Tuesday, June 17

Tan His Hide

Can you put up with one more Roger Grimsby story? This one is folklore, and I can't vouch for it personally. It happened long before my time at WABC. I'm not even sure who told me; maybe newswriter Sandy Lechner, who I remember as being something of a Grimsby archivist.

Roger, as I've written, was famous for his acerbic put-downs. He's the guy who, one night when Howard Cosell had the night off, said, "Howard isn't here, he's walking his pet rat."

On another night (as the story goes), WABC had a new guy on sports, a tryout of sorts. Cosell and his backup were both off, and WABC had about a week's notice to come up with a fill-in. They arranged (I'm told) for a well-known ABC Radio sportscaster to air sports that night. If I ever heard his name, I don't remember it. It's not important. Let's call him "Joe Blow."

Joe was a popular radio sportscaster, no longer young. When he was a kid he had flaming red hair. Now he still had flaming red hair, know-what-I-mean, know-what-I-mean, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more!

Joe went to a friend who knew something about TV and expressed his concern that he might look a little . . . well . . . uh . . . old on TV. Did the friend have any advice?

"Yeah, get a tan. Look at Bill Beutel. He's always got a terrific tan. It takes ten years off you just like that!"

"Yeah, but how am I going to get a tan in less than a week?"

And his friend told him about makeup--theatrical makeup--pancake makeup--and what shade (dark!) to wear to have a perfect tan.

And that's how we got to this "Roger Grimsby Moment:"

"Time now for sports. Joe Blow is sitting in for Howard Cosell. Don't adjust your set. Joe Blow is ORANGE!"

And that, as they say, let the air out of the tires.

As I said, I wasn't there. I wasn't an "eyewitness" (forgive the pun). But it sure sounds like Roger Grimsby, so I'm going to move it from the Legend pile to the Fact pile unless someone tells me differently.
6/19 Update:

Got a nice note from Al Primo (yes, the Al Primo) confirming the substance of the story--so it stays in the "Factual" pile.

He also gave me the name of the sportscaster involved. It's a name I know and a voice I've heard: you too, probably. But I'm not going to reveal it here. Seems to me once you've been hip-checked into the boards by Roger Grimsby, no further humiliation is warranted.

Monday, June 16

The Next Generation

A little political incorrectness here.

Back when I was starting at WABC 25 years ago, we had a ton of people on the staff. One of them was a kid named Dori Kam, one of the Eyewitness News production assistants.

A kid, as I said—but whip-smart, really nice, and cute as a pail of puppies (that’s the politically incorrect part). Just one of those people who lights up a room when she walks in. And no disrespect intended: she was as intelligent, as hard-working and as dedicated as any of us, and we were all intelligent, hard-working and dedicated. And she’d already been there for several years. As a newcomer I worked just as hard to win her respect as I did to win the respect of News Director Jim Topping, or anchors Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel.

In the years since, she got married—had two kids—and got divorced. She’s teaching school. Now comes word that one of her sons, Ari Cohen, is finishing work on his college degree with an internship—AT WABC!

I wrote her a note saying I had hoped for better for her son: I don’t know, drug dealer, mass murderer, politician. But broadcast news? What is the world coming to when the best and the brightest decide to squander their talents on TV journalism? Is the kid brain damaged? What kind of mother would allow her son to get into TV? Sounds like a case for "Children and Youth."

But—on the other hand—maybe there’s a chance for broadcast journalism yet. I just don’t think it will be on TV as we know it: TV and print are going away. As soon as HDTV-quality programming is available on-demand over some web link on your home entertainment center/computer, the end of TV stations and over-the-air will be at hand.

But people are still going to want news. That means someone is going to have to report it and shoot it and edit it and “air” it. Maybe Ari Cohen will be one of the “someones” who invents the “new” news business.

Still, for Dori it must be like sending your son off to war. Eyewitness News? As they say in Minnesota, uff da!

Wednesday, June 11

Love, Hate, Tolerate...and "Teddy Says..."

I’ll admit it. Most news directors have a love/hate relationship with their station’s engineering departments.

Wait a minute. Strike that. I promised complete honesty here, so let me amend that comment. Most news directors have a hate/hate/hate/tolerate relationship with their engineering department. That’s probably because most news directors are trying to preach “can-do,” and most engineers come from the land of “can’t-do.” Admit it: don’t you get the feeling that most engineers are waiting for the days of black-and-white to come back? Everything seems to be an imposition, everything seems to be impossible. I know, I know—it’s a thankless job, with everyone demanding miracles. But why—in most engineering departments—is everything impossible?

In my last (and I do mean last) ND job, one night, one newscast, every single story played with the audio screwed up. Turned out a new engineer had tweaked the playback machines up to specs as part of routine maintenance. As the Chief Engineer later explained it (as best I could tell, translated from "Engineer-Speak"), when the playback area was originally installed it was “installed backwards:” right was left, and left was right, or something like that. Everyone knew that, he said. So when the new guy made it right, he was making it wrong. The attitude seemed to be, “Well, everyone knows it’s backwards, what was he thinking?

Oy vey!

But there was (and I hope still is) an exception. WNEP in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had (I hope still has) the best engineering staff I ever saw. And remember, I’ve seen ‘em in big markets and small. Nothing compared to WNEP’s.

The engineers willingly solved problems you didn’t even know you had, and tackled challenges with something approaching glee. Nothing was too hard. It was all an adventure. "Zen and the Art of Television Maintenance."

This goes back almost 25 years. We had set up a “flashcam” in the newsroom for bulletins and headlines. Trouble was, it was right next to the wire machines. These weren’t the old big, black, chunka-chunka-chunka clunky teletypes with the alarm bells. These were the ribbon printers with audible sirens mounted on them. Every once in awhile the anchors would be recording a tease and a siren would go off. Annoying and distracting.

I asked one of the engineers if he could come up with a way for us to be aware of bulletins without the screeching. Two hours later—after a trip to RadioShack and an expense of about $6—we had our solution. The engineer pulled the alarms, rewired the notification system, and hung miniature strobe lights from the newsroom ceiling in two places where they wouldn’t appear on camera but could be seen by everyone. We "saw" the bulletins without having to hear them. Newspapers used to trumpet "FLASH," but we actually saw the "flash" all over the newsroom.

Talk about proactive! The WNEP coverage area is more than 20 counties; and the commitment was to cover news in all of them. One day an engineer came to me and said, “I know you have trouble hearing police calls in every county. How would you like one scanner that picks up signals from every single county?” He’ll, I’d love it. How are you going to do it?

His answer: string an antenna up near the top of our transmitter tower, run the lead down to a 500-channel scanner in the transmitter shack, and pipe the sound back to a speaker on the assignment desk.

One problem, I told him: if we can’t see the scanner, see what channel it has "hit," we won’t know who’s talking. But he had that figured out.

Two days later a black-and-white monitor showed up on the desk. The guy ran the antenna to the scanner—then hooked up a closed-circuit camera to take a picture of the scanner, and piped it down an STL to the desk. Hear interesting chatter—look at the monitor—see that it’s channel 272—realize that that’s Schuylkill County fire—and go from there!

The WNEP engineers wanted to make it was easy as possible to get equipment fixed fast. In some stations you literally have to type out a form, in triplicate, to get a piece of gear looked at. Don’t know if it’s still true, but in the old days the ‘NEP techies had a tape recorder set up so you could bring in your camera or tape deck or whatever even when a maintenance man wasn’t around. Leave the gear on the bench and a detailed description of what’s wrong on the tape. No muss, no fuss.

One last thing. The engineers were such good guys they’d even perform routine maintenance on your personal gear—a VCR or what-have-you.

Remember “Teddy Ruxpin,” the animatronic talking teddy bear? He had an audio tape deck built into his back, and he’d move his mouth, eyes and arms in rhythm to the tape. Someone at the station bought a “Teddy Ruxpin” for one of his kids, but it broke. No problem for the WNEP engineers. They fixed him up, good as new.

How do I know? I walked by Engineering one morning and saw and heard Teddy talking; although apparently they didn’t have the pre-recorded Ruxpin tape. So what I heard was the “trouble report” tape playing through “Teddy,” in Photographer Nick Horsky’s voice:
“Jesus Christ, you know I’ve just about f**kin’ had it with this piece-of-s**t camera! The g**damned back focus is out again! If it doesn’t get fixed soon I’m gonna break the f**kin’ lens off and shove it up someone’s a**!”
And Teddy rolled his eyes and waved his arms.

I’m sure the camera got fixed, and no a**es got harmed. But I hope I don't come across as too off-color if I say that I'm just as sure the WNEP engineers could have found a way to pull a lens out of someones a** and fix that, too, if that's what was needed. An amazing, talented, solution-oriented group. Never saw a better bunch. They put pride into their work and took joy from their jobs. A lot of us could stand to learn from their example.

Sunday, June 8

A Love Story?

In my previous post I wrote about Tom Conner—real name Emil Sepich—the wonderful anchor/news director I worked with at WEEK-TV in Peoria in the mid-70s. I talked, briefly, about his death. There’s more to the story. It’s a haunting memory, so I don’t talk about it much. But Tom/Emil has been on my mind lately, so now’s the time.

First, a little more background. I wrote that I had been brought in to run the Channel 25 newsroom after WEEK slipped—for the first time in history—into second place in the news ratings. Tom, I wrote, just couldn’t be running the newsroom at 9:00 a.m. and anchoring at 10:00 p.m. The station’s fiercest competitor, WRAU (now WHOI) brought in an outsider (Steve Cohen, later news director in Philadelphia, later a bigwig with Court TV¸ later a successful general manager) to give them their push forward. I was hired (just after Cohen left town) to take WEEK back to #1, to give it a shot in the arm.

As I wrote, we (I emphasize “WE”, it was a collective effort) did. From a 26 share to a 43 share in a year and a half.

For me, then a young(ish) guy, it was great success. For Tom, it was vindication. The “Dean of Local Anchors” was on top again. When the ratings started slipping there had been some talk that maybe what WEEK needed even more than someone to run the newsroom was a new lead anchor. No one could say that now about the #1 anchor at the #1 station in the market. The future looked bright.

It came at a great time. That fall (’77), for the first time in a long time WEEK-TV held a “client party” to show off the fall lineup. The station had gotten out of the habit during the economic hard times of the early 70s. But in ’77, NBC's fall programming looked strong and local programming was going gangbusters. It was decided we’d show off a bit for station clients, and the local country club was rented out for diner, drinks and dancing.

It really turned out to be a party to honor Tom. There was a receiving line, and there he was front-and-center, the “center,” if you will, of attention. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to pat him on the back, wanted to shake his hand, wanted to acknowledge his presence as the “Main Man” in local news. I stood in the background feeling very satisfied with myself, and extremely pleased that this wonderful guy was again getting the respect he had rightly earned over so many years.

I don’t know if Tom was ever much of a drinker—I had been (and would be, for a time, later)—but back then both of us were pretty much teetotalers. EXCEPT ON THAT NIGHT. As the evening wore on, he and I adjourned to a quiet table with a bottle of champagne and toasted our pasts, our present, and our futures. We “indulged in the bubbly” and got a little tipsy.

I don’t know how it came up, but at one point in the wee hours he said something like, “I’ve been very lucky, and I have few regrets.”

But he proceeded to tell me a story of a woman he had loved and lost more than a quarter-century before. He was in radio at the time, in Chicago I think. The bottom line, he said, was “I had a lovely woman who really cared for me, and I treated her badly. I always regretted it and wished I could make it up to her.”

I told him it was never too late, that he was divorced, and that maybe he should try to find her. He told me he knew where she was, and that a mutual friend had told him that she was now divorced as well. I told him he should really find her. “No,” he said, “I caused too much pain and too much time has passed for me to ever make it right.” I wasn’t in a position to argue.

A few weeks later, Tom Conner was dead.

And a few weeks after that I got a call in my office from a woman who said she was looking for Emil Sepich. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked if I could help her in some way. She said no, that she was an old friend, and she gave me her name.

I’m sorry. I’m crying now as I write this.

I recognized the name. And I said to her, “I’m terribly sorry to be the one to tell you this. Emil passed away a few weeks ago. But I have a message . . . for you . . . from him.” And I told her what he had said.

We cried.

Her heart was broken, and I felt bad for her, for Tom and for their missed opportunities. I never found out—I never asked—what made her call that day. I put it down as fate. But I somehow felt blessed thinking that Tom had given me the opportunity to make amends for him, had entrusted me with his message. Today we call it “closure.” If that’s what it was, fine. I’d like to think I provided it for her and for him and for myself that day.

There were several little mysteries surrounding Tom’s passing, several signals that no one picked up on until after the fact. Added up, they make it seem he had a premonition of his own death.

The Friday night he died, after the 10:00 p.m. news he went out of his way to go back to Engineering to talk to one of the old-timers who’d been at the station since day one.

“I just want to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed working with you all these years.” Out of the blue.

“Well, thanks, Tom. That’s nice of you. Me too. Have a good weekend. Goodnight.”

And, heading for the door, Emil Sepich said “Goodbye.”

Isn’t there a book about the five people you meet in heaven? I’m not sure I’m going to heaven—I’m not sure they let news directors in—but if I con my way in, one of the people I’d dearly like to see again would be Emil Sepich. In life he was a sweet, gentle man and extremely kind to me. I hope he knows how sincerely I cared for him. I hope he can put in a good word for me: I think he’d have more “pull” up there than just about anyone I ever worked with.

Monday, June 2

The Bonus Round

Can you hear it? The piano music in the background? Can you make out the lyrics?


Light the corners of my mind

Misty water-colored memories

Of the way we were

I saw this ad, and the memories came flooding back.
WEEK-TV, one of the best medium sized television stations in America has a very rare leadership opportunity!

We are seeking a News Director/Multimedia Content Manager who will be responsible for producing and managing great journalistic and visual content for WEEK-TV, Peoria, Illinois’ most honored broadcast, internet and related information outlets.
The candidate chosen will have an obvious enthusiasm for the future of local news in a rapidly advancing environment. She/he will carry on a 30 year tradition of news dominance guiding an outstanding award-winning veteran staff while recruiting and shaping future talent, using all tools available to new media.

Number One for thirty years. Damn right! When I took over the WEEK-TV newsroom in 1976 the station was #2. When I left two years later, we were #1. It's been that way ever since.

I haven't written much here about those days. The story is long, complicated, and it doesn't have a happy ending. But if you're willing to stick with me, I'll tell you a couple of secrets that only four people ever knew—and three of them are now dead!

I'll also bury the lead—several leads. Tough!

WEEK signed on in 1953 as the first station in the Peoria market. Even after competitors signed on, WEEK—having staked out the territory first—was the dominant #1 station for almost a quarter-century. But when ABC programming took off in the 70s the ABC station, WRAU (now WHOI) rode the wave and became #1 in local news. NBC lead-in programming was no help to local affiliates in those days.

One of the primary reasons for WEEK's news success was also one of the reasons that led to its slip: News Director/Anchor Tom Connor. Now, it's impossible for me to say anything bad about Tom. He was one of the most decent, principled, caring men I have ever known. More than that, he was an excellent journalist—the "Dean of Local Anchors"—the man who invented broadcast news in the Peoria market. But as the station and the demand for TV news grew it became obvious that Tom (whose real name was Emil Sepich) couldn’t be wearing a manager’s hat at 9:00 in the morning and the anchor hat at 10:00 at night. He was stretched too thin. To badly mix metaphors, things started falling through the cracks. It was obvious Tom could only do one job or the other well; but it was also obvious the station couldn’t afford to lose the market’s #1 anchor. So it was decided to bring in someone to run the newsroom, someone who had experience in other markets, someone who could bring something new to the table. I was 29, executive producer for WISH-TV in Indianapolis, and I was approached.

Here’s where things had the potential to get ugly. Station management started their search for a news director without telling Tom! They weren’t sure how long the search would take, and they didn’t want to risk upsetting Tom if the process dragged on without producing results. Not a good plan. I didn't know that I was being secretly courted, so I told a friend who (you guessed it) had a friend at WEEK. And so on, and so on, and so on until Tom was told.

Once the "secret" was no longer secret I asked for (and was granted) permission to talk to Tom. I drove over and he spent the better part of a Sunday showing me the area and comparing notes. He was what I had been told to expect: honest, forthright, committed to the station, to the staff and to the community.

At the end of the day I told him, “Tom, I think they’ve handled this poorly. You should have been consulted. I’m sorry they didn’t give you a vote in this. But I give you a vote. I give you complete veto power. If you think I’m not the right fit, let me know—no hard feelings.”

Tom, a gracious gentleman, said everything would work out just fine, then—as far as I could tell—did everything in his power to make it happen. Back in the mid-seventies I was still a bit wet behind the ears. Instead or resenting me, Tom mentored me. He kept the title “News Director,” and I became “News Manager” (which I still think has a vaguely sinister ring to it, don’t you?).

I was overjoyed. For one thing, the money was fabulous. I had been making $15,000 a year at WISH. The WEEK offer was $23,000 plus a bonus based on ratings: $500 for every rating point we increased year-to year at 6:00 and at 10:00 in the three big Nielsen “books,” February, May and November. Go up two rating points at 6:00, this May compared to last May, and get a $1,000 bonus. Go up three rating points at 10:00, this November compared to last November, and get a $1,500 bonus! When you think about it, there was a chance for six bonuses a year (two newscasts, three books). Sweet!

So I took the job. And they day I got there—the day I got there—General Manager Phil Mergener called me into his office and said, “I’ve been thinking about this bonus thing.”


“I’ve been thinking that rating points are harder to come by than share points. How about if we make the deal for share points instead?”

Yes, sir!

What neither of us knew was that over the next two years, our six o’clock alone would go from a 26 share to a 43 share!

For those of you raised in a cable universe, I freely admit to you that those were the days when most markets were four-station markets (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS)—and there was no cable programming, no internet, no TBS, no CNN. Talk about a captive audience! But hey—we kicked some serious butt, and I was raking in what was (for me) some serious change. How did we do it? It wasn’t my doing alone. The staff was full of good people. I just tightened up the story-telling process (better writing!) and helped better focus our news gathering (better story selection). I made some cosmetic changes (set and graphics), and we successfully migrated from film to videotape. As we tightened our news broadcasts, we showcased the product with aggressive promotion. And it all worked!

OK. I promised you some never-before-heard inside information. Here’s the first. I was making so much in unplanned bonus money that I got to feeling guilty. So I started divvying up part of my bonus after every rating period and giving a share to my deputies, Jeff Hawkinson and Jerry Giesler—telling Mergener and the head of accounting that I didn’t want either to know it came from me, that it was to be a company bonus given to them by the company for excellent work. That’s something I’ve kept to myself for 30+ years.

I was happy to share in my good fortune. Things were going along pretty well.

My biggest problem was the Sales Manager, Bill Adams. Bill was always upset about news stories he said were “unfavorable for the business climate.” He was always asking us to shoot and air puff pieces that would paint his clients in a favorable light, and to kill stories that made them look bad. To Bill Adams, journalism was an UNnecessary evil.

Our biggest showdown was over Plymouth Volares. Anyone remember that piece-of-crap car? This dates back to the days before Lee Iacocca rescued Chrysler by making decent automobiles. The Volare had a bad habit: frequently when you’d turn ninety degrees to the right (like—uh—to go around a corner?) the engine would stall. Something about gas sloshing out of the carburetor. Plymouth had, it seemed, a recall notice out for that hunk of tin every few weeks. When we reported those recalls—as legitimate news stories—it drove Adams crazy. He and I often had it out in front of Mergener, but Phil always protected the news department (and me) from Bill’s meddling. He knew that I wasn’t going to bow to Adams’ pressure, and I’m sure he figured we could afford a P-O’d Plymouth dealer or two as long as our reputation and ratings were intact.

I guess this is the point where I should throw in another buried lead, one of the saddest events of my life. Tom Connor died.

I’ll have to write at greater length at another time about Tom’s life—and death—and legacy. Here’s the shorthand version: he was divorced and living alone. He went home one Friday night after the 10:00 p.m., and suffered a massive heart attack while brushing his teeth. The doctors later said he was dead before he hit the bathroom floor.

When I heard the news I felt as if I were having a heart attack. I had to sit down to catch my breath, I was so stunned. I’ve written here before about my first news director, Dick Cheverton, and about his losing battle with cancer. As horrible as Chev’s death was, those of us who loved him had time to prepare for his passing. Not so with Tom. Apparently Tom had a heart condition that he kept from all of us.

Someday I’ll write more about Emil Sepich. He was my colleague, my mentor and (I honestly hope) my dear friend. I still can hear his voice and feel his presence.

WEEK soldiered on, though. We had another “Tom” in the wings: Tom McIntyre was a young reporter and co-anchor. My thought was, “Let’s throw ‘Mac’ our there while we try to figure out what to do next.” Thirty years later “Mac” is still out there every weeknight, and the station is still #1.

Here’s another buried lead. I got fired. From a 26 share to a 43 share to out the door in two years. Not long after Tom’s passing, in May of ’78, Phil Mergener was fired. I never knew why. He’s dead now, too, so there’s no one to ask.

Bill Adams replaced Mergener. At the end of his first week on the job he called me in to his office, and said, “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. You’re fired.” And he handed me two envelopes, explaining that one contained two weeks’ severance pay—and the other was a check for $7,000 in bonus money I was owed for share-point gains in the May book.

Out the door with a huge bonus. Go figure. On the plus side, I guess Bill Adams was an honest man: he didn’t try to cheat me out of my bonus. On the negative side, I still consider him evil—but hey, I’m prejudiced, right? Either way, in my forty years in broadcasting, Bill Adams is the only person who actively tried to kill news coverage for sales motives. Oh, several have frowned and moaned when news stories have cost them clients and money, but all but Bill realized the benefits of fair, factual news coverage.

And don’t for a second think I’m painting myself as something of a martyr, someone who took a bullet for the cause. I’m sure Bill Adams would paint a picture of me as an arrogant, argumentative, inflexible ass who ate at the company trough then criticized the way the food was provided.

He would if he could but he can’t: he passed away, too. I comfort myself with the thought that he’s in Hell.

I haven’t been back to Peoria in 30 years. I ought to go sometime; it’s a wonderful, livable, friendly town and I have fond memories of many people and places. I also promised myself that before I die I’ll look up Bill Adams’ grave and pee on it.

Let’s get back on track. From Peoria it was on to Detroit as a producer in 1978—then two years later to WABC in New York as assignment manager. 1978, Peoria; 1980, New York.

A thought to ponder: in Peoria, with a staff of 13 full-timers, we were always saying, “If only we had a staff of 15 or 16, everything would be OK.” At WABC, we had 245—and spent each day moaning, “If only we had 260.” Go figure.

Now WEEK is looking for a news director. Maybe I should apply.

Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Or has time re-written every line?

If we had the chance to do it all again

Tell me, would we? Could we?

Nope. I’ve already tried “going home again” at WNEP. Doesn’t work. At least not for me.

By the way, sitting here humming The Way We Were got me to thinking about Robert Redford. Did you know that his character in the film Up Close and Personal (the Miami news director)—was based on me?

Not buying it, are you.

Hey, I took a shot.