Craig Cannon, the dean of western Arkansas’ TV anchors, is retiring Nov. 25 after 37 years at KHBS/KHOG, a span that saw him build an evolving newsroom in a booming region, report on an Arkansan’s rise to the White House, and discover new life as a family man.
Through four decades, Cannon spent a dozen years each on the desk with Carolyn Long and Donna Bragg, two of the state’s favorite TV newswomen; helped develop dozens of young colleagues; solidified a northwest Arkansas base for 40/29 News; and overcame a bout of Bell’s palsy that froze his face for six months in midcareer.
He put Bill Clinton on the spot, eliciting a pledge that he would complete a new four-year term as Arkansas governor before a run at the White House. History tells us Clinton reneged.
But Cannon’s storied career wouldn’t have happened at all without first an encounter with a drunken driver, then an assist from Pat Boone.
As a teenager, Cannon was more devoted to football than his studies. Then a horrific motorcycle crash at 21 dashed his plans, and Boone became a godsend, Cannon said.
Cannon, 65, is a preacher’s son.
Boone, 86, is the 1950s heartthrob who became a symbol of wholesome entertainment for decades. Once a member of Cannon’s dad’s church in California, Boone wrote a letter that helped young Craig get into Oral Roberts University, where he discovered broadcasting.
Cannon had played football for Mesa Community College in Tempe and earned a shot at making the team at Arizona State University. But the motorcycle crash left him close to death on Dec. 26, 1975, the night the hometown Sun Devils beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.
Cannon was riding his motorbike home after the game, with a friend following in a car to pick him up for a night out. Blocks from Cannon’s home, a driver blew through a stoplight and hammered him. “I was thrown 60 feet, my vertebrae were crushed, and I spent the next 30 days flat on my back in the hospital, bandaged from head to toe like a mummy.”
Cannon’s parents heard the sirens and sat up in bed to pray. “They didn’t know that it was me, but they prayed for whoever it was. Later, when they found out, of course they were torn up. But God heard them, and I lived.”
Next came six months of wheelchairs and crutches, then a $50,000 insurance settlement. “That was my first dealings with a lawyer, and the doggone guy took a third,” Cannon said, laughing, but he wound up with a new Pontiac Firebird.
“My dad had heard of a good Christian school in Tulsa,” Cannon said. “I drove to Oral Roberts on my own and didn’t know a single soul. But when I walked onto that campus, I just felt a sense of peace. This was where I was supposed to be.”
His academic record, however, argued otherwise. “Most of my classes wouldn’t transfer; I’d taken them basically to keep playing football. But Pat Boone wrote to say that he knew me and my family, and to ask if they could give me a break. It was a major event in my life.”
He landed internships and news jobs in Tulsa and Joplin, Missouri, and eventually became weekend anchor at KTUL in Tulsa. On his way to becoming a Tulsa fixture, in 1983 he took a call from KHBS/KHOG in Fort Smith. “Channel 29 up in Fayetteville was more like a little bureau in those days,” Cannon said.
Station owner Bob Hernreich and popular weatherman Ken Rank sold Cannon on a vision. “Bob convinced me in that interview that he wanted a superior broadcast news division that would be anchored out of Fort Smith and Fayetteville because he firmly believed that big growth was coming in NWA. And, boy, was he right.”
Hernreich convinced Cannon to double as news director and anchor for nearly 15 years; he dropped the management duties two decades ago when the current owner, Hearst Television, bought the station. His last day will be Nov. 25.
Over the decades, computers and cellphones “changed the game” in broadcasting, making live remote shots far easier and cheaper. Meanwhile, marriage and daughters, and eventually grandsons, transformed Cannon’s life. “After eight months in Fort Smith, I married a girl I met at the TV station,” he said. When bigger-market stations came calling, family ties kept the Cannons in western Arkansas. “This is home,” he said.
For years, Cannon has ended his 10 p.m. newscast with a heartfelt slogan, “make it count!”
“That’s exactly what I have in mind for retirement,” he said with a chuckle.