Behind the Camera
Renowned broadcaster, managing editor, executive producer
and philanthropist, John Denison is a bayou icon.
by Michael DeVault | photography by Joli Livaudais
John Denison’s first job in broadcasting wasn’t the evening news. In fact, it wasn’t even on television. Instead, just out of Louisiana Tech with a journalism degree from Wiley Hillburn’s legendary department, Denison took a job at Shreveport AM/FM station KRMD. At the time, Denison recalls he was excited. “I was doing the news,” says Denison.
KRMD wasn’t the only opportunity Denison had. Another station, KWKH also offered Denison a position. Even though they had a great news team and a young, outgoing news director, Denison opted for the KRMD job for just a single reason. Veteran broadcaster Ken Booth was the news director at KRMD.
“He was the kind of journalist I aspired to be—which was a good one,” says Denison, who had grown up listening to Booth’s broadcasts on KRMD, where Booth reported ongoing events, items of a general interest, and broke major stories.“He was a damned good radio news man,” Denison says of Booth.
In those days, a radio news job meant access and the ability to report on big stories. But Denison had aspirations for a wider audience and a larger medium. That opportunity came in 1981, when Booth left KRMD for the studio lights at KNOE in Monroe. “I came over about six months later,” Denison says.
Denison wasn’t the only new addition to the storied KNOE lineup. Not long before he joined the news team, Booth had added another face at the Six O’Clock broadcast: Judy Wagoner. “Back then, Ken was anchoring at Six with Judy,” Denison says. After a month-long period of training for television, Denison took his seat at the anchor desk, next to Wagoner, where he would sit for eleven years.
“Every time we’d go on the air, we walked side by side to the studio, always together, never alone,” Wagoner recalls. “We needed each other.”
Denison also remembers his years with Wagoner fondly. “She’s like the sister I didn’t have,” he says. “I just had one brother growing up.”
Together, they read the news through some of the biggest stories in northeastern Louisiana history. When floods struck in 1983, the nation took notice. President Ronald Reagan flew into the Monroe Regional Airport on Air Force One to view the damage and fill sandbags. Locals got that news from Denison and Wagoner at KNOE.
Denison also covered more than three dozen elections in his time on the air. It was during elections coverage Denison’s talent shined, according to Wagoner. “He has an exceptional memory and recall, especially politically,” says Wagoner.
Denison would recall facts and figures from previous races, spot trends, and remind viewers of major campaign events—all live, without a teleprompter. While most news broadcasts are scripted word-for-word and anchors and reporters read from prompters, breaking news events are different. Without a prompter, the broadcast journalist is on his own to fill the space and sound both eloquent and informed doing so.
Denison was nervous about leaving the teleprompter behind. “Then I worked my first live election,” says Denison. “That’s when I learned a lot about live television.”
Denison says his career is “a case study in becoming a better live broadcaster.”
“Over the years, I got so comfortable doing that, I loved looking forward to elections, to spotting trends for the evening. Just the adrenaline rush as things unfold,” he says.
But elections weren’t the only live events Denison covered. Frequently, he found himself sitting in the anchor’s chair during breaking news events—the police shootings in Bastrop or weather emergencies. A weather event found him anchoring “wall-to-wall” broadcasts in 2008, when Hurricane Gustav decided to park over northeastern Louisiana and dump more than a foot of rain in the first hour. During those hours, people turned to KNOE to find out about evacuations and sandbag locations, and to keep abreast of emergency weather conditions.
“That’s when broadcast journalism shines, being a public servant in a time of crisis and trying to be as informative as we can with the facts that we have to help people make what could be life-saving decisions,” Denison says.
Former KNOE news director Taylor Henry praises Denison’s skills both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. “John Dennison was like a good quarterback, a leader both under the spotlights and behind the scenes,” Henry says. “Whether in front of the camera as primary evening anchor, or behind the camera as managing editor and executive producer, John was the KNOE 8 News team’s point man.”
Henry’s news team won the prestigious Alfred I. duPont – Columbia University Award, the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for broadcasters. They won that award with Denison sitting in the anchor chair.
Henry credits Denison’s eye for television graphics and photography for helping to win that award. “John was both a creator and product of broadcast journalism’s Golden Era, the time when it was more about informing the public than marketing a show brand. The industry is less because of his absence,” Henry says.
Both Henry and Wagoner point to Denison as a valuable mentor for younger journalists, too. Frequently during his time as anchor and, later, as managing editor, Denison could be found in an editing booth, teaching a cub broadcaster shortcuts and techniques and offering tips on how to present whatever story was at hand. “Day in and day out, he was the mastermind of each newscast, deciding, among other things, which story went where in the program and how the stories all fit together,” Henry says.
Wagoner says she was aware of what they were about to accomplish the moment she met him. “I knew we would make a great team,” she says. The team she and Denison formed remained together for eleven years—until 1991, when Denison says he “grew restless.”
“The next thing I knew, I was anchoring the news at Channel 10,” Denison says. After jumping across channels to KTVE, Denison stayed on the air at Region 10 News for seven years before he grew restless again. This time, though, Denison wanted a major change.
“I thought I wanted to live in a bigger city,” Denison says. “I was interviewing for news jobs and had an agent. I was getting interviews in cities a little smaller than I wanted.”
But Fate didn’t have another television job in the cards for Denison. At least, not at the time. Instead, Denison was recruited by a Houston, Texas non-profit to come to work there. The offer was a surprise. “I found out I had skills that non-profit agencies thought were really prized. They needed people with skills to market their product,” Denison says.
He remained in Houston for two years and then an answer to dreams showed up. He was recruited by a national nonprofit based in New York and, in 2002, he moved to the city just six months after 9/11. When Denison arrived in New York, the city was different than he remembered. “I had visited a number of times in the years leading up to that and found it to be very impersonal and the people to be somewhat cold, which you’d expect–that stereotypical ‘I don’t care’ New Yorker,” Denison says. “Apparently, 9/11 erased a lot of that veneer.”
The New York Denison moved into was friendlier, more connected and more open to outside visitors. Unfortunately, though, the position was not a good fit for Denison. He was about to begin looking for a new opportunity when he got an unexpected email from a familiar address.
“You can call it Kismet, you can call it the wisdom of a higher power,” Denison says. “But I got an email from the then-news director at KNOE.” Denison returned to KNOE in 2003 to rejoin Wagoner at the anchor desk. The team was reunited. They completed a ten-year run before each of them retired from journalism in 2012.
When Denison speaks of his years with Judy—all told, 28 years of broadcasting and friendship—the affection he feels is genuine and unavoidably powerful. “Judy Wagoner will become your best friend in the first five minutes of getting to know her,” Denison says.
After leaving the news room in 2012, Denison began to volunteer for numerous nonprofit organizations throughout the state. He and his partner, a physician from New Orleans, divide their time between Monroe and the Big Easy, where Denison volunteers for numerous organizations. Still, he maintains his mid-century modern home in north Monroe, to be close to friends and his mother, who just turned 95. “I want to see her as much as I can, as often as I can, for as long as I can,” Denison says. He also continues to worship at Northminister Church in Monroe, a church he says has embraced him over the years.
Most of his time today is divided between caring for his mother and working for several of the nonprofit organizations that need his help. Right now, his primary areas of focus include Forum for Equality, a 25 year-old organization that pursues equal rights for LGBT individuals in Louisiana. “To this day, we’re still seeking equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people,” Denison says, adding hopefully, “Attitudes have changed.”
The group is currently lobbying a bill through the state Legislature to eliminate LGBT discrimination in Louisiana workplaces. “You can still be fired for being lesbian or gay, for your sexual orientation, for your gender identity or your gender expression,” Denison says. He hopes Forum for Equality will change that.
Denison also devotes a significant amount of time to the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization that protects historic buildings throughout the state. Meanwhile, broadcasting remains in his blood.
On his frequent travels to and from Monroe, Denison stops off in Baton Rouge, at the state offices of LPB. Denison says LPB is a valuable resource and deserves the support of viewers and volunteers from around Louisiana.
“The state deserves quality public television, and LPB is looked at as a model for other states for how to do public television right,” Denison says.
Denison is reticent when it comes to discussing his biggest professional accomplishment. Instead, he keeps an eye trained on the future.
“I’ve got a whole rest of my life to lead,” says Denison. “Who knows what the next chapter is going to bring?”