When I showed up at WAGA in 1986, Sandra Davenport held a position in the newsroom called “tape coordinator.” When I left 21 years later, she’d been upgraded to something like “senior tape coordinator.” Even though WAGA stopped using tape in 2008, I suspect her title hadn’t changed much by the time Sandra retired last week.
Sandra didn’t shoot videotape. She rarely edited. But Sandra sweated every piece of video that aired in any newscast during her shift. Sandra kept track of which stories were edited in-house, which video was fed from the field, which file video came from where, and which video came from network or other outside sources.
When crunch time hit, Sandra was the person who made sure every piece of video would appear in its proper slot in the newscast. If the video wasn’t going to be there, she was the one on the phone to the control room, giving the bad news and recommending adjustments.
When reporters left the building at 11am for a noon live shot on a story they’d never covered or even heard about before, Sandra would make sure they had video in-hand from WAGA’s previous coverage, giving them a fighting chance to at least look like they knew what they were talking about by 12:01pm. Aside from the station’s institutional archive, Sandra also created informal archives of big ongoing stories. It gave the staff the ability to quickly grab large chunks of relevant file video before leaving the building in a live truck.
It was the type of job that could make a person crazy, day in and day out. Yet Sandra was one of the sanest people I’d ever worked with. Even when she was juggling crises, I never saw her lose control. Likewise, she was unfailingly and cheerfully at the service of her often frazzled coworkers. If she told you she didn’t have time to help, you never questioned that Sandra was clearing an avalanche of deadline work.
When, in my early thirties, the first few grey hairs popped through my TV haircut, Sandra was the first non-family member to notice. She took girlish delight in pointing them out.
“How will WAGA function without you?” was the dominant line of well-wishes delivered to Sandra upon her retirement.
Conversely, the question could be: Will WAGA even replace Sandra?
When I showed up at WXIA in 2009, I asked to meet the tape coordinator. I learned there was no tape coordinator. There was one years earlier, but that position was eliminated after newscasts started showing video planted in servers, rather than rolled from a console of tape players.
Deadlines are now sweated by managers and producers wearing multiple hats. File video is a grab-bag of material pulled from computers or — God forbid — the tape archive kept in a darkened second-floor room.
Sandra’s system got crews out the door much more quickly. Sandra’s presence eliminated mistakes. Sandra was personally accountable for material that we now rely on computers to process on deadline.
TV newsrooms are more austere now. Video coordinators, associate producers, video editors, even photographers — these days, they seem like luxuries.
Yet how do we function without them?
Sandra Davenport’s departure at WAGA prompted a newsroom party and numerous tributes. The most eloquent was posted on her Facebook page by Don Smith, who worked with Sandra on WAGA’s PM Magazine show in the eighties:
Nobody deserves a loving and thankful sendoff more than you, Sandra June. You improved everything in which you had a part, and in a swirling world of petty tyrants and major league buttholes, you sailed serenely and sweetly above them all, a constant delight to know and work with. You were better than we deserved.