Friday, February 29

Hear Here

I've written before about Roger Grimsby, the legendary co-anchor of WABC's Eyewitness News for almost two decades. I even quoted the sign-off he and Bill Beutel gave for so many years as the #1 anchor team in New York—which made them, de facto, #1 in America.

"Hoping your news is good news, I'm Roger Grimsby."

"And I'm Bill Beutel, good luck and be well."

But I've never quoted Roger's famous opening line. This is from

"Grimsby was known for beginning his broadcasts with the phrase 'Good evening, I'm Roger Grimsby, here now the news' and ending them with the phrase 'Hoping your news is good news, I'm Roger Grimsby.'"

So there you have it, right?

Not so fast! I got to wondering—a quarter-century after I worked with Roger and Bill—was Roger saying, "Here, now, the news"—as in, the news is coming at you here and now? Or was he saying, "Hear now the news"—as in listen up? I had never paid attention to what was written on the scripts, so I just didn't know.

I asked my WABC boss, former News Director Cliff Abromats, and he didn't know--he never bothered to look (and, admittedly, it wasn’t exactly a pressing problem for a guy who was administering a $27 million news budget and ministering to Big Apple egos).

So I dashed off an email to former WABC producer Alan Weiss (now the owner of a successful New York production company)—and he didn't know. He said it was just something Roger ad-libbed every night, and he had never seen it written down. But Alan was kind enough to track down longtime Managing Editor Phil Tucker, the man who polished the prose on just about every Eyewitness News story for years. Phil recalled having seen it once on a script Roger had written—ONCE!

"Hear now the news."

Take that, Wikipedia!

By the way, when Chevy Chase started doing his mock newscast on the very first Saturday Night Live, his greeting, "Good evening, I'm Chevy Chase and you're not " was said to be a subtle tribute to (and poke at) Roger Grimsby.

And now you know the rest of the story. Wait. Sorry. That's someone else's line. My bad.

Thursday, February 28

The Host with the Most

I guess this is another of those “So You Want to be a News Director?” posts.

If memory serves, it was on an Ash Wednesday some years ago. A photographer was sent out to a local church to get the obligatory footage for the obligatory story on the beginning of the Lenten season. Every station in the country had roughly the same footage that night: I guess you could say we're all religious about covering religious observances.

All was going well until we came out of the footage to a two-shot of our anchor team.

SHE: You know what I really like?

HE: No.

SHE: I just love the “host:” the communion wafers. They’re delicious. If you’d put them in a cellophane bag I could eat a whole bag every night while watching TV. They’re terrific!

And your humble news director, realizing that he had about thirty seconds before the phone started ringing and he had his own personal epiphany, his own “Come to Jesus” moment, was left to mutter, “Bless me Father, for my anchor is an idiot.” I probably should have been grateful she didn't mention chip dip. Or salsa! Omigod, it's too disgusting to even contemplate dipping the host into salsa!

Remember what they used to say about foxholes? I’m convinced there are no atheists in news director’s offices, either.

Friday, February 22

Thursday in the Park with Diana

Did I tell you about the time I turned in an expense account for $500 labeled “Bribe Money” and got reimbursed? Actually, I think I had requisitioned $800 in “baksheesh” and wound up turning three hundred-dollar bills back in.

OK, it’s not quite that simple. I had prior approval.

Prior approval for a BRIBE? Here’s the story.

In the summer of 1983, Diana Ross announced a huge free concert on the Great Lawn in Central Park. The concert was free, but she sold the TV rights with a promise to donate the proceeds to create the “Diana Ross Playground” in the park, across Central Park West from her apartment in the Beresford, at 81st Street. When it was announced that the concert would start in the late afternoon—news time!—we at WABC shifted into high gear. We asked for and received permission to cut live for extended periods throughout our dinner-hour newscasts. The trick was to handle the technology and the logistics to get us on the air and make our live shots live up to Eyewitness News standards.

I did the site survey. 25 years later I’m looking for a way to describe the venue to you, and the best way is to ask you to think of a baseball field, greatly enlarged. Picture a stage set up on home plate: a huge stage, hundreds of feet high, wide and deep. On the pitcher’s mound, picture a camera, light and sound tower three stories high. But instead of being a little over sixty feet to the stage, make it about sixty yards! Instead of ninety-foot baselines, picture them running 90-100 yards. And on the first base line and the third base line, put 12-foot high fences. To continue this stupid analogy, the audience is allowed on the field--and only on the field. Outside the fence--where the grandstand would be--was the work area.

See what I’m driving at? A big wedge shaped area for the crowd in front of the stage—sweeping back onto the Great Lawn. Behind the walls and behind the stage; trailers, tents, TV production trucks—all the behind-the-scenes “stuff” it would take to put on a live show for 800,000 people and a TV show for millions.

And to me, it looked simple: have a camera crew and a live camera on the tower, and another on top of a live truck butted right next to the fence along the third-base side. Stand on the truck and you could not only get a perfect shot of the stage and the crowd, but also have a place for a reporter (the late Roger Sharp) to stand and go live.

Only one problem: trucks aren’t allowed to drive on the Great Lawn grass.

What? Truck, tents, trailers, mobile units, port-a-potties, cop cars, ambulances, limos, catering vehicles, production trucks: how were they going to get into place?????

Wellllllll…they were going to drive over sheets of plywood. Park regulations. For something the size of a pickup truck, say, they’d lay down two lines of plywood (one for each tire track) stretching about 40 feet. Drive forward—pick up the plywood from behind and lay it in front—drive forward—pick up—lay down—drive forward—pick up—lay down. For a tractor-trailer, a whole army of workers and huge stacks of plywood were necessary.

For a WABC live van, not that many: but still a good hour’s work for six or eight guys to lay a path from the nearest roadway to our position at the wall. And the site foreman said he just couldn’t spare the manpower.

Back at the station I talked it over with my boss, and he approved the “gratuity.” I took my wallet full of hundreds back to the park, went to the foreman, and said, “You would be doing WABC a huge favor if you could help us park our truck, and we’d be very grateful.” I pulled out five bills, he took them—and thirty minutes later our truck was parked.

We were ready for anything—anything but torrential rains, gale-force winds, lightning and thunder. That’s right, the show started under threatening skies and then God decided to punish someone. I don’t know if it was Diana Ross in the crosshairs, but it felt like me.

I was in our microwave feed area talking to the crews when the guys on the tower told me it was starting to look bad. I couldn’t see what they saw, but I had to take their word for it. I told them that the second they felt it was starting to be dangerous they'd have to pull down off the tower. I told the live truck crew that they’d have to lower the mast and get off the roof. I told the producer that he’d have to get ready to fill 40% of his news hole—the 40% we’d planned to devote to the concert.

The rest is soggy history. The concert had to be halted because of the fear of electrocution. Water puddled six inches deep in some places on the Great Lawn. Drenched concert-goers clogged the subways. Eyewitness News that night was the drowned rat of TV newscasts. I was despondent.

Here’s the way Diana Ross’s Central Park concert ended on Thursday, July 21, 1983. This is concert footage from the production truck. The Eyewitness News audience never saw any of this. Our crews had (rightly) taken cover by the time it got this bad.

About two minutes in, it cuts to the dramatic start of the next night’s return.

Can’t beat this for entertainment.

One other concert clip, just for fun. When Dreamgirls debuted on Broadway at the end of 1981, everyone assumed—knew—that it was the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Word was that she hated it, despised it.

But here, 19 months later, she’s on stage in the “Big Apple,” singing “Family” from Dreamgirls.

I wish I could say the story had a completely happy ending. It didn’t. As the crowd left the Friday night concert there were reports of gang muggings. Because the concert was held twice it actually lost money for the broadcasters, and there wasn’t enough profit for the Diana Ross Playground. She donated $275,000 of her own money to the project, helping the city to rebuild an existing playground. Groundbreaking took place in September 1986. Ross reportedly called the event "one of the most fulfilling aspects of [her] life and career.

Thursday, February 21

The Empress' Clothes

I'm not going to mention the station. I won't identify the anchor involved. I won't name the General Manager.

Trust me that it was a big enough market that we had big-time consultants, talent coaches, hairdressers, even clothing consultants if necessary. There are some rules about what to wear and what to avoid if you're going to be on TV. For men, no herringbone sport coats (they tend to "run" on camera, to produce squiggly lines). For women, no white blouses (that much white "blooms," and when the camera adjusts to all that white, it darkens your face). Of course NO GREEN or bold shades thereof. It fouls up the chroma-key, the "green-screen."

Some stations provide a clothing allowance for their anchors to make sure they get it right. One I worked at had a rule: everything purchased with station money use had to be approved by the General Manager. The ”talent” would bring in their new outfits and sit on the set for a camera check. I guess you could say we were auditioning clothing! A tape would be made and the GM and the Chief Engineer would eyeball it to make sure the new outfit "worked" for TV. If it didn't, you could keep it—if you paid for it yourself! But you couldn't wear it on the set.

A sidebar. My favorite crotchety, cranky curmudgeon—WABC's Roger Grimsby—had a big clothing allowance to be spent at one of the great men's stores in town: Barney's of New York. Remember, the purpose of the clothing allowance is to guarantee that you look at least presentable at all times (left on their own, I'm convinced many male anchors would dress in K-Mart sport coats, snap-tab shirts and clip-on ties). But Grimsby found a loophole. And you should have seen the look on News Director Cliff Abromats' face when he found a bill for ten pairs of silk undershorts! When Cliff confronted Roger, explaining (as if Grimsby didn’t already know) that the clothing allowance was only for items that you’d see on the air, Grimsby said something like, “You never know, do you?”

But I digress.

I started here talking about a nameless station (in a galaxy far, far away). We hired a new anchor who had a thing for bright colors. Neon bright. Hell, I can't even name the colors she wore—magenta, fuchsia, orange, candy-apple red, electric blue, watermelon green (how'm I doin'?). And for jewelry she favored huge plastic hoop earrings the size of saucers, in colors like (I'm doin' my best here) turquoise and hot yellow. And scarves? Don’t even go there. Scarves like capes, in all colors of the rainbow. Add it all together and the woman looked like a freakin' parrot!

I tried to hint to her that perhaps she should dress in a more businesslike manner, maybe some grays and muted blues, some softer pastels, but she wasn't hearing me (truth is, I wouldn’t take my own advice on how to dress myself, why should she listen to me? ). The GM (he who shall remain nameless) didn't want to spend the big bucks to bring in the clothing consultant. That would involve flying her in from New York, putting her up in a fancy hotel for days, and several big-ticket shopping trips to pick out new outfits (at company expense, of course).

The GM was adamant until...

One weekend the woman went on the air looking like a Chiquita Banana commercial, minus the headdress.

Bright and early Monday morning I looked up to see the GM in my doorway."Alright, get the clothing people in," he said. "Every weekend she looks like the flag of a different emerging African nation."

Wednesday, February 20

Proud to Serve...

I posted yesterday about Elden Hale, and his genius for reaching out to an audience. I mentioned that Elden, more than anyone else and before anyone else, saw the Wikes-Barre/Scranton market as not just just Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. I probably didn’t go far enough in recognizing the profound changes—cultural and economic—brought about by the simple phrase, “Proud to Serve Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania.”

If you lived in that area for any length of time you’d know that in the old days Scranton and W-B weren’t just separate cities, they seemed like separate universes. It’s not that they had some rivalry, that they hated each other: heck, the residents of each just didn’t know the other existed. If you lived in Wilkes-Barre, “Scranton” was just a word that probably had no more meaning than “New York” of “Philadelphia” or “Bangkok.” You had a concept of Scranton, but most had never been there.

Heck, if you lived in Wilkes-Barre, there’s a good chance you might never have been across the river to Kingston (300 yards away!).

It’s one of the most clannish areas I ever encountered. “Why should I go to their city? I’ve got everything I need in my city. My church is here, and my kids’ school. There’s a store where I can buy underwear, and a barbershop, and a car dealer. My two favorite restaurants are here—and my three favorite bars. Why should I go to (fill in the blank)?

Two things changed that attitude, at about the same. One was the construction of shopping malls like the Wyoming Valley Mall and the Viewmont Mall. For the first time there was a reason to go someplace else: I could get something there I couldn’t get in my town.

Second was regionalism, as first preached and practiced by WNEP. The station served the entire region (as you can see from this old coverage map)—and got the whole region to recognize it as the hometown station. Covering the news in all those counties--and parades, and telethons, and sporting events and making personal appearances--got people thinking regionally for the first time. Elden drummed it into their heads over and over and over again. It sure-as-hell-wasn't the folks who ran 22 and 28 pushing for broader boundaries. You can almost hear them saying, "What are those 16 people doing in Tunkhannock?" While they were waiting for black-and-white to come back, Elden and the Shelburnes were pulling away. Now it's too late for a even a dramatic comeback to make 'BRE or 'YOU competitive.

The “drawback” of not being located in (or identified with) one of the two big cities in the market later turned out to be a huge advantage. So big an advantage that when Elden (by that time GM) picked a site for a new building, he didn’t want it to be in one big city or the other. Even though the land on Montage Mountain Road appeared on the maps as being in Scranton, Elden saw to it that it got a Moosic mailing address. That kept WNEP from being a “Scranton Station” or a “Wilkes-Barre Station,” even if you were just sending in a postcard for the snow-thrower contest.

The same game plan, forging a regional identity, has been tried elsewhere. KLSA, in Shreveport invented (if I’m not mistaken), the term “The ArkLaTex” to describe its coverage area (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). I don't know if that's been a uniying force like "PTS" has been, though.

And just today, on ShopTalk, one of the news-business sites, came this news release from KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

"Young Broadcasting Inc., has promoted long-time KELOLAND TV executive Jay Huizenga to president and general manager as he’s about to complete his 27th year in broadcasting at KELOLAND. Mr. Huizenga’s promotion comes less than one year after the company named him as station manager of KELOLAND. The appointment, which is effective immediately, was announced today by Deborah McDermott, president of Young Broadcasting Inc."
I know the stated purpose of this blog is to share my experiences in television news. How does “KELOLAND” qualify?

Well, I just experienced throwing up in my mouth—just a little bit.

Tuesday, February 19

Apocryphal Now

I've talked here before about Elden Hale, one of the driving forces who made WNEP-TV in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market such a dominant station—and certainly the man behind Newswatch 16's phenomenal growth and success.

I'm not sure I told you that Elden and I go back almost forty years. He and I had our first "real" TV jobs together, at the old WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working for the legendary Dick Cheverton. I guess you could say we knelt at the feet of the master. I guess, if we were racehorses, you'd say we share the same bloodlines. (OK, fill in your own “horse’s asses” joke here.)

Why, then, is he so much smarter than I am?

I guess we were friendly competitors when we started out, each building a career, looking for the next big step. I was around for the birth of his children--one now in TV, the other a lawyer. But he beat me in the race for the first news director's job. He landed at WNEP. And he invited me to come see him. It was late in 1974, I think. I didn't know it, but he wanted to offer me a job.

When I got to Avoca (where WNEP was located) I found the worst TV station in America!

WBRE was Wilkes-Barre's station. WDAU (now WYOU) was Scranton's station. WNEP, at the airport, was nobody's station, and it showed.

When I arrived Elden and his wife had yellow paint on their hands. Seems Elden had gotten a deal on yellow high-gloss, and he and Nancy had spent the weekend painting the cabinets in the newsroom. Talk about a Mom-and-Pop operation!

Those were the film days. WNEP had an old, antiquated film processor (the machine, not the operator!). I knew you could mis-mix the chemicals and mis-time the steps and get blue film. I'd even seen green film. I'd never before seen red film.

And Elden got a bargain on some double-sprocket film. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

So sure enough, the night I visited the lead story got on the air upside down, backwards and red!

Elden was one of the first to use a big-screen TV on-set as an over-the-shoulder device for rolling film and showing slides. He'd have the director pull "still frames" from film for use in the monitor. One night he told the director he needed something to illustrate a bomb for a Middle-East story. The director made his choice. And that night the anchor (J. Kristopher, maybe?) went on the air with a still of Boris Badonov from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Not this shot, but a cartoon out-take of Boris holding a bowling-ball shaped bomb with a burning fuse!

A few years later I learned that there was time every afternoon when it was a bad idea to try to call Elden. Bowling for Dollars was on, and the pin-setter was butted up to the back wall of Elden's office. You couldn't hear anything but the roll of the ball and the crash of the pins while the show was on.

Elden offered me the job, and I turned him down. I remember thinking, "This is the Elephant Burial Ground of TV news. Poor Elden: anyone who works at WNEP will never be heard from again."

OK, who knew?

But Elden had an instinctual feel for doing news in a compelling way, for seeing news as a service, for making the station a part--an essential part--of the viewers' lives. And he realized that if 28 was going after Wilkes-Barre and 22 was going after Scranton, that left 50% of the audience, in the outlying counties, unattached. He's the one who first regionalized the news, who made "Proud to Serve Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania" a slogan that stuck in people's minds. He went after the outlying viewers—got them—then conquered Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties. The rest is history.

Now, it helped that ABC programming was taking off, that the Shelburne family (WNEP’s owner) was plowing the profits back into the news operation, and that the owners of WBRE and WDAU buried their heads in the sand and didn't keep up. But it was Elden's vision and drive that made WNEP the most dominant TV station in the country.

One story illustrates his chutzpah. This might be apocryphal. I wasn't there. I don't know for sure. I do know that Elden brought "Backyard Weather" to the market. He did it because he simply didn't have room for a decent weather set in the old WNEP's cramped one-studio building. Shooting through a slit in the back garage door made sense.

Anyway, the story goes that on one of the first nights out back a huge rain storm kicked up just as the meteorologist (Paul Douglas, if I remember the tale correctly) was wrapping up his forecast. The winds were so strong that they turned Douglas' umbrella inside out--RIGHT ON THE AIR! After the show the floor director (the late Sid Harris, according to legend) went to Elden and said, "Why don’t you give me $30 and I'll go out and buy a terrific umbrella so that never happens again." And Elden is said to have replied, "Here's $30, go out and buy ten $3 umbrellas so it ALWAYS happens." I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there. But it certainly sounds like Elden Hale.

Genius. Pure genius.

Monday, February 18

Quirky Wittiness

It’s a Presidential election year. Maybe the most interesting since the Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail days of 1972. That’s a book, kiddies. By Hunter S. Thompson. Some of the best political reporting of all time.

I mean, this race is shakier than cafeteria Jell-O. It’s as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford. On the Democratic side this race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach. All that talk just months ago that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in? Don't bet the trailer money on it yet. This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex.

Sorry. Don’t know what got into me there. For a second I was channeling my inner Dan Rather. Those are all his lines, those Texas good-’ol-boy down-home-isms I’m going to kind of miss this time around, recited pretty much verbatim.

"Turn the lights down, the party just got wilder."
"It's cardiac-arrest time in this presidential campaign."
"He swept through the South like a tornado through a trailer park."
"Now Florida, that race, the heat from it is hot enough to peel house paint."
"It's a ding dong battle back and forth."
"They both have champagne on ice, but after the night is over, they might need a pick axe to open them."
"It's spandex tight."
"The presidential race still hotter than a Laredo parking lot."
"These returns are running like a squirrel in a cage."
"It was as hot and squalid as a New York elevator in August."

Dan’s still around. But this year the reporter who got roughed up by “goons” on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 isn’t working for CBS.

If you’re my age, you remember it. While peace protestors chanted “The Whole World is Watching” outside, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago had his security forces take control of the convention floor. It produced this video clip (sorry, you have to click the link: it won’t “embed” into the blog).

This year, if we want Dan Rather’s take on the political process, his quirky wittiness (witty quirkiness?) we’ll have to go to his weekly news magazine on something called HD Net on the Internet.

It’s been almost three years since he left CBS, and he left under a cloud. He vigorously defended a CBS story that claimed that someone may have falsified documents in George W. Bush’s National Guard file: that maybe during the Vietnam war “Dubya” didn’t satisfy his military obligations.

I won’t go into the yes-he-did, no-he-didn’t here; but the flap cost Dan Rather his job after 24 years anchoring CBS Evening News and 44 years with the network.

Still pending: Rather’s $70 million dollar lawsuit against the network and three of his old bosses.

Either way, the finest broadcast news reporter of his generation—maybe the finest since Murrow—won’t be in the CBS booth for the first time in a long time. I’ll miss him.

Don’t get me wrong. I never thought much of Dan as an anchor. Problem is, the spotlight and the accolades (and the big bucks) go to the anchor, the front-man (or front-woman), not the reporter who digs for news and breaks stories. Dan was a dedicated, dogged, determined reporter—as I said, arguably the best. But as an anchor he was always uncomfortable. You could probably get better psychiatric insights for a nickel from “Lucy” in the old Peanuts comic strip, but here’s my take: Rather’s up-by-his-bootstraps-from-humble-Texas beginnings left him with an inferiority complex. He always felt the need to prove himself. He couldn’t be satisfied with being a reporter, he had to push for the one broadcasting job he wasn’t particularly good at, lead anchor.

His tried to communicate with the common man, to overcome his awkwardness, with a down-home aw-shucks manner.

Someone somewhere at CBS actually let him go on the air one night with this story:

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because you have. It’s time-warp time again in the nation’s capital from out of nowhere fast, guess what’s back on the fast track tonight from the White House to Congress? Phil Jones reports the House, after a personal house call and arm-twisting session for Republicans from President Reagan yesterday, yup, the House is again getting ready to vote again tonight on a bracket-to-bracket, top-to-bottom, coast-to-coast federal tax overhaul bill.
“Yup?” Ouch!

But Dan was always at his best (and his comedy lines were at their worst) during election coverage. Here’s another sampling.

"His lead is as thin as turnip soup."
"This race is humming along like Ray Charles."
"This race is hotter than the Devil's anvil."
"Ohio becomes like a sauna for the two candidates. All they can do is wait and sweat." "One's reminded of that old saying, 'Don't taunt the alligator until after you've crossed the creek.'"
"The presidential race is swinging like Count Basie."
"This situation in Ohio would give an aspirin a headache.''
"Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a cotton field."
"What Kerry needs at this point is the equivalent of Tom Brady coming off the bench to rescue him. But it's still too close to call."
"No question now that Kerry's rapidly reaching the point where he's got his back to
the wall, his shirttails on fire and the bill collector's at the door."
"This presidential race has been crackling like a hickory fire for at least the last hour and a half."
"Let's see where it goes from here. Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows."
"In southern states they beat him like a rented mule."
"If you try to read the tea leaves before the cup is done you can get yourself burned." "We had a slight hitch in our giddy up, but we corrected that."
"Put on a cup of coffee, this race isn't going to be over for a while."
"John Kerry's moon has just moved behind a cloud, as far as Florida is concerned."
On Kerry's chances: "To use a metaphor, he's gotta draw to an inside straight. But hey, sometimes you get lucky and hit that straight."
"Is it like a swan, with every feather above the water settled, but under the water paddling like crazy?"
“The election is ‘closer than Lassie and Timmy.’”
"You can almost hear the GOP (deep breathing sound). We're getting within maybe smelling distance."
"We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon."

But enough of kicking Dan Rather around. Truth is, he believed in truth. And he fought for it. He took his lumps, but it was always facing his accusers, never from behind while running to hide. Here’s one last quote. This one ain’t a quip, and it ain’t somethin’ you’d trot out while whittlin’ on the back porch.

Dan Rather once said, “A tough lesson in life that one has to learn is that not everybody wishes you well.”

I do.

Tuesday, February 12

Happy Birthday, John Hambrick


Happy Birthday John Hambrick, born February 12th, in…uh…well…hmmm.

Huh, isn’t that funny? says here in 1941 [See Comments below for discussion]. That would make this his 67th birthday, right?

But wait, didn’t John frequently brag about his acting career, and the time he appeared on the old Playhouse 90 TV series? But Playhouse 90 only ran through 1961. So even if he appeared in the final season John would have been in his teens—and no older than 20—when he appeared in a drama on CBS. Really?

And how about this ad that ran in the Cleveland daily newspapers in December, 1967, announcing John’s debut that very night ("TONIGHT A NEW NAME MAKES NEWS IN CLEVELAND") as the new lead anchor on WEWS-TV. If John was born in 1941, that would have made him 26 when he became the top-dog anchor at the big-dog station in Cleveland. But Scripps Howard didn’t just pluck him off a Hollywood sound stage and say, “Here, kid, you’re an anchor now.” He had a career in TV news before WEWS—back in Memphis, or Nashville, I believe. Was he in TV news someplace else, sometime earlier? Don't know.

But John turns 67 today? Only six years older than me? Just another mystery about the most troubling anchor I ever worked with, and (in my opinion) one of the most troubled.

John had tremendous success at every station he anchored: certainly he “owned” Cleveland when he was at WEWS. I used to kid John that I grew up watching him, but of course that’s not the case. Strangely, I do remember his first days on the air in Cleveland. It’s my hometown, and I was on Christmas break during my sophomore year studying TV & Radio at Michigan State. Such a big deal was made of the “new guy” on 5 that I had to watch. And it was a big deal. He was terrific. He had presence. He had the anchor version of a Bible-thumping preacher's charisma: Elmer Gantry for the television age. That first week he made a believer out of me, and out of Cleveland. I think that to this day if you put a decent-sized ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer saying that John Hambrick was going to appear on the corner of East 9th and Euclid downtown at Noon on Saturday—you’d draw a crowd. He defined news for a generation in Cleveland.

But John apparently wanted more. Cleveland wasn’t a big enough pond for him, and he went west in the mid-70s. I don’t know which came first—KRON in San Francisco, or KABC in Los Angeles, but he was on the west coast until he was hired at WNBC in New York.

A pattern was starting to emerge. As big a success as he was, if I’m not mistaken after Cleveland he was “invited not to stay” at each of those stations when he came to the end of a contract. That’s how he got to Miami, to WTVJ—like WEWS in Cleveland the first on the air in town and the most dominant of the stations. At the end of his contract—he was “invited not to stay” at WTVJ. That’s how he arrived at WCIX (now WFOR) in 1990, checkered past and all. The independent station had just been purchased by CBS. I was Assistant News Director at the time, not really part of the hiring process, and I was flattered when the station brass (GM Allen Shaklan and Station Manager Jay Newman) asked my opinion. I told them I knew Hambrick brought a lot of baggage—but that as a station that had recently gone from being an independent with only one half-hour newscast each day, we needed to establish ourselves; and one way was to hire “name” talent, folks already established in the market. I told them WCIX was the “scratch and dent sale” of local TV: if we were willing to overlook a ding or two, we’d get a far better (and better recognized) anchor than a “startup” like WCIX was entitled to.

Parenthetically, I carried that thinking over to my days as news director. Being a bit dented myself (Oklahoma City!) I saw the value in hiring people who had something to prove, who had might have been underappreciated in previous jobs. It worked out pretty well.

But when it came to Hambrick, I didn’t know that I was soon to be John’s boss—and that he was going to be the bane of my existence for the next couple of years.

There’s something about the red light on a studio camera—it gives off some weird ray, I think—that grows egos and shrinks inhibitions. High maintenance? I’m reluctant to make further reference to the only completely obscene posting on this site. You can look up Dietary Preferences if you wish. Let me just say that the advice given to me at the start of my tenure as WCIX news director turned out to be prophetic and true. Every day. A gallon.

John was in my office every day—for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, even longer—needing constant care, his ego needing constant feeding.

Most of those sessions started the same way: “I know I’m coming to the end of a long and mediocre career.” If he didn’t get his way—“IKICTTEOALAMC.” It was his mantra. We were looking to establish a team—John and Giselle Fernandez. And our slogan was “Earning Our Reputation One Story at a Time.” That meant aggressive coverage of big stories wherever they occurred. So we alternated anchors on the big assignments. Giselle went to Haiti—“I know I’m coming to the end of a long and mediocre career, that's why you didn't send me.” Giselle went to Israel during the missile attacks in the first Gulf war? Forget that it was her turn, “IKICTTEOALAMC.”

Every day. In my office. The hang-dog look. The need for reassurance. The “IKICTTEOALAMC.”

Station GM Allen Shaklan (a great guy) and I got into the habit of taking him out to lunch or dinner roughly once a month. If the guy was playing Willy Loman in Death of an Anchor, attention must be paid, we thought. We alternated the chore. Allen came in one morning complaining that dinner the night before had left him exhausted. “You know how celebrities have a way of blending into crowds, looking over the heads of passersby, never making eye contact? John struts down the street looking every person in the eye, even staring—staring—into cars, looking for a hint of recognition. Being with him while he turns the spotlight on himself is so tiring.”

If that were it, that would be manageable. John wasn’t. He was a bully. He bragged about the fistfights he had had in newsrooms, at least one (to hear him tell the story) with a former news director. He hinted that the threat was always there, that he was a dangerous man to cross. He believed in shouting to make a point.

I wondered where his combative nature came from. One day he told a story from his hard-scrabble Texas boyhood, and of the day (as an eight-year-old) he got whipped in a fight and went home to his mother. He didn’t get the sympathy he wanted. Instead she sent him back out with instructions to find the other boy and beat him, or not bother coming home at all. “Why, Momma?”


That explained a lot. Everyone was an adversary. Every day was a struggle. Every person had to be bested. All authority had to be challenged. He was Johnny, and he had to fight—even if he had to pick the fight.

And then there's this: I think John was bored as an anchor. He was an actor forced to play the same role over…and over…and over again. He had to find ways to keep his performance “new,” and one way was to be constantly at odds with those around him. Also, he didn’t seem to believe much in TV news. I guess he thought it was beneath him. Maybe it wasn't just self-pity, maybe "long and mediocre career" encompassed self-loathing too.

He didn’t seem to be proud of his success in TV: “IKICTTEOALAMC.” He was prouder of the country and western album he cut, Windmills In A Jet Filled Sky, produced in 1972 with the help of some top-notch Nashville session people. I went looking and found a copy on eBay the other day, “Buy it Now” for $299.99. But I also found a copy elsewhere on the Internet for $16.80.

Either way, actor or singer, the old performer was always lurking in the background. You can’t spell “Hambrick” without H-A-M.

We decided to shoot our afternoon news teases in the newsroom instead of on the anchor desk; to show the hustle and bustle of the news environment. Certainly not a new concept. But the promotion folks had this idea for a bit of “business:” John would walk down the two steps from the assignment desk during the voice-over open, and up to the camera. John resisted. “What’s my motivation?”

But here’s a clip of John from 1991, behind the news desk, delivering an Action News tease. Notice the scowl, the mannerisms, the rolling, raspy baritone, leaning toward you, looking at you over the top of his glasses, the clipped cadences, the hand gesture at the end. Here’s a man who should be playing a U.S. Senator (or the President) in some big-budget flick, instead forced to “play” the role of anchorman in Miami. “IKICTTEOALAMC.” Hambrick or Hamlet, you be the judge.

Once, in the middle of a rating period, John came to my office saying he desperately needed time off. Here we were, trying to gain a foothold against our established competition, and John wanted to walk away from the anchor desk for several days in the middle of an important “book?” He explained that his daughter Mignon, in Los Angeles, needed his help. He was worried about a relationship she was in. He seemed beside himself. When I gave him the time off and promised to run interference with the higher-ups, he shook my hand with (I thought) a tear in his eye, saying he’d never forget me.

A couple of weeks after his return he was in my office arguing about a decision I had made. He ended the “conversation” by saying, “There’s no use even talking to you, you’re mentally ill and should be committed.”

John, I’ll never forget you either.

After Hurricane Andrew in ’92—after I lost everything I owned when the roof of the home I was renting opened up—after I moved into a cheap furnished place an hour away from the station with all I owned (three suitcases worth)—after 18-hour days and 7-day workweeks—I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I talked it over with Allen, and he accepted my resignation. I needed to get my life back. Hambrick told the Miami Herald I had been fired, and said it was because of low ratings (ironically, my last night as news director our 11:00 p.m. was #1 in the market, driven by the lead-in ratings from a Frank Sinatra docudrama: so there!).

But I left on my own. One small factor in my decision was a disagreement Allen Shaklan and I were having about Hambrick. John’s son Jack, working as a reporter (in Tampa, if remember correctly), had applied for a job at WCIX. Allen thought hiring Jack would be a great move, that coaching his son would give John something to do, would keep him occupied and out of trouble. It might even keep him out of our offices.

I told Allen we’d wind up with the biggest yenta in the world on our hands, that Jack would be the only TV reporter in America with his own full-time, live-in agent making demands 24/7 on behalf of his son. Jack was already asking for more money than we were paying more experienced reporters who were established in the market (I wonder who gave him that idea?). I walked away from that one, and never looked back. Jack was hired, but I don’t think I ever saw him on the air.

I do know that Jack later sued the station claiming he had been cheated out of overtime pay. I don’t know how that ended, except that Jack Hambrick no longer works for CBS.

And I know that when John’s contract came up for renewal, he was gone. I think he was “invited” not to be at WFOR any more.

I thought he more or less retired. He and his wife owned a ranch in Texas: he called it “The Little House,” and he was always talking about their plans for a bed and breakfast. I was told later that he was anchoring in Beaumont, Texas (the market closest to “The Little House”), but I can find no record of that.

Now I see John is acting again, and doing commercial voice-over work. He’s got an agent. You can find his web page. The picture there shows him without his toupee. It says he appeared in an episode of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. Good for him. That’s probably where he belonged all along; that’s where his heart was, in performing. John was a terrific anchor—one of the best I ever worked with, almost at Tom Snyder’s level—but if you looked closely you could see he was acting. He knew how to play an anchor, but I think he kept at it only for the money and the strokes. Or maybe it was just too easy for him after awhile. The sad thing is that in his own way he was a cheat. He cheated on his talent, by not using it fully in his job. He cheated his audience by giving less than his best. His best was so damn good that settling for less—when you’d seen what he was capable of—was sad.

Last story. Hurricane Andrew brought out the best and the worst in John Hambrick. I pushed, prodded, wheedled and cajoled him into going into the field as a reporter—and he turned in a magnificent job of field reporting. He and his cameraman confronted a looter rifling through a bombed-out convenience store. John was so much in the guy’s face that the man quietly set down the goods and slinked away.

But then there’s this. All of us were working (it seemed) non-stop. In the early going many of us slept on blankets at the station. Even John was working nine or ten hours daily (with all the restaurants in the area damaged or without electricity, he couldn’t take his usual 2 ½-hour dinner break after the 6:00 p.m.!). After about two weeks, as things were settling down a bit, John came in to ask for two days off. I told him he was certainly entitled to them, and approved them on the spot. I was puzzled, though. I knew his home had suffered virtually no damage in the storm. A fence had been toppled and that was it. He had been without electricity for awhile, but bought two generators to power his house.

Before I could even ask, John volunteered that his wife had been at “The Little House” since well before the hurricane, and was headed home: “If I don’t get the floors waxed she’s going to kill me.”

Happy birthday, John, however many this is. Peace.

Tuesday, February 5

Buh-Bye, Bobby

I’ve written here before about the reasons for my dislike of basketball coach Bobby Knight (back on April 14 2007). I won’t repeat the tale. Read it for yourself.

His resignation as head basketball coach at Texas Tech last night made me pause and reflect on the man and his legacy. Was I too hard on him? Was I unfair to him? Did I misunderstand his methods and his motives?

Naw, the guy was a bully and a blowhard and a bastard—a thoroughly disgusting jerk. He got away with it because, it was said, he was a man of honor and honesty.

B.S. He got away with it because (early in his career) he won and won big. Indiana University officials sold their souls because winning basketball games brought their school attention and kept it from being the laughingstock of the Big Ten in every sport. Knight did it by pushing himself and everyone around him harder than anyone had ever pushed anyone in college basketball before.

That was good—for awhile. But pretty soon other coaches were putting in the same hours. Others were as dedicated. Others could draw up plays. Others were more forward-thinking and more flexible. And because other coaches didn’t throw temper tantrums (and balls, and chairs), and didn’t punch, choke, threaten, belittle and humiliate their players, because they didn't try to reduce them to tears, soon the biggest high school stars in the country were avoiding Bobby Knight and Indiana. End of dynasty.

Look at his last teams at Indiana, and his recent teams at Texas Tech: not a superstar in the bunch. Superstars went elsewhere. In the last 20 years it was the guys with B- games who chose Bobby Knight, hoping that his reputation was true, that he could bring out the best in them.

He couldn’t.

I’ll finish here by labeling Knight a lying hypocrite. He praised teamwork above all else: but he’s leaving his team with 10 games left in the season. He downplayed individual accomplishment: but now that he’s the winningest coach in collegiate basketball history (902 with Army, Indiana and Texas Tech) he can walk away from his responsibilities. He stressed loyalty: but he’s bailing out on a three-year contract extension he signed just five months ago. He told his players to play through pain: but his coaching buddy Pete Newell is quoted as saying, “He is worn out.”

Knight preached that you have to earn your success in life: but it was prearranged that his son, Pat, be the next Texas Tech head coach. Pat has worked for his father as an assistant for years. His only head coaching experience came with the "Wisconsin Blast" (the Wisconsin Blast???) of the International Basketball Association. I'm already looking for Blast memorabilia on e-Bay. A hoodie would be nice.

Bobby Knight leaves behind a team that is 12-8 and in sixth place in its conference.

The Knight sycophants and apologists and toadies are singing his praises today. I come to bury Bobby, not to praise him. Good riddance.

Let me close by resurrecting this “chart” from The Onion, from when Knight was fired by IU.

Sunday, February 3

Twisting in the Wind

It was in the late summer of 1969. I had been out of college a few weeks, and had settled into my first job at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was busy writing hourly five-minute radio newscasts and starting to work producing the 11:00 p.m. television newscast.

In those days there were no reporters and no photographers on weekend duty. The 11:00 p.m. (which might have been only 15 minutes long in those days), was delivered by an anchor who came in at 10:00 p.m. just for that purpose. For video it featured whatever national footage the network sent us. On the radio side the disc jockeys read the news.

There weren’t five people in the building (counting engineers) when all hell broke loose! The wire machine bells went off: a tornado warning was issued for our area.

I knew what to do. We all knew what to do. It had been drilled into us by News Director Dick Cheverton, after a debacle the year before. In 1968, major tornados had hit the area with no warning. An investigation had been held to find out why the word never went out. Who dropped the ball, the “Weather Bureau” (as we still called it: the official name was changed to the National Weather Service only in 1967) or the media? In the end, the NWS got the blame. But “Chev” was determined that in the future there never be even a hint that his station had failed the public, and he transformed the way we aired weather bulletins.

So I ducked into the little closet that served as an audio booth right inside the newsroom—not ten feet from my desk. In front of me I had a mic and a set of three lights and three switches. The first pair, white, signaled the disc jockey to introduce a weather bulletin when it was next convenient—after a song or after a commercial. That was for most weather watches. The yellow pair signaled the DJ to toss it to me now! And the red pair cut into all programming on radio and TV and put me on the air instantly.

I flipped the red switch and read the bulletin—a Tornado Warning—for both radio stations and television.

With a tornado warning—the NWS saying a funnel cloud had been sighted—our policy was to repeat the announcement every 7-10 minutes until the "all clear" was issued. That gave me a few minutes between sessions in the closet to start calling the staff in and to start calling local police agencies for reports before I had to air the latest bulletin.

It went that way for the next two hours while the staff hurried in: air the bulletin—make some calls—air the bulletin—make more calls.

Chev showed up and started to dispatch reporters and photographers to areas of reported sightings.

Finally, after two or three hours of non-stop activity, Chev came up to me. “You’ve done a great job. I’m going to have one of the anchors take over now, but I can’t let you go just yet. Take Tom (Chief Photographer Tom O’Rourke) and head north of here towards the latest funnel sightings."
The newsroom was in a half-basement—just a few windows high on the walls. I knew it was still a sunny day out, but it was great to be out in the sun and to be moving. Tom and I packed the car and headed down the driveway.

And I saw a man mowing his lawn.

And a “Mister Softee” truck making its way up College Avenue.

And a bunch of kids playing baseball in a vacant lot.

And another man washing his car.

And I desperately wanted to lean out the car window and scream, DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME???




And I learned that my professors at Michigan State had been right: to communicate you have to have a sender and a receiver. You can put it in books and newspapers and on radio and TV—and these days on the internet: but if no one reads it or hears it or sees it the job of communicating is only half-done, which is the same as not being done at all.

Turns out that most of the twisters that day stayed aloft, never reaching the ground and never doing any damage. The one or two funnels that did reach ground cut through farm fields: no one hurt, no buildings destroyed.

I guess I was the one who felt left twisting in the wind that day. I have felt that way a lot over the years: Didn’t you hear? Didn’t you see? Why don’t you pay attention? This is important!

We talk about "making a difference," but when I see how “informed” our citizenry is, despite our best efforts, I wonder sometimes why we bother. Have you got any good answers?

Friday, February 1

Scourge of Evil Doers

What is the role of a journalist in modern society? Observer? Crusader? Advocate? Analyist? Teacher? Interpreter? Transcriber? Judge and Jury?

The second major newspaper in Detroit, the Detroit Evening News, began publication in 1873. It was the city’s dominant paper in 1917 when it commissioned architect Albert Kahn to design its new building at Lafayette and Fort Streets. Ninety years later that building and the paper it houses are still there.

The News also has the distinction of signing on the nation’s first newspaper-owned radio station 8MK, on August 20, 1922. That station later became WWJ. WWJ-AM gave birth to WWJ-TV. I worked there in the early 70s, and again in the late 70s when it had been sold to the Washington Post and rechristened WDIV-TV.

Our newsroom was headquartered on the third floor of the huge old WWJ radio building, across the street from the Evening News. From a third-floor stairwell at the back of the newsroom you could get a clear view of the higher floors of the News building, and the inscriptions carved into the parapet on top. Each panel lists three attributes of the ideal newspaper.

Forget Charles Foster Kane and his “Declaration of Principles” in Citizen Kane. A 1922 book says, “The inscriptions on the parapet, of which Prof. F.N. Scott, of the University of Michigan, is the author…express the ideal of the newspaper housed therein and the goal towards which it strives. "

Mirror of the Public Mind… Interpreter of the Public Intent… Troubler of the Public Conscience

Reflector of Every Human Interest… Friend of Every Righteous Cause… Encourager of Every Generous Act

Bearer of Intelligence… Dispeller of Ignorance and Prejudice… A Light Shining Into All Dark Places

Promoter of Civic Welfare and Civic Pride… Bond of Civic Unity… Protector of Civic Rights

Scourge of Evil Doers… Exposer of Secret Inequities… Unrelenting Foe of Privilege and Corruption

Voice of the Lonely and Oppressed… Advocate of Friendliness… Righter of Public and Private Wrongs

Chronicler of Facts… Sifter of Rumors and Opinions… Minister of the Truth that Makes Men Free

Reporter of the New… Remembrancer of the Old and Tried… Herald of What is to Come

Defender of Civil Liberty… Strengthener of Loyalty… Pillar and Stay of Democratic Government

Upholder of the Home… Nourisher of the Community Spirit… Art, Letters and Science of the Common People

"Scourge of Evil Doers." I like that. How about "A Light Shining Into All dark Places?" I like that one, too. If that has a familiar ring to it, it's because the News was founded by James E. Scripps, the half-brother of Edward W. Scripps. The Scripps-Howard motto, carried forward to the E. W. Scripps Company and its newspaper, TV and cable empire remains, "Give Light and the People Will Find Their Own Way."

David Brinkley used to say that it's easy to mistake journalists for liberals, because in their heart of hearts both have the same dream: to ride in on a white horse and save the world.

Tell me. Is Bill O'Reilly the "Dispeller of Ignorance and Prejudice?" Is Rush Limbaugh an "Advocate of Friendliness?"

Am I?

Are you?