Wednesday, December 5

Uno Sábado en Grand Rapids

That means ”One Saturday in Grand Rapids," and it’s another more-or-less pointless story—with a weird (make that fascinating—no, make that unbelievable) payoff.

It was the Summer of ’70. I was 23, producing the 11:00 p.m. news for WOOD AM-FM-TV and dreaming of a career as a hotshot reporter. Trouble was, the demand for reporters with absolutely zero reporting experience was, uh, zero! I was earning praise as a producer and a rep as a solid writer, but WOOD was famous for the strength of its award-winning reporting staff. Can you say "DuPont-Columbia" boys and girls? At WOOD they could and did.

How was “The Kid” going to crack the starting lineup?

My solution: volunteer, put my name out there, and then NEVER SAY NO! Need someone to come in at 3:15 in the morning? I’m your man! Get a sound bite from the local Congressman (that Jerry Ford guy)? Just tell me where. Climb to the top of a water tower under construction? That’s another one I actually did. I would do anything to get a story on the air and get noticed by the boss, the legendary Dick Cheverton (read about him in the Man and Mentor post).

Rather than just wait for assignments to come to me, I started dragging in my own story ideas, pitching them and volunteering to come in on my day off—for free—no pay—to cover them.

Maybe this one time I overdid it a bit. Grand Rapids’ Mexican-American community was growing and becoming more vocal. Producing the 11:00 meant I didn’t have to show up at work until 2:30. On Tuesdays I took to attending the 10:00 a.m. City Council meetings, just for the experience and to pick up some story ideas.

I’m damned embarrassed I can’t remember the man’s name, but La Raza, “the movement,” the recently-formed Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, had a dynamic, charismatic leader in Grand Rapids. The man spoke forcefully at council meetings and made himself a presence in local politics. He was demanding without being strident, and he knew how to bargain. He played up his ethnicity without playing a stereotype. He got things done for his community. I figured a profile of the man and his neighbors would make a fascinating (and educational) story for the good burghers of Grand Rapids.

Events played into my hand, and I found the “hook” for my story. The local Mexican-American community was planning a huge celebration on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe one summer Saturday. I donated my time, and got the best photographer in the shop (Tom Lehnen) to come in and shoot the story by promising him an absolutely free hand to shoot it the way he wanted—to run wild creatively. It being a Saturday, the weekend producer was desperate to fill the newscast, and I was told I could have all the time I wanted.

And it clicked. The Mexican-American community was used to being overlooked. Now here was a TV crew talking to them about their lives and their concerns—and finishing at their colorful celebration in the civic plaza downtown. I even got help translating my stand-up close so that I could deliver the same few lines in Spanish as well as English.

It was a tremendous hit. The next thing anyone knew, Mexican-American groups from around the country were asking for copies of the story—asking for and getting them, which was unusual. You see, in those days everything was on film—except the narration, which was on an audio cart. Marrying the two and making 16mm film dupes wasn’t done in an afternoon, and it wasn’t easily done at the station. But copies were made, and the story generated a lot of positive talk.

And it led to me being a full-time reporter. For a year. Until I realized I was more cut out for producing and managing than I was for reporting. Oh, well.


Here’s the payoff. Problem is, I can’t verify its accuracy. It came to me as an anecdote told by a former Time-Life manager.

WOOD was owned by Time-Life, the magazine people. Back then the company owned several stations—and put them all up for sale so that, we were told later, there’d be cash on hand to pay off angry subscribers when Life was shut down. But there was no subscriber backlash. Life subscribers gladly took subscriptions to other T-L publications.

Strangely, WOOD was the only station not involved in the original sale. While the rest of the stations went to McGraw-Hill (which owns most of them to this day), WOOD stood alone as the last Time-Life station for another two or three years until it was quietly sold.

And later—much later—I was told that I was the reason why!

The story that made its way back to me years later was that when the FCC was considering the group sale, several Hispanic organizations protested. They said they were worried that the stations had made no real effort to cover issues of interest and importance to the Spanish-speaking community. And they had this film, from WOOD, that showed how coverage SHOULD be done. How, they asked, could the FCC approve the sale of the one station that was making an effort to serve the minority community?

How, indeed? As the story goes (remember, this is all hearsay from years later), McGraw-Hill made coverage commitments and Time-Life execs agreed to hang on to WOOD (which was, for a time, renamed WOTV when the radio stations were spun off). A few years later, quietly, WOTV was sold. It’s had several owners since then, and remains successful.

Can’t say if they cover issues of interest to the Hispanic community, though.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know "El Resto de la Estoria."

Even if it’s just a story—even if it’s apocryphal—it’s interesting, isn’t it? And think about this--“The Kid” was politically correct before PC ever entered the vocabulary, right?