Ricardo “Dong” Puno may be known more as the brilliant host of memorable public affairs talk shows “Viewpoint” and “Dong Puno Live.” He set the bar high for talk show interviews. He was incisive, insightful, did his homework, and never depended on his writers for questions.
But Puno, who passed away Tuesday from complications of Parkinson’s disease, also played a key role behind the scenes of local television’s news and current affairs programs. For most of the 1990s, Puno was Senior Vice President of ABS-CBN’s News and Current Affairs Department. He replaced media veteran Rod Reyes who would move on to become Press Secretary for then President Fidel Ramos.
Compared to his predecessor, who was quite well-loved and popular in the newsroom, the Harvard-educated Puno didn’t exactly score high points in the “people person” department back when he was starting as VP. “We saw Dong as a lawyer who seemed aloof,” recalled ABS-CBN’s Integrated News head Ging Reyes in a video message for Puno’s wake Wednesday. “[He was] A talk show anchor who was brilliant at his job but a stranger to many of us. He was very businesslike and a bit too formal, and that was not really a good start for anyone to head a group of dynamic, intelligent and mostly stubborn, aggressive, and ambitious journalists.”
But Puno eventually grew into his role as captain of the ship. From being the “strict and intimidating” persona, many remember him now as a kind boss, said Reyes. “Pusong mamon din siya. And I’m lucky to have seen that part of him.” Reyes worked with Puno in ABS-CBN back when she was executive producer of the English news program “The World Tonight.” They also worked together on a few TV specials, like the network’s report on the 1995 Manila visit of Pope John Paul II.
“He also pushed for policies that were unpopular. For which eventually he would be proven right,” offered Reyes. “I was always amazed at how stoic and undaunted he was in the face of criticisms and challenges at that time. But that was Dong—he never tried to please anyone, he never tried to be popular, or be someone he wasn’t. He was always true to himself. He was authentic. He was real.”
“He had the job of ‘taming’ the newsroom,” said TV5 news director Patrick Paez who was at one point executive producer of “Dong Puno Live!” “I’m sure he didn’t relish having to be tough; in reality, he was a kind man…I was at the receiving end of his early get-tough policy. He suspended me, put me on the night shift when I was a reporter. I think eventually he came to value my work. I also got to see the true RVP: kind, fair, and devoted to the news organization.”
“Dong would laughingly talk about how people—who would argue and fight in his office—would literally start picking things up from his desk, throwing them at each other (staplers, tape dispensers) and how he had to learn fancy moves to avoid getting hit,” wrote Jing Castañeda in a Facebook post. The Kapamilya journalist came home from the US to join ABS-CBN at Puno’s invitation, leaving behind her studies at New York University and an internship under Peter Jennings at ABC. “He was such a decent man who professionalized the newsroom,” Castañeda writes. “He had talent, foresight and class.”
Puno’s time in ABS-CBN in the 1990s was marked by momentous events and top-rating news programs. News reporter Anjo Bagaoisan recalled in a Facebook post that it was during the man's leadership when the one-hour primetime news show “TV Patrol” was cut down to 30 minutes, when the “Today Show” format was adapted by the station for its morning program “Alas Singko Y Media,” and when the English current affairs titles including his own “Dong Puno Live!” shifted to Filipino to become more accessible to a wider audience.
It was also the period when Philippine news heavyweights roamed the network halls, from Noli De Castro to Tina Palma, Frankie Evangelista to Loren Legarda, Angelo Castro Jr. to Ces Drilon and Korina Sanchez.
“It was he who stayed, who survived us and it all, the longest. And why is that, you’d think?” said Sanchez who has been under all the ABS-CBN news heads since the station reopened in 1986. “He talked a LOT but he didn't talk much about himself.”
From the few times that he did, recalled the broadcast journalist, she learned Puno also had to start from nothing much but eventually came into his own, embodying the “legacy of wit, smarts and integrity” of his father, Ricardo Puno Sr., who was Justice Minister from 1979 to 1984. “So if he survived putting himself through Ivy League, how wouldn’t he be able to survive the ABS-CBN newsroom in its heyday of somewhat organized chaos?”
The feisty Sanchez may have been inspired by the brains and bravery that marked the Puno brand of talk show hosting—“Only a few can say F—- you while smiling and end up shaking hands with his guest at the end of every show”— but it was his generosity she seems most grateful for. “Dong as my boss gave me all the space to fly. The most number of years I earned those feathers on my cap, as many as the missteps I made, were under his lenient and trustful guidance.”
Puno surprised many when he left ABSCBN and for the second time assumed a post previously held by Rod Reyes: the Press Secretary position in the Joseph Estrada administration. But he would return to the network in the early 2000s to host “Dong Puno Nightly,” and again head the station’s news division but only briefly.
In her eulogy, Reyes also recalled the rum cakes Puno would give as gifts every Christmas, without fail, baked lovingly by his wife Christy. How the man loved the news department Christmas parties, the singing and the dancing, and how it would take a while before he would give up the microphone during karaoke sessions. She noted how his staff was very loyal to him.
“He was probably not very expressive or demonstrative but he showed his love for the news team in his own way,” Reyes said in closing. “Maraming hindi nakakaunawa kay Dong noong una pero later on we knew him to be a gentleman, a kind man, somebody who was compassionate and generous. Somebody who was loving.”