Jim Riordan, 1942-2023: Journalist, pilot was innovative news leader - Albuquerque Journal

Jim Riordan, 1942-2023: Journalist, pilot was innovative news leader

Jim Riordan, former KOAT-TV news director, speaks in 2005 during a New Mexico Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame induction program. Riordan, 80, died recently at his Albuquerque home. (Courtesy of KOAT-TV)

In February 1980, KOAT-TV, Channel 7, news anchor Mary Lynn Roper and videographer Diane Reyna were in Santa Fe covering the New Mexico State Penitentiary riots that would result in 33 inmates dead, more than 200 convicts hurt and seven prison guards badly injured.

“It was cold,” Roper said. “It was hard to tell fact from fiction. Family (of inmates and guards) were lined up outside.”

Reyna remembers smoke spiraling out of the penitentiary from fires that had been set in the prison.

“That was pretty eerie,” she said.

Both Roper and Reyna agree that KOAT did a first-rate job of covering a difficult story under adverse conditions, something they attribute to Jim Riordan, Channel 7’s news director, who was calling the shots from the TV station’s newsroom in Albuquerque.

“He was cool and calm,” Roper said of Riordan, which is not surprising when you consider that at the time Riordan was also an A-7 fighter pilot with the New Mexico Air National Guard.

“He trusted us,” Reyna said. “That’s the essence. When you have that trust, you will go as far as you can for that person because they let you do your work.”

Riordan, KOAT news director from mid-1975 through July 1980, died Jan. 4 at his Albuquerque home. He was 80. Survivors include his brothers, Richard and Terry, and his sister, Mary Ellen Letterio.

Riordan is remembered by his colleagues for being forward thinking in the hiring of women and minorities and for his gutsy, innovative and infectious leadership.

“He had a great laugh and would walk through that newsroom full of energy,” Roper said. “‘Let’s get that story, let’s get it right and let’s tell it to New Mexicans.’ You believed in the cause and off you went. Talk about adrenalin rushes.

“Here was this guy who flies A-7s, and he is sure of himself. But he was not cocky. He was inspiring, remarkable and life-altering.”

A focused guy

Terry Riordan said Jim was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1942 and moved to Albuquerque with his family in 1948.

“Our father was a sales manager with TWA (Trans World Airlines), and the family moved a lot,” Terry said. He said Jim studied journalism at the University of New Mexico.

A July 16, 1980, Journal story reporting Riordan’s decision to leave his KOAT news director job notes that he worked as a reporter at KGGM-TV (now KRQE) in 1963 and started at KOAT in 1967, working in various positions, including host of a morning interview show called “Hot Line.”

In this undated photo, Jim Riordan is picture with an F-100 fighter plane during his days with the New Mexico Air National Guard. (Courtesy of Terry Riordan)

Jim Baca, who was Albuquerque mayor from 1997 to 2001, worked as a reporter/photographer at KOAT for about five years starting in 1969. He said he was recruited to the station by Riordan and KOAT reporter/anchor Dick Knipfing.

“Jim, Dick and I were in the same Air National Guard unit,” Baca said. “I was a photographer in the unit, and my lifelong dream was to be a television news photographer.”

Baca said he was working at a bank in Downtown Albuquerque when Riordan and Knipfing called and urged him to join KOAT.

“Jim was a reporter/photographer then,” Baca said of Riordan. “We would shoot each other’s stories. I’d go out as a reporter, and he would go out as a photographer and vice versa. He was a very focused guy. He always knew what he wanted to do.

“And he was very helpful. He taught me how to write for the ear, which is different (than writing for the eye). He brought me up to speed on news photography, and he taught me how to edit film.”

Baca recalled a time when a processing glitch caused the film for all eight stories scheduled for a newscast to arrive at KOAT just 15 minutes prior to air time.

“Jim edited all eight stories in 15 minutes,” he said.

Baca also remembers bringing the wrong cord to a 1 a.m. briefing at the Albuquerque Police Department, a mistake that diminished the quality of the audio. He said Riordan got super steamed at him about that.

“Jim said what he thought,” Baca said. “But he was over it in 10 minutes. That’s the way he was.”

Value of diversity

“Jim hired Conroy Chino of Acoma Pueblo, who would become a household name as Target 7’s investigative reporter,” Roper said. “He hired (consumer-advocate reporter) Neil Murray, one of the first African-American TV personalities in New Mexico. He hired women, including Diane Reyna, to be photographers, which was unusual back then. Through his vision, he gave women and minorities a face, a voice in TV news.”

Reyna, who is of Taos and Ohkay Owingeh pueblo heritage, worked as a videographer at KOAT from 1979 to 1990. She would go on to direct the Peabody Award-winning documentary “Surviving Columbus” and is an accomplished sculptor, painter and pen-and-ink artist. But she was inspired to work in television all those years back when she saw Chino, like her a member of a pueblo, on Channel 7.

“I had just graduated from UNM and had started to devote myself to film and video,” Reyna said. “I went to the station, asked to speak to Conroy and said, ‘What does it take to work here?'” Reyna filled out an application, and Riordan called and asked her to come in for an interview.

“He hired me right then and there,” Reyna said. “Channel 7 was an amazingly diverse place to work. For Jim, it was all about our talent and skills.”

She recalled the time she and Chino were sent to Ohkay Owingeh, her mother’s pueblo, to do a story.

“We were landing on the baseball field in (helicopter) Sky 7, and my aunts were thrilled beyond belief,” Reyna said. “It is critical for native people to see other native people doing that kind of work. And that’s where Jim Riordan came in. He and the station were ahead of the times in understanding the value of diversity.”

Kicking it

Roper started her broadcasting career at a radio station in her hometown of Raton. At KOAT, she worked her way up from reporter to anchor to several years as news director. She retired from Channel 7 in 2018 after serving 25 years as the station’s general manager.

But it could be none of that would have happened if Riordan had not reached out to her in 1977.

“I was working at an all-news radio station in Albuquerque when the owner decided he was switching to a country/western format,” Roper said. “Jim hired me as a photographer/reporter. Then I was the morning news anchor and a reporter, covering mostly district court. Then, when (anchor) Dick Knipfing left to go to (KOB-TV) in 1979, Jim put together the co-anchor team of me and Johnny Morris.” It was the first team of its kind in New Mexico, and it was a ratings hit.

“I was 24,” Roper said. “Johnny and (weatherman) Howard Morgan were so kind to me. Jim Boggio was the sports director. We kicked it and (Riordan) was cheering us on.”

Amazing things

Terry Riordan said that after leaving KOAT in 1980, his brother was a pilot for Continental Airlines.

“He flew the (Boeing) 777 from Houston to Narita (airport at Tokyo),” Terry said. “My brother flew F-100s, A-7s, 777s and DC-9s. He was an accomplished person and did amazing things.”

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