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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chopper Stopper: The End Of An Era

I have come to bury Chopper 4, not to praise it.

With apologies to William Shakespeare, that isn’t completely accurate. In my own way, I have come to praise it.

Chopper 4 – the real Chopper 4 – will shoot its final shooting, and chase its final chase, before the first of the year. In its place, will be… Chopper 4, though in name only. In reality, the new Chopper 4 will be a shared venture with WPLG Channel 10. Think of what it would be like if Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann shared a studio, and their pictures turned up on their rival’s network. It would be a tough pill to swallow, especially for the hard-working news gatherers behind the scenes. They’ll say the right things when asked about it, but for my old friends at CBS4, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Count on it.

For those that don’t know, the current CBS4 in Miami – WFOR – was our beloved WCIX Channel 6, until September 10, 1995. It was on that date that WCIX and WTVJ swapped signals (and places on the dial), and WCIX officially ceased to exist. In our hearts, many of us were still CIX’ers, but in time we grew used to being WFOR… and Channel 4. And with the signal swap came a sh!t-load of new promotion, new branding, and a new attitude. Our newscast was now known as News 4 South Florida, and we made sure our viewers knew it. But it wasn’t just the anchors and specialty reporters that were being promoted.

Chopper 4 was the station’s pride and joy. It was promo’d on-air even more than anchors Anne Roberts and Khambrel Marshall. Our news team could compete like never before, not having to worry about the travel time from Doral to, say, Wilton Manors, whenever news would break. We had the best pictures many nights, and the promos that would follow would be the proof of performance. As a producer, I loved it.

But there was a flipside to all of this. Having the technology meant going live for live’s sake, more times than not. I remember having an argument with my news director on a stormy Monday afternoon in 1995. Our chopper crew was insisting that the weather made it too risky to continue flying, but my boss insisted that they stay in the air… just a few minutes more… to provide live pictures for a tease leading up to our 5PM newscast. Chopper 4 was over the scene of a warehouse fire – an ABANDONED warehouse fire. In other words, it was a “who cares” story that affected absolutely no one. Oh, but there were flames! So I had the chopper crew insisting that they couldn’t stay up one minute longer, and my boss in my other ear ordering me to order them to remain in the air. My boss got his way. Fortunately the crew landed safely after going live that day, but that was a hell of a lot of risk for a lousy warehouse fire.

And then there was the ValuJet crash on May 11, 1996. News crews were kept far away from the scene, but Chopper 4’s lens had the power to let us see what rescue crews were doing, in the remotest area of the Everglades. We were the only ones to show body parts being fished out of the muck. Exclusive!!! Only on News 4!!! Afterwards, the brain trust was ecstatic about our coverage, and the pictures that no one else had. Every live shot pertaining to the ValuJet crash had to reference our chopper and its “awesome gyrocam”. I had one viewer scold me for making the chopper the subject of our stories, not the dazed and shell-shocked loved ones of 110 crash victims. She may have been exaggerating, but she also had a point. Chopper 4 helped us tell the story of doomed Flight 592, but it also showed what can happen when promotion is carried too far. The on-air atta-boys were just too much. Sorry, but the public isn’t that stupid.

By now I’m probably sounding like a bitter old ex-newsman, and I don’t mean to. As I said, I have come to praise Chopper 4. When I left my job at WFOR, I had a final request: a ride in Chopper 4. Tom Zack arranged it, and I have to say I had a wonderful time seeing Miami from the sky. It truly was an amazing flying machine, and I hate to use the word was. It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth: All good things must come to an end.

Come the new year, you will continue to hear references to Chopper 4, but the fact remains it’s really Sky 10, repainted sans logo. Staffers have been told to view WPLG as a partner, not a competitor, when it comes to sharing aerials. Yeah, right. I can just see it now.

CBS4’s David Sutta put it best in a recent blog post. Sutta wrote “I’m not fond of the idea that our ‘competitors’ are no longer competitors when we dispatch them to our stories. I feel like I just ‘friended’ the competition on Facebook! We are now ensuring two stations will be covering the same story every day.”

And yet, it could be worse. Poor WTVJ Channel 6 doesn’t even have a chopper at their disposal! It’s like trying to conduct a symphony without a string section. You can still make music, but the sounds aren’t pretty enough to keep most people listening again and again. I go back to the days when we didn’t have choppers or computers, and very few fancy bells and whistles, yet we still managed to put on a newscast. It can be done. But this isn’t 1980 anymore. People have choices. The old ideas just won’t fly anymore, and unfortunately, neither will the real Chopper 4.

Monday, November 23, 2009

J.D.'s Power

He looks so confident, reporting for Fox News, with the world watching and listening to his every word. But that’s not the John Roberts that I knew. In fact, the guy I used to work with at WCIX wasn’t “John Roberts” at all. He was J.D. Roberts, formerly of Canada’s version of MTV. When CBS brought him in to anchor the news in Miami in April 1989, he was in a position of having to prove himself. Of having to show that the once long-haired Rick Springfield look-a-like could write, deliver, and understand hard news. It would not be easy.

(J.D. Roberts, rock 'n roller, in a video from 1987)

Critics liked to point out his youthful appearance. One even stated that Barbara Sloan looked more like his mother than his co-anchor, a statement that was both cruel and unfair. CBS had high hopes for the new hire, who was promoted incessantly on-air in a way that his predecessor, Jim Dyer, never was. It was clear this was a new age, and behind the scenes there was some kind of master plan for the young, upstart anchor. He just needed to get some experience, and learn what it takes to convince the public that behind the looks was someone who could be trusted to deliver important information. To deliver the truth. And to deliver good Arbitron numbers, of course.

Roberts had two huge things going for him: he both looked and sounded good. There were times he’d slip into Canada-speak, a la Peter Jennings. (It was Roberts’ misfortune that a turret explosion onboard the Navy battleship U.S.S. Iowa happened right after his arrival. His pronunciation – “Iowaww” – would have surely gained the approval of SCTV’s fictitious Canadian Corner hosts Bob and Doug McKenzie.) But if Jennings could say “shed-jule” instead of “schedule” and the public didn’t care, why should we humble 6’ers mind? Take off, eh.

We found out immediately that Roberts was smart, and not afraid to work. He was also a very fast learner. Hey, maybe this is going to pay off, after all! Unfortunately, he and his wife fell into a trap that awaits many newbies in Miami. The couple bought a house in Southwest Miami-Dade County, either in or very close to Richmond Heights. It was an area that looked real good, especially for the money, from the route that the realtor chose to take. What the couple didn’t see were the pockets of poverty very close to that enticing neighborhood. They did not see the blight and the street crime that most would feel was way too close for comfort. After falling victim to Miami’s mean streets, Roberts’ wife quickly soured on South Florida, putting a strain on the couple’s marriage. By the end of 1989, Roberts was seeing another woman – a Channel 6 employee – and the pair emerged from the shadows for that year’s Emmy Awards ceremony. To say it was a tough time in the young anchorman’s life would be putting it mildly.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I have a vague recollection of Roberts having to visit the emergency room of a local hospital, while we were working on the news series Heart Disease: Beating The Odds (which also featured reports by Healthwatch reporter Dr. Steve Greenberg). At one point I had the choice of postponing some interviews for the series, or going out and doing them myself – which is what I wound up doing (considering our time constraints). Roberts felt bad that his involvement in the series was less than what he had hoped. After the final installment of the series aired on Channel 6 Action News, Roberts read his on-camera tag, without thanking his hard-working producer (me), which was standard operating procedure at the conclusion of a news series. He later realized the oversight, and wrote me a note, which I’m about to share. It was a classy gesture. I let him know that I wasn’t angry. I got all the thanks I needed when the series won a Suncoast Regional Emmy Award, one year later, in December 1990.

A personal note from John "J.D." Roberts. Click image to view it full size.

Emmy award for the news series "Heart Disease: Beating The Odds". Roberts was not there to collect his award, having left the station a few months earlier. Click image to view it full size.

J.D. announces that he's leaving. Click image to view it full size.

Having reconciled with his wife, and understanding her concerns, J.D. Roberts put in his notice in July 1990. By September he was back in Toronto, and it seemed the network’s master plan had been foiled – or had it? After anchoring CTV’s morning newscast for a couple of years, it was off to CBS’ crown jewel – WCBS – and then on to the network’s evening newscast, serving as a medical reporter, chief White House correspondent, and—it was believed—the heir apparent to Dan Rather. OK, so that never happened, but Roberts was the back-up anchor of choice for several years, heading up the network’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the death of Pope John Paul II, and many other historic moments. Interviews with three presidents and live reports from all over the globe highlighted his time with the network. He’d come a long way from our little series about heart attacks that had caused so much trepidation nearly two decades earlier.

Roberts exited CBS, and joined CNN in February 2006, before finally landing at Fox News in 2011 as the network's senior national correspondent.  Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of network news knows the name John Roberts. But for those of us who lived and worked in Miami, there will always be a soft spot for the guy we came to know as J.D. I’ll always remember his reports from Hurricane Hugo, especially the “here I am blowing in the wind” shot that must have aired 100 or more times. Roberts is a bona fide Channel 6 success story, and I’d like to think that the experience and knowledge he gained while working in Miami has played a role in that success. If I helped him get there, even a little, then the hard work was definitely worth it.

November 1989: Roberts introduces a segment from our town hall meeting, “Abortion: The Bitter Controversy”, live from the auditorium at FIU. Click the button to play.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lucky 7

Life is a progress, and not a station.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you want to make enemies, try to change something.
– Woodrow Wilson

Things were so simple before the big Miami TV switcheroo of January 1989. We (WCIX Channel 6) were an independent station, with a low-rated 10PM newscast. Channel 4 (WTVJ) had been a CBS affiliate for four decades. Channel 10 (WPLG) was ABC’s South Florida home, and ditto for Channel 7 (WSVN) and NBC.

But then NBC rocked the boat by buying WTVJ Channel 4, the long-time CBS affiliate. Everyone just assumed CBS would turn around and buy Channel 7, since it was losing its NBC programming. But NO! WSVN owner Ed Ansin played hardball with the big boys, potentially leaving CBS without a home in South Florida… unless it bit the bullet and bought our low-rated, signal-challenged station. (See more on that HERE.) With the sale becoming official, WSVN looked like it was the big loser, destined to scramble for cheap, crappy programming, and destined to sink into the depths of South Florida ratings hell. At least that’s what conventional wisdom would have had us believe.

No one ever told Ed Ansin, GM Bob Leider, and news director Joel Cheatwood about conventional wisdom! While the rest of us thought Channel 7 was about to bury itself, the boys in North Bay Village were dreaming and scheming, thinking so outside-the-box that the box practically burst. If WSVN had to become an independent station… well, why can’t it be the number one indie station in the country? So promised GM Leider, as you’ll see in the following video clips from 1988. Damn if he wasn’t right.

This was before Penny Daniels and Sally Fitz had become hyperbolic; before Rick Sanchez became a lead anchor; when folks such as Bud Fraga and Marianne Murciano still did news the old-fashioned way. This was before Channel 7’s Inside Story further blurred the lines between journalism, infotainment, and tabloid trash. You will hear Carmel Cafiero say “I will miss NBC”, but that sentiment would not be echoed by the station’s brain trust. Their creative, inventive, provocative, compelling, sleazy, salacious approach to news not only changed WSVN forever, but this market as well. This ain’t the 80s anymore. Roll over Wayne Fariss, and tell Richard Whitcomb the news!

(Also see our previous entry about WSVN here.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

You Better Not Shout...


Congressman Joe Wilson’s shout heard round the world has made him either a hero or a villain, depending on your view of President Obama and his health care reform bill. To me, there was something unsettling about those words. About an hour after his outburst, I found myself repeating those two words, but changing the inflection, making them sound angrier… scarier… OMINOUS (to use a Neil Goldstein term). I had no clue why I did that… at the time. But now I know. It turns out Wilson was not the only person to shout those words (or words that are very similar) at someone who had the floor during an official proceeding.

It happened in Miami… in a courtroom… in 1985. An angry man listened as his young bride accused him of sexually molesting a 5-year-old boy. With rage building and his patience dwindling, the man stood up and screamed “Liar! YOU ARE A LIAR!” In the words of the Gainesville Sun, his wife “shrieked and shirked back into her chair, her mouth twisted in pain, as if she had been shot”. She then told the prosecutor, “get me out of here”, as a stunned jury watched. That man’s name is Francisco “Frank” Fuster Escalona, operator of the infamous Country Walk Babysitting Service, and the center of Florida’s most famous child abuse case. That outburst painted Fuster as some kind of a monster in the eyes of the jury, and most assuredly played a role in his ultimate conviction.

I’ve written before about how former WCIX news director Larry Lyle squelched our initial investigation into Fuster and the Country Walk case, barring it from the air until Channel 10 finally broke “our” story. That’s not the only reason I still have such an interest in the Fuster case. I met the man. It capped one of the most bizarre days in my career at Channel 6.

I was working on an investigation into yet another child abuse case, with anchor/reporter Giselle Fernandez. Our investigation, titled “Devil In Our Church?”, would lead us to several unsavory places, and include interviews with some rather unsavory people. On February 1, 1990, it led us to Florida State Prison in the town of Starke, which had been Frank Fuster’s home since his conviction.

Giselle, Rafael “Ralph” Murciano, and I boarded a plane for Gainesville that morning. We didn’t know it at the time, but rock ‘n roll legend Bo Diddley was also on board that plane. As we headed for the gate, Murciano noticed Diddley, and called out his name. In the chaos, I bumped into the singer-guitarist. Literally! Diddley noticed the TV camera, and pulled out an 8 X 10 photo, which he promptly autographed (with Murciano capturing the moment). He also wrote his phone number on the back, in the hope that we’d be interested in an interview. Well, of course!

(Autographed by Bo Diddley at the Gainesville Airport. Click the image to view it full size.)

We had a little time before our appointment at the prison, so we had breakfast in Waldo, Florida, and checked out a thrift store or two. We noticed a yard sale going on near the prison, so we stopped there too -- just long enough for Giselle to buy a pulp paperback for 10 cents. Its name? Ravaged. Giselle thought it would be fun to read us some of the steamier passages from the book, using her best breathy, orgasmic voice. This went on while driving, while waiting at the prison, and even on the plane ride home. She had us in stitches!

To me, Giselle Fernandez was a blast to work with. Some people at the station disliked her, because she could get bossy, downright ornery, and could be a real prima donna. Those are just three reasons why I thought she was great! Do you think it was easy being a strong female journalist, two decades ago? Giselle knew what she wanted, and was always determined to get it. The two of us made an amazing team.

Finally, it was show time at Starke. Giselle put Ravaged away, and we were led to a special area. There we met the “monster". He did not have horns or a long tail. He was just a man. Model prisoner Fuster was now using the surname Escalona, further distancing himself from his infamy. For hours, he professed his innocence, outlining every hole in the case that it was humanly possible to find. He was SO convincing that Giselle promised to research his claims, and possibly help him, should she find that his story checked out. I do not know if Fuster did the things that Janet Reno’s office, his own son, and several kids in his care accused him of doing. I do know from personal experience how convincing child molesters can be. I was a victim of sexual abuse when I was a young teen, and no one believed me at the time. After all, the hospital worker that attacked me was “such a sweet man who would never do anything like that”. I’m still surprised I was able to carry on a rational conversation with Fuster, and even shake his hand. Guess it was just the journalist in me, trying to do my objective best.

With Janet Reno constantly in the news throughout the 90s, it was only natural for the media to investigate one of her Miami office’s biggest victories. Even Frontline joined the “was Fuster railroaded” fray. Giselle Fernandez made some calls, and corresponded a few times with Fuster, but decided not to pursue his claims. His interview was not used in “Devil In Our Church?”, but instead aired separately, as an Action News update. Several hours of interviews were condensed into a two-minute piece that concentrated on the parts that made Fuster look scary and threatening. Yes, it was Fuster’s fault for uttering scary and threatening remarks, when he knew the cameras were rolling. It would have been irresponsible for us NOT to include that part of the interview, but it may have also been irresponsible for us to make that the focus of the piece. It made for compelling TV, which in that consultant-driven environment, really was the name of the game.

I was rarely paired with Giselle Fernandez during her final year at the station. We were just too strong together. I often was paired with unmotivated anchors or reporters, who needed a push to get the maximum out of our assigned news series. The Jeff and Giselle team did not like to take no for an answer, and could sometimes get insubordinate. Managers don’t like that. We would put a story together, and then tell our bosses that we did so. It would have driven me up a wall, too, had I been a manager. But the thing is – our stories kicked butt. The topics were compelling, and Giselle’s on-camera style always made for great TV. I never enjoyed working with anybody as much as I liked working with Giselle. I even watched her on “Dancing with the Stars”, even though I despise that boring waste-of-time TV show.

(Click the image to view it full size)

When Giselle left Channel 6 in September 1991, I gave her a special present: a book. A dog-eared pulp paperback. It was Ravaged. I’d kept it.

As for Frank Fuster… well, he still maintains his innocence. You can’t help but wonder if his case might have turned out differently had he not shouted those words in court. The jury saw a scary, imposing figure, when he raised his voice and shouted “YOU ARE A LIAR!" Congressman Joe Wilson will have his jury, too: the voters of South Carolina. His judgment day will arrive soon enough.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CBS To The Rescue

We were incredulous. Sure, we’d heard the rumors that big bad CBS was going to buy our low-rated, signal-challenged independent TV station, but get real! They’d backed a winner in WTVJ Channel 4 for the past four decades, but now NBC was buying Channel 4, changing everything. We’d all speculated on what could happen if we were actually taken over by the Columbia Broadcasting System, but few of us really believed it would happen. But it did! The announcement came down on 8-8-88. It may have appeared 8’s were wild that day, but for us, everything was coming up 6’s. The takeover would become official come the new year. The ant that thought he could move a rubber tree plant finally had more than just high hopes, as the new owners planned to spend money, make improvements, and do anything they could to justify their investment. Bring it on, we said. Make us a contender!

Who at Channel 6 wasn’t affected by the change? For some, it was time to move up. For others it meant moving out, as the network boys brought in lots of new blood. For me it meant a move to the new special projects unit, and a chance to produce specials, series, and what have you. Anything besides the newscast grind (although I still had to produce the Saturday and Sunday newscasts.) I had the “pleasure” of producing the first Saturday 6PM show in Channel 6’s history. Unfortunately it followed basketball, and the game ran long, which meant… Channel 6’s first accordion show! That’s when the show has to be sliced, diced, then sliced-and-diced some more (depending on how little time was left between the end of the game and the start of network news at 6:30 sharp). Just one of the fun new things we had to get used to. The change meant more newscasts, expanded coverage, and much higher expectations – all good things, especially when you consider what a busy first month it was: Overtown civil disturbances. Miami’s first Super Bowl in ten years. Ted Bundy’s execution. An influx of Nicaraguan refugees, enough to fill Bobby Maduro Stadium to capacity. The first George Bush’s inauguration. Whew, we were busy. But help was on the way. We had already stolen Al Sunshine away from WTVJ, and soon some shiny new anchors would join the team. By April, J.D. Roberts (now Fox’s John Roberts) was brought in from Canada to anchor the news with Barbara Sloan (sending Jim Dyer to the weekends). Giselle Fernandez joined the team the following month, followed a little while later by John Hambrick, who had been WTVJ’s star anchorman. The new anchors raised the bar even higher, and so did the new management team.

CBS brought in Jay Newman, who presented a blueprint that would be hard to follow – but we sure tried. Newman mandated that anchor tags follow every reporter package. Producers were not allowed to change anchors between stories, without an on-camera tag as a transition. Every block of news had to have a light “ender”, to set the mood before the tease that followed. And all teases had to have at least two pieces of video in them. Lofty goals. By March the station had hired Ron Tindiglia as our consultant, to further refine our newscasts and make more mandates. Some of us called Tindiglia “The Guru”, because of the way he would hold middle management spellbound through the years. Tindiglia’s word was like the word of God around that newsroom. Thou shalt write to video at all times!

That first year under CBS brought rapid changes to our humble newsroom. I spent part of January training our two newest producers, Brian Jones and Zahir Sachedina. I was supposed to be part of the special projects unit, but didn’t get a sniff of a news series until April. Sachedina’s ulcer, and Jones being thrown into an in-depth series about the Overtown disturbances (“A Search For Answers”) kept me tied to the producer’s desk for several extra weeks. During this time I became close friends with one of our new associate producers, Marty Hames. It was then that I learned that when it came to our new owners, there was way more than meets the eye.

Hames, it turns out, wasn’t just an A.P., and she wasn’t hired by our Miami management team like the rest of us writer/producer types. She was personally placed at our station by CBS honcho Eric Ober. By the time she was introduced to us, her ticket to stardom had already been punched. Unbeknownst to us, she was here to learn the ropes of writing, and the ins and outs of news, before being placed in an anchor’s position somewhere in the CBS empire. (There was even talk about renaming her Rosario Velasco, to capitalize on her mother’s Latin heritage.) It turns out there were other secret apprentices. Our new anchor hires were all seen as future stars, and Miami was pretty much just a stop along the way. Hey South Florida, don’t get too used to these folks! The anchor-as-celebrity was already germinating on our airwaves, and the old guard – the Jim Dyers – was being pushed aside. That’s show biz, as they say. And show biz, it was. J.D. Roberts and Giselle Fernandez were terrific anchors and personalities, but I doubt if WCIX ranks high on their resumes. But they would give us the visibility we needed to make the transition from afterthought in the Miami market, to a future player.

Just the way the network planned it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Credit Where It's Due

(Click image to view full size)

Once a week the folks behind The Ten O’Clock News would receive on-air recognition for their roles in making the newscast happen. As the Chyron operator (or “Super” Man), I often had to leap tall buildings in order to find out exactly who did what in a given week. Typing, and “rolling” the weekly credit roll was part of my responsibilities. I had to get it right (including spelling), or feel the wrath of whoever might have been left out.

The sheet above is one of the templates that I worked with. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that “film processing” was originally part of our credits. After we finally switched to tape in 1982, that antiquated credit finally went away. It was long overdue!

It’s fun to see all these names again. We really did have quite a team.

Up next: Mighty CBS purchases WCIX Channel 6.

They did what??

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A WCIX Reunion?

So who’s up for a Channel 6 reunion? Seriously! The old WTVJ Channel 4 gang held a reunion recently. So did folks from WFUN, WWOK, and other local radio stations, with a giant 70s & 80s South Florida radio reunion planned for October 24. So why not us?

Yeah, I know, it’s a logistical nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be. The WFUN reunion was pretty informal, renting out an area at Tony Roma’s and taking it over for an evening. Of course we’d need a nice video set-up to show old skit reels and a photo presentation. Too bad we don’t have any video professionals to facilitate that. Just kidding, guys. Of course it can be done. If we could air instant specials on a wing and a prayer, and a newscast night after night with skeleton staffs, we can pull off a reunion of the hardest-working team in showbiz. Or was it the lowest-paid team in South Florida television? Yeah, that’s it. Five percent, pass it on!

How would this work? Would the 60s & 70s team feel comfortable with the 80s & 90s guys? I think so. Would the stories about Brickell bore the Doralites, or is it all meat on the same bone? What would be the cut-off? Would we exclude WFOR newbies, or throw it open to everyone? I don’t have the answers, but these are some of the questions. What else would need to be worked out in order to make this a reality?

Should this happen, I would be glad to help publicize the event and pass along information, but since I no longer live in South Florida, I do not see myself being part of the organizing committee. Others would need to take the ball and run with it. I can tell you that behind the scenes of this blog, the number one question I’m asked is “any chance of a reunion?” People want this! The question is, do you want it badly enough to help out and make it a reality? I know of folks who are willing to travel from all over the country to attend such a reunion, but where do we go from here?

Please leave comments and let me know what you think. Do it here, on this post. If you contact me via e-mail or Facebook, there’s a chance your message could be lost somewhere down the line. Send this link to your Channel 6 pals, and let them chime in as well. In the immortal words of former executive producer Jeanne Antol-Krull: “GET GOING!”

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Behind The Scenes at The Ten O’Clock News

Here's a rare look inside the old Channel 6 newsroom, in that funny old round building on Brickell Avenue. The on-camera dude is sports anchor Andy Leopold, who conducted these impromptu interviews for our annual Christmas skit reel, back in December 1983. Appearing on-camera are anchor Barbara Sloan (who didn't feel like talking to Andy), videotape editor Gary Slawitschka, director Curtis Bivins, assignment editor (and future author) Jan Hollingsworth, and reporter Amanda Moss. Look carefully and you can spot producer Mike Villafana at the typewriter, and there are even brief shots of yours truly walking in and out of the newsroom while Andy is speaking with Amanda.

A few more points about this video:

1. Notice that custodian Guy Thompson is holding the album cover for The Brickell Hillbillies. We had just finished shooting the portion of that skit reel segment where the album cover is thrown in the trash.
2. Barbara Sloan had an office in those days. When Larry Lyle hired Lemar Wooley as his assistant news director, he took it away from Sloan and gave it to Wooley.
3. Hollingsworth, Slawitschka, and Villafana all left the station the following year. Moss and Bivins weren’t too far behind. Andy Leopold’s contract was not renewed in 1985, right around the time of our move to what is now Doral.
4. We sure had a lot of fun then!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Lyle File, Part 3

Note: This is the final part of a trilogy about my experiences with former WCIX news director Larry Lyle. It might be a good idea to read the previous two entries before diving into this one.

I guess it wasn’t completely accurate to say I worked 70 straight nights, since it was actually 69 out of 70 (counting my “sick day”). But finally… finally… Rob Puglisi was brought in as the main news producer. Finally, I could concentrate on producing weekend shows only, along with the public affairs program Newsday and Gail Anderson’s Troubleshooter segment. Puglisi was the perfect choice for a Lyle-run newsroom – a “don’t worry be happy” sort of guy, who always claimed he was having a good day, and who has always “never been better”. Puglisi would allow himself to be a punching bag for grouchy reporters, moody anchors, and of course, Larry Lyle. Rob, was I ever happy to see YOU!

My tolerance for Lyle’s mood swings continued to grow shorter. At the same time, he gave us few resources for the weekend show. There was me (producer); Gail Anderson (anchor); Amanda Moss (reporter); Tim Woodberry (photographer); and Woody Woodriffe (tape editor & Chyron operator). That was it for the Saturday and Sunday news staff. Lyle further tied our hands when he decided that Amanda Moss – our sole reporter – would no longer be permitted to do stand-ups in her reporter packages! And then he decided that she would do two packages a day, both without stand-ups!

With no one on the assignment desk, we missed all the spot news that occurred after Moss and Woodberry hit the streets, and before I arrived for the day. Even with the police scanner turned way up high, I still missed a lot, with all the other stuff I had to do. It got so bad that Gail Anderson hired local tipsters Bob & Carolyn Sherman, and paid for their services herself! Imagine that – an anchor having to hire tipsters, just so we wouldn’t look foolish by missing so many stories!

One way Lyle kept control was by secretly pitting employees against one another. He told me to keep an eye on Gail Anderson, and to make sure she didn’t overstep her boundaries. It turns out he also told Anderson to watch me, and gave her authority to overrule decisions I had made. So that begs the question of who can overrule whom? Fortunately Gail and I were usually on the same page, and were constantly amazed at our news director’s shenanigans.

In time, Lyle brought in Eric Seidel, and later Lynn Kubik, to watch the assignment desk. But the deeper problems weren’t resolved. Not by a long shot.

We became the laughing stock of this news market when Lyle decided we would no longer cover spot news. Instead, we would make our name with special assignment reports and enterprise stories. If there was a major fire, he didn’t care about the nuts and bolts of the story. Our focus had to be how the firefighters felt, when they entered the burning building. How did the police feel when they investigated the murder? It was touchy-feely news, without any meat at all! (I agree that special assignment reports and enterprise stories are extremely important. They help make a newscast distinctive, and done right, can help a station stand shoulders above the competition. But their purpose is to compliment the news of the day, not to replace it. That was a huge miscalculation on Lyle’s part).

Larry Lyle was the news director when WCIX made its move from Brickell Avenue to Doral, in September 1985. Just weeks after the move, we were soundly beaten by the competition on election night. Lyle flew into a rage, and slammed the door against the wall of our brand new newsroom, putting a big gash in it. He seemed to go through the motions in the two months that followed, until finally, on December 4, 1985, Larry Lyle was ousted. Assistant news director Lemar Wooley would replace him, temporarily, until Larry #3 – former assignment editor Larry Wallenstein – took over, restoring some of the morale that was lost, and guiding us through the end of our time as an independent station.

(Click image to view it full size)

We knew Lyle was a secretive man, and that the turmoil we saw at work was a reflection of a tortured soul who could never really accept himself. Yet it’s never easy being on the receiving end of that misplaced anger. I could cite many more examples of what life was like during his reign, but you get the picture. Those were some difficult years.

Lyle’s turmoil ended in December 1992, when he died in Indiana of AIDS-related complications. He was only 41.

I bear no grudges against Larry Lyle, though I did at one time. I used to blame him for turning me against newscast producing. It was during my marathon producing session that I became dependent on sleeping pills, so I blamed him for that, too. But that’s not fair. I take full responsibility for my addiction. (I’ve been drug-free for more than four years now, after a 21-year-long sleeping pill dependency. It feels great to say that.)

Under Larry Lyle’s watch, Channel 6 switched from a single-anchor to a dual-anchor, began to produce live specials, put a new emphasis on investigative reports, and went back to doing local news seven days a week. We also lost some amazingly-talented people, through his inconsistent policies, his mood swings, and occasional divisiveness. The newsroom went through radical changes during his time. By the time Larry Wallenstein returned in January 1986, it was a completely different place. And a completely different Larry. Once again, it was time to move forward.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Weak-A-Go-Go: The Lyle File, Part 2

“The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.”

Outgoing producer Mike Villafana spoke those words one night, after yet another rough installment of The Ten O’Clock News. The emperor was our supervisor, our boss, our intrepid news director, Larry Lyle. Villafana, as the man in the hot seat most nights, knew something I was about to discover: there was unresolved trauma, unresolved anger, and unresolved rage behind the boss man’s smile.

As a yet-untested punk kid producer, I was anxious to sit in that hot seat and show Larry Lyle, my colleagues, and all of South Florida what I could do! When Villafana split in March 1984, I got my chance. I was one happy camper. At that point, I was the only news producer on staff, and would remain so until Lyle hired Villafana’s replacement. The problem is, Lyle took his time. Two-and-a-half months! And that meant being asked to work 70 straight days! Yes, you read that right: 70 straight days!

Soon, the honeymoon was over. Solon Gray came aboard as co-anchor in April, joining Barbara Sloan behind the anchor desk. Give credit to Lyle for recognizing that co-anchors were the wave of the present and future, and it was about time we joined the club. But for me, a still-inexperienced producer, it created a new set of challenges. Lyle offered no insight into how to stack a show for two anchors. He would approve the nightly rundown before leaving for the day, only to criticize that same rundown the following morning (after having the luxury of having watched the finished product). Now THAT’S fair!

I’m not saying I can’t take criticism, especially the constructive kind. The problem was how it was dished out: hit and run style. Lyle loved to write critiques. Instead of calling someone in to his office, and offering something constructive, he would post his daily diatribe on the bulletin board, for everybody to see. He’d tell me certain ideas were, quote, “weak-a-go-go” after the fact, when he was the one who signed off on them just hours before news time. We literally couldn’t win.

One day he would insist that we stop using file film/video in stories. A week later he would ask why we didn't use file! The contradictions were staggering!

May 18, 1984: Lyle writes “Why use the B&W photo of Dorr? Freeze the court video”.
Just three days later, he wrote “DON’T FREEZE VIDEO!
Make up your mind, sir!

But that’s just the beginning.

To freeze or not to freeze? It all depended on Lyle's mood. Click images to view them full size.

File video is bad... on that particular day. I can't seem to locate the critique in which he asked why we DIDN'T use file, but it exists.

Around this time, assignment editor Jan Hollingworth and anchor Barbara Sloan were investigating allegations of child abuse in our community: one at a Miami Beach temple, and the other at a day care center in Country Walk. Hollingsworth, in particular, worked long, hard hours on her investigation, only to have Lyle put the kibosh on it. A few weeks later we heard a tease on one of the other channels, about a child abuse case involving a man named Francisco Fuster Escalona. He and his teenage bride were operating a day care center in the Country Walk subdivision, and one by one, kids were coming forth were allegations of abuse. It was Hollingworth and Sloan’s investigation, which Lyle refused to air, now being “broken” by one of our rivals! If you were around at the time, you know what happened. The Fuster case became the biggest story of the summer. Soon, Larry Lyle started demanding that we do more with this story – the same man who refused to air it in the first place! Hollingsworth left the station shortly after, and went on to write a very successful book about the Fuster case. That book, Unspeakable Acts, was even turned into a movie. It was not one of WCIX’s prouder moments.

Larry’s wishy-washy policies and passive-aggressive critiques were really starting to get to me. Remember that 70-day producing marathon? Well, this punk kid producer who couldn’t wait to sit on the hot seat was starting to suffer from exhaustion – both physical and mental. I needed a day off, and needed it badly! One day in May, after two months without a day off, we aired a special assignment report on the Broward school system. There was something in the report that angered several high-level county politicians, who called that night, demanding a retraction. It was my job to talk to each and every one of them, all the while trying to defend our report, all the while knowing that these savvy campaigners could eat me up when it came to their level of anger and passion about setting things straight. After more than an hour on the phone, following a tough night, which followed another tough night, which followed TWO MONTHS of tough nights… something had to give. I wasn’t sleeping, and instead of reaching for sleeping pills on occasion, I found myself needing them every night. I told Lyle that I desperately needed a day off. The problem is, Lyle had yet to replace Mike Villafana, and there was nobody else to do it. Sorry kid, tough break.

In a rare show of balls by yours truly, I called in sick the next day. I knew that put Lyle in a bind, but how much blood can one person give without being bled dry? Lyle, who was not a hands-on news director, had no choice but to produce the show himself.

How did it go? It couldn’t have been a smoother or easier show. Of course! Everyone was on their best behavior, and everybody made sure they gave 110 percent with the boss in charge. The next day Lyle said to me, “see, it’s not so hard, so quit your complaining”. From that point on, I held just about everything inside – not a healthy thing to do, but Lyle didn’t want to hear it. Just smile and take it. Hey, guess what? I don’t love producing, after all. I HATE IT! That’s what Larry Lyle did at Channel 6: he took love, and turned it into hate. He took peace, and turned it into war. He took his own festering self-hatred and projected it onto his staff. (I’m not going to get into any details about Lyle’s personal life, but things were not the way they appeared. Let’s just leave it at that.)

I’ll wrap up my look at this complicated, confused, and quite confounding man the next time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Lyle File, Part 1

They say it’s not nice to say bad things about the dead. Yet I can’t talk about Larry #2 without presenting both sides of his highly-complex personality.

What a nice guy, with a big, big smile.

What a two-faced, divisive #@&*!

This is not going to be an easy post to write.

It will probably be best to break this down into more than one part. In this installment, I want to concentrate on Larry Lyle’s good points. I want to tell you how he was the first manager at the station to see my potential. How he moved the station forward. How he cared about both our content and presentation. How he made some really good hires.

But I warn you: the other side has to come out, too. Not because bashing the man gives me any pleasure, but because of things that happened under his watch, things that played a big role in WCIX’s history.

First, a little background. Long-time Channel 6 news director Dick Descutner was fired on July 22, 1983. News directors generally get shown the door when new owners come in, and in this case it was Taft Broadcasting that decided to inject some new blood into the operation.

Station management had been planning the move for a while. Lyle, who was the assistant news director at WTSP in Tampa, had made a couple of trips to Miami to meet with general manager Harvey Cohen. Six candidates vied for the job, but Lyle had the inside track. He’d already served as assistant news director at the Taft station in Birmingham, so he was a known quantity. Lyle also spent time at the pre-WSVN Channel 7 in Miami, so he knew this unique market. Sort of. South Florida had changed radically in the nine years since Lyle’s Miami days, something it took him a long, long time to realize. Lyle accepted the WCIX news director job on July 21, 1983, and began his 2 ½ year reign on August 10. He started off with a bang.

“Taft is committed to do news, and wants to improve the quality substantially,” Lyle told the Miami Herald. “They’re prepared to spend the money. A lot of changes are going to happen.”

One of those changes involved my role at the station. It took Lyle just one week to see what Descutner missed in more than three years: that I had potential beyond just being a Chyron operator and film archivist. Just one week into Lyle’s regime, he gave me a new title: associate producer. Well, it sounded good, but I still had to run the Chyron every night. Two weeks later (September 5) I started writing news cut-ins, and by October I was also producing the Community Close-Up news segments. In November the challenge was to produce a live debate between Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre and challenger Xavier Suarez. (Mayor Ferre lost his Rolex watch that night, and we turned the station upside down, trying to find it!) In December I worked with Mayco Villafana in putting some news shows together, and when Villafana went on vacation on January 2, 1984 (the night the University Of Miami won the national championship, at the Orange Bowl), I made my solo producing debut. Air Florida’s troubles dominated the news that week, which gave me several easy-to-decide leads. That first week went well, and in short time, I had made the leap to “producer”. There to offer support and congratulations was Larry Lyle. I thought he was a great guy. I thought I was going to love producing the news. Yeah, right.

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I don’t know a lot of what went on behind the scenes. I don’t know what pressures Lyle faced or why he went on do some of the things he later did. I do know the way I viewed producing the news was being shaped by his words, his memos, his critiques, and his actions. I watched him slowly torpedo the improved morale around the newsroom, for reasons that I’ll probably never understand. The man with the big smile who seemed to really care about The Ten O’Clock News was living a secret life, and bringing those demons to the office with him. I would truly love to tell his story without recalling any of those demons, but I can’t honestly tell his story… or mine… without presenting some of the rough stuff. So bear with me. There is more to come.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Trading Barbs

If there’s anybody who ought to master the art of plain talk, and expressing oneself clearly without bias or double speak, it should be a television broadcaster. If anyone should be able to deliver facts without prejudice, code, or sleight of hand, it should be the folks whose job it is to serve the public good, especially the higher-ups that determine who will gather and deliver the news that affects each and every one of us.

Ha ha ha! I make myself laugh!

I had one general manager who said he’d rather see us report a malfunctioning traffic light in Opa-Locka than ANYTHING pertaining to Africa. Yes, a total ban on Africa, a place that he claimed “nobody cared about”. Idi Amin’s reign of terror? Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid? Not for us! Libya’s leader is threatening to kill Americans, a promise he would keep? Sorry, but hey, I hear there’s an abandoned warehouse on fire somewhere in Hialeah!

(The running joke was “how many starving children have to die in Ethiopia before it makes the news?” Our guess was at least two million.)

One news director loved to point out that “only Cubans” cared about many of the stories we suggested. She would refer to Spanish-speaking as “locka locka locka”, and didn’t seem to grasp why big local sports stories sometimes became the top story of the day. All I can say to that is “locka locka locka, locka locka locka, locka locka locka…”

Double speak sometimes reigned behind the scenes, in the comings-and-goings of the station. Case in point: the departure of Barbara Sloan, one of the classiest people in the business. The 13-year veteran of WCIX and WFOR left for vacation, a few weeks before Christmas 1995. While away, she suddenly decided to pursue other opportunities – or at least that’s what everyone was told. Pay close attention to the date on this memo from general manager Allen Shaklan.

Click images to view them full screen

So in the days leading up to December 13, 1995, this “tireless worker who truly cared for the people in her stories” supposedly decided to move on. That means she would have informed the station of her intentions, and they would then have to search for a replacement anchor, negotiate with that replacement, draft a contract, and officially bring her aboard. Could Shaklan have been overly optimistic when he wrote “a replacement will be named shortly”?

Now fast forward 24 hours. Just one day later – ONE DAY! – came this memo from news director Neil Goldstein.

That was fast! A replacement anchor was found and contacted. Terms were negotiated, and agreed to. She accepted the job, and told her station in Denver she was leaving. What a difference a day makes!

Clearly, the official version of events, and the reality of the situation were two different things. Everybody knew it – especially after a Miami Herald columnist spoke to several of Sloan’s “colleagues” (no, I wasn’t one of them). The station wanted a faster-paced, “sexier” newscast, so her contract wasn’t renewed. It’s a tough business for women in their 40s. A good investigative reporter can stick around for a long time, but a lead anchor has to fit some preconceived, superficial mold. Things have only gotten worse in the 13-plus years since Sloan “left to pursue other opportunities”.

This is not a knock in any way on Anne Roberts. She did a fine job as Sloan’s replacement, and I enjoyed working with her. It’s also not meant as a knock on Allen Shaklan, who held that ship together through some very difficult times. The knock is on the game that managers play. It’s an insult to any intelligent person, yet I understand that’s the way it goes in business. And yes, news is a business. It’s not about reality. It’s all about illusions.

Congratulations to Barbara Sloan and Don Cox for raising two children, both now college-age. Kudos to Sloan for continuing to do production work, while also teaching high school English. For much more on Barbara Sloan’s thirteen years behind the anchor desk, please check out this link.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Mail Bag

All bloggers say the same thing: we write for ourselves, and any response we get from the public is simply icing on the cake. And yes, that’s basically true, but not 100 percent honest. If we were simply writerbating, we’d put our words in a journal, not up on the internet, where there are robots and spiders and crawly things finding our links, devouring our words like some crazed Pac-Mac, and indexing our thoughts for the world to discover. The truth is bloggers love attention, even those who believe that they couldn’t care less. And they love comments! Even someone’s gibberish feels better than staring at the dreaded “0 Comments” link, which translated means, “this post is about as popular as a Sunday morning public affairs show”.

87.3 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot, including the next one. So take it with a grain of salt when I tell you for every person who leaves a comment, there are more than 200 visitors who don’t. I’m not going to count the visits to get an exact figure, but trust me, the number is high. (Did you know 100 percent of the comments that are left on blogs are made up on the spot? I didn’t make THAT one up!)

I figured it would be fun to share some of the e-mail that’s come my way in the months since this blog began. I’ve taken out any personal-type stuff that shouldn’t be shared in a place where creepy-crawly spiders dwell. If you see a part of your e-mail here, and would like for me to take it down, just ask. And if you’d like to be part of the 0.5% that actually leaves a comment on a blog, please do. Not that I’m actively soliciting a response – nah, would I do that??

“Jeff, Mac MacDonald sent your blog to me and I could not believe it. Having been Ted Adams' assistant and then Program Director at WCIX brought back a lot of memories. In fact, I worked at WDZL and Big Wilson worked for me over there.

I am now retired and living in the Sebastian, FL area and all I do now is travel a lot and enjoy myself.

Ted Adams (General Manager) passed away several years ago but I still keep in contact with Al Tanger who was the VP at General Cinema and whom we reported to. Dick Descutner is living in Stuart and running a little antique shop.

It was fun reading your blog and if you get a chance, let me know what is going on with some of the other former WCIXers.”

Barbara Smith

“Hi Jeff--

I stumbled upon your WCIX blog and had a fabulous trip down memory lane reading it. Thanks for taking the time to do a superb job of chronicling those magic days.

I'm retired now, enjoying a slower, yet more in-depth pace of life back in Mississippi, my home state. I sure miss the old gang and all the times we had. I'll never forget that chapter of our lives.

Hope you're well, and that our paths cross again someday.”

Larry Klaas

“I have become the most faithful reader of your WCIX blog. I wasn't, of course, around for the round building days; but it all makes for fascinating reading. And you sir--well, you're the Library of Congress of TV clip archivists! I salute you!”
Paul Stueber

“You had to go posting videos up, didn't you?!?! Don't you know we old folks just can't NOT watch the old videos, it's impossible. So of course, I had to watch, taking up all that valuable time I should be devoting to work. But NOOOOOO, Jeff has to take me down memory lane!! Laughing all the way!!!

God we were good! That old building was magic. Keep 'em coming.”

Glo MacDonald

I will. I like how this site has helped bring so many old friends together. Who knows – perhaps we might actually have a for-real reunion one of these days. Now wouldn’t THAT be something?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Too True To Be Good

This cartoon is from the 90s, but I think it's just as relevant today as it was back then. Click on the image to view it full size.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Say Seven?

Talk about going from one extreme to another! Before becoming the vanguard in slash-and-trash, if-it-bleeds-it-leads TV (ahem) “journalism”, WSVN (Channel 7 in Miami) was the tortoise/caboose/horse and buggy of local TV news. It was the old-fashioned, slower-paced, no-need-to-shout voice in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market. It was, to today’s “standards”, boring at times, but refreshing in several more important ways.

The Great Channel Swap of January 1, 1989 changed all that. With the station losing its NBC affiliation to WTVJ Channel 4 (which lost its CBS affiliation to our beloved WCIX Channel 6), long-time owner Ed Ansin had a choice: show old movies and tons of reruns, and go further back into the past… or reinvent the station as a sleazy mini-CNN, pushing the envelope at every opportunity to do so. We all know which path he chose.

Ansin had already hired general manager Joel Cheatwood a year or so earlier, so he had the right man to lead the charge. Cheatwood and news director Mark Toney turned Sally Fitz and Penny Daniels from even-keeled anchors into hyperbolic Chicken Littles; they turned the news area into the larger-than-life Newsplex; they turned every mundane police perimeter into some scary, better-lock-your-doors clarion call of doom (with Rick Sanchez proving the perfect person to spread hype and hysteria, through his amazing Crime Check segments). It was a freak show that every other news operation in town looked upon with equal amounts of scorn and envy. Scorn, because it violated every journalistic instinct. Envy, because all TV news people want to report stories that are larger-than-life… and every story that came out of the Newsplex was made to seem that way. And damn if the viewing audience didn’t eat it up. Oh my God, there’s a robber on the loose! And he’s heading this way!

(Breathless Sally and Frenetic Rick)

The videos that follow are from that moment in time before WSVN’s transition. They had started to loosen up a bit, but the Freak Show had not yet begun. Several past and future WCIX employees can be seen in this blooper reel, including Bob Soper, Jill Beach, Susan Candiotti (who didn’t even work for Channel 7!), and Mike Mason. There’s even a spoof of former Channel 6 Night Owl Movies host Big Wilson… plus then-Governor Bob Graham’s comedy debut. Don’t quit your day job, Senator! This is a rare glimpse into a time when the Three Stooges weren’t named Rick, Sally, and Penny. I hope this brings a big smile to your face.

(Look for Steve Rondinaro, Sally Fitz, Mark Wolin, Dave Willingham, Bob Soper, Bob Gilmartin, Stephanie Stahl, Steve Dawson, Denise White, Jill Beach, Wayne Fariss, Rick Sanchez, Susan Candiotti, Tom Brokaw, George Waldroup, Mike Mason, and others.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Devastation... And Celebration

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My life changed on May 11, 1996.

One day I will talk at length about the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades. I will tell you about the way WFOR handled this horrible tragedy, and my role in that coverage. I will tell you what went through my mind, our reporters’ minds, and our bosses' minds. I will tell you why I was compelled to visit the ValuJet memorial in the Everglades, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. One day I will, but right now I’m not ready. This one still hurts, in more ways than one.

I do want to mention the remarkable dichotomy that was South Florida thirteen years ago today. On one side of town – the Everglades – family members gathered to ask how an airplane can simply disappear.
Disintegrate… into nothing. They asked police, reporters, cameramen, ANYONE, for information that just wasn’t there. And all around was this feeling of HELPLESSNESS. Nothing we could say, or do, could ease anyone’s minds. Nothing could change a thing. Flight 592 was lost, and out in the swamps that day, so was everybody. It was horrible, to say the least.

Twenty miles away, at what was then known as Joe Robbie Stadium, lefty Al Leiter was making history. After seven innings… make that eight innings… he was pitching a no hitter. One of our sports anchors (either Jim Berry or Joe Zagacki) made us aware of that fact, and as cool as the team’s first no hitter would be, we were secretly hoping he’d blow it. After all, how would we report it, without seeming insensitive to 110 lost souls? One out in the ninth! The crowd is on its feet, cheering. Two outs! While in the Everglades, pitch darkness. No news. No hope. Three outs! He did it! Al Leiter has pitched a no hitter for the Florida Marlins! Celebrate good times, come on! Ya-hoo!

In Joe Robbie Stadium, EUPHORIA! Out in the Everglades… desolation. Devastation.

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If Al Leiter showed us anything that night, it’s that life goes on. It always does. But what a contrast.

There were hundreds of compelling stories in South Florida that day, that week. One of them was playing out, behind the scenes, at WFOR. On this, the anniversary of the ValuJet crash, I’m not going to dwell on the newsroom melodrama, or the many mistakes we made. I’ll get to that some day. Today I want to remember the 110 people who never made it to Atlanta that day. I want to remember the good folks that worked for ValuJet, oblivious to the practices of the airline (and its maintenance contractor) that resulted in combustible oxygen generators being placed in the cargo hold that day. I want to remember the face of one boy who lost his mother, and wondered aloud, ten years later, how different his life could have been. I want to recall the rescuer who broke down in tears, still traumatized by the helplessness he felt. And I want to invite you to join the Facebook group “Remembering ValuJet Flight 592” that I started a few months ago, not just for the loved ones of the victims, but for my own healing as well.

If you get a chance, visit the Flight 592 Memorial, off the Tamiami Trail. Be sure to bring some tissues.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dave's Not Here!

Dave Levine was a presence in the WCIX newsroom.

The words “Levine wrap” would bring trepidation to videotape editors. Chyron operators shuddered, when Dave would mention that he needed “pre-pro”. Apparently Dave didn’t get the memo that this was Channel 6, a place where reporters sometimes mailed it in. “Levine wraps” were production numbers, the way good reporter packages ought to be. Yeah, they were a pain in the ass to produce, but they were thorough. It was never spoken or officially pointed out, but everyone knew Dave Levine was our number one reporter. It was a distinction that he earned.

Few people remember this, but for two weeks in 1984, Levine was part of our first-ever co-anchor team. Barbara Sloan was on vacation, and Solon Gray had yet to be hired. With everyone else in town having gone to co-anchor teams, then-news director Larry Lyle decided to experiment, pairing Levine with Amanda Moss. The experiment went well, and a few months later, Gray was hired to share the anchor desk with Barbara Sloan. But it was the Levine-Moss team, together for just ten nights, which set the groundwork.

Dave Levine (right), with future wife Kathy Sciere (center), and former WNWS reporter Cori Zywotow (left). Click photo to enlarge it.

When Dave bolted for New York in 1985, it was big news at the station, and in the entire South Florida news market. Several members of the news department volunteered their time to produce the following farewell video, shown just once at Levine’s going-away party. While some of these outtakes had been seen in earlier news blooper reels, many others were created just for the occasion. Mixed in with the Channel 6 employees are a few friends (and well-chosen strangers) from the, ahem, competition. The video is more than twelve minutes long, which is why it’s in two parts. I feel it is well worth watching for all the old faces you’ll see, along with South Florida landmarks from 25 years ago.

Watch for Gail Anderson, Mike Medrano, Joyce Evans, John Turchin, Rod Meloni, Bill Retherford, Jay Burton, Jill Lovell, Solon Gray, George Buigas, Jay Held, Ralph Renick, Mark Jones (WTVJ), Barbara Sloan, Ed O’Dell (WTVJ), Marianne Murciano, Mike Mason, Jim Hutton (Miami-Dade police spokesman), Glo MacDonald, Ron Laffin, Renee Hagen, Dave Game, Andy Leopold, Fess Major, Dan Slade, Tim Woodberry, Mike Bradley, Nelson Milton, Gilberto Sarmiento, Carlos Lima, Elliott Troshinsky, Tere Halls, Maria Hernandez, Liz Moore, and lots more old faces. I’m on there too, spoofing Levine’s “Viva Cuba Libre” routine from an earlier skit reel. Fun times.

WARNING: There are sexual situations, brief nudity, and many four-letter words on here. If you’re easily offended, keep on reading, but don’t click the magic arrows.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Essential Credentials

Like J. Alfred Prufrock, measuring out his life with coffee spoons, TV journalists measure out their lives in press credentials, resume tapes, and war stories. I’ve already shared some tapes and war stories, so I guess it’s time to break out the you-know-what’s. As the mythical Prufrock once said, “let us go and make our visit”.

I have to admit these are fun to peruse—especially the ones with embarrassing or corny pictures on them. Here are a few that reflect some big events, not only in WCIX’s history, but also South Florida’s.

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My first WCIX press credential, shortly after I made the move from electronic graphics to producing. Between a marathon stretch of shows, and producing Troubleshooter for Gail (Gayle) Anderson, I didn’t get to use this one very much.

The Pope’s visit to South Florida was a total clusterf@ck, and I’m not just talking about the media circus. Traffic in the Westchester and Doral areas was rerouted, and it took me more than an hour to drive the 4.6 miles to the station. We sure could have used a chopper in those days.

This pass got me into the parking lot and the stands for the 1990 FedEx Orange Bowl. After getting all the soundbites and B-roll that we needed, sports reporter John Deutzman managed to score a few cheap tickets from a desperate scalper. So we very quietly, and without anyone knowing (shhh!) sat down and watched part of the big game, which turned out to be a real snoozer. Come on, guys, let’s see some offense! Soon it was time to head back to the truck for our 11PM live shot. No one was the wiser.

I didn’t get to witness Nelson Mandela’s visit to South Florida. Instead, I stayed behind to produce a 15 minute instant special. I sure produced a lot of instant specials in those days! In typical Miami fashion, the headline was Mayor Xavier Suarez’s snub of the South African leader, who had refused to condemn Cuba’s human rights record. Several other Cuban-American mayors, and some local business leaders, also joined in the snub, which ultimately wound up costing the city a lot of $$ in lost convention business.

Thirty four world leaders gathered in Miami for the first Summit of the Americas, but once again, the headline became who WASN’T there: Cuban leader Fidel Castro. To this day, practically no one in Miami can tell you a thing about the summit or what it accomplished. All they remember is Fidel being told he wasn’t welcome!

This next credential has nothing to do with the old Channel 6, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s certainly the most colorful.

Whoa, baby! No one messes with The Blue Lakes Bugle -- my first reporter gig, with my elementary school newspaper. Even then I wanted to write about rock ‘n roll, but the teachers and advisers were gonna raise a fuss and gonna raise a holler. So I stuck to writing about the PTA, science projects, and not-so-burning issues. Jimmy Olsen had nothing on me!

Or as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock pondered, “Would it have been worth it, after all?”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gone But Not Forgotten

The very shocking (and very sudden) death of Ernest Lester last week brought up lots of emotions in me. The long-time WFOR live truck operator was killed in a motorcycle accident on Saturday, April 11. Immediately I thought of the people I worked with at the old Channel 6 (WCIX) who are no longer with us. I realized there is no place on the web to remember their lives, and what they meant to us. That’s not right. Consider this a space to reflect, to remember, and to pay your respects to these old friends and co-workers.

General Manager
January 6, 2000

November 2017

Electronic Graphics

Videotape Editor
December 2001

April 9, 1996

(Jerry Fisher in September 1982. Click to view larger images)

Reporter/Internet Operations Manager
February 5, 2013

January 12, 2012

Desk Assistant
September 6, 1983

"Duck Duck Goose" Co-host
December 27, 2012

September 10, 2013

Videotape Editor

Special Projects Manager
August 3, 2010

April 24, 2012

Creature Feature Movie Host
October 28, 2005

(Rick Johnson as Bwana Johnny)

News Producer
August 10, 1982

(Charles Kappes)

Assignment Editor/Weatherman
August 1999

(Frank Lasko, circa 1980. Thanks to Mike Mason "The Chief")

News Producer
June 9, 2011

News Director
December 1992

(Larry Lyle)

News Anchor
January 23, 2010

(Ken Matz)

Mail and Shipping Room
February 1, 1998

(Nelson Milton)

General Manager

News Associate Producer
January 1993

(James Mullins, second from the left, in February 1992)

"To The Point" Co-host

Videotape Editor
August 1990


July 11, 1991

(Ralph Renick, just prior to his move to WCIX)

News Anchor
May 19, 1999

Prescott Robinson, with then-WNWS producer (and future Mrs. Dave Levine) Kathy Sciere.

October 28, 2003

(Cy Russell during his time as general manager of WWOK. Thanks to Pat Appleson Productions)


April 2014

Entertainment Editor
February 4, 1998

News Director
December 25, 2012

Night Owl Movies Host
October 5, 1989

(Malcolm John "Big" Wilson)

Chief Engineer
May 9, 2010

Football Prognosticator
May 15, 2015

Movie Host
January 2006

(Chuck Zink in his Skipper Chuck days)

I know I’m missing dozens of people, particularly those who worked at the station in the 60s and 70s (before my time). If you’d like to pay tribute to someone that I left out, please click on the comments link, and let your voice be heard.