'Local treasure' Rick Sebak celebrates milestone with WQED

| Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Rick Sebak usually doesn't need GPS to get around Pittsburgh.

He knows where things are.

And where they used to be.

And who owned them.

And why they're interesting.

“The stories are everywhere in this community,” he says with a chuckle.

As WQED-TV's fountain of Pittsburgh nostalgia for a quarter century, Sebak has made a living of telling fun, grin-spreading, sometimes side-splitting yarns about Kennywood or the history of one of Pittsburgh's 400-some bridges or some quirky hole-in-the-wall eatery.

He's even devoted tire wear and hours of air time to hot dogs.

“I get my ideas from everywhere, everyday,” says the 59-year-old Bethel Park-reared Sebak. “This is a great and interesting part of the country. I'll never run out (of stories).”

November marked his 25th year with WQED. The public-broadcast station in recent weeks has been celebrating the milestone with special programming, contests and an app all dedicated to Sebak's greatest documentary hits.

All the fanfare for Sebak is well-deserved, says Deborah L. Acklin, WQED's president and CEO. He has an uncanny ability to “make everyone proud to call this place home,” Acklin says. And he's partly the reason she says she's at WQED today: She wanted to work with him.

“He embodied the philosophy of localism we stand for here at WQED,” Acklin says. “You don't find that kind of local treasure in many places. And he's absolutely one of them.”

For many people, 25 years of working in one place means it's time to downshift, to cruise toward retirement.

Not so for Sebak.

Last week, he was in the studio, spending 13-hour days to make the final cuts to two upcoming shows he's got in the can.

Sebak's work in public television goes back to the mid 1970s, when he started working on a daily children's show in South Carolina.

Sebak returned to Pittsburgh in 1987 to work at WQED, where he says his love for storytelling and local history has its roots.

He blends his friendly narrative style with a keen eye for the wacky to come up with documentaries that celebrate the history, the neighborhoods, the buildings, the people and the food of Western Pennsylvania.

“I love when people who just move here ... say ‘I've never been in a city where you can watch videos and learn as much as you can about Pittsburgh,' ” Sebak says. “People who live here are so proud to be here and live here. There's something special about that kind of pride.”

Sebak has produced more than 30 documentaries, including “Kennywood Memories,” “Pennsylvania Diners” and “What Makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh?”

His 1999 documentary, titled “A Hot Dog Program,” became synonymous with summertime, touching on the best dog-on-a-bun joints from Connecticut to Chicago. It has been replayed widely over the years.

Acklin was a producer for KDKA-TV in the 1980s when she was asked to craft an episode of “The Pitt Parade.” The weekly segment included old, crackly black-and-white film of people, places and Pittsburgh events that had long gone by.

Acklin didn't have the historical knowledge of the area, but she intersected with Sebak, who was doing a similar piece for WQED called “Things That Aren't There Anymore.”

“I watched his work and realized my cheeks hurt ... from smiling for an hour straight,” Acklin says. “I thought ‘This guy is magic. I want to be able to do this.' ”

Viewership usually “triples or quadruples” as teasers for a Sebak show is played, she says. And when the show finally airs, much of his work — even the quirkier, presumably Pittsburgh-centric pieces — is shared with PBS stations around the country.

And now, it seems Sebak's penchant for all things Pittsburgh has gotten hot online, as well. Sebak has found a whole new universe of followers since the start up this year of Yinztagram. The app, for the iPhone and iPad, puts a black-and-yellow Pittsburgh twist on the photo-sharing program Instagram.

Not to be outdone by snapshots of old mills, bike racks and riverfront buildings, hundreds of images of Sebak have been posted in recent weeks by admirers.

Sebak shuns the idea of ever leaving Pittsburgh, saying few other regions have the fertility of fun stories.

“Why leave?” he says. “The stories I like to do are right here.”

“What I get to do here, I don't think I'd be allowed to do anywhere else,” Sebak says.

Chris Ramirez is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at cramirez@tribweb.com or 412-380-5682.

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