Friday, August 29
First, you have to put up with some hopeless-old-geezer exposition, some background, some reminders of the way we were.
If you don't remember (and there's no reason you should) 1976 was before satellites were in general use for news coverage. I think the networks might have been just starting satellite program delivery (in place of lines). Satellites for news gathering? I don't think so.
It didn't really make much difference to local stations anyway. Most were still shooting film. I've written here before that in 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I was the WWJ field producer who flew with Bob Vito and a two-man film crew by light plane from Detroit to Grand Rapids to cover reaction in Gerry Ford's hometown, and we ferried most of the film back on that same plane to make the newscast.
Actually, now that I think about it, I got up at 5:00 the morning after Nixon's speech (on about two hours sleep) and ran some of the film out to the airport and handed it to a stewardess (no "flight attendants" yet!) to have her hand-carry it to Detroit where someone from WWJ would pick it up.
And I guess that's another "remember when" note: FedEx was barely up and running. If you wanted to ship film you took it to an airline and either had it checked in as baggage or found a friendly crew member to hand-carry it. So a kindly "stew" made sure that at least our early film got back to Detroit for the noon newscast while the rest of us shot more footage so we could fly back, process and edit the rest for 6:00. Whew!
Which brings us to grapefruit bags. You know, those cloth mesh bags, usually red or yellow? We'd tape the film cans tightly shut, toss them into a grapefruit bag, label the bag ("COUNTER-TO-COUNTER," "HOLD AT AIRPORT") and hope to make a flight.
Even the handful of stations that had started shooting videotape instead of film still hand to put those 3/4" U-Matic cassettes into grapefruit bags for shipment.
WISH-TV8 in Indianapolis was a pioneer. Under News Director Lee Giles, WISH was one of the first (maybe the first) in the country to go all-ENG (Electronic News Gathering)--all videotape. That didn't mean we weren't still in the grapefruit bag business. When WISH crews traveled, they traveled with a supply of mesh bags.
That's how WISH began its coverage of the Democratic National Convention in the Big Apple in sweltering mid-July 1976.
Anchor Mike Ahern and the station's Chief Photographer (forgive me, please, I don't remember his name) got there for day one and started covering the Indiana delegation. Now here's the challenge. Back at the station we were lifting the real convention news, the breaking news, off the CBS feeds. Mike couldn't feed anything: he had to rely on (gulp!) grapefruit bags! Which meant his stories were all at least 12 hours old (maybe more!) and all pretty generic: "Here are the folks from Indiana starting at some big buildings. Here are the folks from Indiana eating New York-style pizza. Here are the folks from Indiana at the top of the Empire State Building." And if Mike was lucky enough to be there when news was made--and we could get it back for a newscast--so much the better.
BURIED LEAD ALERT! HERE'S "THE GOOD STUFF."
But then . . . BUT THEN . . . Lee Giles played his trump card.
Dunno know how he did it--but Lee had engineered the world's greatest trade-out: the "Channel 8 News Jet, The Spirit of Channel 8." Honest to God, we had a deal with a charter outfit called "National Jet Services." Four times a year they'd loan us a Lear Jet to fly anywhere for 12 hours. That's 12 hours to get there--shoot a story--and return to Indianapolis.
Well, hell, if you know what you're doing that's just about anywhere in the continental U.S.
The deal, the stipulation, was that every time we used the plane, each story it was used for had to be clearly labeled with the phrase ". . . the Channel 8 News Jet, The Spirit of Channel 8, provided by 'National Jet Services,'" and that mention had to be logged as a :10 commercial in the station logs. And that was it. That was all. National Jet even painted the plane with our logo. The other 361 days of the year it was available for charter. Those four, it was ours!
And that's how co-anchor Lew Choate and I found ourselves on a 5:00 a.m. flight to Teeterboro airport in New Jersey the morning of the nomination. At Teeterboro a limousine (dat's right, Ma, I rode in a limo!) was waiting to take us on the half-hour ride to Madison Square Garden.
The Indiana delegation was housed in the old Pennsylvania Hotel right across 7th Avenue from the Garden. That's where we met with Mike and the photog just in time to tape the delegation casting their final straw poll ballots for Carter prior to the evening's real vote. We interviewed Senator Birch Bayh and other bigwigs--did a couple of other stories--and wound up inside Madison Square Garden, up on the podium, where we shot opens, closes, bumps, think-pieces and recorded Mike's tracks. We got back to Teeterboro at 1:30 and back to WISH at 4:00. That night WISH opened it's 6:00 newscast with 20 minutes of look-live same-day coverage from the Democratic National Convention. Hot stuff.
So I missed Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Tough. I think WISH won a bigger victory that day than they did in November. And we did it without grapefruit bags!
I guess the question could be asked, Did you guys sell your soul for the price of a plane ride?
I've been critical in this space of that TV station that sold product placement on its morning newscast so McDonald's could plop down coffee cups on the anchor desk. What's the difference? I'm not sure. I guess it's that setting a branded cup down on your anchor desk doesn't just imply an endorsement, it is an endorsement. Most TV stations I've worked at have used trade-outs to purchase cars. Does driving a Subaru wagon traded for advertising time imply an endorsement of the car? Not necessarily. I've worked at stations that traded fir airline tickets. Does flying American mean endorsing American? Where does cutting a deal with National Jet Services (the mother-lode of all deals!) fit in? I'm not sure. I wasn't thinking about it that day 32 years ago when Lew and I were winging our way back to Indy with the Big Story.
Monday, August 25
In all the excitement, I almost forgot that the 24th marked the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew's sweep across South Florida.
Funny, because last week I asked a former colleague at WCIX (now WFOR) if the station had any plans to mark the anniversary. You know, documentaries series, whatever. He said no, none of the current management had lived through Andrew, and not many had the heart to look back at those gut-wrenching days. I asked him if, after all this time, Andrew was just a "speed bump" on the "road of life" and he agreed.
So I won't do much reminiscing about those days. How about one or two quick "So You Want to be a News Director?" anecdotes. Maybe some lessons learned. I guess these fall under the heading of "The Best Laid Plans..."
Because everybody had a plan. I don't know what the hurricane game plans look like today, but back then they came in big three-ring binders. Everyone on staff had one, and they were constantly being updated.
If I remember, WCIX's divided the staff into "teams;" "Gold" and "Silver." When the spit hit the fan the plan was for us to go 'round-the-clock, 12-on and 12-off. The "Gold" team of newscasters and anchors and producers and reporters and staff would work 12 hours, then be relieved by the "Silver" team.
Lesson One: someone's on vacation, and someone else is stranded in another city and can't make it back, and someone else has a pregnant wife and has just rushed her to the hospital. You can have all the designations you want, but you can't have all the people you want when you want them. And you'd better look out for your staff's well-being by making sure they have time to look out for their families' well-being. So we did a lot of scrambling. But the plan was otherwise solid. The idea was when a hurricane closed in and the winds and rains started picking up, staffers would get their families to safety and then meet and fan out throughout the area. Where to go? We suggested hospitals. The parking garages are built to handle force-five winds, they're big enough to shelter live trucks, and the hospitals themselves make great havens.
Lesson Two. Early in '92, thinking about hurricanes, our news operations chief came to me with the idea to put some four-wheel-drive vehicles on reserve. His thought was that a hurricane would knock down trees and flood roads and we'd be stranded without high-clearance 4WDs to drive. He also was smart enough to start rounding up some hand pumps so that if the power went out we could still fill our gas tanks at local stations. Great ideas.
But I upped the ante on him. WCIX in those days had no helicopter. I figured a chopper would be critical, so I told him to line up two helicopters. I told him I didn't care where he got them or where they were hangared, but I wanted two choppers in the air over South Florida within three hours once the weather had cleared.
Damn, I'm brilliant!
With Andrew heading at us I double-checked with my ops guy. He said he didn't know where they were, but that the helicopter owner had ferried both ships to Miami and had them stashed. I didn't ask (and didn't really care) where.
I found out later that he had them both in the same hangar at Tamiami Airport. I found out later that two of our guys in a live truck saw them in the hangar and figured that might be a safe place to weather the storm. It wasn't. I gave a silent prayer of thanks when I found out that no one was hurt when that hangar collapsed.
Much later--much, much later--I was able to laugh a little when I realized that I lost two helicopters and one live truck at Tamiami Airport that morning.
Tamiami is about ten miles north of Homestead--where the eye passed and where it knocked down the WCIX tower.
Best laid plans? And you want to be a news director?
Sunday, August 24
Thanks, Dean. You folks all know Dean Miller. He had a family of beavers move into is water bed—and loved it! Dean wrote the book, Love Thy Neighbor—But Don’t Get Caught. Dean once said, “An optimist is a man who thinks he can marry his secretary and still dictate to her.” Well, I think an optimist is a man who thinks we’re going to have a nice weekend. It’s hot now: so hot that thieves are breaking into only air conditioned cars. And coming up next, moving in from the west, is heavy rain. In Chicago it’s raining so hard right now that they’re playing leap frog—using real frogs!That’s one I more-or-less memorized from my days at WWJ. In transcribing it I probably should go back and add in some more exclamation points. Sonny was—and is—all exclamation points, all energy, all jokes—all the time.
And for the longest time he was the biggest TV personality in Detroit—and one of the most recognizable faces in the state! (See, I’m doing it already—all exclamation points!) In a sports-crazy city, he was bigger than any sports star. He was more recognized than any politician. He’s in his eighties now, but he’s still working, still tossing out gags, still irrepressible, and still beloved.
If you worked in any newsroom thirty-or-more years ago you’ll remember those big, clunky Associated Press printers—and the bells. Alarm bells. They sounded whenever major stories started to clear the wire. Ten bells was the ultimate: the end of World War II got ten bells—as did the Kennedy assassination.
Sonny Eliot was a private pilot in his spare time. One day, landing his single-engine plane at Detroit City Airport, the front landing gear collapsed and the plane skidded on its nose. And in every newsroom in the state, the AP sounded eight bells—SONNY ELLIOT IN PLANE CRASH! He wasn’t hurt; but just the hint that he might be was bulletin news. Eight Bells!
Sonny had survived worse. “Marvin” Eliot was a B-24 pilot in World War II. Here’s what I know, and here’s how I know it. A couple of blocks from the WWJ TV and radio studios was the “Lindell A.C.” Before anyone in America knew what a sports bar was, the Lindell was one. The “A.C.” stood for “Athletic Club.” It was an inside joke. When the Detroit Lions or Tigers or Red Wings or Pistons headed home after a night of boozing they could—honestly—tell their inquiring wives, “I was at the Athletic Club.”
It actually may have been flamboyant New York Yankees manager Billy Martin who suggested the sports theme. That’s one story some people have heard. Another story every baseball fans has heard is that Martin—in 1969, as manager of the Minnesota Twins—got into a fight with his pitcher, Dave Boswell, in an alley behind the bar. Martin got seven stitches after that one. Boswell got 20.
Lions All-Pro tackle Alex Karras once owned a piece of the Lindell. His jock, framed, hung on one of the walls. He got into a famous dust-up with pro wrestler “Dick the Bruiser” there.
The real owners were the Butsicaris brothers, John and Jim. John and Sonny were best friends—and co-owned that light plane I mentioned. Even though Sonny never drank, he could be found most nights after the 11:00 o’clock news hanging with his friends—the center of attention—at the Lindell.
One night I was headed to the Lindell men’s room, past walls of celebrity photos, when I spotted a picture of Sonny I hadn’t seen before. I thought it was some sort of gag photo. It was Sonny in a black-and-white striped uniform—complete with striped cap. He looked like one of the Three Stooges dressed up for a prison bit.
When I returned to the table and mentioned it to Sonny he eyes narrowed, his jaws clenched, and he shot out of his chair and over to John Butsicaris. It was obvious he was livid. Butsicaris rushed to the wall and took down the picture.
When Sonny returned he explained that the picture was of him as a Prisoner of War in “Stalagluft I” after being shot down by the Germans in World War II. Sonny was a POW for a year-and-a-half; but this was the only time he ever mentioned it, and I’m sure most Detroiters had no clue that this mischievous weather elf was a war hero.
One last Lindell story before I move on. In 1974 I moved from WOOD in Grand Rapids to WWJ to produce the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts. I was going to be Sonny Eliot’s producer! He was most welcoming.
I had been there for a month when one of my Grand Rapids friends and co-workers, Denny Arger, said he and his wife were passing through Detroit on vacation, and would like to see the station. Absolutely. I went to Sonny, and asked if he was going to be in the Lindell that Friday night, explaining that I had friends coming and they’d really get a kick out of it if he’d come to our table and sit for a minute or two. For Sonny—no problem.
So after the 11, a little before midnight, my guests and I adjourned to the Lindell—and sat at the big round table in the corner, where Sonny soon joined us.
A few minutes later the door opened, and in walked Roman Gribbs, the former Mayor of Detroit! He saw Sonny, came over and sat down. A few minutes after that the door opened and in came Tigers star Al Kaline. He saw Sonny and Roman Gribbs and came over and sat down! Later still—just before closing—the door opened and in walked bandleader Woody Herman, in town playing the Pontchartrain Hotel with his orchestra. Extra points if you remember the orchestra’s nickname: “Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd.” Anyway, he saw Sonny and Gribbs and Kaline and came over and sat down.
Denny and his wife had eyes the size of saucers. I was nonchalant—“Oh, yes, I’m with these people most nights.” Uh-huh. Sure. As if.
A bunch of us went to a Tigers game or two (or more) after the six o’clock. You never needed a ticket when you were with Sonny Eliot: no door was ever closed, no hand went un-shaken. One night Sonny led a bunch of us right into the club house to hang out for a bit with Manager Sparky Anderson.
Look up the word “ebullient” in the dictionary and you’ll find Sonny’s picture.
Sonny in those days did weather on WWJ radio and TV, maybe six or seven weathercasts a day. He kept index cards of jokes, and joke books on his office shelves. He told me once that he could go for an entire year without repeating a one-liner.
His corn-ball vaudevillian shtick made him unique—but it also caused him trouble. As the technology of TV moved forward, station managers started to look at Sonny as the past, not the future. They started trying to mold him and shape him. They wanted tighter control over his format. He resisted. His thinking, I’m sure, was “I’ve outlasted ten news directors and five GMs, I’ll outlast another dozen of each.”
He didn’t. As TV news moved more and more high-tech, the bosses felt TV had passed Sonny by, and before too long Sonny was off the air—fired, or resigned I never knew which. The powers that be wanted younger demographics, and to them the one thing that made Sonny unique was that he was old!
And here’s why TV managers (myself included) are stupid. It’s 2008, and what I hear (even in my small consulting business) is, “We have to give viewers a reason to watch. We have to come up with something (someone) that makes people take notice. Something (someone) that stands out. Something (someone) that the competition doesn’t have.”
That’s why we get Super-Duper-Dual-Level-3D-Four-on-the-Floor-Cinco-de-Mayo-Full-Range-Live-Infrared-Red-Bull-Aerial-Bend-Over-and-Kiss-Your-Ass-Goodbye-Satellite-Doppler-Radar-with-Neighborhood-Seismic-Detection. We're so into meteorologists and away from "weathercasters" that no one remembers how to be a communicator. We've come a long way since Sonny first used chalk to draw on a blackboard. We're into computers and graphics programs and hard drives. Sonny could talk to you about isobars and occluded fronts if he had to. Most nights he didn't have to. He gave you the forecast.
I dunno: maybe in 2008 we could find someone with a unique personality who connects with the viewers and makes them comfortable.
Just a thought.
Sonny kicked around Detroit TV for awhile. WWJ-TV long ago became WDIV-TV—a new WWJ-TV signed on some years ago—and Sonny’s back on WWJ-AM. You can go to their web site http://www.wwj.com/ and listen to Sonny live every weekday at 4:20 and 5:20 p.m.
Sonny has been on the air for more than 60 years now! Here’s a piece from WJBK-TV from 1997, when Sonny marked fifty years as a Detroit superstar. That means he's at 60 now, and counting! Here's a good sample of Sonny eliot at his shtick-iest.
There are several Sonny Eliot videos on YouTube. They’re worth a look. The man was, and is, the consummate professional and a good guy. I’m blessed that I had a chance to work with him.
Working with Sonny made me glad and happy--"Glappy."
Tuesday, August 5
I guess I’ve been lucky. Almost every time I’ve had to fire someone it’s been a “mercy killing,” someone who just had to go; someone who had no one else to blame for his fate.
Take, for example, the young assignment editor who “borrowed” (of course, without authorization) a marked news car to take some of his buddies drinking one Saturday night.
When state police spotted those happy campers tossing their empty beer bottles onto the interstate, they gave chase. Fortunately, miraculously, no one was hurt when my young employee rolled our news car three times in the median.
Question: how much sleep do you think I lost the night I fired him?
And yet some have said I'm one of the meanest SOBs to ever run a newsroom.
Here’s a good example. The way the story is told, one of my reporters called in sick one day—so sick he couldn’t get out of bed—and I refused to believe him and told him I wanted him to drag his near-lifeless carcass to the bathroom, phone in hand, and flush the toilet so I could hear that he really was home.
Y'know, that’s exactly what happened—sort of.
Truth is, the guy was famous for using sick days to give himself three-day weekends. He was famous for walking away leaving stories with gaping holes in them, with questions yet to be answered (he apparently had an active social life and didn’t want work to get in the way). And “work,” now that I think of it, is a bit generous. He gave 100% effort 50% of the time (or was that 50% effort 100% of the time—either way it worked out the same). On this occasion he had come to me the day before asking for a last-minute vacation day. I checked the schedule and told him I was sorry, that we were already at limit for the number of people who could be off at any one time. I explained that he should have asked a lot earlier; that I would have tried to accommodate him or helped him trade vacation days with someone else. He argued that I should make an exception in his case. It wasn’t possible.
The next morning, you guessed it, he called in sick (or is that out sick, I'm never sure). Anyway, I was in my office with another news manager. When I put the call on speakerphone it seemed my poor, sick little reporter was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. He didn't say that, but how else could we explain why we clearly heard the whooshing sounds of tires on pavement! No sirens, just car noise. We rolled our eyes and held back our laughter as he said, in a weak and scratchy voice, that he had come down with the flu and couldn’t make it in. He got indignant when I told him that I was having a bit of a problem believing him. The other manager and I were rolling our eyes and trying not to laugh out loud—when it came to me. It may not have been the most mature move I've ever made, but I couldn't resist. I asked him to go into the bathroom, hold the phone next to the toilet and give it a flush just to prove he was home. He refused. I told him I understood; but that I was worried about him, and that I’d check back on him later in the day to make sure he was feeling better.
The other manager and I had a good laugh. We agreed that while we were both born, neither of us was born yesterday!
Funny. When I called to check on the reporter’s well-being later in the day, no one answered the phone. Gosh, I thought. Golly gee whiz, I certainly hope he’s not passed out somewhere! I was tempted to ask the police to break down the door in case he was in real danger. (Is this the point where a teenager would insert “LOL?”)
You may think I’m a jerk. I think I’m a nice guy. When his contract was coming up, he and I both knew I was going to get rid of him, but I called him in a month earlier than stipulated by contract to tell him it would be wise to start looking for his next job. He wound up with almost three months' notice, my gift to him. It’s always easier to find a job when you have a job, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to save face.
He was successful. He found another job. And when he came into my office to tell me, he looked at me with contempt and sneeringly said, “You know, I’ve been here almost two years and I haven’t learned a thing!”
And I replied, “Yes, I know.”
I guess you can make a case that overbearing, demanding news directors are a major problem in broadcast journalism. Maybe so.
I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think a major problem is no-talent pissants who can’t lead, won’t follow, and have to be forced to get out of the way.
By the way, the picture up top is of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, proponent of euthanasia (“mercy killing”). The title "Youth in Asia" comes courtesy of Miss Emily Litella. If you're under 40 you'll just have to Google her name.