So when you remind him how many times he’s been referred to as Indianapolis’ Walter Cronkite, he retorts that that’s nothing more than an easy reference. On the plus side, he says with a laugh, “They’re not saying I’m Indianapolis’ Dan Rather, which is a good thing.”
The bad thing is, Indianapolis is losing its Walter Cronkite. On Dec. 1, Ahern, 65, retires.
If you remember the guys who went before Ahern — Bob Glenn and Bill Aylward — you have an amazing memory. You’re also getting up there in years.
Ahern joined WISH in 1967 and made the anchor desk his home. He could be trusted to tell you the truth as he knew it and present the news in a way that didn’t insult your intelligence. No matter what some consultant suggested, no matter what the ratings said, Mike Ahern was Mike Ahern.
“There are so many people out there doing good work in jobs that are so much more important than mine, people I really admire who are exceptional and accomplished and never get any recognition at all,” he says. “Just because my face is thrown out there and my voice is broadcast gives you a certain strange, eerie feeling you’re somebody. I never really thought that.”
But the news has a way of being repetitive and wearing, and Ahern has had enough. In May, he cut back to half days, leaving work after the 6 o’clock news. He thought he’d miss doing the 11 o’clock news, because that was the newscast he nurtured in the early days. He didn’t. He liked being home with his wife of 32 years, Sherry, having dinner and going to the movies “like a normal person.” He remembered all the times he’d have to cut out in the middle of helping his son, Kevin, do his homework.
If leaving at 6:30 is nice, not going in at all might prove to be even better.
“I don’t have much left to give it,” Ahern says. “The feature-type work, the pieces I love to do, there’s no market for those anymore, really. I could probably stay and do hard news every night, but after I read a story, I’m thinking, ‘Didn’t I just do that story a year ago?’”
Over the years, Ahern had his chances to move up. Stations in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., inquired about his availability, but he wasn’t moved enough to move. “Basically, you’re doing the same job,” he says. “The city is bigger and maybe the pressures are more intense, but it’s the same job. I might as well do it here in a town I understand.”
He stayed here with Debby Knox, his co-anchor for the past 22 years, a pairing that may never be duplicated for longevity or quality. They meshed well and, as far as Ahern remembers, never had a cross word.
Ahern says his career highlight is also its lowlight — covering Tony Kiritsis. On Feb. 8, 1977, Kiritsis took mortgage company officer Richard Hall hostage, wired a shotgun to him and, among other things, paraded him around Monument Circle. Local TV, newly equipped with live mini-cameras, followed Kiritsis for the next 63 hours.
“We showed how vulnerable we could be with a life or death story,” he says. “That opened up a lot of eyes, including mine, that we have a lot of power with these cameras and this technology. I thought, this could be dangerous. The guy manipulated us, and in a way, we allowed ourselves to be, simply by showing up and saying here we are. And all of a sudden, we’ve committed ourselves to a story.”
There’s no word yet on Ahern’s replacement (Eric Halvorson has been filling in ably at 11), but he leaves local TV news better than he found it. “The people are better — God, the people are way better than they used to be — the reporters are more savvy and they’re great on their feet,” says Ahern, who plans to move to Southern California sometime down the road so he and Sherry can be near Kevin, who’s a musician.
“We do live TV now; we don’t do a lot of [taped] packages like we used to do. And these people are really good at that. You know it’s time to make room for them just by watching them work.”