Saturday, April 02, 2005

Newsgathering Givens

“So do you know what you’re doing next week?”

Of course not, I thought as my wife waited at the bottom of the stairs for an answer. That’s the beauty of what I do: every day is different than the day before. Predicting how I’d spend each shift is virtually impossible. Well, that’s not entirely true, I decided as I hovered over the keyboard…

For example, I know I’ll log many a mile behind the wheel of my mobile office. Every week I traverse the Piedmont Triad in my trusty news chariot, ricocheting from city to city to city in a single afternoon. For a kid who couldn’t wait to drive, I now get more than my fill of the open highway, especially after a cannonball run of lane-changing madmen. Luckily, I have my music on board. This week’s featured disc? The latest offering from Beck!

I also fully expect to run into other lenslingers throughout the hunt. We’ll rendezvous at some unlikely location and act like we belong there in the first place. I treasure these summits, as it gives me a chance to examine my breed. Most of the other camera pirates I encounter are hearty souls, electronic journeymen who feel at home in a hospital ward, fancy ballroom or ghetto stand-off -- as long as they have their camera, that is.

It’s just as certain I’ll shoot lots of footage that will never see the light of day. Each and every time I hoist my expensive toy, I use it to record images destined for the cutting room floor. Of course, we don’t use razors and film anymore, all my slicing and dicing occurs on a non-linear timeline. But all that technology doesn’t stop me from wasting time effort and batteries on shots I know are useless. But hey - what’s a photog to do while trailing a group of high school students through a new school, reveal how incredibly unhip I am?

As much as I’ll try to avoid it, I’ll also spend a measurable amount of time in and around a live truck. The masts and dishes atop these marvelous vehicles allow us broadcasters to do just that - broadcast! From outside the bank robbery hours after it occurred, to the roadside report alongside the ten mile tie-up, tot the dusty hallways of a sequestered jury, we’ll take you there live even when our better judgment says not too. As soon as I pull 500 feet of this cable into a crowded sports bar, that is.

Alas, another scenario is a virtual lock. For no matter how I try to hide in the backwaters of b-block feature pieces, I’ll no doubt be summoned to the edge of someone else’s calamity for extended team smotherage before the workweek is through. Panning the yellow tape rarely wears you out physically, but too much time on buzzard patrol slowly erodes the soul. I work hard to avoid the ubiquitous crime-scene scene, but when it comes to grisly assignments, I still ain’t bulletproof.

So yeah, I got a feeling what I’ll be up to next time I punch the old news clock. I don’t know the players yet, the motives or location. But I damn sure know the archetypes, the allegories and the attitudes that make up the average forty hours of frantic news gathering. I was perusing these possibilities when my wife’s voice rang out from the downstairs foyer.

“So do you know what you’re doing?”

“Oh you know, honey,” I said absent-mindedly, “same old same old...”

Fear and Loathing at Final Approach

“Pittman, Airport Alert! Can you roll?”

It was less of a question than an order. Still, I couldn’t help but mumble under my breath as I grabbed my keys and rose from my desk. Spotting a fellow photog across the newsroom, I shot him a tortured look and he chuckled, happy it was my turn for a Nantucket Sleigh Ride and not his. I stormed past him like a doomed sailor.

“Three vosots on the stove and now I gotta chase this crap?!?”

“Settle down, Francis” he said, “You’ll never make it.”

Yeah, yeah. Just because he was right didn’t make it any less inconvenient. Thirty seconds later I was still grumbling as I climbed behind the wheel, cranked the engine and threw my news unit into reverse. ‘What I would do for a normal job sometimes‘, I thought as I tore out of the TV station parking lot.

'Beautiful disaster...flyin' down the street again...I tried to keep up...'

As my old 311 CD played in the background, I hurtled down a highway by the same name. Setting my cruise control for just a few miles over the speed limit, I drummed the steering wheel and wondered how long it would be before I was turned around, for the only thing more certain than an impromptu balls-to-the-wall airport haul is that the desk would call you off of it before you were made it halfway there. So it was with great smugness that I answered my cell phone before it could even ring a second time.

“Stew - this is the real deal - DC-9 comin’ in on one engine”, the night assignment editor sounded resolute and firm, much the same way he did when discussing his NCAA brackets. “Proceed to Runway 2. Keith’s behind ya in a live truck.”

%#$@&*! I hit END on the cell phone and resisted the urge to throw it into the dashboard. Instead I looked at my watch and grimaced. 3:50 pm...if this was indeed the real deal, the unwritten stories back on my desk were about to become the least of my concerns. Rather, I’d be camped out as close to the smoking remains as I could get - squinting through a viewfinder and no doubt going LIVE(!) with all the sordid details. It was nothing I hadn’t done before but that didn’t mean I wanted to repeat the grim task - especially on a day when I promised the wife I’d get home in time to help her with a neighborhood cook-out. Then again, I thought as I took the exit ramp to Highway 68, is there ever a good time for a plane crash?

Somewhere above me a passenger stowed her tray in the seatback before her and peered out the plane’s window. Piedmont Triad International Airport lay below amid the gently rolling landscape of Guilford County. Just south of the Interstate exchange, a grimy white Ford Explorer with garish logos raced for the airport, it’s weary driver wondering where in the hell Runway 2 was.

I should have known, but as I fumbled through my center console for an airport map, all I came up with a box of orange Tic-Tacs. I was fishing one out into my palm when the cell phone rang.

“Stew - Airport’s rolled all their emergency vehicles on the tarmac. Try the West Market entrance!”

I could hear the fuzz and crackle of scanner traffic behind the night guy, who sounded a bit tweaked out himself. Breaking news can do that to as fellow. Heck, I was growing a little frazzled myself, turning down my music and taking the West Market turn-off a bit too quickly. As discs and map books slid across my cluttered cockpit, my photog’s mind went to battle stations. Camera. Check. Disc in chamber. Check. Tripod. Check. Scanning the rear view mirror I checked my gear and avoided looking at my watch. As the last remaining two miles stretched out before me I gripped the wheel and thought about the players in motion…a half-crippled aircraft losing altitude, a nighttime assignment editor high on static, a crusty photog who just wants everyone to get home on time.

Closing in on the airport’s perimeter, I gunned the engine and visualized the next ninety seconds. Screech up to the fence and throw the cam on the sticks. Scan the horizon and above all else roll. Be in position to get lucky before the security goons try to kick you off the property. I was capturing award winning footage of the plane’s final approach when the cell phone beside me rang.

“Uh yeah, Stew - the aircraft landed without incident…”

Cursing under my breath, I whipped the SUV into a tight u-turn. Several hundred yards behind me the DC-9 taxied around the runway, it’s pilot and passengers blissfully unaware their potentially disastrous plight had almost made a Dad-slash-Broadcaster late for dinner.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Big Link

This week on The Big Link, meet a Greensboro writer who radiates reason, insight and a warm Wookie glow. Tell 'em Darth Slinger sent ya...

Thursday, March 31, 2005

My Cross to Bear

Consider for a moment the lowly tripod. Sure the gleaming new fancy-cams get all the attention, but the three legged beast underneath makes it all happen. Ask any photog on the force and they’ll agree, we all worship at the temple of the tripod. Why? Because these freestanding workhorses extrapolate good footage. No matter how steady a one boasts of being, nothing beats the sturdy perch of a good set of sticks. The very stability of a static platform enables the operator to use all his glass, zooming in to the farthest reaches of the lens extender. All this helps when you’re in a rush - which is always. Within a few scant minutes, a veteran shooter can park a pod on the side of a highway and rack up dozens of shots of the UFO crash site from a single spot. Once you get past the hyped-up volunteer firemen, that is.

The only problem is these inert creatures don’t walk. Sure they’ll stand around at the back of the press conference and gossip about the podium, but only if you’re the designated driver. Nor do they always behave. Whether it’s ruined shirts from greasy joint mucus or crunched knuckles from crippling hand-pinches, my tripod has left me with far more battle scars than other piece of gear. Even when they do as told, these hefty relics can weigh a good man (or woman) down, making it awful tempting to leave the damn thing in the news car, if only your photog buddies wouldn’t snicker when your show up sans a set of legs. You may as well leave your pants at home.

To maker matters worse, the average TV news tripod is often almost as old as the schlub who just dragged it through the jam-packed convention center. I for one park a state of the art camera on a turn of the decade set of sticks every day, though I never walk away from it. It’s like knowing better than to hand the new car keys over to your lovable college buddy from back in the day. You love that guy, you’ve dragged him through many a bar fight, but there’s no way you’re letting him trash your ride - especially with the wife’s name on the title and all.

So take the advice of a licensed cameramanthropologist, drag that cranky beast to every shot you’re privileged/cursed to attend - even if it means being sucked into a fancy hotel revolving door with every gadget you got hanging off your shoulders, or wrestling three oversized camera cases up an airport escalator with an angry mob at your back, or accidentally sticking your tripod up some old lady's keyster in a packed elevator full of half-drunk furniture salesmen. Your hands will look manly, you’re video will look professional and all the other camera jockeys will welcome you into the scrum. If you can convince your shop to buy you one of those space-age models, rejoice! But even if you’re camera legs first served their purpose on the set of “Birth of a Nation”, bring ‘em, for no other tool at your disposal will make your work look as good, once you get past all that petrified duct-tape.

Any questions?

The Wizard of Spence

The good folks over at ENC DTV have gone from reeling through ancient VHS tapes to pilfering back-issues of TV Guide. That’s what I call a hobby! Still, they’re not peeling apart old pages in vain. The images they’ve unearthed have flooded my cortex with warm fuzzy memories from days long past. Here’s one now…

Why, it’s the eminent John Spence. As a kid I watched this master broadcaster on the local noon news. He’d be there on the living room set, hunched over the news desk and dolling out swine futures in his signature baritone. I ate many a PBJ to the sound of that man’s voice, but as I sat there and chewed a succession of sandwiches I had no idea I’d one day come to meet him, let alone learn from his wizardly ways.

Yet I did, when years later I stumbled into my first TV station and met an aging rat pack of local news legends. Among them were Slim Short, Jim Woods and John Spence - esteemed gentlemen all who’d spent a lifetime defining Eastern North Carolina TV news. Despite the fact I was a raging punk-ass at the time, I was smart enough to learn from these pioneers, especially Mr. Spence. There he’d sit in his corner cubicle, pounding out tobacco prices on the ricketiest of typewriters while a flurry of co-workers young enough to be his grandkids played TV all around him.

I was one of those snot-nosed kids. But through early mentor Thomas Cormier I got to know this Founding Father of Farm News quite well - even accompanying him on a shoot or two, or three…or thirty. From the warehouse floor to the cotton patch, Mr. Spence cast off casual bons mots that served as the very cornerstones for my on-the-job edumacation. Better yet, he did it with a twinkle in his oracle’s eye.

For example, somewhere in my collection of deteriorating bloopers, I have footage of John standing in the middle of a field in a checkered shirt with a rake in his hand. He looks like the farmer granddad you always wished you had - until he opens his mouth and in a most stately Southern accent inquires…

“Are you ready yet…asshole?”

I must rescue this treasured relic, because it is truly a message of love from a gentlemen who served as an erstwhile Yoda during my early TV Jedi training. Even more so, it was the sage Mr. Spence who insisted I keep on writing back when I wasn’t sure I had any business lining up words in a row. For that I’m intensely grateful. These days, John is enjoying the fruits of his labor at his Ayden compound, overseeing a flock of animals and a cast of characters that make up his masterwork of gracious southern retirement. For me though, he’ll always be that avuncular presence on the mid-seventies TV screen, that cranky prophet who’d already forgotten more than I still know, that gentle voice in my e-mail inbox, telling me to stop pondering and start producing. Here‘s to you, Mr. Spence.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Politics of Pressers

Okay, so I don't drag my light kit into EVERY press conference, but if the set-up is a hopeless black hole, I'll definitely run back to the car (given time of course - no one ever arrives late to these things, do they?) Seriously, I gotta give props to the shooters at the local CBS affiliate here in town. I swear, those cats don't take a leak without an extra light or two tucked under each arm. Must be something Skortis puts in the photog’s lounge water cooler over there. Sure, it’s a tad extreme, but if we all drank from that cup, things would look alot better around here.

All of which proves an old showbiz adage of mine: “A friend in the field is worth two in the newsroom”. Hey, I’m all for being friendly with the cubicle cows back at the farm, but none of those grazers ever saved your bacon with a fresh tape, extra battery or cryptic whispers in the back of the pack. Trust me, it happens.

Speaking of press conference protocol, I'm continually flummoxed by the lack of thought put into podium placement. How many times have you walked in to find a speaker backlit by a huge window, or stuck in the dark end of a noisy warehouse floor, or the ever ubiquitous white-walled overcrowded company conference room?

I mean, some of these PR yaks pull down pretty major coin, right? Couldn't they tear themselves away from fashioning over-worded press releases to consider how their CEO will look on TV? Seems to me it would be a no-brainer. Perhaps I should open a press conference consulting business, swoop in on businesses and berate their staff for creating so much cinematic carnage over the years. Then I could charge them a boatload for the advice so I could start over-dressing like the rest of them. Maybe something in pinstripes...

My favorite press conference lighting fiasco actually involved some TV types - or at least some smarmy production types from an unnamed local affiliate They were at the hospital conference hall when I arrived. From the amount of equipment they dragged in, I was expecting Pink Floyd to play a few sets before the head surgeon announced the exciting new E.R. wing. No luck - the presser kicked in with the usual corporate claptrap and some rather unusual lighting.

Imagine a podium standing between two giant tied-off bunches of helium-filled balloons. On either side of the balloon-bunches, two powerful lights faced inward, blanketing the outside edge of the balloons in magnificent light, but leaving the podium head-space wedged between in pitch-black darkness. Even the hospital zombies who just dropped by to raid the snack table couldn't understand why someone currently in the Witness Protection program was addressing the E.R. staff.

It made no sense to me, but I bit my lip and rolled tape until refreshments were served. I probably should have suggested an alternative lighting approach, but the two production goobs seemed excited to be out of the station, and I didn't want to kill their buzz. Had they been crusty news types, it would have been far easier to broach the subject, notwithstanding the torrent of good-natured trash talk, rude hand-signals and shout-outs that would have followed any production tip. Ya just gotta love news people.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

2005:Year of the Blog

As much as I focus on it here, it’s no secret I one day hope to write myself OUT of the TV news business. Call it a natural progression, a mid-life crisis or delusions of grandeur, it matters not to me. I just know that eventually, I’ll put down the camera for good. It’s no slam toward my gracious employer. I’m still convinced that El Ocho is one of, if not THE best television station in North Carolina. The people I toil alongside are smart, hard-charging competitors and I’m still very proud to share their logo.

But the truth is, I’m spent. What started as a burning desire to master all things TV News years ago has turned into a dull throb, a nagging realization that I could continue to push the ‘RECORD’ button every workday until I’m a dottering old relic with a bad back and even worse attitude. I desperately don’t want to be that guy. For years I’ve tried to mask the unsettling feelings I have toward my chosen craft, usually with little success. That’s not wholly unusual, as my line of work is filled with talented expressive people who can deconstruct the vagaries of the business while turning in truly remarkable work. Translation : we all bitch, even when we’re eating the other guy’s lunch.

But lately the inherent stupidity of the form has filled me with a palpable malaise, which goes a long way to explaining why my recent posts have simmered with such existential angst. Maybe its all this navel-gazing. The very act of blogging (especially about one’s job) requires more self-examination than is probably healthy. I’ve never been one to keep my feelings to myself, but ever since I decided to crank out daily dispatches from the news-front, many long-ignored truths have become downright undeniable. That either means I’m doing something right, or wasting forty-plus hours a week punching the wrong clock. Whatever the case, I’m not turning in my two-week notice just yet - not as long as my family continues needing sustenance on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I truly do consider 2005 to be my Year of the Blog. Consider it a self-imposed twelve month excursion into the crusty recesses of one photog’s brain. Or don’t consider it all. Either way, I’m still committed to sharing my world-view with all that stumble across this humble site. I started doing so in hopes of developing a more rigid writing discipline, and for the most part it’s worked! Maintaining such regular output can be lonely, maddening and incredibly rewarding. Whether or not I can walk away from the narcissistic thrill of steady feedback remains to be seen, but something tells me I need to go away for awhile to fashion something of real worth.

Until that time, rest assured I’ll be striving to come up with something to say. Every once in a while, my drivel may have some actual merit. Other times, my seething epistles will be like this one - little more than space-filling filibustering. But what did you expect for nothing? High quality content? Next blog over please…There you’ll surely find more political screeds, consumer warnings and pet photos than you could possible ever process. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose - but I hereby pledge to keep this site on-message and in focus. Save the occasional foray into more esoteric fare, I’ll continue to blather about local TV news in all its shame and glory. Why? Because I feel its what my six and half steady readers come here for, and more importantly, it’s what I feel strangely compelled to write about.

For now, anyway.

Monday, March 28, 2005

A Sip of Culture Shock

I knew when Uber-blogging photog Little Lost Robot moved from his beloved Portland to the lesser of the Carolinas, there'd be trouble. After all, the Southeast is diametrically opposed to the Northwest in more ways than just geographical. Be it diet, attitude or the climate, there's a wealth of cultural discrepancies outside the self-absorbed and insular world of local TV News. But I have great faith in Robot. Despite having never met this insatiable communicator, I know he'll soon learn to cope with our strange customs, all while entertaining us along the way. That's why I'm excusing him of his latest atrocity - a blasphemic attack on the House Wine of the South. How dare he...