"(Originally), the news segment at the top of the program tried to compete with local television (commercial news)," Buckmaster said. "They'd do a five- or six-minute newscast at the top. I thought the Jim Lehrer model at the NewsHour with headlines is all we would need. I feel people who come to us have watched commercial TV or looked at the Internet. They know pretty much what's going on locally. Maybe we can enhance that experience."
Technology has made this a tumultuous time for traditional media. Newspapers struggle with a younger generation's desire to grab their information via the Internet. Radio battles the possible options afforded by satellite and the entertainment alternatives of MP3 players and iPod-style devices. Commercial television is trying to figure out how to get people to watch ads in the TiVo generation.
Meanwhile, Buckmaster anchors a program that delves deeper into issues, highlighted by four- and five-minute pieces, as opposed to the 80-second packages that are the norm in local-news broadcasts. He also interviews guests in the studio, something unheard of in prime-time commercial-news formats. Yet it's a tried-and-true approach that has worked extremely well for the PBS affiliate.
"This program is considered a model for a nightly local public-broadcasting station," Buckmaster said. "Unfortunately, there are less than a dozen (out of more than 200 PBS affiliates) now doing a nightly news program. Phoenix does a nightly program, but it's far different than ours. Theirs is based on one or two subjects per show. I like to have a little more variety. We have four or five segments per show."
For Tucsonans who have watched him for 20 years, it's hard to imagine Buckmaster in another role, but he cut his teeth in the grind of commercial news and made the jump from a high-profile market in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Midwest transplant, a 1969 graduate of the UA, took advantage of the chance to return to the Old Pueblo.
"There's something about this place that grows on you, and I wanted to come back here," said Buckmaster. "My sister-in-law was living in Tucson and told me that Channel 6 had just fired their anchor. I called the news director and told him I worked in the Bay Area. He said he didn't think they could afford someone who worked in the nation's fourth-largest market, but I told him I didn't even want to talk about pay: 'Let's leave the door open.' This thing worked out for me, and I was able to come here and build a show I had envisioned, a show that if you don't like what we're showing in the first five minutes, stick around; there's something you might like. I've connected with people in the community. I've interviewed an astounding number of people, and we've talked with 1,500 university-connected figures in the last calendar year."
Certainly, the UA has noticed. Arizona Illustrated, broadcast from the Media Arts Building on campus, is a daily showcase for the plethora of experts who work at the university, and it's probably the media frontrunner when it comes to examining the research advancements underway at the UA. Buckmaster says the Arizona Illustrated approach has won favor with a number of guests, who only agree to interviews with the PBS news program.
He's also proud of Arizona Illustrated's local political coverage. The live-interview format allows for on-screen debates among candidates, and pro-and-con discussions of pertinent propositions (which often include Jim Nintzel of the Tucson Weekly).
"We were the Tiffany of what a local broadcast affiliate can do," said Buckmaster of the program's coverage during the latest election cycle. "We did all of the races."
He also put his foot down regarding KUAT's involvement in the 2006 U.S. Senate candidates' debate, and threatened not to moderate if the Jon Kyl and Jim Pederson campaigns refused to include the Libertarian candidate. Buckmaster won out.
"They got all upset, but eventually said they'd do it."
Buckmaster also prides himself on neutrality.
"I'm not here to give commentary," Buckmaster said. "I try to keep my involvement on the sidelines. I've had people come up to me and wonder what political party I'm affiliated with. I tell them, 'That's wonderful that you're wondering that.' Some people say Buckmaster is too nice to people. I get more information calling people by their proper name and being slightly formal. I believe people become much more comfortable and are willing to talk."
While Buckmaster is quick to mention the obvious differences between the Arizona Illustrated approach and that of commercial-television news, he's also appreciative of the people who ply their trade in the commercial realm and who donate their time to KUAT during fundraising drives. Dan Marries of KOLD Channel 13 is a regular, as are KVOA Channel 4 news anchor Tom McNamara and Tucson radio and television personality Joan Lee, to name just a few.
"I find that a real compliment to Arizona Illustrated that they're here coming out right after the show (to help with fundraising)," Buckmaster said. "I'm very proud they come down here and do that, and very pleased their management allows them to do it."
Will Buckmaster be guiding the ship 20 years from now? He won't say, preferring to frame his career in terms of being only as good as his last show. That said, if on Jan. 3, 2028, Buckmaster celebrates his 40th year at the Arizona Illustrated helm, it probably wouldn't be that much of a surprise.
"I really believe the reason this program has been successful is we connect with the people in this community," Buckmaster said. "People have come to trust this program. The commercial scene has been crazy the last 20 years. We are like a sea of stability in a very uncertain media picture."