Monday, April 30
Keith, however, called out sick that day.
I told the other manager (OK, let's call him "Chase," just for fun), who replied, "Keith's sick? Nothing minor, I hope."
In my defense: did the crew of the “U.S.S. Caine” get over Captain Queeg? Did the crew of “HMS Bounty” get over Captain Bligh? Did Woodward and Bernstein get over Nixon? The man who gave me my first news director’s job still looms large in my life.
Anyone out there remember the “ascertainment” process? Too complicated to explain here, but it involved a series of one-on-one, not-for-broadcast interviews with community leaders to determine ("ascertain") what they considered to be pressing community problems. And it led WSPD-TV, headquartered then in downtown Toledo, to take several top-floor rooms in the (now closed) Commodore Perry Motor Inn around the corner for a day-long series of interviews. Big old hotel—maybe 12 or 13 stories high. At our first break Keith and I get on the elevator on the top floor, headed down past the mezzanine to the lobby. Five or six people in the car.
Two or three floors down the doors open and in steps a man about my age (late 20s). Doors close. We ride. We stop. We pick up some people. We drop off some people. Doors open. Doors close. No one says anything. Finally we get to the Mezzanine level and the man starts to get off.
McKinney says, loudly, “GET A HAIRCUT!” The man (whose hair wasn’t that long) never breaks stride, never turns, never acknowledges McKinney’s presence in any way.
Doors close, and as we ride down to the lobby Keith, staring straight ahead, says, “That was my son.” It was my turn to stare straight ahead in silence.
I don’t recall hearing the word "dysfunctional” until later in life, but I knew what it meant in 1975.
I don’t make a habit out of it, mind you, but often when I hear of a hostage taking, or a barricaded gunman, or a sniper attack, or a bombing in the Toledo area I check to see if the perp is named “McKinney” and if he’s about my age.
Sunday, April 29
My first boss at WABC was noted News Director Jim Topping. Jim always thought that the worst thing that could happen to a newsman or woman was to be yanked away from journalism and dipped neck-deep into a pile of managerial paperwork. I think it drove him nuts to see his newsroom management team doing scheduling and budgets and labor relations instead of news. He became determined to keep us in touch with the news by insuring we were in touch with the people who make the news.
With that in mind he decided to set up a series of off-the-record lunches for the Eyewitness News managers with some of the leaders our reporters would be shoving microphones at on a day-to-day basis. He wanted us to get to know what makes these people tick, and he wanted us to get an insider’s look at the issues and the players in “The Big Apple.”
First up, Ed Koch.
So on a nice spring morning eight or nine of us took the subway down to City Hall and presented ourselves at the Mayor’s door. The Mayor came out, said he had picked a nice restaurant two or three blocks away, and asked, “Where are your cars?” But we didn’t have any cars.
Now, the bunch of us—Circle-7 types, the Mayor and his aides and one or two cops from his security detail—could simply walk. But this is Ed Koch: he shows his face in public and the cheers, jeers, heckling, hand-shaking and autograph seeking will start. We should be able to make it three blocks to the restaurant in about two hours!
The alternative? The Mayor had a limousine. Well, not really a limo—just a large sedan, with a police officer behind the wheel. And there was a cop car with another two cops as security. Some “entourage.” We did the math, and figured we could squeeze in, somehow.
Now, the Mayor’s car was equipped with a ton of two-way police and fire radios. Remember rear-wheel-drive cars, with transmission humps running front-to-back? The rear-seat hump had radios on it—but there was room for someone to straddle the radios and the hump. I—somehow—became the designated straddler. And as the piling in and piling on continued, Ed Koch wound up sitting on my lap (the straddlee?). It was only three blocks, it was only five minutes, and all of us were laughing, but that’s how we got to the restaurant, with the Mayor of New York City sitting on my lap! When we arrived we must have looked like circus clowns unfolding themselves out of the car.
I don’t remember the restaurant or what we ate, but I do remember how impressive Koch was. He seemed to let his hair down with us—apparently trusting us to keep his remarks off the record—and was frank, funny, biting, a bit obscene and completely engaging for two hours. Now, it’s certainly possible I was star-struck and gullible (two of my less-praiseworthy traits), but whatever Ed Koch was selling, that day I was buying.
After lunch there was no repeat performance of the car ride: we WABC folks hiked to the subway station on our own, and Hizzoner piled into the (now spacious) back seat of his car for the ride to city hall.
Ed Koch was famous for asking his constituents, “How’m I doin’?” That day he did just fine.
Thursday, April 26
So far every news department I had run had shown steady ratings growth—in one or two cases, phenomenal growth—and I figured I’d bestow my blessings on some poor benighted station somewhere. I’d walk through the door and the people would scrape and bow: “Sun-Ra the News God is here to deliver us. All worship Sun-Ra.”
And I would answer, “Rise up my people, and look me full in the face (if you dare). I have come to lead you to the land of ratings milk and honey money.”
Remindeth me againeth: what doth pride goeth beforeth?
I went to WMAR in Baltimore. Forget, for a second, my ego. WMAR was a station with a long and proud history of driving away the audience. I honestly figured I could make a difference. Something was needed. WMAR’s newsroom had been rudderless for a long time, and the #1 station in town, WJZ, was a damn dominant juggernaut. WMAR’s General Manager, knowing change had to come, decided to do the new News Director a ”favor:” he left a dozen news positions (out of a newsroom of about sixty) unfilled. That way the new ND could shape his or her own staff.
So I get to Bawlmer (a wonderful city, by the way) and I take over WMAR (which has a lot of wonderful people on the staff). But the challenges are stiff: learn the staff, learn the city, learn the strengths (many) and weaknesses (few) of the competition, and set a new winning direction.
Oh, and along the way hire one-fifth of the news staff and bring them up to speed.
Let me admit one of my more serious shortcomings. It takes me forever to hire someone. I worry and fret and stew and second-guess myself. I want every hire to be a perfect hire. I want people who work with me to be happy, productive, fulfilled and rewarded. I don’t want them to work 24 hours a day, but I do want their undivided attention, their enthusiasm and all their effort while they’re on the job. I honestly want to believe in everyone on the staff, and I want the staff to believe in me. When Marv Levy was coaching the Buffalo Bills he said, “The secret of leadership isn’t getting people to follow you, it’s getting people to join you.” I wanted (and still want) to be a part of a team.
So the hiring (12—count ‘em—12 positions!) went more slowly than I would have liked, and a lot more slowly than the GM wanted.
Finally he came to me and said, “Listen, stop the stalling. We’ve got a 90-day probationary period here. Just hire any old people and if they don’t work out you can fire them within the first three months, no harm done, and move on.”
And I thought, “Uh-oh.”
And I thought, “One of us has made a big mistake: but I'm the one who's going to have to pay.”
Right again. But I’ll say this in my defense: most of the few people I hired at WMAR went on to successful careers there.
Sunday, April 22
He had one trick to squeeze blood from the turnip that I think was his alone—and not necessarily official Storer Broadcasting policy. Don’t get me wrong—Storer could be cheap. But McKinney raised tight-fistedness to an art form.
Example? This one’s a beaut.
It’s certainly not unusual for GMs to keep pay rates and pay raises under their direct control. But McKinney was a master manipulator.
In the mid-70s when I was news director, WSPD employee pay raises averaged about $5 a week, and were given on the employee’s anniversary date. You get your raise from your department head, but he couldn't give it without direct written authorization from McKinney.
So let’s say you work for me and you’re supporting a wife and two kids on $130 a week. On February 1st, your anniversary date, you know, I know, and Keith knows you’re supposed to go to $135 a week. Joy of joys! Now you might be able to replace that cracked windshield on the Studebaker!
So in the middle of January your department head (me!) goes to Keith with the paperwork. He takes it and puts it in the pile on his desk.
And nothing happens.
Come the middle of February, and your pay raise is two weeks overdue. You approach me and say, “Did you forget?” I express my (legitimate) surprise, and promise to look into the situation.
I approach Keith, who angrily says, “I haven’t had time to get around to it. Leave me alone.”
March 1st, you’re getting impatient, I’m getting embarrassed, and Keith is getting angrier every time I mention your pay raise.
April 1st you’re looking at me like I’m probably personally pocketing your pay raise and Keith has kicked me out of his office twice.
Finally, long about May 1st, I screw up my courage and approach again. Keith—still angry—signs the paperwork. When I ask if the raise is retroactive to February 1st, he kicks me out of his office.
This scene if repeated over and over with everyone who works in my department. EVERYONE loses three months of pay raises. OK, it’s only $65 a head—but that’s a lot of cracked windshields on a lot of 15-year-old cars.
But here’s where McKinney’s genius pays off. Next February 1st, I go upstairs and say, “Keith, it’s So-and-So's anniversary date.” Keith stalls, but finally looks in his magic ledger and says, “What kind of trick are you trying to pull? He had a pay raise just last May. He’s not due again until this May!” And he kicks me out of his office.
Of course, in May Keith is “too busy” to give you your pay raise. He finally gets around to it in August.
And so it goes, for everyone, every year. Each year, your pay raise is delayed by three months and your "anniversary date" slides back by another three months. In four short years each employee has lost an entire year’s worth of pay raises. Keith and Storer have pocketed $265 per employee just by stalling.
Did I say earlier that my surprise was legitimate? Only the first two or three times.
Fool me once, shame on me—try to fool me 25 times a year, shame on you, Keith McKinney.
Wednesday, April 18
I’m wondering—not saying, not hypothesizing, just wondering—what role TV plays in all of this. When Charles Whitman killed 15 and wounded 31 from a sniper’s next on top of the University of Texas tower in 1966, there were no 24-hour cable news outlets. There was no satellite beaming of stories instantly around the globe. There were no cell phones—much less phones with video capability. There were no Lear jets to rush anchors to the scene.
So we didn’t get the fancy show titles like “Virginia Tech Massacre,” we didn’t get the somber theme music, we didn’t get wall-to-wall coverage of every psychologist with a sheepskin who wants to pontificate on the breakdown of society as we know it.
Back in 1966 we got straight news coverage that left us shocked, questioning and feeling helpless: but it wasn’t a theme park ride for the national psyche. We dealt with it. Today we’ll dwell on it—until something bigger and better comes along.
Here’s a question: how are conditions today for Walter Reed Army Hospital outpatients? It was less than a month ago that the story of neglect and mismanagement was THE…BIGGEST…STORY…OF…THE…YEAR! But hey, we’ve had Anna Nicole Smith’s death since then—and Britany Spears shaved head (parenthetically, why the hell do I know the correct spelling of Ms. Spears’ first name?!?!?!)—and Attorney General Gonzales bobbing and weaving his way around the truth—and the “Troop Surge” in Iraq. People don’t get their fifteen minutes of fame anymore—stories do. Walter Reed got its obligatory run at the top of the news cycle, but now we’ve moved on. We keep tossing more garbage down the chute and onto the air. Is it because there’s more to cover—because it’s easier to cover—because the viewers want it—or because it’s easier to point the camera at the disaster than to report? We live in a violent society. Does TV magnify and encourage violence? But if it does, why aren’t we all armed and taking pot-shots at the paperboy who tosses the paper into the puddle?
And all this publicity—will it make for more “copycat” crimes? I’ll admit I lived a sheltered life growing up. In the fifties, there were no mass murders—or were there? There was no drug abuse—or was there? There were no child molesters—or were there? There were no kids taking guns to class—or were there? Maybe such crimes just didn’t get noticed. Maybe—just maybe—the coverage itself made such crimes a part of the national “playbook.” Not acceptable, not by a long shot, but sort of “out there” where poor, sick people could mull them over. There was a time when the response to a tragedy like Virginia Tech’s would have been, “Not possible.” Now it’s, “Not again.”
I know: if I’m so smart, how come I ain’t rich? Dunno.
One other note. For 38 years we’ve been hearing, “He was a quiet guy, kind of kept to himself. I didn’t really know him, but he always nodded to me when we passed in the street. I never would have guessed in a million years that he was capable of something like this.”
This guy in Virginia seems to have been an exception.
I only know of one other exception: one of those “mad gunmen” some years ago in Cleveland. Guy shot up his neighborhood—to the surprise of his neighbors—NOT!!!!!
“Oh, yeah, he was a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. He used to go duck hunting in his canoe—in the driveway!” That’s right: this maniac would pull his canoe out of the garage into the middle of his driveway and sit in it in full hunting gear pretending to shoot ducks. The neighbors never saw evidence that the gun was loaded—no shots were fired—but he went through the motions. If we’re going to have homicidal maniacs in our midst—and I’m afraid they’re a fact of life—THAT’S the kind I want, the kind who go around drooling and howling at the moon. HIM I’ll know to steer clear of. English majors from South Korea who write violent short stories? How do we defuse them before they go off?
A postscript. I stand corrected. The VT shooter was a madman, and did send out signals of his lunacy for years.
Suddenly the debate has become, "How dare NBC air those tapes and publish those pictures?"
I think NBC was doing its job. What's the old Scripps-Howard motto: "Give light and the people will find their own way." But how come college officials weren't trailing this young man around campus in squad cars with lights flashing and bullhorns sounding? His fuse was lit a long time ago. Did no one think to put it out?
Tuesday, April 17
I’ve also worked for some jerks: mean bosses, stupid bosses.
If you’re unlucky enough to get a mean boss, you learn to gauge his/her mood. Catch such a general manager at the right moment and you’ll get a respectful hearing and a wise answer. You just have to know when to make your move.
If you’re unlucky enough to get a stupid boss, you learn to work around him or her. I won’t mention the station or his name here, but someday I’ll tell you about the GM I worked for who had his computer sitting squarely in front of him on the middle of his desk, instead of on the computer credenza behind him. At first I was surprised that he and I were staring at each other over a computer monitor. Didn’t take me long, though, to realize the placement was intentional: it kept office visitors from realizing that he was playing computer solitaire five or six hours a day (and drinking lunch another three).
But I once had a boss who was stupid and mean—and that's one ugly combination.
Keith McKinney was the General Manager for WSPD-TV, the Storer Broadcasting station in Toledo. A bit of history (you can find more on the web if you wish). In the 1920s George Storer ran an oil company in Toledo called “Speedene.” He made his fortune by locating gas stations next to railroad sidings. That way he didn’t have to truck the gas to the stations, and he could pass the savings along to customers. Brilliant. And his radio advertising was so effective that he bought his own radio station and changed the call letters to “WSPD” to further push his oil brand. Next thing you know “Storer Broadcasting” is a major player with a solid lineup of radio stations and network-affiliated TV stations in markets like Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Diego and, yes, Toledo.
But the Storer descendents could sure pinch pennies.
My first news director’s job was at Toledo's WSPD-TV in 1975. We were in second place in news—and destined to stay there. While our main competitor, WTOL-TV ventured boldy forward, we were determined to stay right where we were.
I blame the never-articulated but omnipresent Storer theory of news spending.
“You want to be number one? Isn’t that going to cost us a lot of money?”So, in order of priority, Storer wanted to finish second—then third—then first. That's why, in most markets, Storer stations were second--or sometimes third--but rarely first.
“You want to be number two? Fine. Spend some money, make some money.”
“You want to be number three? Just don’t spend anything, and we can
still make some money.”
And GM Keith McKinney, whose philosophy was, “I’ve been outvoted before, but I’ve never been wrong,” kept control of the purse strings and (I’m convinced) kept the purse shoved down the front of his pants for safekeeping.
Let me repeat: Keith McKinney said, in several department head meetings, for all to hear: “I’ve been outvoted before, but I’ve never been wrong.”
I knew from the get-go that this was not a marriage made in heaven. But I also knew that I was 27 years old and had a chance to be a news director in a top-fifty market at a station with a staff of roughly two dozen. This, in 1975, was pretty close to big-time and this was going to be my big break. I was determined to make the most of it. OK, so what if we don’t have money, or technology, or facilities. We’ll work hard, we’ll pull together, we’ll tap-dance around out shortcomings!
Do you know what “Yellow Dog” is (or was)? It is/was the cheapest yellow paper you could buy, and it’s what we used for scripts. It was like the paper in your first grade “Big Chief” writing tablet, only yellow. Remember, no computers—no TelePrompTer—but we still need an original and four copies of each script. So every reporter and producer sits at an old manual typewriter, pulls out five pieces of Yellow Dog and four pieces of carbon paper, shuffles them all together, and starts typing. We are awash in yellow dog, and every finger in the place is ink-stained from the carbon paper, and it wastes time.
But I know the answer. CARBON SETS. Multi-page script sets with the carbon paper already built in.
So I do my homework. WSPD in 1975 is airing half-hour newscasts at 12 Noon, 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Monday -through-Friday, and two newscasts each weekend day. I figure out the number of script pages we turn out in a year, add up our paper and carbon paper bills, get samples and costs from several carbon set makers, and come up with my answer. WSPD can switch its entire news operation to carbon sets for an additional yearly expenditure of $86.
As in $86 A YEAR! Total. All inclusive. No hidden costs. No add-ons. No extras.
And that's LESS THAN 24 CENTS A DAY! Pepsi, in those days, was a quarter a can in the basement vending machine. This cost less than a Pepsi a day!
So I write McKinney a memo. I quote prices. I attach samples. I explain the increased efficiency. I wait.
And I wait, and I wait and I wait. A week-or-so later I ask Keith if he’s had a chance to look over my memo. He says yes, then turns and walks away.
I wait a couple of weeks, and ask if I can proceed. He says, “Not now.”
Another couple of weeks—I’m in his office on another matter—I bring up my copy set idea.
Keith reaches down into the “In” box on his desk, takes out my original memo, crumples it up into a tight ball, and throws it overhand, hard, directly into my face. “You might as well do it, because I’m getting pretty f--king tired of hearing about it.”
And that, boys and girls, is how WSPD got out of the Yellow Dog business and started using copy sets.
Monday, April 16
You know about these “Leadership (Fill in the Blank)" groups, right? Civic organizations made up of the leaders of tomorrow—educators, doctors, lawyers, politicians, civic leaders, other professionals—designed to open a dialogue between the up-and-comers and the “establishment” of today. “”Leadership Broward” took in the entire Ft. Lauderdale area.
The heaviest of the “heavy hitters” on the panel was Joel Cheatwood, the man credited (blamed?) for WSVN’s “If it Bleeds, it Leads” crime-heavy, glitzy, flashy, Miami Vice-style newscasts.
You can argue with the concept, but you have to give Joel credit: WSVN was (maybe still is) the most “on-message” TV station in America. WSVN staffers know what their newscast is and the roles they have to play, and they are RELENTLESS about pushing their product. They are who they are—and there’s no mistaking WSVN for anyone else. They do more news than any other station in town, and they do it in a way that has been imitated around the country.
So here we are, sitting behind a table in front of a group of Ft. Lauderdale’s best and brightest, taking questions, when a woman rises. She is striking: not just looks, although you can’t (for lack of a better phrase) overlook her looks. But she is impeccably dressed, she carries herself with supreme confidence, and when she speaks she commands attention. This is obviously a well-spoken, intelligent woman who is every inch a leader of tomorrow.
She stands, she looks Joel Cheatwood straight in the eye, and she addresses him directly:
“I…DO…NOT…watch your newscasts. I …WILL…NOT…watch your newscasts. I consider what you do to be pandering. I consider your efforts to be bordering on the pornographic. In aiming for a ‘lowest common denominator’ audience you have demeaned and degraded the very people you pretend to serve, the people you are licensed by the federal government to serve.”
(The rest of the news directors are trying not to grin.)
“For example: on Monday you covered these stories…on Tuesday you covered these stories…on Wednesday you covered these stories…”
Jeez, the woman never watched anything BUT WSVN.
And it was Joel Cheatwood’s turn to try to suppress a grin.
People will frequently say what they think they should say, but will always do what they want to do. That’s why no one will admit to ever eating a Twinkie, but your local 7-Eleven can’t keep them in stock.
Here endeth the lesson.
Sunday, April 15
I don’t think, I KNOW—and I’ve known it for more than thirty years. Put me down as one of his earliest and most vocal (if not well-known) detractors.
First, a word about Chet Coppock. Chet was Sports Director for WISH-TV in Indianapolis when I was EP there in 1976. You’ve heard the term “larger than life?” Chet most certainly was. He stood at least 6’7” tall. Got his start in sports announcing, if I remember, with the Roller Derby. I've seen a picture of him from those days wearing a white floor-length fur coat and a white fur gangsta hat. His voice was what is charitably called “booming.” His laugh shook rafters.
Chet, if you ever read this, sorry to be referring to you in the past tense. I know you’re still alive and kicking and working for “ESPN Radio 1000 AM” in Chicago. I’m still a fan.
Some people weren’t fans. Chet would say just about anything to start the juices flowing, to get a rise out of people. In Indiana, of all places, he was critical of the Notre Dame football team (although a lot of that bluster was just to stick the needle in anchorman Mike Ahern, a ND alum). And, sacrilege, he was critical of “The General,” Bobby Knight, and the heavy-handed way Knight ran the Indiana University Hoosier basketball team.
I don’t need to fill you in on Knight’s long and…uh…”colorful” career: the chair tossing, the referee baiting, the screaming, the player choking, the profanity, the bullying. All I can do is tell my own, “Bobby, You Bastard” story.
In the fall of 1976 The Hoosier basketball team was coming off a national championship. The football team, under Head Coach Lee Corso (that’s right, the same Lee Corso who works as a commentator for ESPN today) was, as usual, struggling. Chet and I went to Bloomington to cover the Indiana/Nebraska football game.
We were in the Memorial Stadium press box (the football stadium press box, mind you) when Knight caught sight of us and started loudly demanding that we be kicked out of the facility and off campus. His reason, apparently, was that Chet had said some things that made Knight unhappy—and as we have all come to know, an unhappy Knight is a vocal, insufferable, bullying Knight.
What I remember best is what happened next. This small army of university officials—toadies, suck-ups, brown-nosers, ass-kissers, sycophants, hangers-on—surrounded Knight and tried to calm him.
I couldn’t hear much of the conversation, but I swear several of the voices sounded like Elmer Fudd:
“Pwease, Bobby, heh-heh-heh. Pwease don’t make any twubble, Bobby. Dis is the footbaw pwess box, heh-heh-heh. We aw not shoo Coach Corso would appwoove. Pwitty pwease wet dem stay, heh-heh-heh.”
Coach Knight, ever the "gentleman", deigned to allow us (the rabble) to stay. And that small army of university officials slinked to the men’s room to clean their own pee off the front of their pants.
I haven’t had much use for Bobby Knight since that day: but hey, he can’t control himself, he’s mentally ill. I’ve had ZERO respect for Indiana University officials since: it took another 14 years for IU President Myles Brand to grow a pair and fire Bobby Knight. What price basketball success? Indiana University sold its soul to the devil and got Bobby Knight in the bargain. I don't think the basketball success was worth it.
By the way, the defending National Champion Hoosiers basketball team went 16-11 the next season; right, Chet?
Saturday, April 14
I don’t know if in these modern days of fragmented media it still holds true, but years ago I read research that showed that people had, mentally, a “home” station. In their minds they had a station that was theirs. And when they switched the dial, they weren’t going to some other station, they were leaving home. I worked for a time in the early 70s for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh—the dominant #1 station in town—where that was true. KDKA was everyone’s home station, a part of the fabric of everyone’s life. The anchors, led by Bill Burns, were more than friends, they were family members.
When you’re that powerful you can take chances—even poke fun at yourself—because you’re so loved and so respected.
KDKA produced a promotional poster way back when that I’d give anything to have a copy of today.
Picture this. 99% of the poster is blood red. It’s the scene in the original 1933 “King Kong” where the giant ape breaks through the gate and is just about to storm the native village. Every single human being in the village is fleeing—running straight towards us, away from Kong. Actually, every single human being but one. Down in a lower corner of poster is the only person facing Kong. He’s the only thing in black and white. He’s holding a CP-16 TV news film camera. Next to him, in tiny letters, it says, “Details on Eyewitness News Tonight at 6:00 and 11:00.”
But add cable, satellite, the Internet, videogames; then divide it all up, and TV gets a shrinking share of the growing information/entertainment dollar.
I was lucky enough to get into TV news just as it hit its go-for-broke adolescence. Now it’s in its clip-the-coupons-to-save-ten-cents-on-orange juice senior-citizenhood. Two stories illustrate the before and after.
In the early eighties my boss at WABC in New York, News Director Cliff Abromats, called me into his office and sent me on a mission: ”Find out why we spent $14,000 on hairdresser overtime last quarter.”
WABC had a makeup room with a makeup artist and a hairdresser on hand for talent and guests. The guests were on the old Regis Philbin and Cindy Garvey morning talk show. The talent was Regis, Cindy and their guests—and the news, weather and sports anchors and reporters on “Eyewitness News,” the #1 newscasts in the #1 market in America.
I did my legwork and reported back: “Cliff, Rose Ann Scamardella [the 11:00 p.m. co-anchor] doesn’t like the night-side hairdresser, so she’s been keeping the day-side hairdresser through on OT without telling anyone.”
Cliff’s response? “Well, that explains it. Thanks.”
WABC’s yearly news budget in those days was $27 million. Cliff wanted to make sure the money wasn’t frittered away, and what was 14K if it made an anchor happy?
Fast-forward not quite 20 years. I joined the news staff of WBRE-TV, the Nexstar station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. On my first day, setting up my office, I went searching for a box of staples. I found one in the supply cabinet in the accounting office.
For the entire station (actually, for two stations, when you include sister station WYOU).
I was told by an exasperated secretary that no, I couldn’t have the WHOLE BOX!!!!! I was entitled to two strips of staples. But I had to sign for them.
Somewhere in the bowels of WBRE (and believe me, WBRE has deep bowels) there’s a ledger with a line-item that reads, “Two Strips/Staples” with my initials.
This is the same station where a co-worker looking for bulletin board pushpins was told, “We don’t stock pushpins: if we did you’d only use them.”
Now, WABC in the eighties was notoriously extravagant—and Nexstar today is notoriously cheap. But at WABC you felt first class, you felt like a winner, because you were treated like a winner. And we won! I told you our news budget was $27 million. I can't even begin to guess how much money we made! Cliff told me once that the success of our WABC newscasts made a measurable contribution to the overall ABC bolttom line: 1%, 2%, 3% (I forget which) of the entire company profit. I was taken aback, but then I got to thinking: we were churning out millions in profits, just from news. The rate of return return beats the heck out of hiring stars and filming The Love Boat on some Hollywood sound stage.
At one point we made Roger Grimsby America's first $ 1 million-a-year anchor. Know why? Because he was worth it! Research showed he, personally, was a big enough audience draw to make giving him that kind of money a no-brainer. Sort of like A-Rod today: pay the man what he wants!
At WBRE you felt top management always suspected you were a criminal, that you were going to be caught in Public Square at midnight wearing a black trenchcoat and approaching passersby: “Hey, staples, I got staples. Bic pens, you need Bic pens? Scotch tape—tell me how much Scotch tape you need. I got paper clips—all kinds of paper clips.”
Nexstar has a lot of class—but it’s pretty much all third. Do you suppose that’s why WBRE's newscasts are seen by fewer people than some department store security cameras?
Friday, April 13
R. Lee Giles was the long-time news director for WISH-TV in Indianapolis (emphasis on looooonnnggg). If you’ve heard the name it’s probably in connection with Jane Pauley. Lee “discovered” her, mentored her and promoted her. Her career—which took her to TV news stardom and made her one of the earliest and most respected women in network news—began at WISH, and she has always been generous in her praise of Lee Giles.
Lee hired me as his Executive Producer in 1976. I was coming straight from my WSPD-TV debacle in Toledo: fired, canned, sacked, cashiered, sent packing—embarrassed, humiliated, discouraged, but (if you know me) nowhere near humbled. After all, I had already been the producer of America’s highest-rated newscasts (in Grand Rapids) and head producer for a station in Detroit. It wasn’t a question of getting back on the horse that threw me—it was more get back into the prize ring at the rodeo by riding the fiercest bucking bronc out there until the horse gave up and admitted defeat..
The only problem (my ego told me) was that I was better than Indianapolis. I didn’t need them, they needed me (I humbly thought). Remember, Toledo taught me humiliation, but it didn’t teach me humility!
Remember, too, the mid-seventies were still the days before cable—before CNN and MSNBC and Fox News—before the wide use of satellites. News? In each market you had your choice of three local stations and their three network newscasts, and that was that. Indianapolis, stuck in the middle of the state, was—to my mind—“The Market That Time Forgot.” They couldn’t even see Chicago. What were they going to watch to get an idea how it was done in the big-time? Terre Haute? Fort Wayne? Me--I not only knew big-time, I was the very definition of big-time (and no ego, either!!!!).
As EP I was also hands-on producer of the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts (another sign, to my way of thinking, that Indy was “small-time”).
I spent a couple of months meeting the people and figuring out the systems—biding my time. Soon, I figured, I’m going to show these yokels a thing or two. I’m going to take WISH-TV out of the sixties and into the seventies. Hell, I might not stop there: I might invent the newscast of the year 2000! Take that, Hoosier hicks!
Finally I picked a Friday night as the night I would break the mold—stretch the envelope—reinvent the wheel. I produced a lineup that required three ¾” tape rolls—three 2” machines—two film chains—multiple graphics—fancy camera angles.
It blew up on the air. No survivors. No prisoners. Blood on the walls.
At 11:30, while the smoke was still in the air, I limped out of the control room and back to my typewriter and wrote a note to Lee Giles. I listed the equipment that needed to be acquired and the people that needed to be fired. And I ended with what I thought was the coup de grace: “I guess under the circumstances I can’t do my best work.”
I put my missive in an envelope and—after thinking it over for about three-tenths of a second (patience, after all, is a virtue)—shoved it under Lee’s office door. “That’ll show him,” I thought.
When I came to work Monday I stopped first at my mailbox. There was a note from Lee. I read it—marched to his office—and said, “Thank you for not firing me. You’re absolutely right. I’m absolutely wrong. It will never happen again. You’ve taught me a valuable lesson.”
What had Lee written? Words to this effect: “You’re going to need to get more realistic expectations. If you want to produce a Detroit newscast with Detroit equipment and Detroit personnel, there’s a place you can do it—and you know where it is. I suggest you use Indianapolis people and Indianapolis equipment to produce the best newscasts you can that appeal to an Indianapolis audience.
“You wrote, ‘I guess under the circumstances I can’t do my best work.’ Please understand that the circumstances count. Your best work is the best work you can do UNDER…THE…CIRCUMSTANCES. Master them. Do what you can do—and don’t worry about what you can’t do. Don't live by the limitations, overcome them.”
My ego being what it is I forget that lesson from time to time. Lee’s ego being what it is (nonexistent) he was WISH-TV News Director for more than 35 successful years until his retirement. He was one of the best bosses I ever had; a gentleman and a gentle man. I’ve thanked him before for not firing me. This is my chance to do it publicly.
This is the filthiest thing anyone ever said to me about television news.
WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS LANGUAGE (AND MENTAL IMAGES) THAT MIGHT MAKE YOU GAG. COME TO THINK OF IT, IF YOU’RE NORMAL THEY SHOULD MAKE YOU GAG. BEFORE READING ON PLEASE CONSULT YOUR FAMILY PHYSICIAN AND/OR A MEMBER OF CLERGY. THEN SIGN THREE COPIES OF A"HOLD HARMLESS" WAIVER INDEMNIFYING ME AGAINST ANY POSSIBLE LEGAL ACTION, HAVE IT NOTARIZED, AND POST IT HERE IN THE "COMMENTS" SECTION IN .PDF FORMAT. YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO HAVE MEDICAL PERSONNEL (AND MAYBE A HAZMAT TEAM) ON
THANKS FOR YOUR COOPERATION.
You still here? OK, you asked for it.
There was a time in the early 90s when I worked for WCIX-TV (since rechristened WFOR-TV), the CBS O-and-O in Miami. For you uninitiated, “O-and-O” means “Owned and Operated.” The rules have been relaxed over the years, but there was a time when large corporations like CBS could actually own only a small handful of TV stations. Believe it or not, that’s where the money is in broadcasting. Operating a network is a costly business, and even in boom times profits are tough to come by. Owning a station is a different matter: owning a local TV station has always been (even in these changing economic times) a license to print money. So the “Big Three,” ABC, NBC, CBS (now the big four, with Fox a player), have always had dozens of affiliates each, but only a handful of “O-and-O” stations. The trick, of course, is to maximize your profits by owning stations in the biggest markets and doing your best to make them wildly popular. News is where that battle has traditionally been waged. The CBS O-and-Os have included stations that have, at one time or another, dominated their markets: WCBS in New York, KCBS in Los Angeles, WBBM in Chicago.
And for better or worse the CBS O-and-Os have a long (if not necessarily proud) history of treating news anchors like gods and catering to their every whim. Ah, the stories I’ve heard. Some I can’t repeat: there’s one CBS station—if all the talk is to be believed—that for years employed an anchor on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. Instead of getting him help, managers propped him up every day and sent him out to the anchor desk, hoping no one would notice that without a script in front of him he was a babbling, raving maniac! But that was the CBS tradition, if not a formal policy: treat anchors like addled children and spoil them rotten. Male and female, young and old, if you were a CBS O-and-O anchor there was a 90% chance you were a diva.
Actually, I started at WCIX as newsroom second-in-command: Executive Producer. That’s when I first met Eric Ober, whose title was (if I remember) Vice President/CBS Owned Stations Division. The O-and-O GMs reported to him. I liked him instantly: a wildly smart, wickedly funny, self-effacing guy, he was a pleasure to be around. He had started as a producer for the CBS station in Philadelphia and worked at a variety of jobs in the CBS O-and-O chain and at CBS News. At one time he was the news executive in charge of "60 Minutes."
A great, entertaining, perceptive guy. From my position a bit down the food chain he looked like a wonderful boss. Unfortunately, as #2 in the newsroom, I was not in the “Let’s go to lunch with Eric” bunch. Our dealings were strictly business. But in March of 1990, I was appointed News Director and that changed.
The day of Eric’s next visit to Miami I went to the General Manager’s office for a meeting with Eric and the other department heads. Eric, seeing me, jumped up from the conference table, rushed around, grabbed me in a big bear hug (quite a sight, I imagine: I’m at least six inches taller and 80 pounds heavier!) and said, “Ah…you’re a CBS news director at last! You know what that means, don’t you?”
“Uh, no, Eric…I honestly don’t.”
“Every day: DRINK A GALLON OF ANCHOR CUM!”
If I remember correctly I laughed until the snot ran out my nose!
Not too much later Eric Ober became President of CBS News. Dan Rather’s boss. And although I saw him several times in the years ahead, I successfully resisted any questions or comments about Rather’s bodily fluids.
Sorry if you’ve been offended. It remains, though, the funniest, filthiest thing anyone has ever said to me.
By the way, I can’t end this story without a word about John Roberts, or “J.D.” as he was known in his WCIX anchor days. He later moved to the network, was CBS White House Correspondent, and was even mentioned as Dan Rather’s possible successor until Katie Couric was hired. Now he’s with CNN. John Roberts was not a diva when we worked together in Miami. Truth is, he is perhaps the most multi-talented broadcast journalist I’ve ever worked with: brilliant, hard-working, perceptive and (an oddity for CBS) sane! Any ego I ever saw in John Roberts was understandable: he was always the smartest person in any room. I don’t want to leave the impression that every single anchor I worked with in Miami was a basket case.
Just most of them.
Thursday, April 12
I had the amazing good fortune to work for one of the greatest news directors in American broadcasting history, Richard Earl Cheverton: recipient of a Peabody Award for Public Service in Journalism—a Radio Television News Directors Association Award for editorials—the Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award for TV Editorializing—a DuPont/Columbia Award for a ground-breaking series of documentaries, "Our Poisoned World"—and the Associated Press First Amendment Award (later renamed the Richard E. Cheverton Award). “Chev” was also a much-honored President of the RTNDA in the late 50s.
Chev hired me during my senior year at Michigan State to work part-time at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids as a weekend news writer/producer. As I got closer to graduation day, I was beating the bushes looking for a job when Chev called one day: “I’d like to buy you lunch: what would be convenient for you?”
I did the math. The station was 75 miles from my East Lansing apartment. “I can be there in 75 minutes.”
He laughed and said “Tomorrow will be soon enough.” The next day, wearing my blue blazer, my gray slacks and a polished pair of Bass Weejuns, I presented myself at his office. I got the free lunch—and more.
“The anchors tell me you write clean copy.”
“Y-Y-Y-Yessir, I-I-I-I-I t-t-t-t-t-try.”
And he offered me a job: $135 a week to go from part-time weekends to full-time, weekends and some weekdays. I graduated on a Saturday and worked that night, moving all my not-so-worldly possession to Grand Rapids—one trip in my Volkswagen—into a furnished apartment on Fountain Street.
Six weeks later I was producing the 11:00 p.m. news on WOOD-TV. By accident.
Chev didn’t have a choice. His 11PM producer just couldn’t cut it—he didn’t know how to operate under TV deadlines. The poor guy was fired, and Chev asked me to fill in until he could find a replacement.
"Y-Y-Y-Y-You w-w-w-w-won’t n-n-n-n-need a-a-a-a r-r-r-r-replacement, M-M-M-Mr. Chev-Chev-Chev-erton, I’m you’re m-m-m-m-m-man!”
He gave me an “Oh, brother” look, and then he gave me my chance.
Executive Producer John Strickler baby-sat me for a few nights, then I was ready to solo. That first night, after the 6:00, Chev headed for the door and stopped by my desk to offer some advice: “Remember, I’m not paying you to make exactly the right decision at 10:55. I’m paying you to make some really good guesses at 8:00.”
A few months later a friend sent me a press clipping. TV & Radio Age was still publishing in those days, and printed a periodic list of the highest-rated newscasts in the country. At the top of the list: WOOD’s 11:00 p.m., with a share somewhere north of 50%. I had never heard that before. It was general knowledge that we were #1 in the market—but #1 in the country?
I took the clip in to Chev’s office. He read it, looked at me over the top of his glasses and confirmed that it was accurate.
“But Chev, why don’t we make a big deal out of it?” I said, hot-shot 22-year-old producer that I was.
“Because we don’t measure success by ratings, we measure success by service. If we’re serving our viewers the ratings will follow.”
That was in the winter of 1969. No one has said those words to me since. I’ve never heard of anyone saying those words since then—except me. I tried them on for size a couple of times after I became a news director. It felt good, and honorable, and truthful to say them.
No one paid any attention.
I’ve done my best since then—but I worry that my best wasn’t good enough. I fear I've fallen short of his standards. I cringe at the compromises I made along the way. I’m sorry for the ways my colleagues and I have measured success. I'm glad I don't have to explain Paris Hilton to Dick Cheverton.
Chev died in 1974 after an ugly but courageous fight with cancer. Near the end I visited him in the hospital to tell him I had an offer to become head producer for the NBC affiliate in Detroit, to ask for his advice (and to hope for his blessing). Truth is, I was nervous about going, and hesitant about staying: I didn't know what a newsroom without Dick Cheverton would be like. We both knew he wasn’t coming out of the hospital, but we both played the game. I said I felt guilty leaving before he was back in the office, and could wait. He told me I’d been at WOOD for five years—that he never expected me to be there that long—that he knew I needed that next challenge, that next job--and that I shouldn't worry, he'd be back on the job soon. We smiled and shook hands. I cried in the hallway.
I returned from Detroit six weeks later for his funeral. He was 59 when he died. I’m 60 now. That amazes me.
I still hear his voice, and I still ask, “What would Chev do?” And I’m still trying to be the man and the mentor he was, convinced I'm falling short.
That big old windowless barn was close to three stories tall, maybe 60 by 80 feet, and was suspended for acoustics. That is, it was hanging—almost free-floating—to eliminate vibration. An engineering marvel. You had to step over a sill to get from the “solid” building that surrounded it to the suspended inner sanctum of that huge airplane-hanger of a studio. The walls and ceiling were covered with acoustical tile—long-since yellowed by decades of cigarette smoke. A few light fixtures high overhead provided some light, but changing the bulbs was almost impossible. Most of the real illumination was provided by goose-neck desk lamps clamped to each of the heavy old linoleum-topped desks that ran in facing rows down the center of the room and around the walls. Cubicles? We don’ need no stinkin’ cubicles! The floor was littered with cigarette butts—wastebaskets overflowed with the output from eight wire-service machines—it was all incredibly low-rent and yet incredibly big-time. You felt like you were in some secret journalism command center, some bunker, doing high-tech, top-secret, earth-saving work (“Get me on the air NOW, I’ve got a bulletin!”). No creature comforts for the men (and one or two women) who worked in the newsroom at WWJ in the early 70s!
Near the main entrance was an audio cartridge player—a “cart machine”—so reporters could play back and time their recorded audio tracks (these were the waning days of film, remember).
Dunno who had this idea, but one day we turned out the lights—all the lights—and sat in pitch-black darkness waiting for News Director Lou Prato to enter. We saw his silhouette outlined in the door—standing there wondering why the room was dark and silent and waiting for his eyes to adjust.
Someone punched “play” on the cart machine—which was cued up to “Hail to the Chief.”
And every single goose-neck lamp in the place was switched on, used as a spotlight and shined directly at Lou.
He never missed a beat. He jumped up on the row of desks, waved a two-handed Dick Nixon “V-for-Victory” salute, and started marching the fifty-or-so feet down the middle of the desks, kicking papers onto the floor while his loyal subjects trained their spotlights on him, cheering and cat-calling.
He got to the end, jumped down, the overhead lights were switched back on, and everyone went back to work.
I’ve always said my love affair with TV news is based on the fact that the happiest I’ve ever been—the angriest I’ve ever been—the proudest I’ve ever been—the hardest I’ve ever cried—and the hardest I’ve ever laughed have all been in newsrooms.
Maybe “You had to be there,” but that was the hardest I ever laughed: 1974, Lou Prato channeling Dick Nixon in the dark in Detroit.