Friday's 'People'

UNC president emeritus marks 40 years of his UNC-TVinterview show

Staff WriterApril 10, 2011 

  • A luncheon to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "North Carolina People with William Friday" is scheduled from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, at UNC-Chapel Hill's the George Watts Hill Alumni Center. Tickets are $75 and the public is invited. For information, call Joanne Davis at 866-779-0012.

  • when to watch

    "North Carolina People with William Friday" airs at 9 p.m. Fridays, and repeats at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on UNC-TV. Or watch online at tinyurl.com/3rrbxvv.

Bill Friday arrives at the UNC-TV studio with a briefcase full of papers, a book and a notepad on which he has jotted questions. He takes a seat at the table on the set of his weekly interview show and reviews his notes one final time.

The host of "North Carolina People with William Friday" is always prepared. In his 40 years on the air, he has been as scrupulous about the TV program as anything he's done, including his 30 years at the helm of the University of North Carolina system.

"I want to know more about the guest than you do as a viewer," he said. "I work hard and I study. When you don't, the program doesn't have much life."

On Thursday, Friday, his producer and personal assistant mark the show's 40th anniversary. The three have been choosing the guests and scheduling the tapings for years, but the president emeritus is clearly in charge.

When his guests arrive - a recent taping, brought Ed and Charles Shelton of Shelton Vineyards near Mount Airy - Friday wastes no time. He seats them across the table and begins to chat. As a makeup artist layers his face with foundation and combs back unruly strands of hair, Friday peppers the pair with questions:

"How did you get into the wine business?"

"How many acres do you cultivate?"

"How many awards have you won?"

There's hardly anything he hasn't thought of, including "Where do you get the bottles?" Most of the questions will be repeated when the cameras start rolling, but this tête-à-tête has a purpose. A gifted communicator with an ample dose of Southern charm, Friday wants his guests to feel at ease. His behind-the-scenes chat is a rehearsal of sorts that he hopes will help guests work through any anxieties before taping.

Since 1971, Friday has interviewed 2,000 of North Carolina's most intriguing people, from governors and geologists to sculptors and storytellers, with plenty of politicians and professors thrown in along the way. At 90, (he turns 91 on July 13) Friday has relinquished many of the public service projects he worked on over the years. But he's not quite ready to give up "North Carolina People," a project he has grown to love.

The show attracts an average of 5,137 viewing households per week, roughly one-third of the audience that tunes into UNC-TV's most popular local show, "North Carolina Weekend." Still, its viewers are steadfast, as is its host.

"There will come a time when it has to end," Friday said the other day. "But I will have viewed it as one of the happiest experiences any man can have."

First lessons in TV

It wasn't Friday's idea to start the show. In fact, he wanted no part of it.

Back in 1971, Jay Jenkins, special assistant to the university president, wanted to seat four of North Carolina's living governors around a table for a conversation.

John Young, then the station manager for UNC-TV, suggested Friday as a moderator. But Friday didn't know much about television and was afraid of it. After turning down Young a couple of times, Friday finally agreed.

The show went well, and Young suggested that Friday interview former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Robert Burton House. That interview taught Friday a lesson.

"Don't ever ask a question that can be answered with a 'yes' or 'no,' " he said.

Friday had prepared 20 questions. Five minutes into the taping, he was already on No. 12, his queries eliciting only "Yep" in response. Then, he asked House to tell a story. The entire tenor of the conversation changed.

Thereupon Friday learned another lesson: "Your job is to listen," he said. "A television show isn't for you. It's for your guests."

Over the years, Friday has introduced viewers to the state's government and business leaders, artists, humanitarians and eccentrics.

Among the well-known people he's interviewed: actor Andy Griffith, evangelist Billy Graham, novelist Kaye Gibbons, former Sen. Jesse Helms, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, stock car racer Richard Petty, TV journalist Charles Kuralt, singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Among the not-so-famous are a boat captain, a quilter, an air-traffic controller, a goat cheese farmer, an antiques appraiser, a gardener, a psychiatrist and an FBI agent.

"It dawned on me that this is a way to build an archival collection of the people who led North Carolina and what they had to say about the issues that bothered them at their particular time in history," he said. "This state is full of interesting people. All you have to do is reach out to them."

Down-home style

The fact that a university president would host a 30-minute weekly interview program is testament to the role higher education has played in lifting North Carolina from its poor, rural roots.

"I don't know of any other example of a university president using the media in this way," said William A. Link, Friday's biographer and a University of Florida history professor. "The show has been so important in projecting his aura."

That aura is of a statesman and leader whose humility and grace bespeak an earlier age.

Friday, who was born in Raphine, Va., but grew up in the Gaston County community of Dallas, has spent his entire life in North Carolina. Although he has served on national commissions and boards, including a stint on the White House Task Force on Education, he has never lost his down-home good nature.

"He's a North Carolinian through and through," said C.D. Spangler, who succeeded Friday as president of the university system.

Friday's interview style is respectful, curious, friendly. No surprise, then, when Friday's assistant calls, people straighten up and take notice.

"Most people are honored we would consider them," said producer Bobby Dobbs. "And they clear their calendars to accommodate us."

Friday said he learned many journalistic tricks over the years: Don't allow guests to view the taped segment before it airs (they may want to back out); and never provide questions in advance (it makes the show stilted and formal).

The show is a small-budget operation, and Friday did it free when he headed UNC. The program's underwriter pays him $24,700 for it this year. There's no editing; Friday rarely finds it necessary to retape, cut or add any segment. In 40 years, he's resorted to only a handful of reruns. (He taped four shows ahead of his open-heart surgery two years ago.)

Friday typically works from 9 a.m. to noon, driving to and from his tiny office in Graham Memorial Hall. Shows are taped well in advance, and Friday calls his guests the day before to start the conversation.

After a recent taping, Friday got up to oblige his guests with photos. Nearly every guest wants a picture taken next to the host and Friday agrees, even though a bad knee makes it difficult to stand for long stretches.

He acknowledges there probably won't be a 45th anniversary of "North Carolina People," but he would be the first to mourn its demise.

"There's no ego in it for me," he said. "I do it for the fun of it. It's not that I have to have it. But I treasure it."

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service