Monthly Archives: February 2010

Martians

When I saw it on my Facebook feed late Monday afternoon, my heart may have skipped a beat.  It was a link to a website touting Freaknic 2010, scheduled for mid-April in Atlanta.

The site was multi-layered, with numerous “fan” pages and links.  It promoted specific events in Washington Park, and others “TBA.” It claimed to have more than a thousand “fans.”  It also had links to Twitter and Facebook pages, each of which had hundreds of fans / followers.

The sites conspicuously lacked tangible contact info.

It smelled like news to me, especially since the event was scheduled less than eight weeks hence.  I showed it to Kevin Rowson, who was trying to conjure up a nightside story.  He was immediately intrigued.  Rowson and I had both covered Freaknik in the mid-90s.  I won’t waste space describing Freaknik; feel free to Google it if you don’t know what it is.

(A word about spelling:  In A Man In Full, Tom Wolfe explains that black folks spell it “Freaknic,” while white folks spell it “Freaknik.”  I don’t know how the AP Stylebook spells it.  But I’ve always spelled it with a K, as has the AJC, while the Freaknic 2010 website spells it with a C.

By the way, A Man in Full may not be Wolfe’s best book, but it’s essential and highly amusing reading for anybody who loves Atlanta, along with “Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn” by former AJC guy Gary Pomerantz, and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell — the book, not the movie.  But I digress.)

Rowson plowed through the site, trying to find contact info.  I called Reese McCranie, Mayor Kasim Reed’s spokesman.  The site was news to him, and to the mayor.  I went home, and Rowson ended up producing a different story that night.

Tuesday morning, I found some names on the site and made a couple of contacts.  Neither of the contacts had any organizational connection to Freaknic 2010; they’d simply added their names to the site (as Rowson and I had also done, in the hope that some info might trickle our way.)

I called Kwanzaa Hall, the city council member with the most social media savvy.  He told me that yes, he’d heard about the site.  He said he’d also heard some organizers had contacted City Hall.  But the info was just hearsay.  Meantime, the city Parks and Recreation department told me that no permits had been issued for an event at Washington Park during the mid-April dates touted by the Freaknic ’10 site.

Photog Richard Crabbe and I went to City Hall, where we ran into McCranie.  Turned out the mayor was about to speak to a council committee.  McCranie asked me if I wanted to talk to the mayor; eventually, I realized that the mayor wanted to talk about Freaknic ’10 for one reason:  To say, essentially, “oh, hell no.”

“You’ve got me responding to Martians,” Reed said before I could ask him a question.  He went on to say that no large, unorganized festival would be welcome in Atlanta on such short notice.  He was emphatic.

Reed’s “martians” comment also humorously questioned the journalistic substance of this story:  You’re doing a story on a web site?  Are you getting punk’d?

I had asked myself the question for an entire day.  My answer was:  If this is a hoax, it’s elaborate.  The site had countless pages, custom graphics, and more than a thousand “fans.”  The Twitter and Facebook pages also had more than a thousand followers combined.

Further, no hoaxster had contacted me to do the story.   I stumbled into it.

It seemed that, given the supposed power of social media, this loosely-organized event could nonetheless become a “viral” event.  That gave the story substance.  Update:  Wednesday, I spoke with the organizer, who says “I think it’s time to bring (Freaknik) back to the city.”  He’ll be on WXIA tonight.

Reed and Hall seemed to agree.  Neither was willing to dismiss it.  Reed felt compelled to denounce it — just in case.

Meantime, mark your calendar for April 16 – 18.

Mayer and me

Decatur Metro takes some liberties with this post here.

It started with this 1998 story.  Shot and edited by Mike Daly (using old school A/B roll dissolves), the piece was about Open Mic Night at Eddie’s attic.  It was a lifestyle-type feature, the sort in which I trafficked in the late 90s as a feature-reporting franchise guy at WAGA.

The story led to an offer from Eddie Owen, the club’s owner:  We need judges for our semi-annual Open Mic Night Shootout.  The Shootout is a contest featuring winners from previous open mic night contests.  As I recall, I was one of ten judges.  Another judge was Roni Sarig, then the music editor of Creative Loafing (and husband of the lovely Danielle Dardashdi, freelance Atlanta TV reporter).

A succession of singer-songwriter types appeared on stage, almost all of them bearing guitars.  Since they’d won previous open mic nights, almost all of them had talent.

Eddie served the judges all the free beer we wanted, and I had a couple.  Maybe more.  My mood became increasingly contrary as the night wore on.  One performer was pitiful, as I recall.  All the other judges gave her a thumbs down; I gave her the only thumbs up.  It was a mercy vote.

At one point, a duo came on stage called the Lo-Fi Masters.  They were two too-cheery white guys with guitars and enormous skill.  They were perky and cute.  I despised them.  They emerged winners of that night’s shootout, despite the fact that I voted against them at every opportunity.  I enjoyed the evening, but mostly forgot the details.

Career high: Mayer and Chappelle

About a year later, I ran into Sarig at an event at Manuel’s Tavern.  “Hey– who knew we’d launch the career of John Mayer,” he said to me.  To which I said, “Huh?”

Turns out, one of the insufferably cheery members of the Lo-Fi Masters was John Mayer, now known for his pop music, observations on sex and race, as well as his brilliant cameo on Chappelle’s Show.

I take no credit.  But this story seems to come to mind whenever Mayer makes news.  Maybe I can stop telling it now.

Mayer does not appear in the video above.  I don’t think he was there the night we shot the piece.  If so, we sidestepped him.  However, Jennifer Daniels is in the video.

Eddie Owen never invited me back again as a judge.

Disinformation officer

Hand delivery: Sheila Edwards, DeKalb PIO

See update below.

It’s easy to underappreciate the Public Information Officer.   When they do their jobs well, they make their bosses look good and draw no attention to themselves.  But when a PIO screws up, it’s like when a surgeon screws up.  Somebody gets hurt, and a lot of people notice.

PIOs inherently have the desire to control access and information.  Yet the release of info and the granting of access isn’t always subject to the posted schedule, the timetable, the boss’s lunch hour or meeting schedule.  Especially when the boss is an elected official running one of Georgia’s largest counties.

Sheila Edwards is the PIO for DeKalb Co. CEO Burrel Ellis.  Thursday she provided a stark lesson on how to make her boss look foolish.

It started with an embarrassing question that Ellis apparently wasn’t jumping up-and-down wanting to answer:  Why is DeKalb County on the brink of furloughing rank-and-file employees, while Ellis and other government higher-ups aren’t taking furloughs?

It’s a reasonable question.  If you’re Ellis, or his PIO, there’s a legalistic answer that the public or media may have trouble swallowing.

But Ellis is a grown man and a skilled politician.  He’s making tough budgetary decisions.  He’s smart enough and quick enough to give an answer on the fly.

It appears Wendy Saltzman posed the question to Edwards a day earlier and requested an interview.  Based on their exchange on the raw tape, it sounds like Edwards stalled with an answer.  (Saltzman reports she made three interview requests.)  Saltzman and photog AJ Willen showed up at a DeKalb County employees event and ambushed Ellis.  This irritated Ellis a little, but it irritated his PIO a lot.  Here’s the raw video:

Update: Dekalb Officers Speak uploaded the video to Youtube and is also blogging about this incident.  Check it out for the comments alone.  Lenslinger has also blogged about it.

Make fun of WGCL’s “tough questions” all you want — and we all do — but this was a reasonable question on Saltzman’s part, and it demanded a timely answer.  If she gave Ellis a day’s grace to provide an answer, she cut him more than enough slack.

Foot in the door, head in the lens

The ambush itself was classic.  Saltzman stepped between Ellis and the door through which he’d intended to escape.  She blocked the door with her shoe, and politely yet firmly asked Ellis the day-old question.

And Ellis answered.  But as Ellis was answering the question, the PIO was throwing a fit in front of the camera lens — blocking it with her hand, blocking it with her face, blocking it with her hair.  Later on, she blocked it with a piece of cloth.  Ellis’s answer — that state law required that elected officials take no furloughs  — became the audio background for the on-camera tomfoolery of his public information officer.  Oops.

And who gets the last word on this stuff?  Maybe the TV station.  Maybe the CEO, when he realizes his PIO made him look like a chump.

But probably not the PIO, whose job is to anonymously facilitate the flow of information.  Not block it with a cloth, or a hand, in front of a rolling camera — thereby hand-delivering an absurd story about government stonewalling, when a timely, honest answer would have served her boss much better.

We ask the weird questions

Inspiration: Sam Bee

The Daily Show isn’t news.  But its successful merger of news and humor gives the TV news biz a potential tool to stop the bleeding, audience-wise.  The problem is, humor is tricky business.  Most of us aren’t nearly as funny as we’d like to think we are.

I’d be the first to admit I’m a slow-witted dullard.  Whenever I’m able to conjure a fragment of something humorous, it’s typically painfully premeditated.  That fact hasn’t stopped me from making the occasional effort at TV news humor.  Why?  I’m not sure, except that it’s an effective communications tool.  When a story can make you snicker a bit (for the right reasons), then it’s got a chance to be somewhat memorable.

For the moment, we’ll set aside the significant body of opinion that insists news should be a humorless, just-the-facts place.  We disagree on that.

I’ve found that the writing is only one part of the creation of a news story with humor (and frequently, it’s the culprit when attempts at TV news humor fail).  Mostly, it’s about a) putting a twist on a topic with b) offbeat, deadpan questions and c) editing.

Editing is key.   Editing is the reason Letterman is funny and Leno isn’t.  Or, one of the many.

While observing a session of the legislature last month, I got locked into the House TV / Radio gallery while the Chaplain of the Day spoke.  It happens every day the legislature is in session:  Reporters (and lawmakers) have to decide in a split-second, following the roll call, whether or not they want to stay locked in the chamber for however long the Chaplain decides to intone.

On this particular day, I stayed inside.  During this moment of reflection, I had a dim light-bulb-above-the-head moment:  Why lock the doors for the chaplain, but keep them unlocked for the important business of lawmaking?  Does it mean the spiritual message is more important than the political ones?  I pictured Samantha Bee tackling this story and got inspired.

Of course, I ended up with a story that wasn’t nearly as amusing as Bee’s take would have been.

Three points worth noting about this story:

The sage of Meriwether Co.: Ira Spradlin, WAGA

I interviewed  30-plus year veteran WAGA photog Ira Spradlin.  Though this was potentially an absurd media-interviewing-media moment, this made sense.  Ira has been locked in the chamber more than most folks at the Capitol.

Second, a discussion at WXIA resulted in the deletion of what was easily the most amusing moment of the piece.  At 1:36, Rep. Mike Jacobs reveals that he’s heard some 200 sermons, “and I’m Jewish!”  I followed with what I thought was a question Bee (or John Oliver or Stephen Colbert) would have asked:  “So has this improved your relationship with Jesus?”

Jacobs threw his head back and laughed.  He then said “let’s just say, as a fan of the Old Testament, I am judicious about when I give the prayer and amen.”

Unlike comedy, TV news tries to respect religion.  Though Jacobs and I were amused by the moment, this had “trouble” written all over it.  Cooler heads at WXIA, led by the bosslady, put that clip onto the nonlinear editing version of the proverbial cutting room floor.

She made the right call.  Absolutely.

Third:  The more I watch this story, the less amused I am by it.

When I was a young, aspiring TV news guy, I was inspired by folks like David Brinkley and Mike Wallace.  As an old TV news guy, folks like Bee, Colbert and Jeanne Moos have taken their place — and raised the level of peril for those of us who aspire to occasionally amuse the audience.

Winne Watch 2.11.10

So the key is:  Who are the three men in the small, dark compact car?”

Secret Squirrel

- WSB’s Mark Winne, closing a live shot about the unsolved killing of a gay man.  Police are investigating it as a possible hate crime.

Winne’s intro had an almost manic demonstrative quality.  The black trenchcoat was classic gumshoe wear.  The words were pretty plain, however.  Drama points:  √ for text, √√√√√ for performance (out of possible five).

UGA TV

Sports guy Cody Chaffins with Ray Metoyer, WNEG

TV news students at UGA’s Grady College  of Journalism have a cool new tool on which to regularly ply their nascent trade:  An actual TV station.

The University of Georgia purchased Toccoa-based WNEG-TV months ago.  In November, it began doing its newscasts from a new studio at Grady.  Monday, it added an all-student, Athens-oriented newscast to the program schedule.  The cable-only newscast once known as “NewsSource 15″ is now “UGA NewsSource.”  It’s produced live-to-tape at 5pm weekdays, and is transmitted over actual airwaves at 7:30pm following WNEG’s regular local half-hour newscast (which airs at 6 and repeats at 7).

Now, the entire TV station runs from the Grady College.  “The last show [from Toccoa], fittingly, was the Billy Dilworth show,” says General Manager Michael Castengera.  (Dilworth hosted a local country music variety show on WNEG for a bunch of years.  Regrettably, a search of Youtube yields none of Dilworth’s work.)

WNEG has three full-time reporters who function as one-woman bands.  It also has full-time anchor talent including Ray Metoyer, late of WGCL (its news director is ex-WSB radio reporter Jeff Dantre).  The full time staff provide content for the 6/7pm news; the station will use UGA students to supplement that content.  Students will fully drive the “UGA NewsSource” half hour.

Castengera agreed to answer a few questions for LAF.

- How much of your news content will be day-of, and how much will be project based?

Most of the news will be day-of, developing news stories just like any other other news operation.  We will be working on features and ‘sweeps specials.’  A group of graduate students recently produced a series of reports dealing with how locally grown food affects health.  It was called “harvesting health.

What’s your live remote capability?

We have a microwave truck with fairly significant coverage range.  In addition, we have a unique system of live capable positions spread around the campus, using the backhaul of the local cable service.
How rare is it for universities to have broadcast TV stations at their disposal?

There are only three university-owned commercial television stations in the country — us at WNEG, WVUA at the University of Alabama and KOMU at the University of Missouri.  There are a number of universities that have cable-delivered newscasts and a couple, like the University of Florida, that have a news relationship with their local PBS station.


NewsSource 15 was a cable newscast.   Why is it an upgrade to put it on a TV station?

We’ve always pushed the idea at Grady that all material needs to be a professional standard.  That applied when it was a cable only newscast and maybe even more so now that it is a over-the-air TVv station.  The cable channel ‘only’ reached about 60,000 households.  The TV station has the potential of reaching seven or eight times that number, upwards of 1.2 million viewers,  from Athens to Gainesville to Toccoa as well as parts of South Carolina.  That makes it even more “real” for the students [and for the news directors who might hire them after they graduate].  The cable only was distributed in about three counties.
Given the contraction of traditional media, does it make sense to devote this resource to TV news?

The intent all along was for the content delivery to be agnostic, or if you prefer, multi-platform.  Part of it is because of the reality of what you say, that there is a movement to new media, and we as a commercial station have to do that, and students have to learn that.  But at the same time, television will remain a core component of that delivery system.  As you probably know, even with all the hoopla about new media, television is still far and away the dominant media across all demographics.  TV viewing in fact is up year to year.  So it will remain a strong component for the foreseeable future.

Three seconds of Springer

In 1998, Jerry Springer’s confrontational, chair-throwing TV talk show was a sensation.  It aired on WAGA at 4pm, opposite Oprah.  For a ratings period or two, it actually had a larger Atlanta audience than Oprah.  Like it or not, it was an effective lead-in to WAGA’s 5pm news.

But Springer’s show was lowbrow and controversial.  It triggered a gazillion phone calls every week, most of them griping about the content.  Those at WAGA who had to actually speak to those angry callers couldn’t disagree.  Truth was, the Springer show drove WAGA’s managers crazy.  They wanted nothing more than to get rid of this embarrassment, but couldn’t.  They’d created a monster.

This comes to mind as I stumbled across this piece WAGA produced for its 50th anniversary in 2008.  It was based on a story Andi Larner and I produced about WAGA’s 40th anniversary ten years earlier.  WAGA took the essence of the 1998 story,  added some fireworks to the tail end of it, and reconstituted it as a 50th anniversary piece.  They apparently played the piece at the 2008 Emmy Awards.  (It’s worth noting that I’d left WAGA twelve months earlier, and am delighted they continued to recycle my work.)

I knew about the station’s uneasy relationship with the Springer show.  Despite that knowledge, I opted to include a three-second chair-throwing clip of Springer during the 40th anniversary piece.  It was a bit of ill-advised mischief on my part, yes.  But I thought it was a fair snapshot of the TV industry’s then-current direction, a sharp contrast from its past.  If the TV station runs Springer for sixty minutes every day, who could object to three seconds of it in my story?

(A year earlier, Andi Larner, photog Eddie Cortes and I produced a piece called “Jerry Springer Happy Hour” at a bar on Tybee Island.  The bar now known as Benny’s played the Springer show for patrons imbibing in cut-rate drinks.  It was quite the interactive experience.  The story won an Emmy.  I seem to recall my ad-libbed acceptance speech including a line that said “this story had no cultural or literary value whatsoever.  So, thanks.”)

As the lovely Ms. Larner was tweaking the 40th anniversary piece in a post room, General Manager Gene McHugh walked past in the hallway.

Understandably interested in the story about his TV station, he asked if he could see the piece.  Larner hit “play.”  McHugh liked what he saw, up to the end.  “Take that out,” he said curtly, referring to the Springer moment.  “But it’s just a three-second shot,” I began to object.  McHugh, a normally affable and easygoing guy, made it clear the order was non-negotiable.

The Springer moment disappeared from the 1998 version of the piece.  Within a year or so, McHugh had jettisoned Springer’s show from the 4pm slot.  It’s now on WATL late afternoons, safely tucked away from any newscast.

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In other retro news, check out this Pecanne Log post, where Christa posts four pieces of promo video from Atlanta TV from the mid-70s to mid-80s.