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Award-Winning Journalist And South Florida Storyteller Alan Tomlinson Dies At 69

Whether it was on a radio piece, a long-form documentary or in a casual conversation at the office, Alan Tomlinson was first and foremost a storyteller. An astute observer of the human condition, at the heart of his work there was always a sincere concern for  the disadvantaged, the vulnerable and a hatred for injustice and unnecessary suffering. 

Tomlinson, WLRN's Director of Television Programming and Production, passed away on November 26th after complications with a minor medical procedure. He was an award-winning journalist and television producer whose career spans newspapers, broadcasting in both radio and television, and documentary filmmaking.

'The combination of his wit, friendliness, and perfectionism is what created the fuel that ignited his storytelling genius' - John LaBonia

He produced, directed, written and photographed numerous documentaries and television series for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, New York Times Television, PBS and others.

Alan won an Emmy award for “Killer Virus”, a one-hour documentary about the 1995 Ebola epidemic in Zaire, and a 2005 Cine Golden Eagle award for “The True Face of Hurricanes”, the story of four storms that devastated Florida in 2004.

"Alan Tomlinson was one of the most talented filmmakers I have ever known," says John LaBonia, WLRN's General Manager.  "The combination of his wit, friendliness, and perfectionism is what created the fuel that ignited his storytelling genius."   

Reporter in South America and Africa

Prior to his television career, Alan was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) in Latin America and other parts of the world. He was also a correspondent for the BBC and the Times of London. He shared a Dupont Award (the broadcasting equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize) for NPR’s coverage of the first Gulf War and was twice honored individually by the Overseas Press Club of America for his reporting from Haiti.

Alan was born in 1947 in the Northeast of England where he began his career as a trainee on his hometown newspaper in 1963. After a year as a freelance writer in Paris, he moved to London in 1970 to become news editor of a group of weekly newspapers. He spent three years in Spain, then returned to London to work for a time at Reuters, Independent Television News (ITN) and the BBC World Service.

'The long form radio reports he sent to NPR from all over Latin America always wove together voices of local people, vivid description and astute analysis'- John Lantigua

He went to Nicaragua as a freelance journalist in 1983, covering the conflicts in Central America for the BBC and the Times of London. It was there that he began a long relationship with National Public Radio (NPR).

"The long form radio reports he sent to NPR from all over Latin America always wove together voices of local people, vivid description  and astute analysis. You were in the war time mountains of Nicaragua with him; in the Amazon jungle with him. They were works of art," says John Lantigua, longtime colleague and friend. 

Alan  re-based in Miami in 1987 to broaden his beat to include the entire Caribbean Basin and parts of South America. He also covered the first Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Somalia as a special correspondent for NPR before relocating once again to Rio de Janeiro as NPR’s Latin America correspondent. He continued to produce television news features for the BBC during much of that time.

The move to television

He moved into television full time in 1995 as chief correspondent for Video News International, a New York Times company which soon became New York Times Television. He spent the following six years in New York, making documentaries for NYT Television and supervising a television series based on Science Times, the newspaper’s science section, first for the Discovery Network’s TLC channel and later for the newly-created National Geographic Channel.

He returned to Miami in 2002 to start his own small independent production company, Tomlinson-De Onis Productions, with his wife and partner Francesca De Onis where they made numerous documentary programs for the National Geographic Channel and WLRN Public Television, as well as several documentaries in Spanish and Portuguese for the Discovery Channel’s Latin American network.

Alan’s relationship with WLRN began in 2006 when he signed on to produce “Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami”, a one-hour documentary about the personal transformation of an ambitious young boxer who arrived in Miami as Cassius Clay and left, six years later, as the man known to the world as Muhammad Ali. The documentary was voted Best Sports Documentary of 2008 by Sports Illustrated magazine and went national on PBS in November 2007.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HcoyLZ7-II

In January of 2008, Alan embarked on WLRN’s next documentary “Nixon’s The One: The ’68 Election.” Narrated by Dick Cavett, the film chronicles not only Richard Nixon’s stunning victory in the 1968 presidential race, but the ways in which that historic election gave rise to Red State-Blue State America. “Nixon’s The One: The ’68 Election” was distributed nationally by American Public Television.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohUIx8k7CKY

In 2011, Alan began researching what was to be one of his greatest pieces of work. The film “Treblinka’s Last Witness” tells the first-hand account of Samuel Willenberg, the last living survivor of the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

From 2012 to 2014, Alan became part of the Willenberg family in Poland, and documented the stories that Samuel witnessed as a young forced laborer over 70 years ago. The film received the 2015 Audience Award for “Best Documentary” at the 10th Annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and a 2015 Suncoast EMMY for the category of Documentary Historical.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYHtxIFCeTQ

“Treblinka’s Last Witness” is currently broadcasting nationally via American Public Television and is licensed by American Public Television Worldwide for international distribution.

In 2013, WLRN hired Alan as director of television production and programming. Over the last three years, he transformed look and content of the station. He also founded the South Florida History Project, short films about local history, a topic that fascinated him.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WONaEQLfMZ0

“Streets of Wynwood” is Alan’s final film. Premiering on WLRN-TV on Thursday, November 17th, 2016, this one-hour film transports the viewer into the nomadic culture of urban art to meet a diverse brigade of taggers, graffiti writers and muralists from all parts of the globe in a riot of color, spray cans, ladders and forklifts, and to appreciate Miami’s unique place at the heart of the street art craze. “Streets of Wynwood” is currently under consideration for national distribution.

Alan leaves his wife, Francesca; his six children –Nicholas, Emilio, Matthew, Catherina, Ana and Sam; his brother, Michael, of both Florida and England, and a sister, Sheilagh Hume of England, and many, many friends in the journalist community.