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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.

(Click images to view them full screen)

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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Little Jive In '85

1967 (Channel 6 signs on).
1988 (CBS agrees to purchase WCIX).
1995 (WCIX switches to WFOR and Channel 4).

Those might be the three most important years in the history of WCIX, but right behind them would be 1985, the year of our move from Brickell Avenue to what is now Doral. It was a year of hopeful new beginnings, but for many, there was also sadness at leaving that silly round building behind. That feeling was reflected in our 1985 skit reel, which included the following news blooper piece that I co-produced with R.J. Heim (with assistance from Bill Retherford).

The hopefulness of a new beginning shines though on this piece, despite the sometimes stupid and sometimes strange moments that we captured for posterity. I always enjoy watching this one. Look for the following blasts from the past (in order of appearance): Barbara Sloan, Solon Gray, Rod Meloni, John Turchin, Joyce Evans, Andy “Hey Andy” Leopold, R.J. Heim, Mike Bradley, Glenn (what city is this?) Hutton, Gail “Gayle” Anderson, Steve Zager, Bill Retherford, and the late Nelson Milton. If you enjoyed this, hated this, or whatever, be sure to leave a comment and let me know.

Note: All news blooper reels contain profanity. If the boss or kids are watching, you might want to bookmark this page and watch the video later.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ham-I-Am (Sorry Scripts, Part 2)

95 percent of the folks that write for newscasts get writer’s block from time-to-time. As for the other 5 percent… well, they’re lying.

I remember being a novice producer during the ’84 political season. There I was, trying in vain to write about one of the democratic debates, without resorting to stupid clichés. Then Walter Mondale just had to do it! He had to go and parrot the catch phrase from a famous Wendy’s commercial, meaning I pretty much HAD to waste precious time on the democratic frontrunner exclaiming “Where’s the beef” . As if it wasn’t already difficult enough summing up everything in 90 seconds! So I’m sitting there trying to write the lead, trying to grab our viewers, trying not to trivialize the event while not hyping it as well. And all that could come out of me was trivia… hype… clichés. That was one of the few times I ever let anyone else write the lead to the top story. To me, that is the producer’s job. The pre-show tease, the opening headlines, and grabber lead make up the most crucial minute of the entire show, and as the captain of the ship it was my duty to keep us on a bold course. Or so I always thought.

Then came… John Hambrick.

(Click images to view them full screen)

“Hambone” was already a star in this market, thanks to his years at WTVJ. I was a fan. Hambrick was an actor before he was a journalist, and it showed. The man could really play the camera.

John could be a joy to work with, but he could also be a royal pain in the ass. One day John let me know that when it came to him, the rules were different. “They’re paying me a lot of money,” he told me. “Not just to sit at the anchor’s desk, but to put my brand on what I do.” It made sense to me. If things went wrong, it was John that the viewers saw, not some guy (me) behind a keyboard. So John got to put his stamp on the stories that he read, and that included writing the lead to the top story in the newscast.

Most of the time, it was not a problem. John understood the importance of writing in the active tense. He understood that a lead was meant to grab and entice. He understood the importance of making our viewers care, and selling that big, big story of the day.

But sometimes, like the rest of us, John would get writer’s block. Sometimes I would have to remind him that it was 10 minutes to show time, and the lead to the top story was not yet in. Sometimes John would then sit at his typewriter, and type WHATEVER. Oh it would be active, enticing, and big, but would it be coherent? Often there was no time to proofread his leads. The bosses would say that as producer, it was my responsibility to approve every script before it aired, but we’re not talking about any old script. This is Hambone we’re talking about. So occasionally, the news open would roll, the anchors would say hello, and John would read something like this:

(Click images to view them full screen)

Oh… my… God. A 35-second lead! “The whooshing spew of water under pressure”! The word “ostensibly”, used twice (great word, but hardly conversational). In the quest to turn an early-morning fire into poetry, we completely buried the nighttime lead: that a suspect, taken into custody, had died. If this had been a newspaper story, it would have been different. The headline would reflect the breaking development, and the talk of “flames, smoke, sirens, determined shouts above the din of engines, generators, and whooshing spew of water” would paint a vivid picture of the scene, sans pictures, which of course is the world of newspapers. But for the lead to a developing story on a major market 11PM newscast? Ostensibly, it missed the mark.

Let’s be honest. TV news has really been dumbed down in the past decade and a half. I would love to see a more intelligent, respectful-to-the-audience’s-intelligence approach. We should not be afraid to use the occasional 40-point-in-Scrabble word, but only if it’s the best available word (and never, never, at the expense of remaining conversational). It’s all about connecting. While that connection can be broken through too much dumbing down, it can also be broken by giving the impression that the words are being spoken by the great and powerful Oz. There’s a balance in there somewhere. I hope to see that day when that balance, “ostensibly”, is rediscovered.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sorry Scripts (Part 1)

“You’ve got to walk it like you talk it”: That was one of the first rules I would teach young writers that would come into the WCIX newsroom. News writing has to be conversational. Period. No exceptions.

When I first started my transition from electronic graphics to news writing, reporter Dave Levine taught me an important lesson. I had written a 20-second story about a child who was electrocuted in a pool. My information came from the Associated Press, which sent across information that the electrical current had somehow “coursed the pool”. I included those words in my story, prompting Dave to pull me aside. “What does that mean – coursing the pool,” he asked. I tried to explain the meaning of the words, but that’s not what he was asking. He was trying to point out that nobody speaks that way. If you, the viewer, has to stop and think about the words that were just spoken, you’re not going to be able to pay attention to the next line. Or, the next story.

Our job is to explain what we mean in an easy-to-understand manner, while making it clear to the viewer why he or she should care. If we’re writing the lead to a reporter’s package, then it’s our job to set it up – not give the story away – while giving the viewer a reason to keep watching. In other words, don’t follow the examples I’m about to show you. Don’t try this at home, boys and girls, and above all, don’t try these at work!

(Click images to view them full screen)

This 1985 lead to a Daisy Olivera package breaks several news writing rules. First and foremost, it gives the whole story away! There’s no reason for anyone to keep watching! Secondly, it’s written in a passive voice, not an active voice. If you’re going to start a script with the words “this Saturday”, it better be the Saturday coming up, not the Saturday that just passed! And then there’s the little matter of this lead being basically one long, long, long, 41-word sentence. Needless to say, I had to toss this aside and start from scratch. Next!

Well, at least this one is short, but that’s where the compliments end. “Another weekend and with it a fine array of fun things to do and see” – who ever says “a fine array of fun things”? Have you ever used the word array in a sentence? “Here’s what our entertainment editor Don Stotter suggests for the tourists and residents”. Exactly to whom is he speaking? Could this possibly have been worded in a clumsier way?

I remember this one well. I think Joyce Evans meant to say “scrambling”, not “scrabbling”. Then-producer Mayco Villafana looked at the line about the shortage of cars causing confusion, and then told Joyce, “your lead is causing ME confusion”. (To be fair, Joyce was a good writer who was just having a bad day. I think that’s probably the case with most of these examples.)

Former reporter Mark Tudino really topped himself with this stinker of a lead. “A rash of rock-throwing incidents has cops on the Florida Highway Patrol...and surrounding agencies are now going to help in trying to find out who’s doing the throwing.” Not only does the first part of that sentence make no sense, but nobody I know would ever say “a rash of rock-throwing incidents”. If Villafana was still at the station, he would have told Mark “you’re giving ME a rash!”

And then there’s this lead to a movie tie-in that was left for me by a special projects producer. Not only is it painfully long (two pages!) but it’s totally convoluted and boring. It also includes the line “The answer is… maybe yes”. Which is it, maybe or yes? Did I rewrite this bad boy? The answer is DEFINITELY yes, not maybe yes!

To those whose examples I’ve cited: remember this is all in fun. Your scripts are the reasons why there are producers and editors. Thanks for keeping me employed all those years.

Next week: more “sorry scripts"... and the one and only John “Hambone” Hambrick.