When WNCT-TV first issued me a press-pass, no one was more surprised than I. At the time, my show reel consisted of a couple dozen used car lot spots and some half-baked station promos. But that all changed one March morning, when fate placed me and a camera on the inside rim of an unlikely hostage situation. The newsroom took note and soon I was cruising the mean streets of Greenville in a white Ford Bronco with the N-Word on the door. (News, silly!) I'd fumbled my way into The Life, all right, but I still had A LOT to learn. Luckily, there were people there to teach me and one of the most willing to do so was the station's main anchor, Allan Hoffman. Not quite the teddy bear he looks like now, Allan was gruff enough to scare me a little. After all, dude was a chopper pilot in Vietnam. He'd witnessed death and valor while most of his co-workers were in the womb. Thus, it fell to Allan to review all outgoing scripts, lest one of the twenty-two year old reporters make a grievous error on the air. A revolving door of novices kept Allan pretty busy back then and my dumb ass was no exception.
But a funny thing happened on the way to failure... I got better! Through risk and repetition, I learned to shoot sequences, walk backwards and make a tape-to-tape edit bay stutter, smoke and whistle. After a while though, my ambition got the better of me. Nowhere near as polished as the young reporters around me, I yearned nonetheless to put my personal stamp on the many stories I was learning to tell. A great and mighty clamor did not ensue. I wasn't the first photog itching to go rogue and I damn sure wasn't the most telegenic. But Allan and others must have seen something in me, for they critiqued the stories I produced on the side and, to my further surprise, started putting them on the air. A reporter was born! Or so I thought. As luck would (not) have it, my future played out off screen, but the four years I spent as an on-air one-man-band swelled my neck-tie collection and boosted my confidence.
It wasn't always easy, though. Every mistake I made, I made on the air - from mangling names to missing cues to freezing up during my second ever live shot ("Tell him to breathe!", I heard Allan tell a producer in my earpiece). I don't think that I ever did that night, but the concept sure stuck. Here's another one I remember Allan hammering home: Pre-recorded reports should NOT end on soundbites. Unless the bite is especially strong, a reporter track makes for a better summation ("It's a 'package'", Allan would say, "It needs a bow. Tie it up!" I don't think I've ended a report with a soundbite since. It's just one of the many fundamentals Allan Hoffman taught me and another thing I forgot to bring up when I attended his retirement dinner two days ago. Oh well, maybe he'll read this. Then again, maybe a man with 42 years of broadcast experience has seen this kind of thing before. Sure hope so. A guy like Allan should know the difference he made, in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in the hearts and minds of the generations of of journalists he's helped shaped since the early Seventies. Enjoy retirement, Allan. You probably deserve a piece of mine, but the way things are going, you'll be a hundred and six before I can afford to lay down this lens...
Until then, consider me in your debt.