Tuesday, I’ll deliver election results in-studio in front of a green screen on WXIA and WATL. Though I’ve pre-recorded material in front of a green screen before, this will be my first live performance wherein I reference graphics chromakeyed behind me. This is weatherman territory, a place I’ve ventured exactly one other time in my career.
It was a nightmare.
At WTVA-TV, my very first post-college TV station, there was a rotating weather map in the middle of the news set featuring state and national maps.
Each of the maps were suitable for overlaying with magnetic pieces that composed graphics. A series of magnetic squiggles could be used to create a cold front, for example. There were magnets depicting sunshine, clouds, rain and whatnot. There were magnetic numerals for temperatures.
One night in 1980, I had to do the weather. The same night, I also had to produce, write and anchor the newscast– including sports and weather. It was a Saturday. The show was at 10pm.
After I’d written most of my newscast copy, I quickly looked at the AP weather wire, which broadly described fronts and weather systems across the US. The same wire also showed forecasts for major cities. I deduced the shapes and locations of the weather fronts, and started putting up magnets. By the time I was done, it looked somewhat like a weather map. I moved on to preparing the sportscast, which was filled with late scores.
The problem was: I’d never done weather before. In fact, I’d never really ad-libbed on TV at any length before. I was accustomed to benign anchor tosses, or stuff that was otherwise scripted in advance.
Plus, I was a horrible ad-libber. It’s never been a strength of mine. Some people can talk lucidly all day off the cuff. Not me.
That night, I delivered the first ten minutes of the newscast, then teased weather. I think I gave myself five or six minutes to do weather — about 50 percent too long. But I needed to kill the time.
During the break, I grabbed a pointer used by our real weather guys. I extended it, like they did, so that I could reference the fabulous magnetic map I’d made. I stood at the map, with only my magnetic graphics to guide my remarks.
The break ended. I inhaled. I began my spiel.
My coherence quickly began to fade as I babbled about fronts and weather systems with which I had scant familiarity. I flailed with the pointer. When I whacked the map with the pointer, some of my magnets clattered to the floor of the studio. My confidence dropped just as quickly.
And then the guy behind the studio camera started laughing uncontrollably.
The cameraman lost control because he habitually smoked marijuana behind the TV station shortly before each weekend newscast. He always offered to share; I always declined — a lesson indelibly learned from one rough decision made during my first radio news job. Let’s just say the mary-jane does NOT make the newsman smarter.
So here I was: Standing under bright studio lights, wrestling with unfamiliar material with zero self-confidence, flailing with a pointer, trying to avoid whacking my magnets, trying to ad-lib — all while gazing at a camera operated by a stoned, red-faced, howling cameraman. We were the only two people in the studio, though I could also hear muffled laughter coming from behind the glass in the control room.
I was utterly embarrassed and humiliated. However, only one person I knew had actually seen the broadcast. “What happened?” he asked, charitably.
The video editor, who’d promised to tape the newscast, forgot to hit REC. Regrettably, no record of the newscast exists — except as a fragmentary broadcast signal perhaps still drifting toward Alpha Centauri.
If aliens pick up the signal, they will not be impressed with humanity.
Tuesday, I return to the weather position. Fortunately, my material will be about politics and geography. Unfortunately, I’ll be mostly ad-libbing and probably won’t have much prep time. I’m somewhat pumped to have an opportunity to redeem myself.
At least there won’t be magnets.