Damn. I’m going to miss Ken Screven. Ken, who reported for decades at WRGB/CBS6, the first African-American television reporter and news anchor in the Albany market, passed away on May 18 at the age of 71.
I first met Ken back in 1979 when he was covering an arts program at Hamilton Hill in Schenectady, but he doesn’t remember that. He did remember that he interviewed me in January 1985 when we were plugging a benefit concert called Rock for Raoul, in memory of Albany cartoonist/FantaCo employee/my friend Raoul Vezina.
For a number of years, we had this nodding acquaintance. I was going to church in Albany’s Center Square and he lived literally around the corner.
I watched him on the air with his booming voice and compassionate, intelligent presence covering a wide range of stories. One of his best was The Mystery Of Screven County. this was a 3-part series he made in 1996. “Ken spent a week with a producer and a cameraman in 1996…searching for the connection to his name…to a place called ‘Screven County, Georgia’. It was a journey that took him to New York City…Maryland…Savannah Georgia…and the low lands of South Carolina. It went on to win the award of ‘Best Documentary’ from the NYS Associated Press Broadcasters Assn.”
Ken was, as the Times Union’s Chris Churchill noted, “the most recognizable black person here in one of the nation’s whitest metropolitan areas.”
It was The End Of An Era when Ken retired from WRGB after 34 years. Retirement suited him. He was outspoken on Facebook and in his Times Union blog. Since I was also on the TU platform at the time, we ended up comparing notes about audience reactions.
While some, including me, loved what he wrote, others were upset. And part of it was that he acknowledged stuff he had to endure as a black man in the sometimes parochial Capital District. Sometimes, it’s not the big stuff, it’s the little irritants that get under one’s skin. “Gee, you don’t sound black on the radio.” He wrote about being the only black kid in his class, something I could relate to.
When he reviewed the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, he noted, “Even though [James] Baldwin died in 1987, and much of his words contained in the movie reach back 50 years, the issues Baldwin talks about are still with us, raw and festering in the minds of many of Trump nation… This is a significant spotlight on an America we thought no longer existed.” His disdain for Donald J. was unapologetic.
As he noted in The Conscience of the Newsroom for the New York State Broadcasters Association, he encountered “racism as he joined WRGB.” He insisted on “relating the humanity and heart behind the news.” Correctly, I believe, he felt “the art and craft of reporting are succumbing to the demands of the market-driven news cycle.”
Ken was often profiled. For our PBS station WMHT, he was part of the
Breaking Stereotypes | Out in Albany series. “Ken Screven, a broadcasting trailblazer, talks about life as a gay black man. Originally from New York City, he started in broadcasting in 1973… ‘When I came here I said, ‘OK, this is your authentic life. The person that you’re supposed to be. And who you are.'”
For Spectrum News: Screven Remains Active, Despite On-Air Retirement (Feb. 18, 2019). Years after his retirement from WRGB-TV after 38 years of telling stories that touched everyone, reporter Ken Screven remains a fixture in his community, from his Albany Times Union blogs to his active social media following. This Black History Month, we take an in-depth look at the trails he blazed to become the first black on-air reporter in the Capital Region.”
Chuck Miller and I had an idea for some Times Union bloggers to get together. I jokingly suggested having it at Ken Screven’s place because Ken was having some mobility problems. Chuck actually pursued it, and it was so. Twice, actually, in early 2015 and late 2016.
Talking at FPC
It may be that the last two times I talked with Ken in person were at funerals at my church. In January 2019, it was after the funeral of Bob Lamar, the former pastor of the church. While we were talking, one of the choir members said he had a voice like a Stradivarius, which was true.
Almost exactly a year later, we talked after the service for our friend Keith Barber. It was at that reception where Ken took this selfie of us, though he didn’t send it to me until a year later, with the message, “Be well.”
In February of 2022, Ken was facing “mounting medical bills.” He went from hospital to rehabilitation a couple of times. His friends started a GoFundMe campaign and raised over $33,000, crushing the goal of $25,000. I contributed, of course. But should this be the way we do health in this country?
Ken was a 2009 Citizen Action Jim Perry Progressive Leadership Award recipient and the In Our Own Voices 2018 Community Advocate honoree. In 2020 he was honored by the Albany Damien Center with its Hero Award, for his commitment to educating and advocating for the community.
But more than that, he was my friend, who died too soon.