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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.

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