Tom Cochrun · 2010
As a young boy in Muncie, Tom Cochrun recalls listening to the kitchen radio each evening as his mother prepared dinner. One night, strange voices came through the speakers that would inspire him for decades. When Tom discovered that the correspondent was broadcasting from abroad, something clicked.
“That was when the seed was planted,” said Cochrun, who was born Aug. 23, 1946, in Indianapolis. “I knew from that point on that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Cochrun began religiously listening to radio news, even as his family moved from Muncie to Fort Wayne, back to Muncie and then Indianapolis as his father worked for the government. His father helped establish Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana, Cochrun said.
While in Fort Wayne, Cochrun got a newspaper route with the Journal Gazette. “I tell people I actually started delivering the news when I was a junior high school kid,” he said.
Cochrun’s passion for journalism grew at a young age; he became a sports stringer for the Indianapolis Times his junior year of high school. He simultaneously worked as a board operator for WFMS in Indianapolis, and that marked his beginnings in radio.
After Cochrun graduated from Warren Central High School in 1964, he matriculated to Ball State University, where he excelled academically and professionally. Unlike most college students, Cochrun did not wait until he got his degree to start earning his keep. He worked as a reporter and newscaster for Muncie radio station WERK. His income helped his parents send his younger brother to college.
Cochrun graduated from Ball State in 1968 and took a job in Indianapolis with WNAP radio. In his 10 years at the station, Cochrun covered the anti-war movement, city hall, school board, police, state government and the environment.
After college, Cochrun married Lana Elmore, an art teacher, and soon the couple had two daughters, Kristin and Katherine. Tom and Lana will celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary this year.
Cochrun made the transition to television news in 1979. He began working for the Indianapolis CBS affiliate WISH TV, where he anchored and produced the evening news magazine.
Because he was accustomed to radio, learning to smile on camera was one of his biggest challenges, Cochrun noted. In his early days at WISH, he recalls, the crew flashed a Miss Piggy doll behind the cameras to make him smile.
Cochrun joined Indianapolis NBC affiliate WTHR in 1981, but he was bound by a contract with WISH to stay off camera for several months. This opened up an opportunity for him to write and produce an in-depth documentary piece about the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. Called Klan, the documentary raked in numerous awards, including a National Emmy Award for Community Service, the National Ohio State Award, the National Roy W. Howard Award, a Scripps Award for First Amendment Reporting and other honors.
“It was a huge event for the city, because it was the first time anyone had ever won a national Emmy in Indianapolis,” he recalled.
At WTHR, Cochrun produced several other award-winning documentaries. "Shelter of Shame," produced in 1984, reported on the poor conditions of Indianapolis public housing in the early1980s. In 1985, WTHR aired Cochrun’s "Who is Protecting our Children," a close-up look at issues surrounding the sexual victimization of children. Cochrun produced two popular pieces in 1986. "Indiana’s James Bond" is about William King Harvey, an American spy. "The Secret War at Home" tells the story of two Soviet KGB agents visiting America.
“Those kind of big stories, you could tell by his posture and everything that he was very much into it,” said Kevin Finch, a former executive producer at WTHR. “He wanted to do it right, and he had a lot of passion about it. My first impression of Tom as a professional was very much that he was pure pro, he knew what he was doing.”
When Finch started at WTHR in 1990, he immediately noticed Cochrun’s strong ability to manage major news stories. During Finch’s first week in Indianapolis, Cochrun worked overtime to cover the Iran-Contra convictions and the death of AIDS victim Ryan White.
But Cochrun knew how to mix hard work with fun, often arranging Friday night staff outings, Finch recalls. Cochrun was known around the newsroom as somewhat of a social director, planning late-night round tables at local watering holes and restaurants.
The late-night schedule is not unusual for a broadcast news team. “We just gave so much of our lives to the effort and to the story,” Cochrun said as he recalled nights spent sleeping under his desk after long hours at the office.
Outside work, Cochrun was involved in the Indianapolis community at large. He was active at his church, served as the president of the Indianapolis Press Club, became a lifetime member of the Indiana Historical Society and sat on the boards of the President Benjamin Harrison Home, the Heartland Film Festival, the Writers Center of Indiana and several others.
Cochrun still serves on the Ball State University Alumni Council. “Whenever he was on a board, he wasn’t one of the kinds of people just taking a space on a board,” Finch said. “He’d be involved in the subcommittees, and he’d be involved in drafting plans. I think that really says a lot about his character.”
After his work at WTHR, where he had become its main anchor, documentary journalism became Cochrun’s niche, and in 1994 he left to run his film company, Nineteenth Star. “I wanted to do something more significant than sit on an anchor desk,” Cochrun said.
The Discovery Channel, PBS, TLC and other TV stations ran programming from Nineteenth Star, including popular biographies of Babe Ruth and James Dean. Some of Cochrun’s films still air. Nineteenth Star was bought in a merger, so Cochrun and his business partner Ben Stout founded Masters Work Media. The new company got more involved with museums and corporations by creating interactive works.
In the late 1990s, Tom began dabbling in a new facet of his career. His wrote his first mystery novel, The Sanibel Arcanum, and he followed it up with The Sanibel Cayman Disc. His third manuscript is finished and in the beginning publishing stages. He will soon be coming out with his fourth novel, which will be a departure from the mystery thriller genre.
“I love the novel form, and I love the storytelling,” he said. “I’m absolutely knocked out by the skill that novelists have, and that made me want to try it.”
Cochrun briefly returned to the Indianapolis news scene in 2003, when he became news director for WISH TV. He stayed for three years before retiring in 2007.
After retiring, Tom and his wife moved to the small coastal town of Cambria, Calif. But they frequently return to Indiana to visit, and in 2007 he moderated the gubernatorial debates.
“Once you’re born and reared in Indiana, it’s always a part of your heart and your being and your psyche,” Cochrun said.
By Erin N. Riley, freelance journalist