Monthly Archives: January 2011

Some of the good ones

I’ve killed my share of pixels writing about lousy public information officers (PIOs), and I remain astonished at their pervasiveness in government.  By contrast, I’m very appreciative of those who do their job well.

Carlos Campos

At the Atlanta Police Department, the communications division was frequently treated as an afterthought.  Under some regimes, the communications folk were muzzled until the Chief personally OK’d the release of info.  So former AJC reporter Carlos Campos deserves a lot of credit for transforming APD communications into an office that’s been highly effective.  It’s timely and responsive to the news media, for the most part.  And it’s shown a proactive approach to generating positive and worthwhile stories showing cops doing their jobs and solving crimes.

It appears Chief George Turner has given Campos and staff the leeway to actually share information on a timely basis.  It may rankle some cops (who love to gripe and now have something new to gripe about internally).  But Campos is mostly making APD look good day in and day out.

Don Plummer

The Fulton County Superior Court made a shrewd move by hiring former AJC reporter Don Plummer to create and run its public information office.  Fulton has more high-profile cases than any county in Georgia.  Plummer was indispensable (so I hear) during the lengthy Brian Nichols murder trial in 2008.   Judges typically shun publicity, understandably.  A guy like Plummer can provide needed balance between judicial discretion and the need for openness.

Incredibly, the Fulton Superior Court discontinued Plummer’s job in January, firing him shortly after he helped the court push back against some bad publicity surrounding the release of a man accused of killing a state trooper.  He’s a talented guy and deserved better.

Danny Porter

My favorite PR guy isn’t a PR guy at all.  Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter may be the only DA in town without a communications specialist.  He doesn’t need one.  He answers the phone when reporters call his office.  If you leave a message, he’ll call you back.  If you show up in his lobby, he’ll eventually poke his head out the door and growl “whaddaya need?”

Porter usually knows why you’re there and typically wastes little time with reporters.  “I’m not going on camera” will frequently come out of his mouth before you ask (he talked on TV about the “Mansion Madame” story exactly once, then subsequently declined).  When he thinks his constituents need to see him talking about an issue, he’ll do it on TV.  When an issue warrants, he’ll spend time in his office with reporters giving them background.

Porter has his share of critics within the Gwinnett County Courthouse.  But he understands the news media and his role as a public official engaged in high-profile activity.  And he gets re-elected handily every four years.  The best publicist is frequently the guy who needs no publicist.

Two reasonably new additions to the PIO world deserve honorable mentions for outstanding service to their employers and accessibility to the news media.

Tracy Flanagan is the overworked PIO for the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department.  With Fulton’s seemingly-endless jail and courthouse security issues, the former WAGA reporter stepped into a bit of a hornet’s nest.  She’s a calm and responsive spokeswoman for an agency that needs it.

Reese McCranie is very protective of his boss, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed.  But he’s also is savvy and helpful.  Reed’s two predecessors treated the news media like the enemy toward the end of their terms.  Here’s hoping that McCranie (and his boss, Sonji Jacobs Dade) can help Reed end that streak.

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive list.  I adore and admire many other PIOs.  But I’ve written enough.  Thank you for reading.

Mouth of the South

My ill-advised and poorly-executed quest for world domination got a questionable boost last week when WXIA aired the first Suspicious Package segment on Sunday’s 9am news.  It’s the video above.

Because of its double (or more) entendre qualities, Suspicious Package is the name I sometimes wish I’d used for this site instead of Live Apartment Fire.

The franchise, such as it is, is an inside-ball look at local TV news.    No matter how cynical we are, I think all of us in the TV news biz take our work seriously.  We value well-told and well-produced stories.  We value timely reporting, accuracy and fairness.  Our competitive qualities make us better and more aggressive journalists.  Our deadlines are facts-of-life.

Yet those qualities that define us — especially competitiveness and deadline timeliness — frequently drive our personnel into weird territory, and the audience sees it.  Yes, they’re glued to the tube when they’re stuck at home during Snowmageddon 2011.  They want to see what’s going on in the world outside their icy driveways.  But they are also clued into our antics, which are mostly driven by our desire to produce compelling material, and the fact that all of us in TV news are flawed human beings.

Local TV news is a source of information.  It’s also a bit of a hometown-flavored sideshow.  The audience recognizes the silly elements of our business, same as we insiders do.  Perhaps even more than we do.

I’m continually amazed that I work for a woman who not only recognizes it, but wants to shed light on it, and isn’t afraid of the audience’s reaction to it.  This on-camera bit was Ellen Crooke’s idea, not mine.  She pitched it when she first hired me.  I stalled for months, then scratched out a couple of scripts in November, and shot the demos while on paternity leave.  Except for requiring that I appear clean-shaven, she didn’t change a thing.

You are free, of course, to dispute or add to the points I’ve made.  It’s just one bloke’s opinion.

The second piece is shown below.  Here’s your insider look behind Suspicious Package: I shot them both the same day.  But for the second one, I zipped up the hoodie, hiding the t-shirt underneath, arguably giving the audience the impression I had dressed somewhat dissimilarly for the two pieces.

As if anyone really cared.

suspak, posted with vodpod

Missed that one

Many news professionals like to talk about the big stories they’ve covered.  I’m among them.  But today I’m going to cover some of the big stories I missed.  We’ll begin with Monday’s snow and ice “weather event.”  I’d scheduled a vacation day Monday.  My colleagues covered it while I stayed home, secure in the knowledge that I’d get my fair share of abuse when I returned to work the next day.

Category 5: Hurricane Hugo

Hurricane Hugo. When this hurricane clobbered Charleston in September 1989, I was visiting my grandparents in rural Missouri.  To this day, I find myself in conversations beginning with “remember, during Hugo…”  Based on those conversations, I feel like I was there.  I continually have to remind myself that I wasn’t.

I made up for it by covering Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  I showed up in Miami as the wind began to gust.  It was a stronger storm that took more lives and did more damage.  But folks in Atlanta talk about Hugo, not Andrew.

The Cuban prison riot. I was a backup player for the first day or so of the November 1987 uprising at the Atlanta Federal Prison.  Once again, I was scheduled to visit my grandparents.  WAGA’s news director at that time was a guy named Mark Hoffman, replacing the guy who hired me, Jack Frazier.  Hoffman was unimpressed with me.  He raised no objection to my scheduled vacation.  When I returned, the siege was one day away from ending.  I covered the final day of it in a sidebar / backup role.

Mark Hoffman

Some time later, Hoffman informed me that I needed to start behaving like a large-market reporter.   He instructed that I needed to show more “swagger.”  He also gave me some practical and useful tips for live reporting.

He backed it up with a one-year contract offer, telling me I had twelve months to get it right or get gone.  It was a useful (and highly motivational) conversation.  One year later, Hoffman offered me a decent three year contract, then left town.  I don’t think I ever thanked the SOB for that bit of tough love;  Thanks, Hoffman, wherever you are. (The internet reports that Hoffman is now president of CNBC.)

 

Ichiro hit .385 for Orix in 1994

Tropical Storm Alberto. This was the July 1994 storm that socked South Georgia with flooding, drained Lake Blackshear, and dislodged coffins from graves.  On the day the rain started, I left town with photog Steve Zumwalt to spend a week producing stories on professional baseball in Japan.  When we got to Tokyo, CNN was carrying Atlanta TV footage of the flooding.  When we returned from Japan, the story was beginning to wrap, but crews were fixed at South Georgia locations.  I covered baseball, and the upcoming Major League strike.

I missed the flooding story completely.  But I’d seen Japan on the company dime.  I’d followed the Kobe-based Orix Blue Wave, which engaged the services of former Atlanta Brave Francisco Cabrera.  The Blue Wave’s leadoff hitter was a rookie named Ichiro Suzuki.

The Dunwoody tornado. This story broke in April 1998, during a week DeKalb schools took spring break.  I’d taken my kids camping at the Okefenokee swamp, then headed to  Longboat Key on the Florida gulf coast.  When we arrived in Longboat, CNN was showing WAGA’s Dana Fowle reporting live in a helicopter.  She was showing aeriel footage of the damage, and talking about “tornadic activity.”

I’d never heard that phrase before.  I filed it into my personal dictionary, alongside “vampiric” activity.  One day, I hope to use both phrases in the same story.

Foot forward

The “standup” is a bit of a misnomer.  Those of us who make appearances in th’ TV news stand in front of cameras, and intone.  It’s true.  But the standup isn’t just about standing there and talking out loud to a camera lens.  Stand in a relaxed, flatfooted stance, and the material itself becomes flatfooted.  As a man who has delivered an abundance of flatfooted material on television, I know this.

Jeff Hullinger and I demonstrate the action stance.

Each time I appear on camera, I continually have to remind myself:  I’m not standing here, chatting amiably with my friends.  I am here to deliver. I am here (as I learned from Budd McEntee) to sell the story. If I seem uninterested in the story, then I cannot expect the audience to be interested.  If the audience isn’t interested, they’ll find another newscast.  If I’m not selling the story, I’m hurting the ultimate goal of my employer, which is to keep eyeballs glued to our TV channel.

I have to remind myself of this each time I appear on camera, because this thinking is unnatural to me.  My persona, as I perceive it, is more relaxed.  I’m “a Type C” personality, as McEntee once called me, with a mix of humor and venom.  I don’t dispute that.

My self-reminder starts with positioning.  Many years ago, I heard a photog refer to “the action stance.”  He meant it disparagingly.  But as a guy who needed to muster all the action I could into my on-camera appearances (not to mention, coherence), I adopted the action stance as a way to make me embody the excitable on-camera field reporter.

The body is angled slightly.  One foot is forward.  The hand on the forward part of the body holds the mic.  The knees are slightly bent.  The footwork is especially important.  The balls of the feet bear much of the weight.  Frequently, at least one heel is off the ground completely.

The raised eyebrow is optional.

When the reporter is properly framed, you don’t see the action stance on camera.  But it’s viewable when TV reporters are lined up, covering the same story (walk past Central Ave. and ML King Jr. Dr. at noon whenever there’s a big trial at the Fulton County Courthouse).

I’m a reporter.  I also play one on TV.

LAF on TV

Update: It appears they killed my segment Sunday due to  — weather, maybe?

Despite her better judgment, the bosslady has decided to allow a variation of this blog to appear in a WXIA newscast.  Depending on my ability to generate content, the whims of management, the numbers, the research etc., it could be a regular feature on 11 Alive’s Sunday morning news, which is broadcast for an hour at 9am.

The piece is essentially an on-camera rant, delivered as is if by the mutated offspring of Lewis Black and Andy Rooney.  The piece is self-shot in the office that has functioned as LAF HQ for lo these nearly three years.  There will be graphics to illustrate points.  But mostly, it’s yours truly runnin’ his damn mouth again.

I shot two different versions:  One at the end of a hirsute period concluding a three-week paternity leave, and one version at another time.  Tune in at 9am Sunday and find out which one got the green light!

Eddie and Lenny’s

One of Eddie’s bands at Lenny’s, 9.13.2005

I’d patronized the dive bar / rock club known as Lenny’s perhaps a half dozen times in my life, mostly at its old Memorial Drive location.  Its word-of-mouth was more influential than my personal experience, having heard “concert calendar” mentions on WRAS and seeing its lineups listed in Creative Loafing and Stomp and Stammer.  After reading the Loaf’s “RIP Lenny’s” piece, I asked WXIA’s Manager of News Content Ben Mayer if he’d be interested in a sendoff TV story.  A musician his ownself, Mayer bought it.  The fact that I pitched it during the slow-news holiday season didn’t hurt.

The tough part was coming up with a story line.  I didn’t want to produce a piece that overstated Lenny’s charms and influence.  In early December, Stomp and Stammer editor Jeff Clark had published a harsh but clear-headed sendoff piece that said, in essence, good riddance to a poorly-run business and lousy venue (I can’t find it online).  My own experience was mixed, but here’s what stood out:  The wife and I had visited Lenny’s a couple – three times to support our friend Eddie Cortes, a former WAGA news photog and erstwhile band leader, when he played on Lenny’s stage.

In so doing, I’d often thought:  Damn, they’ll let anybody play here.

 

Eddie and his mates played their instruments well.  Eddie had some stage presence.  Eddie bravely sang in a couple of his band’s incarnations.  But it’s fair to say that Eddie’s bands represented one end of the spectrum of talent hosted by Lenny’s.  Because Eddie has a great sense of humor, is a friend, and is a reasonably self-aware individual, I asked him to help me with the story.  I told him that his presence would show that Lenny’s welcomed musicians to play on its stage “regardless of talent.”  He got it and played along

To add a bit of heft, I sought out Frank Dreyer of the defunct performance-art band Heinous Bienfang.  The wife and I still chuckle about a Heinous show we witnessed at Lenny’s / Dottie’s ten years ago, which involved a bucket of vegetable oil, a Fulton County police officer, and Mr. Dreyer bleeding from the head onstage, buck-ass naked.

Eddie’s fan base at Lenny’s, 9.13.05

I also contacted Mack Williams in Blackshear, GA.  I first knew of Mack as the cartoonist who preceded Bill Richardson the editorial pages of the Red and Black.  (Bill was frequently and unfavorably compared to Williams by readers angered by Bill’s political viewpoints.)  Williams’s band, Attractive Eighties Women, is also into performance art.

Eddie Cortes’s bass-thumping presence bookended the story visually and thematically.  He and I worked together for ten years in the news biz.  We were sidekicks on my biggest-ever TV news adventure, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  It made sense to seek him out to represent a certain quality of musician that played at Lenny’s.

His participation was, as the Brits might say, “very sporting.”  I have an uneasy feeling I’m in his debt now.

lenny’s video, posted with vodpod