WFOR’s Al Sunshine — yes, that’s his real name — came to South Florida in 1968 to study marine biology at the University of Miami.
But after selling photos to the campus newspaper, The Hurricane, and taking journalism courses, he decided to swap fish and manatees for film and media.
By 1972, he was on the air with WTVJ as a reporter/photographer who could shoot, write and read his own stories. Among his first assignments: the tumultuous political conventions at the Miami Beach Convention Center — the Democrats in July, Republicans in August.
Between the two, he and Deborah Liscomb, the 17-year-old freshman he met on the first day of his sophomore year, went to New York and got married.
Forty years, a slew of awards and a stint with CNN later, Sunshine is still on TV in South Florida, an extraordinary feat in a notoriously fickle industry that favors youth, glamour and fabulous hair.
Sunshine is 61, vertically challenged, thin on top — elsewhere, not so much. Yet behind the battle cry Shame on You!, he became a trusted consumer reporter, exposing dirty restaurants, rip-off moving and towing companies, sleazy mechanics, defective tires and an infinite variety of scams.
Sunshine’s investigations have brought tougher safety regulations for balcony railings, school buses and seafood, helped reduce cancer-causing chemicals in drinking water, closed diet-pill clinics and compelled schools to post their lunchroom health-inspection reports online.
He testified about car-leasing scams before the Florida Senate, which led to statewide consumer protections. , and in the 1990s, sent a South Beach modeling-agency scammer to prison after Geraldo Rivera picked up the story.
“It turns out that the scammer was on probation for cocaine trafficking, and his probation officer saw Geraldo,’’ Sunshine said.
He won an Emmy Award for a Shame On You exposé of illegal police parking, and another for investigating car-insurance fraud. His financial blog on the station’s website helped win the site a regional Edward R. Murrow Award in 2009. Miami’s Community Newspapers syndicates his consumer columns.
“I may be very very old school, if not caveman, in believing it’s an advantage to have roots in the community,’’ he says. “And I have a pretty good idea of what makes the city tick.’’
Over 40 years, as technology transformed 25-pound film cameras into do-it-all smart phones, Sunshine has watched South Florida grow from “sleepy little tourism destination of Miami Beach with a supportive city called Miami to a major international business hub and thriving international community. ... Miami is an absolutely incredible news town. When I was working for CNN, we used to joke that every story around the world had a Florida/Miami connection. And of course it does.”
Before he was Al Sunshine, consumer guy, he was Al Sunshine, hard-news reporter, who spent so much time on the road that his wife was, essentially, a single parent.
These days Sunshine stays close to home — the same home that Hurricane Andrew destroyed 20 years ago this week, as he, his wife, daughters Melissa and Stephanie, now 31 and 26, and the dog huddled in a closet.
“We heard it exploding all around us,’’ Sunshine recalls. Rain poured in as the roof flew off. A palm tree landed in master bedroom.