Darren Perron is not your typical television newsman. His voice doesn’t boom with the stentorian authority of Tom Brokaw, and his compact stature is more Michael J. Fox than Edward R. Murrow. Plus, he’s from Barton, a town of 2700 in the Northeast Kingdom not known as a hotbed of journalistic enterprise.
And yet, thanks largely to his sprightly enthusiasm and love of talking, 36-year-old Perron has managed to get to the top of the broadcast food chain in Vermont. When longtime WCAX news director and anchor Marselis Parsons announced his retirement in November, Perron was named his replacement. Now the giddy and good-natured Perron anchors the 6, 10 and 11 p.m. weeknight broadcasts.
Perron, who lives in Burlington with his partner Peter Jacobsen, says the new anchor job “came a lot sooner than expected.” With it have arrived new responsibilities. As the public face of WCAX, along with co-anchor Kristin Kelly, he is expected to show up and press the flesh at luncheons, fairs, benefits and other events around the state. That same visibility means Perron can no longer mingle at costume balls or raucous parties — he can’t afford not to be seen as a serious journalist, or he risks losing the trust of his viewers.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter Perron at one of the WCAX meet-and-greets, among the first things you’ll notice, before his rhyming name, perfect diction, slight size and receding hairline — which Perron calls his “power alley” — are his eyelashes. They are preternaturally long and curl into near-perfect circles. This may make Perron appear to be wearing a surplus of mascara, when in fact the only cosmetic product he sports is the standard pancake makeup all TV people must endure.
Where Perron comes from, men don’t, as a matter of course, wear makeup. He grew up in a family so big it has its own road — Perron Hill Road in neighboring Glover. Perron’s father is one of 13 children, his mother one of seven; his 50 first cousins and plentiful second and third cousins populate the Northeast Kingdom. Perron says it is from his family, particularly his grandfather, that he gets his love of news.
Every Sunday morning throughout his childhood, Perron watched Charles Kuralt on “CBS News Sunday Morning” with his maternal grandfather, Howard Conley. The pair would sit enthralled as Kuralt told tales of life in America through his “On the Road” segment. Even as a busy high schooler who served as class president and sat on “just about every kind of board,” Perron never missed a show. “I was always captivated by people telling stories. You could tell Charles Kuralt was a good listener by the way he told a story,” Perron says.
Perron’s family never had any idea he harbored a dream of being on the news. He never told anyone, he says, perhaps because it might seem pretentious for a kid from the Kingdom to want to be on TV. But when he decided to major in mass media communications at Castleton State College, his family found out about his ambitions.
Castleton was the only college to which Perron applied. Lyndon State was too close to home, and the University of Vermont didn’t have a communications program. After visiting Bob Gershon’s television production class, Perron knew Castleton was the right school for him. “I said, ‘Yep, this is what I want to do,’” he recalls.
After college, Perron accepted an internship at WCAX’s Rutland bureau. Current news director Anson Tebbetts remembers when Perron, an animated young go-getter, started at the station. “When he arrived, he was full of energy and excitement,” Tebbetts recalls. “And even at that age, he was better dressed than I was. I think he even had a briefcase. He was so together.”
Perron admits to carrying a briefcase in the early days of his broadcast career. It contained one pencil and a notebook, nothing else. He also wore a three-piece suit and a trench coat, thinking that was how professional newsmen dressed.
Now, Perron would never be caught in a three-piece suit — he has to maintain his reputation as the most stylish man on air at WCAX. These days, he sports classic French-cuff shirts with spread collars wide enough to accommodate the Windsor knots in his ties. Perron started buying French cuffs after his grandfather Howard bequeathed him a substantial cufflink collection. Always visible when he’s in the anchor chair, Perron’s wrist baubles lend the broadcast an air of sophistication.
While Perron’s apparel isn’t the reason for his promotion, it certainly didn’t hurt matters. As news outlets nationwide struggle to reach and retain viewers, Perron’s relative youth and style were pluses for the station. Parsons, who still does some reporting for WCAX, says he understands the desire to have a fresher face reading the news. “They wanted to improve their younger demographics,” Parsons says. “Hopefully, [Perron] will bring a younger audience.”
It has yet to be seen how the change will sit with loyal viewers, and whether Perron will bring in the coveted youth market. But so far, viewer response to Perron’s promotion has been positive, Tebbetts says.
Of course, many people in the market may not have noticed the change — because they don’t watch local TV news. With the potential audience fragmented by shifting lifestyles and an increasing number of media options, it can be hard to find people who regularly do. According to the 2009 State of the News Media report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, viewership of local news last year was flat or declined for most newscasts across all time slots. In 1998, 64 percent of Americans regularly watched local television news. By 2008, that number had fallen to 52 percent.
Still, bringing in viewers is a challenge Perron will happily take on. He believes in the work he and his colleagues produce, and his superiors tout him as a dogged and capable reporter. “His series have shown that,” Parsons says, referring to packages Perron has put together over the years on subjects ranging from gangs in Rutland to the struggles of homeless youth across the state to Vermont’s transgender community. “First and foremost, he’s a good reporter.”
If nothing else, Perron is a dedicated employee. He regularly puts in 11-hour work days, arriving around 2 p.m. to prepare for the 6 p.m. broadcast and leaving at about 1:30 a.m. after helping plan the following morning’s news. His willingness to put in nontraditional hours comes from his years as a reporter.
Those 14 years of reporting experience will prove essential to Perron when he has to anchor big events on the order of the Essex school shooting or Capt. Richard Phillips’ return to Vermont after being captured by pirates, Tebbetts says. It’s not enough to be able to read the news and look good doing it. “We expect anchors to understand stories, not just read them. They have to understand who the players are and what’s important,” Tebbetts says. “They have to know what the story means.”
So far, Perron seems to be a good fit for the anchor’s chair — which, he admits, is piled high with pillows so his taller co-anchor doesn’t tower over him. While he’s fielded offers to move to larger stations out of state, he says, he’s happy where he is. Not only does his whole family live in Vermont, but he’s already been beamed into local living rooms for enough years to become a fixture.
In that way, he is already following in Parsons’ footsteps. “I suspect I’ll be here a very long time,” Perron says.
We all know Vermont's media landscape is changing, but explaining how is a challenge. It's hard to cover a subject in which you are directly involved. Plus, the media's main mission is to tell other people's stories - not its own. Seven Days aims to change that with our annual Vermont Media Issue, which uncovers the conflicts - and characters - behind the headlines. Are Vermonters getting less news than they used to? Can community newspapers compete with Twitter? You'll find the answers inside, and it's not all bad news.