Funeral for a friend

I’d never met Ria Pell.  But when the 44 year old restauranteur died suddenly Sunday, my Facebook feed blew up with grief.  Friends described her an an honorable woman with a memorable personality.  The tributes talked about her as a Memorial Drive pioneer, her presence in the LGBT community and her victorious moment in a reality show called Chopped.

Ria Pell

Ria Pell

Monday, I pitched her passing as a story for 11Alive news.  The powers-that-be bought it, and I almost immediately regretted it.

The biggest problem was getting usable images of Ria. It put me in the uncomfortable position of asking her grieving friends to dig through photos and turn them over to me.

I thought I struck gold when I discovered that 11 Alive News had done a Unique Eats segment on Ria’s Bluebird Cafe in 2010.  But Ria never appeared in the piece.

Facebook had plenty of photos, and Ria’s own page appeared to have no privacy settings.  But Gannett won’t allow us to poach photos from Facebook without explicit permission from the creator of the photo.

Video from Ria’s appearance on Chopped would have helped enormously.  The Food Network had a lot of cryptically-labeled video of episodes online, but it was impossible to know if the Ria episode was one of them without scrolling through each one.  Our 7pm newscast producer, Molly Baker, tried gamely to wrangle some video from the Food Network.  An indifferent publicist hinted that she’d try to find some video for us, then went dark.  (Update:  She cheerfully emailed us a 30 second clip some 18 hours after my deadline passed.)

Meantime, my 6pm deadline was rapidly approaching.  This story, I knew, would get close scrutiny from people who “never watch” TV news because they think it sucks, yet would have high expectations for my 90 second piece.

As I was outside Ria’s Bluebird Cafe with photog Al Ashe, friends and patrons walked and drove up to the closed restaurant.  The sign on the door attributed the closing to an unspecified “emergency.”  One of them was Chris Arrison, whose lovely wife Dana works with my wife.  He ended up being one of my better interviews.  It also raised the stakes for me, scrutiny-wise.

Grant Henry, owner of the Edgewood Ave. bar called Church, responded to my arm twisting and did some phone work to provide photos.  Holly Aguirre tried to get me video of Ria’s moment on Jim Stacy’s PBS show Get Delicious, but I couldn’t reach Stacy to get permission; he was on a plane to California at the moment I realized I needed to reach him.

imageFortunately, Dyana Bagby saved my ass.  The new editor of the Georgia Voice had photographed the watch party Ria had for her Chopped episode a year ago.  She offered to allow us to poach her photos from LGBTQ weekly’s site.

All this distracted me from taking the time I needed to write a thoughtful piece about Ria’s passing.  The worst possible thing I could have done was trotted out a bit of hastily-written hackery on this occasion.  The piece was hastily written, and outside of my comfort zone.  I rarely write obits.

At 5pm, after I’d completed the script, I went to the Georgia Voice site — and got a 404 error code.  Dyana had told me earlier in the day that the site was having issues.  I texted her — literally pleading with her to drop whatever important thing she was doing, and email me some photos.  Damned if she didn’t do exactly that.  And they were pretty great photos.

I presented the photos to Al Ashe, who was editing the piece, at about 5:40pm.  Al did a nice job of editing it.  At a crisp 1:21, it turned out the piece was not an embarrassment.

Twelve hours later, it’s one of the most-viewed stories on — perhaps because Ria’s friends deemed it worthy to share online.

This entry was posted in WXIA and tagged , on by .

About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

6 thoughts on “Funeral for a friend

  1. Raegan

    This might sound angry, but here goes: I’m so very glad her friends helped you, but I for one am not happy that your journalist’s angst is the focus of this story, rather than the indominable Ria Pell. Please, in future endeavors, realize that readers click on headlines to read about the supposed topic, not your singular story of what is like to be a journalist.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      This site has been about journalist angst since 2008. There’s a link in the last line of the post that goes to the actual piece I produced for 11Alive. It’s totally devoted to Ria. Sorry you got hoodwinked. Please accept my condolences on your loss.

  2. Cabbagetown Cowboy

    I hope Raegan’s anger is simply a release of her grief. Doug Richards has consistently proven himself to be one of the good guys in Atlanta news. He is the one TV person (now that Tall Tom is gone) who keeps tabs on the subculture in Alanta, the far left of center people and things that make this city unique. I personally appreciated this angle, as it shows how dedicated he was to doing a decent piece on a very dear friend of mine. Thanks Doug, and lighten up a bit, Raegan. We are all grieving. Collect some comforting hugs on saturday, I will gladly give you one.

  3. Anonymous

    i met ria, she fed me when i was a hungry addict. wow. in L5p she never had anything negative to say about my life at all. ria was intimidating but never on purpose. i will always remember her bbq and her feeding me when i was broke and hungry!

  4. Bob

    Mr LAF,
    Stealing power from a school to recharge an overpriced electric go cart is no LAFing matter.
    The socialist in you is very obvious.


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