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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Tribute To John Hambrick (1940-2013), Miami Broadcasting Legend

From Texas, to Cincinnati, to Cleveland, to Los Angeles, to San Francisco, to New York, to Miami.

Only one man can claim to have served as an anchorman in all of those places:  a man who ended his anchoring career right here in South Florida.

It's two decades since John Hambrick has been seen or heard on South Florida's news broadcasts, but few anchors ever made more of an impression.    Hambrick was hired by WTVJ in 1985 to replace another legend, Ralph Renick.   It was clear from the start Hambrick was more than just an anchor:  he also was an actor, not just reading the news, but delivering it as only a thespian could.    

Hambrick loved to talk about his days as an actor.   The native Texan was influenced by Western stars such as Rory Calhoun and Audie Murphy, and appeared on the TV program "Playhouse 90" alongside actor Richard Boone.   This was a real source of pride for Hambrick, who could (and would) tell story after story about his acting career... as well as the record album that he cut in 1972 alongside some of the best musicians in Nashville.   It was not unusual for Hambrick to break out into song, any place at any time.   After all, you cannot spell Hambrick without Ham!

(John Hambrick's 1972 album on Terry Knight's Brown Bag label.   Terry Knight is best-remembered as the long-time manager of Grand Funk Railroad.)

After making a name for himself at WTVJ alongside co-anchor Susan Lichtman, Hambrick moved over to WCIX Channel 6, which was looking to boost its profile in the community after being acquired by CBS a year earlier.   John was paired with anchors Barbara Sloan and Giselle Fernandez, and without a doubt did much to boost the station's visibility throughout South Florida.  He was tested, as were we all, when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of South Florida.   One night John was out in the field, when he confronted a looter who was taking advantage of the chaos that followed Andrew.   John put the guy in his place, a memorable moment that showed a side of John that many in the public had not seen before.

While at Channel 6, John was honored with an Emmy award for his work on a special titled "Florida's Obscenity Showdown".   He was also honored with a Silver Circle Award for his many years of broadcasting, in South Florida and in some of the largest markets in the nation.

John's time on the South Florida airwaves ended in 1993.   He returned to his ranch in Texas, which he called "The Little House".   (He talked about it so much, we all felt we knew every square inch of the place.)   John and his son Jack would go on to co-produce a documentary for PBS in 2002.   In recent years, he'd returned to acting, and could be heard doing commercial voice-overs up until his recent bout with cancer.

On John's final night at WCIX, we producers pooled our video and helped Barbara Sloan and Ralph Murciano come up with a farewell to a man that played such a big role in giving our station a personality boost.  Barbara's words, and the images we came up with, paint a picture of a man who was a true original.   I was proud that several of the pieces I produced -- from our series "When The Doo Wop Stops", to the riding-off-into-the-sunset ambience of "Myths and Mavericks"-- played so prominently into the tribute, and to John's body of work that we'd come to respect.   John, though, takes most of the credit.   He could get away with things that other reporters could not, so when we pushed the envelope, so to speak, it was John's character and charisma that made it such compelling TV.   

                                 (Click on the arrow to view the 1993 farewell to John Hambrick) 

John Hambrick had a long and distinguished career in broadcast journalism, with eight of those years spent in South Florida.   No one who worked with him could ever forget him, and the same could be said about his many viewers.   Many things come and go in South Florida, with most making little impression, but that could never be said about John Hambrick.   He's a man who always did things his way, be it acting, singing, or performing in front of TV cameras.   As John liked to say, "Thank you for having us in for news".   We will miss you, John.

Here's John Hambrick, "earning his reputation one story at a time." 

Now that you're here, check out the other posts in the SAY SIX! blog.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Remembering Dave Game: A Man Of Insight

WFOR Photo

The old Channel 6 was trying to compete in a rapidly-changing world, with hopelessly outdated technology. We were the last station in town to switch from film (which needed developing) to tape (instantaneous!) Some at the station were resistant to change, be it word processors replacing typewriters, or NewStar computers replacing the soon-outdated word processors.
Fortunately there were journalists who could see into the future, and wanted to help others do the same. Leading the way was Dave Game, who convinced us that there was a better way to keep track of our news tape archive than hand-typed index cards. So in came our first Macintosh computer -- a slow, bulky machine (this was the late '80s, after all), but a vast improvement over those silly cards. Welcome to the future, TV-6'ers.
Dave's love of computers would lead him to new frontiers, after WCIX morphed into WFOR. Up until his death on February 5, 2013, Dave was the Internet Operations Manager for the station. Before that he was one of the top reporters in town, a journalist who believed in getting a story right and expected others to do the same. TV news needs more Dave Games, now more than ever.
After learning of his death, I went through my archives to see what I could find. I stumbled upon an episode of Insight, the public affairs program that I produced for several years. For this particular show, Dave asked that I step out of the producer's chair, and be a guest on the program -- talking about my then newly-released book, Savage Lost: Florida Garage Bands of the '60s. We worked together on the taped inserts, and I booked our second guest for the show -- John Doyle, of the infamous Miami '60s garage band EVIL -- who, coincidentally, passed away just a week after Game. The show came together well, and for once I didn't cringe at seeing myself on camera. (There's a reason I worked behind the scenes all those years.) WCIX'ers will enjoy seeing the credits at the end, with some names you've probably forgotten. Thanks, Dave, for letting me be a part of this program -- and a part of your life. You were one of the good guys.

(Note: The program is in three segments, presented here in order)

Now that you're here, check out the other posts on the SAY SIX! blog.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

I Was A Teenage Chyron Operator

There I was, jettisoned from WNWS Radio due to my ethnicity (or lack thereof), when the calls started coming from my colleagues about open radio and television jobs.

The week that followed was a whirlwind… and a blur.    A news interview at WGBS; an engineering interview at WKAT; a typing audition at some round building on Brickell, to see if I could run a machine called a Chyron.   A what?   Never heard of it before!   

It was Larry Wallenstein, the future assignment editor – and later, news director – at WCIX Channel 6, who suggested to Dick Descutner that I audition for the job.   Four days after the sudden end of my radio career, I was in front of a typewriter, showing what my normally uncoordinated fingers could do.   I was in, should I decide to take the job.    $4.00 an hour, 40 hours a week, and (at the start at least) no weekends.    That was more money and fewer days than the radio jobs, so all of a sudden I was a Chyron operator!    Jeez, what am I getting myself into?

That first night on the job was overwhelming.   Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.    Fellow night shift employee Carlos Lima started on that same night;   engineering prospect Lucious Hall started just a week or so earlier.   We were all fresh meat for the grizzled Brickell veterans!    My Chyron instructor was (Hey Hey) Gustavo Rey, and he must have done a good job, because I was already soloing by that Friday.

There was little time to learn the names of the night shift employees.    One of my duties was typing the nightly credits, and the weekly (full) credit roll.    That meant not only getting all the names right (spelling and all), but knowing the lingo, and cryptic words such as “telecine”.   My spell check says that’s not a word, but on the Channel 6 credit roll, it was not just a word, but a job title.  

Not only was I responsible for all the news supers (including pre-production, and pre-taped segments such as The Flying Fisherman), but after the news I had to type index cards, with the titles – and a description – of every piece of film that aired during The Ten O’Clock News.   Then it was my job to edit all the film onto one reel, and note on the cards which reel contains each film story.    It was a lot of tedious work, but since we were the last station in town to switch to tape, it had to be done.    My shift started at 6PM and ended at 2AM.    I loved my hours.

In time I grew proficient on the Chyron, and saw myself as the Ozzie Smith of the newscast.     I was a defensive specialist who caught misspellings and mistakes of all kinds.    The worst speller, by far, was reporter/assignment editor Frank Lasko.     The best was probably Dave Levine, a guy who LOVED supers.   Loved them!    I put up with sports anchors who waited until the last minute to bring in the scores.   Sure, we all wanted the most up-to-date scores, but you can’t update a dozen games in one minute – or can you?   Sometimes I think we did the impossible.    When you’re Channel 6 in the Brickell era, you pretty much had to do the impossible.

I can’t count how many part-time or weekend Chyron operators I trained.    Some, such as Gary Slawitschka and Woody Woodriffe, did extremely well.    As for others… well, let’s say they pull the hell back in Helvetica (our font of choice).  

  Helvetica supers, as drawn by Jim Hayek for the April 1983 WCIX Chyron format booklet


Sometimes my duties would expand beyond the news.   When we started airing weekly baseball games in 1981, I was asked to put the score on the screen, and perhaps some supers for the players.    As a baseball freak, I decided also to include their stats for the season and for the game, which surprised sales manager Harvey Cohen.   The future general manager wrote a memo thanking me for the “graffiti”.   Yes, graffiti.    The boss man called my supers graffitti (sic)!   Maybe I should have seen the writing on the wall!

                     American graffiti, Channel 6 style.  Click images to view them full size.

There were some negatives to being a really good Chyron operator.    For one – good luck getting off the damn machine!   Bosses know it’s tough to find a good electronic graphics guy, so they’re reluctant to promote the guy or girl who beats the buttons.    I found myself caught in that trap, and despite showing that I could write, had organizational skills, and had (gasp!) news judgment, I was stuck… until Larry Lyle took over as news director, and immediately made me an associate producer.   That sounds good, until you realize I was an associate producer/Chyron operator.   In other words, I had all these new duties, but still had the old ones as well!   How could I be downstairs writing when we’re doing endless retakes of the Flying Fisherman upstairs?

Relief came in June 1984, when we reinstated local weekend news.    I then became the weekend producer, and occasional Chyron filler-inner.   The Lyle regime had its share of problems, which I’ve chronicled ad nauseum in this blog… but at least he was willing to take a chance, and step outside the box a little.
In the years that followed, I worked my way from associate producer, to weekend producer/weekday assignment editor, to producer, to special projects producer, to senior writer… but I never forgot what it was like to run the Chyron, night after night.     I’ll never forget Bob Rossicone yelling out “supa” in his unmistakable New York accent… or the terror that was election night, with all the numbers changing literally seconds before air.    I became a producer who always respected the hard work of the person sitting behind that character generator.    And to think that I used to do it for $4 an hour/$160 a week!    No, it wasn’t easy, but there was a lot to like about those days.    It was a great time to be in TV.


While you’re here, check out the other posts on the SAY SIX blog!

Complimenting the Chyron operator -- this didn't happen too often.   Everyone notices you when a mistake is made, but it's rare to be recognized for doing a good job.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Kicker Has To Deliver (And That's No Tease)

The voice on the other end of the phone was filled with sorrow.

“He missed it? What do you mean he missed it?”

Sue Kawalerski, our future WCIX news director, was in Israel, covering the Gulf War with reporter/anchor Giselle Fernandez and videographer Mike Hernandez. But at that moment, she was not concerned with scud missiles or other imminent dangers. She was concerned with a missed field goal, by a kicker named Scott Norwood, that would have given the Buffalo Bills – Kawalerski’s beloved team – their first Super Bowl championship.

I hated to break the news to Kawalerski. That great Bills season – the performances of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, et al – came to a crashing end with Scott Norwood’s miff. The lesson that day was clear: having just a so-so kicker really isn’t enough. A kicker has to come through when it counts. A kicker has to deliver.

So it is with TV news. A kicker, in news-speak, is the last story in the newscast, just before the anchor says goodbye and the credits roll. It’s generally the most promoted story in the show, and it’s not something that should ever be taken lightly.

Our consultants had lots of rules, when it came to kickers. Promote it early (pre-show headlines are preferable, depending on the video quality). Promote it in the mega-tease at the end of the first block. Promote it again. And again.

OK, fine… if the story is as good as the tease. But in the real world, the tease is often much better than the story. How many times have you waited to hear an item on your local news – an item that looks like a must-see – only to be disappointed by the short, vacuous, master-of-the-obvious voiceover that you waited nearly a half hour to see? How many times have you shouted “that’s it???” at your TV, when the kicker misses the goal posts once again?

I’ve dealt with writers who’ve written kickers long before the video was back in house. It was usually a by-the-numbers, insta-poof kind of story with meaningless phrases from a press release. Here’s the type of thing I mean . Fill in the blanks, kiddies!

“Thousands took to the streets of Downtown your-town today, for the __th annual ____ Festival. There was food, music, face painting for the kids… even a clown. A good time was had by all. The festival will continue throughout the weekend.”

Instant story… but there’s a problem. Let’s say thousands really did turn out. If it’s a major weekend event, one that you’d want to tease throughout the newscast (and in the preceding shows), then there’s a good chance many who saw the station’s cameras will tune in to see the coverage. Boy, are they going to be disappointed! Writers must… MUST!... look at the video, and try to put themselves in the place of that camera, seeing the event the way viewers would. The event wasn’t just fun. It was FUN! Sell that!

Superstar anchor John Hambrick understood the importance of kickers. He would often argue “THAT’S not a kicker”, when a producer would try to sell a story that didn’t deliver in any way. Hambrick loved to write his own kickers, whenever possible. His verbose writing style, which worked so well for him, didn’t translate to his co-anchors… meaning there was no way to switch anchor reads, should the need for that arise. But John earned that right, just as Ann Bishop did at Channel 10. He may have given producers heart attacks at times, but he understood that a poorly-written kicker… like a poorly-written lead… was a huge turnoff to viewers. A kicker that doesn’t leave the viewer feeling it was worth the wait, is like a field goal kicker sending the ball wide right in the final eight seconds of the game.

Just ask the Buffalo Bills.

Now that you're here... check out the OTHER POSTS on the Say Six! blog.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The First WCIX News Team

I always love hearing from former Channel 6’ers, especially when they are willing to share pictures and memories from the old independent days.

One such person is Glenn Lewis, who ran the film lab back when the news department was first getting started. Glenn was kind enough to share a photograph of the first WCIX news team, along with some of his recollections.

Click on the picture to view it full size.

"The man on the left, I think was Ned Powers, and he did the weather. The story behind the picture is that Bob Sheridan (screen right, next to Prescott Robinson) and Ned had opened a bar and wanted something to hang behind the bar.

I think this was the first news set. Also, I think it was the only station where you had to punch in at a time clock. Ted (Adams, the general manager) was such a tightwad. He thought we were cheating on overtime.

Moving the cobwebs from my brain, I remember things from the first Ten O'Clock news. I might get their names wrong.

The first news director was John Pike, Dick (Descutner) was asst ND at the time.
Nancy Palmer was production manager.
Jack Cowart was chief engineer.
Guss Cado was the assignment editor.
Mike Jueao was chief photo.
Andy Kay was a news cameraman.
Cliff Albertson was the director."

Thanks Glenn. This was well before my time at the station, but some things were slow to change. When I started (March 1980) we still had the time clock. It was there for several years, at least until Taft took over.

Do you have any pictures, videos, or just plain memories of the old WCIX? Please feel free to share them with this blog and its readers. WCIX may now be a part of Miami’s past, but its history is still very much a part of who we are. Don’t be shy.