'Uncle Fred" is signing off, but he hopes it won't be for long.
Fred Cantu's last day at Austin CBS affiliate KEYE is Thursday. The newscaster, who has endeared himself to Austinites while anchoring local television newscasts since 1995 at KVUE, KEYE and KEYE's Spanish-language Telemundo affiliate, stresses that he's not retiring and he hopes to anchor somewhere else.
Cantu first appeared in Austinites' living rooms in 1990, as the weekend anchor at KTBC when that station — now a Fox affiliate — was still a CBS property. In 1995, he became the morning news anchor at ABC affiliate KVUE, a position he held until 2001 before heading back to CBS to anchor for KEYE.
Cantu's most recent anchor position was alongside Michelle Valles on KEYE's morning newscast.
"Fred was a true professional," Valles said. "He never talked much, but when the red light came on, out came this charm and sense of mutual equality. He never made me feel inferior despite his tenure."
Cantu and Valles delivered KEYE's morning newscast from December 2008 until September 2009, when Valles left to start KEYE's afternoon lifestyle show "We Are Austin Live" with Jason Wheeler (Valles recently left that program). Cantu took the anchor chair at Telemundo the following month when KEYE's morning newscast was dropped in favor of a simulcast of Mix 94.7 radio's "JB and Sandy in the Morning."
He resigned that post in October. Since then, he has filed technology reports for KEYE. I wondered why Cantu left Telemundo when Austin's Spanish-language audience continues to grow.
"English has always been my primary language, and while my Spanish reading improved drastically over time, I just didn't have the skills to ad-lib in Spanish to my liking," Cantu explained. "I felt that I was doing a disservice to the viewer, especially in breaking news situations. I thought the Telemundo news viewers deserved better."
Cantu announced his upcoming departure from KEYE via Facebook on Dec. 16, generating dozens of responses from viewers who called him a "rock star" and bemoaned the loss of his "familiar, easygoing manner."
"I've felt a void in my life since the morning news ended last year," Cantu wrote. "KEYE offered me a variety of assignments that would have kept me around at least another year. But I decided I needed to explore opportunities outside of KEYE."
"Wow, Fred, you are such a part of the fabric here that has made Austin," one commenter responded. "I think everyone hopes you find a home on local news anchoring here in Austin. The city would miss you if you took the show on the road to another place!"
That's a distinct possibility. "I'm exploring all options," Cantu said. "I would like to stay in Austin, but I'm also looking elsewhere."
Cantu's resignation also generated response from KEYE colleagues and management. Weeknight anchor Judy Maggio, who worked with Cantu at KVUE and has anchored with him at KEYE, posted a blog entry about her friend and cohort's departure. Among the anecdotes she shared: "When I first came to KEYE, we were shooting a promotional spot together and I told the photographer, ‘Be sure to make me look thin and young!' Fred looked at me and grinned, saying, ‘Judy, as long as you anchor with me, you will look young and thin!' "
Maggio told me that Cantu was a joy to work with. "He is truly one of the nicest people you'll ever meet and is the consummate professional," she said. "He's funny, smart and never loses his cool."
KEYE news director Suzanne Black broke the news to the station's staff: "After he elected to step away from the Telemundo anchor desk, we offered him a number of other positions," Black informed staffers via e-mail. "Ultimately, he felt it was time to move on. Fred has been an important member of our news team. He is a great citizen and an all-around class act. We will miss his knowledge, wisdom and kindness."
Cantu said he was offered "a variety of reporting assignments" at KEYE.
"I enjoy reporting, but it doesn't allow me to communicate with the viewers the way anchoring does," he said.
Cantu explained that the local news game has changed significantly.
"There is a lot of change going on across the country," he said. "A lot of that change is technology-driven. Folks used to come to us at the end of the day to find out what happened while they were at work. Thanks to the Internet, they already know. We need to reinvent ourselves to stay relevant in their lives."
Cantu believes that the changes have been good for viewers, and although he remains optimistic about his future, he's facing it realistically. "My forte is anchoring news," he said. "KEYE only does this at 6 and 10 p.m. So the pickings are slim if you want to anchor at KEYE. Is there a place for me in Austin TV? I would hope so. But I can't be unemployed for too long, so I need to keep my options open."
Cantu says his wife is nervous about the situation, but wants him to be happy and supports the move. "Like any other newsie, I'm sending out videos and résumés," he said. "But — truthfully — I'm hoping someone will seek me out. That's the way I've always found work. I hope it holds true.
"Things are tough all over. But I believe I have developed a set of skills over the years that some employer should find desirable."