Monthly Archives: January 2010

Wonky WABE

I left local news in 2007 and returned in 2009.  When I began covering stories again, I noticed one eye-opening change in the news market.

Radio news is different.  WSB radio was the most relevant radio game in town in 2007.  Nowadays, that relevance seems to belong to WABE.

I used to run into WSB radio reporters at stories regularly.  Now I see WABE reporters.  They covered the Atlanta mayor race consistently.  WSB radio seemed puzzlingly absent.

I listen to both stations.  WABE produces local news pieces each weekday on a variety of stories.  WABE also regularly produces feature-length stories, like the clear-headed piece Odette Yousef delivered in November on the toothlessness of the Citizen Review Board, which reviews APD conduct.

By contrast, WSB is fixated on breaking news, plus every-six-minutes traffic and weather during drive times.    It still does enterprise reporting, but very rarely.

WSB radio lost staff over the last few years, and now runs a skeleton crew.  It leans pretty heavily on material from WSB-TV.  Richard Sankster reliably covers overnight mayhem.  Sandra Parrish covers the Capitol admirably.

As Rodney Ho notes, WSB’s ratings seem to be slipping, and WABE’s are surprisingly strong.  However, radio ratings are unpredictable; it’s unlikely WABE will ever become a ratings leader.  Audiences crave personalities, pop culture and mayhem.  WABE delivers that stuff too sparingly for most.

The churn in the radio market isn’t surprising.

Radio news mattered a lot when I first started at WAGA in 1986.  Back then, WGST was the city’s premier news station.  WGST also carried talk shows by Neal Boortz and Clark Howard (as well as Dick Williams, Tom Houck, Mike Malloy, “Ralph from Ben Hill” and Tammy Lloyd).

Ludlow Porch

WGST went on its greatest tear when it snagged Braves baseball broadcasts from WSB, at the same time that the Braves went from worst-to-first in 1991.  If you were on the radio in Atlanta, WGST was the place to be.

Meantime, WSB carried Ludlow Porch’s folksy but mostly irrelevant morning show.  Its local news operation seemed to be a shadow of WGST, which audaciously called itself “the news monster.”  Boortz lampooned WSB’s call letters, saying they stood for “we’re so boring.”

WSB fought back admirably, though.  It jettisoned Porch, and grabbed Howard, Boortz and the Braves from WGST.  For a few years, WGST tried to compete but couldn’t.  It’s now a radio signal sadly carrying mostly syndicated programming, with no local news presence whatsoever.   (See comments for a point of view disputing this observation.)

Overqualified: Odette Yousef, WABE

Enter WABE.  It has a tiny staff.  Its reporters almost never cover breaking news — apparently because WABE management knows NPR’s listeners aren’t interested in local carnage.  It covers issues.  It attends news conferences and city council meetings.  Like other news organizations, it repackages stuff from other media and has plenty of room for improvement.  But it’s smart and it’s relevant.

(Last Friday provided a great example.  WABE ignored the “omigod it’s Armageddon” aspect of the snowfall.  Its 8am local news covered gun rights, prison conditions and homeless issues.  It only mentioned the weather during forecasts and just-the-facts recitals of traffic wrecks.)

Unlike web, newspaper and other broadcast media, WABE offers something genuinely unique:  Wonky, commercial-free local radio news.

Speaking of wonky, Yousef actually plays that harp.  Maybe she learned it at Harvard, where she got a degree in economics and east Asian studies and probably never listened to Joy Division.

Unlike its larger media brethren, WABE has a business model that may actually succeed.  It’s dependent on fundraising, not commercials.    If its management (owned by the Atlanta Board of Education, a whole ‘nother issue that I’ll leave alone here) doesn’t lose its nerve, WABE may be the “mainstream media” cockroach that sticks around long after the rest of us are wiped out.

Hypothetically speaking…

Donna Lowry, WXIA

Suppose you’re assigned to cover the first day of the legislative session.  Suppose you drive straight to the Capitol, learn of a communications snafu, and realize your colleague’s House credentials (and yours, probably) have been distributed at the TV station.  You drive back to the TV station.  You fetch your colleague’s credentials.  But yours are missing.

You lurch around the newsroom, looking for your credential.  An alarmed co-worker named Donna Lowry says, essentially, “WTF?”  You explain you lack a House credential, and the session starts an hour hence.

Suppose your colleague Donna Lowry, who isn’t covering the legislature, makes an offer:  “Use mine!”  She fishes her credential from her desk and hands it to you.   “You think they can tell us apart?” she asks, referring to the photo ID depicting an image far more lovely than the frazzled, un-credentialed male TV news goon has ever produced.

A bemused photog sitting nearby may pipe up:  “Well, Doug’s a bit — taller.”


Suppose you show up at the House chamber.  The doorman, a serious-minded older gent, demands a credential.  You pull Donna Lowry’s credential.  You strategically place your forefinger over a portion of the photo, and casually flash the credential.  The doorman, who also guards the House cloakroom, allows you to enter the press room.

Suppose it happens two more times.  Each time, the doorman demands your credential.  Each time, you show him Donna Lowry’s credential.  Each time, he allows you to pass.

Suppose that happened Monday.  To actually admit to such stuff would invite grave consequences, no?

And to try it again, hypothetically speaking, would be stupid.  Especially now.

Armageddon

Click here to view the “Icy Crash in Roswell” link that was previously embedded here.)

There are many reasons why I don’t run a TV newsroom.  Most have to do with an absence of talent.  Some of it is due to an aversion to the high-wire act that news directors perform career-wise, knowing that their shelf life is historically very short.

Crow: The other white meat

Last week provided a very specific reason:  I lack the foresight to treat a forecast of an inch of snow like the coming of Armageddon.  “Weather ‘event’?!” I snorted at one point during an editorial meeting, 36 hours in advance of Thursday’s night’s snow/ice.

I was skeptically certain that there’d be only a dusting of snow; that TV would overreact to it; and that audiences would watch (because threats of weird weather drive up the numbers of Households Using Television, measurable by ratings services), mostly laugh and everybody would get on with their lives within a day or so.

Shows what I know.

WXIA photog David Brooks shot the above video on Willeo Rd. in Roswell.  For the lady in the pickup truck who slid convincingly into a tree, there was an unmistakable moment of weather-related Armageddon.

Same with the folks who found themselves in the four-car pileup outside Woody’s Cheesesteaks at Virginia and Monroe.  Click here to see video previously embedded below.

The drama photog JoJo Johnson documented (below) on I-20 Thursday night was similar.  Those who made it home unscratched that night probably spent the next 24 hours watching TV coverage of the “weather event.”

Did any other Atlanta station get this kind of material?  Feel free to comment and include a link.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The bosslady stocked the Thursday night / Friday morning schedule with extra staff, and just about all of ’em had legit stories to tell.  Her competitors did the same thing.

Good call.  Two / three days later, the polar chill and persistent ice are still a pain in Atlanta’s neck, and still a story.

So I’ll stick to blogging.   And my next “yes ma’am” will be especially deferential.

Flurries of truth

It’s a shame this site no longer abuses local TV.  Otherwise, I’d name the parties  below.

Wednesday, Twitter delivered some material from local TV stations about this afternoon’s upcoming “weather event.”  This tweet came from a local TV guy at 3pm:

“I like to get wx report straight from source. @[weatherguy] told me while i was heating lunch he does not expect us to get much snow in atl”

Two minutes later, Twitter and Facebook sent this out from the reporter’s employer:

“Everyone ready for some snow? Forecast models call for 1-2 inches for parts of Central and North GA, but what do you think will really happen? [Our weather guy] will have the latest…”

They seem contradictory, yet both tweets were accurate.  The reporter was giving accurate information straight from the source.  The TV station was trying to be relevant to viewers.

Giving the people what they want

At a time when folks are turning away from local TV altogether, “weather events” remain a time when viewers are geeked up enough to actually view local TV in real time.  TV stations measure which stories are hits on their web sites; the local weather stories are always at the top.

So TV stations will give you weather.  Blame yourselves, viewers of TV news.  Those of us earning paychecks in the industry would like to thank you.

This afternoon’s snow flurries will give reporters an opportunity to shift away from the cold weather stories they’ve had to produce over the last week.  At WXIA, Jerry Carnes has been our stalwart cold weather go-to.  Yesterday, I did a piece about folks who can’t afford to pay their gas bills and heat their homes.  As usual, my goal was to tell the story without ever uttering the word “cold.”

Meantime, consider this:  Ten years ago this month, Atlanta was socked with a terrible ice storm.  It knocked out power in my neighborhood for nearly a week, longer in many others.  It closed schools (of course, so that children could spend quality time in their unheated homes).  It also killed Atlanta’s chance to ever host another Super Bowl.

I had scheduled my son, Bill, to work as a page in the legislature that week.  He was all about it, because it would take him out of school for a day.  But when school closed, he was less enthused.

“What are we gonna do — sit in the unheated house instead?” I reasoned.  We went to the Capitol instead.  Bill executed his duties in casual clothing.  His family read books in the House gallery and stayed warm.  He got his picture taken with two Georgia legends.

Now, that was a weather event.

PS – Red and Black editorial cartoonist Bill Richards has posted his favorite cartoons from ’09.  They’re worth checking out.  And wish the boy a happy birthday today.

"You don't know where that gavel's been!" Bill with Rep. Doug Teper and Speaker Tom Murphy

One man band

Photo by Bill Birdsong, official photographer for Gov. Lester Maddox

Why is this man smiling?

The answer is clear:  He’s about to commit acts of television with his hifalutin’ state-of-the-art TV gear, circa 1967.

This fresh-faced youngster is Dan Keever, ex-WAGA photog turned UGA / Grady College TV guru.  During his career, Keever hauled around everything from a CP-16 film camera to a TK-76 3/4″ tape camera to a Betacam.  But he’s got a soft spot in his heart for this sweet little jewel, which predates the CP-16.

“That’s an Auricon 600 studio film camera.  It weighed 45 pounds – just the body,” Keever writes.  The photo was shot inside the state capitol in Atlanta.  Keever was about to apply his craft with 400 feet of black-and-white magstripe 16mm film.

"Hey Dan!" - At the 1968 Democratic Convention. Photo by WAII/WQXI (now WXIA) reporter Bill Buckner

“The magazine was made to hold 600 ft but we shot 400 ft loads. The empty magazine weighed 15 pounds by itself,” says Keever.

Added up, Keever says the gear weighed 90 pounds.   That doesn’t include the 25 pound tripod.  (Keever says he weighs 145 pounds in the above photo.)

“When I was shooting, the shoulder brace held the camera pretty well.   I preset the audio, and held the light as far away from the camera as I could. (I used to advocate that shooters be outfitted with a third arm.) I tried to use a tripod as much as I could. Reporter Phil Flynn carried it.

“The Auricon ran on AC,  so the power pack hanging from the shoulder had a converter built into it. The batt belt just ran the light and like any battery it lasted until just before you REALLY needed it,”  Keever writes.

Still smiling: Professor Dan Keever

He’s wearing a suit because Keever and Phil Flynn covered the Capitol as a bureau.  Each of them trolled for stories and produced them for air.

“We were also reporters and would have to do our own standup shots. We were a staff of 12 trying to look as big as the 25 person staff of WSB-TV.”  The suits obviously took a beating under that load of gear, and then some.

Writes Keever:  “The batteries also would occasionally leak and cause the clothing to dissolve.”

What Keever calls “blessed relief” came nearly a decade later with the comparatively lightweight CP-16.  But the advent of videotape brought its own horrors:  The Ikegami HL-33.

Writes Keever:   “The camera head, which had a flat bottom that was very uncomfortable, weighed 33 pounds. The backpack that was attached by a heavy multi-conductor cable, contained a large part of the circuitry for the camera and a 25 pound battery and weighed a total of 60 pounds.

“I was right back in the 90 pound portable gear business!”

This is a fragment of a video commemorating Keever’s induction into NATAS’s Silver Circle.  TV professionals are encouraged to critique the work of Keever’s UGA students by visiting dankeever.com. It’s on the blogroll to the right under “UGA student projects.”