Monthly Archives: August 2011

Hurricane checklist

Inspired by a post by Spacey G called Old Field Producer Hurricane Survival Tips (click on it– it’s much more whimsical than this post), here are some useful tips for TV hurricane coverage.  It’s too late for Irene, but it’s never too late.

Tybee Island GA, August 26 2011. Photo by Jim Jensen

1.  Don’t overestimate the severity of a hurricane.  That Cat 1 over Bermuda only occasionally strengthens to a destructive Category 5 bearing down on your local shoreline.  Odds are it’ll be a two or a one by the time it reaches landfall.  When it gets to you, you’ll probably be covering a yucky, breezy rainstorm.

2.  When it looks like it’s bearing down on the coast of Georgia, think again.  It’s actually headed to the Carolinas.  (But when Savannah gets clobbered, if it happens during what’s left of my career, I’m so going.)

3.  Bring backup.  If you’re a one-man-band, insist on rolling with a photog or another one-man-band.  Insist on a Sat truck.  Don’t let them send you to a hurricane with an evil plan to just use Skype.  You deserve better than stop-action live shots.

4.  Try to arrive before the hurricane arrives.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  When you’re convinced it’s hitting Charleston, it’ll hit Wilmington instead.  By the time you realize you have to leapfrog to Wilmington, the evacuation is all but finished and your live truck is tacking in the breeze like the Santa Maria.

5.  Seek shelter.  If you actually arrive in advance of a dangerous hurricane, find a sturdy spot for yourself and your truck (especially if you’ve arrived too late to check into a hotel, which has almost always been my experience).  Mike Daly and I rode out Hurricane Opal in a fire station.  Helen Lester and I snoozed through Hurricane Andrew in the lobby of Miami’s Federal Reserve Bank.

6.  When shooting the surging tide, be mindful that the tide is surging.   There’s no reason to get too close.

7.  Get supplied.  Bring a cooler.  Bring trash bags and sanitary wipes.  Bring hand sanitizer.  Water, dried meat products, nuts, and candy are essential. Find sources of caffeine.  Keep an eye out for suppliers of fuel and ice.  Fruits and vegetables are optional.  You won’t be gone long enough to get scurvy.

8.  Bring beer.  It’s not only a splendid refreshment at the end of an 18 hour day, it’s also useful for barter with other media and logistical help.  It can also buy goodwill amongst folk who’ve lost property.  “Mind if we shoot some video of your destroyed house?  May I offer you a cold beer?  You look like you could use one.”  It’s the decent thing to do.

9.  Find room for cots and camping chairs.  Once the hurricane passes, hotels will be filled with those whose homes are too damaged to inhabit.  The weather will rapidly improve, making sleeping outdoors an option.  Walmart and Sam’s Club will allow urban camping in their parking lots, as will friendly hometown TV and radio stations.  And they have rest rooms.  It beats driving fifty miles to find a vacancy in a motel with no power.

10.  Get some sleep.  True, you’re in the hurricane zone to work.  Expect to spend every waking moment working.  But if you volunteer for live shots from 5am to 11pm, you’ll rapidly become irritable and useless.

11.  Get creative.  Everywhere you turn, there’s a story.  But  your stories of destruction will very rapidly start to look and sound the same as the last story you told.  Avoid exhaustion-fueled clichés:  Path of destruction, eye of the storm and above all:  It looked like a war zone.  Even if you’ve been to an actual war zone, don’t use it.

Like a mighty stream

Go ahead. Laugh. That's why it's here.

As a 20-something working at KMTV in Omaha, I eyed the expanse of the United States in search of the Bigger Market.  Figuring cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco were out of reach, I aimed a bit lower and set my sights on Atlanta.  Denver and Seattle were a close second and third.

Atlanta appealed to me in many ways.  I was drawn to the sweet-tea culture of the South.  The weather was appealing.  It was a Major League city, baseball-wise.  There was abundant spot news — the Atlanta child murders were a big deal (and Richard Belcher’s work on that story at WAGA had gotten national attention that caught my eye in Omaha).

Andrew Young was the mayor of Atlanta.  I think that sealed it more than anything else.

As Mayor: Andrew Young

I’d known of Young, Julian Bond and Dr. Joe Lowery as activist holdovers from the King era, and their presence in Atlanta appealed to me.  Coretta Scott King had just founded the King Center and had successfully lobbied for a King holiday.  Add the Civil War lore, the intriguing presence of Lester Maddox and the like — and the history and vigor of Atlanta kind of took my breath away.

And it was living history.  Young, ambassador to the UN under Jimmy Carter, was still politically active.  During the 1984 presidential campaign, Young said Walter Mondale’s campaign was being run by a “a bunch of smart-ass white boys.”  Omaha’s mayor was never this interesting.

The year I moved here, in 1986, John Lewis and Julian Bond ran against each other for a seat in Congress.  It was a jaw-dropping spectacle for a newcomer who admired both men.  Lewis won.  Bond left town. (I finally got to meet Bond about a year ago.)

Shortly after arriving here, I got an assignment that sent me to the mayor’s office at the old city hall tower.  Young ushered me into his (third floor, I think) office, and sat casually on the edge of his desk.   He chatted amiably, and I tried not to be starstruck.

JT Johnson

25 years later, many of those folks are still around.  One day last week, I visited Young at his home for a piece on WXIA.  The same day, I talked to Lewis on the phone and I interviewed Martin King III.  The same day, I also met a guy I’d never known before named J.T. Johnson.  Johnson was one of the un-famous civil rights folk who did a lot of the grunt work for the more famous players like Young, Bond and Dr. King.

I’d heard J.T. Johnson was among those in limbo over receiving an invite to the unveiling of Dr. King’s monument next weekend in Washington.  We talked.  He didn’t complain about the lack of an invitation, but said matter-of-factly that he hadn’t gotten one.  (After the piece showed up on the web, somebody in DC emailed me, contacted Johnson and got him a pair of tickets.)

There were and are numerous other J.T. Johnsons in Atlanta.  Folks like Willie Bolden, C.T. Vivian, Rev. James Orange and others were best known among civil rights movement insiders, though I’d periodically run into them at civic events and rallies.  Hosea Williams was undoubtedly the best known of the lesser-knowns, especially locally.  Williams was a fearless and funny and somewhat reckless guy who was barely known nationally when he died.

Hosea Williams, Forsyth Co. January 1987. AJC photo

Covering Williams and other “movement” folks in Atlanta could be a mixed bag at times.  The SCLC and King Center seemed to lose relevance with the passing of time and the evolution of civil rights in America.  Speakers at rallies and news conferences sometimes clung to seemingly-outdated notions of oppression that appeared to lack proportion.  Yet I’d always get a kick out of it when somebody would invariably conclude by saying “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

In January 2009, my wife insisted that we attend the inauguration of Barack Obama.  While standing on the mall, Rev. Lowery was introduced for the benediction.  We gave him a loud cheer, and everybody surrounding us turned and looked at us funny.  “Who is that?” somebody asked.  Lowery is the president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I explained.  Then Lowery proceeded to give his “when the yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man”  prayer, and everybody else cheered, too.  (There are exceptions, including whomever labeled the Youtube video embedded below.)

On Facebook, somebody recently suggested that Atlanta is one of the world’s great cities.  With cities like New York, Paris, Rome and Tokyo — plus countless others I’ve never visited — in competition, an honest answer would have to say that Atlanta remains a class below “world’s great.”  If I had unlimited cash, maybe I’d consider a move to New York or San Francisco.  But otherwise, there’s no city in north America in which I’d rather be.

And I’m still starstruck whenever I talk to Andy Young.

The land of Oss

Blayne Alexander, during Paul Ossmann's newsroom sendoff

When I showed up to work at WXIA for the first time in 2009, nobody greeted me more warmly than Paul Ossmann.  We’d become acquainted when WAGA first hired him in 1988.   He became one of the founding hosts of WAGA’s Good Day Atlanta.  Ossmann jumped ship 13 years ago when WXIA offered him a spot as the station’s main weather guy.

Paul Ossmann with Kody aka Doppler the Weather Dog

WXIA declined to renew his contract, which expired in July.  Ossmann informed his coworkers in January.  He didn’t want to leave.  He was a popular guy in the building, as he was with viewers.  Despite the circumstances, he completed his contract by staying engaged in the newsroom.  His professionalism never flagged.  If he was bitter, he successfully kept it from becoming public.

It turned out the loss of his job heightened other nagging problems in his life, as outlined in an interview with Rodney Ho of the AJC.  His wife left him, and Ossmann has filed for bankruptcy.

The most eye-opening part of Ho’s piece came from public records in bankruptcy court.  Ho reports that Ossmann’s annual income was about $225,000.  It’s good money, but I’ll bet many folks would have guessed that a big-time weatherman at a station in a top 10 market would have a higher salary.

Ho reports that Ossmann took a salary cut in 2008, at a time when Atlanta TV news folks were losing jobs and taking salary cuts across the board.

I hear a lot of people gripe about their jobs — the unpredictable hours, the evolving (and sometimes unpredictable) technology, the thinning ranks of staff, the squirrelly attempts to build an audience.  But I almost never hear people gripe about their salaries — even after the cuts of 2008.  I’m pretty sure it’s because TV news folk consider themselves blessed to be able to continue to work in an industry that remains interesting and dynamic.

If Ossmann was earning $225K, you can imagine where those of us with much lower profiles fall on the salary scale.  We don’t make big money.  We have debt.  I drive a 2002 Honda Accord.  A veteran on-air colleague is currently looking for a new/used family car, and insists that $5000 is all the family can afford.

With WXIA meteorologist Chris Holcomb (L), following Ossmann's final broadcast on WXIA

At the same time, I see a lot of fancy expensive cars in the parking lots of local TV stations.  I think some folks feel that they have to keep up appearances:  I’m in TV.  I must carry myself accordingly.  I’m guilty of that sometimes.  If you don’t carry yourself with a bit of swagger, you may be taken less seriously.  That’s not limited to TV, either.

By the way, ebay is a great place to purchase new, expensive suits that aren’t expensive.

I suspect that Ossmann’s replacement, Mike Francis, will be a great success in this market. As WXIA brought in Francis, it gave Ossmann as graceful an exit as possible.  He got a nice on-air tribute on his last day.  Many TV stations might have been inclined to allow an involuntarily separated anchor to simply slip off, unacknowledged.  The onair sendoff was a tad awkward yet very decent and humane.  Because I was on vacation, I missed the newsroom sendoff.  I understand it was very heartfelt.

Ossmann departed with a lot of class, and a lot of personal issues.  He told Ho he’s getting a real estate license, but the dude was made for TV.  I’m rooting for him to make a comeback, and I know I’ve got plenty of company.

The first comment will be the four thousandth comment on this blog.  But I’m not making it easy!  I’m disinclined to accept blunt-force WXIA management-bashing comments on this post.  Please strive to make clever, thoughtful comments.  Or make it rhyme!  Feel free to clobber me, of course, unless it’s done to backhandedly bash my bosses.  I’m on to your game!  Save the ugly crapola for the AJC blog.  And as always, thank you for reading LAF.

Throwing a bone

When the state Ethics Commission had its funding cut, it was a big story.  It was also a tough story to tell, and to sell to a TV audience.  It was about budget cuts — something happening at every level of government already.  It was about bureaucracy — something that rarely captures the imagination.  And on the day it happened in June, the story’s “bad guy” was nowhere to be found.

The cuts at the Ethics Commission gutted the state’s official ability to compile and investigate the finances of political candidates, elected officials and lobbyists.  In a state with a rich history of corrupt political behavior, its de-fanging by the appointees of politicians was significant.

Patrick Millsaps

As part of my effort to advance the story, I made a phone call to Patrick Millsaps’ law office in Camilla.  Millsaps is the chairman of the Ethics Commission, appointed by Gov. Deal.  If the story had a bad guy, he appeared to be it.  I got a secretary.  She took my phone number and told me Millsaps was away on vacation.  I didn’t expect to hear from him.

About a week later, my cell phone rang with a south Georgia area code.  “Hi.  It’s Patrick Millsaps.”  I had long since moved on to other news, and it took me a couple of seconds to recognize his name.  I immediately began a short, somewhat nervous impromptu pitch to allow him to “clear the air” about his role in the gutting of the Ethics Commission.

To my utter surprise, he was very agreeable.

He said that I was one of only two reporters who had left him messages during his vacation.  The other one is a longtime Atlanta reporter who has produced several tough pieces about the ethics of Gov. Deal.  I shan’t name the competitor, for whom I have mad respect.

As the conversation ensued, I got the impression that he intended to throw me a competitive bone.  He would call the other reporter back, but later.

Newsmakers agree to interviews for many different reasons.  Millsaps was, in fact, motivated to “clear the air.”  He was charming and humorous.  He made a reasonably convincing case, I thought, that he wasn’t doing Deal’s dirty work.  Of course, I also think OJ’s innocent.

But in so doing, he appeared to also be sending a message to my esteemed competitor, who’d been much tougher on Gov. Deal than I’d been.

When Millsaps and I talked again last week about his decision to renounce his appointment to the Ethics Commission and step out of his chairmanship, the name of the competitor came up again.  The competitor had called again.  Millsaps was apparently satisfied with the interview I’d done, and chose to “break” the story about his departure with me instead.

A slightly uneasy feeling returned.  I felt I had asked Millsaps all the tough questions about the budget cuts, about his relationship with Gov. Deal, and whether he was undercutting an Ethics Commission probe into Deal’s campaign finances.  Yet he was willing to talk to me again before talking to the other reporter.

  • As a sidelight, we had a conversation that went roughly like this:
  • Millsaps:  You know I’m not “resigning.”
  • Me:  I never said you were.  I’m going to say you’re “stepping aside.”
  • M:  But I’m not going anywhere, so you can’t really say I’m “stepping aside.”
  • D:  Then how would you describe it?
  • M: You can say that I’m “remaining until such time as Gov. Deal appoints my successor.”
  • D:  That won’t cut it.   That’s too clunky, and you are taking an action that needs to be described.  How about “renouncing your appointment?”
  • M:  Oh, gosh.  No.
  • D:  “Abdicating the chairmanship” sounds too regal.
  • M:  Agreed.
  • D:  “Nullifying your appointment?”
  • M:  Maybe.

We ended up back at square one, using the phrase “stepping aside.”

Was he talking to me — and not my competitor — because he expected easier treatment from me?  Or “fair” treatment?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Would I be perceived as the guy who got a couple of decent scoops because this guy respected my work?  Or because he knew I was a pushover, compared to my competitor?

I chose not to lose sleep over those questions.  The answer, of course, is that he talked to me because I’m just that awesome.  And I’m sticking to that.

You, too, may get evenhanded treatment from local news!  Write me with your exclusive scoopage:  apartmentfire (at) gmail.com

Act naturally

If he grew a big beard and darkened his hair, Buck might pass for Brad.

“How’s the audio?”

I asked this  of my friend holding an Iphone on the beach at Tybee.  Brad had activated the phone’s HD video function, after I’d badgered him into shooting a “suspicious package” segment near the island’s south jetty.

“Beats me.  I can’t hear it,” came the answer.  “But I’ve got a picture.”  Brad is an IT guy, not a news photographer.  There was a sea breeze on the beach.  We took our chances, audio-wise.  We paid.  Well, no.  The viewer paid.

I’m still not sure why I wrote and performed (and asked Brad to shoot) a segment while on vacation.   It probably has to do with the fact that I’m such a fan of David Ries, the producer of WXIA’s Sunday 9am newscast.  He seems to value the segment somewhat.  I have trouble saying “no” to him, when he asks if he’s getting a Suspicious Package.

But I don’t know whether he valued this piece, which is here for you to heckle.  I’m not even sure it actually aired.  I was on vacation.

July was a good month.  I spent a majority of it on vacation.  I even got paid to run the Peachtree July 4.  Among the month’s highlights:

  • Jez, Clint, Tally, Brad, Everett, Nathan, Sara, Laura, Isabel, Tiger, Tara, Nancy, Mohi, Judy, Finn, Chris;
  • Looking at the stars at Mom’s high desert RV park in Aguanga, CA;
  • Finally watching my sister, a career public defender, handle a whole calendar of cases in front of a judge in LA;
  • Introducing Clint to passengers on the ATL to LA plane, and handing out ear plugs (which they didn’t need, it turned out);
  • Hearing the wife’s stories from Comic Con;
  • The 1am power outage at Benny’s, a Tybee bar which claims to serve “the coldest beer in America”;
  • Watching Kathleen’s karaoke performance of “I Touch Myself” at Benny’s; watching Brad perform Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” and my attempt at  “Jackson” with “Sumpbroke Sally,” former country radio host.
  • Reading the LA Times, which is still a quality newspaper;
  • Hearing, secondhand, that there were lots of meetings this month at work.  Regrettably, I missed nearly all of them.

So now, I’m supposed to approach my job with renewed vigor.  Here goes.