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.