He hadn’t opened his phone in more than a week, keeping his first promise of their marriage.
“I’m putting my phone away for Liz for our honeymoon,” Joe Bruno’s voicemail said.
It was Thanksgiving week, and now it was the last day of their trip, and Liz was thinking about the future. He’s 28 and she’s 30, and as soon as they got on that plane to come home, they knew they’d be in the more practical from this day forward phase of their relationship.
For them, like for so many, 2020 had raised lots of questions about the future. Liz is a digital marketing professional who was laid off this spring. Since then she’s been putting together an income one freelance assignment at a time, and she’s reached the point many self-employed people reach, when they wonder if it’s freelance or a long-term business.
Joe, meanwhile, is probably the most visible young television news reporter in Charlotte, a rapid-tweeting news junkie who brings the earnestness of his small-town upbringing to every update about life in big-city Charlotte.
The WSOC reporter often posts 40, 50, 60 times a day — even when he’s off — answering questions about everything from election fraud to power outages. He has three Emmy awards, a Cronkite, a Murrow, and most of the honors a local reporter can attain. He’s even been a nominee for “Big of the Year” for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Carolinas.
Charlotte has reporters who do more deep-dive investigative reporting than Bruno does. It has reporters with more edge, more experience. It has personalities with longer careers. Bruno can quickly list people he admires and looks up to. But few do more things well than he does, and few do it faster. It’s why, for some of his most devoted followers, his twitter feed is their primary source of local news.
And this coming summer, his contract at the station is up.
Now he wonders — correction, now he and Liz wonder — what’s next.
That last afternoon in Jamaica after Liz brought up the future, Joe spent the afternoon in a hammock, staring at the Caribbean.
“I become paralyzed whenever I think about the question,” he tells me. “Agents email me and ask, ‘What are your career goals?’ My immediate goals are to start a family and buy a house.”
Back in November, I sent Joe a note to say I wanted to interview him, but that I’d really like to talk to Liz.
I wanted to know what it’s like to marry Joe Bruno? Which was another way of asking, what is it like to be married to someone who’s married to the local news? Which was just another way of saying, what is it like to be married to someone who’s also married to their phone?
“Weird,” Liz tells me on their back deck recently. “But I’m just as weird, if not weirder.”
Of the two of them, Liz is more outgoing. She’s sharp, witty, and has a natural comedic timing when she talks. When the two of them go out with friends, Joe fades into the background and watches her hold the room. Her dream job is to be on Saturday Night Live.
Short of that, though, she’s in a career field where she could move most anywhere and find work.
He’s a little more tied to place.
Charlotte’s media market has a history with raising talented professionals who fall in love with the city and then have to decide whether to leave. A few years ago Dianne Gallagher jumped from WCNC to CNN. She lived in apartments in Washington and Atlanta, but her husband was here. CNN wound up establishing a job for her to be Charlotte’s first full-time CNN reporter.
Part of Bruno’s success is simply that he pairs well with Charlotte. Off camera he’s shy and insecure and mostly unaware of how good he really is. If Charlotte had a psychological profile, it would be similar.
He loves local news: stories about, for instance, a city council decision, and subsequent backlash, to let traffic back on Tryon Street at the Black Lives Matter mural in part because McCormick & Schmick’s needed its valet line back. But he also enjoys stories that are even more local.
“I love when people email me to say, ‘Why’s there a police officer parked outside my house?’” he says. “I love answering those questions for people.”
There’s a 2014 Onion story that still makes its way around every now and then: “Horrified Man Suddenly Realizes He’s Putting Down Roots in Charlotte.” And like most humor, it’s great because it pulls on a thread of truth.
Bruno is hardly horrified by putting down roots here.
“I love Charlotte. And I can’t imagine this being my last winter in Charlotte,” he says. “If I ever left Charlotte, I think I would just be trying to get back.”
I knock on Liz and Joe’s door right at 10 a.m. last Wednesday, our scheduled interview time. The night before, Charlotte media received an alert about a major economic development announcement for … 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
It’s exactly the kind of thing Joe Bruno would cover. In fact there are few stories that are more Joe Bruno than an announcement of a company moving here and creating jobs here.
So I kept the meeting time, of course. And when I knock, there’s a short delay before anyone answers.
Eventually we go around to their back porch, where Liz is sweeping off leaves and their dog Dansby barks at me. Dansby is sort of boxer, beagle, pit bull mix, and he’s skittish around strangers.
“I thought he’d be OK out here,” Joe tells Liz.
“No,” Liz says. “That’s the worst idea.”
About an hour into our conversation, I bring up the big news conference about the new company coming to Charlotte. I ask if it’s been gnawing at him, the not knowing.
“Yes!” he says. “I refreshed my phone while I was answering the door. That’s why I didn’t answer right away.”
“He just got a little twitchy,” Liz says, laughing at him.
I ask if they have family limits on phone time, and they say no. Work is just a part of who they are.
They believe that his “always on” lifestyle has something to do with why his hair is gray. He’s dyed it dark ever since he was in his early 20s. He also started dropping CBD to calm down before bed.
“He’s just slowly deteriorating, inside and outside,” Liz says, laughing. “But other than that he’s in great shape.”
As she talks, Joe scratches his ankle and scans the yard.
“I’ve got a lot of flaws,” he says. “Like I mean, I’m like, if she didn’t put up with me, I don’t know who would because I’ve got a lot going on.”
They met in 2015, when Liz moved here from Florida to take a job at Fox 46, where Joe was working at the time.
Before she arrived, she watched clips from the station’s reporters and noticed him. She thought he was 40; he was 23.
On one of her first days in the office, Joe walked up to her and said his first words to his future wife.
“Hi, I’m Joe. I get bullied here.”
He still doesn’t know why he said that. She doesn’t, either.
“Well,” she remembers telling him, “you may want to tell HR about that?”
Somehow they wound up on a date. Their first night out, they went to Jeff’s Bucket Shop, the basement dive bar known for karaoke.
A few years later, in June 2019, Joe dropped to a knee at Romare Bearden Park and she said yes.
During their engagement — and especially when it became clear that the coronavirus would ruin the big wedding plans they’d had — Liz tells me she was most likely to cry when something went wrong.
“But …” she says, and then Joe finishes her sentence …
“I was probably more of a diva,” he says.
“He was the bridezilla,” Liz says.
What kind of thing would he get hung up on?
“When we were deciding between DJ and a band, he wanted a band,” she says. “But not like the kind of band you’re thinking of. He wanted to have this cover band he’d seen at the Gin Mill.”
“They are really good!” Joe jumps in.
Still, when they had to abandon the band plan because of the virus, Liz was hardly heartbroken.
If you follow Joe’s work at all, you know he’s obsessed with a bridge, one of those taken-for-granted marvels of infrastructure that helps people get from one place to another.
He lived in the Elizabeth neighborhood in July 2017, back when the Hawthorne Lane bridge over Independence Boulevard shut down so that the city could rebuild it to support a streetcar. The project has been delayed and bungled. The road was supposed to be closed for 20 months; it’s been 40.
It’s the kind of story that matters, but mostly to a small pocket of people who live in a few neighborhoods in a mid-sized city in America.
Joe’s tweeted about it at least 50 times.
Part of what’s made him popular here is how he aligns with that strain of the city’s personality. It’s a metropolitan area, but still intimate, and many of the transplants like him have come from even smaller places where a bridge being out would be the biggest news in town.
Bruno describes his childhood home as a cookie-cutter suburban house in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, population 1,500 or so, about 40 minutes northwest of Philadelphia. He was a kid there in the late 1990s, and a teenager there in the 2000s, which is all a way of saying he’s a fan of Creed, an echoey band with cheesy lyrics that most people only listen to as a guilty pleasure.
“With Arms Wide Open,” he says. “I loved that song.”
He was the older of two boys, and his mother had a general rule that they should not stay inside. They played baseball, mostly. When Joe was 12, he got his first job as a coach of his younger brother’s ball team.
He always knew he wanted to be a television reporter. His mother came across Elon University in North Carolina, told him it had a news broadcast, so he went there.
When he arrived on campus he met another person who’s made a name for himself as a television reporter in Charlotte, WBTV’s Nick Ochsner. Nick was a senior when Joe was a freshman, and Nick led the college news team at the time.
Joe’s first story was on the school’s snow removal plans. Nick gave Joe the responsibility of doing a live intro.
“I completely botched it,” Joe tells me. “I was humiliated.”
That day, Joe went back to the control room, and Nick, his boss, patted him on the shoulder and told him to get ’em next time. They’re still friends today.
“If he would’ve said nothing, or put me down for rightfully messing up this live intro, I probably would’ve transferred home,” Joe tells me. “If not for Nick Ochsner, I’d probably be home yelling at the TV about the Eagles now, and I wouldn’t know what the Hawthorne Lane bridge was.”
That leads to the next story about Joe and Nick.
When Joe moved to Charlotte, Nick was already here as a reporter. He invited Joe over one day and pointed to the golden trophy on the shelf: “That’s an Emmy, Joe. Call me when you get one.”
Joe now has three sitting on a table in his dining room.
During the 11 days that Joe’s social feeds were dark for his honeymoon, some of his followers joked that they didn’t know if anything was happening in the city.
He was pretty busy, though.
On their wedding day, he and Liz were both stressed. They’d cut their guest list down from 175 to about 40. They’d reorganized everything so that people were at a safe social distance. The pressure of getting it right weighed on both of them.
She barely slept the night before the wedding.
That morning, Joe threw up and cut his face shaving.
“Then I started listening to Creed,” he said. “I was regressing in every way possible.”
They gathered themselves, said their vows, and then let out any stress through a sweet karaoke duet of “Chop Suey!” by System of a Down. You know, to celebrate love. Then they hopped on the plane and left for Jamaica.
They relaxed there, but they talked about the future, too. They don’t want to have children soon, but they’ve already come up with five names they like.
In fact, in their world, they name most everything. Their Christmas tree is Jeremy, after Jeremy Chinn, the Panthers’ second-round draft pick last year. His wedding ring is “Stetson,” after Stetson Bennett, the University of Georgia quarterback. He became a Bulldogs fan after meeting Liz, a Georgia grad.
He often tells her that having kids is the top item on his “bucket list.”
She responds by asking if he knows what a “bucket list” is.
“It’s so weird that you call it a bucket list item,” she tells him while we’re on their back deck.
As we sit there outside their humble two-bedroom rental in Plaza Midwood, big houses are being built on adjacent lots, where small houses once stood. Things are changing. Charlotte’s moving forward, as usual.
But in their corner of the city life, they still get the small-town treatment. The clerks at Food Lion know them. When they go to church, their priest asks Joe for scoops on what the governor will do this week.
Most times when he thinks about the future, Joe sees himself growing with Charlotte, rather than growing out of it. For instance, he wants to be here for when the MLS team plays its first game. And David Tepper, the owner of the Panthers and that MLS team, he can’t wait to see all the changes he makes.
“I want to interview David Tepper,” he says. “He’s on my bucket list.”
Liz catches him saying that.
“So your bucket list is,” she says, laughing at him again, “babies and David Tepper?”
Over and over again, she does that, and they laugh endlessly about it. She’s from Atlanta originally, and far more comfortable cutting through his wide-eyed glare at local stardom, to let him know he’s still just the guy whose first line to her was, “Hi, I’m Joe. I get bullied here.”
I ask him one more question about the future: If he left Charlotte, would he have to give up his twitter account and all the followers. He wouldn’t, he says.
“But I don’t know why people here would follow me if I moved somewhere else,” he says.
“But if you stayed in Charlotte … ” Liz says.
“Well, yeah, if I stayed in Charlotte, of course,” Joe says. “I gotta tell people what’s going on with the Hawthorne Lane bridge.”