Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Blast of Calendars Past

I use to keep up with an organizer, a leather-encased zippered grid of numbered days that held dreams, ideas and a slew of scribbled digits. Over time, this calendar served as a repository of story 'slugs', three-worded phrases that told the documented drama of the day. From Stokes Tornado to Parrot Surgery to Prostitute Round-up, the curt descriptions made for quick, if not colorful referencing. This helps when you're desperately searching for say footage of unfocused kids on far away playgrounds, heavily-cropped beer guts and cigarette smoker close-ups. You know, the kind of stuff you shot on that Tuesday ... three years ago.

Never one to lay down anything as logical as a plan, it never occured to me to jot own any upcoming appointments in my battered organizer. Mine was a private stash of recently recorded history, crude doodles and scribbled show notes - not a scratchpad for upcoming plumber visits. But as meticulous as I was about my data mining, the entries' brevity began to bother me. Surely there was more to say than the three slurred words I used to encapsulate all those eight hour shifts. Perhaps I could allow my daily downloads a bit more space, room to grow and flourish... A BOOK! Yeah, that's it - a biting, blustery tome about my life behind the lens. I'd call it 'Viewfinder BLUES' and sell a million copies, never wondering why people everywhere were clamoring for the yammerings of a camera toting nobody.

No bother. Before I could dominate the best sellers list, I had to learn to write. Not just stare out the window and think about writing, but actually put ass in chair and line up words in interesting formations. Bereft of any formal training, I took solace in the knowledge that if nothing else, I had the fodder. All I had to do is flip through several years' accumulation of torturous news shifts, inherently weird real-life descriptors that caffeine-addled screenwriting wannabes would sell their Starbucks card for. Sequestering myself in my inner sanctum, I eeked out a few epistles, stuck 'em on my hard drive and waited for greatness to arrive.

While I was waiting, Al Gore and a team of chimpanzees invented the internet. Suddenly, there was a place to ply my lies, if not for a paycheck, at least for chance to actually be read. Heady stuff for a closet memoirist like myself; the very idea of disseminating my thoughts through a technology I didn't stand a chance of understanding rendered me giddy and led me to a place in space called There, the good folk celebrated my exposition and praised my prose, all of which convinced me to keep on writing, even when I didn't particularly want to. I grew to treasure the response I garnered from the on-line readers who sampled my work. I thought launching my own blog might attract even more eyeballs. For once, I was right.

Throughout the year of 2005, I thought about this silly website every freakin' day. And that's great! Writing about my life - something I always knew I'd get around to eventually, has proved most therapuetic. The perspective gained and comments received have done wonders for my pockmarked psyche, granting me the intermittent wisdom to cope with a job that's more than a little thankless. When I began posting my stories on-line, it was an act of near desperation. Emotionally estranged from a job I use to love, ths burnout needed a shoulder to cry on. Through the isolation of my late night keyboarding, I've discovered new friends, grown closer to old ones and acquired a slew of mentors. Consider this New Year's Eve post a personal thank you to all who have given my drivel a moment or two over the past twelve months. If you think this year packed a punch, wait until you see what I have planned for 2006: The Year of Fruition.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to flip through some old calendar pages for story ideas. I remember this one time, a hot summer night crackling with frantic scanner traffic...

Friday, December 30, 2005

Sat Truck Spam Shot

We TV types are insatiable communicators. Whether covering a fevered manhunt or enjoying the finest in potted meat, we simply want to tell you about it. Thus, the above shot from the camera phone of one Joe McCloskey, in which intrepid reporter Chad Tucker goes where too many newsmen have gone before. Seems the part of Stokes County he and Brad Ingram found themselves temporarily stranded in last night was a bit lacking in the culinary department. So they did what any good journalist would do, they raided the dusty aisles of the nearest general store and got about the business of deadline making. Back in the sat truck, Operator McCloskey took exception to Chad's choice of entree, deciding to document the nightside reporter devouring what Joe insisted 'smelled like Alpo'. I'd ask Chad himself how he enjoyed his tin-can dinner, but last time I saw him, he was still chewing...

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Super Trooper

Meet Sargeant. A.W. Waddell, one man you don't want to see walking up in your rearview mirror. Actually, this seasoned state trooper is a teddy bear ... a hulking, armed teddy bear who can outdrive most of those Nascar guys, spot a drunk driver from three miles away and recite a list of good places to eat from Murphy to Manteo. These days Sargeant Waddell spends much of his time clipping on microphones and answering silly questions, as any Piedmont news crew who's huddled with him in the breakdown lane can attest. I've quizzed many a law enforcer. This friendly giant is as good as they get.

But I guess that goes with the award-winning uniform. As long as I've been chasing carwrecks (far, far too long), I've been most impressed with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. And I'm not just saying that because they've humored me on so many ride-alongs. I especially enjoy the Public Information Officers, charming, avuncular types who can answer your every question or put you in a crushing headlock, whichever way you direct the conversation. As for Sargeant Waddell, you won't meet a nicer guy - though if he told me to hand him my license, registration and spleen, I'd politely comply.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

2005 in Review - March

Milking the past for a few more posts...

As February turned to March, I got to the business of photog blogging, explaining how happy accidents abound once you simply get In The Groove. Long before Katrina altered our perception of modern hurricanes, I wrote about the swirling maelstrom's star power in The Lure of the Lumbering Cyclops. From there we stepped out back for the staggered backpedaling of a hundred Brown Building Walk-Downs. In Logos in the Wind, I unfurled my collection of high-dollar speeding tickets as a lesson to others (and a reminder to myself to slow down). That's when that New Car Smell invaded my senses and the summer of 1989 washed over my windshield.

By the time I snapped out of that flashback, the police scanners were going crazy. Soon after I found myself loitering by the fire trucks and dodging dirty looks. Again. It was One of Those Days, and writing about it made me feel better. So I jotted down a few notes about the next day's dumb truck wreck in Bent Sheet Metal, described the joy of shooting Easter egg hunts in The Exhaustive Dichotomy. But then the Spot News Gods hurled thunderbolts my way and I once again found myself a Street Corner Specter. An unsavory enough assignment; enough to make me rethink my career path in A Photog Looks at Forty.

Through my stout shot glass, deep reflection and half baked prose, I found a way to deal with the vagaries of the chase. Snapping photos and riffing on them brought many a misadventure into focus, whether I was writing Of Leprechauns and Lounge Lizards, explaining The Politics of Pressers, or admitting that the heavier than ever tripod in my grasp was simply My Cross to Bear. About that time, a tiny but growing readership began to develop around my drivel. Comments, e-mail and increasing linkage fed my ego and engorged my muse. I got so excited at one point I proclaimed 2005 Year of the Blog. Thank God I was right...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tomorrow Doesn't Exist

Here's a tip. If a local TV news reporter calls you to set up an interview, chances are he wants to come over RIGHT NOW. Why so soon? Because news crews don't get their story assignments until around mid-morning on the day they're due. Ideas that begin as three word descriptions on a dry erase board at 9 am regularly air that afternoon as heavily-edited ninety second epics of sight, narration an sound. This quick turnaround is a surprise to much of the general public, though I'm sure most of them have watched TV news sometime in their past. Of course the 'day-of turn' model limits the storytelling possibilities somewhat; it's pretty impossible to replicate what your boss saw on Dateline last night when given only a few hours to do so. Still, my colleagues and I pride ourselves on delivering as sophisticated a vista as possible, given the sometimes unthinkable pace of our production.

All of which makes my class of newsgatherer a rather fractic cat. Continually on the move, we race about in our logo'd chariots at breakneck pace, parking where we shouldn't and often barging in at the last moment, lights-n-lens a blazin'. It's not that we're rude, we're just accustomed to people making way for the almighty press, for it's the rare citizen that will not promptly stop and drop when the big shiny Tee-Vee cameras wanna come over. Something about the thought of invading the region's collective living room 'round dinnertime makes both politician and punk-ass rethink their schedule. Whatever that says about society could be the subject of another post; I'm just documenting what went through my head yesterday when a certain electronics store manager brought a halt to my day before it ever started.

It was one o clock, five full hours before was slotted to air. But having yet to pull the trigger, my reporter and I rolled into the big-box gadget store ready to turn a quick story on iPod security. So you can imagine our surprise when the nice-enough lady behind the counter hit us with the ever dreaded:

"Oh - you're here. I thought you were gonna call. We can't do it today. How 'bout tomorrow?"

After recoiling from the hit, my reporter leaned in firm but polite, reminding the manager she had called several times to confirm the appointment. An slightly annoyed sales assistant piped up from behind a cash register to verify she'd taken our messages. What followed was a tempered debate in the politics of phone tag, whereupon I scanned the laptop aisle while the ladies hashed it out. All remained calm but the store manager didn't seem to understand that the story we had yet to shoot was already being promoted on-air and that we would make it happen with or without her. The manager, whose problem this was not, smiled and shook her head slowly as she repeatedly suggested we just do the whole thing tomorrow.

'Tomorrow doesn't exist' I thought as we gathered our gear and skulked toward the door. In the 24 hour news cycle, what happens the following day couldn't be more irrelevant. The manager, however, moved at the speed of retail; the plight of the local news crew that had banked on her midday commitment was equally unimportant in her overly-lit flourescent world. For what it's worth we found a sister store twelve miles away that was happy to have us. All the countertop kerfluffle really did was rob me of about forty five minutes in the edit suite, time that's priceless to a broadcast burnout like myself.

Speaking of time, I'm out if it. -- Seeya!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Live Truck For Sale

FOR SALE: The one invention most responsible for the slow demise of local TV news. And you can get it on eBay! That's right, with just a click and a drag you can be the first on your block to own your very own live truck! This 2001 diesel-powered ENG Broadcast Van can be yours for a mere $29,999.00 (disgruntled photog NOT included). In all honestly, it sounds like a very good deal ... 42 foot pneumatic mast, remote control pan-tilt unit, rear hydraulic outrigger system ... I just can't figure out how the station that's selling it only put 8700 miles on it. We do that in a single ratings month!

(Special thanks to fellow live truck lover Joe McCloskey for alerting me to this bargain ...)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Return of American Idol

Were it not for my professional relationship with the FOX juggernaut, I probably wouldn't hold much of an opinion on American Idol. But as it is, I'm constantly exposed to the machinations of the globe's most successful talent show. Clay, Fantasia, Randy, Simon, Paula and Ryan ... I've shared air with them all and for the most part come away less than repulsed. Of course the last AI function covered in these hallowed web-pages was the five day Greensboro Audition, a precursor to the upcoming season. During that delirious stretch of late October, I was struck by how the celebrity judges and executive producers raved about the local talent lined up outside the hotel doors. 'Pillow-talk,' I said to myself - but once I removed my lens of cynicism, I had to admit some of the gathered masses had the kind of soaring vocal talent that simply couldn't be denied. (To be fair, there was also a large contingency of people whose lack of singing ability was outmatched only be their delusions of certain stardom, but that was just proof I was indeed on the set of 'American Idol'.)

Now, with the season premiere less than a month away, Idol promos are dotting the programming landscape. Imagine my surprise and delight when I caught a few yesterday during the Panthers' heartbreaking loss to Dallas. Three separate times I spotted Greensboro citizens belting out the requisite show-tunes, some astonishingly good, others delightfully bad. Most promising, one extended cut featured a local guy I met (named Chris ... something) who could very easily Go. All. The. Way. So, should you clear your January calendar as not to miss a single frame of this highly manufactured pablum? My bosses sure would dig it, but I'll be happy if you quietly abide my coverage of said phenomenon - as, like it or not, this promises to be a very 'Greensboro-centric' season of American Idol. Remember where you heard it first...

2005 in Review - February

We now return to our thoroughly predictable look at the year that was...

February kicked off with all the excitement of a moon landing as High Point’s favorite homegirl blew through the city she would so openly disparage in her upcoming book. Heck, if I grew up on the wrong side of Montlieu Avenue, I’d bash it too. But Fantasia remained ever the sweetheart as she made whirlwind rounds from radio station to TV affiliate, all under the watchful eye of my camera. Along the way, it occurred to me that I could turn these daily photo safaris into blog-fodder, as well as material for the evening news. ‘Wait until Greensboro 101 gets a hold of this‘, I thought. Or as Fantasia put it, “yeah-yeaH-yeAH-yEAH-YEAH-YEAH Y-E-E-E-A-A-H-H-H...”

But the second month of the year wasn’t all breathy dispatches from the celebrity front. I tried to explain why photogs are so damn grumpy with Ride-alongs, Ribbon-Cuttings and Rage. In My Time on the Dark Side, I recounted the misery of being a promo hack. I also covered one of my most meaningful assignments with the quiet tale of She Were Soldiers. After offering a few Real World Award Categories, I confessed how sucking at baseball led to a mostly rewarding career behind the lens in Birth of a Photog. If that weren’t enough I outlined my findings in a tersely worded The Extraordinary Madness of Crowds. All that for the price of a click and a drag...

As February progressed, I grew a good deal bolder with my digital camera and turned picture-heavy posts on the many incongruent vistas I encountered on the daily news hunt. One of those that I’m still kinda proud of is From Crisis to Commodity, perhaps because it was an overdue articulation of long-held thoughts. Another such typical gig resulted in Press Conference Zombies. By the time a homely mutt named Bam saved his owner, I was on fire with the blogabilities of my daily gig. But all that self-satisfaction faded away when I woke up in the middle of the night, clicked on-line and discovered one of my biggest literary heroes had put a gun in his mouth and ended and added to his legend by pulling the trigger. I’m still trying to figure that one out...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Tree Lens

Here's a sincere hope that your holidays are happy ones. I for one have had a most relaxing week or so off; nine straight days of reclining with my family and a few new gadgets. What could be better than that? Monday, of course, I return to work for a scintillating week of newsgathering trauma while the rest of the free world is off. That's okay. While I toil away over steaming hot newscasts, do take some time to hang out with those you love. It's done wonders for my sanity. Now, let's see if I can remember all that in a day or so, when I'm stalking department store return counters for talkative mall-goers and holiday horror stories. Egads. Until then, I'll be here at the ranch, installing batteries, overeating and trying my best to put together this blasted driveway basketball goal. Wish me luck, and thanks as always for visiting this not so humble site. By doing so, you've helped make my 2005 a surprisingly rewarding year. Now, hand me that wrench...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Used To Be Me

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Say what you will, but this blurry shot (courtesy of my old partner in crime Dustin Miller) proves three things: First of all, I really did use to shoot Friday Night Football, though honestly I never knew much more than to simply follow the ball and avoid getting hit. Secondly, I wasn't born with a beard; it took years for me to realize the less of my face visible the better. And third, I was once happy just to be in the game. Yes, running up and down the sidelines of life was a thrilling way to spend my 20's. At 38...not so much.

2005 in Review - January

In an effort to pad out the next two weeks, I offer the obligatory and totally self-obsessed look back at a twelve month case of Viewfinder BLUES...

By January 2005, I had already been blogging for three months - but in truth I was coasting off momentum built up elsewhere, doling out stories I'd written years early during my formulative period on 'Hey, this blogging thing's easy,' I said as I dragged yet another pithy epistle from my stash and hit 'PUBLISH'. Little did I know then how hard it would become once the hoarded drivel ran dry. But that was weeks away, for most of January I decimated my archives by posting fundamental tales of news gone stupid.

There was the weird saga of MoonRock Madness, a true, twisted epic that haunted me far longer than it took the six people who bothered to read it to do so. I recounted one of my easiest scores with The Handcuffed Hippie, told what it was like When The News Gods Smiled and even confessed My Favorite Mistake. If that weren't enough I tried in vain to replicate the excitement of my very first news gig with The Applebee's Incident, before printing the results of my Prison Yard Litmus Test.

Sensing my cold-storage confessions were all but thawed, I shoved my digital camera into my run-bag and became an unabashed snapshot gatherer. It quickly paid off when I found myself decked out in scrubs with nothing much to do. Digging my camera out of a pouch, I handed it to a competitor and smiled behind the mask. Presto, a never-ending series of cheesy cameos was born...

The Unbundled Awakening

The first of several Year in Review articles I'll be sampling is Terry Heaton's manifesto of media trends, The Unbundled Awakening. In it, the newshound turned oracle assesses the splintering of mainstream media and cites the rise of the Citizen Journalist. It's an intriguing document, even if you're not as mired in emerging media as your friendly neighborhood lenslinger. Still, if you're reading this you must be semi-aware of the period of communication upheavel we find ourselves in - though acording to Terry, you're not as pioneering as you thought.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported earlier this year that half of all teens in this country — and 57% of those who use the internet — have created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations. This awakening of creativity among our youth — and their ability to do something with it — is the essence of what's known as Web 2.0.

That's the best explanation of Web 2.0 I've heard yet. It's the exact thought I've had as I've watched my 11 year old troubleshoot my laptop. Her intuitive grasp of multimedia mechanics comes from a lifetime spent interacting with glowing, rectangular screens. Those of us in communications field would do well to emulate her generations electronic immersion, as Terry notes.

Increasingly, we'll see media companies hiring people with multimedia skills as the drift away from expensive specialization continues. The New York Times, for example, recently laid off 85 people but continues to advertise for those with web and associated skills ... More and more, we'll see recent graduates more qualified for mainstream media jobs that demand multimedia skills than people with considerably more experience. The only way this won't happen is if media companies invest in retraining to provide their mid-career employees with a multimedia skill set, but this will be fought by those who'll insist that it's only being done to save money.

Speaking of the bottom line, it's the main reason some stations want to take the 'crew' out of news crew. The VJ movement, as envisioned by Michael Rosenblum has drawn the ire of many of my camera-swinging buddies. Terry's taken a few swipes in that fight and launched a few haymakers.

Single journalists with cameras and editing systems force the newsroom out of the ruts and routines of a way of operating that contributes to the decline in news viewing. In most places, local news viewing is off 30% in the past ten years, and there's no sign of that slide ending. We simply won't bring viewers back doing things the same way, and the VJ model dramatically breaks something that really needs breaking and demands that people think creatively across-the-board.

I love solo newsgathering; done right it can be potent, personal and downright liberating. But the average news geek has no desire to broaden their skills, choosing instead to languish in long-established comfort zones. Many have years invested in their specialized fields and would just as soon lay down on the interstate than abandon their particular niche. That will change slowly as the next generation of journalists enter the broadcasting ranks, but by then, who will be watching local TV news anyway?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bloggus Interruptus...

New Toy I know, I know ... it's been two whole days since I've posted anything, but I got one heckuva excuse: 42 inches of Sony High Def hypnosis, an early Christmas gift to replace the big-tube RCA that died couch-side a few weeks ago. Throw in a cable upgrade and free month of DVR, and you got three reasons this humble blog has been so quiet for the past forty-eight hours. But fear not lone reader, for I'm about to take my coffee-addled carcass upstairs to get cracking on Act 2 of 'Danny and the DUI'. But first, I have to run the new set through a diagnostics test that should tax every facet of its many features. That's right, we're watching 'The Blues Brothers'.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Ubiquity of Diminutive Lenses

By posting video clips of his beloved Tar Heels' basketball team on his well-traveled blog, crafty columnist Ed Cone has raised an issue not previously considered. In a world where the most ancillary of objects can record moving pictures and sound, what is and isn’t fair game? Ed’s ticket to the Smith Center expressly forbid video cameras, but allowed still photos. But his tiny Nikon did both, and he came away from the game with footage he wanted to share. Enter the blogosphere. With the punch of a ‘Publish‘ button, the tech-savvy writer made his thirty second seat-cam cinema freely available to all who would pause long enough to give it a click.

Ed did so not to make a buck, but to show his enthusiasm for an entity he loves (and supports, no doubt). But no matter how well-intentioned his video homage may be, it’s unclear how the folks who get paid to market UNC Basketball feel about it. It’s one more example of how rapidly-improving technology is outpacing other facets of American life. How long before such venues such as a university coliseum update their policies regarding new recording devices in the Information Renaissance? How ill it affect the distribution of proprietary imagery when every patron has a high-powered lens hanging off their hip?

As Pam and Tommy Lee will attest, once an image, sound or sequence is cast upon the internets, no amount of lawyers can stuff the genie back in the bottle. Ed’s subject matter isn’t anywhere as salacious as that, but his quiet camerawork could very well trigger a schism in the plate tectonics of intellectual property. Trouble is, no one knows what the landscape may look like once the aftershocks fade. And plenty of people smarter than me are scanning the horizon...
‘Colleges zealously guard their images, logos and athletic marketing. TV broadcasters pay schools big money for sole rights to televise the events. It's not in the best financial interest of either to let any schmoe with a video camera shoot whatever he or she feels like and stream it online. (Not without them getting a cut of the action, at least.) This is another case of institutional policy and the law lagging behind technology and the consumer.’ -- John Robinson

I have no problem with a rule against commercial use of video clips, or clips of a certain length. But is my use of a brief clip at a site that accepts ads 'commercial use'? I think not. What if I aggregated clips from a bunch of users, and sold ads around them? Probably so... -- Ed Cone

‘These small vids are viral advertisements. A type of social activity that basketball fans, young and old, can enjoy. When you give a community (ie ACC basketball fans) a common activity that layers on top of another (ie following the tar heels) you have a very strong synergy. Creativity + fans x love = money.’ -- Brian R.
One thing’s for sure. No matter how we rewrite the rulebooks of image gathering, it sure won’t stop some cat with a badge, a flashlight and a GED from hassling me and my heavily logo’d fancy-cam at the gate. Save me an aisle-seat...

Ice, Logs and Love

Poor Little Lost Robot. The Northwest native turned Southeast photog is still without power thanks to the ice storm that ravaged South Carolina last week. It's gotten so bad he's been forced to cannibalize his toy robot collection for their heat-giving battery supply. I feel for ya, 'bot - as nothing sucks more profusely than a home deprived of electricity ... something I learned a few years back when an overnight winter storm left central North Carolina encased in ice and utility-free...

I got an early start the morning after the ice-storm, digging out of my frozen driveway and piloting my two wheel drive news unit to the station. Once there, my 'superiors' sent me right back out, with orders to traverse the tundra that was once the Greater Piedmont Triad Googleplex. I hit all the stops: from hanging off salt trucks to chasing down power crews to stalking old folks as they shivered in their outdated living rooms. Just before noon, I rendezvoused with another crew at a stranded live truck, where we edited our footage, went live and tried in vain to crank the ice-encrusted masted-beast. When that proved futile, I crawled in trusty Unit 4, and slip-slided all the way home to check in on the fam.

What did I find but my lovely bride, who was...a little 'manic' that week, wrapped in several layers of clothing, hanging blankets over doorways and cursing my name. The good woman was absolutely livid that I had left the house to go to work without first rounding up a suitable supply of those grocery store logs we then used in our undersized fireplace. I was guilty, too. My news radar had sounded early that morning and I had left my home without fishing the firelog box out of the perpetually-messy garage. But no amount of lame excuses could satisfy the wife, who was perhaps the maddest I've ever seen her. At one point, my normally quite perky better half yelled,


As her accusation bellowed forth, I glanced out the kitchen window to see my two lovely girls out with the neighbor kids, sliding down an icy hill on trashcan lids among shouts of unabashed glee. When my youngest saw me, she waved excitedly, her smiling face barely visible through hat, hood and scarf. Knowing that logic wouldn't apply to my wife's misplaced wrath, I dropped the box of firelogs at her feet, spun on my heels and drove back to my live truck outpost.

I grumbled incessantly on the ice all day, warming my hands on the live truck's exhaust pipe and complaining to all who would listen how ill-timed irrational mood swings could be. To prove my superiority and take my mind off my troubles, I promptly lost my station-issued cell phone and spent much of the day stomping around in the frozen slush looking for it. I never did find it, but two days later the power came back on, my wife returned to a more rational state of mind and life became almost normal again. I LOVE that woman, but I hate ice-storms. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go dig some firewood out of the garage...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Danny and the DUI (Act 1)

Early in his career, a favorite colleague of mine suffered an injustice behind the lens so remarkable, so excruciating, my eyes water every time I think about it. Fifteen years have passed since the incident. Even back then, Danny Spillane considered himself a news-veteran, but the truth was he was a scrawny redhead with a heavy lens and a cute partner by the name of Cindy Farmer. Together the duo worked every kind of story there was, but the one Danny might like to forget the most happened one summer night somewhere here in the Piedmont.

They’d ridden in the back of the Highway Patrol car all night, tagging along with a no-nonsense state trooper as he enforced the newly enhanced DUI laws. But the going was slow. All night long they’d stopped speeders and litterbugs, but had yet to come across anyone who’d imbibed and decided to drive. That was until late in the evening, when a faded Buick Riviera made an awkward lane change and caught the attention of the straight faced sergeant.

“He’s 10-55..” the gravely voice declared from the front seat.

“Really?” Danny said, exchanging glances with Cindy. “How can you tell?”

“I been doing this a long time…” The trooper’s voice trailed off as he fell in behind the beat-up Riviera and flipped on his roof lights. Up ahead the driver’s silhouette didn’t flinch as the blue strobes bathed his hulking shoulders in unnatural light. Instead he flipped his right turn signal and wheeled his rumbling sedan into a dusty trailer park. The trooper followed, parking close behind the driver before grabbing his Smokey-Bear hat and leaving Danny and Cindy in the backseat. Bracing his lens on the back of the driver’s seat, Danny squinted into the viewfinder and rolled tape. Through his earpiece, he could hear the trooper’s voice through the wireless microphone attached to his state-issued clip-on tie.

“Sir, how much we have to drink tonight?”, the trooper’s voice crackled in Danny’s ear.

“Yeah, I had a few drinks,” came the slurred reply, “ but I’m home, dude, I’m s-s-safe.”

Danny could hear the trooper chuckle under his breath. “Sir, this ain’t baseball, and you ain’t safe. I’m gonna need you to step out of the car.”

With that Danny shuffled around in the backseat for a better shot. By the time he brought the parked Riviera into frame, Trooper Straight-face had the much taller man cuffed and stretched across the old Buick’s hood. Danny and Cindy high-fived each other at the last-minute bounty, relieved they’d finally scored what they’d ridden around all night looking for. But their grins turned to grimaces as their pilot and host force-marched a very large, very drunk, very pissed-off redneck toward the front passenger door of the very car they were sitting in.

Next time: Low Blow...

UPDATE! No matter how I wrinkle my forehead, the details of the above story's second and third act currently eludes me. OOPSIE! After the holidays, I'll gather with Danny over some fine Country Bar-B-Cue and hash out the particulars. Serves me right for rushing a half-sketched tale into print, er blog, er, whatever...

You Know You're a Photog When:

From, the on-line watering hole of lensers everywhere...

You Know You're a Photog When:

You know a shortcut around the eternal red light, avoiding the drawbridge, through the projects and behind the courthouse. -- Blues Daddy

You see the days light progress through the kelvin scale. -- Aussie

You're on vacation in Disney World, watching the local news in you're in your hotel room, and you start yelling at the photographer for his poor shot composition. -- TheBluesisStill#1

After watering the lawn, you figure-eight the garden hose. -- Newshutr

Your kids think it's normal for you to come home for lunch one day and after bedtime the next. -- Blues Daddy

You've never seen a hockey game with both eyes. -- Tyna

and my favorite...

You can talk on the phone, listen to the scanner, search for the smoke plume on the horizon and eat a seven-layer burrito while steering with your knee going 75 on the freeway. -- Blues Daddy

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Room to Write

Icon RowChristmas has come early to the Lenslinger household in the form of five days off. Thus, I won't be out on news-safari this week; rather I'll join the great unwashed at the shopping malls, where legions of procrastinating husbands will congregate to wander amid meat tray stands and jewelry stores. When not there however, I'll be here at Castle Pittman, giving my shoulder a much-needed rest and trying not to spoil my bride's weekday feng shui. Luckily, I have an upstairs lair I can retreat to, an escape pod for when the estrogen level skyrockets. That's a regular occurrence in my house, as the guinea pig and I are the only fellas to speak of. Whereas he lives in the laundry room, I'm most often found ensconsed in the inner sanctum of a spare bedroom turned think tank. If you've every wondered what I see as I spew forth my drivel, you really should get out more. Before you log off however, this post is for you...

VFB HQ SRV To be honest, it's the only room in the house I have much say-so over. That's probably a good thing however, as filling both floors with low-end nautica, dusty hardbacks and assorted Stevie Ray memorabilia would make this place awfully hard to sell someday. Better I confine it to these four walls, where my penchant for clutter can be locked away like some weird wall-eyed uncle. I'm okay with that, just ignore the thumps emanating from within late at night. That's just me, wrestling with my muse. No big whoop. Some Dads build trophy rooms for the favorite teams, others erect woodshops in the garage and whittle away their time. Me - I retire to my quarters, where I hunt and peck while the voices in my head dictate their plunder. 'Hey, I ain't playin' Donkey Kong up here', I tell my wife, who only pretends to listen over the melodic din of her beloved piano.

Viewfinder BLUES Home Office So if this behind-the-scenes look at Viewfinder BLUES Headquarters seems a bit too self-aware, you'll have to take it up with my staff. See, we held a meeting and decided in the interest of transparency it would help to pull back the curtain on our sector of the push-button publishing conglomerate. At least I'm not in my pajamas...or speaking of myself in the third person collective. That would be creepy. Instead I'm fully dressed and only midly distressed. You see, work has been a woeful blur as of late, an ever ratcheting cycle of unforgiving deadlines and soul-sucking assignments. I need this weeklong reprieve like a shell-shocked foot soldier needs a little R&R. I'll be back on the front lines of the newsgathering war soon enough. Until then, you can find me here, shaking layers of dust off the random thoughts I've collected until they're suitable for your perusal. Don't say I didn't warn ya...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ray Coleman's in Iraq

Ray Coleman, US ArmyI don't know how you feel about the War in Iraq and quite frankly, I don't really care. But whether you feel it's a righteous campaign or hopeless quagmire, you gotta give it up for those with enough balls to put on the uniform and walk the line. That's why I'm here to give props to Army Staff Sergeant Ray Coleman, a Greensboro native currently serving far from his wife and three small children. Truth is, I hadn't thought about Ray Coleman for a couple of years. Last time I saw him, the U.S. Navy reservist was quietly showing me artifacts he'd recovered from Ground Zero while helping his employer D.H. Griffin Demolition clean up the rubble of the World Trade Center. Little did I know the 40 year old High Point resident had left the Navy reserve to enter the Army, just in time to be shipped off to Iraq last October. I found out this morning, when I dragged camera, lights and tripod into his mother's home and recognized his picture amid a makeshift shrine on the coffee table.

Ray Coleman's Mom Suddenly, the story about the 'War Mom' held special meaning; as her tears streamed down her face and onto his framed photo, I dabbed my own moist eyes behind the viewfinder. For the record, Ray's fine. But two pictures tell the story of how a hostile theater can wear away one's resolve. The first shows Coleman at the outset of his deployment, standing in front of a bullet-scarred wall in full combat gear and beaming proudly. The second, much more recent photo, shows a similiar Ray - all cammo'd out in front of a bombed-out Hummer. The broad smile is still there, but the shoulders seem narrower, the waistline thinner, the uniform dirtier. His mother's breathing hitched at the implications of her son's weight loss and for once, I was glad the camera wasn't rolling. If you need a reason to feel differently about why we're in Iraq, I don't know that I can help you. But understand this: the war is being fought by flesh and blood Americans who normally stand beside you in the checkout lane. Their sacrifices, big and small, deserve every American's gratitude, not just some fleeting blurb on the evening news.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"I'll log in the car..."

Together again, for the first timeAnd so Bob did, cradling my XDCam in his lap while I snaked through the streets of Winston-Salem. With my headphones around his ears and his reporter-pad in hand, he flipped a switch on the camera and footage of a woman sitting by a humble Christmas tree flickered in the viewfinder. As she spoke, Bob scribbled her words, looking for bite-sized chunks of narrative to compliment the script in his head. While he searched, I threw Unit 4 into a hard downhill left, merged onto the crowded interstate and checked my watch. Five minutes ago we'd been standing in the lady in question's worn living room. In less than a hour and a half her story was scheduled to air on our 6:00 newscast. In thirty minutes the 5:00 producer planned to show some of our footage for a 'tease', but not before I make the twenty minute trip to the station to begin the editing process. 'Oh well', I thought as I wedged my news chariot between two jockeying 18 wheelers, 'at least there's no need to rush'.

Journalism at 70 MPHWith it's sat trucks, helicopters and logo'd windbreakers, TV News is more Amazing Race than Paper Chase. Sure, we want the truth but the facts fall flat if it ain't on time. While our brethren in print sit at their desks and work the phones for notable quotes, we in the broadcast corps saddle up and move out, dragging high-dollar gear and a penchant for hype wherever we go. I won't claim it's the more dignified of the two, but it sure makes for a better highlight reel when the old office Christmas party rolls around. But I'm not here to slam the newspaper guys, for despite my love for language and grocery store coupons, I know little of that realm. How could I, when I've spent the past fifteen-plus years hurtling through a daily gauntlet of ever-increasing deadlines. Heck, after this long I'm lucky I still got a driver's license, let alone the capacity to flip through a paper or two over my morning cup of rotgut.

Chasing the SunAnyway, where was I? Oh yeah - zooming down the highway in search of a newscast. As I did, Bob never looked up. Instead he leaned further into his notepad until he assumed some kind of journalistic fetal position. Looking over at him, I wondered if college kids studying broadcasting had any idea of what they were getting into. TV news seems very swashbuckling from the comfort of a dorm room, but all that swash and buckle comes with a large dose of inconvenience, ulcer-inducing stress and constant exposure to unsavory elements. Pros like Bob Buckley take it in stride, understanding that less than pristine conditions are an integral part of the gig. If he'd wanted to ride a desk to a five o clock quitting time every day, he could have majored in business, computers or some other less messy field. As for me, I could have kept pursuing my early career as a radar-reading scope-dope in the Nav...that, or become the world's most reflective cabbie. But neither would have granted me the mind-bending adventures I've had behind the lens. I just hope the next generation of newgathering partners packs their motion-sickness pills.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Air-times and Other Antiquities

Allison Romano of Broadcasting & Cable has written an article so enlightening, it should be posted in every newsroom in the free world. It's not that broadcast outlets aren't aware of the changing media landscape, but the terrain is shifting so quickly, only the most agile affiliates will keep from losing their footing. From B&C:

Twenty-nine percent of Americans say they go online regularly for news, up from virtually zero a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center. The migration has caused tectonic shifts across media sectors, shrinking the audience for TV news—both national and local—and sending shockwaves through the newspaper industry, which has seen readership tumble sharply in the past decade. According to the Pew study, 71% of adults 18-29 say they get their news online, yet only 46% say they regularly watch local TV news. In the early 1990s, 75% of Americans said they watched local news.

From 75% to 46% in only fifteen years. If that ain't proof local TV news is on the decline, I'll sell my closet full of station logowear (just kidding, Karen!). But as grim as these numbers are, the future can be made brighter by just a click and a drag...

By 2009, more than 70 million Americans are expected to have high-speed Internet access, according to Kagan Research. As technology improves and more people upgrade to broadband services—an ideal environment for video clips—TV stations think they have an edge. Thirty-second video clips and exclusive Web programs are certain to beat the competition, they say. “TV stations have assets to gather news 24/7,” says station adviser Seth Geiger of consulting firm SmithGeiger. “Now they need to take advantage of delivering news 24/7.”

Easier said than done. Since the inception of the test pattern, TV stations have centered their efforts around the morning, noon and evening news. To give away the goods before airtime is tantamount to treason. But with movies coming to cell phones, fresh reruns available on video iPods and a globe teeming with splenetic bloggers, the very idea of 'airtime' will soon seem as archaic as well, VCR's. And who remembers those?

UPDATE! Via Lost Remote, a pithy, dead-on riff from someone named 'Rocker', on the original B&C article:

"In fact, for 90% of the people in a typical TV station building, this whole 'internet thing' is something they're still in their heart-of-hearts hoping will go away, or at least be handled by 'somebody else' at the station. Maybe the web-geek or two we have off in that old converted closet downstairs will take care of it all, so we can continue to pretend the world revolves around producing a series of OTO 'shows' every day. The consciousness level is rising, but at a rate that is so slow that I still really think it's a race to see whether most TV stations will survive. The ad marketplace is reaching an inflection point fairly soon now, and from a pure bottom line perspective, this industry is not ready. Real pain (revenue/margin) is right around the corner now."

Someone get that man a towel...

The Wedding Shooter

Jorge's back in Hippieville and in fine form. In fact, he just returned from a jaunt to California, where he encountered the lowest form of lens-packing slime: The Wedding Shooter. That's right, those cats in bad tuxedo shirts and crooked consumer cams hold a special place in the Photog Hall of Shame. Why? Let Mr. Guapo tell it, in ten simple words:

...Pan...Zoom...Swish...Crash...Scamper...Double-Punch...Swish Back...Zoom...Collapse.

As licensed practioners of cameramanthropology, it pains us to witness such blatant lens-abuse. No where is this swish-pan school of cinema more flagrantly exhibited than among the documentarians of matrimony. As anyone who's slung a lens for longer than six months can tell you, weddings are a certified bee-yautch. They take place on sunny Saturday afternoons, last forever, and new mother-in-laws rarely understand if you miss a shot. I personally would rather cover a half-dozen County Commissioner meetings than point my glass at a single vows exchange. But nuptials ain't gotta be ugly, as Jorge will attest. His latest post should be mandatory reading for all aspiring wedding 'togs, as well as all those citizen camera-journalists currently trying to master the perfect pan. Now, say it with me: TRI-POD...

Close to Home

I love this photo, if only because it's so familiar. Not to belittle the inherent tragedy of such a picture, mind you, but it's an aesthetic example of a career full of midnight calls. The flames licking the roofline, the casual stance of the firefighters, the battered lens in the foreground...a variation of this image has burned into my retina and filled my clothes with the smell of smoke more times than I can even pretend to remember. This particular shot comes to us courtesy of Newshutr, a veritable bear of a photog who runs a tight blog, when he's not cruising the mean streets of Cleveland. Check out his site to find out how this blaze literally hit close to home. Then, head over to b-roll for more examples of news shooters rolling on their own turf. Scroll down far enough and you'll even find a tale of my own, one in which a phone call, a smoke plume and a camera made for a very memorable morning. Then when you're through, change all the batteries in your home's smoke detectors. You don't want me and my lens outside your door at four a.m. Trust me.

Weaver Cleans His Rig

I was leaving work this evening, wondering what I'd blog about when a faint light from the parking lot caught my eye. Following the mysterious beacon, I wandered upon a most unlikely sight: Chris Weaver. Cleaning out his news unit. I swear. Now for those who think I'm overreacting, consider this: Weaver's of a certain breed, Photogifus Hoardicus, I believe they call it - the kind of shooter who never turns up at to a crime scene without three phonebooks, sixteen scanners and half a pack of tube socks. Think I'm kidding? Take a sweeping glance around Unit 15. In the short time I watched him forage through his backseat, I spotted two fishing poles, enough roadmaps to choke a tollbooth operater, sixteen types of lightbulbs, foul-weather gear for three large-sized men, several Happy Meal toys, assorted kitchen utensils and at least four basketballs - lest a rival station pick-up game break out.

In case a pick-up game should break out...Land of the LostHappy Meal Space Aliens

By the third flash of my camera, Weaver looked up from his highlighted index of scanner frequencies, mumbled something about installing GPS on his camera batteries, the started sorting his collection of ketchup packets by fast food franchises. I don't know what's gotten into the old boy, but I'm not too worried. He goes on vacation tomorrow: he'll be home by the hearth while I'm rooting around Unit Four's floorboard for the proper condiments to go with stake-out bar-b-cue. Then who'll be the real slob?

UPDATE: Weaver himself weighs in with a rundown of what he found inside Unit 15. Witness the Insanity!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Remembering Richard Pryor

As a spindly little white boy helping a large black family harvest a local farmer's tobacco crop, I had few rights or privileges. Slow, weak and ill-at-ease, I struggled to keep up with the rest of the farm hands as the old harvester rumbled through the sticky forest of tobacco stalks. My older brother fared better; he could strip the passing spires of their ripest leaves with the best of them. But I barely managed to hit every stalk and I caught a lot of good-natured but incessant ribbing due to my overwhelming lack of agricultural acumen. Don't get me wrong: Edgar-Lee and Miss Ruth were good - no, great people. They and their half dozen kids could 'take in' a barn of fat green tobacco leaves faster than most crews of full-grown men. That I emerged as the weakest link was more a product of my young age, coke-bottle glasses and uncoordination than any overt strains of reverse-racism. Still, it was tough to swallow at times, even for a kid as used to being an outcast as I was at the time.

Luckily, there was one time of day when persecution of the smallest Pittman fell by the wayside. Sometime around the noon hour, after the four corner nabs and Dr. Peppers had been drained, Edgar-Lee, Miss Ruth and kids would gather under the shade of a tree or barn-shelter and laugh away the remaining time before the farmer arrived to resume the workday. During those precious few minutes, Edgar-Lee's clan acted more like a family and less like a gang of hardened tobacco-pullers. They's laugh and joke, kid one another and treat me and my brother like one of their own. I still remember watching the older girls of the family practice dance moves to Kool and the Gang's new song, 'Celebration'. With that song playing endlessly from a filthy boombox, color, class and cutting remarks faded away. But the one thing that totally erased the differences between all of us was a battered 8-track of Richard Pryor in concert.

We'd all gather around my brother's Rally Sport Camaro and try not to shoot soda out of our noses as the caustic comic fashioned a life of poverty and pain into a bold new form of comedy. I was way too young to understand all of his material, but one thing that seemed abundantly obvious even then was that Pryor's acerbic wit and lethally true observations crossed all socio-economic and racial barriers. Richard Pryor described himself simply as a 'comic'. To the twelve year old me, he was so much more; a street-level preacher could make you laugh, think and possibly wet your pants, all while understanding that neighbor who doesn't look like you a little bit better. Here's hoping he's finally at peace.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Is That Thing Heavy?

"Is that thing heavy?" It's a question even the most strapping photog hears on a regular basis. People marvel at the oversized fancycam on our shoulder and with creepy regularity inquire about its weight. Now imagine you're a diminutive (and thoroughly fetching) female underneath that lens. The lame remarks, unwanted attention and feigned machismo must be a stone-cold drag. That's why I can't help but respect Angie Moriconi, who doesn't let her natural born role as 'psycho magnet' stop her from slinging a mean lens all over Miami. Recently she and her reporter-husband even bagged an Emmy - that elusive mantle-something many TV journalists spend a whole career unsuccessfully pursuing. That's right, photog-bloggers, she's married. To a reporter. Talk about a stone cold drag...

(A dip of the lens to Weaver, for alerting me to Angie's blog, as well as saving my bacon late today. That's about a jillion times now, Chris. Back off! You're making me look bad!)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

More Questions Than Answers

Don Matney 1As a younger photog, I only wanted to shoot news stories that involved flashing lights, handcuffs and walkie-talkies. But as time passed, I realized good storytellers valued character over conflict. So I began casting about for interesting people to profile, small-town personalities to point my lens at. This, unfortunately earned me a reputation as a 'features' guy, a position that, despite alot of lip service, ranks pretty low on the newsroom taxonomy chart. No bother, I'd still rather hang out with a truly unique individual than go cover my millionth 'senseless homicide'. I find by doing so, I feel better at the end of my shift and take home something to think about.

Don Matney 2Take Thursday for example. Instead of rushing to the edge of controversy, I ambled over to High Point Regional Health System, where a man of quiet conviction was enriching the lobby's atmosphere with simple Christmas tunes. But 76 year old Don Matney's life hasn't always been a song. Born legally blind, the Waynesville native didn't regain limited sight until his late teens. Once he did, he began hanging around a local radio station, so impressing the staff with his insatiable curiosity that they eventually gave him a job. What followed was a storied career, including a thirty year stint at Davidson County Broadcasting, where he held every position from announcer to General Manager. Not bad for a little boy who was never expected to see past the haze of chronic cataracts.

Don Matney 3These days you'll find the retiree at hospitals, clubs and restaurants, sharing a love of music he first discovered as a young child at the North Carolina School for the Blind. In fact, he never stopped plinking on the ivory as I set up my camera and pepppered him with questions about his life, volunteerism and of course, broadcasting. Mr. Matney answered them all, rarely looking up from the holiday song he was hammering out. I didn't mind, as nothing pleases me more than a subject who's not afraid to ignore my lens. By the time I left the lobby, I had everything I needed for a nice feature, as well as the feeling that I'd made a new friend.

But Don Matney's peace with the world flummoxed me somewhat. Does contentment come with old age? Will I grow increasingly satisfied with mere existence as my body slowly erodes? Will happiness supplant angst as I grow nearer to my grave? Will this tortured orb start to make sense just as I prepare to leave it?

Let me get back to you on that...

UPDATE: After the above passage was posted on Greensboro 101, an eloquent lady by the name of Brenda Bowers offered a few answers to my questions. Her response is priceless...

Dear Mr. Pittman, Yes, we do mellow and find contentment as we age. You see we find ourselves Free for the first time in this lifetime. No one expects anything from us. In fact, they are surprised as you were, to discover that we do indeed have something to say; that we keep up with the world around us but can look at it from the perspective of having weathered many storms and obstacles in the past so nothing seems too daunting, or too very serious. We are free to be us. We no longer have to set an example or be concerned with how our economic status/appearance/opinions with affect our careers/marriage/friendships. The “careers” we pursue now are for fun, not money; the marriage has come to the point of quiet pleasure in each others company (I can't change the old Goat so I might as well see the humor in it all!); the friendships are old and lasting and accepting of each others foibles. And the best part are the opinions! At last free to call it as you see it and to do it if you want to (and still can!). Aside from the inevitable aches and pains and other physical annoyances I would have to say that being a senior citizen, or old broad, which ever you prefer, is FUN. -- Brenda Bowers

Semi Hits News Unit

There's a scary piece of tape circulating through the internets that strikes fear in the hearts of anyone who's parked a news unit in a breakdown lane and hit the flashers. A CBS 11 chopper was hovering over an 18 wheeler on Westbound I-20 outside Dallas when a semi traveling in the opposite lane skidded on ice, jack-knifed and plowed into a news unit before bursting into flames, all while cameras rolled. From the CBS 11 website:

'The SUV that was parked on the shoulder of the highway belongs to Telemundo, a Spanish language television station in Dallas-Fort Worth. The photojournalist who was driving it was also covering the first 18-wheeler wreck. He was not in the vehicle at the time and was not hurt.

Watch closely and you'll see a figure jump/thrown from the skidding semi. That person is in the hospital, while the truck driver escaped relatively unharmed. It's frightening footage that every photog should watch, as well as the deskbound staffers that dispatch them to backed-up highways and high-speed collisions. Careful out there...

Coming Soon...

No, I'm not lost in mourning over my dead television set, I'm just busy. Very busy. Orchestra recitals, holiday commitments, and prepping for a weekend jaunt eastward have eaten into my evening writing time, leaving me absent-minded, grumpy and creatively constipated. But fear not, dear reader(s?), powerful laxatives are on the way...

"Fiction is dead!" scream the websites. No duh, so's my TV. Actually, there's more to the demise of the novel than that, and it's something I'd like to talk about once I get more ample desk-time.

While some on-line scenes are plateauing, the photograsphere continues to extrapolate. Look for a whirlwind tour of my photog brethren (and one award-winning sis-tren) in the coming days...

More immediately, I have a story scheduled for today that may very well result in an interesting post. That would be swell, as the broadcast minutia of the past couple of days has yielded very little in the way of blog-fodder...

From the weather center, the meterologists in my life are predicting a mixture of sleet, freezing rain and inconvenience will fall this very evening. Will I be dragged kicking and screaming onto some icy overpass so a reporter buddy can marvel at Mother Nature every fifteen minutes? I think you know the answer...

Finally, there is someone I've wanted to tell you about for a l-o-n-g time. Though he goes by the name Munk Siddiq, I'll always think of him as Brian Wagoner. A mercurial musician and potent performer, Munk is as brilliant as he is misunderstood. He's also my cousin. As kids we were kindred souls; as adults we're starkly different (on the surface, anyway). It's been a year or three since we've visited and I miss him, as he's always been a miscast hero of mine. Let me work the tattered cell phone numbers in my wallet and I'll bring you all into the fold. Trust me, it's worth the wait...

Stay Tuned...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Diagnosis: Tube Death

"You'll never guessed what just died downstairs..." my wife said as I walked in the door.

My forehead wrinkled at her use of the 'D' word. The woman's an E.R. nurse fer cryin' out loud. That's when a certain gray box popped into my head.

"The...Tee-Vee?", I croaked.

"Yep," she nodded. "I was watching for your school bus story and it went 'POOF!'"



TV DOAShoulders slumped, I turned and walked downstairs to pay proper respects to my fallen friend. It sat there in the cabinet, speakers silenced, 37 inch screen forever dark. Plopping down on the couch, I stared at the fireplace's reflection on the tube's surface. As the flames danced, I thought about the good times...Wrestling it out of the box and into my very first house in 1993...watching home movies of my oldest's first birthday moments after she blew out the candles, marveling at how images I'd first seen through a tiny black and white viewfinder earlier in the day looked in full color big screen color on the evening news...movies, cable, VHS and DVD...

As I sat there, caressing the remote, guilt washed away all my warm feelings. Truth is, I hadn't been watching my old pal like I probably should have. I'd even discouraged my kids from doing so well, often (gasp!) turning it off and demanding they get active. Sure, I still logged an hour or two every other evening, but more often than not I spent my den-time staring at my laptop rather than bathing in my RCA's loving blue glow. But that glow was forever gone now and I guess I knew it was going to happen. For the last month, a small section of the screen had become distorted, then the reds and oranges began to look a little funky. 'It'll be fine', I told my family, 'It gives it character'. But I knew it wasn't fine, for it was apparent to any TV geek that my boxy friend was slowly dying. I just didn't think he would go this quick. As I stared into the milky abyss of the eerily silent screen, my wife came into the room and sat down beside me.

"Honey," she said as I peered into the ether.

"Yeah babe?"

"Don't think for a moment you're gonna hang one of those flat things on our wall."

Bones of Calamity

I was congratulating myself for having avoided Presidential visit duty all day when the scanners in the newsroom began barking words nobody wants to hear…

…School Bus…head-on collision…multiple injuries…

School Bus WreckHoping the evening crews would cover this late-breaking news, I slithered into an audio booth and watched the newsroom go nuts through the sanctuary of sound-proof glass. For a brief moment I thought I’d escaped, but when my reporter for the day began pulling on her red station raincoat, I knew I was screwed. Moments later, we pulled onto the cold wet windy interstate, headed due north. As the petrified wipers smeared streaks across the windshield, I cursed myself for not yet replacing them and punched the home button on my cell phone. Beside me, Caron Myers did the same. Together we told our respective spouses we wouldn’t be home for dinner, as we were suddenly late for a place we didn’t want to be.

School Bus WreckA word on school bus wrecks. I hate ‘em. Seriously, there’s nothing that strikes dread in the hearts of those with children than the prospect of little ones injured or worse on the cold, hard highway. Why, if I were a producer, I’d say it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Since I’m not, I’ll skip that particular cliché and admit I’m somewhat inured to the suffering of others. Not that I don’t empathize with victims of tragedy, God knows I do; but it’s my job to remain detached, remote, neutral. Luckily (or not), it’s my nature to compartmentalize such things, choosing to deal with any resulting scar tissue late at night through deep reflection and half-baked prose. On scene, however, I’m far more focused on looming deadlines than humanity’s excessive woes. It’s a wholly undesirable occupational hazard, one achieved with long lenses, thin cynicism and a dollop or two of self-absorption. It ain’t noble, but it’s honest.

Tara Live ShotSo as I stood there in the rain, breathing heavily as I pointed my fancycam at the bus in question, I was as relieved as any father of two would be to discover the wreck wasn’t quite as sever as the scanners made it sound. However, it was still news - or it would be, provided I spent the last half hour of dying sunlight very wisely. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Far from it, for the news suits back at the shop had thrown every available crew at what sounded like a very big story. When I first pulled up to the phalanx of flashing lights, I noticed one of our live trucks parked nearby, it’s mast slowly poking upward over the fire trucks and ambulances. Inside, nightside photographer Chris Morton flipped switches and dialed the station, attending to all the details that go into establishing a live shot. I didn’t see his partner Tera Williams, but I figured she was there as I jogged awkwardly underneath the strain of camera and tripod.

Bateson, MyersThe next eight minutes passed very quickly. With Caron Myers trailing behind me, I swept my camera over the scene, from the bus’s crushed hood to the accordion car to the group of middle school students shivering by a neighbor‘s driveway. When the door of a nearby ambulance swung opened and a paramedic jumped out, Caron caught sight of a young boy strapped to a stretcher inside. Eyeing the crowd of kids in the distance, I loitered by the ambulance, camera on shoulder. When the paramedic returned and climbed in back, I captured three seconds of a sheepish young man laying on his back and looking around the ambulance before the door swung shut. As if on cue, a single file line of school kids walked right by me, their adult escort hunched forward to escape the stinging rain. Caron grabbed my wireless microphone and before I knew it, we were interviewing an 11 year old. Seconds later, an out of breath Dad walked by with kids in tow. Inside the viewfinder, I squinted at his image as he thanked God his little girl was okay. By the time he walked on two minutes later, we had everything we’d come for.

Tara WritingBut all was not done. Back at the truck, Chris (“C-Mo”, to his coworkers) couldn’t align the shot. The truck he’d arrived in had a shorter mast than most, its dish couldn’t reach above the canopy of trees to shoot a signal back to our tower. Luckily, even more back-up had arrived. Tim Bateson and Nico Belha, fresh from babysitting Air Force One on the airport’s tarmac, pulled up in another live truck, one with ’a bigger stick’. Soon, all of six of us gathered around the second truck. While I furiously edited the footage into a forty second sequence of shots, Bateson and C-Mo pulled cable to a tripod they’d left on the side of the road. Caron and Tera hammered details into a workable script and Nico fielded phone calls. When the 5 o clock newscast’s opening music rolled a few minutes later, Tera was the only crew member to appear on camera, but both her message and her medium were very much a group effort. I love it when a plan comes together.

Me, C-Mo, BatesonAfter the anchors pummeled Tera with a few follow-up questions, they moved on to another story and the director cleared our shot. With a entire hour before we were due back on air, we all chuckled nervously and caught our breath. Tera crawled inside the live truck to refashion her five o clock words into a six o clock script. The rest of us loitered outside as she did, trading gossip, talking shop and bitching about our silly jobs and the cruddy weather. It was then a familiar attitude fell over our group. With deadline met, excitement thwarted and tragedy averted, we chatted and joked like any group of office mates would. The fact that we were huddling by a rainy accident scene mattered little; our idle chat and sophomoric jokes were like that of any water-cooler gathering - albeit one involving workers who deal in disaster and hype, instead of widgets and sales figures. However strange our roadside rendezvous may seem to you, for me, it is the picture of normalcy, small talk among reluctant buzzards as we rip apart the still warm bones of calamity…

Beats selling Amway, I'm told.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Sleepwalking at Center Court

Tree LensBored this holiday season? Drag your TV station's fancycam and tripod to the top of a busy mall escalator. Place yourself far enough back so that you're invisible to the ascending shopper until the very last moment, just when they're about to step off the moving steps. This can humor the average news shooter for the better part of a morning, as the reactions vary from immediate giddiness to angry befuddlement to quiet revulsion. I know I must have chewed up a good thirty minutes the other day, until an old lady with too many bags and not enough balance teetered dangerously at the precipice. Seeing how this would have caused a chain reaction of tumbling mall walkers, rent-a-cops and overpriced merchandise, I broke down my gear and slunk off to the Food Court.

Kid Hates SantaBut that's the life of a soft news specialist in December. Be it the Hottest New Gadgets! to the Ways To Save! to Great Gifts under $20.00!, there's plenty of easy TV to make at The Mall. Take the kid in the blue over there, the one yearning to break free of Kris Kringle's icy grip. I could do twenty minutes on him alone! Truth is, I would have never spotted the hysterical tyke had it not been for his most impressive lung capacity. I was lounging peacefully in a Chick-Fil-A haze when a terrifying shriek rang out from Santa's lair three floors below. Looking down, I took in a performance worthy of a pro wrestling contract. Little Boy Blue writhed, wiggled and even went boneless as Mom tried to manufacture a Kodak moment. Why she insisted he join his brothers lapside is beyond me, as the resulting photo will probably place them all in long-term therapy.

Two Old CatsAs Blue Boy feigned convulsions, I ran my lens across the farthest reaches of the retail labyrinth, pausing to gander at these two cats Clad in polyester, plaid and jackets, they were going nowhere fast. But they weren't letting their idle state belittle them in the least. Impervious to the cacophony around them, they struck up a conversation of covenience while their better halves hunted and gathered and gossiped and shopped. I was w-a-y out of earshot but I'm pretty sure their exchange featured fishing lures, World War II and grandchildren. But what do I know? They may very have been dissing on the new 50 cent CD. You know how old school dudes in Members Only jackets can be...

Santa & BodyguardSpeaking of retro-wear, check out the Man in Red himself. Having apparently shaken off Blue Boy long enough to go grab a smoke, Old Saint Nick sauntered by with undercover escort in tow - lest he be accosted by a wandering tribe of hyperventilating pre-schoolers. But who could blame the old elf for not wanting to take on the little buggers mano a mano? Have you seen the way some of them kick when you get them in a headlock? I once got my little brother in a sleeping bag figure four and he damn near levitated. But that's not important now. What is vital is that Santa's egress awoke me from my flourescent-triggered haze, making me realize that if Elvis was leaving the building, it was high time I beat feet as well - as soon as I hit that Cinnabon down by The Baby Gap...