Wednesday, June 20

Uphill…Both Ways

Ah, ya young whippersnappers! Ya think you got it hard? You don't got it hard, nosireebob. You ain't hardly got no idee what hard is, goldang it! Why, when I was your age I used to walk fifteen miles to and from grammar school—and it was uphill both ways. We used to drive a herd of cattle in front of us, and along the way we'd trade some of the cows for firewood. We'd use the wood to start a fire so that when we slaughtered other steers we could tan the cowhide to make our own shoes. And we'd milk some cows—drinking the milk for breakfast and trading the cream for needles so we could sew our own clothes. All this and it was -30 degrees—in May!

Yep, kids today don't know the value of a little hard work.

That's what I heard growing up from my father; and my guess is you heard the same thing from yours.

I vowed that I'd never be one of those "Way Back When" types.

Another promise broken!

You see, I don't have much respect for some of the younger journalists I've encountered recently.

I've written here before about my first boss ("Man and Mentor," April 12th) and said that my first broadcasting job was part-time at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Let me tell you "The Rest of the Story."

In late 1968, early in my senior year at Michigan State, a professor in one of my broadcasting classes asked if anyone would be interested in weekend news writing at WOOD. Half the hands in the room went up. In those days (and maybe still, I'm not sure) the best TV stations in all of Michigan were the network affiliates in Detroit and WOOD. Channel 8 was simply the class of medium-market Michigan TV. And in those days there were literally no internships in broadcasting, and real jobs were tough to come by. A chance to work at WOOD would be dream come true.

Then the prof. explained the hours: 5:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on Saturday (18 hours), followed by 10:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on Sunday (13 hours).

Every hand went down...but mine.

I applied, I interviewed and I got the job (if I remember) $2.55 an hour. Now, Grand Rapids is 75 miles from East Lansing. So the drill was get up at 3:00 a.m.—drive to Grand Rapids—work until 11:00—get a motel room—catch eight hours sleep—work until 11:00—get home at 1:00--and head off to class on Monday.

(TRIVIA: know how the "Motel Six" chain got its name? Because all rooms in those days were $6.)

Counting the gas (at about 25 cents a gallon), the $6 motel and meals—heck, I was still clearing $60-$65 a weekend. But you couldn't put a price tag on what I was learning.

After WOOD, every time I had a career choice to make I asked myself--What do I need to learn--Where can I go to learn it? I made what looked like lateral (or even backwards) moves so I could pick up new skills and master my craft. Each stop along the way was a link in the chain--the chain I called a career. It was my apprenticeship. It took me eleven years (until I reached New York) before I considered the apprenticeship over. Still I never stopped learning, never stopped striving, and could never resign myself to being a 40-hour-a-week clock-watcher.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. In my most recent incarnation as a news director I found most of the staff willing to give 100% effort 50% of the time. Or was that 50% effort 100% of the time? Either way, most had jobs but not careers. Most were dedicated to taking the easy way out. A few years back, in short succession, I lost two young producers from my medium-market station to a much larger market where they signed on as Production Assistants--newsroom go-fers. Talk about lateral or backward moves! When I asked why, about the best they could come up with was that both were big baseball fans and their new city had a good major league team.

Have no idea where either is today. My guess is in some sports bar with their baseball caps turned backwards pounding home the brewskies.

Different station, same dilemma. Rookie producer helped put herself through college by waittressing at a popular local restaurant. Came to me to say she'd had an offer to go back as the lead hostess. Let's see: hostess, news producer--hostess, news producer--hostess, news producer. These career choices are tough, aren't they? In the end she stayed in TV (and I lost my chance to double up at the salad bar without paying extra).

A lot of people want to be "TV Stars." How many want to do the grunt work of producing, reporting, shooting video, running the assignment desk? Everyone wants the big bucks, no one wants to pay any dues. Am I crazy, or does it seem as if more and more TV news people aspire to Paris Hilton's lifestyle than to Walter Cronkite's?

I know what you're thinking: that I've settled in to my "Old Fart Emeritus" years. That could well be true. But prove me wrong. Please.