him — he had a way of picking himself up, dusting himself off, and moving on. When people asked me how I was able to keep myself together after getting into some troubles, it was because I was inspired by how Chris kept himself together when he got into trouble.
You can always recover from the consequences, until you can’t. Untimely death is one of those consequences, and it affects not just the person who dies but everyone else who is around them — the hundreds of acquaintances, friends, colleagues and people on the periphery who were not quite ready for that person to go, and in many ways still need them in their lives.
Chris was 43. He leaves behind his wife of 15 years, Mai Do-Burrous, his 9-year-old daughter Isabella Burrous and many, many heartbroken colleagues and friends.