TV anchor Marc Middleton had it all. But one day he walked away from his high-profile job and vowed to start a revolution in how society views aging, possibility and reinvention.
Sometimes we come to think of local television personalities as friends, or even extended family. After all, they’re with us morning, noon and night, explaining the events of the day and sharing stories about people and places we know. Often, we even share in their triumphs and tragedies.
In Central Florida, however, many TV talkers are whisked away to glitzier jobs in larger markets before learning to properly pronounce “Kissimmee” or “Altamonte Springs.”
A handful, of course, become local fixtures by remaining on the air for decades and immersing themselves in good works, thereby forming an emotional bond with the audience and the community.
That describes Marc Middleton. But Middleton, former anchor at WESH-Channel 2, the Orlando NBC affiliate, hasn’t appeared on a local newscast for seven years.
After a 20-year run, he walked away from his high-profile job in 2006. He then became arguably more recognizable as founder of a burgeoning multimedia empire focused on providing “hope and inspiration” for the 50-plus crowd.
Bolder Media Group, now based in Winter Park, produces the Growing Bolder television show, which debuted on PBS and was eventually picked up by more than 500 stations. Beginning earlier this year, new episodes were rolled out to a variety of cable networks.
The commercial version of Growing Bolder, with its familiar mix of quirky but uplifting personality profiles and viewer-friendly health and wellness advice, will make its debut on WKMG Local 6, the Orlando CBS affiliate, on Sunday, Jan. 5 at 5 a.m.
The company’s additional television offerings include Surviving and Thriving, which is also on WKMG but in prime time — a rarity for a locally-produced show. Surviving and Thriving shares stories about ordinary people who have overcome major challenges — often health-related — to live extraordinary lives.
Other projects include Growing Bolder Radio, which is heard in locally on WMFE-FM 90.7, as well as Growing Bolder Magazine, which is produced in conjunction with Florida Home Media, publishers of Winter Park Magazine and Orlando Life.
If all that weren’t enough, Bolder Media’s nine fulltime employees — several of whom are also high-profile WESH alumni — produce and license active lifestyle and wellness content for health-care providers and publish e-books, including one on active centenarians entitled Rock Stars of Aging.
The energetic Middleton, 62, is an articulate charmer — he was always a viewer favorite on WESH — and retains the lean and lanky physique of a competitive swimmer. In fact, the only obvious indicator that he’s not a youngster anymore — at least not chronologically — is a bald pate and a fringe of close-cropped gray hair at his temples.
“I don’t like the term ‘senior citizen,’” says Middleton when describing the work that he believes is his destiny. “We’re in the business of smashing pervasive and damaging stereotypes about age — and proving that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and achieve your dreams.”
Today, Middleton adds, people can reasonably expect 20 to 30 active years following retirement. “That’s a new life stage that has never before existed in human history,” he adds. “And too many people aren’t taking full advantage of what ought to be their happiest and most productive years.”
It’s an unabashedly feel-good message. But make no mistake; Middleton believes there’s gold to be mined in a demographic that remains inexplicably overlooked by marketers.
There are now 78 million Americans over the age of 55, Middleton notes, and 10,000 more join them every day. They control approximately 70 percent of the country’s disposable income and pack more than $2.3 trillion in annual spending power.
For Middleton, those numbers mean opportunity. And that’s why he’s baffled by the shortsighted attitude of corporate America toward aging consumers.
“For example, many companies don’t market to older people because they assume their brand preferences are already established,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. Boomers want value. They’ll change brands in a heartbeat. Plus, half the things I use today didn’t exist 15 years ago. How can my brand preferences be set in stone?”
Middleton is passionate about his company in large part because he lives its philosophy. He’s always been driven to do more, to push himself beyond his comfort zone and to follow his dreams — even if they lead in unexpected directions.
Born in Ohio, he was a star swimmer in high school and attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship. During his college career he became an AAU All-American and an NCAA and Olympic Trials qualifier. And, despite joking that he “majored in fun,” he was also a solid student, earning a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.
After graduation, instead of pursuing his original goal of attending veterinary school, Middleton moved to Phoenix, where his parents had retired, and landed a job coaching high-school-aged AAU swimmers. He led his team to three consecutive state championships and got the attention of local sportscaster — and soon-to-be mentor — Mike Leonard.
Leonard, who was impressed by Middleton’s dogged determination and effortless charisma, suggested that a career in broadcasting might be an option. He even helped the young coach, who had no previous training in television, to prepare an audition reel.
“I couldn’t get on the air in Phoenix because I had no experience,” Middleton says. “But I sent that tape to nearly every small station in the country. What I had going for me was fearlessness. I wasn’t afraid to give it a shot.”
Middleton was hired as a general-assignment reporter in Savannah, Ga., where he stayed for six months. Then Leonard got in touch to say that he’d been hired by NBC’s Today Show as a featured correspondent. That meant there’d be an opening at the sports desk in Phoenix. Leonard encouraged his protégé to apply for the job.
Despite an admittedly skimpy resume, Middleton was hired as an on-air personality in what was then the nation’s 17th-largest TV market. He quickly earned a following with his offbeat, personality-oriented sports stories.
“I wanted to do sports that even non-sports fans would enjoy,” he says. “After a big football game, every other reporter would be interviewing the star quarterback. I might be interviewing the star quarterback’s mother.”
In 1988 Middleton was hired by WESH, where he became something of a community institution along with colleagues — and later business associates — Wendy Chioji and Bill Shafer. He also met his future wife, Jill Kalstrom, who was a producer at the station.
When he moved from the sports desk to an anchor position, he marked the occasion by tackling an art project. He cut up the expensive, sports-themed Nicole Miller ties he had worn on the air and used the scraps to create a quilt depicting his father lounging in an overstuffed chair while drinking a beer.
“It was, in a way, not just an artistic expression but a foreshadowing of what was to come,” Middleton recalls. “I was creating something new out of pieces from my past.”
Indeed, more changes were to come. During his tenure at WESH, Middleton was nominated for five Emmys — winning two — and was part of a team that won the duPont Award for Excellence in Journalism for coverage of the Challenger disaster. Still, he was becoming increasingly restless and disenchanted.
Local TV news had begun moving in a direction that the eternally optimistic and upbeat Middleton found disturbing. More and more, he noted, newscasts were becoming crime reports, and sensationalism was replacing journalism.
“I think local news programs should reflect what’s happening in the community,” Middleton says. “And for the most part, there’s a lot more good in the community than bad. I wanted to celebrate people who were doing cool stuff.”
It got to the point, Middleton adds, that he didn’t want his daughters, Kelsey and Quinn, to watch the news broadcast on which he appeared. He says he pitched WESH’s parent company, Hearst Television, on the idea of airing a positive show about inspiring people, but found little enthusiasm for the idea.
So, in 2006 he “walked upstairs” and resigned. “Probably my toughest personal challenge to date was to gather the strength and belief to walk away from a semi-glamorous, fairly well-paying and pretty easy job,” Middleton says. “I had no safety net whatsoever.”
But he had a clear vision for Bolder Media Group and the strong belief that he could make it happen. All he lacked was the capital to make it a reality.
Fortunately, he found an ideal business partner in Joe Lee, retired CEO of Darden Restaurants, who provided funding and offered advice and encouragement. Lee, a philanthropist who rose from humble beginnings to become a legend in the restaurant industry, bought into Middleton’s message — literally and figuratively.
“America needs Growing Bolder to be successful,” says Lee, who today divides his time between Orlando and Georgia. “The good guys need to win — and we’re committed to creating a media company that builds up and doesn’t tear down.”
Middleton, who calls Lee “the most kind and ethical businessman I’ve ever known,” soon was able to hire Shafer, producers Katy Widrick and Jackie Carlin and videographer Jason Morrow from WESH. Chioji, who left the station in 2008, later joined the team as a sort of roving correspondent.
“I always saw myself as a line producer for TV news,” says Widrick. “I was happy at WESH. But Marc came to me and explained what he had in mind with Bolder Media, and his passion really resonated with me. He said, ‘I’m going to start a revolution, and I’d like you to be with me.’ How can you say no to that?”
Growing Bolder, co-hosted by Middleton and Shafer, first aired on WMFE-Channel 24, the Orlando PBS outlet, before going national. The radio show, the website, the magazine and the custom health content were later added.
In recent years, Middleton has made some bold moves in athletics as well as business. In 2010, after a 37-year layoff, he resumed competitive swimming and is today a six-time world-record holder in masters competition. He also trained as a hurdler and won a bronze medal at the USA Masters Track and Field Championships in 2012.
In February, he’s traveling to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro along with Chioji, who recently announced that she’s battling cancer for the second time, and Dr. Robert Masson, founder of Orlando’s NeuroSpine Institute.
It’s the culmination of the Livestrong Foundation’s 2014 Survivor Summit, during which cancer survivors and their supporters make a statement about hope by scaling the world’s largest freestanding mountain. Middleton will film the adventure for a television special to air later in the year.
A self-taught artist, Middleton does have some less strenuous hobbies, including quilting and painting. His finished works are like their creator: colorful and exuberant.
“The key to living a happy and engaged life is simply to pursue your passions,” says Middleton, who certainly knows whereof he speaks. “That’s what keeps people alive, and that’s a powerful message for people of any age. When you talk about the possibility of life, and that it’s never too late to chase your dreams, even 20 year olds listen.”
This story was compiled using submissions written by students in the inaugural “Writing Personality Profiles” class at the Rollins College Center for Lifelong Learning. Contributors included Beth Berenis, Linda Begley, Grace Colombo, Joe Carroll, Sue Dyer Nan Todd Kutcher and Mary Ann McGowan. The class interviewed Middleton, press-conference style, and each student then wrote a profile based upon that interview. Instructor Randy Noles assembled this story for publication using excerpts from several individual submissions. The class will be held again beginning in February and running each Friday during the month from 9 a.m. to noon. To enroll, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 407-646-1577. Class size is strictly limited to 12.