CHAPEL HILL — Many people who moved to North Carolina in recent decades knew William Friday not from his years as the state’s university system president but as the dignified Southern gentleman who hosted a weekly talk show on public television.
“North Carolina People with William Friday” has aired on UNC-TV for 41 years, during which he interviewed more than 2,000 of the state’s best writers, educators, athletes, politicians and more. The first episode of the 42nd season, featuring an interview with retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, aired Aug. 3, but no other new shows had been produced.
“We haven’t made a determination yet about the future of the program,” UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad said late Friday. “Although in our internal discussions we agreed that ‘North Carolina People’ and William Friday are essentially synonymous, and it’s hard to imagine it without him.”
Friday was as scrupulous about preparing for his TV show as about anything he did.
“I want to know more about the guest than you do as a viewer,” he said in an interview last year, as the show neared its 40th anniversary. “I work hard, and I study. When you don’t, the program doesn’t have much life.”
By the time he turned 90, Friday had relinquished many of the public service projects he had worked on over the years, but he wasn’t ready to give up “North Carolina People,” a project he had grown to love.
“There will come a time when it has to end,” Friday said last year. “But I will have viewed it as one of the happiest experiences any man can have.”
Friday wanted no part of the show when it was conceived 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.”
Among the well-known people Friday 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 and singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Among the not-so-famous were 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.”
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,” William A. Link, Friday’s biographer and a University of Florida history professor, said last year. “The show has been so important in projecting his aura.”
That aura was of a statesman and leader whose humility and grace bespoke an earlier age. Friday’s interview style was respectful, curious and friendly.
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).
There was no editing; Friday rarely found it necessary to retape, cut or add any segment. Shows were taped well in advance, and Friday called his guests the day before to start the conversation.
He acknowledged last year that there probably wouldn’t be a 45th anniversary of “North Carolina People” and indicated 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.”
Former staff writer Yonat Shimron contributed to this report.