You won't believe it. I'm not sure I believe it. But here's the story of how I more-or-less covered the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York's Madison Square Garden. I was almost in the hall the night Jimmy Carter was nominated for President. And I'm going to bury the lead.
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.