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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.

(Click image to view full screen)

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?