"I like stories," says Larry Potash. “I naturally gravitate toward history, evidence and facts—discovering those surprising twists.” Potash, a morning news icon of sorts, has been anchoring WGN’s weekly 6AM news for the last 24 years, his bold, steady voice waking up Chicagoans for decades. But recently, Potash began to ponder the next step, leading him to launch Backstory with Larry Potash: a series dedicated to narrowing in on pivotal—yet largely overlooked—moments in history. While some of the stories explored are rooted here in the city like how local toy store owner Phil Cresta became a master thief wanted by the FBI—Potash has also ventured outside Chicago in order to offer a broad perspective and to resonate with more people. “I’m reading at least one book for every story that I do, on top of the interviews,” he says. “I’ve never spent more time in the library in my life.”
Bouncing from topic to topic across religions, cultures and sciences, each episode offers context, providing more of an examination of where that concept comes from and why, versus a traditional history lesson. Take an upcoming episode covering the Salem witch trials. It may sound like a review of a familiar tale you learned in school, but Potash chose to delve beyond the surface-level stories. “The trials are misunderstood for a few reasons,” he says, “and partly because of the way that they’re portrayed at the visiting sites—it’s almost like a theme park. We don’t want to simply do a news package and spew some facts. Let me tell you a story—the true story.”
Channeling lessons from various mentors throughout his life and his own years of experience, Potash has a deep understanding of how to communicate the complexity of stories efficiently and vibrantly—think mini-movies rather than a history program. “How many of us have b.s.’d our way through a history quiz? Now I’m playing catch-up,” he says. Backstory is primarily a two-man team, with Potash and his photographer and editor, Mike D’Angelo, as the driving forces. They’ve mastered the art of cutting down countless hours of content to fit the 30-minute time slot by narrowing in on specific perspectives. An episode on the American Revolution explores the question of who actually put the lanterns in the Old North Church steeple to signal Paul Revere as the British troops began their invasion. (It was the church sexton, Robert Newman, who made the brave choice to go against the majority loyalist congregation.) “It can come across as a fairy tale, but when you get close to history, you appreciate the sacrifices that people made to get us to where we are today,” the newscaster says.
Gratefully juggling his two roles, Potash credits each with strengthening all aspects of his career—he holds eleven Emmy Awards, five of them for best anchor. “It’s hard to know what’s new in news if you don’t know what’s old,” he says. “It’s a great feeling to understand where we have been in order to understand the evolution of America.” Born and raised in Lynn, Mass., Potash knew by eighth grade that he wanted to be a broadcast journalist. He majored in broadcast journalism at Emerson College, commuting daily by subway from his childhood home to the Boston campus. (His Boston accent has been hard to shake, he admits. “Those ‘r’ words still catch me on the teleprompter especially a word like neigh-bah-hood.”) Post-college, his work took him to Texas, Indiana and Oklahoma before he landed at WGN in 1994, where he quickly became the morning news anchor just one year after the inception of the station’s weekday morning time slot. “People see this job, and they think you’re an actor with a microphone, but we’re actually writers trying to figure out what’s going on,” Potash says. “What’s unusual about WGN is that they’re really good about giving us creative freedom, more than most places. It’s a great motivator and makes work enjoyable.” As the sale of Tribune Media, WGN’s parent company, to Nexstar Media Group moves forward, he hopes the momentum keeps going. “I’ve always wanted to do something bigger on a national level and to use the resources from all of the stations that we own,” he says. “Maybe this is a baby step toward that.”
After so many years, Potash doesn’t complain about his 3:15AM wake-up call—it’s second nature at this point, although now his commute begins in Lake Forest, where he lives with his wife and kids. News never sleeps; neither does Potash. He is full speed ahead on the present while constantly diving further into the past. “Media is dying for original content,” he says. “It’s more important now than ever.” Backstory with Larry Potash, Saturdays at 10 pm on WGN, with encores Sundays at 11PM, wgntv.com