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

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