Friday, June 10, 2005

Stay Tuned...

Lords of the Underpass

We broadcast journalists chase our individual deadlines for starkly different reasons. For some, it’s the chance to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With others, it’s the glow of the TelePrompter that draws them to the flame. Me, I’m in it for the access - the backstage pass of a life observing others. When I was younger, I filled my lens with the carnage and the struggle of police blotter coverage. But as the years passed, my lust for the lead story waned considerably. Today I’m more than happy to bring up the rear, filing daily reports that end newscasts, not start them.

Which is why I wasn’t the least bit upset when my bosses dispatched me to a gig of seemingly little import. The assignment - hang out with the traffic counters. Perhaps you’ve seen them on the outskirts of High Point, scruffy college kids in low slung beach chairs furiously pushing buttons on strange laptop devices. No they’re not field-testing the latest in Game-Boys; rather, they’re keeping score on the many motorists that pass by their encampment. Every summer, city engineers pay young adults to gather traffic data; and every year about this time some sheltered producer motors by and discovers them for the very first time.

That’s where I come in: wish-actuator for the deskbound and the soft. Not that I’m complaining! I’d much rather loiter with a few calculating collegiate types than cover one more minute of contentious County Commissioner Stand-off. So it was with considerable enthusiasm that I descended on today‘s unlikely subjects. The two dudes-in-waiting bristled a bit at first, but when I explained I came only for close-ups and sound-bites, they relaxed a little more (if that’s possible). Soon I found myself huddling with the dynamic duo as they clicked a button on their counting gizmos every time an Escalade, school bus or Chevy Vega zipped by.

We spoke of much as the exhaust fumes wafted over the underpass: summer jobs, new car models, even the upcoming cinematic bastardization of an H. G. Wells classic. All the while travelers came by at a respectable clip, no doubt wondering why the local TV station was interviewing Beavis and Butthead. But that’s not fair. I found my two gracious hosts to be enlightened and entertaining, brimming with verve and obscure movie trivia. Something about them even reminded me of my own salad days fifteen years back. In fact, there was only one patch of trouble on our roadside perch: One of them was interested in a career in broadcasting.

Rather than crush the young man’s dreams by a bustling interstate, I gently cajoled the youngster for not aiming a little higher on the Life-O-Meter. Sure, it may look fun, but my profession is rife with long hours, lousy conditions and less than stellar pay. Wouldn’t he rather be a baker, a businessman, an Indian Chief? Apparently not, as the young man rivaled my list of interview queries with his own curious questions. Sensing the youth was adamant about pursuing the Fourth Estate, I met his inquisition with serious aplomb.

“Yeah, this job can be a kick, but you’ll work too damn hard for your money and before long your idea of a good day will be loitering with folk half your age at a seedy underpass.”

Judging from the delight in their eyes, I could tell my dissuasion wasn’t working. So I handed them a business card with my blog address on it, told them to check my archives, and made a hasty retreat before I unduly influenced their future career paths any more than I already had. Then I got some lunch.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Everything Must Go

When a landmark shuts down, I show up. A dreaded specter through the showroom glass, my lenslinging silhouette strikes fear in the heart of broken retailers far and wide. Okay that’s pouring it on a little thick, but when you’ve documented the death of the American Dream as many times as I have, you do start to feel like the Grim Reaper.

Technically, Blumenthal’s isn‘t closing. But they are moving, to an unremarkable location in outer Urban Sprawl, leaving behind the empty husk of a dying downtown landmark. It’s a shame, really. Since 1926, this high-ceiling hall of commerce has traded in great denominations of denim. In the process, this old school trading post has clothed generations of blue collar folk in the very latest in workaday dungaree. For twice as long as I’ve drawn breath, bargain shoppers from the immediate Piedmont have made countless sojourns to this dusty retail den. At least that’s what they tell me. Before today, I’d never stepped foot in the place.

Luckily for me, the proprietor at hand is a class act. Bob Blumenthal first got involved with his father’s business the year after I was born. While I was wrestling with adolescence in the bowels of Down East, he was moving units, under-pricing competitors and winning the loyalty of a legion of customers. Today our paths crossed in the most pleasant of ways, despite the circumstances. As his staff sorted through a mountain of blue jeans and liquidators hung last-chance signs, Bob Blumenthal took time to chat with me, my camera, lights and wireless mike. A most gracious host, he chuckled sadly through it all, as together we distilled 79 years of history in a six minute interview.

He told me of his father Abe Blumenthal, a plucky businessman who’d founded a no-nonsense business and built his life around it. He spoke of decade old relationships with cherished customers, people who meant a lot more than a drawer full of receipts. He talked about downtown revitalization and the parking spaces it took from him. Finally he related the facts of a January deal, a timely sale for a tidy sum that would foster his reluctant retirement. But concern for his workers, outrage from his customers and a nagging dread of inaction coerced the lifelong purveyor of pants and accessories to set up shop across town. The American Dream, deferred.

Blumenthal knows his new West Market Street location can’t rival the dusty environs of his downtown digs. But he’s taking his trademark neon signs, old wooden tables and careworn check out counter with him, hoping to infuse some old school charm into the Great American Strip Mall. I wish him luck, and will cross his threshold the next time in need of a pair of Carharts. I only wish I’d visited this historic store before, before one more Temple of American turns into just another prefab suite of new age boutiques.

I guess there's always Wal-Mart.

21st Century VJ

Trusty Weaver files an enlightening report on the modern day Video Journalist. One-Man-Bands have been around since the dawn of television, but shrinking technologies and tightening budgets are bringing them to the forefront of medium and major markets. Here in the Piedmont, a competing station is outfitting diminutive females with everything they need to get the job done - with no lack of success! News crew purists may not like it, but this new and improved breed of newsgatherer is here to stay. Now go check out Weaver's blog for a proper introduction.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Swelter and Stew

We were somewhere into our third stand-up attempt when the realization kicked in. Summer had officially arrived. I knew it by the way the perspiration coming of my forehead made the viewfinder look like a windshield going through a car wash. Jeff Varner knew it too. Why else would he keep substituting ‘FFA’ for ‘FAA’? The guys wearing matching denim jackets back in high school might forgive the slip, but the aviation wonks standing just off screen surely would protest. They didn’t have to; Jeff caught the flub and started over, after running a few fingers through his carefully coiffed do. Perhaps the heat waves bouncing off the tarmac were baking his brain. They certainly were mine.

And so begins the season of my discontent. For as long as I’ve squinted through station-owned lenses, I’ve mopped sweat from my brow for three miserable months of each year. And boy, do I sweat. I sweat like an escaped convict trying to blend in at a prison guard social. Luckily, I work alone a lot, allowing me to hide my shame behind a revolving collection of unfortunate tropical shirts. But it isn’t easy. How could it be - when the sweltering humidity of a Carolina summer wraps around you like a force field. I know I’m not the only suffering from the heat, but when its 90 degrees at ten in the morning and you’ve just been assigned the construction worker beat…well, it’s enough to make anyone complain - especially a sticky lenslinger with a penchant for epistles and a nasty web habit.

So look for the beleaguered ramblings of a sweat-soaked madman to be a running theme here at Viewfinder BLUES until...oh, about mid-September. By then I'll have found another force of nature to bitch about - like those pesky hurricanes that terrorize our coast in the early fall. Have you ever tried to get a half dozen pizzas delivered to a satellite truck in the middle of an evacuated beach resort? I'm tellin' ya - it ain't easy. Why, there was this one time...

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Age of Convergence (part 1)

May you live in interesting times’ - the fortune cookie’s message read. I crumpled the paper into a tiny ball and signaled for the check. As the old Asian man in the corner snapped to life and headed my way, I looked out the window at my dusty news unit and bit into the cookie. Interesting times, indeed...

In the fall of ‘89 I stumbled into my first television station, a small market affiliate sporting the very latest in 1970’s newsgathering equipment. Three-quarter inch rigs - large, bulky cameras attached to oversized field decks with heavy cables - were the weapon of the day. With a front-heavy camera perched on one shoulder and an ancient VCR-in-a-bag hanging off the other, making television, and deadline, was an aerobic event. Still, the lenslingers I knew ran hard, schlepping that ancient gear through drug dealer living rooms, down sun-baked railroad tracks and up lofty fire towers.

Amazingly, most of us slinging this museum-ready gear were also our own reporters, producers, editors. I wrapped up many a shoot with by slipping on a tie and stepping before an unmanned camera. Shooting your own stand-up was tricky at first, but far from impossible. The hardest part was always figuring out what to say, since you’d spent all your time on scene with a face full of viewfinder. Nonetheless, I’d always manage to record one or two passable passages before scrambling back to my bureau where an aging electric typewriter and a newfangled fax machine connected me to Mother Newsroom.

There I’d review my footage, banging my thoughts into the heavy carbon paper while chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. Once my script was approved I’d roll my antiquated office chair to the tape-to-tape edit bay in the corner and try to magic of the material I’d gathered. Less than an hour later, I’d spin the jog-wheel back on the control panel and cue up a finished piece. With a quick call to the tape room engineer thirty miles away, I’d flip a heavy toggle switch and microwave-feed my humble story home. Most nights, the stories led the newscast, forcing me to set up a live shot in the tiny bureau office.

I remember many nights of frantic movements just before airtime, plugging in the microphone, leveling the tripod, framing up that same old shot If I was lucky I’d have a few spare seconds to run my fingers through my hair before the director back at the shop punched my camera on-air. There I’d appear in a relative tight shot, tape-filled shelves and crooked station logo in the background. Tapping my inner Brokaw, I’d deliver the words I made up a few minutes earlier into the unblinking lens. When I finished my intro, the director would roll the tape with my story on it. As my brilliance (or stupidity) of the day played out on the black and white screen across the room, I’d sit motionless for fear of bumping my shot, mumbling words to myself I’d soon speak to distracted viewers from the Capitol to the Coast.

When my outro was over and the anchor moved on, I’d break down my gear in my tiny office and think about my performance. Rarely was I satisfied with how I appeared on camera, but most days I was happy with the story at hand. However I felt, the one thing I knew for sure as I rolled up microphone cables into the tenth hour of my shift, was that I’d have the chance to improve my shtick the following day, when I’d start the whole exhausting process over again.

Even back then, working as a one-man-band wasn’t the preferred method of the day. It was however, simply the price of admission if you wanted to be a TV reporter in my hometown at the dawn of the 90’s. Did I ever. Over the years, my quest for microscopic fame subsided and I hung up my necktie and overcoat. But I kept shooting and writing and editing. As I honed this one-man three-act play, I surprised a lot of coworkers with my penchant for working alone. I can’t help it - it’s how the Newsroom Elders reared me. I started that way by means of necessity, I continue those methods because I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which is why I can’t help but smirk a little when I hear others bemoan the death of the two-person news crew. Truth is, those double-headed monsters will always roam the news landscape - as well they should. But soaring technology and shrinking budgets will greatly reduce the herd, making way for a laptop-packing, zoom lens-swinging, new age journalist, who despite his (or her) high-tech moniker and mind-scrambling gadgets, looks an awful like their predecessor - the late eighties one-man-band. Many will play, some will suck - but most will flourish. In the process, a new form of television news will be forged - hopefully one solely authored by the tech-savvy auteur and devoid of the on-scene pomp of the overdressed talking hair-do.

Hey, a cameraman can dream, can’t he?

Landslides and Take-Out

As always, beFrank's on the edge of another big story, filing his latest report from the disastrous landslides at Laguna Beach. I've never covered a landslide (that big, anyway) but I can appreciate the culinary perils of being stranded in broken neighborhoods. I just wonder if beFrank will make it back to his post at the Michael Jackson trial in time for the floor show...