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Positively Ernie: Reshaping the Way We See the World
by Eleni Kostopoulos
Whether you run into him on the busy streets of New York City or catch him on the evening news, Ernie Anastos will make you feel like you’re a member of his family. The well-renowned, Emmy Award-winning news anchor has managed to make even the toughest New Yorkers smile during his 35 years on air, and his mission is to inject the world with a much-needed dose of happiness, one grin at a time.
Take his recent feat – an informative news magazine show called “Positively Ernie”- focused on the good things people and organizations do to assist communities in the Tri-State area, the antithesis of what’s frequently shared over the airwaves.
“My biggest inspiration for ‘Positively Ernie’ came from children,” said Anastos. “Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in schools, exchanging ideas with children in their elementary years and asking them about life: what they want to be when they grow up and how they feel about the world. It was really eye-opening when we would discuss the news and inadvertently, someone would say, ‘you need to do something bad to be on the news or to be read about in the newspapers’.”
Eventually, the dialogue about negative news content shifted to older students, in high schools and universities, and Anastos realized how often bad behavior is rewarded in the media.
“Sometimes, we think that all people are self-centered, and I don’t think that’s true,” said Anastos. “People are concerned about the big picture, concerned about what’s going on in their own neighborhoods and also, how it impacts the world we live in. It’s a global world, a global economy, a global society and digital media has especially narrowed down how we’re talking to each other. It’s a multicultural communication system we’ve got going on.”
Anastos has visited a number of schools in the New York area to present “Ernie & the Big Newz: The Adventures of a TV Reporter,” a children’s book he authored that tells the story of a young boy who pursues his dream of becoming a TV reporter. The book comprises positive news stories inspired by Anastos’s life, from getting his big break in New York City to going on fun-filled adventures to cover major events.
“When I visit these schools, I give children the opportunity to become reporters,” he said. “They have cameras and large screens to see themselves on, and I give them a story to read. The story is always a positive one; the day is always a great one, there’s no traffic, the weather is beautiful and people are going to work and enjoying themselves.”
Earlier this year, Anastos gathered 1,000 inner-city middle school children at Columbia University’s Alfred Lerner Hall, where he hosted a 90-minute show that offered students the opportunity to hear from top television personalities like Dr. Oz and Wendy Williams. The program, called “1,000 Kids with Positively Ernie,” was part of a unique literacy program sponsored by St. Francis Food Pantries and Shelters and also offered the young spectators entertainment and musical performances. They each left with a copy of Anastos’s book.
“The kids were so happy and so engaged in conversation,” he Anastos, noting the event was taped and will be edited into a special.
This immense drive to impact the world was instilled in Anastos early in life. He grew up in Nashua, NH in what he called a loving Greek household that valued a hard work ethic, compassion for others and above all, spirituality.
“I grew up in a very warm, affectionate family,” he said. “My grandfather, a Greek Orthodox priest named Reverend Anastasios, and my ‘yiayia’, lived at home with my mom, dad and two sisters. I remember feeling very comfortable at home and as if we were all part of an opportunity to do something great with our lives.”
Anastos credits his strong faith as the backbone of his success. “We need to understand that we came from somewhere, that we’re here for a reason and we’re going back to that wonderful place someday,” he said. “We should follow our faith and be sincere about where we’re going in our lives. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to grow up with that kind of spirit.”
Anastos’s father, Phillip Anastos, was in the travel business and became a well-respected figure in Boston, making his mark as the only agent in the New England area to represent Olympic Airlines after it was founded in the 1960s by Aristotle Onassis, whom Ernie’s father developed a relationship with.
“My father had several Greek travel agencies, and I remember as a young boy, he would have me come in to help with his clients,” he said. “It was fascinating to watch him interact with people who were coming in from Greece and hearing their stories- where they were from, what they were doing. He was so proud of his heritage, and he even had a [Boston-based] radio program called ‘Grecian Melodies’.”
Recently, Ernie met Paul Ioannides, author of “Destiny Prevails: My life with Aristotle, Alexander, Christina Onassis and her daughter, Athina,” and shared stories about his father’s connection to the legendary Onassis family.
Taking cues from his father’s strong work ethic, Anastos had his career path in mind early on. His love affair for broadcasting began when he was just 10, and at 12-years-old, he built a small radio station in his home, complete with microphones and turntables.
“One day, I went to class and it was a career day,” Anastos said, recalling his elementary years. “We were listening to everyone telling us about the various career paths we could take, and I went to my homeroom teacher, Ms. Ryan, and asked, ‘how do you decide what to do with your life?’ Ms. Ryan said, ‘Ernest, whatever you enjoy doing will be the avenue to your success.’ I knew that I loved pretending to be on the radio, and so I took that lead. By the time I was 16, I went to WOTW in Nashua, NH, and I applied for a job; sure enough, they hired me.”
Anastos became a weekend announcer with his very own radio talk show for teenagers, unknowing that this experience would partly serve as inspiration for a book he wrote much later in life, “Twixt: Teens Yesterday and Today.” As an adult, he entered the radio business and bought several stations, one of them being the very radio station that offered him his first broadcasting gig.
Since then, he’s covered countless major stories for CBS, ABC and FOX, including the tragic deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. He’s also interviewed political leaders like Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and met with Fidel Castro in Cuba to present a series of reports on the Cuban revolution. Of the many faces he’s encountered and the stories he’s been immersed in, the one that stands out most for him is the coverage of the tragic 9/11 events in New York City.
“That was just a story that crushed me,” said Anastos. “I remember being on the air a few hours after the planes hit, and after that, we were on the air for weeks and months reporting for endless hours, sharing the heartbreak of all those families. I remember walking down to Ground Zero and walking through the ruins. I’ll never forget the twisted steel, and the pain we had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. A while later I was making a speech before an organization in New York, and I started talking about my experiences covering 9/11, and I just crumbled. I started thinking about all the people- their faces and their voices- and I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was just a moment I can never forget.”
In 2011, Anastos humbly accepted a Lifetime Emmy Award, making him the first and only New York TV anchor to receive the honor.
“There were about 800 people that gathered for the Emmy awards that evening in New York,” said Anastos. “I was so honored to see all my colleagues in the audience, and I remember looking at them and saying, ‘I’ve been on the air for 35 years and worked with so many of you in the room, and if I haven’t worked with you, I probably will.’ It was just one of those moments I thought of my family and having that dream when I was 10-years-old. I felt so fortunate to receive an award for covering stories and bringing reports to people that were in many ways uplifting, but also having that social history of covering news for the people for so long; whether it’s in Harlem, Battery Park, New Jersey or Connecticut, someone will always yell out, ‘Hey, Ernie!’ I feel like its one big family for me.”
Anastos has won more than 30 Emmy awards and nominations and has been inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame. His list of accomplishments are endless, and the key to his success, he said, is not striving for it, but striving instead for significance. He shared this philosophy with students during two commencement speeches he made this year at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY and at the New York City-based New York Institute of Technology, at the school’s Old Westbury campus.
“I started in 1978, and I’m still on the air every day, which brings me immense joy, but you learn over the years that people are really concerned about things that not only affect them but also affect everyone else,” he noted. He also said he wanted to deliver this message of prioritizing happiness to the new graduates. He urged the students to aim for significance and offered recommendations for happiness, like making happiness your personal success story, staying connected to family and making service to others a part of your life.
“It’s important to understand your roots,” Anastos said. “It’s important to know where your family is from, what they teach you about values and how important it is to choose a career that’s in line with what you believe in and what you feel is your gift. Everyone has a gift, and it’s important to recognize what that gift is and to develop it in the best way you can. These young kids have an opportunity to do something good, to make a difference and to be able to change the world in some way- change things for the better. I encourage young people to be enthusiastic. It’s crucial to have a good spirit; I’ve had that all my life.”
Anastos plans to continue permeating positivity throughout the world in 2014, already planning what he expects to be an exciting year. Though details are now sparse, he’s in the works of developing a major multicultural communications center with a major college in the New York area.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for me to work and create in the educational field to be able to explore more positive ways we’re able to communicate with one another,” he said.
How does a man who’s main goal is to make every one around him happy stay happy himself, despite life’s trials and tribulations? For Anastos, it’s as simple as continuing on the road he’s been traveling. “People often ask me why I always have a smile on my face,” he said. “It’s because of the way I feel inside. It’s because of the gifts, love, nourishment and the feelings that were shared with me as a child. I’ve kept them through all these years. Having real success and happiness in life is having the ability to help others and having the ability to say, ‘I touched someone’s life’. I do that with positive news, with children, with the elderly, with the Greek Church. I feel that happiness for me is to have the ability to help other people and to make them understand something, to give them some joy and to be able to be a spark of inspiration. That’s my joy.”