Thursday, May 31

Selective Perception

I'm knee-deep in writing my masterwork, my dissection of charges that the media are biased: longer than the Bible, footnoted throughout, sure to sell at least five or six copies to not-so-leading academics.

But you don't have to wait to plunk down your $49.95 at Let me share with you one of my major conclusions: bias is in the eye of the beholder. You see what you expect to see. Your opinion is colored by--well, by your opinion! Anything that runs counter can be rationalized and explained away.

In the late seventies, at the annual convention of the Radio Television News Directors Association, Ted Koppel told this story to make the same point.

Guy gets home very late one night, very drunk, his wife is very upset. "Just where have you been?"

He says, "I've just been to the most fantashtic bar. It had a high blue ceiling with twinklin' lights like teeny-tiny stars. It had red velour on the walls. And in the bafroom it had a golden urinal."

His wife, disgusted, sent him to bed. But the next day, after he shame-facedly headed off to work, her curiosity got the better of her and she started calling around town looking for this "fantastic bar." No luck, until in the afternoon she got hold of a bartender.

"Excuse me, does your bar have a high blue ceiling with twinkling lights like little stars?"

"Yes, ma'am, yes we do."

"And do you have red velour on the walls?"

"Yes, ma'am, yes we do."

"This last question is a little embarrassing, but please bear with me: do you have a golden urinal?"

And the bartender covers the phone with his hand and shouts, "Hey, Ernie, I think I've got a lead on the guy who ruined your saxophone."

Selective perception: you see what you expect to see.

Sunday, May 27

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing

Just finished a Memorial Day tradition, watching the Indianapolis 500. That's Dario Franchitti on the right, slugging down the traditional drink of milk (no one ever finishes the full bottle) after winning this year's rain-shortened 500, the 91st in Speedway history.

Of course my mind drifted back to when I drove the pace car at the 500, back in 1976.

OK, OK: it wasn’t the pace car, but it was a pace car. And it wasn’t in the race (or even on race day) but it was on the track.

I started as Executive Producer at WISH-TV in Indianapolis in April, ’76, knowing something about the famous race, but not knowing that in those days before NASCAR hit it big the 500 was the premier auto racing event in the world, and that it turned the entire town of Indianapolis on its ear for race month.

But I’m a fast learner. At the end of my first week, on a Saturday, I was getting gear stowed in my new desk when Sports Director Chet Coppock (I’ve written about him here before) walked into the newsroom, said he had some errands to run at the track, and asked if I’d like to tag along. Would I!

So we piled into his loaner car: a pace car replica. Don’t know if it’s still a 500 practice, but back then dignitaries and local sports figures were given replicas of the official pace car to drive around town for the month of May. Several dozen replicas were loaned out. Chet got one—a silver Buick LeSabre, if memory serves, with orange markings.

First stop, the Speedway Motel (the one at the top of Turn One, with the balconies overlooking the track). There we met up with Sid Collins, the long-time radio voice of the race. Sid was about to call his 25th Indy 500. No one knew then that it would be his last. A year later, less than a month before the 1977 race, Sid Collins killed himself after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). But on that long-ago Saturday, being with Sid Collins at the Brickyard was like being with Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium: he couldn’t move ten feet without being asked for his autograph, and he couldn't have been a nicer guy.

As we left, Chet asked if I’d like to take the car around the track. “You’re kidding! They won’t let us do that!”

“Sure, if the track is empty, you can take it around.”

And so…I did!

First impression? The smoothest piece of interstate asphalt feels like a rutted gravel road compared to the racing surface at Indy. A hundred miles an hour felt like 35 on I-70. Next thing you know I was going 110, then 120, then 130 (the Buick didn’t have the full race tuning of the actual pace car, but it was plenty quick). That’s when Chet started narrating: “Over here is where Billy Vukovich was killed. ‘Course, that was back in ’55. Now up here is where Swede Savage crashed and burned just three years ago. But he didn’t die in the wreck; he died a month later from burns.”

Next thing you know I’m going 90, then 80, then 70.

That was fun, and memorable. But the experience of race day—the crowds, the colors, the people, the sounds—words fail me. When the command “Gentlemen, start your engines” was given, and all those cars started revving up, only to be drowned out by a half-million cheering fans—I tell ya, it took my breath away.

The race that year was cut short by rain, just like this year’s. Johnny Rutherford won the “Indianapolis 255:” the race was called 102 laps in, making it the shortest race in 500 history.

I remember pledging after that day that no matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, I’d always return to Indianapolis for the race. Sadly, I’ve only made one since. And every year I regret not being there for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

One other note. In those days the race was seen around the country on a tape-delay basis, hours later—except in Indianapolis. In Indy the ABC races played every year as a Christmas Week special: the track owners didn’t want to dilute their fan base by making the race to accessible for the locals: didn’t want to give them an excuse to stay home.

BUT, each TV station in town was allowed to shoot and air its own one-hour race-night special. The logistics of placing and manning the cameras, then rushing the film (in relays) back to the station for processing during the race, is a story I’ll save for another time.

I've been to an NFL championship game--pre Super Bowl, December 27, 1964 when "my" Browns won football's biggest game. I've been to a World Series game. I've never been to an NBA playoff game, or a Stanley Cup final. But what’s the line from that old movie: “Friend, I been to two state fairs a rodeo and a goat show and I ain’t never seen nothin’” like the Indianapolis 500.

Congratulations to Dario Franchitti, the winner of the 91st Indianapolis 500. Hope you had as much fun in ’07 as I had in ’76.

Saturday, May 26

Some Thoughts from Howard Beale

And he said it in 1976, in the movie "Network." Which means that Paddy Chayefski wrote it.

No, this isn't the "I'm Mad as Hell" speech. This is something scarier.

"Right now there is a whole, an entire, generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this Tube. This Tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This Tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This Tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people...Listen to me. Television is not the truth. Television is a Goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, story-tellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers and football players. We're in the boredom killing business! So, if you want truth go to God. Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves because that's the only place you're ever going to find any real truth. But, man, you're never gonna get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We'll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer and that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don't worry. Just look at your watch. At the end of the hour he's going to win. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds...We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the Tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the Tube tells you. You dress like the Tube; You eat like the Tube; You raise your children like the Tube; You even think like the Tube. This is mass madness! You maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I'm speaking to you now. Turn them off!"

I saw "Network" with a friend who was working in news for one of the "Big Three" networks. As we drove away from the theater she said, "I know those people." 31 years later I think we all know those people. The scary thought is that perhaps we are those people!

If it's been awhile since you've seen William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Peter Finch (as deranged anchorman Howard Beale) you owe it to yourself to take another look at "Network." See if you can spot Walter Cronkite's daughter in a bit part!

Wednesday, May 23

You May Quote Me...I Guess

I said it…sort of.

Some people know me for my all-inclusive description of what makes a compelling television news story:

A dear friend even had it framed for me; it was on the wall of several of my offices over the years.

It’s really self-explanatory. The stories that reach out and grab you are the ones that contain action, reaction, motion and emotion. TV doesn’t do a very good job of showing what people are thinking. That’s why the city council meeting probably doesn’t produce interesting TV unless someone is ranting and raving: action, reaction, emotion. Space shuttle takes off: action, reaction, motion and (possibly) emotion. Think of any story that ever made you lean forward in your La-Z-Boy and my guess is the more of those four elements it contained the more caught up you became.

“What you see is what you say” means that the words and pictures better match—exactly. When I was in Miami anchor J.D. Roberts (now “John” Roberts of CNN) and I had a running disagreement over having the words and pictures coincide. My contention was that if you were saying “The cow jumped over the moon” you’d better see the cow…jumping…over the moon. His idea was that the “MTV Generation” could process audio and video separately and simultaneously. He contended that complementary information could be conveyed at the same time; that the whole could be the sum of the two parts.We went ‘round and ‘round. Finally, when one of our news consultants came to town, I asked his opinion. He told me he didn’t have an opinion, he had fact: that several research studies had been done and that all showed it was cleaner and clearer to present information if both audio and video matched. He said it demands too much attention to ask people to weave two separate strands into a whole—better to do it for them. So what you see had better match what you say.

“The good stuff goes up top” means that you put your most compelling story at the top of the broadcast and your most compelling video at the top of each story. Put the hook into your viewers and don’t let them go.

Bad news for telegenic reporters: no matter how attractive you are, the best video is probably not your face! So no stand-ups at the top of the story. No talking heads, either, unless the sound itself is the most compelling part of the story: the mother of the kidnapped child asking for help, Vice President Cheney glaring and denouncing detractors.

Yup, that’s everything you need to know about putting together a compelling news story.

And I said it.

I just didn’t say it first.

And I don’t know who did! I got it (a gift, as it were) from a photographer named Tom Lehnen at the old WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids more than 35 years ago. Tom may have been the best photographer I ever worked with: he had an uncanny eye, a great sense for what was going on around him, a terrific rapport with the common man. That’s because he was an “Average Joe.” I don’t think he graduated from high school. He was not a lettered man. The only time I ever saw him read anything it was a newspaper—or some publication that would make him a better photographer. I visited him at home: not a book or a magazine in the place. So while he was a brilliant man, I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by saying that I’m sure the “Action, Reaction” mantra wasn’t his. He never told me where it came from.

A quick sidebar. Tom got his first job in TV while working in the camera department at a local K-Mart. A reporter and photographer from WZZM-TV were filming in the store when the shooter fainted. After an ambulance hauled him away, the reporter asked if any bystander could finish shooting the story. Tom Lehnen, who had never held a 16mm camera in his life stepped up—and stepped into his new career.

As good as he was (and as I said, I think he was the best I’ve ever seen) he was frustrated because he couldn’t get better, faster. His drive was always pushing him for more, more, more. Sometime in the late 70s he got frustrated enough, I’m told, that he got out of the business. I don’t know where Tom Lehnen is today. If anyone out there does, let me know.

And I don’t know the origin of the phrase I sort of co-opted. If you do, let me know and I will gladly give credit where credit is due.

Monday, May 21

So You Wanna be a News Director?

Then I have a tip for you.

When you visit your prospective new employer, as part of your "due diligence" ask to be left alone in the News Director's office. Shut the door. Close the blinds. When you're sure no one can see, turn over the desk chair and look for a label on the bottom of the seat.

If you find one that says, "In Emergency Seat Back May be Used as Flotation Device," govern yourself accordingly.

The last survey I remember seeing said the average ND's tenure remains under 2 1/2 years. That means for everyone like WISH's Lee Giles who served 30+ years at one station, there's someone else who's out after 30+ weeks!

Seriously: the times I've gotten into trouble have all been when I didn't know what I was getting or my new boss didn't know what he (or she) was getting. Be careful!

A good friend once said that being a news director is like being a pro basketball coach. The day you're hired, you're also fired--we just haven't worked out the timetable.

Thursday, May 17

Fingernails on the Blackboard

I heard it again today. It drives ma crazy! You’d think I’d be used to it by now. You hear it everywhere. No one complains. No one but me. And I’m right. The “Radio Reader” told me so!

A talk-show host on one of our local stations, WILK, went to a commercial break saying, “This is Dub-You-I-L-K.”

The 23rd letter of the alphabet is pronounced duhb-uhl-yoo. I learned that from Dick Estell in my first (and only) radio announcing class at Michigan State in the mid-sixties. Recognize the name? Dick still appears on many public radio stations every day reading books as “The Radio Reader.” Today you can buy audio books narrated by Dick Estell, but the truth is that reading books on-air goes back to the beginnings of radio. Michigan State’s radio station, WKAR, had a daily reading show as far back as the mid-1930s. Larry Frymire was “The Radio Reader” for twenty years. When he retired in 1964 WKAR’s young General Manager, Dick Estell, took over the duties—in addition to running the station and teaching classes. Dick was instrumental in the formation of National Public Radio and served as board Chairman from 1972-74. Even though he retired from MSU in 1986, he continues to produce “The Radio Reader” from his home.

On our very first day in Dick’s class he had each of us tape a mock newscast for WKAR. When he critiqued mine, he taught me two valuable lessons.

First, he told me to look at the letter “W” and see it for what it is: a double-“U.” Got it! I was reporting for Double-You-K-A-R, not Dub-You-K-A-R.

Then he asked, “If a cow moos and a kitten mews, how do you pronounce N-E-W-S?” Got it! It’s not “Dub-you-K-A-R Noos,” it’s “Double-You-K-A-R knews.”

One other note about “The Radio Reader.” Dick’s habit (one that I imagine hasn’t changed) was to read each book “cold,” without so much as skimming through it. He said that he liked discovering the work a page at a time, just the way a reader (or listener) at home would. He had a safety valve: he recorded each book weeks in advance. That way if he found, halfway through, say, that the book was worthless he could abandon it and move on to the next without torturing his audience. He’s read more than 500 books on-air in his more than 40 years behind the WKAR mic.

Oh, and he was also—for many, many years—the public address voice of the Michigan State Spartans football team. He has a clear, bell-like voice. Good guy. Good teacher. Obviously, I learned my first lessons from him well enough that they’ve stood the test of time.

Thursday, May 10

In Harm's Way

I couldn’t have picked a more interesting time to work in Oklahoma City than 1988. KWTV produced and aired Oklahoma State University head football coach Pat Jones’ weekly TV show. Who knew the “Cowboys” were going to go 10-2? Who knew Barry Sanders was going to become a superstar at running back and win the Heisman trophy? Who knew that the Heisman announcement would be made while Oklahoma State was in Tokyo, Japan (of all places) where the team was playing Texas Tech in the “Coca-Cola Bowl?” Who knew that we’d arrange a live-from-Japan satellite interview with Barry right after the announcement in New York? Really a memorable football season for OSU football, for the station that billed itself “The Spirit of Oklahoma” and for me.

Also memorable because of KWTV General Manager Duane Harm.

When I started as news director Harm told me, “You can delegate some responsibility—but never trust anyone. That way you’ll never be surprised when they screw you. And they’ll always screw you.” Duane Harm ran his station and lived his life by those words.

Here’s how the coach’s show worked. Our KWTV crew, led by Sports Director Bill Teegins, would shoot the game then hurry back to the station the 60 miles from Stillwater, edit the highlights, and prepare for coach Jones’ live studio appearance at 11:00 Sunday morning.

That’s fine for a home game. But what if the game is on the road? The charter plane gets back to Stillwater at, say, midnight (or later). Then it’s back to the station at 1:00 a.m. (or later!), edit highlights for four or five hours, catch a quick nap (if you’re lucky) and air the show.

Duane Harm let me know that a good news director, a smart news director, a news director who didn’t trust anyone would find some excuse—any excuse—to “accidentally” show up at 4:00 Sunday morning. That way a smart news director could catch the crew goofing off and nip it (and them?) in the bud.

Duane’s suspicion was that he was being taken for a ride. My suspicion was that by 4:00 Sunday morning we had a crew that hadn’t seen a shower, a toothbrush or a bed in about 20 hours. But I desperately wanted to get off to a good start with my new boss, so I started showing up at 4:00.

I showed up, though, with two dozen donuts, fresh coffee, and an offer to play “go-fer” and do anything I could to help. I don’t know how much help I was, but maybe I provided a little moral support and I enjoyed being a part of the process.

As I said, that was Barry Sanders’ superstar, Heisman-winning year. The show was terrific, Pat Jones was what you’d expect from a big-time college football coach (whip smart, entertaining, a walking advertisement for his school and his program), and the dedicated efforts of the sports staff made it a big success.

The story has several endings; not all of them happy.

I left KWTV not too long after the football season. I told Duane Harm that I didn’t know why he had hired me in the first place, that I couldn’t be the kind of news director (or person) that he wanted me to be.

Some months later Duane Harm left KWTV; and here’s where things get cloudy. I have no personal knowledge of what happened, I can only tell you what little birdies told me. KWTV was and is owned by the Griffin family. After the death of company founder John Griffin, there were (the story goes) a lot of questions about how station money was spent. Specifically, I’m told, the Griffins (husband and wife) had signed a lot of paperwork Duane Harm had put in front of them without (it was said) really looking it over: like leases on a lot of equipment (cars, live trucks, a helicopter) that turned out to be owned by members of Duane Harm’s family. An insider told me that folks named Harm made a lot of money leasing equipment to people who thought they already owned it.

I do know that when a luxurious state-of-the-art horse racing track opened in OKC, KWTV had the most lavishly decorated suite in the place (to entertain clients, we were told); and I knew that Duane's wife did the decorating and spent (here's that word again) lavishly. Apparently the Griffin family didn't know it.

One day (I’m told by someone who was there) the staff was assembled, told that Duane Harm was no longer with the station, and asked to exchange their door keys for ones that matched the new locks.

Maybe when Duane told me that employees will always try to screw you, he was speaking from personal experience. There apparently were lawsuits and countersuits, but in the end everything was quietly settled.

Nice note: some time after Harm's departure I got a call from David Griffin, John’s son, who was trying to sort things out. He said he’d had individual meetings with every single employee to talk about the station’s direction. He said one question he had asked was, “What’s the biggest mistake we’ve made in the last few years?” and that many people had said letting me resign. On the phone, on the spot he offered me the job back. It was tempting—I really liked OKC and almost all of the people at KWTV—but I was already working for the CBS O-and-O in Miami, and didn’t want to look back.

Bill Teegins (whose real name was spelled “Tietgens”) eventually became the radio play-by-play voice of both the Oklahoma State football and basketball teams. In January, 2001, three chartered planes left Denver after a basketball game against the University of Colorado. The one carrying Bill, two players, a flight crew of two and five others connected to the basketball team crashed. All ten died. A memorial has been erected at the crash site 40 miles outside Denver, and there's another with a statue of a kneeling cowboy on the OSU campus in Stillwater. Bill was 48, and left a wife and daughter. I didn’t realize until I did some research as I started writing this that he was an eight-time winner of the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year award. That figures. He was good enough to win it, and modest enough not to talk about it. A good man.

Wednesday, May 9

Focusing on Film

On a shelf here in my den—where I can put my hands on it at any time—is a Bell & Howell 70-DR camera. Sometimes I pick it up just to feel its solid weight. I put my left hand through the worn leather strap, use the wing-shaped key to wind it up, brace its bulk against my forehead and crank off a few imaginary feet of film.

That’s right—film. 16mm single-perf Kodak film. Silent (you saved the more expensive magnetic stripe, or "mag-stripe" film for your bulky sound cameras). Kodak film: Ektachrome 7242 for daylight or 7240 for use indoors under tungsten light. Of course, in a pinch you coulduse 7240 film outdoors by putting an 85B filter in the filter holder. The orange tint of the filter brought the tungsten film closer to daylight: otherwise tungsten film shot outdoors would be bluish.

I twist the turret and bring one of the three lenses into position—and the ratchet brings the proper viewfinder lens into place. That, of course, is the difference between the DR and the DL. With the DL you had to manually move the viewfinder lens every time you changed lenses. With the DR when you rotated the lens turret you were rotating the viewfinder turret as well. No zoom lenses here! “Through-the-lens” viewing?—hardly. In theory the viewfinder lens showed you what you were getting on film. In theory.

Focus you can guess—especially at larger f-stops. f22 for bright sun on snow—f16 for bright sun—f11 for overcast. All the way down to wide open (f1.9) at night under a frezzi lamp. Remember, though, that if you’re going to shoot wide open in low-light you probably ought to use a wide-angle lens to minimize focus problems.

Did I just say, “Remember, though?” I did, didn’t I? How the HELL do I remember those obscure facts from almost forty years ago? I have no idea.

My first job at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, back in 1969, was producing the 11:00 p.m. news. But I knew I was in my apprenticeship years, and that anything new I could learn, anything more I could learn, would pay off for me down the road. I went to Chief Photographer Tom O’Rourke and told him I wanted him to teach me how to shoot film.

“What makes you think I’m going to give you an expensive film camera to play with?”

“Well, how about high school football games on Friday nights? You never have enough photographers to go around.”

“Kid, now you’re making sense.”And that’s how I tricked Tom O’Rourke into teaching me how to shoot football games—how to wander the sidelines about 20 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage—when to move from the sideline to the end zone for the (anticipated) touchdown—what to do when you get trampled on a sideline play (jump up quickly and pretend you’re not in agony).

Film was expensive. Our 70-DRs took 100-foot reels. At 24 frames a second, 33 feet a minute, one spool was good for just over three minutes of exposed film. By the time you factored in film processing (every TV station had its own on-site lab), it cost 14½ cents to shoot a foot of film (and how did I remember that?). You wanted to keep costs to a minimum, so in a medium-sized market like Grand Rapids Tom O’Rourke had us aiming for a 3-to-1 film ratio. That is, for every three minutes of footage you shot the station hoped (expected, demanded) one minute would make it to air. If you got to 4-to-1 or (God forbid) 5-to-1, you were either working in a big market with money to burn or working on a special project. Tom kept a chart that showed each photographer’s shooting ratio.

The joke—absolutely apocryphal—is that O’Rourke once sent a photographer to a minor league hockey game with 100 feet of film. When the photog. complained and asked how he was supposed to shoot an entire match on one roll of film, O’Rourke (it was said), replied, “Easy. Just shoot the goals.” Obviously untrue—but a cute legend.

That, of course, was the first thing we noticed when we (the TV news industry) switched to videotape in the early 70s: shoot as much as you want of anything you want. We can always reuse the tape later.
The old Bell & Howell 70s were the workhouse of the newsreel and TV news business for decades. You can still find them on eBay—even, occasionally, brand-new government surplus DRs in factory cases. But even if you could find film, and if you shot some footage, and if you wanted to get it on TV, I don’t know how you'd do it today. Not many photo labs handle 16mm film anymore—and few TV stations can air it. Film projectors are almost nonexistent in most TV stations. Too bad. Film was fun.

I was around for film's final days. One of my chores at WABC in New York in the early eighties was to find a buyer for the station’s film freezer: a huge walk-in meat locker used to keep the film fresh. But WABC was a film holdout, keeping some film crews on staff until about 1982 and mostly, if memory serves, for union reasons. Those were the days. Cameraman, soundman, lighting man (and I mean no sexist disrespect: 99.99% of the crews were male).

Field Producer Eddie Galorenzo once told me of the problems of a five-person crew (five when you add the field producer and the reporter): “No matter what you need to do and when you need to do it, somebody’s always off taking a pee.”

Forget the debate about the aesthetics of film, about which looks better—tape of film. Forget the fact that an ENG camera’s output can be beamed back via microwave or satellite for live news coverage. Film had a couple of advantages from a reporter’s perspective.

First, the film had to be processed: which meant you got to finish your day in the station! No trying to write a complete script in a notebook, no trying to record an audio track in the back of a live truck.

Second, you knew it was going to take at least a half-hour for the film to come out of the lab and be ready for editing. That meant you were in the station, at your typewriter (no computers, kiddies!) with time to craft your piece. Yeah, we lacked immediacy. With film runs at, say, 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., that 5:45 fire didn’t get on until 11:00.

Want to know the scariest thing in a producer’s world back then? Going back to the lab at 5:00 to see how the film run was coming—and finding the door locked. A locked door meant that the lab was sealed—a sealed lab meant it was dark in there—dark meant that there was a processor problem (the film probably jumped off one of the guide rollers) and the technician had opened the light-tight processor trying to fix it—and you stood outside trying to figure out what to do if two-thirds of your newscast was lost in a vat of chemicals. It happened.

The film went over-and-under, over-and-under, over-and-under a series of rollers through various tanks of processing chemicals—then through a dryer box where hot air and light bulbs finished the job. Hundreds and hundreds of feet of film working its way through the "soup" during a film run. I remember a day when the dryer broke, and sticky wet film started coming out of the machine. Somebody got a huge take-up reel and sat with it in a chair about twenty yards down the hall while the rest of us ran up and down with borrowed hair dryers trying to save the run.

Adapt—improvise—overcome. We had our film that night.

What else? When my friend Elden Hale was news director at WNEP in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the early 70s he got a great buy on some “double perf” film stock: with sprocket holes (which pulled the film through the camera) on both sides, instead of on one side like single-perf. I was visiting Elden and watched as his lead story got on upside-down and backwards. Back to single perf!

Teases, bumpers, promos, headlines: sick of seeing the same shot over and over and over and over again? Not in the film days. Catch the building collapsing on film? Great! It goes in your story. But there’s no way to use and re-use it until you get it dubbed to tape. When I was starting out that meant 2” tape (no 3/4” yet). Not an easy thing to do in most medium-sized TV stations in the early 70s.

Let’s end with a primer on B-Roll and DP.

The term “B-Roll” is still used today—it refers to a shot laid over a jump cut to minimize the distraction. But what does it mean? DP (“double projection”) was rolling two film projectors for the same story. At WOOD, with an hour-long newscast, we might use 20 minutes of film telling our stories—but only use DP to cover jump cuts in five or six stories.
Your main film reel was spliced together, in order. It was loaded on your main film projector. The DP, maybe a minute-and-a-half in all, was spliced together (again, in order) and loaded onto your secondary film projector. Since the main film was on the “A” projector, the DP reel became your “B-Roll.” B-Roll covers jump cuts, get it?

Here endeth the lesson.

Sunday, May 6

Meryl and Me

OK, make that "Meryl and I," as in "Meryl Streep and I had a conversation about TV news. "

I was sitting at the WABC assignment desk early one morning, maybe 7:30, answering phones. The voice on the other end said, "This is Meryl Streep, and I have a complaint."

Y'know how sometimes you just "get" that the person on the other end of the line is for real? Maybe it was the anger in her voice, and I knew it was Meryl Streep and I knew she was upset, so I asked what was on her mind.

She told me she was watching Good Morning America, that she liked the show, but that she couldn't stand the local news cut-ins: they were all doom-and-gloom and body counts (my words, not hers--but you get the idea). She said she was trying to raise children in the city (I think she said two, but I'm not sure), and that she didn't want her children growing up thinking the world around them was evil and ugly and dangerous.

So I got the chance to trot out "Standard Reply #17:" "I understand completely, and certainly sympathasize with you. You have to remember, though, that we're in the 'news' business, and NOT MUCH NEW happens overnight that's not bad for someone. The Mayor doesn't cut many ribbons on new bridges at 2:00 a.m.--the cure for cancer won't be announced at 3:00 a.m.--the Knicks won't win the NBA championship at 4:00 a.m."

No, I explained to her, the "new" news overnight is pretty much murders and fires and robberies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

I think she got my point, and I know I got hers; but it's even more of a concern today. In the 25 years since she and I talked local news has gone in for more camera-pointing and less reporting. Al Primo's "Eyewitness News" concept preached taking people to the scenes of stories, introducing them to the participants and letting them get the same feeling they'd have gotten had they been there themselves by giving them a balanced look at the facts.

It was "we report, you decide" decades before Fox--but there was more reporting back then, more tackling of tough topics, more making sense out of complicated issues for the viewer.

How do you make sense out of a dead body on a New York street corner?

Ironically, I think the networks did an excellent job covering the biggest non-war "body count" story of this decade, the Virginia Tech massacre. They certainly did the "Ain't it a shock?" and "Ain't it a shame?" stories, but then they went further. They quickly got to "What does it mean? and "What does it mean to you?" and "What can we learn?? and "How do we prevent it from happening again?"

Felt like "Eyewitness" to me.

Tuesday, May 1

Mean is as Mean Does

I’ve talked here about mean bosses. I guess I forgot to mention me!

Honest to God, I’ve never considered myself mean. Often straightforward, sometimes blunt, always demanding, but never (at least to my way of thinking) mean-spirited.

There’s a story that refutes that claim. My-right-hand-on-the-Bible, I don’t remember this at all; but I’m told it’s true by an absolutely unimpeachable source: Jerry Giesler. Jerry was a reporter and anchor when I was news director for WEEK-TV in Peoria in the mid-70s. He’s since gone on to an excellent career in news and station management. Last I heard he was running a station in Ft. Wayne.

Jerry swears this story is true, and who am I to doubt him? But if called upon by a Congressional committee, my answers would all be along the lines of, “Senator, I don’t recall.” “Not that I’m aware of, Senator.” “It depends on your definition of ‘is,’ Senator.” Or maybe just a plain, “Who, me?”

And I don’t recall the circumstances: but apparently Jerry and his photographer had just made a major gaffe on a big story and were returning to the Channel 25 newsroom after having pretty badly screwed the pooch.

I’m told (“…by reliable sources, Senator”) that I reached them on the two-way radio and had a conversation that went something like this:

“I want you two to pull over to the side of the road.”


“Pull over to the side of the road.”

“Pull over to the side of the road??????????????”

“You heard me.”


“Don’t ask questions, just do it.”

“Uh, wait a second.”

“I don’t have a second. You need to pull over to the side and stop.”


“Are you stopped?”

“Yes. Why did you have us stop?”

“Because we have a company policy that only station employees can drive station vehicles.”

LLLoooooooonngg pause.

As I say, I have no recollection of any such incident, Senator. But if it did happen—and Jerry Giesler is an honorable man, who can doubt him?—it was kind of funny, wasn’t it? A little bit, maybe?