Even before he knew what a reporter’s job really entailed, Tim Tooten was play-acting interviews with his middle school classmates in the back of the class, holding a pencil as a pretend microphone to ask them probing questions.
Tooten never stopped asking questions, and nearly a half-century later, he is perhaps the most recognizable face and longest running reporter on the education beat in the region, having been at WBAL for 35 years.
But on Dec. 15, he will say his farewells to his audience on air and retire as a journalist. He will remain busy, as both a Loyola University Maryland adjunct professor of media communications and as the founder and pastor of Harvest Christian Ministries, a nondenominational church in Nottingham in Baltimore County. He’ll also have more time for his two grandchildren and three children.
Tooten’s departure comes nearly 18 months after Jayne Miller, another veteran reporter, left her job at WBAL-TV after more than 40 years.
Tooten, 65, said he slid into education reporting by simply pitching a lot of education stories until the station began calling him its education reporter. He was never assigned the beat. Although the vast majority of his stories come from schools in the region, he has filled in on sports stories, and on stories that were so large that they demanded time from most of the staff.
“I was really interested in education. And so it somehow just kind of happened,” he said.
Tooten is so recognizable that when he stood on a street corner outside of Edmondson-Westside High School in January, an hour after multiple people were shot, parents and students gravitated toward him to tell their stories. They trusted him. Reporters standing nearby were regarded with skepticism.
Tooten was ahead of other reporters this spring when he broke a story identifying candidates for the Baltimore County superintendent’s job, instantly opening each of them up to public scrutiny.
His first break came in high school when a teacher was looking for young Black teenagers to record a public service announcement for the NAACP encouraging people to register to vote. It was just 15 seconds, but he was hooked when he heard his voice on the air. He took every chance to read the news on a small town radio station in Florida and work in his college radio station, then entered the profession as one of three young college graduates picked for a yearlong paid internship in Washington, D.C., with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
His first full-time job came from a station in Huntington, West Virginia. He had never been there but took the job, stayed five years and met his wife there. He moved on to the larger city market of Baltimore to work as a general assignment reporter for WMAR. The job only lasted 15 months and he was let go.
He began working for an insurance company to support his family, but did freelance television work, which led him to a full-time job at WBAL in 1988.
Tooten said his most memorable assignment was working on a half-hour documentary shot in Liberia, West Africa, called “Africa’s Maryland.” Tooten said the documentary detailed the story of the colonization period when freed slaves traveled from Fells Point to Liberia. He won both a National Edward R. Murrow Award and a National Headliner Award Best of Show for it. He also won a National Headliner Award for his “East is East” documentary, a work that “profiled life as an African-American growing up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.”
Tooten said he enjoyed most of the relationships he built over the years among parents, teachers and administrators. He often runs into people who want to speak to him, off-hours conversations that he relishes. “It’s more seeing people, connecting with people, trying to remember where I know them,” he said.
Although he said he still loves the job, he said it is time to move on. “I never thought about one day I’m going to retire from this. Who thinks about that?”