To one of his former WCCO-TV colleagues, Al Austin had the bearing of an FBI special agent and a reputation of dogged determination and elegant writing. To another colleague, longtime reporter and anchor Don Shelby, Austin was the mature mentor who taught him that the story was not about the storyteller, but about the people it illuminated.
To a generation of viewers, Austin was a reporter who regularly uncovered injustice and wrongdoing with a calm, yet authoritative presence that pulled in the audience and rewarded them with a story well told. Austin, whose award-winning career spanned Southeast Asia to Oregon, died March 29 at a hospice in Phoenix after a battle with cancer. He was 83.
"The first thing I remember about Al was he was different from the other reporters I'd worked with. He was erudite. He was thoughtful. He studied and knew history and the law," Shelby said. "And if the arc of history does not necessarily bend toward justice, Al would reach up and bend that arc himself."
Shelby said that when he first came to WCCO to do investigative reports, Austin was "relegated" to doing on-air editorials a couple times a month and reporter Larry Schmidt did consumer stories. The three became the first reporters to form the I-Team, Shelby said, specializing in investigative stories that ran four times a year — in February, May, July and November. At the time, it was a novel idea, Shelby said. And it worked.
Their first report, about housing inspectors and with Austin as the lead reporter, won a national Emmy Award right out of the gate, Shelby said. The system they created — with each reporter being the lead on different stories with the other team members pulling documents or conducting surveillance — was very efficient, Shelby said.
And it brought viewers to WCCO in the 1970s and 1980s, an audience that came to expect a week of gripping, 10-minute reports that often prompted change.
"What Al brought was organization skill and long-view maturity and he would help us frame the storytelling," Shelby said. "He didn't believe in following others' standards — reciting a litany of facts. He believed you embedded facts with a story."
Andy Greenspan joined WCCO as a general assignment reporter in 1983. Austin, along with Shelby and legendary news anchor Dave Moore made WCCO News "extraordinary," Greenspan said. "Almost every year during the 1970s and '80s, someone from WCCO-TV was in New York to accept an honor for journalism. More often than not, that someone was Al Austin," Greenspan wrote in an e-mail. "Chambers of Commerce like to talk about how professional sports teams and Fortune 500 companies make a city great, but often omit how fearless reporting — holding public officials and private citizens accountable — moves a community to take stock of itself. For 20 years, Al Austin made the Twin Cities a better place to live."
Greenspan later joined the I-Team and worked with Austin on a story about a Minnesota man they believed was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in Texas.
"WCCO had moved us to Houston to pursue the story and after a few months we'd hit a wall," Greenspan said. "Then, one Saturday morning, he was rereading a police report for maybe the 10th time when he asked, 'Why is the report on the semen sample from the (alleged) victim's underwear inconclusive?' " A week later, the reporters took a new sample to a blood expert and, three months later, Steve Fossum walked out of prison.
Austin went on to write, produce and narrate nine documentaries on PBS' "Frontline," "Nova" and the "Critical Event" series.
He is survived by his longtime companion Diane Gayot; his ex-wife, Marilyn Black; a daughter, Jeni Austin, and a son. A memorial service is pending.