Frank Somerville stands outside of the Creative Arts building which formerly housed the BECA department on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Miguel Francesco Carrion / Golden Gate Xpress) (Miguel Francesco Carrion)
Frank Somerville stands outside of the Creative Arts building which formerly housed the BECA department on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Miguel Francesco Carrion / Golden Gate Xpress)

Miguel Francesco Carrion

SF State alumnus Frank Somerville vows to return after struggle with alcohol, substance abuse

Somerville spent nearly 30 years as an anchor for KTVU news, but a flurry of incidents led to his removal in 2021.

May 5, 2023

Frank Somerville beamed like a kid in a candy shop as he observed the interior of one of the three television studios inside the new Marcus Hall building at SF State. 

Sporting black jeans, a black sweatshirt and a blue bandana wrapped around his neck, Somerville stationed himself in the back of the room just minutes before a live production broadcasted by BECA 241, a student-run TV studio basics class taught by Dina Ibrahim. 

Frank Somerville speaks with Amil Al-Bakari, a BECA student before they enter the studio during the student-run TV studio basics class inside Marcus Hall on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Miguel Francesco Carrion / Golden Gate Xpress) (Miguel Francesco Carrion)

“I love this,” Somerville said. “These students are learning their craft.”

He even briefly involved himself, telling the lead host to “just be yourself,” and recommending the stage manager to “be more insertive.” Despite the advice, it was clear most of the students didn’t know — or recognize  — the experience standing in the room. Surrounded by cameras and infiltrated by the bright lights, Somerville didn’t care. He was in his element.

A graduate of SF State’s BECA program, Somerville became one of the Bay Area’s most recognizable faces as a television anchor for KTVU News for nearly 30 years. The three-time Emmy Award winner had it all; a desirable dream job at the number one-ranked news station in a major market, a healthy family life with a steady income, a social media following counted in the hundreds of thousands and an obsession for delivering news inside the homes of strangers every night. 

“He’s a legend,” Ibrahim said. “Absolutely, 100%. He does this with his eyes closed and you’ve heard his voice. He’ll never lose that.”

Now, at 65, Somerville is at a crossroads. A struggle with mental health and alcohol abuse led to a sharp downfall — he found himself unemployed and disgraced after public displays of humiliation, beginning with an on-air impairment and ending with a drunk driving charge. It’s been well over a calendar year since his final broadcast for KTVU. 

As he sat in the back of the studio, Somerville marveled at the advanced technology utilized by students. He still visits SF State now and then and it wasn’t too long ago he was roaming the hallways himself, intensely plotting together a master plan to become the next Dan Rather on TV. 

An archival photo of Frank Somerville from 1978. (Courtesy of Frank Somerville)

“In my business, you need hands-on experiences,” Somerville said. “You need to know how to produce, report, write, use your voice, all of those things. And that’s what SF State offered and that’s what I really liked. It was great before, but now, it’s even better.”

Somerville recalls producing a 30-second PSA with three other classmates, spending an entire day attempting to be perfect with little wiggle room for error — a trait he carried with him for the rest of his career, one that likely led to his demise, too. The mindset paid off, soon landing an internship with the local Bay Area news station, KTVU News. He briefly served as a reporter for the channel, but ventured to gigs across the country in Minneapolis and Rhode Island.

In 1992, Somerville, an East Bay native, returned home to anchor Mornings On 2 for KTVU. He wasn’t a staple in Bay Area living rooms until 2008 when he took the reins from Dennis Richmond, who was retiring after 40 years of manning the prime time anchor chair. Somerville’s natural wit and unique professionalism helped contribute to KTVU’s domination in the 2010s. 

“I didn’t try to pretend, I was just me,” Somerville said. “And for whatever reason, that worked. I think people like it when they see an honest anchor, who’s not afraid to show his emotions, who asks honest questions, who’s not biased.”

On weeknights, Somerville would stroll through the newsroom doors at 3 p.m. to review the script for his first newscast at 5 p.m. In an effort to create a more personable production, he would spend time scribbling out any newspeak from the broadcast — “third times a charm” and “hatchet-wielding man” were just a few terms that wouldn’t survive Somerville’s grammatical rampage. “Nobody talks like that,” he says.

A newscast at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. would round out Somerville’s rigorous schedule, one he claims overworked many of the behind-the-scenes and on-air employees at KTVU. Once Fox acquired the network in 2014, Somerville says the family atmosphere of the job soured when the new owners set out a tone implying, “Just be lucky you have a job.”

“It got to the point at KTVU, where it felt like no one wanted to do it — we were all kind of going through the motions,” Somerville said. “That was really a bummer to me. We were still winning, but I just thought we could win even more.”

Somerville always did some form of independent reporting, whether it was flying high in the sky with the Blue Angels or intently being present for an execution at San Quentin. These experiences, he felt, added an element of connection to the community. 

He also started attending funerals for young Black men and women who were killed in the streets of Oakland, an issue near and dear to his heart because of his experience raising his adopted daughter, Callie, who is Black. Somerville credits Callie for changing his perspective on issues of race and he began researching ways to fairly cover the topic. 

Frank Somerville speaks during an interview inside the Golden Gate Xpress podcast studio on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Miguel Francesco Carrion / Golden Gate Xpress) (Miguel Francesco Carrion)

The grief and sadness from these heavy moments turned to stress that intensified into a spiraling overflow of darkness.

Somerville began taking prescription drugs for depression and anxiety. To sleep, he was prescribed extra-strength Ambien. He was drinking heavily, too. Getting through the day became a chore. Leading a popular newscast seemed almost unheard of. 

It all came to a screeching halt in May 2021 when Somerville showed up to work after accidentally taking multiple Ambien pills — enough for someone to end up in a comatose state. He struggled to read the teleprompter during the 10 p.m. newscast, noticeably slurring his words with an abysmal expression on his face that mirrored dysfunction. Unable to continue, KTVU abruptly sent him home and placed him on indefinite leave so he could “focus on his health.” 

KTVU’s top star opted for rehab.

“I was not going to ask for help because main anchors don’t ask for help, just like police and firefighters — they don’t as well because they’ll be viewed as weak,” Somerville said. “It’s the stupidest thing in the world, but that’s what I thought. And so I dealt with it on my own through prescription drugs and alcohol, the worst decision I ever made in my life.”

Mark Ibanez, a 40-year sports anchor at KTVU, is a friend of Somerville’s and kept in touch with him through the process. Ibanez approached the situation empathetically, having family episodes in the past involving substance abuse. Ibanez says he couldn’t leave his friend behind just because of a mistake. But he took the role of a no-nonsense sounding board, oftentimes ignoring the dilly-dallying and skipping to the cold, hard truth he wanted Somerville to understand.

“When he came back from rehab, I recognized all the signs immediately because I dealt with that — not myself, but with family,” Ibanez said. “I recognized what I would call severe denial. I recognized right away that he was not ready to give himself over to begin the recovery process.”

In a recent interview with KRON’s Pam Moore, Somerville struggled to admit he was an alcoholic. Ibanez, priding himself as being “the voice of honesty,” stepped in to provide feedback. 

“I watched it and then afterward, we talked,” Ibanez said. “I go, ‘Frank, that was a terrible answer. You stuttered and stammered. You are an alcoholic, and you cannot begin to hit the comeback trail in earnest until you at least admit that to yourself.’ He’ll tell you himself he screwed that interview up.”

After a nine-week disappearance after the Ambien chaos, Somerville returned to the airwaves in August 2021. He was unrecognizable, looking bloated in the face with an unusual amount of red shades covering his cheeks and forehead. The new medicine he was prescribed had unintended consequences — if he stood up too quickly, he would go down like a cannonball. There may have even been some undiagnosed concussions, Somerville assumed. He now says that he’s off all medication. 

A month later, 22-year-old Gabby Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie embarked on a cross-country road trip through the United States. Petito disappeared and her remains were uncovered weeks later in Wyoming, with Laundrie regarded as the perpetrator. The headline made national news and KTVU dedicated themselves to producing updates for their nightly newscasts.

Unhappy by the coverage during the manhunt for Laundrie, Somerville wanted to edit a tagline to address what he believed to be racial disparities in the reporting. The proposed tagline read: “On average, two to three women die every day from domestic violence. On average, more Black women die from domestic violence every year compared to white women. And their cases never make national news.”

“Never in a trillion years would I have thought that tag would have led to that, but it did,” Somerville said. “And my thought is that I still think I was right. I don’t have any doubt about that. I would do it again. I follow my heart.”

According to reports, it didn’t go over well with KTVU News Director Amber Eikel and other editors at the station — Somerville says he was called in for a meeting with management and had his news judgment questioned. He was permanently suspended a week later and KTVU declined to renew his expiring contract. He hasn’t read the news on air since. 

“I know where Frank’s heart is and I just felt a lot of empathy,” Ibrahim said. “For what he went through, I completely support that he took that stand. Then they fire him for that shit? That’s so fundamentally unfair.”

Eikel nor KTVU responded right away for comment. 

“I can’t say this for a fact, but I’m just kind of persona non grata [at KTVU],” Somerville said. “That’s just the way it is right now. Maybe in a couple of years, it’ll change and everything will be fine. I don’t know. I’m a very forgiving guy. I would hope that maybe they could be forgiving, too. But for right now, I don’t ever expect to be back in that building ever again.”

A selfie of Julie Haener and Frank Somerville inside the KTVU studio taken by Haener. (Courtesy of Frank Somerville)

Somerville now wonders if all the photos of him have been removed from the KTVU building in Oakland, or if anyone — anyone at all — at the station wants anything to do with him. These days, he only keeps in touch with Ibanez and former co-anchor Julie Haener. Nobody else. And he hasn’t once turned the channel on since being relieved of his duties. 

In mourning the loss of his job and dealing with the pending divorce from his wife, Donna, of more than 20 years, he spent the holiday season alone in 2021 — although he was accompanied by alcohol, a reliable companion that he disguised as a coping mechanism through the bumpy and tough times.

It backfired when he exited his Oakland apartment and hopped in his Porsche during the late hours of Dec. 30, 2021. Once a sworn advocate against drunk drivers, Somerville’s blood alcohol concentration was .24% — three times above the legal limit. It wasn’t safe to drive, but he maneuvered his way behind the wheel in an effort to purchase some late-night Taco Bell from a few blocks away.

The decision proved costly. Very costly.

The newsman — a journalist responsible for reporting facts and information to a large population of people — once again became the story. 

“It was just me soaking in my sadness,” Somerville said. “And that’s not an excuse. I still should never have done that. I still made the choice. No one else. No one else did anything wrong.”

In his 2014 Porsche 911, Somerville rear-ended an Audi at a red light, pushing it forcefully — to the point where the wheels were lifted off the ground — across the Oakland intersection and into a pole. The driver not only suffered minor injuries, but also had to replace a completely totaled car. 

Somerville says he remembers none of it and that the crash was all just a blur. A nearby witness recorded the incident and within minutes, a cell phone video landed on the internet for all to see. The viral moment displayed the aftermath; Oakland Police dragging Somerville — barefoot and all — walking gingerly and wobbly in handcuffs as the reflection of the squad car’s red and blue flashing lights shined up against his dazed forehead. 

He was arrested on suspicion of DUI and spent the evening in police custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. 

It was the finishing touch to a horrendous stretch for Somerville, one he wishes he could’ve scribbled out like those newspeak terms. 

“I humiliated my family. I humiliated my kids. I humiliated myself. The guy who I hit –– I wrecked his car. I wrecked his whole day,” Somerville said. “I caused damage all around. I have no excuse, none.”

In April 2022, Somerville pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor drunken driving count and was slammed with a sentence of 30 days in the county jail, a punishment he served by washing police cars through a sheriff’s alternative work program. Without accurately calculating, he estimated the total cost of the incident to be roughly $25,000 out of his pocket —  not including insurance, which came close to tripling. 

Despite all of his legal issues behind him, Somerville is still required to breathe into a breathalyzer for his car’s engine to start. The treatment programs and classes will conclude on May 26, a day he “can’t wait” for. 

He’s laid low since, unable to talk to the media until the end of March when all of his legal issues wrapped. He’s spent a lot of time with Callie, who is now a teenager away at college. On a recent trip when she was back home, the two embarked on a tattoo appointment with Frank leaving the joint with a large Batman logo displayed on one of his biceps. As a big hockey fan, he plans to add the San Jose Sharks logo on the other arm. 

A selfie of Frank Somerville and his daughter Callie Somerville taken by Callie. (Courtesy of Frank Somerville)

“It’s just really cool that an 18-year-old who hangs predominantly with Black kids now — that’s her thing — is willing to go with her white 65-year-old dad to go get a tattoo,” Somerville said. “And when she gets the tattoo, she wants me to be right next to her. She won’t grab my hand, but she’ll grab my arm. And it’s just one of those beautiful moments.”

As much as the downtime is welcoming, Somerville says he’s far from retired. He wants to anchor again. 

He wants to return better than before.

“I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but instead, all I noticed were things that we could have done better,” Somerville said. “And those kinds of things just eat away at you. I remember so many times getting off the set and my joke used to always be, ‘I just want to drive myself at a high rate of speed into a brick wall.’”

In a perfect world, Somerville wants to return to the anchor desk for one of the Bay Area news stations, but is willing to head outside the area if the right opportunity comes up. He’s thought about starting a podcast, but has shrugged it off for now. He says critiquing tapes and voice-over work sounds solid, but the energy and mood are different. 

“I would love to see Frank Somerville uncensored,” Ibrahim said. “I think he’s got a lot to say about social justice, how our society works and how the Bay Area works. He’s just so familiar with issues. I would love to see him back on the air and I’d love to see him teach here.”

Frank Somerville speaks during an interview inside the Golden Gate Xpress podcast studio on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Miguel Francesco Carrion / Golden Gate Xpress) (Miguel Francesco Carrion)

“I wasn’t expecting that it would be this difficult,” Somerville said of the job search. “But sadly, it is. But again I’m certainly not going to beg for stuff. It’ll be fine and I’ll be fine. I’m just not interested in retiring. I mean, retirement isn’t as fun as it was cracked up to be. I still want to work. I love working.”

He’s also shown strong interest in teaching at the college level, even reaching out to SF State’s broadcasting program about a possible gig. He says he was ghosted, never hearing anything substantial back — pure crickets.

Ibrahim says Somerville’s lack of a master’s degree could be to blame for the slow response. According to SF State’s website, an advanced, post-baccalaureate degree is required for lecturer faculty positions.

Known for helping young interns during his time at KTVU, Somerville says it would be an opportunity to share some tips and tricks he’s learned from over three decades in the industry. 

Frank Somerville poses for a selfie with Erick Mora, a BECA student during the student-run TV studio basics class inside Marcus Hall on Thursday, April 20, 2023. (Miguel Francesco Carrion / Golden Gate Xpress) (Miguel Francesco Carrion)

“He would be an awesome teacher because he cares about the product and cares about people,” Ibanez said. “He’s got irrefutable credibility. He’s been through everything and he’ll be able to help young broadcast students in a big way.”

For now, Somerville is still in recovery mode. He may have struck out swinging, but his second act is still to be determined. As he watched the SF State BECA students cruise fluently through an on-air bit, he wondered about the last time he was inside a studio.

He wondered about saying, “‘Good evening, everyone. I’m Frank Somerville. We begin tonight with…”

And if he’d ever get the chance to say it again.

Leave a Comment
About the Contributors
Photo of Steven Rissotto
Steven Rissotto, Managing Editor
Steven Rissotto (he/him) is co-managing editor for Golden Gate Xpress. He is a journalism major with an education minor. A native of Pacifica, Steven attended Archbishop Riordan High School, where he played baseball and wrote on their award-winning newspaper, The Crusader. Before transferring to SFSU in Fall 2022, he attended Skyline College for two years and wrote for The Skyline View. He also covers the San Francisco Giants for SF Giants Baseball Insider on Sports Illustrated.  In his spare time, Steven enjoys cracking jokes, watching documentaries and sports, reading biographies and recording his baseball podcast, RizzoCast.
Photo of Miguel Francesco Carrion
Miguel Francesco Carrion, Visuals Editor
Miguel Francesco Carrion (he/him) is a fifth-year photojournalism major and Asian American studies minor. While he claims to be a country-singing, Bronco riding cowboy in another universe, he is currently serving as the visuals editor for the Golden Gate Xpress. Outside of school, he works as a freelance photographer and videographer, and his work has appeared in BBC North America, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Positively Filipino Magazine and The Filipino Channel. When not working, you can find him at The Pub or in the back of his friends’ cars belting Zach Bryan lyrics out of tune.

Golden Gate Xpress • Copyright 2024 • FLEX WordPress Theme by SNOLog in

Comments (0)

All Golden Gate Xpress Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *