I have spent my career, sweat my youth away in fact, sitting at a desk typing and retyping news stories and putting them on the air in something resembling order. This is what a journalism degree, broadcast sequence, will get you.
News From Your Neighborhood
Forever will these four words be associated with the pounding headache I currently have. For those of you who do not have the misfortune of living in Topeka, “News From Your Neighborhood” was the slogan for KTKA-TV, the ABC affiliate. The market has lost potential revenue every year, and has no hope of meaningful growth. I took a job at KTKA after graduating from college and leaving my precious, low-paying master control and production job at Academic Outreach.
For reasons unknown, the station agreed to hire me as the 5:00 producer, and later added internet content to my duties. Although not the lowest-rated show at the station, it was considered a throwaway show. The show lagged far behind the other two stations in the ratings, including one that showed Jeopardy in that time slot intsead of news. I would like to point out in the important sweeps month of November, the ratings improved significantly, and put me into a near second-place tie. The other sweeps months were flat, but showed less people watching the other stations.
But how did I achieve such success and lose control in the end? We’ll start with the working conditions, which would explain why a weaker person would fail.
First of all, the building was superb. Built in 1997, it had wide-open spaces and plenty of room for everyone. However, because the station chose to spend so much money on the building and the Profile (tm) playback system, that left little room for other advancements. The engineers must harbor thoughts of hatred and violence for the many occasions they’ve had to fix equipment. The cameras failed consistently. Head problems, shattered parts, focus problems - if one could think of a problem a camera could possibly have, these cameras likely had them over the course of one year. Although beta is good to shoot on, we didn’t play back on beta tape. We played back on 3/4” tapes. Aside from wrinkles, the tapes were fine, as long as one kept the generations to a minimum. The baskets and catching mechanisms broke down frequently, though.
The computer system for script writing was called DCM, possibly standing for Damn Crappy Machines. Severely out of date, DCM offered several bugs that puzzled even me. One of those bugs developed the ability to reset the teleprompter during a show without human intervention. This made for interesting moments that gave those in charge a massive heart attack. Even the assignment desk computer, a Compaq with Windows NT, crashed frequently. Sometimes the WinFax program would just stop receiving faxes for unknown reasons, leaving us missing out on several stories, including some fairly major events.
But no station comes together without the unbelievable logic of those with massive egos and those with a severe lack of mental capabilities. I consider myself to have a large ego, in constant need of feeding to supplant my shortcomings, and often fed with delusional thoughts of my own success and self-worth. That private arrogance would be challenged by the assignment editor who plotted against me when I started at KTKA. Although I credit Tami with teaching me a few producing tricks; I found her overbearing superiority a constant hassle. The News Director had put her in charge of approving my shows since I was new and lacking experience. They planned on giving me three weeks before doing the shows by myself. I mastered the job in three days. This forced Tami to intensify her efforts to derail me. She started by requiring me to tighten the scope of the show, which had never been done before. She told me to target older women, 35 and up, since they were most likely to be at home during the 5pm newscast. A few weeks later, she challenged several story selections, saying we were targeting young women. Although I resisted commenting, she reported my apparent insurrection to the News Director anyway. When she announced she was leaving, I wanted to cart her out the building myself and lock the doors. I consider it victory.
Gina Moss, who I eventually had a good rapport with, produced the other evening shows. She could be considered the worldliest of the bunch. She was Jewish, of Lebanese descent, born and raised in South Africa, educated in Atlanta, probably horrified by going to college in Texas, and then ending up in Satan’s zip code before leaving for West Palm Beach. Some of the more conservative people at the station probably thought she was a communist too. She irritated many reporters with her corrections of their grammar. She also accused me of fouling up her shows while she was on vacation, but I got over it because my show rose in the ratings while hers did not.
In such a small station, reporters arrived and left in a revolving door. Among the first to leave in my time at the station were Jen Silvers and Heather Tilley. The latter I found disgusting even though she was our top reporter. My lasting image of Heather will be her in the editorial meeting, chomping on a greasy hamburger, the juices matching her greasy red hair and freckled pale skin. Jamie Henry would be the next to leave, as her flighty and sometimes childish personality did not mesh with the serious nature of some of the other employees. However, I truly enjoyed having Jamie around to ridicule, which she gladly returned. Jade Hernandez stayed on somehow, despite her ability to swear like a sailor, even in front of the owner. Jade bore the brunt of my jokes, but likewise, she took it well and often returned fire. Kate Blatherwick was the oldest, at 31. She had a master’s degree but had decided to start a new career in news. It’s probably not the place for a well-bred white girl from a wealthy family. She remained professional despite absolutely hating the place.
Three new reporters arrived during my tenure. The miniature Vivika Vergara was the best of the bunch. The fast-talking Filipino fit in well, and brought along her quiet boyfriend photographer Clay. Kevin Windholz, from western Kansas, at least understood news. He did a better job impersonating the rest of us, though.
Karen Palermo, the last to arrive during my tenure, shocked and amazed us all, and not in a positive way. Karen would probably make a good housewife (she tried inviting us all for a “pasta party,” whatever that is). But she’s not smart. And she’s not an efficient worker. She can’t memorize her scripts and freaks out on camera. Her misspellings became monstrous. “Opporation” was how she spelled “operation,” or maybe “opportunity.” She had this crazy idea she could be an anchor with very little broadcasting experience. Aside from her work, I have deduced she is manic-depressive, and generally ignorant. Her highs and lows are quite extreme. But her utter disregard for other cultures (this from a woman who lived in Italy and speaks fluent Spanish) astounded me. Most of these culture mishaps came in the presence of Vivika, who did not take ethnic blindness well. Karen was amazed that the Chinese food counter at Hy-Vee grocery store was being run by “real Chinese people.” She made certain Vivika knew this. She also let Vivika know whenever she ate one of those microwave rice bowls. One of these days, Karen will be attacked by a mob of angry rioters when she asks about the whereabouts of the Fritos Bandito. My urge to kill rose every time I checked one of her stories, so I sincerely hope she abandoned a career in news to become a receptionist, caterer, interior decorator, a housewife, anything other than a journalist.
The anchors came and went as well. Longtime anchor Lori Hutchinson, blonde, pretty, frightfully skinny, left for our competition across town. Longtime pessimist Tony Cornett rightfully got angry at the impotence of our management and left as well. Weatherman Ed Levy also left, along with dry Sports Anchor Craig Borgman. This brought in longtime Topeka weatherman (and funnyman extraordinaire) Dave Relihan from our competition (an equal trade for Lori). Also, future jingle-singer Jason Lamb became the sports guy.
And then there was Megan Mosack. Coming from a wealthy family in Cleveland, she probably experienced terrific culture shock working in Topeka. Her unwavering passion for the Republican Party impaired her judgment. She became irate anytime a story with a favorable Democratic lean hit the air. She sparred with producer Gina most often, and sometimes that spilled beyond their little spats to the rest of the newsroom. Megan eventually slimmed down, got married, had children, and took on a radio career for the dispensing of her conservative beliefs. In fact, she still lives in Topeka.
The News Director, Mike Deines, presented some serious problems to our newsroom-- chiefly, the lack of any meaningful communication, and the rare instances when he would leave his office. He also displayed manic-depressive tendencies, with a high probability of ignoring us in those low cycles. The highs he experienced usually come after a visit with Joan Barrett, a consultant. Barrett would whirl into town with ideas and criticism, and Deines would promise to get more involved. But he lost interest after a few days. I hope he succeeds in whatever goal he has, but laying off yours truly was not a wise decision in reaching those goals.
Oh yes, the station laid me off. They posted my job as an opening before even telling me about it. Apparently they had budgeted for an anchor and producer, and then decided the anchor could do both. And since a new 6pm/10pm producer had already started, that left me out. The station had lost $250,000 the previous year, so I didn’t find it surprising they made job cuts. However, I feel as if my hard work went for nothing. They also intended to change the format of the 5pm show, despite the fact my ratings went up and I held on to them in my last sweeps period. The only one to describe this as a winning situation is if I find a better job. And I did, sort of. A year later, KTKA would dissolve its news operations, putting almost everyone out of a job. Karma doesn’t discriminate.
News From America's Hometowns
Now one would think a national news organization would find a way to manage its content more properly. However, that’s not the case at All-News Channel. Since few people have ever seen the All-News Channel, I feel I should provide some background. Born in 1988, All-News Channel is part of the ancient Hubbard Broadcasting in St. Paul, Minnesota. Not only is ANC a news channel, but it’s paired with a feed service under the name Conus Communications. Unfortunately, both are the bastard children of the Hubbard organization. And as such, they welcome news rejects from all over the country such as myself. However, the dream would be short-lived, not just for my behavior, but because of the massive financial problems of the company. I should’ve recognized the trap during the interview. The front office of the Conus section of the complex lacked a receptionist for the desk, and many other basic items. All the employees entered through the back door.
As a 10:00 p.m. producer, I fell under intense scrutiny to do things their way. And as people quickly learn, I don’t do things their way. I do it my way, because my way is the correct way. Fortunately, I can disguise it by pointing to my astrological sign. The description of the Scorpio matches my personality perfectly. We’re obsessive, intelligent, stubborn, passionate, deceptive, conniving, vengeful... basically you don’t want to cross a Scorpio for fear of retribution. I was also born in the Chinese year of the dragon. It’s a poor excuse for my behavior.
I feel my basic approach to producing television newscasts sits well with the viewers. They aren’t bombarded with excessive sound effects, graphics and tabloid teases. They get the news, they get video, proper explanations involving graphics, they’re happy. But the forty or fifty bosses I had didn’t seem to agree. The thick layers of management seemed to drag this company down. During the week, I had as many as four people looking over my show, making changes without my consent, and changing whatever someone else changed. It’s an inefficient way of doing things. The anchor, Stan Turner, had every right to make changes. He reads the copy. I respected his decisions. But there are also managing producers, who get on my nerves with their little suggestions. Their job is to assign associate producers to stories that we receive from stations around the country. They look over those stories so they can be used for the feed service or for the ANC shows. If they wanted to pick on the ANC show rundown, then they should produce it themselves. Sometimes, an extra producer on hand also looked over my stories. Sometimes the senior managing producer hung around as well.
I dreaded working with managing producer Dinah Swain. She looked down on the producers. She considered herself superior in all possible manners. Her controlling and nosy nature conflicted with my introverted style. Dinah described working with me as similar to pulling teeth. It’s all psychological. Her quest for authority over others has suffered a setback, because I didn’t need her instruction. At one point, she said “I’m your boss, you have to listen to me.“ She also asked another, much more intelligent producer, how he could “be so smart yet say such stupid things.” She’d be a perfect music teacher in my opinion. I had known her for a brief period, and I couldn’t even associate with her anymore.
The senior managing producer, Robert, told me directly I was not aggressive enough. I’m not sure what he meant by that criticism, because we don’t have reporters digging for local stories. We collect stories from member stations, select the best ones, I write stories from the wire services, and a newscast suddenly appears. We’re not trying to beat our competitors for stories, because they get them at the same time, with the same video.
Unfortunately, I knew my time would grow short, just a few months into the job. The company reduced the workforce by eight percent. All-News Channel had little national distribution, and the only ads were per inquiry spots for things like Sonic Ears. Even if the financial situation improved, I feared my constant refusal to adopt the standards of my numerous bosses will result in my termination, or at least a schedule change. Unfortunately, my bosses want to take me to task on the subject of my poor attitude.
To set it up, I went through two weeks where nothing seemed to go right. Call it bad karma, or a low cycle in the biorhythm, or whatever you want. But when bad things happen, I tend to be more withdrawn and reserved than usual. I already am in the first place. Evidently that goes against my job description. The senior managing producer, Robert Thomas, informed me I was not allowed to go through my day with a quiet, morose attitude. He then questioned if I understood the mission of the company to create newscasts with a “what it means to you” slant. I completely understood the station’s goals, but because of the limited amount of resources, it’s not always possible. However, to accuse of me of incompetence is a huge slap in the face. I took it personally. Then the situation escalated. The boss accusing me of such stupidity gave me two articles and one book on “how to be a producer.” Evidently, my degree and years of experience mean nothing to him, because of two bad weeks on the job after months of spectacular shows. He did this at the six-month point of my 24-month contract. If their intent was to get me to leave, they were on their way to succeeding.
The book itself smacked of a college textbook. I flipped through it in case they decided to give me a mid-term. The article they gave me described the four different kinds of producers. Level one was “scared to death,“ just doing anything to get the show on the air on time. I got the impression they thought I was in the second group - “the mechanic.” These people are described as unable to break format. They just put together a clean show, and display little or no leadership. Journeyman is one step above that, and then the “power producer” tops the pyramid. Unfortunately, I possess none of the qualities essential for moving up in the ranks. I keep to myself because, well, if you want something done, do it yourself. I have no discernable leadership skills. I have no goals. I do not intend to take on the role of reporter, ethicist, and every other job just to be a “power producer.” The very term is laughable, because it reminds me of false office terminology designed to make people look smart. Perhaps this is my cynicism getting in the way, but I don’t want to become one of those people.
As I had predicted, my service at All News Channel did not end well. However, one can’t pin this on me. The President of Conus Communications, who made poor business decisions during his four years at the helm, decided to take a buyout offer from an unknown party to shut down All News Channel, in addition to his planned shutdown of the Conus feed services. That put 165 people, including myself, out of a job. Conus had $22 million in debt, and saw a sharp decrease in advertising and client revenue after the September 11th attacks. I don’t seem to possess extended periods of luck. However, my lifestyle expects such things to happen. Other people, with spouses and houses and dependents and payments of all kind have considerably more to worry about. Although one of my co-workers insists I’m cursed, I can honestly swear my attitude and workmanship had nothing to do with this shutdown. To celebrate our demise, we exceeded a $1,000 tab at a downtown Minneapolis bar.
Working For You
Five months after my work at ANC ended, I reluctantly accepted a lesser job at WDAF-TV, the FOX affiliate in Kansas City-- that job being overnight associate producer. My long wait finally paid off. I could work the high-profile midnight-8:30 a.m. shift, with no responsibility on the execution of a newscast. Of course, I got paid less, and commanded little to no respect. But at this point, I found myself elevating personal happiness above career decisions.
As an associate producer, I had one responsibility: to write and write some more. Yes, I filled in for the producer when needed. But, without any additional stress on my brain, I let it further recede from a once fertile organ to a sample in a jar, the path dictated for me years ago.
Less than a year into the job, the station elevated me to the 7:00 a.m. producer. During one sweeps period, when another producer had been on maternity leave, the station called me in the middle of the day (my night) to tell me I was now the 5:00 a.m. producer. Just for good measure, I switched to 6:00 a.m. before moving to 9:00 p.m., then the 6:00 p.m. show. 2014 marks my eleventh year on the job at FOX 4. I couldn't possibly imagine, after two layoffs in quick succession, having such job security. However, my time at FOX 4 is running short. The new news director moved me to a weekend/noon shift. She doesn't like me. I wonder where the next chapter takes me, if it exists.