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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sloan Alone

She didn’t even apply for the job! A few on-air lines on someone else’s audition tape were all the brain trust at Channel 6 news needed to see. When Dick Descutner phoned WFBC news anchor Barbara Sloan and asked her if she’d be interested in a job--solo anchor on the station’s prime time newscast—it was quite a surprise! But not so fast. If she were to say yes, certain assurances on the station’s part would need to be met. If she were to say yes, it would also mean anchor Larry Klaas would be told his services were no longer needed.

Location was a big plus. Sloan had already served time at WPTV in West Palm Beach, so she had some understanding of the area. The chance to move from Greenville, South Carolina to a top 15 market was certainly another plus. With the station agreeing to a 3-year contract (a rarity at WCIX) and agreeing to let Sloan pursue human interest stories, it became official. Klaas was dismissed; Sloan was in.

After three weeks of working the streets, and familiarizing herself with the station and its philosophies, Barbara Sloan made her solo anchor debut on the night of October 18, 1982. In a Miami Herald review, critic Sandra Earley wrote “Sloan delivered the news straight and clearly, and with a measure of authority. Sloan can go the distance.” It was a very good start.

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Sloan and I immediately became good friends, and even dated a few times. She accompanied me to the station Christmas party that year, where it was clear that many at the station—particularly those who worked in other departments—still did not know what to make of the new anchorwoman. A silly mock news promo that I produced for the occasion helped show those in attendance that the new hire, so serious on the air, had a very good sense of humor. (Sloan at first was apprehensive about us showing this piece, at one point asking, mockingly, “Why is that woman shouting?”) But it worked.

Sometime during the party, Lee Bookman pulled me aside, concerned about the news blooper (and commentary) piece he had produced. It was set to the tune of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”, and Bookman had used video of Sloan for the line about the “bubble-headed bleach-blonde”. He was concerned that she’d get angry, or feel disrespected. Sloan just laughed along with the joke. After just two months at the station, people were now getting a sense that the new hire wasn’t just a quality anchor, but a quality person as well, with a warm and funny side.

Sloan would be tested time after time. She was thrown into the center of our Overtown riot coverage, in just her third month at the station. She had to give up a share of the anchor’s desk when Solon Gray came aboard in 1984. Gray would come and go, as would his replacement, and his replacement, and his replacement. And his replacement.* Through several ownership changes, a switch from independent to CBS ownership, and challenges galore, one thing remained constant at Channel 6 news. The woman who insisted on a 3-year-contract because she wanted job security, wound up spending more than thirteen years at the WCIX anchor desk. Such longevity should have made her a Miami legend, spoken of in the revered tones of an Ann Bishop or a Tony Segreto. But this is WCIX we’re talking about! With our tower located way down in the Redlands, away from heavily-populated areas, our ratings were always poor. If the people can’t watch, then the people can’t care!

Still, you would think with so much going for her that Sloan would have felt secure… or at least a little serene. But like everyone, she had her moments. Like everyone, she had her demons. Viewers didn’t know that this pretty young woman had her face reconstructed, after a terrible car crash during her college years. Sloan’s car hit a tree, while driving to Memphis on a rain-slicked road, and in her words, her “face caved in”. Months of pain and surgery followed. Sloan also suffered from anxiety, and at times could be a little tough to deal with. One time I went out to get interviews for a series we were working on and she scolded me afterwards because my “hairy arms” could be seen holding the microphone. Times like that are what help a young producer grow, and learn. Our first series together (the clumsily-titled “Speeding to Danger”) resulted in a Suncoast Regional Emmy award, but that wasn’t the real prize for me. My series-producing skills improved by leaps and bounds, thanks in part to Sloan’s high expectations, and yes, even her occasional insecurities.

For a time, Sloan lost her spot on the A-team. CBS brought in some of its own hires, including upcoming stars Giselle Fernandez, J.D. Roberts (now CNN’s John Roberts), and former WTVJ superstar anchor John Hambrick. When we produced a town hall meeting on the issue of abortion, Sloan was left off the main anchoring team, instead being relegated to off-site, peripheral reporting. But to be fair, she was a damn good reporter, and it could be argued those decisions were based on strengths, not weaknesses. Whatever.

Barbara Sloan’s time at the station finally came to an end, when her contract wasn't renewed just before Christmas 1995. Up until then she’d survived challenges from younger, more glamorous reporters, but… I hate to say this… most TV news honchos think a female anchor is over the hill, as she approaches her mid-40s. Ann Bishop was clearly an exception, but this market has certainly changed a lot since her heyday. No one ever came close to anchoring the news on WCIX/WFOR for as long a period of time as Barbara Sloan Cox. I’d be willing to bet nobody ever will.

* For those keeping score: Jim Dyer, J.D. Roberts, Ken Matz, Stan Miller.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On The Basis Of Race…

Eliot Kleinberg and I were friends at Miami’s WNWS Radio. He was a news editor; I was the chief board operator, assigned to the morning shift (which meant making sure everything ran smoothly for AM news anchors Prescott Robinson, Steve Daily, Dave Steele, Jack McCoy, Frank Lasko, and Shirley Peters). Kleinberg and I have not seen each other in 29 years, yet we have much in common. You might say that our paths have since crossed, even though it’s been nearly three decades since they actually have.

Kleinberg was one of the funniest guys at WNWS, but his greatest lines came while playing the straight man to our morning field reporters. One time Joe LaPorte filed a report about average folks’ New Years resolutions, one of which involved a guy who vowed to “stop buggering sheep”. It was Kleinberg who had to interrupt LaPorte, and ask him if he knew what buggering sheep meant. Thanks to Kleinberg, that off-color remark never made it to air. But for all of his off-air saves, Kleinberg managed to pile up a few adversaries at the station. One of them would later become a major figure at WCIX Channel 6.

(Joe LaPorte on the left; Eliot Kleinberg on the right. This photo was taken at the 1979 WNWS Christmas party, ironically at General Manager Dick Casper's home)

WNWS was a lot of things, but “diverse” wasn’t one of them. By the tail end of 1979, there were but two employees of Latin heritage working at the station: reporter Marianne Murciano, and Omnis Acebo, who I think worked in the traffic department (it’s been a long time). Murciano left to go to Channel 6, and after a while, Acebo left as well. You just don’t operate a radio station, or any business in Miami, without Latino employees. It made general manager Dick Casper nervous, and rightfully so.

Instead of addressing the problem through smart hiring and inclusive policies, Casper’s knee-jerk reaction came in the form of a mandate to Charles Kappes, our beleaguered news director: fire two Anglos, and replace them with Latinos. Plain and simple.

Now this isn’t mere hearsay. Kappes, a former WCIX news producer with scruples and integrity, was not happy about the mandate, especially when it was decided that the guys on the chopping block were me and Eliot Kleinberg. Kappes, who had always praised my work and had recently expanded my role, threatened to quit over it. No, DID quit over it, until Casper talked him out of it. I have the proof, thanks to an inside source who got their hands on a copy of Kappes’ resignation letter. I have never gone public with this until now.

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“Either I fire Jeff Lemlich on the basis of race, or I resign. Neither is a tolerable choice. Nevertheless it is one which must be made,” wrote Kappes. He went on to tell Casper, quote, “you suggested I find another ‘Anglo’ we could dismiss. That, of course, is precisely why I am so disturbed. The basic idea of either hiring or firing based on Race or Condition is an abomination to me.” The letter was dated March 17, 1980, the same day in which Kappes called me in, and fired me. And did the same to Eliot Kleinberg.

Now I could have sued – and won. This was a clear case of discrimination. But instead, I opted to move forward. Several WNWS co-workers put in a word for me around town, and in the next few days, I had job interviews at radio stations WKAT and WGBS, and television station WCIX. The latter was looking for a Chyron operator, and at the time I had no idea what a Chyron was. But I passed the typing test, and that--along with the recommendations of both Prescott Robinson and Larry Wallenstein--was good enough for Dick Descutner (WCIX news director), who told me I could start the following Monday. I did.

(Sadly, Charles Kappes died just two years later, at the age of 40. As a wheelchair-bound man who’d been in poor health for some time, he understood, and naturally loathed discrimination. I would encounter Dick Casper again, nearly a decade later, when he visited Channel 6 as Ralph Renick’s agent. He came up to me, and simply said, “It looks like you did well for yourself”. I did not thank him.)

(Click image to view full screen)

Eliot Kleinberg got an on-air reporter’s job in South Carolina, and in 1982 applied for a job at WCIX. Now remember, he had his detractors from his time at WNWS. One of them allegedly intercepted the tape, and in an effort to make sure Kleinberg was not hired, told news director Descutner to look, instead, at the anchorwoman on the tape--the person who introduced Kleinberg’s report. With his attention diverted, Descutner focused on the brief snippet of this pretty young anchor, and decided then and there that she, not Kleinberg, would be offered a job. That anchor’s name? Barbara Sloan.

But don’t weep for Eliot Kleinberg. He and I both have something else in common: we’re both authors. With nine books to his credit, a track record at the Palm Beach Post, and success on the lecture circuit, there’s no turning back for him. Sometimes getting knocked down just makes us stronger. Sometimes things, for whatever reason, just seem to work out.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Let's Have Fun

Are you enjoying the excerpts from our old skit reels? I know I am! There’s plenty of time for the serious stuff, and I plan to tackle more of the tough times soon. But for right now, let’s have fun!

This next clip pokes fun at four former WCIX employees, who were a big part of the station in the late 70s and early 80s. The late Ted Adams was our general manager; Barbara Smith, his assistant, turned program director; Jack Cowart was our engineering guru, and as for Juan DeLaTorre… well, let’s just say if he was a song from the ‘70s, it might have been “Take The Money and Run”. Or so the always-reliable “sources” say!

Time now to turn the floor over to the one and only Desi Doodrop, who sets the scene for this week’s video clip: “Starting in 1978 Dan Brown and Jim Hayek were occasionally (or perhaps irregularly) performing as Danny and Desi Doodrop on Duck Duck Goose, singing the blues for kids. For the Channel 6 Christmas party in 1978, they decided to sing some tunes about the people at the station. At the party the usual amazingly funny skit reel played, followed by a live Doodrop Brothers show. It was a huge crowd pleaser. Tears, laughter, standing ovations, ladies underwear, the whole bit ensued. The next day Mike Cooper asked for a repeat performance in the studio to capture it all on tape. This video lacks the amazing crowd participation, but still has a nostalgic and goofy vibe that makes it worth a view.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Moving (And Grooving)

This is a follow-up… about a follow-up. A sequel about a sequel. In other words, the type of thing we news types love so much.

If you haven’t already read the preceding blog entry, The Boys From Brickell, please do so at this time. Also take the 1:55 it takes to watch the embedded video. Then please return to this post, which will make a lot more sense at that time.

Oh yeah, The Boys From Brickell. It was a chance to show my creative side, and to poke some well-intentioned fun at some of my bosses. It also got a good response, so for the following year’s Christmas reel (1983), a sequel was in order. Presenting The Brickell Hillbillies: K-Tel meets Weird Al meets the Clampetts at a funny-looking cement pond, in an even funnier-looking round building!

The hardest thing about producing these musical parodies was finding willing vocalists. Some guys like Jim Hayek and Tom Kounelis had played in bands, and were comfortable lending their musical talents, but for the most part I had to beg, and beg some more, to get folks to agree to sing my stupid little parodies. So for the 1983 follow-up, I decided to produce fewer actual songs, and instead enlist the help of some of our on-air “franchise” talents – guys like Big Wilson, movie reviewer Don Stotter, and Miami Dolphins kicker turned football prognosticator Garo Yepremian. All of them were kind enough to help out, as was former Channel 6 reporter Marianne Murciano. Still, it’s the musical parodies that would make or break the piece, and once again I had a chance to “sing”. Like the year before, my target was the crappy food in our lunchroom sandwich machine, lampooned this time to the tune of the Police’s recent “Every Breath You Take”. Tape editor Jorge Hernandez had the privilege of tasting one of our hideous sandwiches, and the expression you see on his face wasn’t a put on! As graphic artist Ron Laffin expressed so brilliantly in an earlier skit reel: “These sandwiches are delicious!”

This piece (and the entire 1983 Christmas reel) came at a pivotal time for WCIX. The station needed to move, and the West Kendall Homeowners’ Association was waging a battle against us. They claimed radiation from our tower would endanger people’s lives, and that we would pose a hazard to planes flying in and out of Tamiami Airport. Eventually, Channel 6 would change its plans, and choose a site a little further north, in what is now Doral. But at the time there was lots of uncertainty, and we lost a lot of really good people while our fate was in limbo. So as you watch this piece, try to put yourself in our shoes, not knowing what the future would hold. It was both an exciting and scary time. Poking fun at it relieved some of the tension, which is what our Christmas skit reels were all about.

The Brickell Hillbillies: Written and produced by Jeff Lemlich, and edited by Gary Slawitschka.