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Sunday, April 29, 2012

I Was A Teenage Chyron Operator

There I was, jettisoned from WNWS Radio due to my ethnicity (or lack thereof), when the calls started coming from my colleagues about open radio and television jobs.

The week that followed was a whirlwind… and a blur.    A news interview at WGBS; an engineering interview at WKAT; a typing audition at some round building on Brickell, to see if I could run a machine called a Chyron.   A what?   Never heard of it before!   

It was Larry Wallenstein, the future assignment editor – and later, news director – at WCIX Channel 6, who suggested to Dick Descutner that I audition for the job.   Four days after the sudden end of my radio career, I was in front of a typewriter, showing what my normally uncoordinated fingers could do.   I was in, should I decide to take the job.    $4.00 an hour, 40 hours a week, and (at the start at least) no weekends.    That was more money and fewer days than the radio jobs, so all of a sudden I was a Chyron operator!    Jeez, what am I getting myself into?

That first night on the job was overwhelming.   Fortunately, I wasn’t alone.    Fellow night shift employee Carlos Lima started on that same night;   engineering prospect Lucious Hall started just a week or so earlier.   We were all fresh meat for the grizzled Brickell veterans!    My Chyron instructor was (Hey Hey) Gustavo Rey, and he must have done a good job, because I was already soloing by that Friday.

There was little time to learn the names of the night shift employees.    One of my duties was typing the nightly credits, and the weekly (full) credit roll.    That meant not only getting all the names right (spelling and all), but knowing the lingo, and cryptic words such as “telecine”.   My spell check says that’s not a word, but on the Channel 6 credit roll, it was not just a word, but a job title.  

Not only was I responsible for all the news supers (including pre-production, and pre-taped segments such as The Flying Fisherman), but after the news I had to type index cards, with the titles – and a description – of every piece of film that aired during The Ten O’Clock News.   Then it was my job to edit all the film onto one reel, and note on the cards which reel contains each film story.    It was a lot of tedious work, but since we were the last station in town to switch to tape, it had to be done.    My shift started at 6PM and ended at 2AM.    I loved my hours.

In time I grew proficient on the Chyron, and saw myself as the Ozzie Smith of the newscast.     I was a defensive specialist who caught misspellings and mistakes of all kinds.    The worst speller, by far, was reporter/assignment editor Frank Lasko.     The best was probably Dave Levine, a guy who LOVED supers.   Loved them!    I put up with sports anchors who waited until the last minute to bring in the scores.   Sure, we all wanted the most up-to-date scores, but you can’t update a dozen games in one minute – or can you?   Sometimes I think we did the impossible.    When you’re Channel 6 in the Brickell era, you pretty much had to do the impossible.

I can’t count how many part-time or weekend Chyron operators I trained.    Some, such as Gary Slawitschka and Woody Woodriffe, did extremely well.    As for others… well, let’s say they pull the hell back in Helvetica (our font of choice).  

  Helvetica supers, as drawn by Jim Hayek for the April 1983 WCIX Chyron format booklet


Sometimes my duties would expand beyond the news.   When we started airing weekly baseball games in 1981, I was asked to put the score on the screen, and perhaps some supers for the players.    As a baseball freak, I decided also to include their stats for the season and for the game, which surprised sales manager Harvey Cohen.   The future general manager wrote a memo thanking me for the “graffiti”.   Yes, graffiti.    The boss man called my supers graffitti (sic)!   Maybe I should have seen the writing on the wall!

                     American graffiti, Channel 6 style.  Click images to view them full size.

There were some negatives to being a really good Chyron operator.    For one – good luck getting off the damn machine!   Bosses know it’s tough to find a good electronic graphics guy, so they’re reluctant to promote the guy or girl who beats the buttons.    I found myself caught in that trap, and despite showing that I could write, had organizational skills, and had (gasp!) news judgment, I was stuck… until Larry Lyle took over as news director, and immediately made me an associate producer.   That sounds good, until you realize I was an associate producer/Chyron operator.   In other words, I had all these new duties, but still had the old ones as well!   How could I be downstairs writing when we’re doing endless retakes of the Flying Fisherman upstairs?

Relief came in June 1984, when we reinstated local weekend news.    I then became the weekend producer, and occasional Chyron filler-inner.   The Lyle regime had its share of problems, which I’ve chronicled ad nauseum in this blog… but at least he was willing to take a chance, and step outside the box a little.
In the years that followed, I worked my way from associate producer, to weekend producer/weekday assignment editor, to producer, to special projects producer, to senior writer… but I never forgot what it was like to run the Chyron, night after night.     I’ll never forget Bob Rossicone yelling out “supa” in his unmistakable New York accent… or the terror that was election night, with all the numbers changing literally seconds before air.    I became a producer who always respected the hard work of the person sitting behind that character generator.    And to think that I used to do it for $4 an hour/$160 a week!    No, it wasn’t easy, but there was a lot to like about those days.    It was a great time to be in TV.


While you’re here, check out the other posts on the SAY SIX blog!

Complimenting the Chyron operator -- this didn't happen too often.   Everyone notices you when a mistake is made, but it's rare to be recognized for doing a good job.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Kicker Has To Deliver (And That's No Tease)

The voice on the other end of the phone was filled with sorrow.

“He missed it? What do you mean he missed it?”

Sue Kawalerski, our future WCIX news director, was in Israel, covering the Gulf War with reporter/anchor Giselle Fernandez and videographer Mike Hernandez. But at that moment, she was not concerned with scud missiles or other imminent dangers. She was concerned with a missed field goal, by a kicker named Scott Norwood, that would have given the Buffalo Bills – Kawalerski’s beloved team – their first Super Bowl championship.

I hated to break the news to Kawalerski. That great Bills season – the performances of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, et al – came to a crashing end with Scott Norwood’s miff. The lesson that day was clear: having just a so-so kicker really isn’t enough. A kicker has to come through when it counts. A kicker has to deliver.

So it is with TV news. A kicker, in news-speak, is the last story in the newscast, just before the anchor says goodbye and the credits roll. It’s generally the most promoted story in the show, and it’s not something that should ever be taken lightly.

Our consultants had lots of rules, when it came to kickers. Promote it early (pre-show headlines are preferable, depending on the video quality). Promote it in the mega-tease at the end of the first block. Promote it again. And again.

OK, fine… if the story is as good as the tease. But in the real world, the tease is often much better than the story. How many times have you waited to hear an item on your local news – an item that looks like a must-see – only to be disappointed by the short, vacuous, master-of-the-obvious voiceover that you waited nearly a half hour to see? How many times have you shouted “that’s it???” at your TV, when the kicker misses the goal posts once again?

I’ve dealt with writers who’ve written kickers long before the video was back in house. It was usually a by-the-numbers, insta-poof kind of story with meaningless phrases from a press release. Here’s the type of thing I mean . Fill in the blanks, kiddies!

“Thousands took to the streets of Downtown your-town today, for the __th annual ____ Festival. There was food, music, face painting for the kids… even a clown. A good time was had by all. The festival will continue throughout the weekend.”

Instant story… but there’s a problem. Let’s say thousands really did turn out. If it’s a major weekend event, one that you’d want to tease throughout the newscast (and in the preceding shows), then there’s a good chance many who saw the station’s cameras will tune in to see the coverage. Boy, are they going to be disappointed! Writers must… MUST!... look at the video, and try to put themselves in the place of that camera, seeing the event the way viewers would. The event wasn’t just fun. It was FUN! Sell that!

Superstar anchor John Hambrick understood the importance of kickers. He would often argue “THAT’S not a kicker”, when a producer would try to sell a story that didn’t deliver in any way. Hambrick loved to write his own kickers, whenever possible. His verbose writing style, which worked so well for him, didn’t translate to his co-anchors… meaning there was no way to switch anchor reads, should the need for that arise. But John earned that right, just as Ann Bishop did at Channel 10. He may have given producers heart attacks at times, but he understood that a poorly-written kicker… like a poorly-written lead… was a huge turnoff to viewers. A kicker that doesn’t leave the viewer feeling it was worth the wait, is like a field goal kicker sending the ball wide right in the final eight seconds of the game.

Just ask the Buffalo Bills.

Now that you're here... check out the OTHER POSTS on the Say Six! blog.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The First WCIX News Team

I always love hearing from former Channel 6’ers, especially when they are willing to share pictures and memories from the old independent days.

One such person is Glenn Lewis, who ran the film lab back when the news department was first getting started. Glenn was kind enough to share a photograph of the first WCIX news team, along with some of his recollections.

Click on the picture to view it full size.

"The man on the left, I think was Ned Powers, and he did the weather. The story behind the picture is that Bob Sheridan (screen right, next to Prescott Robinson) and Ned had opened a bar and wanted something to hang behind the bar.

I think this was the first news set. Also, I think it was the only station where you had to punch in at a time clock. Ted (Adams, the general manager) was such a tightwad. He thought we were cheating on overtime.

Moving the cobwebs from my brain, I remember things from the first Ten O'Clock news. I might get their names wrong.

The first news director was John Pike, Dick (Descutner) was asst ND at the time.
Nancy Palmer was production manager.
Jack Cowart was chief engineer.
Guss Cado was the assignment editor.
Mike Jueao was chief photo.
Andy Kay was a news cameraman.
Cliff Albertson was the director."

Thanks Glenn. This was well before my time at the station, but some things were slow to change. When I started (March 1980) we still had the time clock. It was there for several years, at least until Taft took over.

Do you have any pictures, videos, or just plain memories of the old WCIX? Please feel free to share them with this blog and its readers. WCIX may now be a part of Miami’s past, but its history is still very much a part of who we are. Don’t be shy.