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KCRG's Chris Earl shifting from morning to evening newscasts on Monday

45-year-old Missouri native succeeds Bruce Aune as co-anchor with Beth Malicki

Chris Earl is interviewed last Monday at the anchor desk before the midday news in the KCRG-TV9 studio in Cedar Rapids.
Chris Earl is interviewed last Monday at the anchor desk before the midday news in the KCRG-TV9 studio in Cedar Rapids. Earl will step into the evening co-anchor slot alongside Beth Malicki on Monday, after the retirement of longtime anchor Bruce Aune. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Chris Earl is springing forward in a most dramatic way Monday morning.

No more 2 a.m. alarm clocks so he can be in the KCRG-TV9 co-anchor chair by 4:30 a.m. Instead, he’ll slide into the evening co-anchor chair for 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts, alongside veteran evening co-anchor Beth Malicki.

He succeeds Bruce Aune, whose last newscast was Friday. Aune is retiring after 34 years with KCRG.

Earl said he expects to be fully adjusted to the change by 5 a.m. Monday, goading his morning partners, Nicole Agee and Kaj O’Mara, that he’ll be thinking of them as he’s “tossing and turning and going back to sleep.”

Earl, 45, is no stranger to rolling with change.

In the beginning

Earl grew up in Kansas City, Mo., “as a small boy” and St. Louis as a “larger boy” and, at age 17, headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

His second year there, he left school to find a job and become an in-state resident, to make college more affordable. During that gap year, he delivered pizzas and dealt blackjack at the Ho-Chunk Casino.

“I gained so much life experience, and I became very much a student of the news,” he said. “I’d always watched the news, always been very into politics. And as an only child growing up primarily with just one parent in the household, TV became my friend. Radio became my friend. Talk radio became my friend.”

In fifth or sixth grade, he’d get up every day, rub the sleep from his eyes and watch the NBC News at sunrise with Deborah Norville.

He went back to college at age 19, studying political science and broadcast journalism. His side hustle writing sports reports for no one — just to learn the craft — landed him a job with the Madison Capital newspaper. He also created a spot on local access TV and took on a paid internship at a Madison TV station by teaching himself how to edit videotape. He ended up working in print and broadcast media through graduation in 1997.

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Intent on being a sportscaster, but hitting brick walls with his demo tapes, he became a news photographer in Topeka, Kan., to get his foot in the door. After three months, he moved into a sports reporting position, and in 1998, moved back to Eau Claire as a sports anchor and reporter for a year-and-a-half.

Next came a stint in Duluth, Minn., as a lead sports anchor for five-and-a-half years, followed by a return to Eau Claire in 2005 to become an evening news anchor. He stayed there until 2008, when he answered a call from KCRG and switched to the morning desk.

He has since worked all the time slots — morning, evening and weekends — gaining valuable experience and building rapport in the field and on the air.

Moving to Cedar Rapids

He came to Cedar Rapids in April 2008. His wife, Erica, and their son and daughter joined him in June, the day before the floods of 2008 raged through Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other Eastern Iowa river towns and properties.

That did make him ponder his decision to relocate.

“I wondered, because there were so many variables going on when the flood of 2008 hit,” he said. “We were just really in a recession. Anybody in TV news knew that we were in a recession for about a year because the whole industry was just cutting costs and trying to control the money that was going out.

“So I’m in this city where I’m still mixing up the streets and the avenues in 2008. I’ve been on air for six weeks, but we’ve already had a lot of big things going on at this point. We had the Postville raid in May, and Memorial Day weekend, we had the F5 tornado” in Aplington, Parkersburg and New Hartford.

He missed that devastation by “about 10 miles,” as he drove back to Cedar Rapids from spending the weekend with his family in Eau Claire. He could see the storm in the distance, so he pulled over to ride it out in a convenience store’s walk-in cooler in Denver, north of Waterloo. The floods hit two weeks later.

Frustrated because he had lost his voice, he initially worked behind the scenes during nonstop flood coverage.

“That’s the worst thing that can happen when you’re a news anchor because you want to get the story out,” he said.

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But it gave him the chance to learn from the way Malicki and co-anchor Aune handled working long hours in near-darkness during that stressful time.

“The most emotional part was when we had people calling us, not knowing if their house had been destroyed,” he said.

He would ask for their address, then check the list of homes deemed “no longer livable.” If the house was on the list, “you could just hear the heartbreak,” he said.

In late 2017, he took his son on a 20-mile hike through the city, as part of a Boy Scout merit badge requirement. Earl walked him through the Czech Village and Time Check areas, especially hard-hit by the flood.

“I said, ‘And over there, that’s where you played soccer the day that you moved here, as people were sandbagging.’ ... Those were neighborhoods. People lived there for decades. Generations have lived there. And it’s still haunting when you see it.”

Hard news

Even though he’s able to keep tears in check as he reports on tragedies, he still feels them all in his gut.

In July 2012, a day or two before cousins Lyric Cook, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, disappeared on a Friday afternoon while biking near Meyers Lake in Evansdale, he had been there, reporting a story about construction noise along that stretch of Interstate 380 near Waterloo.

He would end up spending a lot of time there during the next three or four weeks, following the investigation. But that Sunday night, he was anchoring the 10 p.m. news. His eyes still glisten as he recalls that newscast.

“I think about a thousand people were walking all throughout Black Hawk County, all through Evansdale,” searching for the girls. “And I remember at the very end of the broadcast, saying something along the lines of, ‘If anybody’s watching, if you were out there walking today, if you were out there looking for these girls, you make me incredibly proud to live here.’ ”

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Vehicle crashes also weigh on him, especially when young people are involved. He still looks for the cross marking a 2013 crash site in Benton County where three people died. As the reporter on the scene, an officer warned him to keep his distance because the sight would affect him.

“So you just kind of shoot around it,” Earl said. “It’s like you want to get the story, but you also want to make sure that it’s covered with a level of decorum.”

Earlier in Eau Claire, he had sent a card to the father of a young boy who had been killed by a truck while riding a bike. Two years later, Earl, who also is a published novelist, returned to the city for a book signing, when the boy’s father approached him.

“I was just frozen. And he said, ‘I got your card. I never wrote back because I was mourning.’ But we had a moment. We hugged it out, and I felt like I made a real positive impact on him.

“It’s easy to think there’s this big distance between viewers or consumers or readers and people reporting this,” he said. “You want to be accessible, but you still want to have that line of professionalism.”

Building rapport

In addition to establishing relationships and trust with viewers, newscasters also have to build rapport with their co-workers.

“Fitting in is always crucial,” Earl said. “You have to have really good chemistry with your co-anchor in the mornings, but you have to really fit in well at night because you have a lot of personalities — and strong personalities. You’ve got aggressive reporters, photographers, editors, producers — everybody wants to have a part of it. But when you’re working in the mornings with fewer people around, it means that you can you can take a little bit more of the load. ...

“In the evenings, it is much more of an ensemble. (You have to) run it past this person or that person because you want to make sure it’s good and it makes sense and it’s not uncomfortable.”

While he enjoys the writing aspect of his job, he also likes being in the moment with breaking news.

“I like to say that’s when anchors earn their money, is during breaking news. I’ve always encouraged producers I’ve worked with to say if we just have a few basic facts and you get a live picture from somewhere, put up the picture and we’ll talk under it with what we know, and add the context as we can, because almost anybody can read whatever is put out there, but when you’ve got a situation like the Marshalltown tornado or the Coral Ridge shooting five years ago ... you think of the developments in each of those.

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“When we had the big day happen, you wanted to make sure whatever pictures, whatever visuals you’ve got — put that out there, and we will work with the facts as we know them. You can feel the adrenaline as a news anchor, coming to you during a lot of that, too.”

Earl got to work with Malicki for two weeks last August, after Aune announced he would be retiring in early March.

“It does take time to build some of that (rapport),” Earl said, noting that he and Malicki have kids the same age, so they’ve seen each other’s family at soccer and show choir. A favorite memory is a soccer game where Malicki’s son scored a goal on Earl’s son, but Earl’s son got the win.

“So everybody came out OK on that day,” he said.

That’s akin to what it’s like off the playing field and back in the studio, too.

“You just have to experience whatever it’s going to be, and make it work. As long as everybody recognizes that people are going to work hard and that they care about the end goal and the end products, everything else just kind of falls in line in those situations.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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