Thursday, April 12

Man and Mentor

Sometimes it’s just luck.

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.”

Lesson learned.

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.

Hail to the Chief!

The old WWJ radio and TV in downtown Detroit was in an old-time radio building: THE old-time-iest radio building in the Midwest, WWJ-AM. And the newsroom was on the third floor in a mammoth converted radio studio: at one time apparently the largest radio studio between New York and Chicago, the origination point for symphony concerts, big band programs and who knows what else.

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.