Monthly Archives: April 2010

Gamesmanship

Local and federal courts are re-writing standard charges to juries to prevent jurors from using popular internet sites during trials.  A Fulton County rape trial recently ended in mistrial because a juror researched the case on Google.  I successfully pitched a story on it.

We went to the Fulton County Courthouse to interview a judge and to shoot video of folks wearing “juror” badges outdoors during their lunch breaks.  When we got there, we saw a crew from WSB camped out in front of the courthouse.  TV crews periodically set up there, but it was odd that they were there — and with no other media company but us — at the exact moment we decided to shoot the Twittering jurors story.

“You guys are in the exact spot where we need to be.  You’re going to have to move.”  I was joking, of course, and they knew it.  We made small talk, but didn’t divulge why we were there.  And I didn’t ask them why they were there.

Well maintainted? "I'm a frayed knot."

Given the absence of discussion regarding the obvious topic, the small talk stayed brief.  The reporter, Ryan Young, pointed out the unhappy flags atop the poles outside the courthouse.  We both shot photos of them and posted them to our Facebook pages.

But it was the obvious question:  Why are those guys camped out here?  As the minutes passed, the unanswered question loomed larger.

I knew it was unlikely they were doing a story on Twittering jurors.  They saw Dan Reilly shooting pictures from his tripod and did a double-take.  There was nothing remarkable going on, except jurors walking around.

A sheriff deputy with whom I’ve been acquainted for many years called to me from a car:  “What are you shooting?”  I stage-voiced an answer:  “It’s a super top-secret exclusive story!  Can’t tell ya.”  The answer was mostly for the benefit of my competitors.

About 75 percent of the time, I’ll straight-up tell my competitors why I’m there in such situations.  The secret-squirrel stuff is better performed by other reporters in the market, and my Twittering jurors story wasn’t exactly hot stuff.  But I had never met Young previously.  Probably next time, I’ll just blurt it out.

An Atlanta cop walked up to Young and asked him the same question.  Gesturing to me, Young answered:  “If he’s not gonna give it up, I’m not either.”

After about a half hour, the WSB crew left without shooting a lick of video.  We went inside and interviewed a judge.  We shot a standup inside Judge Rowland Barnes’s courtroom because it happened to be available.  That night, Reilly and I produced the Twittering juror piece.

I never found out what Young and his photog were waiting for outside the Fulton County Courthouse.

Relics

Are we not men?

I’m a relic, and it would be easy to bemoan my ancient status.  The biggest problem with relics is that they / we remember the news business as it once was:  An industry rolling in cash, that employed gazillions of people in reasonably well-paying and somewhat-secure jobs.  Our employers spent ridiculous money to cover news and to be competitive.  And if they went over budget, they’d make noises about cutting overtime and helicopter hours, then continue to spend anyway.

Those times — the eighties and early nineties, mostly — seem like the glory days of television news.  At the time, they didn’t really seem particularly glorious.  It just seemed like work in a career that was more interesting than not.

Fred Tokars

The video below provides an interesting snapshot of those times.  It was shot in the old WXIA newsroom on August 25, 1993 — the night Fred Tokars was arrested by federal agents for hiring two men to murder his wife Sara in Cobb County.  The story was huge, the culmination of a drama that had started nine months earlier when Sara Tokars was shot to death, in front of her young sons, in Cobb County.  Fred Tokars was a former judge.  He had emerged as a genuine embodiment of evil who cried about the loss of his “lifestyle” the only time he faced cameras in a press conference setting.

At more than nine minutes, the video is too long and a bit of editing would have helped.  Yet as an unedited document, it’s still a compelling reflection of what newsrooms were like then.  You see producers and assignment editors hunched over green-background computers.  You see David Brooks making last-minute tape-to-tape edits. You see people dependent on land-line phones and the human voice to communicate.  You see John Pruitt before he jumped ship to WSB.  They all ignore the camera — they’re too busy.

The most striking thing about it:  It took armies of people to put a newscast on the air in the early 90s, exemplified by images of production folks ripping ten-pack scripts to be taken to the talent, the director, the floor director, the audio tech, the ‘prompter operator, the producer, the chyron operator and whomever else.

Many of those jobs are phasing out now.  In 1993, those folks were essential to getting a clean newscast on TV.

Pipe down

"What doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger" - R. Hobbs

Item:  ABC 33/40 Birmingham weekend anchor Roy Hobbs was arrested by Birmingham police over the weekend.  Hobbs is a former WAGA evening anchor.  Police say Hobbs had a crack pipe in the car.

Below are Roy Hobbs’ Top Ten Reasons he managed to get himself arrested in Birmingham with a crack pipe.

10.  To effectively utilize the crack cocaine found in the same car by police.

9.  Because that medium-market crack has a  more authentic, Southern taste.

8.  Because I can’t share crack with the prostitute police found with me earlier in the week, in the same location, without a top-notch crack pipe.

7.  Staying awake for the late local weekend news isn’t something most homo sapiens can do unless they’ve got a little sump’n – sump’n.

6.  Coz the genius who renamed my station, WCFT-TV, with the call letters “WBMA-LP,” was obviously using the same stuff.

5.  It was an undercover assignment, but I mistakenly grabbed the crack pipe instead of the lipstick cam.

4.  Crack use enhances my performance as an anchor / teleprompter operator

3.  It was a can’t-miss career move, sure to get me elevated to the weeknight anchor slot.  Or, so said my buddy Warren Savage.

2.  I figured a crack arrest would give me better credibility with a middle-Alabama local TV news audience.

1.  I was fresh out of meth.

White elephant

"We Never Earned Greenbacks" - WNEG

The shiny new television station installed this year at the University of Georgia has been a spectacular commercial failure.  The Red and Black reports that WNEG, which moved its operations from Toccoa to a new studio at the Grady College of Journalism, may have to pull the plug on all its operations by September.

From the Red and Black:

Following months of declining revenue and a growing deficit, the station faces the real possibility of being taken off the air mere months after it started programming from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. WNEG has already burned through most of a five-year, $5 million grant and could “hit the brick wall” by September if woeful economic trends continue.

“It all depends on what happens in between now and then,” said Michael Castengera, manager of the station now housed on the bottom floor of Grady College. “Then we’ll have to decide the next steps.”

“We’ve been in Athens effectively since January 1, and it takes time to reorient,” said Culpepper “Cully” Clark, dean of Grady College. “With all the factors, the cash has burned much quicker than we thought.”

With a fiscal year 2010 operating expense of $1.8 million and a projected annual revenue of $800,000 — which merely covers the $786,000 in staffing salaries — the station will incur a deficit of $1 million. The deficit will be drawn from what’s left of the grant.

The Red and Black reports that WNEG’s financial woes are rooted in poor advertising sales.  The TV station is based in a tiny market in Northeast Georgia, whose major cities are Athens, Gainesville and Toccoa.  WNEG also lacks affiliation with any major TV network.

WNEG has a small full-time staff to produce UGA-based newscasts.  Grady students also produced content for the newscasts, making UGA one of three universities in America with a commercial TV station at its disposal for journalism students.  For students seeking careers in TV news, work at a “real” TV station is a big plus on the resume.

The Red and Black reports that WNEG had hoped to land programming contracts with the UGA athletic department to broadcast sports like gymnastics.  But in 2009, the Athletic department signed a big contract with another provider.

In the same issue, the Red and Black’s editorial board calls for the University to shut down WNEG.  Which would be a damned shame.

Trailblazer

Aubrey Morris, WSB-AM

Aubrey Morris did a lot of good things during his thirty-plus career as news director at WSB radio.  But when a reader urged me to commemorate his passing last week at age 88, he recounted a story that any modern-day local-news broadcast type will recognize.  This passage comes from Gene Asher’s book, Legends:  Georgians who Lived Impossible Dreams.

“One morning, arising at his normal wake-up time of 5am, Aubrey looked out his bedroom window and saw blankets of snow covering his neighborhood… The snow was so thick, he could not get out of his driveway.

“In those days… the office and restaurant boom northward had not begun.  If you did anything in Atlanta, you did it downtown.  A concerned Aubrey got on the air about 6am and stayed there until 9am warning all Atlanta citizens to “stay home.  Do not attempt to go downtown.  It’s too dangerous.”

“Shortly after Aubrey went off the air, not only did it stop snowing, but sun broke through the clouds and temperatures began to rise.  Snow melted.  There was no ice on the roads, and no people downtown.  It was an event Atlantans would remember as ‘the day Aubrey Morris paralyzed the city.’”Morris gets an accolade

Asher’s book describes Morris as “Atlanta radio’s first bona bide newsman” — and therefore, Atlanta’s first local news broadcaster.

Morris is described as an energetic, gravel-voiced, old-school newshound.  He traveled to Orly airport in 1962 when a crash in France claimed a planeload of Atlanta glitterati.  He covered the civil rights movement.  He covered the Winecoff Hotel fire in December 1946.  He chased down Sweden’s King Gustav on the 18th hole of the East Lake Country Club.

I didn’t know Morris, but a lot of folks who did have commented on Rodney Ho’s blog.

WSB-TV reporter-for-life Don McClellan knew Morris.  He posts a remembrance on his blog, along with a photo showing them tag-teaming an interview with Robert Kennedy shortly before he died.

Morris started as a reporter with the Atlanta Journal, and was recruited by WSB radio legend Elmo Ellis to become the station’s first reporter in 1957.  His career in radio lasted thirty years.

Anybody working in the news biz in Atlanta walks a trail that Morris blazed.  Including over-the-top coverage of snowflakes.

Alley Pat

This media reach-around may set a personal record:  I’m blogging about a TV story about a film about an Atlanta radio personality.  The film is called Alley Pat:  The Music is Recorded.  The filmmaker is Tom Roche, a Crawford Communications postproduction wizard.  The TV story aired on WXIA Wednesday.

The story is about Alley Pat, a trailblazer who was at WERD-AM when it went on the air in October 1949.  WERD was America’s first black-owned radio station (though WDIA Memphis was the first formatted for an African American audience, it was owned by white folks).  Alley Pat was hilarious and hilariously inappropriate.   He gave his audience hell.  He also gave his sponsors hell, on the air.  “They loved it,” Patrick told me.  His fifty-plus years on radio apparently confirms that.

His eulogy of his best friend, Rev. Hosea Williams, was classic.  His best off-camera crack with me was:  “I told Hosea that if he ever quit drinking, he’d die.  And that’s what happened.”

Almost as interesting is the story of Roche,  and his fascination with Alley Pat as a young, white newcomer to Atlanta in the early 80s.  Roche writes an entertaining first-hand account in this month’s Stomp and Stammer.

  • The new documentary, Alley Pat: The Music is Recorded, had its simple beginnings as a shoebox full of old cassettes. When I came to town in 1983, I’d sit stuck in Atlanta traffic listening to Pat, then on WYZE 1380 AM, practically crying with laughter…  But I was frustrated that this brilliant, fun, raucously good radio was going out into the ether, and was gone forever. New to town, I was too broke to even buy blank tape to try to hold on to his shows. So I would go to the Peaches and Turtles 99-cent cassette bargain bins and try to find awful double length albums – Best of Pat Boone, say – for a buck to record over with Alley Pat’s insanity.

Roche has many claims to fame.   Among them:  He was the editor on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the first in-house cartoon on Atlanta’s Cartoon Network.  You can see him below in the “Space Ghost Utility Research Kitchen.”

Though there’s no evidence of it here, Roche always claimed that I misspelled his name on the super in this 1997 story.

Alley Pat:  The Music is Recorded is a damned amusing look at an Atlanta original.   It’s playing at 7pm Saturday at the Landmark Midtown Art Theatre on Monroe Drive, across from Grady Stadium.

Grateful dedicated

Count me among the considerable number of TV professionals who never once set foot in the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, which began this week in Las Vegas.  Its presence always brings to mind a story, though, from April 1990.

One year — only one, apparently — the NAB decided to meet in Atlanta.  It convened in the Georgia World Congress Center.   Vendors of satellite and microwave trucks parked their samples outside.  Crowds of reasonably well-dressed folks attended:  The decisionmakers in the world of broadcasting, and the legions of people who sought to influence them.  Job seekers seemed to be in abundance.

But I never set foot inside the convention.  My interest was outdoors.

Because, at the same time the NAB convention was taking place, the rock band known as the Grateful Dead was playing three straight nights in the Omni coliseum.

"Dude, are you shooting my picture?"

This created an intriguing collision of worlds in the space outside the Omni and the GWCC, which rested side-by-side (the Omni is now gone and Philips Arena replaced it, for reasons I still don’t fully understand…)

Working a night shift the first night of this two-headed assemblage, I went with one of WAGA’s finest photogs to the site.  Because I was beyond clever, I’d already envisioned a “tie-dyes versus the tie-guys” line in my piece, a goofy line in hindsight.  (The AJC went with “the deadheads and the talking heads.”)

Into the breach we went.  The Deadheads has commandeered a parking lot.  It was filled with smoky hibachis cooking organic veggie something-or-others, and smoky glass or clay apparatuses cooking cannibis something-or-other.  It was quite the revival of latter-day hippie folk, who appeared to cohabit and co-mingle and co-imbibe in ways that one could only describe now as Socialist.

My photog parked his camera on a tripod on the perimeter of the lot and started shooting.  Let’s pause for a moment, and describe the photog, whom I’ll identify here as “T-five.”

“T-Five” was an energetic, enormously talented, strongly opinionated, occasionally hotheaded man who came from a colorful Italian family rooted in Queens.  We were great friends.  T-5 was not a fan of the Dead, though he (like me) tolerated the excesses of their fans.  Up to a point.

As T5 shot, I waded into the crowd (wearing a tie, of course) and tried to establish rapport with some of the Deadheads.  But a few were more interested in T5, who aimed his lens wherever he pleased, and hit REC.

“Hey man, whatcha doin’?” called out a voice.  T5 wasn’t there to talk; that was my job.  The query drew further interest from the crowd, which set the photog in its crosshairs.

“Hey man.  I didn’t give you permission to shoot my picture.” T5 ignored them and kept shooting.  But the voices multiplied and intensified.  Finally, T5 gave them an answer:  “I’m on a public sidewalk.  You’re in plain sight.  I can shoot whatever I want.”

T-5 was right, of course.  But this was the wrong time to be right.

By this time, the sandal-wearing love-and-peace crowd was churning into a granola-spitting state of hostility.  “Bullshit, man.  You don’t have our permission to shoot us.  You can’t shoot me without permission, man.” This sentiment rapidly multiplied.  Truth was, most of the Deadheads didn’t care about the TV camera on the fringe of their pre-concert party.  But because an obstinate representative of The Man had failed to give some of their number the respect they felt they deserved, they were getting ready to rumble.

They began to move toward T-5, who pounded a Marlboro and did whatever the hell he wanted, because he could. And I watched my story start to go up in flames like a ditchweed spliff.

T-5 was the only photog I’d ever known who could incite a riot among Deadheads.

Fortunately, it never came to that.  I leapfrogged the surging crowd, grabbed T-5 and we withdrew, about a block away.  T-5 and I quickly came to an understanding.

We let the crowd settle for a few minutes.  We circled, out of sight, to the opposite side of the parking lot; and I began groveling to Deadheads who deigned to accept my apology and who explicitly allowed us to photograph them.  T-5 was a good boy the rest of the night.

WAGA’s GM had probably passed within eyeshot at the NAB convention sometime that day.   Had he passed at just the right time, he’d have gotten an eyeful.

And if I ever actually go to the NAB, it’ll be with Team Lenslinger.