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.


Bob said...

You're still the best story teller/writer in (or currently out)of broadcast news!

Old Zeb said...

Love it!