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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.