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. 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.

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.