Sebak continues drawing viewers into story of Pittsburgh
With a voice as familiar to Pittsburghers as the clickety-clack of Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit roller coaster, Rick Sebak has documented the region’s unique history for 21 years.
But before that, when Sebak first left his hometown of Bethel Park, he had few intentions of ever coming back. Even when he did return to take a job at WQED-TV and make documentaries, such as “Kennywood Memories,” he said it took some time to get settled.
“At the time I was hired, I could have driven you to Kennywood but if you handed me a map, I wasn’t able to point it out,” Sebak, 55, said recently.
In 2009, Sebak said he expects to produce two new documentaries. He’s working on a local show tentatively titled “Right Beside the River” that would feature riverfront sites such as the school town of California, a tortilla chip plant in Ford City or Ambridge’s Old Economy Village, and trails and attractions along the rivers.
The other film, which Sebak is calling either “Breakfast” or “Breakfast Anytime,” would take viewers across the country in search of the best breakfast spots. Sebak said he has his eye on a Hawaiian breakfast place that serves up a dish with rice, hamburger and gravy.
“My job changes constantly,” said Sebak, known for his signature chuckle and quirky interviews. “I love the fact that generally every six months, my whole life changes, perpetually renewing and refreshing itself.”
At WQED since 1987, Sebak started out by telling stories about Pittsburgh. Since then, he has branched out to reach a national audience with his unique style of “scrapbook” documentaries. More than 387,000 copies of his local and national movies have been sold, according to the station.
Sebak’s rise at WQED has mirrored the station’s growth, said George L. Miles Jr., president and CEO. By focusing on local programming, Sebak has built a national reputation.
“We’ve been able to export Pittsburgh with him,” Miles said. “He’s not only an asset for ‘QED but for the community. He’s the documentarian for Pittsburgh.”
Older Pittsburghers have reminisced with Sebak through the years, while younger ones have grown up learning about their hometown through his work.
“I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen that show about Kennywood or the Strip Show,” said Jackie Grubbs, 20, of Butler, a student at the Community College of Allegheny County. “His programs draw you in and make Pittsburgh such an interesting place to learn about.”
Sebak said he never expected to come home to make a name for himself. After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he took a job at the South Carolina Educational Television Network in Columbia, S.C.
“When I was away, I had no desire to come back to Pittsburgh,” Sebak said. “I really loved the Carolinas but at the same time, I was sort of ready to move on.
“But I never thought the moving on would be to come back.”
A friend who realized Pittsburgh might be a perfect fit for Sebak told him about a job WQED had advertised for a local producer. Sebak figured he would see if he could get the job even though he never expected to take it.
After going through nine interviews in one day, Sebak was offered the position. The station had won him over. Just a year after his hire, Sebak made “Kennywood Memories.”
“Anybody my age who grew up in Pittsburgh has memories of going to Kennywood,” he said. “We would go out there and my grandmother would do the whole picnic thing in the grove, and there would be a home base, so I understand that when people talk about that.”
His other local shows include “The Mon, The Al & The O,” which showcases the three rivers that comprise the Golden Triangle, features on Downtown and the Strip District, as well as one titled “Things That Aren’t There Anymore” about, well, those things such as Forbes Field that aren’t there any more.
Sebak calls the local shows “a celebration of this city.” And now he said he cannot imagine living any place else.
“Like my mom always used to tell me, ‘Don’t you worry. If you do anything in this town, I’ll find out about it.’ ”
On Rick Sebak
‘He’s not only an asset for ‘QED but for the community. He’s the documentarian for Pittsburgh.’
George L. Miles Jr.
President and CEO, WQED