Overcompensation

Installing a computer, 9:32am 8.25.10

Sometime during the final years of the Reagan administration, WAGA  installed into its newsroom a computer system called Basys.  It enabled anybody looking at a computer monitor to look at newsroom rundowns, read assignment ques, read updated wire copy, and write stories that could be read by everybody and go straight into the newscast, among many other marvels.    Other larger-market TV stations, including WXIA, installed similar systems.

Basys replaced typewriters.  It also replaced AP wire teletypes.  Staffers logged into Basys could also surreptitiously and instantly communicate with each other via “top line,” later mimicked by AOL instant messenger, Google and others.

This eliminated the clatter of typewriters, teletypes and “which anchor is reading page A-7?!” -style word-of-hollering-mouth.  The newsroom became a very, very quiet place.

Wednesday, WXIA’s newsroom got very, very loud and stayed that way through the 6pm newscast.  It had nothing to do with breaking news, and everything to do with technology.

By 2010, WXIA’s old computer systems had become hopelessly outdated.  Wednesday, between 7am and noon, the old system that processed words and rundowns was euthanized, as was the creaky editing system installed during the Clinton administration.  Both were replaced with systems with funny names that I’ll actually remember one day.

Everybody on staff had been trained on the new systems over the previous month (I was, I’m told, the very last newsroom staffer to get training, which happened Monday).  Within the newsroom Wednesday, 8 to 10 men and women who’d installed the system flitted from desk to desk to troubleshoot.

The transition was cold, with no overlap between systems.  Either we used the new systems, or the newscasts didn’t get on TV.

Troubleshooting: 5:35pm, 8.25.10

This led to some comical overcompensation.  At 4pm, a producer-type urgently asked me to write my anchor lead-in into the 6pm newscast rundown.  At that moment, I was completing the writing of my taped package.  A photographer was champing at the bit to start editing on the new video system, his first on-deadline package.  He too wanted an extra hour to edit.

I snarled at the producer and pointed out that the newscast wouldn’t start for two more hours.  Overdramatizing, I suggested the package wouldn’t make deadline if I had to stop to write a lead-in.  Then I snarled again.

Producers rarely respond to my snarling the way they should.

Another producer walked to my desk moments later and told me to relate the lead-in verbally.  I snarled again.  She didn’t flinch.   “Fine.  ‘Residents of Doraville are up in arms over a poorly designed  sidewalk built with federal stimulus money.’”  I included the cliché with prejudice, knowing that I’d change it before it aired — I had two solid hours to fix it.

I finished writing the package, voice-tracked it and the photographer started editing.  He completed it 45 minutes before the newscast started.

When I opened the rundown to re-write my lead-in, somebody else had already done it.

It turns out that the new technology is quite user-friendly.  It helped that the staff was already computer savvy, which gave us a big advantage over my late ’80s counterparts who’d gotten newsroom computers for the first time ever.

And then noise died down a bit.  One more time.


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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form, zero, zilch, nada. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

5 thoughts on “Overcompensation

  1. Photoggg

    I remember one day back in ’94 when the Basys sytem at CNN crashed. Back then CNN en Español shared space with Headline News (remember the set with the giant keyboard on the wall?)
    Out of God knows where, old Olivetti typewriters were brought up to the news room and for a couple of hours the long forgotten “click-clack” sound of metal hitting paper and the murmurs of people talking to each other trying to figure out rundowns and story assignments filled the newsroom.
    I don’t think those Olivettis exist anymore so I wonder what would happen if the system would crash like that again.

    Reply
  2. JimmyD

    Good story, brought back a memory of the first radio station I worked at. They installed an ESP-1 automation system, which consisted of three cart carousels (think slide projector with audio cartridges instead of slides) and four reel decks, along with fixed carts for weather and promo’s, and a dual machine for time announce, all programmed by a little numeric keypad.

    It was actually fun to watch. The reel that was playing would clank to a stop just as the cart started for the promo, then one of the carousels would start with a spot, then the second carousel would start. The first carousel would then rotate to a different spot. By the time the third carousel had played, it was ready to go again, if needed, so you could theoretically play spot after spot after spot.

    Then it would kick to the time cartridge, which actually had two carts, one for even, one for odd minutes. That way, if the system called for a time announce while the machine was cueing the next minute on the odd time cart, for example, it would play the even time cart. So the time announce could be a minute off either way, but it worked.

    Then it would kick to another reel to reel, and we were back to the music. Since they had one voice guy do it all, it sounded pretty seamless to the listeners.

    Of course, back then, they still had to have someone there when it was on air. Wasn’t long before I figured out how to fast forward/rewind the reels, and read the codes to determine which spots were not back announced. Since it had a remote in the control room that would do everything, the boss came in one day to find me happily doing my own on-air show, cutting out the packaged voice completely. I was just a kid in high school, and really didn’t see the problem….

    Reply
  3. JeremyK

    ENPS, I presume? It was built to run the BBC, meaning it offers many more features (and is much more complicated) than local TV stations need.

    We’ve customized our setup since it was installed, and it (mostly) has become second-nature. Sadly, I signed up to become an alleged “super-user” — meaning I bear the brunt of disgruntled employees whenever mysterious black bars consume the slugs in the rundown.

    Reply

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