Monday, February 28, 2005

Born to Bloviate

Let’s be honest. Some days there’s just nothing to write about. But since this is a blog, I can’t let that stop me. Others don’t. In fact, I’m amazed at how my blogging cohorts fill dispatch after dispatch with stream of consciousness fare that strangely enough fits their frame of reference. I envy their spontaneity. It’s not that I suffer over every word, but keeping this site focused on The Perils of Electronic News Gathering sometimes limits the...blogabilities.

Now, I’m not complaining. Nor am I planning to change Viewfinder BLUES into a vehicle for political screeds, consumer rants and pet photos. There’s plenty of THAT already available in the blogosphere. No, I’ll continue to pour forth on life behind the television news camera, for that’s what I know best. But once in awhile, the well runs a little dry, so forgive me if not every posting is a polished essay on the trials and triumphs of my chosen trade. Sometimes, all I got are nuggets. For example...

I hate Mondays, especially when it snows on the outskirts of my immediate viewing area. That always sends show producers into a tizzy and before I can finish my morning coffee, I’m hurled once again into the slush. Today I could almost SEE through my windshield as I made my way up Highway 29, a troublesome corridor in any conditions, let alone the sideways sleet and rain that thwarted my wiper’s finest efforts this morning. Low visibility aside, I ended up in Eden, where three inches of sloppy wet snow proved to be just the kind of footage my producers were jonesing for. Did I mention I hate Mondays?

Another thing I detest intently is the wrongful use of perfectly good TV equipment, which in my not so humble opinion, is just what ‘Good Day Live’ is. For the past few years, network bigwigs have foisted this bastion of insipidness on a nation of afternoon viewers. Featherweight and celebrity-obsessed, this L.A.-based broadcast blurred the lines between newscasting and unmitigated show business crap. Well, good news! “Good Day Live’ is ‘Good Day Dead’! No longer will I walk into the feed room at work only to catch a few minutes of some C-List bimbo grilling J-Lo’s stylist on what kind of hair mousse she prefers in the limo. Good Day Riddance!

On to less frivolous matters. How about school violence? As a taxpayer and a parent, I‘m against it - though as a working journalist I’m rather adept at keeping my opinions to my self. But today, at a press conference announcing a troubled high school’s fifth new principal in four years, I had to fight to keep down my Chick fil A. Why the indigestion? Just the new administrator’s claim that the school in question is no more violent than any other school, but rather the victim of bad media hype. Excuse me? We newsies may be shrill harbingers of this particular school’s prolonged downfall, but we’re NOT the ones throwin’ gang signs in the hallway, pedaling drugs in the classrooms, or launching haymakers in the cafeteria. I wanted badly to share my thoughts with the new principal, but I knew better. Maybe I’ll tell her replacement. We should be meeting THAT unlucky educator in about a month or two.

Well, there you have it - a few unrelated items from my pea-sized brain. Check back in tomorrow when I’ll try to conjure up something a bit more...linear. Until then, I’d better get some rest. You never know when a sleet storm may envelop the periphery of my homeland, and I’ll once again be back in the saddle, hunting accumulation and cursing my wipers. I could just replace the damn things, but then what would I blog about?

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Photogs in Cinema

Like alot of misunderstood trades, the TV news photographer never fares too well on the silver screen. Be it a lighthearted romantic comedy or a political thriller, the guy (or gal) behind the big lens usually comes off as some socially awkard ruffian more comfortable with his camera than other people. Okay, so that's not so far off the mark, but still, movie-makers seem to go out of their way to deride the role of the television news videographer.

Sometimes it's the technical things that gets the photog nation's goat. In the widely-panned 'Up Close and Personal' (a horrid defiling of the Jessica Savitch story), Michelle Pfieffer and her news photographer go Live(!) from inside a lockdowned prison WITH NO CABLES ATTACHING THEIR CAMERA TO THE LIVE TRUCK. This may seem like a little thing to the viewing public, but one would think camera-knowledgeable cinematographers might notice this type of thing. And it's not just the lack of cables, carboard cameras, phtogs who narrate as they shoot and laughable shooting posture mars most cinematic potrayals of the lens-toting set.

In fact, only two portrayals are widely embraced by the photog nation. The first is pretty marginal but worth mention. Hank Azaria plays 'Animal', a daring news shooter chasing the planet's most buffed-up lizard in the inane remake of 'Godzilla'. Far from a multi-layered portrait, Azaria does nail the scene in the rain, behaving exactly the way I'd expect most of my friends to if ever assigned to pursue a giant reptile through Gotham City. He even has deck troubles.

Sadly, the patron saint of on-screen photogs is still Chris Elliot's cameraman character in 'Groundhog Day'. I liked the film, as well as Elliot's scene-stealing performance of an ancillary role. Something about his character's sardonic defensiveness and skeevy attitude endears him to most every photog I've quizzed on the subject. But come on - we're still talking Chris Elliot here as the absolute pinnacle. I mean, did you SEE 'Cabin Boy'?

Someday Hollywood will get it right. Hell, maybe the first realistic take on us lenslingers could be the biopic of a certain mid-market fluff meister, a seasoned hack who squints through a dusty lens by day and bloviates about it on his blog by night...Hey, it could happen!

Friday, February 25, 2005

She Were Soldiers

Having slogged through every page of the expansive book “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young”, I was eager for the long-awaited release of the Mel Gibson film adaptation. A week before it hit theaters a few years ago, I found a way to pay my respects to the men who died in the fight for Landing Zone X-Ray. Well, one of them, anyway.

One night I pulled the dog-eared copy off a shelf of favorites and spent the better part of the evening pouring over it for names of fallen soldiers with North Carolina hometowns. The next morning, ensconced in my TV station cubicle, I hit the internet phone directories with unparalleled zeal.

Within an hour I hit pay-dirt, locating the elderly mother of a Greensboro youngster who perished on that awful day in the Ia Drang Valley. The old voice on the other end of the voice sounded reluctant at first, but after I convinced her my intentions were pure, she allowed me to come visit.
On the drive over, I drummed happy beats on the steering wheel, excited at the chance to memorialize a fallen hero from such a landmark Vietnam battle.

Outside the mother's modest Greensboro home, I sat in my news unit and tried to calm myself. However stoked I was at the great television possibilities awaiting me inside, I wasn't about to trample on an old lady's painful memories. Grabbing my worn copy of the book that started it all, I left my camera in the car and knocked on the door.

The sweet black lady that quietly welcomed me inside her modest home was a national treasure. A bit leery at first, she listened silently as I pointed out her son's name in the famous book she'd never even heard of. After a few minutes of my awkward babbling, she agreed to let me bring my TV equipment inside, though she forewarned me she really didn't want to talk about wars and battle.

Instead, she showed me her faded mementos from her only son, a proud young man who died at the ripe old age of nineteen, half a world away from his once bucolic Greensboro neighborhood. As I sat on her couch and sipped iced tea, she brought out an old box full of her son's childhood: high school awards, family photos - even the hand-drawn floor plans of a house he'd never live to build.

I have to admit I shed more than one tear in that silent living room. Something about the old lady's quiet dignity, dated furniture and painful laugh reminded me of my own dear grandmother. Hoping she wouldn't notice my wet eyes, I looked around the room and focused on the walls. That's when I noticed an old stopped clock on the wall, it's stiff electrical cord dangling in space. Glancing at my rolling time code, I asked her about the frozen clock face.

"Junior gave me that clock shortly before he went off to war," she said as she started into oblivion, "but the night I heard he died, I unplugged it. Just didn't want to hear it tick no more..."

As touched as I was at the woman's pain, I also knew I'd gotten what I came for. I popped off a few shots of the dusty clock hands, thanked the woman for allowing me inside her home, and left my tattered copy of the book with her as an insignificant token of our short visit. She seemed genuinely happy as I gathered up my tools, but never bothered to ask when my report might air. She didn't need a minute-thirty movie tie-in to remind her of the past. She lived it everyday.

When I got back to the station, I plopped down in front of the computer and watched the story write itself. A half hour later I was in the edit bay, slicing and dicing while thoughts of young men bleeding to death on jungle floors filled my mind. When I emerged from the darkened room, I held in my hands one of the most personally meaningful stories I've ever produced.

Others who saw it agreed. The old lady sitting on the old-fashioned couch in silent dignity, the close-ups of her wrinkled hand unfolding the musty dreams of her long-dead son, the slow zoom of a clock that would never tick was powerful stuff. I even considered entering the piece in a contest or two, but since I've decried the chase for shiny mantle-ware all these years, I thought better of it. Instead I added it to my short list of all time favorite stories and dubbed off a copy for home viewing. Though I’ve yet to watch it again, I’ve kept in loose contact with the soldier’s mother, calling her up every six months or so for an awkward chat about anything but war.

I don’t know if the kind old lady who lost her son so long ago understands my interest in his case, but she entertains my queries whenever that inexplicable feeling of guilt forces me to dial her number. Maybe I’m trying to establish a connection to a war that ravaged the decade I was born in. Perhaps I’m channeling the love for my elderly Grandmother on a nearby surrogate, or maybe I’m just trying to make up for stalking the downtrodden during their moments of pain all these many years. Whatever the case, it feels awful nice to use my camera’s power for good and not evil.

If only the film had been better...

Weaver's Cam-Phone Follies

For the television news photog, the average day consists of marathon driving, tasting the elements and fighting with cranky electronics. Occcasionally you even get to shoot something. All of this spectacular drudgery is expertly chronicled by my in-house colleague and fellow blogging photog Chris Weaver, who's having more fun with a camera phone than should probably be allowed. Check it.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Morning Show Misery

Morning Show Photogs - they do more before the sun comes up than most people do all week. I know - I use to work the cursed early bird shift. In fact, I’m a better photog for it. Come to think of it, my ten months running live truck and camera for our colossal 4-hour morning news show was like some kind of wretched broadcast boot camp - minus the push-ups and bunk-beds, of course. Monster cable-pulls, extended handheld, brackish light...the a.m live shot has many perils. Not the least of which is the often bizarre subject matter you encounter as the pendulum swings from unmitigated fluff to stripped-down spot news - often in the same shift.

I remember one cold drizzly pitch-black morning, scrunched up underneath the crawlspace of a house and cramping badly while some home expert prattled on about protecting your pipes during freezing weather. To my right, our perky morning reporter held the microphone and feigned fascination. It was all I could do to maintain consciousness from my accordion position as one live segment bled into another. By the third such hit, I forgot all about shot composition an signal strength, instead focusing on regaining feeling in my legs. To make matters worse, my reporter and the home expert were passing the time between broadcasts by seeing who could be the biggest jackass, and somehow, I was losing.

After three such extended squat-and-talks, I unfolded my aching bones and jelly-legged it back to the truck. The rain had stregthened since I’d entered the crawlspace and as I traced the heavy black cable snaking back to the truck, I could feel cold rain water seep into my shoes. Thinking about the change of socks and dry duck boots stashed in my pick-up miles away, I stared at my soaked shoes in blank denial.

Oh well, I thought as I pulled my rain hood tight around my drenched face, two more of these train wrecks and we'll hit the diner for omelets, coffee and a few morning newspapers...

That's when my cell phone rang.

"Guys! We're ditching your last two lives. There's two big rigs jack-knifed on the interstate and it's backing up traffic for MILES! We need to roll on it so we can go live at the top of the hour!"

Cursing to myself but saying nothing I hung up, grabbed a handful of muddy cable and began heaving it forward. At that moment, Miss Perky emerged from the square hole at the base of the house and stomped through the mud toward me, muttering under her breath all the way. Watching her approach, I knew the news of our impending bug-out was about to un-make her day, and I dreaded the tantrum she’d throw on the way to the interstate. It's not the kid of thing a guy wants to hear when he's barrelling past traffic in the breakdown lane, but what are ya gonna do?

Only half-listening to my voice break the news to her, a rather obvious point suddenly crystallized in my head.

'I HAVE got to get off this wretched morning shift...'

And I did. But not before completing my masters degree in live shot field production. From underground gold mines, to triple-fatal house fires to hot-air balloons in flight, my perky partner and I went LIVE(!) from every spot in the Greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex - twice. In the process, I learned more about pre-dawn lighting, mini-diva management and the limitations of wireless microphones than I can possibly ever summarize here.

Just don't make me do it again...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Time to Wallow in the Mire

From the spotlight’s glare to the edge of calamity, the camera on my shoulder drags me to the most exotic locales. But not everyday ends in a cross county manhunt, visiting VIP or Bigfoot sighting. More often than not I’m stuck in the muck of daily news, rushing from one forgettable setting to another with a lens that remembers and a desk that never forgets.

Take Wednesday for instance. I began my hump-day pacing around a country club ballroom, watching the blue hair set knock down enough chow to choke a busload of county inmates. Though it smelled delightful, but I wasn’t there to eat. I was there to bag enough shots to support a forty second on-air blurb, footage which takes far longer to procure than it does to watch on the six o clock news.

But this wasn’t my first time at the Snooty Buffet. With considerable aplomb, I strode in early and approached an elder statesman. If the captain of industry was put off by my less than formal appearance, the big lens I wielded made him keep it to himself. Minutes later I pulled the tiny microphone off his lapel and thanked him for his time and (less than) stellar comments. With the sound-bite I needed now simmering on my disc, I retreated to the room’s edge and waited for the inevitable oversized check to appear.

Twenty minutes later I was still waiting. Moneyed widows in too much mascara poked at their cantaloupe in slow motion as Chamber of Commerce types chewed overcooked eggs at half-speed. In the back of the room, I stifled a belch and tasted the coffee I had gunned down an hour earlier. ‘For a bunch of movers and shakers these old farts sure do eat slow,’ I thought for the not the first time since my arrival. If they didn’t hurry, I’d be late for my next few stops, probably end up missing my own lunch because Granny Moneybags’ designer dentures made her chew each bite a hundred times. Standing there, I wanted to jump on top of a table and scream at the top of my lungs...


Instead I flagged down a busboy, handed him my digital camera and smiled for a picture.

It’s a living.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Running Down Dubya

“There he comes now, gentlemen.”

I glanced over at the news photog beside me as a stretch limousine with the familiar seal swooped up to the curb. Before it could even park, a burly man in a no nonsense suit jumped out of the front passenger seat and ran around back. When he opened the rear door, the leader of the free world popped out. Except it wasn’t the 43rd president, but just some out of work actor lucky enough to heavily favor him. But that was of no concern. All that mattered was his image on my tape, a tricky feat since he was already striding down the crowded sidewalk flanked by fake handlers and assorted well-wishers. The chase was on.

October 2001. Still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, America was locked in patriotic fever and for a brief honeymoon, madly in love with his awkward new leader. Jingoism aside, it was an especially savvy time for a publicity firm to put a “W” Impersonator to work, especially when a furniture making client wanted to draw cameras to the ir new Presidential line of recliners at the International Home Furnishings Market. As I sprinted through the crowd-choked streets I could hear the P.R. flacks high-fiving each other in my head.

Catching up with not-President Bush and his growing entourage, I ran ahead of them before turning around for a little one-eyed back-pedal. On the tiny screen jostling an inch from my eye, I studied the man’s features. Damn if he didn’t look like President Bush, at least in a sketch-artist kind of way. To sharpen the effect, the glad-handing actor had apparently studied “W”, for he loped along with the same stiff-armed shuffle already familiar to millions. Outside the viewfinder, I caught a glimpse of countless Market goers doing double-takes at the two cameramen orbiting the fast-moving Presidential party. Fact was, I wasn’t giving my competitor much room to bag his shots. Trailing just to my left side, I could hear his own feet shuffling backwards as he cursed under his breath.

‘Too bad’, I thought as I pulled out to a wide shot. I considered the other TV news photog a brother-in-arms, but all is fair in love and camera combat. Besides, I’d give up my sweet spot as soon as I got one more close-up. That’s when the man himself looked straight into my lens and began talking. ’Sweet’, I thought - a little voice work to sweeten the effect. But as he spoke, I couldn’t help but notice he sounded nothing like the former Governor of Texas.

“Hey buddy, you may wanna--”


Every neck on the packed sidewalk swung in my direction as thousands of out-of-town eyeballs poured over the stupid cameraman who’d backed into a light pole. Shaking off the blow, I could hear snickers as my vision slowly returned. Luckily, everything in my viewfinder still appeared operational. Not so luckily, I’d lost my place in front of President Clone. Of course my camera-swinging colleague had taken my place and as I watched him back up heel to toe, I thought I saw him chuckling behind his eyepiece. This was WAR.

The next few moments passed in a blur. Summoning strength I hadn’t planned on even bringing, I dashed ahead of the crowd, brushing past a clutch of visiting retail weasels before almost body checking a stooped over lady in horn rimmed glasses. The expression on their faces revealed their thoughts. ’What’s up with this crazy cameraman, and hey - is THAT President Bush?’ But I had no time to answer as the flank of furniture lackeys ushered the actor towards the entrance of the International Home Furnishings Center. Inside that behemoth, the better part of 70 thousand furniture salesmen stood shoulder to shoulder, exchanging business cards and call girls’ phone numbers. I’d fought that crowd just hours earlier and wasn’t about to re-enter the fray, so I did what any self-respecting photog would do, I bagged my losses, resigning myself to whatever footage I could obtain over the next few seconds. Spinning on my heels like the most agile of quarterbacks, I framed up a half dozen shots at five seconds at pop.

Too bad a flood of distributors, buyers ad exhibitors chose that exact moment to exit the building en masse. As a sea of shoulder padded suits and over-priced perfume swallowed me and my camera, I hoisted my toy above my head to get one last shot of all the President’s men. When I did, the exiting crowd looked in the directions of my lens and cries of excitement filled the air. Pushing past the overdressed strangers, I caught one last image of the actor as he waved to the crowd before entering the building’s double doors. Ahead of him, I saw my fellow cameraman being involuntarily sucked into the vortex of thousands of Furniture Market salesmen and women. The poor guy never bailed in time, now he was at one with The Sea of Sleazeballs.

With the Presidential Impersonator safely out of sight, I dropped my camera to my side and began weaving a thread through the crowed streets. Though I tried to avoid eye contact, I did catch a few questioning glances from the crowd I‘d just barreled through moments earlier. ‘Wasn’t that the guy who just ran down three old ladies chasing the President?, they all seemed to ask themselves.

“Not me’ I tried to project as I transformed from wild-eyed cameraman to ordinary citizen. Tucking my shirt back in and running a finger through my hair, I couldn’t help but snicker at the absurdity of it all. ‘The things I do for thirty seconds of television‘, I thought, ‘the things I do...’

Monday, February 21, 2005

A Master Passes

HSTA hero of mine is dead, apparently by his own hand. It's a sad end to a whirlwind life, an abrupt halt to a twisted, tortured existence spanning several decades of decadence and delusion that changed the face of journalism in the process. To some he was just a drug-fueled, gun obsessed iconoclast, a hold-over from the sixties who never let go of that era's freedom. But to me, he's always been a literary role model, the Father of Gonzo Journalism who long ago scrambled my brains and ignited my soul.

I discovered Thompson at age thirteen, when one of my more subversive older buddies slipped me a tattered copy of 'Hell's Angels'. Inside those well-worn pages, I found the most unlikely of role models - an unbalanced outlaw scribe who fascinated me as much as his salacious subject matter. That a journalist could interject himself into the action in such an incredibly entertaining way was nothing less than a revelation to me. It made me want to WRITE more than ever. Why not? This deranged wordsmith from the decade I was born in had cleared the way, blazed intoxicating skid marks through the hallowed halls of American Journalism. Soon I immersed myself in the H.S.T. canon, from 'Fear and Loathing' to 'Songs of the Doomed' to 'Generation of Swine'. Whiel other kids my age were busy idolizing sports figures, I was falling under the influence of a drunken Master, a dangerous uncle who could lay down incendiary narratives and broken prose like no one else before or after him. I was hooked, and still am. Not far from my computer, his many works fill my bookshelves, timeless testaments to the power of the caustically written word.

And now he's gone, the apparent victim of his own violent psyche. That part saddens me the most, as it will cast a shadow over his legacy for awhile, givign others ample proof that the Father of Gonzo Journalism was in fact, still crazy after all these years. Perhaps. But throughout his life, Dr. Thompson inspired as much as he instigated, delivered as much as he derided, and lifted a workaday medium to dizzying new heights. Of course, Hunter's life and work wasn't for everyone. Some view his work with middle-of-the-road disdain, dismissing his infectious wordplay and laser-beam wit as the drug-addled ramblings of a madman. Fair enough - but if you're reading this, then count yourself a fan. If you like what it is I've been attempting to pull off at this humble site, then you too are a Disciple of the Duke, for my hollow words are a mere echo of what Hunter S. Thompson has been shouting about all these years...
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Indeed...Rest in Peace, H.S.T.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ribbon Cuttings, Ride-Alongs and Rage

Isn’t it strange that we TV news photojournalists are widely renowned for our lousy attitudes? Why are we pissed? We have an all-access pass to life, dress like we're always on vacation, and basically sight-see for a living...Okay, there's more to it than that, but on the whole my profession calls for just as much daring as it does drudgery. Yet the classic stereotype of a news shooter is that of an anti-social, slightly subversive loner dripping in spite, self-loathing and cynicism. Of course we’re not all like that, but walks the halls of any TV station and I guarantee you’ll find at least one lost soul who fits that bill.

In fact, I think it's part of the Equal Opportunity Employment Act. Here it goes right here..
Article 19 Section 4 Paragraph 5...All broadcast facilities within the contiguous U.S. will seek out and continue to employ one badly-aging ENG camera operator whose sole purpose is to impress upon all others what a righteous sewer this place is, emphasizing to all how it could all be fixed if just every fellow employee would make a single file line at the nearest exit and GET THE HELL OUT OF HIS LIFE!
Okay, so I was a bit on edge that day, but you would be too if you spent three hours hunched over an dying eyepiece in a cramped shotgun seat of a tricked-out police car, all so you can obtain the same seven shots you did on your very first ride-along fifteen years ago. It’s enough to make the most affable of chaps go a little postal.

In fact, I sometimes get so fired up over the predicable anguish of The Job that I could french-kiss a chainsaw and come out the winner. What exactly that means I don't know, but I do sometimes wonder would If I'd get this pissed off if I were peddling carpet samples, or installing stereos, or assembling snowmobiles. Something tells me I would, but it won't stop me from swearing up and down I'm wasting my life away sometime next week. A thousand ribbon-cuttings will do that to a fellow.

For me though, nothing assures me I'm following the right path in life than a visit to good ole Corporate America. Ten minutes inside the hushed confines of a super-polite cubicle-farm and I break out in a cold sweat. I grow pale, get dizzy and want to rip down every Dilbert cartoon in sight before running down the hall to tip over the snack machine. For reasons I don’t fully comprehend, I yearn to smell the pine tree air freshener hanging from my news unit's rearview mirror, to race it's engines to the nearest crime tape and soak up the ambience of live truck fumes, tripod clusters and chain-smoking strangers.

For it's only in this sordid, deadline-filled pressure-cooker world of daily TV news that I feel truly at home. Sure, I may mumble about the colossal stupidity of today's assignment, but pay it no mind. All that gruff and cynicism is simply a front - a defense mechanism to hide the fact that I'm still pretty stoked to be in such an unpredictable, improbable, inane profession. I somehow doubt furniture upholsters feel the same way about their jobs.

Then again, no one disturbs their sleep because an abandoned warehouse catches fire.

Real World Award Categories

I’m not one for entering TV news contests, but friends of mine spend lots of time and effort chasing those shiny mantle-somethings. Be it NPPA , The Emmy's or Bob’s Trophy Factory, the categories are all the same: Best Spot News, Best Feature, Best Series...BORING! If I’m gonna spend my time (and money) chasing accolades, give me some categories I can relate to...

INTERN DITCHING: The squirrelly little dude in the clip-on tie just asked if he could 'roll with you today'. How do you get rid of him without crushing his spirit? Extra points for mercy kills.

CASSETTE FIELD SURGERY: Just because you spilled diet Sprite on your shoot tape doesn't mean your down for the count. I've seen photogs armed only with a rusty Leatherman and sheer determination perform miraculous edit-bay tapendectomies. A timed event.

ODDEST CAMEOS: Staging schmaging, isn't that YOU walking past the camera's wide shot? From hand modeling to crowd control, how can you work yourself into the warm-body background? Special bonus for weird facial expressions of goofy limps.

COLOR CORRECTION: Your video looks great, but only because you spent thirty minutes frantically excising the sickening blue hue permeating the screen. Judging based on before and after pictures.

MOST FREEBIE APPAREL: If every shirt you own sports a station logo you may be eligible for this special wardrobe competition. Free t-shirts count, points detracted for special sauce stains.

SLOWEST EDIT: Yeah yeah, you slapped together a 12 minute documentary in 90 seconds. Big Deal! Give my blue ribbon to the cat who can stretch a 120 second story on Gardening Tips into two days of 'intensive editing'. Special penalties apply if caught dozing in the non-linear suites.

GREASY SPOON EXPERTISE: Test your knowledge of local eateries, their hours of operation, and menu items. Extra points awarded for identifying fast-food chains by building silhouettes.

FOULEST CAR INTERIOR: If you've ever spilled a cup of chewing tobacco spit inside your news unit and not stopped to clean it up, you may qualify to enter this highly competitive field. Any live animals, competitor's logo-wear or mid-seventies cheeseburger Styrofoam found in car doubles score.

OVERALL RESTRAINT: File a report on holiday shopping withOUT cash register nat sound. Cover the local groundbreaking with NO shovel shots. Simply execute a typical story resisting all cliché angles, shots and methods. Rack focuses and time-lapsed sunsets automatically disqualifies entrant.

Then maybe I’ll pony up some cash for an entry form…

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Press Conference Zombies

It’s the middle of the February Sweeps Period and boy, does it feel like it. From special reports to breaking news to endless live shots, the already grueling news cycle always reaches a fever pitch this time of year. It’s enough to make this self-avowed soft-news-junkie barricade himself in an edit suite and slice and dice timelines until his eyeballs bleed. But alas, the call of the wild beckons, and I’m soon hurled into the void by a frazzled assignment editor, or at least one who pretends to be frazzled until I’m safely out of sight. Either way, once I’m jettisoned from my edit cocoon, things usually turn far more pedestrian.

Like today for instance, when I covered my 47,361st press conference. Today’s focus? The shutdown of the Southern Loop - a new stretch of 1-40 that area motorists were just getting used to. But as my pal Tom Britt says, the D.O.T. giveth and the D.O.T. taketh away. So as I settled into my tripod position at the back of a crowded conference room, I daydreamed while the Transportation Wonks defended their decision to send thousands of travelers back through the dreaded corridors of I-40‘s ‘Death Valley’. Wonder if ‘Survivor’ will be any good this year?

Anyhoo, since the only thing worse for you than watching reality television is thinking too much about it, I turned back to the matter at hand. The head hardhat yammered on about traffic patterns and peak times, but I just couldn’t connect. As I absently-minded watched the audio needles dance in my viewfinder, I re-examined a mental blueprint of the edit sequence I’d been forced to abandon. Ya know, if I switched those two wide shots and slo-mo’d theose cutaways, I could probably stretch that footage to the closing soundbite. Sound like gibberish? Perhaps, but these are the things that run through the mind of the average photog while he tweaks the focus. Jeez - how long can this cat talk?

Apparently a long time, for he was still babbling when I whipped out my digital camera and popped off a few frames of my cross-town colleagues. This shot features two fellows I see all the time. Their names escape me at the moment, which is wholly inexcusable since I’ve shared more knowing glances with them than some members of my extended family. Be it a train wreck, an operating room or a hostage situation, we’ve hovered on the edges of more surreal landscapes than I could possibly ever cover here. Whatsmore, we share a common language based on a most uncommon vantage point - that of the lowly TV news photog. Yes, with nary a word exchanged between us, I can tell you these two seasoned lensmen are just as monumentally bored as I am, no matter how intently they may be leaning into those viewfinders.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a soft news coma to crawl back into.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Interview with a Newsbreaker

As I've mentioned before, I'm torn when it comes to the Newsbreakers. Part of me applauds their much-needed skewering of the electronic media, but if they showed up at my live shot, I'd hit 'em with a bag of chisels - or at least want to. So, I e-mailed spokesman Buck "Lucky" Owens with a few questions...

Lenslinger: What exactly are you trying to accomplish?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: We are trying to make media criticism an exciting topic for water cooler chat and backyard barbecues. As it stands right now, the people who care about improving journalism in this country are relegated to drowsy lecture halls and the smallest desks in the newsrooms. Everyone else is left to give up, tune out or find alternative means of informing themselves. We see this happening on an anecdotal basis and think the numbers bear it out as well. Meanwhile, from our vantage point, TV news is going down the sh!tter. We're here to say the pipes are getting clogged with too much corporate group think, government acquiescence (or worse) in the form of deregulation and personal buck-passing. We want to get regular people (read: non-newsies/non-academics) involved in the discussion before there's a fetid mess on the floor.

Lenslinger: How do you feel about the legion of photogs who are calling for your intestines on a stick?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: It's to be expected. Afterall, you guys feel the pain of our actions most acutely. What surprises us is the number of photogs who actually voice support for us. If anything, we expect all you guys to be haters. Based on and personal feedback, you're not.
Media professionals have a right and an expectation to "do their job." The question at the core of that statement is "For whom are you doing the job?" If you are just doing the job for the company who cuts your check, are you doing enough? We want more. We want to remind journalists about their duty to serve the public. That responsibility is what we believe attracted them to their careers in the first place.

Lenslinger: Are you seeking serious media reform, or are you just getting your rocks off at all the fuss you've kicked up?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: I'm sorry. Are these two activities mutually exclusive?

Do we have fun? Of course, because we want our work to be accessible. We don't claim to function like the PEJ or FAIR. What we do, hopefully, is drive people to check out these types of organizations. We're carnival barkers inviting people into the tent of serious media reform.

Do we support the ideas behind initiatives like micro-broadcasting and the Two Minute Media Revolution? You betcha. (Christ, I'm sounding more like Donald Rumsfeld these days.)

Lenslinger: How much does the internet mean to your seizure of the airwaves?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: The internet has its pros and cons. Obviously it allows us share our work with a large number of people in as close to real time as we can handle. That's a drawback, too. Everything moves so quickly on the 'net that we have to bust our balls to keep up. There's a blogger out of Albany, NY who writes about us. Three weeks after our January bust, he wondered publicly if we had disappeared since he had heard about us lately.

Lenslinger: Who picks your costumes?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: Responsibility for costuming decisions are shared between the group and the product of our favorite brewers.

Lenslinger: What's next?

Buck "Lucky" Owens: Now what fun would answering that question be? We're taking requests, though.

Stay Tuned...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

My Time on The Dark Side

I remember sitting in a darkened conference room, watching a lurid three-part sweeps series from a sister station...

Onscreen, a handsome reporter leads the camera through an anonymous hotel room. The lights dim noticeably as the talking hair-do walks around the room and gestures theatrically. As he talks, the lens wanders away and pans the cheesy landscape of the Cockroach Inn’s floral bedspread. The lights dim altogether as the square-jawed Anchor-in-waiting yammers on...

Suddenly a black-light snaps on, bathing the bedspread’s outdated pattern in eerie night-vision. Dramatic music swells in the background as an odd-shaped discoloration shimmers to the surface of the spread. The camera pushes in on the ugly stain and it stares back defiantly, like some toxic, tattooed paramecium frozen in time, born of some cross-state illicit tryst, and waiting, just waiting to someday give you the clap...

"So what ARE these stains?" the voice says as the camera pans over to the reporter, his carefully-plucked, furrowed brow bathed in black-light. "We'll tell you, after the break..."

The screen faded to black and someone popped the lights on in the conference-room.

"Now THAT'S a series piece!," the station manager declared, grinning at the assembled yes-men. "And WE'RE gonna do it the EXACT same way! Why reinvent the wheel? Hmm? Am I right?"

The Yes-Men shifted in their seats for a second, then quickly chortled their approval. As they jockeyed for position to congratulate their leader, I sat in the corner and stared at my clipboard.
Somehow, after six years of clawing my way up the small market food chain, I found the one job in local TV I didn’t want…Promotions Manager.

Eighteen months earlier, I’d followed a whim and walked away from gig as a one-man-band reporter/photographer for an even more thankless position, churning out dreck for The Man. It seemed like a good idea, Burnt to a crisp from life as a one-man news team in an under-funded bureau, I ignored my gut instinct and took the job as head Promo Hack, er Guru for the backwaters affiliate that employed me.

Bad move. Within hours, I knew it was not for me - despite the office, the assistant and the apparent autonomy. As I settled in to a steady regiment of half-baked ideas, badly-planned campaigns and unreasonable demands, I quickly rued the day I left the newsroom. But what was a young father of two to do - take a step DOWN the corporate ladder? Surely not I thought, as I loosened my necktie and swallowed my bile. Surely not.

I believed it for awhile. Instead of daily news stories, I concentrated on quarterly sweeps campaigns. Instead of interviewing movers and shakers, I propped up anchors and rounded up stagehands. Instead of setting up my tripod on disaster’s edge, I wheeled out a barrel fun of viewer’s postcards for the wacky weatherman to pull from. Instead of piloting my news car from one vista to the next, I learned every inch of the rundown studio and antiquated control room. Instead of looking forward to the next day’s adventure, I lay in bed cursing while the alarm clock screamed.

All the while, I told myself I’d made the right move. But that day in the conference room, a white-walled torture chamber I’d come to know intimately, my well of reassurance ran dry. As the GM and his hens cackled in the background, I stared holes through the yellow-lined paper before me.

‘I can’t do this anymore,‘ I thought. ‘I cannot pretend to care any longer about whatever these clowns come up with. I want to tell stories again, not crank out cheesy promos for a man I’ve come to hate. Anything would be better than THIS - even...GULP, shooting news.’

Which to make a long story short, is what I did. Following some of the smartest people I’d ever worked with to a place called the Piedmont, I found there are second chances. Now that I’ve been back in the news saddle seven years, I gotta tell you, everyday ain’t a picnic. But whenever I get frustrated with the vagaries of the chase, I think of my time behind the deceptively serene walls of one DownEast television station and realize I’m back where I belong.

Sad, isn't it?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Bam Saves the Day

Forgive Bam here if he‘s not looking his best. But you’d be a little frazzled too if you just saved your family from a early morning house fire. It happened just before five in the morning, when a spark in the hundred year old house’s electrical system sent Bam into a barking frenzy. Soon Bam’s master was stirring in her sleep, wondering what in the hell had come over her homely mutt. Dense smoke in the hallway quickly answered that question. Suddenly wide awake, Bam’s owner rousted her sleeping aunt from a back bedroom and the two women escaped unharmed.

But Bam was nowhere to be found. Firefighters tried to flush the dog out, but couldn’t coral the hyped-up pooch. Only when Bam collapsed from smoke inhalation did they manage to extract him from the burning house. He looked all but dead, but fire and rescue workers revived him, using a whole bottle of oxygen in the process. As Bam the wonder dog was rushed to a nearby animal hospital, his owner began to realize what had happened: the mangy cur she’d rescued from the pound back in December had just returned the favor - and nearly died in the process.

By nine o clock, Bam was ensconced in a veterinarian’s office, a little worse for the wear and only wanting a little rest. But there’d be little downtime for Bam, as he was quickly being transformed from a lowly family pet into a full-blown media sensation. Annoying TV cameramen clamored for close-ups while newspaper reporters collected details by phone. Before Bam could cough up all the smoke he’d swallowed, radio commentators were opining on one Piedmont dog’s untold bravery. An hour later, TV news editors were splicing footage of the mixed breed hero with shots of the smoldering home. By noon, Bam had made the transition into a one-named media darling, as graphic artists picked his most noblest pose for the glossy over-the-shoulder graphic that would hover between the anchor team at five.

I only wish I’d gotten his autograph when I had the chance.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Birth of a Photog

As a kid I was once struck by the sight of a long-haired newspaper photographer prowling the edges of my little league ballgame. From my usual spot on the bench I watched him - noting how out of place he looked amid the screaming Moms and Dads. The game was in it's final minutes - every set of my eyes (including his) on the field except mine. But I was thoroughly transfixed by the hippy with the lenses. The way he moved through the crowd, watching the horizon and chewing his toothpick held me in rapture. 'Bet that guy's been places', I thought, 'wonder what he's seen through all that glass?'

From there I was hooked. I soon bought an eleven dollar camera and started hanging around the darkroom at my junior high school. I soon proved to be extraordinarily average behind the lens and eventually moved on to other interests, namely cigarettes, truancy and the opposite sex. Hey, what else are the formulative years for? By the time I first conned my way into a TV job years later, that wandering long-hair with all the zoom lenses was but a faded image in my memory banks. After all, there was too much to learn to question the psychology of my motives. So which filter do I use outside again?

These days I KNOW which filter to use outside, and there are weeks that I foolishly think I've used them on every type of news story there is. That's usually when the pager comes humming to life and I'm off to the races, leaning into the wheel and cursing at my cell phone. Don't worry though, by the time I roll up on scene, I'm one cool customer. No matter the tragedy, stupidity or joy at hand, I'll mill about and take it all in with my thousand yard photog stare. Once in awhile I'll catch sight of some awkward adolescent clocking my every move. Sometimes I stop to talk but more often than not I try not to linger - afraid their pointed questions will stick with me throughout the day.

"How do you work that thing? Do you meet famous people? How much money do you make?"

It's enough to make me think about my friends outside the business. They all have nicer stuff, fancier vacations and more free time than I do. They've already been home an hour or so when I roll in every evening and their yards look better because of it. They have alot more neckties than I do, along with business cards with abstract, wordy titles. It all seems nice until you hear them talk about work, really watch their eyes glaze over as they stare at the dogs on the grill and remark how incredibly soul-sucking their working hours are.

Worse yet, they all think I have the coolest gig on the planet - that I cruise around all day and play with my camera. What are they - dreamy young kids on ballpark benches? They can't fathom the demands of our work, let alone the relentless pace. To them it's all fun and adventure, grab a beauty queen and go play TV...I guess in some respects they're right, for all the headache and deadlines, it's a pretty cool gig. We get a backstage pass to life, and launch countless sorties into hostile and surreal territories. Surely it must beat being Vice President of Staple Arrangement.


Friday, February 11, 2005

The Extraordinary Madness of Crowds

A fellow photog’s remarks about covering Mardi Gras brought to mind several instances of broadcast cameras and popular delusion...

I first came to grips with the weird effects of a zoom lens on pack mentality back in the early nineties, when I wandered into the Emerald Isle Beach Music Festival with a camera on my shoulder and trouble on my mind. Not big trouble, mind you - just a young man’s desire to witness the legendary gathering firsthand. Boy, did I. Between the drunken Marines, shirtless rednecks, and bikini-clad beach bunnies; I got more than my fill of images - most not suitable for the Six o Clock news. After skirting the crowd for a bit (and turning down countless offers of alcohol and other enticements), I foolishly strolled up to the lip of the stage, where North Carolina’s most popular beach music band was laying down the finest in watered-down Motown, all to the enjoyment of a sold-out, sunburned thoroughly sloshed crowd.

A bit intoxicated myself from all the attention my lens brought, I climbed onstage and recorded close-ups of the band. When the station logo on my camera flashed in the sun, the throng of badly dancing revelers cheered at the arrival of their local news dude. Hunkering down by the stage’s edge, I panned from the performers in matching pantsuits to the crowd in assorted cut-offs and halter-tops. Everywhere I pointed the camera, cheers rang out, causing me to swell with pride at the power of my chosen weapon. With thousands of raucous partygoers clamoring for my lens’ attention, I almost felt like a rock star myself, though on stage with the Kings of Southernized White Boy Doo-Wop. Either way, I tried to look casual behind the viewfinder as my senses overloaded with swirling vistas of the adoring masses.

That’s when the beer bombs started. One at first, then a second and a third - plastic cups half-full of keg rot landed all around me at first, before a fourth sudsy projectile found its target - my head. The audience squealed with delight upon the first solid splashdown, and to a man, each rhythm-deprived imbiber launched his own salvo of Budweiser and backwash. I’d like to be able to say I dodged each and every cup, then grabbed the microphone and led the band through a scorching rendition of ’Peace Frog’, but it wasn’t meant to be. No, I merely shielded my camera as best I could while incoming alcohol reigned down from above. With every soaking, the crowd responded with glee, bringing to mind visions of Christian Cameramen bring ripped to shreds by lions as a coliseum of the Great Unwashed roared their approval. Eventually, I managed to escape stage left, but not before my station golf shirt, overgrown mullet and personal dignity were soaked in hops, barley and embarrassment. Slinking past a giggling gaggle of Budweiser Girls, I retreated to my news unit with a new appreciation safe for safe distances from alcohol-engorged audiences.

It’s a rule I would strictly adhere to until a few years later, when a new camera and too much testosterone placed me on top of an ice machine during a drunken Halloween brawl, where the crowd soon decided to turn on me once again.

But that’s a story for another time...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

From Crisis to Commodity

I’m pretty adept at avoiding lead stories. But every so often forces outside my control drag me kicking and screaming back to the front lines of the newsgathering war. Today was one of those days. Before I could even get to work, the pager on my belt began convulsing, letting me know I’d better skip the drive-thru window and report to my TV station ASAP. Rolling my eyes, I dialed my cell phone and submitted to my fate.

It all started when some thug in East Greensboro stole a Mitsubishi from a convenience store parking lot. The owner of the car had left it idling while she went inside to pay for gas. When she realized it was gone, all she could think about was her two year old son in the backseat. As she began to rightfully freak out, the Spot News Circus began. City police turned out in droves, their scanners percolated and overflowed with tantalizing details and assignment editors started to hyperventilate. Before long, I was behind the wheel of a wheezed-out Live truck, passing traffic and cursing under my breath as my reporter for the day scribbled details of the carjack turned kidnapping.

It was all over by the time we arrived. Cops had spotted the stolen car and chased it through less than stellar neighborhoods. After a respectable pursuit, the car thief crashed his purloined vehicle into a passing SUV, causing quite the dust-up off Market street. In the immediate moments following impact, the bad guy somehow managed to escape on foot, leaving the unharmed toddler safe in his car seat. Classy! But though the action was over, my job had just begun. Parking my logo’d stagecoach near the crunched up Mitsubishi, I raised the mast and began processing tape my fellow staffers had shot on scene. My photog brethren had done their jobs well. Shots of the wrecked car, search dogs, and an interview with a much-relieved mother told me I’d have plenty of images to tell the story. Good thing, since every newscast producer I knew was now clamoring for a piece of the action. As each individual show-stacker rang my cell phone, I leaned in to the editor and mused about the news.

When I was new to the business, there was nothing I enjoyed more than breaking news. But after years of covering murders, drive-bys and armed robberies, I found myself monumentally bored with televising the daily carnage. So I began to specialize in features. You know - those inconsequential stories that wrap up the newscast, the ones that give the anchor team something to chortle about as the houselights fade. Call them frivolous, but were it not for the warm and fuzzy feature piece, I would have found another way to make a living a long time ago. It’s not something I think about a lot, until I’m stuck on the roadside, getting dizzy off Live Truck fumes and wondering how normal people spend their workday.

But there wasn’t alot of time for critical thinking. I had far too much tape to cut. Between our many Live(!) shots, I sliced and diced the footage into every form and shape possible. Full blown reports, quickly-paced summaries and a bevy of teases poured forth from my fingertips. Before I knew it, I’d helped process this fleeting crisis into a daylong newsroom commodity. In the big picture, a twenty minute kidnap joyride doesn’t really amount to much, but for a TV station in the thralls of a Ratings period, it is televised gold. Given just a nugget of on-air emotion from the relieved mother holding her son, we stretched it across a full day of news programming, spicing up our many newscast with the tersely worded tale of “A Mother’s Worst Nightmare“! Okay, maybe we didn’t dust off that old cliché (we’re saving it for the next school bus wreck), but we did showcase the drama in a way that only TV can - in full living color with sound, immediacy and a few bromides to boot.

Is that so wrong?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Return of the Nutbags

I'm STILL trying to figure out how I feel exactly about the Newsbreakers. Just last week this merry band of idiots contaminated yet another Live(!) shot by working the world's happiest Grim Reaper into the backdrop of a couple of Columbus, Ohio TV news remotes. When contacted by phone the Reaper himself riffed on his relationship with the Sinclair Broadcasting group...

"I'm tight with organizations like Sinclair. I try to respect their deadlines as my own," the Reaper said. "I strive to preserve the synergy that exists between us."

Okay, THAT'S funny. Look, I'm all for stinging social satire and I'll give this group props for highlighting the electronic media's fascination with the fast and easy bleed, but I'd feel a whole lot better about these clowns if I better understood their agenda. Surely they don't think interrupting live shots with silly masks is going to change anything? If they're a bunch of drunken frat pukes, I say more power to them, If they're serious media critics, I gotta question their tactics (and their wardrobe choices.)

Of course that's the midnight analyst in me talking. The weathered photog in me says 'screw their motive, get 'em out of my shot!" I know more than a few lenslingers will even less patience than me who wouldn't think twice about physically removing said invader, regardless of WHAT satirical bent he's pursuing. I hope this doesn't happen, otherwise the Grinning Reaper may get a camera battery to the rubber-masked temple and worse yet, a photog may lose his job.

So, in an effort to head this thing off at the pass, or at least get a better understanding of this broadcast buffoonery, I'm reaching out to the Newsbreakers. I'm moments away from dispatching a query to the Live(!) Shot Liberators, in hopes they'll answer a few terse if not turgid questions. Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Edit Bay Deja Vu

I suffer the weirdest sensations sometimes; episodes that make me wonder what this job is doing to my brain. I'll be out and about somewhere, not thinking about TV News at all, when a strangely familiar face appears in the crowd. I'm never sure of their name or profession, But I'm suddenly certain I've framed their countenance in a talking head shot sometime in the past...

It happened to me this weekend, when I was shuffling the kids through a supermarket check-out line. A stout, rather plain looking woman two aisles over was unloading her own grocery cart, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I had nary a clue as to who the woman was, but the more I looked at her, the stronger I became convinced that I had processed her image from viewfinder to living room.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I approached her outside the store. Yes, she replied, she had been interviewed by my station five years earlier - as part of a story on school lunches. She didn't remember me of course - but she did recall the reporter I was with that day and asked about him. I smiled and nodded, choosing not to tell her what a righteous schmuck the guy was.

It was a momentary encounter, one devoid of any real intrigue. But it got me to thinking about the power of memory and the weird nature of what our brains decide to hold onto. For example I'd have a hard time naming the thirteen original colonies, but I can close my eyes and envision the beads of sweat rolling down the face of a dogcatcher I interviewed ten years ago.

Is it because we're such visual creatures? Perhaps, but the same deja vu feelings can also apply to audio. Who here cannot quote verbatim a memorable soundbite from eons ago? I myself got a miilion of them, but without proper context, they're meaningless - like the punchline of a joke you don't understand.

I'm guessing the selected recall comes from the edit bay; the simple repetition of certain sights and sounds finds its way into our deepest memory reserves and refuses to let go. Which is particularly infuriating to an absent-minded goob like myself. For the love of God, I spend ten minutes a day looking for my car keys! You're telling me I'm gonna go to my grave with snippets of monotone police chiefs and frazzled fire victims bouncing around my head? Will I lay on my deathbed quoting public information officers and stunned neighbors? Will my grown kids look at each other in confusion as I describe the feathered back-light on a live shot from twenty years ago?

Chances are I will. It's just a shame I collect musty film strips in my brain - instead of more lucrative data like scientific theories, square roots and other money-making formulas. Yes, if I could have held on to all that crap I ignored in school, I coulda been somebody - instead of the Walter Mitty of southern TV news photogs.

Spotlight: beFrank

Trusty Weaver alerted me to another photog’s blog recently and I’ve been in awe ever since.

Meet beFrank. This smooth sat truck operator plies his trade in sunny L.A., where vapid faces mug for midnight flashbulbs and the crime tape comes down at dawn. Celebrity-drenched and photo-intense, his site chronicles the endless parade of tripe and tragedy that is life behind the TV lens. But you’ll find little bitterness here, for this cat has a State of Zen and sense of style rarely found in most camera scrums. Visit his voluminous site and you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Stalking Fantasia

I wrapped up the workweek loitering outside a radio station and thinking about celebrity. You would too if you watched four grown women agree to be pelted with water balloons in frigid temperatures, all for a chance to meet Fantasia Barrino. The 2004 American Idol blew through the Piedmont on a whirlwind media tour Friday and the assignment of tracking her every move fell on my weary shoulders. Beats covering City Hall. As for the women pictured here, they lived up to the agreement, trading in warm body temps and most of their dignity for a few breathy moments with the mini-diva. In the end they got their wish, and probably a wicked cold as well.

But the madness really kicked in once the Guest of Honor arrived. Ushered in through a back door, Fantasia joined myself and about thirty others in an on-air booth built to hold no more than four people. But who can blame the radio staff for turning out en masse? Its not every day a one-named media sensation graced these halls! During her struggle with Paula, Simon and Randy, this urban radio powerhouse championed Fantasia’s rise like no other media outlet, except of course my own employers, who recognized the ascendancy of this quirky single mother with the incredible pipes for what it truly was - a gift from the Rating Gods. It’s not often the hottest show on your network plucks a local home girl from obscurity and dubs her the new Queen of Soul. When it does happen, you crank up the hype machine and don’t ask why.

Of course for me, the day was filled with hovering on the brink. Poised over my ‘Record’ button, I spent of Fantasia’s visit walking backwards, guessing her next move and hoping I didn’t bash into any walls. Later in the day, when she joined my own stable of broadcasters for a LIVE(!) sit-down on our five o clock news, I rode point, documenting her every high five as the corridors of my TV station suddenly burst at the seams with curious staffers, print reporters and the occasional future stalker. it’s more than a little humorous to see colleagues who pooh-poohed all things American Idol clamor over each other for a chance to get an autograph from High Point’s favorite ghetto-fabulous songbird. I probably shouldn’t have body-checked that little old lady from Accounting like that, but her damn autograph book kept getting in my shot.

Throughout the melee, Fantasia herself remained delightful. Unlike many celebs who quickly buy into their own manufactured hype, Ms. Barrino appears relatively unchanged from her meteoric rise - though her bling-bling has certainly taken a sharp upturn from her days hanging out in the mean streets of High Pockets. But unfazed by the rocks that she got, Fantasia welcomed her fans and admirers with open arms. Literally. In the time she spent in my viewfinder, she probably hugged two hundred people - and we’re not talking half-hearted feigned embraces, but arms-around-the-neck sway-back-and-forth circulation-threatening clutches of the highest order. That is NOT the usual way people who grace magazine covers treat adoring strangers. So while I haven’t always been the most enthusiastic arbiter of American Idol, I AM a fan of Fantasia - if for no other reason because she still so closely resembles the inner-city sweetheart we knew her to be a year ago.

Now if we could only do something about that British guy in the muscle shirt.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

SnowCasts of my Past

With the ever popular wintry mix apparently on the way, I can‘t help but think of Snowgasms past…

ICY OVERPASS - Countless are the hours I’ve spent huddling outside a frozen Live truck and wishing for death. Okay, that’s a little extreme, but camping along some snowy embankment for hours on end can be pretty miserable. You try maintaining a positive attitude when your warm snug anchor team sips coffee in your earpiece as you spread chap-stick on a cracker and call it breakfast. The next time you see some talking-hairdo in a station parka blathering about ‘the white stuff’, think about the poor schlub fighting frostbite to keep all those gadgets running. Then call your local newsroom and demand they stop this insanity before someone gets hurt. Please.

THE LONGEST MARCH - One of the most surreal moments I ever experienced occurred in white-out conditions along I-40. A reporter and I were desperately trying to get to the village of Snow Camp to dig out all the clichés waiting for us, when the post-blizzard traffic came to a stand-still. After ten minutes of watching our deadline creep closer, I grabbed the camera and trudged out into the tundra. It was easy going at first, I plodded along briskly on the packed-down snow and grabbed shot after shot of the static line of cars and trucks reaching over the horizon. That’s when the flakes began to fall, fat ones at first followed by pelting sleet. By the time the reporter caught up with me a mile or so later, I sported the kind of frozen snot-cicles not seen since the Age of Exploration.

SLIP SLIDIN' AWAY - As a lifelong Carolinian (and reformed DownEaster), I don’t claim to be the King of Winter Driving. But seven years of Piedmont snowfalls have taught me a thing or two about turning into the skid. Be it an ice-encrusted surface street or a completely white winding country road, I’ve learned the hard way how to keep the rolling billboard between the ditches. My particular news wagon is a two wheel drive SUV with a high center of gravity. Driving it on ice is like pushing a high chair across a hockey rink. The Live Trucks aren’t much better, though their massive weight does help things a bit. My very worst encounter involved piloting one of these skiffs up an icy Highway 52 into the Virginia mountains. Going up was a lesson in low-gear grinding, coming back down was a crash-course in bowel control.

BOVINES ON ICE - Occasionally the snow-blind assignments aren’t so bad. A few years ago, I spent an incredibly scenic morning with a cattle farmer along the rolling pastures of Highway 62 in Randolph County. The farmer couldn’t figure out why I was there exactly. He just kept shaking his head as he drove his tractor out to check on his cows. I couldn’t really explain either, as the feeding of cattle in the snow holds no intrinsic news value. But that didn’t matter as I blew into my hands and squinted through the frostiest of viewfinder. Between the blowing snow, stoic farmer and hungry cattle the tiny black and white screen at the end of the eyecup looked like a Currier and Ives print come to life. We photogs endure months of ribbon-cuttings and ride-alongs to witness vistas like that.

NO-POWER TRIP - Of course the ice storm of a few years back wasn’t quite as pastoral. With my own wife and kids shivering by candlelight, I traversed the region in a quest for Those Without Power. They weren’t hard to find, especially when you learned what to look for. From tell-tale drop cords running under cracked garage doors to the familiar hum of store-bought generators, I mastered the art of spotting the powerless from behind the wheel of my precarious news chariot. Couple that with hunting down power crews on the run and you have the five day blur that was that particular blizzard. To this day, my seven year old gets antsy when the weather man predicts ice, for she will always remember sleeping by the fireplace and wondering why Daddy still has to go make TV.

HUNTING FROSTY - One day last year, when a flurry of phone calls boasting unique snowmen blew into the newsroom, I launched a hard target search for these elusive ice effigies. Too bad I only had ninety minutes before show-time to secure my bounty. Realizing I had to move fast to make my deadline, I carried an intern to terrorize along the way. After a couple of false starts, we hit pay dirt (pay -snow?), encountering snow families, snow dogs and even a conference of snow basketball players, complete with corresponding ACC team logo-wear. But my favorite snow figure was an eight foot ice sculpture of the Virgin Mary. Driving way too fast for the slippery conditions, I almost out the news unit in a ditch when I spotted the snow-white Madonna loitering in the rundown yard. When I grabbed my camera and started rolling, the half-dozen migrant workers responsible for the holy snow-woman poured out of a nearby house and eagerly nodded their approval. When one pointed to his watch with the universal gesture of ‘When will this be on?”, I proudly used all the pidgen Spanish I’d learned over all those college-age Coronas.

“Cinco”, I beamed, holding all five fingers up, “Cinco…o clock!”

So what wintry adventures await me this time? I won’t know until I hurl myself into the icy void about nine hours from now. Until then, I’ll be here in my toasty lair, looking for my station parka and wishing I sold stereos for a living.