Count me among the considerable number of TV professionals who never once set foot in the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, which began this week in Las Vegas. Its presence always brings to mind a story, though, from April 1990.
One year — only one, apparently — the NAB decided to meet in Atlanta. It convened in the Georgia World Congress Center. Vendors of satellite and microwave trucks parked their samples outside. Crowds of reasonably well-dressed folks attended: The decisionmakers in the world of broadcasting, and the legions of people who sought to influence them. Job seekers seemed to be in abundance.
But I never set foot inside the convention. My interest was outdoors.
Because, at the same time the NAB convention was taking place, the rock band known as the Grateful Dead was playing three straight nights in the Omni coliseum.
This created an intriguing collision of worlds in the space outside the Omni and the GWCC, which rested side-by-side (the Omni is now gone and Philips Arena replaced it, for reasons I still don’t fully understand…)
Working a night shift the first night of this two-headed assemblage, I went with one of WAGA’s finest photogs to the site. Because I was beyond clever, I’d already envisioned a “tie-dyes versus the tie-guys” line in my piece, a goofy line in hindsight. (The AJC went with “the deadheads and the talking heads.”)
Into the breach we went. The Deadheads has commandeered a parking lot. It was filled with smoky hibachis cooking organic veggie something-or-others, and smoky glass or clay apparatuses cooking cannibis something-or-other. It was quite the revival of latter-day hippie folk, who appeared to cohabit and co-mingle and co-imbibe in ways that one could only describe now as Socialist.
My photog parked his camera on a tripod on the perimeter of the lot and started shooting. Let’s pause for a moment, and describe the photog, whom I’ll identify here as “T-five.”
“T-Five” was an energetic, enormously talented, strongly opinionated, occasionally hotheaded man who came from a colorful Italian family rooted in Queens. We were great friends. T-5 was not a fan of the Dead, though he (like me) tolerated the excesses of their fans. Up to a point.
As T5 shot, I waded into the crowd (wearing a tie, of course) and tried to establish rapport with some of the Deadheads. But a few were more interested in T5, who aimed his lens wherever he pleased, and hit REC.
“Hey man, whatcha doin’?” called out a voice. T5 wasn’t there to talk; that was my job. The query drew further interest from the crowd, which set the photog in its crosshairs.
“Hey man. I didn’t give you permission to shoot my picture.” T5 ignored them and kept shooting. But the voices multiplied and intensified. Finally, T5 gave them an answer: “I’m on a public sidewalk. You’re in plain sight. I can shoot whatever I want.”
T-5 was right, of course. But this was the wrong time to be right.
By this time, the sandal-wearing love-and-peace crowd was churning into a granola-spitting state of hostility. “Bullshit, man. You don’t have our permission to shoot us. You can’t shoot me without permission, man.” This sentiment rapidly multiplied. Truth was, most of the Deadheads didn’t care about the TV camera on the fringe of their pre-concert party. But because an obstinate representative of The Man had failed to give some of their number the respect they felt they deserved, they were getting ready to rumble.
They began to move toward T-5, who pounded a Marlboro and did whatever the hell he wanted, because he could. And I watched my story start to go up in flames like a ditchweed spliff.
T-5 was the only photog I’d ever known who could incite a riot among Deadheads.
Fortunately, it never came to that. I leapfrogged the surging crowd, grabbed T-5 and we withdrew, about a block away. T-5 and I quickly came to an understanding.
We let the crowd settle for a few minutes. We circled, out of sight, to the opposite side of the parking lot; and I began groveling to Deadheads who deigned to accept my apology and who explicitly allowed us to photograph them. T-5 was a good boy the rest of the night.
WAGA’s GM had probably passed within eyeshot at the NAB convention sometime that day. Had he passed at just the right time, he’d have gotten an eyeful.
And if I ever actually go to the NAB, it’ll be with Team Lenslinger.