Mar 30, 2023 - News

Longtime WRAL anchor David Crabtree looks back at his TV career

Photo illustration of David Crabtree with abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: N.C. Media & Journalism Hall of Fame

David Crabtree has been an institution in the Triangle media world for nearly 30 years — first as WRAL's lead anchor from 1994 to 2022 and now as the CEO of PBS North Carolina.

  • If anyone's name has come close to becoming synonymous with Raleigh news, it's Crabtree, who reliably delivered nightly updates to generations of Triangle residents.

Driving the news: Crabtree, 73, was recently named one of the 2023 inductees for the N.C. Media & Journalism Hall of Fame.

Axios spoke with Crabtree over Zoom from his office at PBS. This conversation was edited for clarity.

Did you think you would stay in Raleigh after moving here in 1994?

  • I thought I would be here for three, maybe four years max. After that, I'm out of here. I just knew I was going to the networks — that's like being called up for the show and baseball. I was confident about that.
  • And when the opportunity came, I said, "No, I don't think I want to do that. I've got one of the best anchor jobs in the country." It was the strangest feeling because I had so wanted that until I realized it was within my grasp. I thought, "No, this other place has found you so let's stay with it."

When did you first feel you had built a relationship with the Raleigh community?

  • I think it came in covering Hurricane Fran in 1996, and the great exposure I had by being an anchor that actually got out and went into the community and covered news. We were on the air off and on during those seven days when thousands of people in Raleigh were without power.
  • I just deeply involved myself in the community during that time, and it wasn't motivated because of television. It was motivated because, my gosh, look what's happened here. After that, whether it was at Harris Teeter or the dry cleaners, wherever it was, people would come up and say, "I saw you at the coast, what was that like?" or "I saw you in my neighborhood."

Why was local news so important to you?

  • You can find national and international news from dozens of sources. You can find local news from very few sources, particularly television. I remember Lester Holt talking to me one time about the importance of local news and he said, "You know, people still want to know, 'what was that siren I heard last night? What's happened with the council? Did that storm cause damage?'"
  • There are very few sources to get that. Local fills that gap for people and it allows for people to build trust in the community, so when there are significant events that happen, they have people they can trust to turn to to inform them.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to local news?

  • The vast majority of people are getting their initial burst of information from some form of social media. The folks who want to know more will then look more deeply. The challenge for local news organizations is to continue to find ways to remain somewhat relevant during that period where people are looking for more.
  • It's a hell of a challenge. But I think instead of fighting it, we should join (and ask), 'how do we better position ourselves with whatever app there may be to make sure that we are out there?'

What were the pros and cons of being such a public face in the Triangle?

  • It's incredibly humbling and rewarding that people trust you and would choose you for information.
  • But when you're there as the face of an organization, you have to live at a higher standard. And when you fall — and I've had my own failures in life — you really fall hard. It is difficult, and it's not a tightrope, it's just that's the path we choose to walk on.

Why did you take the PBS NC job?

  • We have the potential to do so much in the state. … One is working with the UNC system on literacy and the staggering numbers of third and fourth graders who are reading below proficiency rates.
  • We're working with UNC Charlotte to create new content for teachers and for students, particularly in marginalized areas, to plant seeds that are going to take years to turn that tide. If we have more people in this state who can read at a higher proficiency, then we have the chance to build not only a better workforce, but equity within the workforce.
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