Tuesday, April 17

Every (Yellow) Dog Has His Day

I’ve said here that I’ve worked for some very good bosses.

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?”

“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.”
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.

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.