Archive for March 2006

Not what you want to hear on April Fools Day

March 30, 2006

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows you get some real crackpot calls on a regular basis. When I worked down on the river, we used to get phone calls from a man who identified himself as “Jesus”. On the weekends back in the early 90’s we used to get a call from a woman who I think called herself Mrs. Kitchens and ranted and raved and swore like a sailor. I always tried to be nice but after she started a long string of obscenities about something, I told her that I was not going to listen to someone with such a potty mouth and I hung up on her. When she called back and started again, I told her again I would not tolerate such language. This went on several more times until she finally realized I was serious so she stopped swearing and told me that she was sorry. Everyone on the weekend got to hear from Mrs. Kitchens at some point in time as she called several times a day.
But it was on April 1st, 1989 that we got the kind of call on a Saturday night that no one wants to get in a newsroom when you’re short-staffed.
I had been filling in on Saturday night for Alex Coleman who was doing weeknights Sunday-Friday. Jerry Tate has not come back to 3 from WHBQ.
Also understand that I had only been in the market since the first of February at the time.
If I remember correctly, we had a skeleton crew with just me and the producer, and a photographer who was handing around to shoot spot news. The reporter had already gone home for the night.
We had already received a few crank calls since it was April 1st. About mid-evening, the phone rang and the caller said one of the Highway 51 bridges had collapsed over the Hatchie River just north of Covington, Tennessee and that several vehicles had gone into the water. I don’t remember who answered the phone, but when the caller hung up and the information was shared in the newsroom, we stared at each other trying to decide if this was just another crank call. Then we started scrambling to make calls, trying to confirm the story. It turns out something had happened and we started making calls to the top of our newsroom foodchain to get some help and get crews to the scene.
Long story short, five vehicles had gone into the water when the older, northbound lane bridge of Highway 51 collapsed from what was called “scouring” by high water in the Hatchie River channel. Eight people died in the tragedy. Eventually the entire old bridge was torn down and a new one built in its place with some of the survivors on hand for the dedication.
April Fools Day has not been the same for me since April 1st, 1989.

Nothing like a funeral to bring out the best and worst in people

March 29, 2006

I’m not sure I know of many news people who enjoy covering funerals. Some might see funerals as easy, one stop shopping gigs where all the players can be shot at one location. Plug in some of the service, get tight shots of the grieving family members or friends, add a little B-Roll from the crime scene or whatever circumstances led to the person’s demise, shoot a stand-up and it’s Miller time. A live shot for the next newscast might also be in order.
I’ve found that covering funerals can bring out the best and worst of both sides.
If it’s a high profile case like the one in Selmer, crews from all over descend on small towns usually not adequately prepared for the onslaught,requests and demands of big town media. They may feel overwhelmed and angry by the attention and instrusiveness. I understand in Selmer, news crews were kept a distance away from the church. I don’t know if a pool camera was allowed in on the service or not. If not, that means the crews will have to scramble to get other video and sound to flesh out their packages. That can be when the feeding frenzy kicks into overdrive.
It’s not just small towns.
A few years back, an Amtrack train hit an 18-wheeler at a crossing in Bourbonnais, Illinois, killing five people from the Midsouth area. The services were held at a large church on Poplar in East Memphis. It seems to me that we had about three or four news crews at the church and we were almost falling all over each other trying to get something different from each other. The family had asked that former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett be the family spokesman/liason. I had been told I had to get some sound from someone other than him and I asked him if he might be able to accomodate me. As I was under a lot of pressure from the office to get the sound and he was not very forthcoming, a decided to do an end run. He saw this and came over and said something to me to express his displeasure. He was nice about it and while I can’t remember his exact words, what he said to me stayed with me for a few days.
I later wrote him a note apologizing for my behavior, telling him I had gotten caught up in the moment and that I had let the pressure to get a story over-ride my personal sense of decorum.
I got a call from the former mayor about a week later telling me he had just received a very nice note from (his words) “a guy with class” and he thanked me for the note and we chatted for a couple of minutes.
On the other hand, some folks in news organizations find out the hard way that they are not wanted. I’ve seen the video of bereaved friends and family who turn angry and the person holding the camera ends up being the object of their rage.
I think it was Bobby Hayes of WREG who was covering a graveside service and I think he was a slight distance away in the cemetery shooting the internment. Anyway, these were not nice people and I think somebody came over and it got physical. I seem to remember somebody telling me that Bobby had to roll under the vehicle as they were kicking at him.
It brings home the fact that, like on a date, sometimes “no means no”.

Just a person willing to help out some fellow reporters

March 28, 2006

In Selmer, Tennessee while covering the Reverand Winkler murder, I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen for a few years. The guy’s name is Doug Viar and he was running a sat truck for NBC and some of its affiliates. I last saw Doug after the deadly tornadoes that tore into part of Jackson, TN which is now his home town. As I told some of the folks standing in his sat truck last Friday, I was never so grateful to one person than Doug Viar because he let me spend the night with him. No not that way. Here’s the story.
I first met Doug while I was working at WBBJ in Jackson. He did some production work in his then hometown of Dyersburg and did some freelance news work for stations as they called for him. He did the one-man band thing back before the term VJ was a gleam in some consultant’s eye. He worked primarily for WREG in Memphis. Doug would travel to WBBJ to use their production equipment on occasion for projects that he worked on for various companies in West Tennessee.
A couple of years later I moved to southeast Missouri to work for KFVS-TV in Cape Girardeau.
I worked out of Poplar Bluff for about nine months in 1983. Robert Laney was the shooter I worked with in the PB Bureau. One week he and I were sent to Little Rock to cover a federal trial that lasted most of the week. By Friday, Laney and I were exhausted and quite happy to be driving back to PB for some rest. We had been back for about two hours or so when we got a call that a really bad person had been cornered by law enforcement officials in NE Arkansas not far from Walnut Ridge. Some background on this guy. His name was Gordon Kahl if I remember correctly he was with an organization called Posse Comitatus. They are described as an intermittently active, loosely organized group “Christian activists loosely dedicated to survivalism, vigilantism and anti-government agititation.”
Anyway, Kahl was accused of gunning down two federal marshals in North Dakota who were apparently trying to arrest him for an earlier parole violation for non-payment of taxes. As you might imagine. he helped put Posse Comitatus in the forefront of national attention.
Kahl disappeared from view for a long while until he surfaced in Northeast Arkansas. Law enforcement surrounded him in a concrete bunker built into the side of a hill in the middele of nowhere. The local sheriff went to the door to serve an arrest warrant and Kahl shot him, with the bullet going into the arm hole of the sheriff’s bulletproof vest, killing him. Law enforcement opened up. When the media was allowed in probably about six hours or so later, it truly looked like what I would imagine a battle field must look like. Spent cartridge casings were everywhere, the bunker was covered with pock-marks from bullets, ammunition inside was still exploding from the fires set off by teargas and Gordon Kahl was quite dead and would become a martyr for his cause.
Anyway, back to my story. Laney and I had left in such a hurry from PB, we hadn’t taken any money or supplies, thinking we would be back home not long after midnight. Neither one of us had a credit card and the TV station hadn’t issued us a corporate card. (They preferred to give out cash advances instead and we didn’t have any cash to speak of.) On top of all of this, we needed a place to charge our almost depleted camera, recorder and light batteries which were almost drained from the Little Rock trip. We couldn’t go back home because a news conference was expected to be called early in the morning. We figured we were going to have to sleep in that tiny Chevy Citation we drove.
Enter Doug Viar. Because he lived in Dyersburg, TN, he was the go-to guy in that part of the coverage area for WREG. He heard Laney and me discussing our plight and told us that he was getting a motel room and that Laney and I were more than welcome to share his room. His only stipulation was that he got one bed and we could fight over the other. I think we ended up bringing in an extra cot. I’m not sure what I was more appreciative of: a room for the night or the fact that Doug bought us breakfast as well the next morning.
It was no big deal for Doug. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy who works hard and will give his employers 100-percent. But he’s not such a hard ass that he won’t help someone who needs it and that night in Arkansas, Laney and I needed it.
I shared this story with Doug and some of the other folks standing in the sat truck. The funny thing was, Doug remember the incident but not the fact that he had helped us out. To him, it was no big deal. That’s just the way he is. I’m still waiting to return the favor somehow some way.

Nothing like two-a-days to get you in shape

March 28, 2006

You know things get serious in football when teams start with two-a-day practices to get in shape for the season. That means a practice in the morning and a practice in the afternoon. It builds stamina and gives team members something to look forward to: no more two-a-days.
Word on the street these days is that the reporters and producers down on the river have something to look forward to. Their news director who took over at the end of January requires reporters to turn two packages a day. I’m hearing that this move has inspired increased activity in the job hunting department among some folks. A shortage of producers means some are having to double up on the shows they crank out.
Cranking out two packages a day is standard operating procedure by reporters in some shops. It used to be the rule of thumb down on the river by a couple of previous news directors who wanted more product available for the newscasts. Both eventually backed off that requirement after complaints that quality suffered. Two-a-days actually teaches a couple of things. It makes reporters and videographers work faster as they attempt to meet the goal for quantity. The field teams learn to manage their time better and it’s harder for them to “hide” from the assignment desk,(not that this has ever happened in real life). Reporters and photographers tend to lose weight since they may not get time to eat lunch as they scramble to get their stories and that may help their health although the increase in stress may offset the gains. It also gives managers a chance to tell field crews to work “smarter not harder”. (Note to managers: those under you LOVE to hear that phrase…..NOT)
Some crews have less problems with this than others. Those most impacted by the two-a-days are the early morning reporters who, IMHO, traditionally get the shaft anyway. These folks roll in and may do multiple live shots during the morning show and depending on how “hands-on” the news managers may be, may not get their story assignments approved until 9:30 or 10 a.m. That means they may have to wait until they can get a videographer or they may not even be able to line up their interviews until the afternoon. It doesn’t take too many days of coming in at 4 a.m. and leaving at 3 or 4 p.m. for the grind to get old and for someone to begin re-evaluating career choices. Seeing the morning show anchors leave promptly at 12:35 and the frustration starts to mount quickly. A complaint to the managers may prompt a comment such as “if you want 9 to 5, go work in a bank.”
Producers eventually learn not to believe promises of help until the shadow of the additional worker actually falls across their desk. Even then that new person may end up taking over another show as illness or departures deplete the staff. They learn how to slap a show together. Just give ’em time for a smoke break.
Some enterprising folks may offer to work as a VJ or one man band if they only have to work one story a day. Some managers may take them up on the offer. Others know that the life of a news director is only about two years in many shops and they hope they can just hang on and outlast the ND. Still others will find that a kick in the rear is still a step forward.
But there is one positive note about this. When all is said and done, those in the newsroom will find they have done so much with so little for so long, that now they can do anything with nothing in no-time flat. Now, get out there and find some news, there are holes to fill in the newscasts.

Two out of three ain’t bad

March 27, 2006

I try to be a law abiding citizen. I’ve been known to speed on occasion and I don’t come to a complete stop to turn “right on red”. That’s about the extent of my lawlessness at this particular time in my life. However, I have maintained for years that if I should do something really bad, there are only about three people I would ever want to represent me in a court of law. One is the current mayor of Shelby County, AC Wharton. Another is Leslie Ballin while the third person would be Steve Farese of North Mississippi. Folks in a world of trouble used to turn to one of these three but Wharton is now out of the picture with his mayoral duties. I see reports now that Ms. Winkler of Selmer, Tennessee, charged in the murder of her husband, the Reverand Winkler, has retained the services of both Ballin and Farese. This may be one of the smartest things she has ever done in her life. It will be interesting to see how this thing ends, but she’s got some high priced talent. I think her fortunes have changed to some degree. Stay tuned.

Note quite back in the saddle but one foot in the stirrup

March 27, 2006

I got a call Friday morning from a local production facility. I had expressed an interest in any freelance work they might have available and I got a call wanting to know if I would be interested in doing some work on a news story in Selmer, Tennessee. It seems a young minster was found shot to death in the parsonage and his wife and three young daughters had disappeared, only to be found in L.A. (Lower Alabama). The caller said that some national folks out of Atlanta had called looking for a videographer and producer to round up some information and I would be the producer on this gig. I met up with a very nice young man who would be shooting the video and when I wasn’t on the phone with the folks in Atlanta and New York, we chatted while enjoying the drive to Selmer. Once in Selmer, it wasn’t hard to find the scene of the action. Four satellite trucks were set up outside Selmer city hall and there were cables and crews everywhere. The photog and I were trying to round up a couple of specific folks for the clients and we headed to the local Church of Christ where we found a sign on the door stating “No more interviews today”. I knocked on the door anyway and a nice but rather tired looking lady came to the door and we chatted briefly but she was insistent on not talking and I wasn’t going to push it. We later found the two people we were seeking and interviewed them and helped on a live talk-back with one of the townspeople for a cable news program. I ran into a number of folks from the Memphis affiliates and even one guy from Jackson, Tennessee I first met about 25-years ago. His name is Doug Viar and I have a story to tell about involving him but that will come perhaps later this week.
It was interesting being back in the saddle briefly on this still unfolding news event. I spent more time on the phone updating both sides along with the folks from the cable news than I did trying to round up interviews. I found it challenging to try to track down folks to talk about about this murder. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do too much convincing. The sad part is that coming from a small town and knowing how close knit the community can be, I felt like an intruder. I offered apologies to those we talked with and told them how much I personally appreciated their willingness to talk and that I hoped things got back to normal as soon as possible. It’s not going to be an easy thing. The wife confessed to the shooting and is charged with first degree murder. That means the three little girls will never really know their mother or father. Having lost my father in January after almost 50-years, my heart goes out to them.

No lions but Tigers and Bears (Bruins) "Oh My!"

March 24, 2006

A bittersweet evening at stately LarkSmith Manor as the Memphis Tigers won and the Gonzaga Bulldogs lost. My lovely and talented bride loves both teams and has bemoaned the fact they are in the same bracket in the NCAA tournament knowing there was the possibility they could face each other. That is now a moot point. Bethany became a Gonzaga fan when they first made their big run toward a title about ten years ago and they actually played in the regional tournament in Memphis at the Pyramid. Each year since she has proudly worn her Gonzaga t-short at tournament time. It turns out I used to work with someone down on the river who graduated from Gonzaga. That would be Lurene Cachola who now goes by the name of Dr. Lurene Kelly and teaches at the University of Memphis. Don’t you know that would have been a case of torn loyalties if Memphis had faced Gonzaga.
So now Memphis will face the UCLA Bruins and while the Tigers beat the Bruins earlier this year, many people think back to the “Big Game” when Memphis and UCLA faced off in the finals back in 1973 and UCLA with Bill Walton beat the Tigers led by Larry Finch.
I will admit that I haven’t really followed the Tigers much over the years and I’m getting on the bandwagon now. You can witness Tiger fever taking hold of the city after Memphis proved they were for real by not choking in the first round. I picked up a pie over at Memphis Pizza Cafe for last night’s game and I was greeted by the phrase ” Go Tigers!” I hope they win it all.