Things I Learned During the Tenure of the Former Mayor of Memphis

We’re coming up on one week since the change-over at the helm for the city of Memphis.  I was actually enroute from Atlanta when the passing of the mantle occurred.  And, I also wanted to wait about a week before posting this because….well, in case WW decided to rescind his retirement/resignation/departure or whatever it is called.

I remember the night Dr. W.W. Herenton was elected.  I was working weekends anchoring and reporting three days of the week.  It was all hands on deck during elections and we knew the race was going to be a close one.  After the polls closed,  the returns were still really tight and there were crowds gathering in the streets of downtown Memphis.  There were also rumors circulating that if for some reason  Herenton was not declared the winner, riots would follow.  Rhetoric from some of the political leaders backing Herenton did nothing to calm the situation.  I was sent with a shooter to cover the crowd outside the election commission.  When we showed up, there was indeed a huge crowd outside but they were just milling around in the street, rather quiet.  The videographer I was hit decided to go ahead and roll video on the relatively quiet crowd so he powered up the light/sungun on his camera.  A few seconds after the flipped that switch, it was as if someone flipped a switch on the crowd which erupted into chants/threats.  They continued to get rowdy and louder as the videographer panned the crowd and got various shots and they started crowding the camera.  The shooter powered down the camera light and like magic, the crowd stopped chanting and basically shut up and went back to talking amongst themselves.  It was my first time to see a mob playing to the camera.  Just for grins, the photographer powered up his camera light as if he was about to roll more video and the crowd again fired up and started chanting. They stopped almost immediately when he shut the light off.  I learned a valuable lesson there.

Another lesson I learned about TV cameras and politicians came during the inauguration ceremonies of Dr. W.W. Herenton at the Pyramid in Memphis.  I was told to get an interview with the Reverand Jesse Jackson.  We had crews all over the place covering the event and I was back-stage where the speakers were lined up to walk up the steps to the stage.  I approached Reverand Jackson, told him I needed to get a quick comment before he climbed up on the stage.  I started my question and as J-J started answering, the group started moving up on stage.   JJ finished his answer and started to turn but I asked a follow-up question.  I could see that he really wanted to go but I could see he also really wanted the face time on camera and I’m sure he didn’t want to be rude to me since we were rolling video.  He stayed, I got the soundbite I really wanted and J-J ended up walking last up on stage.  The lesson: smart politicians rarely pass up an opportunity to appear on camera when they think it will help them.

The next thing I learned really hasn’t got that much to do with Herenton but it did happen during his tenure in office.  For some reason I ended up covering a whole bunch of shootings/murders in a very short stretch of time.  I was pitching stories but it just seemed that the murder rate was extraordinarily high and I must have pissed off the person working the desk.  (No it wasn’t Ethel.)  During this murderous year I discovered that no matter how hard I tried, I just could not find an easy way to approach a family that had just lost a loved one and ask them to talk to you on camera.  Oh, and do you have a photo of the deceased as well.  I found the chore to get more difficult with each person/family I had to deal with.  But I also found something interesting:  African American/black families were much more likely to invite us in and offer photographs than European American/white families.  In fact, most of the verbal abuse and slammed doors came from whitey.  On more than one occasion, I had AA/B families call me and ask what it cost to get the story of their deceased person on our news.  I also had one AA/B family ask me how much I was going to charge them to interview them about their deceased family member.    Lesson learned: I probably could have earned some money to pay for lunch for the photographer and me.  No, I wouldn’t have done that but it still amazes me on how little people know what goes on in the news business.

And speaking of lunches, I wasn’t always able to make it happen but I learned early on how important it was to make sure the photographer you work with always gets lunch.  A happy shooter can make or break a news package and they are a lot more pleasant to ride with in the news cruiser when that belly is full.

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10 Comments on “Things I Learned During the Tenure of the Former Mayor of Memphis”

  1. Bob Says:

    Bless you Joe. It is a shame I never worked with you. I would have eaten very well. Luch was the only time you would get to yourself. Thats if you aren’t eating with one hand and driving with the other.

    BTW: When you work with JB on Union. She makes sure you always eat well. Maybe that is how she has been able to survive the dark cave that is the news business.

  2. joelarkins Says:

    I do want to clarify a point about lunch for the shooters. When I was working early mornings and then coming off the morning show to turn a package for the evening news, I was highly motivated to get the piece shot and turned so I could leave to go home. Otherwise, I would end up being at work until midafternoon. My goal was to be leaving the office by no later than 2pm. I remember using what passed for a laptop computer to write stories so I could track it as soon as I walked through the door and the shooter could start cutting it ASAP. I generally tried to keep the shooters happy with lunch but if it came down to a leisurely lunch and me getting out of the office at a decent hour, I chose me. Getting up at 4am prompted me to look out for me since producers and managers just wanted a news hole filled and since I was salaried, they didn’t care how long I stayed at the station.

  3. Former Fox 13'er Says:

    It’s funny that you mention lunch for photographers. My old chief at 13 would NEVER stop for lunch. Maybe it was the salaried thing, or having to get too much done each day, but he would never stop. He could be done shooting a PKG @ 9am, and wouldn’t have lunch. He was content with a gas station fill up of candy bars and a beverage of choice. The reporters would want to stop for lunch, but he would only go through the drive though! Ah, good ol’ Marty!

  4. Pam Crittendon Roberson Says:

    A friend of mine who worked at WBBM in Chicago once told me that she would have to lie to the desk daily (“we’re still on that shoot”) in order to make sure the union-crew got lunch. Otherwise, they would make her life hell.

  5. joelarkins Says:

    It didn’t take long for any shooter who got abused by the “desk” DOTR to be slow to respond. More than once I worked with shooters who didn’t want to/would not check in with the desk until they got lunch. If he or she was asked “what is your ETA?” the time would be fudged enough to allow a 30-minute lunch break. Sometimes we would be inside the city limits but we quickly learned NOT to tell the desk where you where. I know of one videographer who parked at the back parking lot at WREG and would sit there talking on his cell phone to avoid going in and getting sent out on another shoot. It was a good thing that the desk wasn’t able to use GPS tracking on the news-cruisers. Generally speaking, I managed to get where I could schedule stories outside of the city limits of Memphis. Shooters liked that since that took them out of the “breaking news”/VO patrol mix.

  6. Doug Johnson Says:

    Since we’re all chiming in… When you work the health beat, you can set up most of your stories in advance, so you can everything in the mornings in you’re lucky. That worked out fine most of the time, but after a couple of years, it seemed like the chief photog at the time became the designated health story shooter… Not because he was good at it… The official reason was “so that he can work on administrative stuff in the afternoons…

    I think it’s because I got lunch about 99% of the time.

  7. Andy's Twin Says:

    When I was a reporter at 5, lunch was always my priority. 🙂 My mission statement, well-known by most of the photogs, was “2 good soundbites and a hot plate lunch”.

  8. joelarkins Says:

    Andy’s Twin, I’m sure you found that shooters started gravitating toward you and your stories especially if they knew that they’d get lunch. I found that even though because of my schedule which meant that videographers had to come in a little early, most didn’t seem to mind since 1) they’d get lunch 2) it took them out of the day to day “run and gun” news coverage in the city.

  9. JD Says:

    “…and I must have pissed off the person working the desk. (No it wasn’t Ethel.)…”

    Had to have been Lisa Dandridge! A mean, spiteful, granny glasses wearing, indian moccasin boot wearin’, straight razor totin’ woman!

    Junk yard dogs turned to helpless pups in her presence!
    The Lions at the zoo have been known to stand and beg for mercy when she appeared!
    A pit bulldog would jump up and slap it’s mammy to avoid being in the same room!

  10. joelarkins Says:

    No, it wasn’t LD. She wasn’t even on the scene DOTR during the time period of which I was writing which was the early to mid 90s. That narrows the field a bit now doesn’t it. lol

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