Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Passion Play Interruptus

I was trailing a group of enthusiastic ac-TORS on foot across the campus of Wake Forest University as they led a roving audience through an impassioned performance of "The Life Of Christ".

Several times I caught nasty looks from all involved as I inadvertently got in between the audience and the performers, my brightly-logo'd gear-laden form apparently upsetting the authenticity of their wandering outdoor drama.

It all came to a head just as Christ was about to be betrayed by his apostles. As the actor playing The Messiah gathered his flock around a tree, he paused for dramatic effect - the band of thespians and spectators hanging on his every word…


From it's low-slung position on my hip, my newly-issued pager erupted in a fit of high-pitched screams. Worse yet, with my hands full of camera it me took several prolonged seconds to lay hands on it and silence the bloody thing.

By that time, the Messiah, the Twelve Apostles and the gang of angry patrons were boring holes in my skulls with evil death-ray eyes. Forgoing my plans of sticking around for a sound-bite, I immediately slunk off like a modern-day leper - grateful not to have been stoned to death by the overzealous crowd.

Soon after I figured how to set my pager to vibrate, but to this day, I hate theatre people.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Sidewalk Karaoke

My Monday started on the steps of the County Courthouse, making small talk with familiar faces while complete strangers set up microphones and a podium. The topic at hand: a last minute clemency plea from supporters of a death row inmate. The awaiting media crush consisted of three: myself, another TV photog whose name I've never known (even though we've loitered for hours outside various scenes of tragedy together), and a newspaper photographer with the poetic moniker of H. Scott Hoffman.

Together we stood under the morning sun, commenting as lensmen will that the light is never quite right. A passing homicide detective I haven't seen in years stopped by to chat, telling me he had a new baby and asking me if I remembered that long summer afternoon in the barrio. But before I could answer, Daryl Hunt walked by and I had to get to work.

Not quite a year ago, the state of North Carolina released inmate Daryl Hunt after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect in the murder of a Winston-Salem woman. Hunt walked, but not before serving 18 years of a life sentence. Today he stood on the edge of the small crowd, his trademark skull cap and blissful glint giving him away, Within seconds my colleague and I swooped in, attaching lapel microphones and rolling tape on the affable exoneree.

Ten questions and eight answers later, Hunt melted back into the crowd and the promised rally began. I'm not sure what it says under 'rally' in the dictionary, but if there's a picture of a half dozen senior citizens staring into space while a portly legal wonk mumbles into an badly-overmodulated microphone, then yes Virginia, this was a 'rally'.

Behind the viewfinder, I rolled my eyes and watched the 'Record' light glow. On stage, the morning sun threw harsh shadows on the speaker's back, through my expensive lens, he was nothing more than a pudgy black silhouette. I wrestled with my iris and wondered for the millionth time who, if anyone, coordinates these events.

No one apparently, because the cheesy karaoke microphone sounded like just that, making the quickly-aging crowd to lean in a little and tap their earpieces. Those who turned up their hearing aids quickly regretted it, as a city worker's unbridled leaf blower soon drowned out any hope of public discourse. Thus, the deperate pleas of a death row inmate's family were swallowed up by the sounds of city sidewalk maintenance.

I love a good rally.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pricey Mudhole

"I don't think we're gonna make the live shot..."

Taking the Tower 3


The SWAT team leader barked orders to his men, but his gas mask muffled the words. The team seemed to understand tough, for their heads moved in different directions all at once - each member surveying a different quadrant of the heavy metal stairwell. I trailed behind, lens up and riding the iris as we all shuffled up the stairs. Trying to ignore the pain in my shoulder, I dropped the camera low and got a shot of the their chemical suit booties taking a grunt-filled step at a time.
Is this any way for a grown man to make a living? - I thought for not the first time. This crap was a blast when I was twenty two, but at thirty-seven, I’m beginning to feel a little silly. I got friends ascending corporate ladders, and I’m here chasing these goons up a tower. Country boys playin’ Cops and Robbers, and me still playin’ Tee Vee. Wonder if that little hillbilly diner down the road has chicken pastry today?

The needles on my camera’s audio meter danced crazily and jarred me out of my daydream haze. The clang of the oxygen tanks punctuated the cadence of the men's mechanized breathing and my on-board microphone recorded it all. Watching the needles dance, I judged the nat sound’s quality.

“What about Newark? Say I come back on Monday?” -- Erik’s voice crackled on the other channel, a distant conversation about a distant place. Shaking off the sound, I pulled out to a wide shot. As the men rounded the corner and out of sight, I stopped a moment in the stairwell, flipping switches on my camera and trying to think sequentially.

That’s important when you’re gathering news images. Uncle Jesse may wear out his camcorder’s zoom button every Thanksgiving, but the TV News photog opts for rock steady shots that will fit into tightly-edited sequences. Wide. Medium. Tight. It’s like storyboarding comic book panels in your head, blocking action scenes as they happen, mentally editing the footage as you shoot it -- a tricky feat when you’re chasing a SWAT Team up a winding stairwell and your back hurts.

Up on the second floor, the SWAT team fanned out, leaving the bright sunshine of the stairwell for the dusty shadows of the cavernous space. Through the viewfinder I spotted a mannequin on the floor, strapped to a stretcher that looked broken. A jumble of cardboard boxes took up one wall, but it was hard to see. With all the dust in the air, I started to worry about vulnerable electronics of my brand new camera. But there was nothing I could do now, so I checked the battery strength indicator in my viewfinder’s reassuring haze.

In front of me, the SWAT team medic advanced cautiously on the department store dummy on the stretcher. Through my viewfinder , I tracked him as he squatted over the mannequin and checked for the unlikeliest of pulses. Once he determined the victim would never again model fine fall fashions at JC Penney’s, he moved on.


The voice from the PA speaker before now rang down from two flights up. It sounded even closer. I even flinched a little at the sound, though I knew it was only an out of town deputy holding a room full of mannequins hostage. The SWAT team shared my feelings, and picked up their surveillance sweep of the dusty space. As the dust cleared, the room grew bigger and I noticed the training sergeant standing in the far corner, a no-nonsense toothpick jutting from his bushy moustache. A look that told me not to point my camera his way.

Turning back to the SWAT team I readjusted my shot. A team member was poking through the wall of boxes while the others took a moment to check each other’s oxygen tank. I put one knee to the ground and my camera on the other. I was trying to decide which shot to go for next when I heard what sounded like a spoon bouncing on the cement floor.

That’s when all the air, sound and color left the room.

Next time, the conclusion...

Friday, November 26, 2004

Headset Perry

I remember one junior producer from a few shops back, who thought his new gig as weekend producer required him to assume the air of a battlefield general. Let's call him Perry.

Perry was...a dubious individual. He favored wearing a telephone headset, and would pace up and down the cubicles having loud conversations with people I'm pretty sure weren't even on the line. His co-workers abused him with names like 'drive-thru boy' and the like, but Perry only swelled with pride, certain his colleagues were only jealous of his newfound authority.

All in all, he was harmless. And clueless. Once while roaming the halls on a weekend shift, he rang up the on-call manager on his headset with a red-hot alert:

"Hey, this is Perry. Just thought you might wanna know we got some flourescent lights flickering in the hallway here at the station..."

That particular newsbreak earned him an instant arse chewing from the surly on-call manager, who threatened to come down and perform an invasive anal procedure with his nifty telephone headset. Perry declined.

But the eager young producer worked hard to avoid me, after an episode I'm not especially proud of. I myself was lounging at home one weekend when the phone rang. It was Perry, out of breath with excitement...

"Stew, there's a trailer park burning to the ground just south of you and I need you to roll everything you got on it!"

I fought the urge to tell him 'everything I had' was a filthy Ford Explorer with only fumes in the gas tank. But I thought better of it and was soon behind the wheel, racing toward the reported conflagration with visions of burning mobile home residents in my head.

Imagine my relief when the trailer park in question was NOT engulfed in flames. Instead the modest neighborhood was in the throes of a crowded block party. The gathered masses cheered as I pulled up, and soon I was sampling the finest in trailer park cheeseburgers.

Between bites, I pieced together what HAD happened. One of the charcoal grills had flamed up a bit too high for comfort, and the gathered Dads tipped it over and shoveled trailer park soil over it to extinguish the blaze. Someone HAD called the fire department, but the alarm was cancelled before the fire trucks could even arrive.

Looking down at the three foot wide circle of burnt grass, I fished my cell phone from a pocket and dialed the station.

"Hey Perry," I said "Nothing to it. A grill got out of control but the folks here put it out. Fire department didn't even make it out. I'm headed home..."

Perry's reply almost made me choke on my cheeseburger.

"Yeah, well, uh - I tell ya what, why don't you go ahead shoot video anyway and bring it in. I'll decide whether there's 'nothing to it' or not..."

I noticed one of the trailer park Dads looking at me - no doubt wondering what was making my face turn purple. I turned and walked out of earshot, feeling the blood change gears in my veins...

"Perry, I don't who the #$@! you think you are, but if you expect me to shoot this, you got those headphones on too tight..."

Though I should have stopped there, I continued -hurling every invective I learned in boot camp. It felt good at the time, but the next Monday I got called into the corner office and asked why I'd reduced the new weekend producer to a quivering mass of junior-executive jello.

They all laughed when I told them why, but I was warned not to treat the producing staff like boot camp recruits. Good advice.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Rest and Gluttony

As someone who often forgets how much I have to be thankful for, today was good for the soul. I spent much of it wandering aimlessly around the house while my better half whipped up the Mother of all Thanksgiving Meals. Sure, I played clean-up, but I spent far more time wrangling youngsters and pecking on my coffee-stained keyboard.

Around two my lovely bride summoned me out of my daze and presented me with a thesis in traditional Thanksgiving fare. Now, deep in the clutches of a tryptophan coma, I'm considering turning in early. Not a bad Thursday for a guy used to running around with a camera on his shoulder.

So here's a HAPPY THANKSGIVING to anyone out there. Now if you'll excuse me I have a mountain of leftovers to attend to. Anybody seen the Miracle Whip?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Taking the Tower 2

It’s become cliché to say 9/11 changed the world. But it did, and nowhere more cataclysmically than in law enforcement. Now even deputy dawgs in the middle of the sticks have to sweat terrorism. Using funds from the Department of Homeland Security, men and women who used to spend their time setting up speed traps are now learning to deal with chemical weapons. Occasionally they want publicity doing so, and that’s how I found myself huddling in a ground floor stair well and taking on paint ball fire.

To be honest, I’d been warned. In our earlier interview, the training officer with the bushy moustache told my lens how the opposing agents would take pot shots at the SWAT team assigned to take the tower.

“We got some other surprises for ‘em too”,” he grinned behind a wad of chewing tobacco.

Now, as I loitered in the stairwell and waited for the team I swore I heard giggling from four flights up.


The heavy steel door before me almost ripped from its hinges as the SWAT team poured into the small room, pistols drawn, eyes darting behind steamed up goggles. Instinctively, I leveled my own weapon - a SONY XD CAM with freshly charged Dionic battery. They weren’t impressed. In fact, they barely issued a law enforcer's grunt as they swept past my lens and loud shirt.

I turned to follow the team. The pudgy deputy beringing up ther rear wore a growing sweat stain on the back on his chem suit. With every step he pulled hard on the air tank's regulator, making him sound like Darth Vader - IF the Dark Lord was a two-pack-a-day smoker, that is.

Bracing against the wall, I steadied up a canted shot of the already fatigued team trudging up the staircase. A wide shaft of sunlight swathed the stairwell from above, casting their forms in silhouette and lighting up a thousand dust motes so well I could count them through the viewfinder. This is what I’d come for.

“Come on, you can do better that! How about Laguardia? You got nothing for me there?”

Erik's New Jersey accent pouring out of my headphones confused me at first. Then I took a step up and peered out of the second story window. Down below, I saw the well-coiffed top of my partner’s head. With the air of a young banker, he paced around the entrance to the training tower, yammering on his ever-present cell phone and one still-activated lapel microphone.

I considered hurling a 9 volt battery at him, but I was running low.

...more to follow...

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Joy of Thanks

I'm thankful there are wonderful people who prepare Thanksgiving Dinner for the less fortunate down at the homeless shelter...and that for once, I won't be there, loitering in the kitchen with a betacam on my shoulder, and drooling over discount turkey..

I'm thankful the good people of our fair city put on one hell of a holiday parade... and that some other schlub will get to discover the joy of backpedaling with one eye open while cub scouts pelt him with candy and trombone players try to blind him.

I'm thankful that the day AFTER Thanksgiving, a shooter other than I will delve into the retail hell of Black Friday, prowling the local mall for talkative store owners and sober shoppers, all while keeping an eye on the rent-a-cop eyein' him from the food court.

And I'm thankful that once the sun sets on the eve of that extended holiday weekend, I won't be the one perched on some interstate overpass, untangling extension cord and trying not to strangle the on-air goob while he plucks his eyebrows in the side view mirror.

I'm thankful for a little time off. But I know that come next week, I'll be back on the front lines, checking the center court Santa's criminal background, hovering around bell-ringers as they lay jolly guilt trips on Wal Mart patrons, and launching an unflinching televised manhunt for that perfect poinsettia.

Is that so wrong?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Brushes With Greatness(?)

When I was a kid, I thought nothing would be cooler than sharing air with a celebrity; then I met a few and quickly realized they cut farts in the car just like me. Since that epiphany, the thrill ain't quite been the same.

Remember the guy who played dumber-than-dirt deputy 'Enos' on "The Dukes of Hazzard"? He wasn't acting! Met him a dozen years and was befuddled to find him reeking of liquor at ten in the morning. I guess I'd drink too if my clame to fame was being the dumb one on THAT show.

Here's another newsflash: Geraldo Rivera is an insufferable jerk. I sat in on a promotions junket luncheon with him back during his talk show heyday, and within ten minutes he erased all find memories I had of him on the early days of 20/20. Nice suit, though.

Furniture Market is always good for a surreal episode involving folks of marginal fame. Kathy Ireland was incredibly sweet last year, going out of her way to talk to us dirty camera trolls. Serena Williams was nice also, but none too eager to appear in my viewfinder. Interior decorator Christopher Lowell was hospitable enough, but had more make-up on than my ninety year old Grandma on Easter Sunday. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

We won't even touch on politicians, as during campaign swing season, they're a dime a dozen. However, I did spend an odd ten minutes in a very small room with then Texas Guv George W. Bush, and a disturbingly skeletal Charlton Heston. It was all I could do to keep the 'Planet of the Apes' quotes to myself. As for W, he seemed to be dozing with his eyes open. Wish I could do that...

Speaking of walking cadavers, Richard Petty could double for Skeletor from the old He-Man cartoons. He's a familair figure around these Nascar-infested parts, but if he ever removed his trademark hat and shades you might very well walk right past him. I once told him how I covered my childhood bicycle seat with STP stickers, to which he said, "Boy - get away from me!"

One of my favorite celebrity encounters involved a hugely popular musician I used to make ALOT of fun of. It was the tail-end of the 'Hat Acts' era of country music and Garth Brooks sold out three straight nights at the local coliseum. At a pre-show press conference, he graciously hung out long enough to go live in our early shows. While waiting to go on, I asked him if he ever got tired of singing 'Achy Breaky Heart'. To his credit, he guffawed with gusto, and we had a large time chewing the fat for a few minutes. Then he snapped his fingers and disappeared in a cloud of dry ice. I kid you not.

My most recent famous person interlude was during my extended imprisonment at Camp American Idol in Washington, D.C. Simon Cowell was mellow enough, as long as he was allowed to smoke his menthol cigarttes. Randy (Fo Shizzle, Dawg!)Jackson was also agreeable, though I rarely understood everything he said. (Excuse me, Mr Jackson? Flava Flav is one the phone, he wants his schtick back...) Guest judge Mark McGrath (of psuedo-band Sugar Ray) was an absolute riot, humble, accommodating and always good for a one-liner.

Then there was Paula Abdul. Bitter, coiled and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she kept all the PR yaks busy with her every whim. I'm not sure what crawled up her mini-skirt but I sure kept my distance the whole time I was there. Maybe she's feeling guilty for judging others' talent. After all, the woman put Arsenio Hall in her music video! For that, she's given a career-saving second chance?

Come to think of it, I hate famous people. They're like news anchors, with bigger entourages.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Taking the Tower 1

“Listen up ya’ll”, the training sergeant growled at his mean as he eyeballed me and my partner.

“If you see THE MAY-DIA during the exercise - do NOT engage them! Repeat - the MAY-DIA are NOT ENGAGED!”

The SWAT Team didn’t seem too concerned. They barely even looked up as they finished pulling on those awkward yellow chemical suits. Ignoring my lens, they checked their weapons and pulled on air tanks. Through my viewfinder I recorded two of them hunched over a checklist. “Shoot local camera crew” wasn’t on their agenda.

“I think they like us”, I said to my colleague. Erik smiled vacantly as he listened to the cell phone pressed to his well-groomed head. He was trying to book airline tickets to Jersey and the reporter in him was certain he could find cheaper fare.

Just then a heavy metal click sounded overhead as the training compound’s loudspeaker hummed to life.

“YA‘LL GO TO HAY-ELL! I’M A KILL ’EM ALL - I SWAR! A hint of sarcasm bled through the heavy Southern accent . Whoever was keying the microphone up there seemed to be enjoying his new role as hostage taker.


With that the five man Emergency Response Team formed a single file line and began shuffling toward the four story training tower at the rear of the county compound. But my eyes fell on the building beside it - a red squat structure with a no nonsense sign that read “RESTROOM”. Wow - I thought, an actual brick shithouse…

But it was no time to gawk. It was time to punch in.

...to be continued...

The Level of Discourse 3

The last (for now) in a series of TV News Terms

SHOOTER: TV news photographer. Part plumber - part poet, this battered soul is the workhorse of your average newscast. See also PHOTOG, PHOTOJOURNALIST or the always hated VIDEOGRAPHER.

SLAP SHOT: "Stupid Live And Pointless." Refers to live shots that are done for no particular reason. See also DOG LICK LIVE SHOT.

SPRAY IT: Instruction to a photographer to quickly shoot as much video as possible, often in a situation where the photographer is working without a reporter. See also RUN N GUN, HOSE IT DOWN.

STAND UP TEASE: A brief "tease" or headline from a reporter on scene, promoting an upcoming story. Often shot as afterthought and usually looking like it.

STICKS: A camera tripod. Something for the reporter to carry. Reporter...re-Porter...Porter.

TALENT: Generic term for those who appear on the air, such as reporters, anchors, and meteorologists. See also HAIRCUT, LENS MEAT, TALKING HAIR-DO, MIKE STAND, GLASS READER.

TEAM SMOTHERAGE: aka team coverage, when not one, not two but three or more reporters are assigned to do a piece on a story that hardly deserves it. (Kole)

WALK N TALK: Technique in which reporter demonstrates story in visual, if awkward way. Often used as transitional element, but mostly due to lack of video. Works well sometimes, but over-used. (Volker)

WALLPAPER VIDEO: Nondescript, generic video used with a voice-over when there are no better pictures for a story, such as convenience store exterior long after robbery. See also REAL ESTATE, ARCHITECTURAL STUDY.

WARM N FUZZY: The hopefully visual story that ends the newscast, after being promoted to near extinction for 28 minutes. Provides harmless fodder for happy anchor-chat before closing wide shot. See also KICKER. One of my many specialties.

WEATHER WOODY: When the weather turns nasty and the meteorologists have something to do. Logic often flies out the window when stations are in the grip of Mother Nature's hype and fury. see also SNOWGASM, LOGO WARS.

WAR AND PEACE: What the reporter/anchor is said to be cutting when they hog up the audio booth for extended periods of time. See also OLD TESTAMENT

YAK: Any anonymous bystander who agrees to talk on tape. Sometimes derisive...Okay, always.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

I, Photog

My wife sometimes accuses me of ‘living inside my own head’, and perhaps she’s got a point. After all, when you spend your life wrenching images from a TV news camera, it’s easy to become a tad detached. Squander enough time peering through that glass and you’re sure to get tunnel vision. After a while, it all those black and white images look the same.

There may indeed be a millions stories in the naked city, but they could all be divided into a mere dozen categories. So instead of dwelling on the slow parade of pedestrian news events, we photogs concentrate instead on the art of the grab, working filmmaker flourishes into our commando-cam format. The revolving cast of victims, villains and grandstanders is often secondary.

Personally, I often wear my camera like a shield, brandishing it for battle but mostly just hiding behind it. It’s the facet of electronic news gathering I enjoy the most - the spectrum of broadcasting that has nothing to do with overstuffed anchors, delusional producers and smarmy consultants. TV news photography practiced at street level, where the almighty deadline rules the day. In the daily hunt, little else matters.

Except lunch, of course. Lunch is VERY important.

Shout Out?

At the behest of my newfound blogging buddies, I have added a 'shoutbox' (that little gray box of text to the right) to my site. Hopefully, one of these kind souls will now inform me as to how to use it. Ain't technology grand?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Level of Discourse 2

More Terms from the Newsgathering Vernacular...

GRIP N GRIN: A photo opportunity with a candidate for something or other who shows up to shake hands, smile and get on tv. See also DOG N PONY.

HOUSE CATS: Producer types who never leave the building. Usually quite blustery and full of bravado - as long as the nearest air-conditioning vent is pointed directly at them.

LANDSCAPE: Exterior shot of crime scene. What you may be stuck with if you arrive late. See also REAL ESTATE.

LOOK-LIVE: a pretaped segment that intentionally mimics the look and feel of a live shot, but never displays a 'LIVE' bug.

MAN BAG: A male reporter's make-up case.

NEWSGASM: An assignment editor's term for breaking news that actually breaks in time to cover it. Hurricane, Bigfoot, Plane Crash - all spawn Newsgasms. See also SNOWGASM.

NUTS N BOLTS: On a big story with team coverage, one crew does 'nuts and bolts' (the basic facts)

ONE MAN BAND: a person who shoots, edits and reports their own news story. Once relegated to smaller market positions, this electronic multi-tasker's role is enjoying a comeback, due to smaller cameras, and laptop editing. See also BACKPACK JOURNALIST.

PACKAGE: A reporter's story told on tape with video clips of people he or she has interviewed, plus animation, graphics, stills or other visual elements.

"PUT SOME EYES ON IT": A common assignment editor directive, used when sending a photog to a questionable story in a far off region. Sure to make the average shooter's blood boil.

More to follow...

The Gathering

Huddled with a few strangers at a cafe last night and found we all spoke the same language. The Greensboro Blogaholics (or whatever they/we call it) was an invigorating scrum of personalities, from the published poets to the broadcast junkies to the politically apoplectic. Not sure where I fit into the mix, but I'm glad to have shared air with a group of people who have a thing or three to say. This site has already evolved thanks to their help and I implore everyone (all three of you) who visit this humble place to visit the many "Others" links listed on the right below.

Happy Blogging! (Did I just say that?)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

TV Panhandling

The Man On the Street (M.O.S.) Interview is a time honored tradition in television news. But as the person who often has to ask total strangers dopey questions, I hate them. really, it's one step above pan-handling - especially when you're doing it solo. Lurking in the bushes outside of a post office and trying to figure out which passerby to ask about Bosnia - these are not things normal people do.

I once worked for a station that relied on a good chunk of Man On the Street interviews to pad out their early afternoon newscasts. It fell on us in the field to gather this fascinating material and I grew to loathe the process. As anyone who's stuck a lens in a passserby's face knows, you get ALL kinds of responses - from the thoughtful pause to the drunken shout-out. Or worse yet, the dreaded "Well, I don't wanna be on camera, but I tell ya what I think..."

Here's a hint: If you DON'T want to share it ON camera, the guy behind the lens couldn't care less about your thoughts on The War on Terror. Or Global Warming. Or Paris Hilton's Lost Dog, or whatever inane query some moron back at the shop came up with. KEEP MOVING PEOPLE!

Hmmm Mmm. I remember a particular low point in the public opinion pendulum. A law regarding abortion rights had just passed and some producer wanted a whole string of citizen reaction soundbites. With more than a little trepidation I took to the field, loitering outside a busy shopping center with wireless microphone and betacam in tow.

I don't remember the particulars - only that I nearly sparked a holy war between one uptight soccer mom and two scary hillbilly chicks. That was a conversation I didn't need to have and I soon told the desk where they could shove their questions. I know other newsgatherers who really dig this kind of thing, but it ain't me.

Now if you'll excuse me, this skinny dude in the Black Flag t-shirt looks like a talker. Wonder how he feels about the county's new waste-management program?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Things Isabel Taught Me

A Tale of Hurricanes, Friendship, & Granola Bars

The Level of Discourse 1

Like every profession, we TV News people have our own language. Always instructive and usually indelicate, the following terms describe a world of deadlines, crisis and gadgetry. The first in a series...

ANCHOR-PACK: A package that's written usually by someone (ME!) other than the anchor, but the anchor's voice is on it.

BRICK: Camera battery.

DOG LICK LIVE SHOT: A live shot performed at a place and/or time that is fundamentally irrelevant to the story. Spawned by consultants, done by rote. Named for the old joke "Why does a dog lick himself? Because he can."

ELBOW FIESTA : Colorful name for hurried, crowded group interviews. See also GANG-BANGS.

FACE TIME: The amount of time each anchor gets in a show. More calculated than you might think.

FIFTEEN MINUTES: How long assignment editors think it takes to get from one story location to another, regardless of what the map might indicate. Often used in conjunction with the term "just swing by." (Robert Carver)

FLAK: Derisive term for Public Information Officer. See also SPIN DOCTOR, HACK, SUIT, FACE, PEEPS.

FLOAT: What happens to a videotape package that doesn't get finished in time for its scheduled airing (e.g., it "floats" until the producer can slip it in later that block or into the next block). Guaranteed to make producers upset.

FUZZ N WAS: sensational stories involving cops & dead bodies. See also CRIME N GRIME.

More to follow...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

More to Come...

MUCH LOVE to the Triad blogging community for assisting me with this work in progress...

Focus on the edge of the viewfinder and you’ll find you can watch just about ANYTHING. But don't be surprised if the World's out of focus when you put that camera down.

It's called VIEWFINDER BLUES, a condition I was diagnosed with shortly after peering through the lens for the first time. That's been many years ago and while there is no known cure, I've found it does help to talk about it.

So join me here, as I make endless jaunts into the Great Unknown - all for a few more fleeting moments of pixelated gossip.

It's a living.

I 40 U-Boats

"The Interstate's UNDERWATER!" a voice spat through the phone.

'YEAH it is,' I thought. But fifteen minutes later I was perched on a overpass exit ramp, looking down on a patch of interstate that resembled a concrete waterpark ride. As I cursed the rain and flipped the gain, I saw four rows of parked headlights idling at the water's distant edge. Those motorists no doubt wanted nothing more than to continue their journey West. But as the sparkle of emergency flares lit up the water's surface, the cars stayed put, while the highway behind them turned into a four-lane five-mile parking lot.

Eventually of course, one brave traveler gave it a go. A high sitting narrow pair of headlights entered the watery breach, slowly at first and then faster as the driver's confidence increased. As it passed through my raindrop-spotted viewfinder, I saw it was a Toyota Forerunner plowing past. The SUV kicked up quite a wake as it slowly made it's way through the temporary river. Panning my camera back to the row of headlights, I watched another vehicle inch forward into the drink.

But these headlights were farther apart and sat a good deal lower than the Forerunner. I pulled them into focus and once again wished a spotlight-wielding helicopter would hover overhead and light this mother up. No luck though, I was reduced to reading silhouette edges on the one-inch screen, seeking details through the noisy static of artificial camera light. Luckily, I was dead center over the watery breach and the second pair of headlights slowly filled my screen.

But as the twin beams of light came closer, they took on a weird muted appearance. I realized they were completely submerged. As the vehicle's top-half passed in front of my perch I got a better look at it. An Acura maybe, or a Lexus - one of those low-slung roadsters that look so good on the showroom floor but so lousy underwater.

Low-slung or not, the car inched forward until the dirty floodwater splashed around the bottom edges of the windshield. That's when the engine seemed to sputter and die, and a diminutive figure started crawling out of the driver's side window.

"I'm on the highway! There's water EVERY-WHERE!"

It took me a moment to realize the voice was coming from the shadowy figure emerging from the car. Abandoning my viewfinder, I squinted into the rainy darkness and saw the driver was a small woman, a soccer mom with purse held high and a cell-phone cradled in her ear and shoulder.

"The highway! It's CRA-ZEE!"

The woman continued shouting her litany of exasperation as she crawled off the hood and down into the waist-high water.

"I'm gonna be LATE! Call Max and tell 'em...."

Pushing forward, the woman stomped through the water, leaving her car behind and continuing to shout into her phone, totally oblivious to my camera's gaze just feet above her. She never even looked up when a firemen yelled for her to climb up the embankement. She simply proceeded to slow-motion walk through the water, deeper into swirling impasse and eventually disappearing into the stormy night.

I was on scene for hours after, and never saw the woman again. Her car continued to sit and the water soon covered it completely. After awhile, it began to float and scraped against the divider wall before coming to a undignified rest. I perched just above it from the safety of the exit ramp and recorded funky close-ups of the car's side hazard lights flashing underneath the dirty water's surface.

As for the woman, I'd like to think she walked all the way to her destination - late, soaking wet, and with one hell of a story for Max. Whatever the case, her one-woman flash-flood stampede made for yet another surreal episode, one of those weird photog moments that will bounce around my skull until something even more absurd takes it place.

In my business, that shouldn't take too long.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Temple of the Tripod

Lens Aloft!

A Camera On Your Shoulder Gets You Into Many A Cockpit...

Getting to fly aboard various aircraft is one of the many things I love about my job. I've shot video from the co-pilot's seat of a many a Cessna, always fearing I'd send us plummeting to the Earth by nudging the wrong cockpit control with my betacam. So far it hasn't happened, but the thought of it always weirds me out.

Early in my career, a small group from my station went tandem sky-diving. Our chief photog shot it from the ground and jump-shooters flew along side us as we free-fell to terra firma. The memory of that experience is a personal treasure, as is the 30 minute private documentary I later produced on it.

Once I rode along with Cherry Point marines aboard a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter. We flew at tree top level along the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Crystal Coast. Then we rendezvoused with some kind of tanker aircraft for a mid-air refueling. Hovering under a giant airplane in flight as we took on fuel is an experience I'd never have had if I managed a shoe store.

Then there was the time we did morning live shots from a hot air balloon. The reporter was in one balloon with a wireless mic and a cell phone - a producer and myself flew in another balloon with a camera and a two-gig transmitter. We bunny-hopped each other over the rolling Piedmont hills as the sun rose on a gorgeous fall morning. We eventually landed in a remote field where all the virgin passengers were treated to the champagne-filled first flight ceremony. Bank tellers don't get paid to do that.

But my favorite flying experience was aboard the Goodyear Blimp. The local Goodyear Plant was celebrating an anniversary and their bigwigs had managed to pull off a visit from the famous dirigible. Only a few select employees and top managers were allowed to go up in the blimp, but I was welcomed to tag along thanks to the battered camera on my shoulder.

Blimps ascend at a steeper angle than you might guess and as my fellow passengers giggled nervously I was reminded of the closing scene in 'Willie Wonka'. Once we reached our desired altitude the pilot 'parked' the flying bladder and passed out Goodyeqr trading cards. He had the steady patter of a stand-up comedian and it occured to me that blimp pilot was one of the few jobs cooler than mine.

Access to exotic aircraft is one of the many perks of our jobs as professional insiders. I for one relish my role as a video interloper - it's afforded me a wealth of extreme experiences, from the tragic to the terrific to the trite. It will never make me rich but I'm always a hit at cocktail parties. It sure beats my old job at the windshield wiper factory.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Snowblind On the Overpass

The Feeling of Accomplishment Outlasted the Frostbite…

Here in the South, we're still a couple of months away from snow. Not that it will take much precipitation to spark the Annual Media Sno-gasm. Yankees may scoff at our excitement - but here where the local viewers begin stockpiling food and weapons before the first flake ever hits the ground...well, three to five inches of snow and ice is a BIG DEAL.

Big enough to shake me out of my soft-news coma, anyway. In times like these (snow, frogs, locusts) , frantic desk jockeys with too much caffeine on board drag me out of my cozy edit bay and out into the Great Frozen Unknown. Be it chasing salt trucks, shooting future E.R. patients at the sled gatherings, or whipping the bread and milk crowd into a freeze-dried frenzy - it’s always a blast when snow clouds take a dump on the Land of Dixie.

I remember the last snow storm. When the alarm clock started screaming at 3:15 a.m. (same time as the Amityville Horror murders), I jumped from my bed, wrapped my self in logo wear and jumped in my pick-up. Say what you want about southerners not being able to drive in the snow, but I for one am getting plenty of practice. By the time I fish-tailed into work I was pretty damn confident of my maneuvering skills, even if stopping on target still eluded me.

Still, I managed to safely bring my five-speed tractor to a reasonable halt and within minutes I was behind the wheel of one rolling billboard with retractable mast. As the wacky morning traffic guy riding shotgun fished out his first discount cigarette of the day, I cranked the crappy radio and pretended I could actually see out of my thoroughly opaque windshield - all the while humming along and wondering, who Did let the dogs out?

I never found out. For soon, we had reached our destination - there, up ahead. That snow-covered grassy knoll by the interstate overpass - that looks like a perfect place for some live morning television! Within minutes my chain-smoking partner and I were busy dragging out all manners of outdated TV equipment - all in the name of keeping our neighbors safe. Sure, the generator fumes were making me hallucinate and I soon couldn’t feel my toes, but this is public safety we’re talking about here! Somewhere an old lady in a bad housecoat was dying to hear the words “wintry white stuff’ emanating from her kitchen TV set. Moms and Dads who had no intention of leaving their homes yearned to see frost-bitten correspondents shiver on cue and kick at the ice with their designer boots. Senior citizens were relying on us to keep them updated on every single salt truck in town - even the one half-dismantled out behind the County garage. Yes, all over the Greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex, the good citizens were counting on us. Across the region they leaned into their set s and hung on every word - hoping against all hopes that somewhere out there, some crazy kid of a reporter would be clever enough to pack along an oversized thermometer, and repeatedly refer to it throughout the morning.

And we didn’t disappoint. In fact, we gave our loyal viewers the best four hours of our life. Feigned snowball fights, mock excitement at passing snow-scrapers, even a few heartfelt words of caution for the army of ice-sled daredevils currently bundling up. As the wind picked up and I lost most of the feeling in my fingers, my nicotine-addicted reporter dug deep, offering up every snowbound cliché he knew, which as it turns out - was quite a few. Before either of us was ready to regain sensation in our lower extremities, the show was over and we were left with nothing to do but seek the proper shelter our southern bloodlines demanded. But the feeling of accomplishment lasted far longer than my third degree frostbite…

Yes, when the ivory expanse under the live truck was scorched an angry black from the exhaust pipe, when the last of my partner’s low-dollar smokes were crushed under his boot, when the mysterious spot of yellow snow by the wood-line had reached it’s full growth, we packed up our ice-covered toys and made a beeline for the nearest greasy spoon- knowing deep down inside that on this cold, snowy morning, we sir, were living our dreams.

At least that's the kind of crap my news manager was selling when he signed me up for day two.

The Adventures of Lenslinger

"I've carried more beauty queens than a dozen parade floats..."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Joy of Scanner Junkies

The Frog Saved my Bacon a Number of Times...

Many moons ago, when I took over a news bureau from a departing one-man-band, I also inherited his scanner hounds. Most were old coots I was familiar with, having turned alot of cop-shop fodder for the competing station.

But there was one caller whom I came to think of as 'The Frog'. He'd call pretty often, never introducing himself, just issuing a declarative statement in his distinctive gravely voice.

"Log truck just t-boned a semi on Hiway 11." -CLICK-

"The old cotton plants goin' up in flames. -CLICK-

"Deputies got a busload of hippies pulled over by the college." -CLICK-

"Bigfoot just ran out of the woods and gave the Mayor the middle finger." -CLICK-

He'd never say more than a sentence or two at most before hanging up. And he never, EVER steered me wrong. (Minus the Bigfoot call, I made that up.)

To make it all even stranger, 'The Frog' used some kind of whacked-out speaker phone that made it sound like he was calling from the bottom of a deep, metallic hole. I got to where I could recognize the particular aural qualities of his set-up before he even croaked out another mysteriously accurate missive.

In the two years I pulled that bureau gig, I never never met 'The Frog', but I quickly learned to trust his disembodied directives. Though I had many other scanner-hound buddies, I never mentioned 'The Frog' to them - afraid I'd somehow scare off my spot-news Yoda.

Before selling my soul to the devil and entering the Evil World of Promotions, I almost figured out who 'The Frog' was. I'd see him on two out of four breaking news scenses: A leathery old African-American gentleman in a wrinkled ballcap and an oversized portable scanner in his hand. As far as I could tell, he wasn't part of any of the responding fire departments or emergency crews, just some old cat who added to the background of a thousand fires, head-on collisions and fender-benders.

Loking back I can't explain why I never approached the old fellow. I never even heard him speak. But his look fitted the voice on the phone, and I came to assume he was indeed 'The Frog'. A time or two, I locked eyes with the guy and he nodded in silent acknowledgement. Or maybe I was just hallucinating, a not-so-outlandish possibilty given my extracurricular activities back then.

Whatever the case, I got great love for the man. It was a spot news market and I was competing with a whole station of ambulance chasers just down the street. 'The Frog' saved my bacon a number of times. In fact, I have no doubt he's doing the same for whatever young news punk is making his bones back there today. At least, I hope he is.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Granny Crack Pipe and Cousin Spit

Her Nephew Seemed to be Missing a Few Fairly Important Chromosomes...

YOU might get excited when the TV cameras show up, but trust me - not everyone's so gracious. I know one photog who's come face-to-barrell with the business end of a angry homeowner's shotgun. Nothing that dramatic here thankfully, but one memorable reaction DOES comes to mind...

I was in an outlying county doing the obligatory drug round-up report when the deputies led the scariest hillbilly family I've ever seen right by me. Freakiest of all was the family matriarch - a beady-eyed little grandmother in a faded yellow housecoat who was facing crack-trafficking charges, of all things. While the rest of her kin turned their faces from the cameras, she glared defiantly into my lens as she filed past in shackles.

Hoping she hadn't already vexed me with some kind of backwoods outhouse voodoo, I positioned myself to get a beter shot of her clan on the inevitable return trip acros the police department parking lot. When Granny Crack-Pipe saw me lying in wait, she nudged her oversized nephew, a lumbering giant who seemed to be missing a few fairly important chromosomes.

Still, he had enough of his D.N.A. strand intact to dig deep and come up with the biggest, nastiest redneck loogie ever captured on videotape. When he passed back by me he let it fly - the lethal concoction of snot, Mountain Dew and tobacco juice warbling in slow-motion right for me.

Lucky for me, the inbred saliva projectile fell just short of full contact splashdown and only a little spittle struck the center of my lens. Instinctively, I racked focus to highlight the hillbilly spit running down my camera's eye.

It made for a great piece of tease video and my esteemed colleagues played it back in the edit suite about a million times before eventually losing interest. But not before a half dozen photogs offered their finest analysis of the snot-rocket's aural qualities, phlegm-consistency and intended flight path.

Come to think of it, we broke down that seven seconds of tape like it was the Zapruder Film. "Back, and to the left...back, and to the left..."

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Suggested Reading

Memoir and Intrigue...

Ever since I could add letters together to form words, I've been plowing through books. As a result I have a home bursting with tomes of every description. If I live long enough, I plan to be a dottering old man, wandering from bookshelf to bookshelf in a ratty robe and slippers. Hopefully my children (book lovers themselves) will make sure I'm fed and cared for.

I used to consume innumerable novels, and Stephen King was an early hero. But the older I've gotten, the less I've wanted to read anything that wasn't true. Maybe it's the newsman in me, maybe I'm subconciously trying to make up for my glaring lack of edumacation. Maybe it doesn't matter.

Whatever the case, I've devoured a strict diet of NON-fiction for about ten years now. I'm a sucker for all those repackaged tales of the past that swell your local bookstore's history section. And being an ex-sailor I have a special place in my heart for tales of the sea. Which brings me to my first selection:

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA by Nathaniel Philbrick
Everyone's heard of Moby Dick (a few of us have actually read it) but that famous work of fiction was based on true events. In 1820 a rogue sperm whale attacked a Nantucket whaler, setting off circumstances that would end in death, treachery and cannabilism.

NEWJACK by Ted Conover
Conover wanted to shadow a recruit at the New York State Corrections Academy but was refused by the state. So he took a job as a rookie prison guard at Sing Sing. What he found inside those esteemed prison walls is enough to make you drop all plans for that tri-state crime spree. I know I did.

INTO AFRICA by Martin Dugard
"Doctor Livingstone, I presume"...if those words sound familiar but you don't know why, then you need to read this book. In the mid 1860's the age of exploration turned it's eye toward the heart of Africa. After a famous expedition goes awry, a journalist steps in, saves the day and exploits everyone around him. Sound familiar?

THE LAST DIVE by Bernie Chowdbury
Not since JAWS has a book made me so re-think the sea. This harrowing tale of a father and son pushing the limits of deep sea diving is enough to make you strap on floaties the next time you hit the pool. A freaky peek at a whole different world.

THE CIRCUS FIRE by Stewart O'Nan
This one is grisly. In 1944, while the men were away at war, a circus tent filled with women and children caught fire and went up in mere minutes. The unfolding tragedy can be hard to stomach at times, but it includes an excellent look at journalists responding to spot news in 1944.

BLUE BLOOD by Edward Conlon
New York City cop Conlon redefines the cop memoir genre. A Harvard grad who follows families ties back to the thin blue line that is daily law enforcement. Once on the beat, Conlon takes note, and delivers a beast of a book in the process, detailing the insanity and righteousness of being a cop.

A Journeyman Gourmet Chef takes you through the incredibly seedy world of Big City Five Star Restaurants. Though I didn't understand much of the french food being discussed in these pages, this hilarous and frightening account of a Big City's chef's misadventures convinced me I could do the same with the role of the local TV News Photographer. Wish me luck!

VIEWFINDER BLUES by Stewart Pittman
A veteran local TV news photographer puts the lens aside for a moment and scribbles madly in his worn notebook. The resulting manifesto skewers the righteous and the absurd in this all-out indictment of an increasingly silly business. Currently Under Construction...

More Blather at B-roll.net

Click above for more broadcast blather at b-roll.net/lenslinger

Punching the Subconscious Clock

Light Static and Heavy Southern Accents Filled the Air...

It's a dream I've had a couple of times - a particularly frustrating episode that’s more distorted memory than random delusion...

The first sensation is overwhelming heat - sweat pouring down my brow as I realize I'm running down a railroad track. Ahead is a dusky tree line with angry black smoke pouring forth. Blue and red lights dance seductively on the horizon and I am literally hauling ass to get there.

Trouble is I'm packing old-time heat - the kind of three-quarter-inch-tape television gear that documented the early 70's. An old orange and oversized Ikegami camera bounces off one shoulder with every jarring step -- a heavy strap cuts into my other shoulder as the low-slung VCR-in-a-bag threatens to take out my knees - an overly long cable connecting the two devices dances between my feet.

As I struggle to stay upright I sense I'm not alone, and looking around me I see a swarm of fellow news crews from my past catching up. Digging in, I almost lose balance, loping along on uneven railroad ties are not quite finding my rhythm. The sun beats down on my future bald spot, as a corded lapel microphone bounces out of a pocket and trails behind me.

Up ahead, the tree line horizon doesn't seem any closer despite the fact my chest is about to explode from running so hard. Emergency strobe lights pierce the smoke up ahead, flashing angry silhouettes. Radio chatter and southern-fried voices fill the air but I can't make out what they're shouting about.

There's no time to wonder though, since the loosey-goosey recording equipment jostling all around me is about to bounce away. Worse yet, the other news crews are catching up with me - the sounds of their footfalls outpacing mine.

One of them brushes by and is soon followed by a crowd of photogs, each one with smaller, lighter, newer gear. As they blow by me, I hear a few snort about my outdated equipment. Soon the last of them is ahead of me and pullin away, the sound of an out-of-market news chopper echoing my defeat.

Still, I run like a madman, hauling at least 100 pounds of the very finest in 1970's newsgathering technology with me. As the hazy figures of my competitors fade into the distance I curse my bosses and reach deep down inside for one last resolve of strength.

And it works! I pick up speed, begin catching up with the others, closing in on the scene. I see the other crews gather together for the first interview. But there's still time! I kick in all I have, my heels and knees threatening to shatter with every loping misstep along the jagged railroad ties. Just as I'm sure I'm finally going to make it...the microphone cable trailing behind me snags on an upturned nail and SNAP! - yanks me backwards off my feet.

That's when I awaken with a jolt, and wonder why in the heck I'm wasting valuable dream energy on something as mundane as work.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Chasing Strangers

The Jug-Eared Driver Zigged When I Was Sure He'd Zag...

I was pursuing a freshly-convicted NASCAR rookie down a darkened Courthouse stairwell the other day and it just wasn't going well. For starters, the jug-eared driver zigged when I thought sure he'd zag - ducking into a side stairwell exit the moment he left the courtroom. Of course I dashed after him, but only to give him a chance to talk about his brand new DUI - and maybe give him one of our nifty station fridge magnets.

But it seems the freshly-scrubbed race car driver didn't want to talk shop (or anything else) and he fled down the stairs with great haste. Before I could get to the doorway, his posse of litigators and hangers-on drafted in behind him and blocked my path. As we jostled in unison down the winding stairs, the driver's entourage spread out into an impenetrable flank. The young racer pulled away and the only thing I caught on tape was a jarring series of well-tailored elbows.

Quickly we descended, four steps and to the left, four steps and to the left. Which each step my frustration mounted. By the time we'd made it past the second floor landing, I'd given up on any interior shots and was trying to recall the layout of the parking lot I would soon be bounding across. Below me, the race car driver within inches of the outside exit...

That's when I heard the sweet sound of a heavy metal door NOT giving way, followed by muffled cursing of a southern variety. Trouble in Turn Two, I thought as I rounded the final four stairs.

On the ground floor, the lanky NASCAR driver in his Sunday best stood rather meekly, surrounded by his lawyers, trophy girl, and gas man. They all looked up at me sourly as I paused on the landing. Slowly reaching up and turning on my camera‘s top light, I could barely suppress a smug grin. I rolled tape, slow-motion back-pedaled up the stairwell and bathed the reluctant racer and his crew in bright spotlight. Two flights up, I let them brush past. After all, rubbin's racin'...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Becoming Me

His Main Concern Was That His Cheek-Bone Implants Be In Focus...

I began my TV career cranking out commercials for fat lady dress shops and used car lots, until fate placed me on scene at a hostage situation with a betacam and a bad hangover. After that, I was hooked on Electronic News Gathering and soon found myself accompanying reporters to events both scintillating and dull. That went on for awhile and I learned alot. It was the dawning of the age of 'COPS' and I followed more drawn pistols into more drug-infested hovels than I could keep track of. But the most hazardous duty I ever pulled was babysitting a certain reporter we'll call 'Blayne'.

Blayne was a pretty boy wannabe from the monied enclaves of the Old South. Never one to be bothered with natural sound and sequenced video, he was only concerned with making sure I got his cheek-bone impants in focus. Here I was learning to be a spot-news lenslinger and day after day all this gentrified pansy cared about was where his overstuffed make-up case was.

So, in an effort to rid myself of this life-sized Ken doll, I made a deal with the devil and became a one-man-band. I bought a few suitcoats, a few ties and trimmed my mullet into something more suitable for broadcast. More importantly, I learned to shoot in the can, frame my own stand-ups and write under deadline. Everything I put on air wasn't perfect but I learned lessons during my time as a solo artist that pay off to this very day.

But after jumping ship to a rival station and becoming a 'one-man-band bureau chief' (ugh!), I started getting a little crispy. Though my newsgathering skills were honed to a razor sharp edge, I still cringed whenever I saw myself on-air. Truth be told, my on-camera schtick was the weakest part of my skill set, and while my bosses never complained, they didn't exactly shower me with the cushiest of gigs. Instead, they relied on me to fill their newscasts with enough crime and grime to choke a vice cop. So when an unlikely chance to take over my station's promotions department came up, I jumped on it - even though I knew I'd soon regret it.

Boy, did I. Two years of cranking out schlock for the world's most unsavory GM left me thinking about climbing the tower out back and picking off co-workers with my paint-ball gun. Instead, I thought long and hard about what it was I wanted to do in TV. I wasn't dying to get back on air, having never felt entirely comfortable with it in the first place. No, what I wanted to do was take pictures, capture sound, and mold it all into a cohesive story by each day's end. So I slapped together an escape tape, scored a photog gig in a larger market and told the GM where to stuff his promos.

Career-wise, it was the best thing I ever did. Free of small-market limitations and with the help of some truly kick-ass shooters, I took my skills to a whole new level. Whatsmore, I used what I'd learned as a one-man-band to perfect my own brand of the anchor package. Now, whenever staffing shortages don't tie me to a reporter, I operate solo - shooting writing and editing packages that our anchors voice. For me, it's great: I get to put the stories together the way I want to, never having to worry about reporter two-shots, unwatched shoot tapes, or being written into a hole.

Yes, my time in front of the lens and behind the pen has made me a better photojournalist. I even dabble in some on-air voodoo once in awhile in the form of the occasional morning live shot substitute gig. Why do I punish myself (and the viewers at large) with visions of my ugly mug over their morning coffee? Ego, perhaps. But more importantly, to slay that dragon I once only wounded - and to show that dry-cleaned blowhard Blayne that even an under-groomed, under-educated photog can make good TV.

Loitering With The Enemy

A Little Company at the Crime Tape Can Be a Good Thing...

Long ago a friend outside the business asked me how I reacted when a competing news crew pulled up on whatever 'news scene' I was covering.

When I told him that nine times out of ten I was grateful for the company, he seemed disappointed. He'd seen too many made-for-TV movies, I'm guessing - the kind where competing news crews treat each other like comic book super villains. I explained to him that when you're the poor schmuck picked to baby-sit the courthouse / train wreck / body search all day, a little company can be a good thing.

In fact, I've had some of the most bizarre and enjoyable field encounters with employees of rival TV stations... be it poker games in the drowning-scene sat truck, practical jokes at the tornado-strewn trailer park or hushed information swaps at the triple-homicide crime tape. Hey, I'm all for eating the other guy's lunch - but in the field, collusion with the enemy is sometimes useful.

That is of course, barring any and all personality disputes. Our business is rife with pompous fools and over-groomed blowhards, and it doesn't take very long for members of the local media to recognize who the righteous jerks are. Some bone-head pulling up late to a gang-bang interview brandishing a microphone flag and an attitude are a natural occurrence in the news gathering wildlife. Natural selection is a wonderful thing.

However, most news people I come into contact with are clever, astute and interesting. We are, as a breed, wary observers of life with a low threshold for bullshit and a penchant for cynicism. I like that. And unless the person at the tripod beside me is a total worm, I'm prone to converse. I've made far more friends than enemies doing so, and I've learned lots in the process.

Is that so wrong?

Monday, November 01, 2004

Dreading the Election

By the Time the Candidate Emerges from Seclusion, I'll No Longer Care...

Ahhh, Election Day! There's no other twelve hour shift I'd rather spend making widgets than the day we put Democracy to the test. No matter where my news camera and I end up, it's usually an exercise in slow-motion.

There's the early morning polling place live shots where the only thing more annoying than the anchor banter in my earpiece are the steely-eyed Election Grannies clocking my every move - fearing I'll knock over one of the booths with my tripod and spill the popular vote all over the gymnasium floor.

A little later there's all the free-for-all stalk-fest of the local Congressman/Dog Catcher candidate casting his vote, when suddenly the guy in all those scathing campaign spots DOESN'T want to talk on camera. Instead, he just wants to look Presidential as he emerges from behind the voting curtain, hoping no cameras caught him fumbling with the 'Vote For Me' thingy seconds earlier.

Don't forget the noon live shot, a totally useless broadcast moment staged outside of the polling place in which well-coiffed reporters judge local turn-out by the number of people they spotted in their three minutes of being on-scene. Minus the ninety seconds they spent checking their look in the camera's lens reflection. Take that, Zogby!

It's much the same scene for the five and six o clock newscast, except by now the production staff back at the station is in full campaign swing, gorging on free pizza while the field crews spread Chap-Stick on a cracker and call it Dinner. Expect the cheesy anchor chick to add to the overall indigestion by recanting a cute story from her own polling place during cross-talk. Hey, it's not an election until the Anchor Queen votes!

Things really start popping when the polls begin closing around 7 pm, and all the live trucks break camp from the local gyms and churches to head straight for the posh ballrooms, where glassy-eyed constituents wear funny hats and huddle around TV screens. If you're lucky they want even notice you scarfing a few rubber chicken plates from the back tables.

Before the internet there was more to shoot at these overdressed gatherings, but the days of dry-erase boards and frantic bag-phone calls are long gone. Now there's little more to accomplish than check out the opposite sex and of course, go alive every fifteen minutes with continuing team smotherage of "Slogan Wars '04".

This being a Presidential Election, most of the focus will be on the ubiquitous wide-screen TV at campaign headquarters. At least try and switch the channel to that of your employer. The suits back at the shop will appreciate it and you may just start a turf war among the reporter-types. That's always good for a few laughs.

If you're unlucky enough to be camped out with a local candidate (as most of my breed will be), you don't even have to check the tally to see how your guy is doing. If all is well the assembled movers and shakers will meet you with warmth and revelry, but if your candidate's falling behind, expect accusatory stares and the occasional rude hand gesture. Before you know it, those who welcomed you in earlier with a hardy backslap will be eyeing you with icy disdain - as you document their last great hope's utter downfall. Not the time to get caught swiping a chicken plate.

Win or lose, it'll be a long evening. By the time the local candidate emerges from seclusion to accept his mandate or merely thank all his supporters, I'll no longer care - knowing only a half dozen more live shots and three morning show re-cuts stand between me and bedtime.

Did I mention I hate Election Day?