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.

Plus ca change…

Photo from Feeding the News Beast.


The news business may evolve, but certain truths remain constant.  A TV newscast must have stories that are timely, relevant and interesting.   Important stories are a plus.

When news is done well, it helps viewers.  It doesn’t help them pay their bills, necessarily, or win grievances with their landlords.  Instead it helps them become informed, which helps them make decisions about their own lives, and function knowledgeably in society.

But viewers are leaving TV news in droves.  It’s because TV news, especially the locals, hype stories that seem important.  But when viewers see the actual product — “breaking” news, breathlessly told and promoted, about low-grade tragedies or garden-variety mishaps — they lose interest in the story, and in TV as a local news medium.  Except for viewers who may be affected first-hand by such stuff, those stories help nobody.

They’re also leaving TV news because they’ve become accustomed to cherry-picking news from web sites.  It saves them time and allows them to steer clear of news crapola.

How does TV news save itself?  I’m not sure it can, frankly.  But let’s suppose it’s possible.

One answer:  Do the basics well, as described in the first paragraph.

Another answer:  Innovate.

Bosslady Maximus

Ellen Crooke, the news director at WXIA better known in this part of cyberspace as The Bosslady, would be the first to tell you that her TV station has a hit-or-miss history with the basics.  Although the stories that regularly appear in WXIA’s newscasts are generally interesting and well-crafted, her newsroom doesn’t break enough news.

Recognizing that, she’s begun regularly scheduling reporters a day “off the board” to work sources and dig up stuff that hasn’t surfaced before.

She has begun scheduling large chunks of 11pm newscasts devoted to one topic.  Viewer feedback has been very encouraging.

She’s also devoted to the notion that a newscast can “help” people, in ways that extend beyond the broadcasting of timely and relevant information.  Her hiring and promotion of John Gerard, the Commuter Dude, is a result of that thinking.  Subsequently, WGCL devoted Harry Samler to its Pothole Patrol, touting it as a way to help viewers.

Valerie Hoff’s Ways to Save franchise is another example.

WSB and WAGA also have franchises that “help.”   WSB’s Mark Winne does pieces that spotlight cold-case crimes.  WAGA’s Doug Evans does Georgia’s Most Wanted.  WAGA also does Wednesday’s Child, which helps adopt foster children.

WXIA’s newsroom is full of traditional news folk.  Some are a bit skeptical that a newscast that “helps” people can lure viewers.  They’ve seen WXIA’s promotional campaign about changing local news.  They fear that folks targeted by that campaign may have already given up on TV.

On the other hand, they receive an eye-opening e-mail each morning that reveals the overnight ratings.  WXIA is solidly in third place in a four-station market (though its morning newscasts are showing signs of competitive life).   WXIA would like nothing better than to leapfrog WAGA in at least some of the ratings.

We also know that the fourth-place station is very aggressive, and is doing some good work.  (Thankfully for WXIA, WGCL’s incessant “tough questions” drumbeat is becoming a bit of a civic punchline.  But don’t tell them that.)

Feeding the beast, post-Murrows

So even the skeptics at WXIA cheered a little bit last week when Gannett gave Ellen Crooke its “Innovator of the Year” award.  It’s an award that spans all the company properties, including its newspapers.  As corporate awards go, it’s decent.

They cheered a bit more when WXIA won eight regional Edward R. Murrow awards, a “stunning achievement” according to a publicist who sent an e-mail to the LAF tip jar.  The Murrows come from the group formerly known as the RTNDA, now called the Radio Television Digital News Association.

WSB won two Murrows.  WAGA won one.  Anybody who’s been around the news business for any time knows that awards are nice, but commercial success is better.

Nonetheless, the WXIA pieces that won are impressive.  Jaye Watson’s piece on a teenage cancer survivor isn’t just a tear-jerker, but is packed with amusing surprises.  Watson helped the kid get backstage with Stevie Wonder.

Marc Pickard’s piece on home foreclosures was stunning.  He was with sheriff deputies as they evicted families from their homes.  It was timely and relevant, plus expertly written and shot/edited.  (If for no other reason, click one of the links to see the goofy twenty-second commercial for an uplink provider that precedes each piece.)

It’s the kind of stuff that WXIA does well.  It’s the kind of stuff that folks who’ve turned away from TV news might want to see, if they were to come back.

Maybe the bosslady is onto something.  For the station’s sake, and the medium’s sake, I hope so.

Adaptable, adept

Richard Crabbe is not my favorite photographer at WXIA.  I don’t have a favorite photographer.  To make such a choice would be akin to selecting a favorite parent or a favorite offspring.  It wouldn’t be cool.

But Richard Crabbe is worth singling out, and not just because of the grim timing that happened to put him outside the Fulton County Courthouse on March 11, 2005 at the exact moment the homicidal Brian Nichols was making his desperate getaway.

Crabbe has been at WXIA since the 70s.  I don’t mind admitting:  As a competitor, he used to scare the hell out of me, for many of the qualities that I now find appealing —  he doesn’t smile unnecessarily.   When he has nothing to say, he shuts up. He can speak volumes with little more than a sharp look.  When he talks, he tends to be blunt.

Like so many WXIA photogs, he’s seen his station and his business change over the years, and largely for the worse.  Like everybody else at Gannett, his pay was cut last year.  He was furloughed twice.  He parks his news vehicle at the station overnight now, rather than in the garage of his DeKalb County home.

Despite all that, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Crabbe — like, I think, most of his fellow WXIA photogs — doesn’t regret his career choice. He likes telling stories.  He likes documenting the human condition.  He likes the challenge of performing small miracles on deadline.  He likes prowling the community he’s gotten to know very, very well.

When he does speak, it’s likely to reveal something very human.  Most dudes his age don’t casually and affectionately speak of their wives with the easy frequency Crabbe does.

Crabbe also happens to be very good at what he does, and has adapted to the times.  He has a mastery of technology that expands his camera and editing talent — graphics and computer application skills that would rival those of photogs half his age who grew up with that stuff.  An Augusta native, Crabbe was raised with slide rules, in a number-two pencil era.

If he’s not already in NATAS’s Silver Circle or whatever, Crabbe will probably get there soon enough.  But don’t expect him to smile or gush.  That’s not his style.

Consider this the Friday Open Thread. Keep it human.  Waste no words.

Late late late show

Item:  WAGA recently started a new 4:30am newscast, around the same time the station laid off production workers.  The new newscast is a great idea.  Here’s why.

10.  Ten and a half hours of local news each weekday is insufficient, obviously.

9.  At eleven hours of local news per day, you’re only one hour away from programming half the day out of the newsroom.

8.  Your downsized production staff and robotic cameras have proven they can flawlessly handle another half-hour effortlessly.

7.  More newscasts give anchors more opportunities to sharpen their teleprompter operating skills.

6.  Legions of meth addicts in North Georgia need to know the five-day forecast before they go to bed.

5.  The newsroom’s overnight staff is obviously underworked.

4.  More newscasts give your sales staff opportunities to offer volume discounts to advertisers.

3.  It ties nicely into your new promotional tag line:  Volume, Volume, VOLUME!

2.   It’s a baby step into the coveted 4 am slot.

1.  A 4 am newscast foreshadows your new 4 pm newscast, set to debut in fall of 2011.