Category Archives: WAGA

Holsteins and the helipad

Wednesday was a classic, a humbling day in the life of your friendly neighborhood TV reporter.  It was humbling for two reasons:  I spent part of it awkwardly stalking the governor of Georgia; and was doing so in pursuit of a story broken two days earlier by another TV station.TV-ad-4001

Monday, WAGA ballyhooed a big interview with Holly LaBerge, the embattled director of Georgia’s ethics commission.  Mrs. LAF and I actually cranked up the TV set and sat on the couch, 1950s style, to watch the report on their 10pm news.  I actually gasped when I saw the revelation of the memo LaBerge wrote documenting what she described as an intimidating phone call from the governor’s staff.  Good story, Dale Russell, I thought.  Damn your eyes.

Tuesday, the AJC appeared in my driveway with an “AJC exclusive” that had the same info as Russell’s story.  The “exclusive” also cited Russell’s exclusive interview with LaBerge, thus broadening the already-overused word to include exclusive coverage of your competitor’s exclusive material.

Tuesday, I followed Russell’s story with no pretense to exclusivity.  An Open Records Act request for the LaBerge memo was fruitful, as was my request to interview her attorney. (“I said my piece to Dale Russell” LaBerge answered when I phoned her, politely referring me to the lawyer.  Damn your eyes, Russell.)

By Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal still hadn’t talked at any length about the memo and the allegation his office had intimidated his hand-picked ethics director.  His spokesman gave me a vague “maybe, maybe not” response to my request for an interview.

So photog Steven Boissy and I wandered to the Capitol Wednesday morning.  I’ve never really staked out the Capitol with the hope of having an unscheduled encounter with the Governor.

Swiped from Atlantatimemachine.com

Swiped from Atlantatimemachine.com

But that’s how Wednesday began.  I believed that Gov. Deal was at an event but returning to the Capitol.  I didn’t know whether he was traveling by car or helicopter.  His SUV was absent from its usual parking space, leading me to believe he was probably in it.

Boissy and I hung around outside the Capitol, a building whose grounds have surprisingly little space for comfortable and inconspicuous loitering.  We found a spot that might have allowed us to see Gov. Deal arrive by car, and waited.

There was no place to sit.  The sun was shining and getting hotter.  Our stakeout spot was out of eyeshot of windows to the Governor’s office, and away from Capitol police perches.  One security guard walked past us but said nothing except “good morning.” We waited, maybe, thirty minutes.  I felt ridiculous and conspicuous and spent much of the time figuring out a) what to say when somebody questioned why we were hanging around there, and b) what to do after this gambit failed.

Boissy and I read obscure historic inscriptions, noted the surrounding flora and observed the increasing intensity of the sunshine. We discussed varying breeds of cattle, a subject in which we both share a surprising interest.

Our smalltalk dwindled rapidly.

And then we heard a helicopter.

It bore down on the new helipad built atop the new parking garage across from the Capitol’s southeast corner.  Boissy and I scurried over, and saw the governor’s SUV parked outside the garage at a door.  His usual driver was behind the wheel.

The stakeout concludes

The stakeout concludes

The Governor exited the building.  I didn’t bum-rush him, but called from a respectful distance and asked if he would stop to chat.  “What about?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know.

“Our office has already issued a statement about that,” he said.  I said I’d like to clarify some of what the statement said.  “OK, sure,” he answered.

What followed was a four minute chat wherein he challenged the accuracy of my first question, then proceeded to interlace his answers with questions for me that seemed to challenge the veracity of LaBerge’s memo.  He was lively and a bit more contentious than we usually see him.  He obviously wanted to talk.  The unedited interview is here.

Midway into our  Q&A, I saw a WSB mic flag pop into view alongside mine.  Richard Elliott had popped up, seemingly out of nowhere.

Elliott got what he needed without the indignity of the awkward stakeout. 

Damn your eyes.

Here and away

This is a transitional time in Atlanta TV news.  Here are some notes. 

Paul Crawley with an admirer

Paul Crawley with an admirer

Paul Crawley.  The WXIA reporter is retiring at the end of this month.  I’ve been a fan of this guy since I first started competing with him in 1986.  As a coworker since 2009, I’ve seen Crawley consistently be the most prepared reporter in the morning editorial meeting, with the best array of story ideas.  His anecdotes from our industry, told during slow moments at trials, stakeouts, legislative hearings and in the newsroom, nearly always came with wry insight or a belly laugh or both.  His execution and professionalism are top-drawer.  Plus, Crawley is the king of screwball comedy.  I will be very sorry to see him leave.

Angel Eyes

Angel Eyes

Cook with Ken Rodriguez

Cook with Ken Rodriguez

Ken Cook.  WAGA’s chief meteorologist was arguably the best in town — level headed and charismatic, with the ever-present mustache that evoked Lee Van Cleef’s “Angel Eyes” character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Cook’s career in Atlanta TV weather set a durability record that may never be eclipsed.  Cook was always fun to be around, a guy who welcomed the intrusions of reporters seeking personal forecasts.  He was also very good at deflating the weather-coverage ambitions of excitable news managers who overanalyzed the gravity of upcoming storms.  But when Cook looked at the charts and said “yeah, it’s gonna be bad,” you knew the threat was credible.  WXIA’s Chesley McNeil is cut from Cook’s mold.  So is…

Chris Holcomb

Chris Holcomb

Chris Holcomb.  The WXIA meteorologist emerged from the fringe schedule to become the station’s chief meteorologist last week.  Among the staff’s chattering classes, it was a no-brainer.  When the decision was announced, the raucous cheering exceeded any I’ve ever heard in a newsroom.  He’s that good, and that good a guy.

Blayne Alexander

Blayne Alexander

Blayne Alexander.  The one-woman-band reporter has quietly elevated to WXIA’s fill-in anchor rotation.  If there had been a big announcement a la Holcomb, it might have gotten a similar cheer.  Our industry is a brighter place with Bleezey in it.

The implausible partnership

Sunday, Georgia State University consummated its bewildering decision to transfer control of most of the programming on WRAS-FM to Georgia Public Broadcasting.

GPB has expanded its audience with the flip of a switch and a negligible transfer of cash.  Broadcasters dream of such stuff.  It is probably the crowning career achievement of GPB’s president and CEO, Teya Ryan.

Teya Ryan

Teya Ryan

Somehow, Ryan sweet-talked GSU president Mark Becker into handing over GSU’s most unique and nationally-recognized asset, its 100,000 watt FM station, in exchange for vague promises of internships at GPB and TV programming opportunities.  Becker is in the thrall of Georgia’s new film industry presence, and justifies the gutting of WRAS as a way to get an unspecified number of GSU students “experiential” TV and film opportunities.

GPB was cunning and opportunistic.  But Becker is the guy who gave it away.

Here’s my favorite part of the GSU press release issued last week:  Through the partnership, Georgia State students will be involved in producing 12 hours of daily programming every day of the year on GPB’s digital television network. 

It sounds great in a press release, but raises an obvious question:  Is GPB and / or GSU anywhere close to being staffed and equipped to produce 12 hours of daily TV programming?

By comparison, WAGA produces ten and a half hours of local news programming every weekday.  WAGA has scores of overworked professionals making pretty good money grinding out all that content, under deadline, every day.

Does GPB / GSU even have a plan for those twelve hours of daily TV programming?  Or a clue as to how to use college students to produce it?

Given my first-hand experience as a GSU communications instructor, it seems a bit implausible.  Here’s the thumbnail:

In the spring of 2009, I was tasked to teach broadcast writing and production, “JOURN 4740 News for Telecommunications.”  The class would include a video component.  Midway into the semester, I would assign stories.  Students would shoot and edit them on GSU equipment.

GSU charged students an extra $100 fee for use of GSU video cameras.  And then — I learned that GSU had failed to allocate cameras to my class.  Nobody told the equipment guy about my class.  The students got no cameras.  But GSU refused to refund the fee to the students!  I was horrified.

GSU justified taking the fee because the students still had access to a video editing lab — to edit video they couldn’t shoot.

Most of my 17 students were not nearly as surprised as I was.  Most were due to graduate that spring.  They’d viewed it as more of the same at GSU.

From last week’s press release:  With its strong and growing connections to the dynamic Atlanta film industry, Georgia State is the premier institution in Georgia for film and broadcast study. Its film and journalism programs are among the largest of their kind in the nation, with more than 2,000 undergraduate students. 

Wow!  What an awesome school GSU has become in the five years since my pathetic experience there as a communications instructor.  It is all undoubtedly due to the amazing work of Dr. Becker, who showed up as president the same year.

I interviewed Dr. Becker this spring, and it took a very weird turn.

Dr. Mark Becker

Dr. Mark Becker

I had set up an interview with him about GSU’s property expansion downtown, and the school’s potential interest in available property at Turner Field, Underground and elsewhere.  When publicist Andrea Jones put me on his schedule the morning of April 8, I noted that the date coincided with the Braves’ home opener.  I told her that if Becker said anything interesting about GSU’s interest in the Turner Field property, it would be especially timely.

That morning, Becker affably told me that yes, GSU was interested in Turner Field’s potential as student housing and a mixed-use development space.  In response to a question, he also mused that he could see repurposing Turner Field into a football stadium for GSU.  In person, Becker seemed down-to-earth, likeable and forthcoming.

Good story, right?  It was the first time GSU’s president had confirmed interest in developing that area after the Braves leave for Cobb County in 2017.

The next day, GSU’s online publication The Signal tried to verify the story.  Becker, through Jones, told The Signal that I had “manufactured” the story.

For whatever reason, Becker had decided to backpedal on the tentative interest he’d expressed to me about Turner Field.  The obfuscation to The Signal was laughable, though, given that 11Alive’s web site and video showed the actual words coming from Dr. Becker’s actual mouth.

Image of GSU's Turner Field plan

Image of GSU’s Turner Field plan

I didn’t take it personally (I didn’t learn about The Signal piece until several weeks later).  But it delivered an odd snapshot of a doctorate-holding man who, despite advance notice of the subject of our interview, had apparently given little forethought to what he might say.

A month later, GSU revealed its official offer for the Turner Field property.  GSU produced artwork of a mixed-use development, and a stadium retrofitted for football — verifying what Becker had told me in my “manufactured” story.

And on the same day, GSU announced its stunning giveaway of WRAS.

BnEM5z3CcAAmUYbStudents, alumni and listeners of WRAS raised a shitstorm that seemed to catch Becker by surprise.  Somewhat paralleling his experience with me, he began backpedaling his decision — first, by delaying the takeover; then, by issuing last week’s press release saying “The university is pursuing options to secure daytime broadcast time for WRAS after the [GPB] partnership is initiated…”

The same press release describes WRAS as GSU’s  “heralded student-run radio station,” a too-late acknowledgement that this radio station is more than merely another university “asset.”

Sunday, WRAS played NPR programming that duplicated WABE’s programming.  This week, it will play drive-time programming that will largely duplicate WABE’s NPR programming.  Except for nighttime and graveyard shifts, the original, groundbreaking, community-based, student-produced content will be gone.

The “heralded” student run station — the one that Becker now knows had a groundbreaking 43-year history –  is now dead on radio most of the day.  The student-programmed HD signal GSU promised doesn’t exist yet.  The student-programmed daytime web stream barely exists.  The apps to hear the daytime student programming sometimes work, sometimes don’t.  The GPB internships don’t start til 2015.

Sorry, kids.

That’s the GSU I experienced in 2009.

And Becker?  He appears to be trying to show students that he didn’t really mean to screw them out of their student-run radio station.  Kinda like he didn’t really mean to tell me about his designs on Turner Field — but then jumped in and did it anyway, embracing it weeks later.
It suggests the fix is in for GSU to fully embrace its new GPB “partnership” — once both parties think GSU students and WRAS backers have stopped paying attention.

 

 

News that’s not news

Something awful happened to my industry on September 11, 2001.  On that date, we stopped using our news judgment.  Not all of it, of course.  But in many important ways, we allowed pranksters to start running our lives, deciding how we would use our resources and what we would cover.

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

In the first twenty years of what passes for my career in the news biz, we would mostly ignore bomb threats and suspicious package calls.

Sure, a bomb threat would mean evacuating hundreds of people from a courthouse or school.  It would mean the presence of lights-flashing cop cars and “bomb disposal unit” trucks, accompanied by cops with bomb gear and trained dogs and maybe a remote-controlled robot on wheels.  The visuals were compelling.  The false drama of will there or won’t there be a mushroom cloud at any moment would be somewhat compelling.

But we all but ignored it.  And it was the right thing to do.

We ignored it — Lord help us, did we really do this? — because we felt a sense of responsibility to discourage copycats.  (Certainly, part of our motivation to discourage copycats was rooted in our desire to minimize devotion of news resources to such stuff.)

And there was never a debate.   It was a given.  TV shops might send a photog to a bomb threat, just to be there in the unlikely event of an actual mushroom cloud; if they had a photog available.

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol.  AJC photo

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol. AJC photo

But a live truck?  Not likely.  A reporter?  They were, hopefully, too busy covering actual news generated by non-pranksters.  Covering events that were, 9999 times out of 10,000 likely to be hoaxes was considered a waste of resources and a breach of our responsibility to the community.  It sounds so quaint now.

Then starting in September 2001, all bomb threats instantly had the whiff of Al Qaeda behind them.  Never mind that real terrorists probably had bigger fish to fry than local courthouses and schools in Georgia. At that point, defending “the homeland” became a national fixation.  Cable news began running bottom-of-the-screen crawls to lend greater urgency to everything.  Local news struggled to contribute something relevant to the national story.

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

So we bowed to the pranksters who called in bogus bomb threats.  Add to that the kids who drop notes threatening to do harm inside school buildings.  During one two-day period last week, at least seven public schools in Georgia went on lockdown.  In one of them, a kid brought a gun to school but harmed nobody.  The others were hoaxes.

Now, off we go.  We send helicopters.  We dispatch crews in live trucks, interviewing evacuees or worried parents, reporting the inevitable hoax yet still passing it off as news.  More than a dozen years after 9/11, we still do it.

Our newsrooms are now staffed with people whose careers didn’t blossom until after 9/11.  They don’t even realize that there was a time when newsrooms exercised actual discretion in such matters.

These same folks are also plugged into social media, which is a tremendous resource for raw intel.  If it’s getting tweeted, then the word is getting out.  If “the word” is confirmed by news professionals, shouldn’t we report it too?   Can we let Twitter beat us on stories of bomb threats and such?

Hell yes we can.

Let social media have the scoop on bomb threats.  The word will still get out.  Y’all don’t need us for that.

Meantime, let the pros devote their resources to the stories that the social media amateurs don’t learn until they see it in the commercial news media.

We get our resources and our credibility back.  We regain some of the sense of responsibility we willingly gave up more than twelve years ago.

Pranksters will continue to try to manipulate police and government by creating hoaxes.  Sadly, they lack the discretion to ignore their pranks.

But the news media has that discretion.  We used to call it “news judgment.”  We ought to start using it again.

The cheap suit

My favorite suit right now is one I purchased for $150 on eBay.  Its label says “Kenneth Cole / Reaction.”  It was listed as $300 retail.  It’s the proverbial cheap suit.

El cheapo

El cheapo

Yet the wife actually went “ooh!” last time I put it on, and without irony.  The label says it’s composed of 85 percent polyester and 15 percent rayon.  It has proven water resistant qualities.  Presumably, it’s durable and fireproof. And it looks OK on my lumpy frame.

I know many adult male professionals who never wear suits.  But lawyers, politicians and TV reporters are saddled with the burden of purchasing and wearing suits.  Lawyers and TV anchors can be frequently seen in thousand dollar-plus tailored suits.

The rest of us with more modest paychecks have to dress accordingly.  I know plenty of TV reporters who sing the praises of their cheap suits.  Their go-to typically is K&G Men’s Warehouse.  It’s also the go-to for police detectives, a profession whose couture and salaries are more mismatched than most.

Less cheap

Less cheap

My go-to is eBay, first suggested by my sister who is a public defender.  I’ve bought at least five suits off eBay.  All of them were new (verified by the fact that the pants were unhemmed).  Three of them were Hickey-Freeman brand, and had tags sewn in that indicated retail prices that were substantially higher than the two to three hundred dollars I paid for them.  They are my “expensive” suits.

Portia Bruner: Clearance rack dress, thrift store belt.

Portia Bruner: Clearance rack dress, thrift store belt.

But lately I’m more sold on the cheap suits, and I’m not alone.

My friend Portia Bruner has created a thread on Facebook that shows her (looking great) in garments she has purchased at thrift stores.  Portia is a reporter and substitute anchor at WAGA, and a mom with two adorable boys in private school.  In other words, she is understandably budget-minded.

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

Valerie Hoff, WXIA

My coworker Valerie Hoff is a walking bargain-bin promotion, as detailed on her Ways to Save site and in random anecdotes I frequently overhear from her desk.  The WXIA anchor/reporter views bargain hunting as a sport.  Like Portia, she wears the cheap stuff with style.

I purchased the “Kenneth Cole / Reaction” suit by accident.  I needed a suit for a costume.  The suit that arrived in the mail had a subtle color that surprised me.  When I put it on, I was horrified that it not only lacked the costumey quality I’d expected, but also looked better than some of my pricier suits.

This points to one of the pitfalls of ordering a suit from eBay:  You may get surprised.  But it may be a pleasant surprise.

Last word:  Cheap neckties.

 

Finger pointing

AJC photo by Ben Gray

AJC photo by Ben Gray

On behalf of the Atlanta media, I’d like to thank you for not blaming us for the slow response to the Tuesday storm we’ll call Gridlockalypse 2014.  Because one could argue that you could.

Chesley McNeal delivers the Winter Storm Warning on WXIA's 4am news Tuesday

Chesley McNeal delivers the Winter Storm Warning on WXIA’s 4am news Tuesday

No, the blame rests with the government officials who failed to heed the hue and cry we raised Tuesday morning, when the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning at 3:39am.

That’s the technicality that lets us off the hook.

Here’s the reality:  The Atlanta news media — especially TV — likes nothing more than to raise a hue and cry about upcoming “weather events.”  And it doesn’t take a Winter Storm Warning to prompt it.  We get excited about Winter Weather Advisories, Winter Storm Watches, Severe Thunderstorm Watches, and Heat Advisories.  We get geeked when the temperature drops below freezing.

There’s a reason for that.  The audience actually turns on local TV news when they think the weather is getting bad.  It’s measurable.  And we are always happy to welcome our larger audience with hearty doses of the information they seek.

Whenever it happens, we are utterly truthful with the details. If the NWS has issued a Winter Storm Watch and not a warning, we’ll say that — over and over and over again, while producing  perilous-looking color schemes moving ominously across maps.

The problem, one could argue, is that we lack proportion.  We beat the weather drum with great urgency.  We put human beings — “team coverage!” — in the elements to add a measure of performance art to the story.  Residents of Carrollton are bracing for the line of thunderstorms that’s expected here any minute.  As you can see, the wind is starting to pick up and the sky is darkening…

It may not be apocalyptic, but it sure seems that way.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal

Can you blame state officials for failing to discern that the real thing was advancing upon us Tuesday?

Technically, you can.  A Winter Storm Warning means that a winter storm is “imminent or occurring.” The word “warning” is always the key when attuned to NWS information.

But what if TV and radio routinely makes it sound like the bogeyman is about to get you?  It is up to you, dear viewer, to know the difference.  Sometimes, we just give you information that merely sounds really, really urgent.  And other times, you need to react by closing schools and staying off the roads.  (But by all means, go purchase some bread and milk first, and be sure to say hi to our highly trained journalist stationed live outside your grocery store.)

Meantime, you’ve got political appointees running agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency who are supposed to discern the subtle differences between our usual weather drumbeat, and the real deal.

So yes:  An alarm should go off in GEMA whenever the NWS issues a Winter Storm Warning.  That’s a tangible signal that our routine drumbeat of weather coverage has flipped into something genuinely noteworthy, and its time to activate Georgia’s paltry fleet of salt trucks.

Likewise, it would have been unseemly for Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal to point back at the news media and say “it’d help if y’all only got excited about serious weather.  Because it’s kind of hard to tell when it’s really getting dangerous, or whether it’s just y’all trying to excite the audience and keep them tuned into your TV station.”

That would have been petty.  But it would have been an interesting conversation starter.

Economy with words

In this post, the aging blogger begins with a well-worn 80s-era nostalgia trip, when newsrooms rattled with teletypes, teams of production people ripped and sorted ten-pack script paper, and reporters like Paul Yates pounded cigarettes in the cubicle adjacent to yours. 1510602_10201164375574681_819312756_n

When the late Jack Frazier bought me a plane ticket in 1986 to visit Atlanta and give his TV station a look-see, I spent an hour of my first day in the city in a hotel room, watching the 6pm news.

To a kid somewhat fresh out of Omaha, the newscast was a big market thing of beauty, brimming with solid content.  At the time, Frazier’s station was more-or-less in a dogfight with WSB and WXIA as Supreme Leader of the Nielsen and (then) Arbitron ratings in Atlanta news.

I distinctly remember seeing a piece by a reporter named Paul Yates.  He had the booming broadcast-y pipes of a network guy.  I don’t remember the subject matter, but I do remember the writing.  It had clarity and brevity and I was kind of awestruck.  If these people hire me, I remember thinking, I’m gonna have to up my writing game to keep up with this guy.

Ypaul_yatesates wasn’t the only reporter at WAGA that impressed me, but he (and Mo Diggs and Lisa Clark) were the ones I remember noting during that initial viewing.  (Diggs had done a piece on some kind of breaking-news fire or other mishap, and folded it expertly into a city hall story.  Clark delivered a smart and well-written entertainment segment.)

Yates capped a 40 year career at WAGA last week.  He exited college in 1973, got a job at WAGA and stayed 40 years.  15 or so years into his career there, management decided to make the building smoke free.  Yates gave up cigarettes and never wavered afterward.

And he never wavered from the thing that made him special:  Giving clarity to often complex stories.  As Mindy Larcom, the I-team producer, wrote on Facebook:  “Paul has an enviable economy with words.”

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Yates retired on the same day as Ira Spradlin, the WAGA photog I’ve previously lauded on this site. Spradlin was a newsman at least as much as he was “just” a photographer.  He knew Georgia and its politics better than the people riding shotgun in his live truck — Yates arguably being the notable exception.

Spradlin had announced his retirement nearly a year ago.  Yates’ finale came a bit more suddenly.  Both of them made WAGA a better place to work.

Best wishes to both men.  And thanks for making me up my game.

The booming voice

It was fun competing against Ron Sailor, the TV reporter – turned – preacher who died last week at age 61. Sailor and I worked nightside, which meant we frequently ended up crowding around the same story. Sailor was always the loudest guy in the vicinity — not because he was a loudmouth. He just had a booming, bass voice that I heard nightly for years.

Ron Sailor - AJC photo

Ron Sailor – AJC photo

On numerous occasions, we’d find ourselves at the old APD Homicide Task Force office on Somerset  Terrace. There was plenty of room in front of the building, but photogs always liked to crowd competing reporters together into a tight space — a subtly sadistic twist exacerbated when Sailor was part of the equation. Not only was he loud, he was a man of some size. Because TV newscast producers are part of a grand media conspiracy, Sailor’s stories on WSB (and later WXIA), and mine on WAGA would frequently pop up at exactly the same time during the half-hour 11pm newscast.

This meant Sailor and I would start delivering our live reports at exactly the same time. It would take all the concentration I could muster to ignore his booming voice while I feebly attempted to make mine heard.

Once, Sailor and former mayor Andy Young spent a night or three on Atlanta’s streets, producing a report that sought to give insight into Atlanta’s homeless population. Young and Sailor donned skullies and thrift-store clothing and reported that they, too, were shunned or abused by folks downtown who’d mistaken them for homeless people.

I read about it in the AJC, and wished I’d done it. In 1996, I kinda did the same thing during the Olympics. It was a total ripoff of what Ron Sailor had done.

The last time I saw Sailor, I was knocking on his door because he’d become part of some unflattering story involving his finances; there had been allegations he had grifted some folk. We were giving Sailor celebrity treatment on a story that was otherwise really nobody’s business. I went to his door sans camera, unwilling to bum-rush the guy. He answered graciously, declined comment and we left.

Since then, I’d seen him do Wayfield Foods commercials and heard about his career as a preacher. I’d read about the issues his sons faced — one, as a disgraced former legislator, the other as a man convicted of murdering his girlfriend.

I was a green newcomer to Atlanta when I became Ron Sailor’s competitor. He was always friendly, willing to share his experience and seemed to know what he was doing. At age 61, he died too young.

Praiseworthy

The southeastern region of NATAS did something remarkable last week:  It recognized three humble, hardworking Atlanta news grunts.

Donna Lowry, WXIA

Donna Lowry, WXIA

Donna Lowry and I were both new hires at competing stations when she arrived in Atlanta in 1986.  We both did general assignment reporting, and wore the shell-shocked look that comes with a reporter’s first brushes with big-city news.   Lowry went on to become WXIA’s education reporter — an assignment that seemed destined to fade in the face of changing news directors and audience research.  Instead, the ageless Lowry (and her photog, the ageless Kathy Bourn) has turned it into a calling.

Paul Crawley, WXIA

Paul Crawley, WXIA

Paul Crawley began working at WXIA in 1978.  Crawley (and yeah, Mark Winne) are the Atlanta reporters who most seem to come straight out of the Damon Runyon school of journalism — news-breaking, trench-coated, and tirelessly devoted to getting it right.  Crawley adds a sharp sense of humor, and the adaptability of a guy who became a one-man-band late in life.  Every day, Crawley is among the first to arrive and the last to leave his desk.

Jon Shirek, WXIA

Jon Shirek, WXIA

My man-crush on Jon Shirek has been somewhat well documented on this site.  Shirek’s personal style is understated and thoughtful.  He writes and delivers stories with uncommon elegance and clarity.  And he’s done it at WXIA since 1980.  Like Crawley, Shirek agreed to become a one-man-band in the last decade.

Russ Spencer, WAGA

Russ Spencer, WAGA

As a postscript, I’ve got to include Russ Spencer in my list of accolades.  With Monica Pearson finally out to pasture, the readers of Creative Loafing recognized the WAGA anchor in the weekly’s “best of” issue.  They probably don’t realize what an outstanding choice they made.  Spencer is frequently the smartest guy in the room, but won’t jump up and down to out-shout the folks who think they’re the smartest guys in the room.  Watch his chatter with reporters following stories; Spencer is a news anchor who pays close attention to the stories that fly by on the broadcast, and grasps the story’s essence.

Plus, he looks great in a set of fake teeth.

 

I was fired by a legend

That's my fuzzy head under the boom mic in the photo on the right, documenting my lamentable DC stint.

That’s my fuzzy head under the boom mic in the photo on the right, documenting my lamentable DC stint.

Item:  WAGA reporter Justin Gray is leaving the station to work for Cox’s Washington DC bureau.  What follows is a cold war-era cautionary tale about my sad experience in DC.

It was the mid-80s.  Back then, media companies big and small had DC bureaus for their local TV news operations across America:  Jefferson Pilot, Gannett, Hearst, Storer, Cox.  Most of them were located in offices at 400 North Capitol, across from Union Station and overlooking the dome itself.

Gannett hired me, then fired me within six months.  It was a head spinning adventure.

The legend who hired and fired me, Jack Hurley

The legend who hired and fired me, Jack Hurley

The guy who hired and fired me was the nicest guy in the world.  Jack Hurley had been a news director at WXIA.  His most recent work made him a respected honcho at the Newseum.  “You got fired by a legend at Gannett!” I heard as I re-told the story when WXIA hired me.

When he ran Gannett’s DC bureau, Hurley had parlayed it into an outfit that traveled the world to cover stories, then spent time between trips covering the minutiae of Washington.  Whenever the Minneapolis congressman, James Oberstar, held a hearing of his transportation subcommittee, we covered it for KARE.  Whenever Sen. Gary Hart belched, we covered it for KUSA.  We went to all of Sam Nunn’s pressers for WXIA.

Anyway — I found it a bit stifling and predictable.  At age 27, I thought I had a better idea.  Can we enterprise some stories, please?  Maybe do some investigative stuff?  Hurley let me stomp around the Capitol a wee bit but kept the leash very, very short.  Whatever I came back with failed to impress, apparently.

It didn’t help that I was, at that stage of my career, a poor performer in live shots.  It took me many more years to get somewhat comfortable delivering live utterances on TV.  And in that job, I was constantly concluding the day with a 7:15 pm live shot to a midwestern station– usually about a hearing or a presser that had bored me to death.

So I became a liability.  Hurley warned me I was in a tailspin.  I couldn’t pull out.  With the blessing of his corporate VP, he fired me.  It was the only time I’d been fired from a job, unless you count the time Morrisville, PA pizza legend Spike Maruca fired me from his restaurant for allegedly smoking weed out back with the cook.  (At age 15, the accused denied the allegation.)

2nd best boss ever: Ken Vest

2nd best boss ever: Ken Vest awards the “fuquewad of the week” on the white board

It took me three months to land another job, and the new job at a freelance bureau– also at 400 North Capitol — paid me 40 percent less than the Gannett job.  Fortunately, my boss there was amazing.  Aside from my current boss, the lovely Ellen Crooke, Ken Vest remains my favorite boss ever.

And when I told Vest four months later that WAGA had offered me work in Atlanta, he said:  For the love of God, son, get out of DC while you still can!

I don’t regret working in DC.  I lived in a great city.  I had a handful of cool experiences.  Before my situation there soured, Gannett’s DC bureau sent me to Europe to produce three stories over a languid ten day period.

But I was in over my head and it nearly killed my career.

I made a point of disclosing my Gannett work history before WXIA hired me.  I never fully understood why Hurley fired me, and had hoped the company’s personnel records would shed some light.  But the records are in paper form in a warehouse somewhere, apparently.  The company, to its credit, made no heroic effort to find them.  My skeletons stayed closeted.

I hear Cox’s DC bureau is more about enterprise / investigative work, and less about covering hearings and pressers.  So I wish my friend Justin lots o’ luck.  I hope DC bureau work is a lot different now.

With my dad, Dick Richards, at the White House.  My clothing and haircut were pretty ragged.

With my dad, Dick Richards, at the White House. My clothing and haircut were pretty ragged.