Once upon a time in Bay Area television, a local news team dressed like wild west outlaws. Called the KGO Cowboys, they’d ride into a ghost town on horseback, in a 1970s TV spot so ridiculous that it reportedly inspired the newsman brawl in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
Leading this gang of teleprompter-reading desperados was Fred Van Amburg, the lead anchor of KGO’s News Scene from 1969 to 1986. Van Amburg pioneered the “happy talk” format, where the newscasters bantered back and forth between stories that were all-too-often as gruesome as the Zodiac murders and the Zebra Killers.
Sometime around 1974, KGO’s odd-but-successful news style made national waves, when Van Amburg hyped film of a severed penis found on the railroad tracks of the West Oakland train yards. In a 1974 60 Minutes story on the emergence of tabloid TV journalism, Mike Wallace reported that 55 percent of KGO’s News Scene broadcasts were made up of “fire, crime, sex, accidents, tearjerkers, and exorcism stories.”
During the 60 Minutes segment, Wallace asked Van Amburg if the famous severed penis story wasn’t just the old media equivalent of clickbait.
“We didn’t just cut that thing off and put it out there,” Van Amburg said, adding that somebody was the victim of this attack.
And Van Amburg still had pride in KGO’s scoop decades later. “You’ll have to admit that the backlighting when the cop held up that baggie with the evidence was dramatic,” he later boasted to a Broadcast Legends meeting, held in San Francisco in 1995.
Pat McCrystle, the KGO news photographer who captured the image of the dismembered member for Bay Area viewers, recalled the incident in a comment on Rich Lieberman’s 415 Media blog.
“I made sure that I filmed it with the beautiful background of the ‘city’ behind the big baggie with the little wiener going in it,” McCrystle wrote. “I bet I ruined lots of dinners that evening for the 6:00 news.”
While the castration became a national symbol of TV news excess, details of the crime or its victim go unremembered. Who was the castrato? Who cut off his dick, and why? Did the man survive being castrated? Was his sex organ surgically reattached? Searches of the digital archives of the Chronicle, Examiner, and Oakland Tribune turned up no reporting of the incident beyond mentions of the media uproar it caused.
As for Van Amburg, he rode this brand of reporting to paydays reportedly topping $1 million a year, with a whopping 50 percent ratings share of Bay Area television viewers. While he was riding high, he never apologized for his news judgement.
“You know that transsexual who wants to play tennis (Dr. Renee Richards)? Well, if I had it my way, we’d spend the whole sports segment of the news on that story because that’s the future, that’s the trend. Not runs, hits and errors,” he told the Examiner somewhat prophetically in 1976.
Nevertheless, Van Amburg was thrust into retirement when KGO refused to renegotiate his contract for “undisclosed reasons” in 1986, and he never worked in TV news again. He died at his home in El Cerrito on June 22, 2017.