Friday, March 17, 2006

Fumes at Eleven

At the risk of reviving some long dormant curse, I'll go ahead and say it: I have NEVER run out of gas in a news unit. That's not to say I haven't come unthinkably close. In fact, there have been m-a-n-y times in my sixteen years of electronic newsgathering where a furtive glance at the fuel gage has caused a sudden hitch in my breathing. The first time was back in the early nineties, around four in the morning. Speeding towards an early morning drug round-up, I had to bail out of a Highway 11 road rally to gas up my less-than-turbo Ford Escort. As the numbers flipped on the antiquated pump, my competitor and mentor Paul Dunn pulled up in his own logo-mobile and gently berated me for driving on fumes. I rolled my eyes as he dispensed the not so friendly advice. Then he peeled out to beat me to the pre-bust breakfast buffet.

Fast forward fifteen years. My good buddy Erik Liljegren and I were traversing the hills of Surry County, lost in some esoteric conversation when a quick look downward snapped me back to reality. The cursed needle was wedged so far below empty there was simply nowhere else for my imagination to pretend it could go. Sensing trouble through the newsman antenna hidden in his sculpted hair, Lilly spotted the remnants of the needle buried in the dash and cursed. Through the windshield, we both spotted a chronic lack of civilization: two lanes of blacktop, rolling hills and a few dozen cows shockingly devoid of gas cans. How we made it to the Exxon twelve miles down the road, I don't know - but it may have had something to do with my telling Lilly that Fords aren't really low on gas until the 'Check Fuel' light begins flashing.

I don't know that he believed me, but the lie made us both feel better as we rolled up the windows, held our own gas and tried to drive casual. Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta go top off the tank.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

One Frame at a Time

"Hey, how do you get all those cool pictures for your blog?"

Well, I take them. Inspired by the self-portraiture of the great beFrank, I've been stretching the abilities of my modest digital camera for quite a while now. As a result, I spend as much time with my one good eye jammed into its tiny viewfinder as I do dissecting the professional imagery of my fancycam's high-tech eyepiece. Is it any wonder my vision's so increasingly weak? Probably not, but then again skewed eyesight is just another occupational hazard of the photog set. Actually, it fits in quite well with the jaded life perspective and abundance of logowear, but that's another blog-post. Speaking of which, thanks to Ken 'bluedog photog' Cravens for snapping this pic at the recent El Ocho lens summit and giving me something to share on an otherwise mundane hump-day. But, c'mon Kenny - couldn't you have at least photoshopped in a bit thicker hair before sticking it on-line? See if I share my granola with you at the next hurricane...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Stalking a Talker

Whitey and WeaverMost people think of TV journalists as highly obtrusive, deeply addicted interlopers with an overwhelming jones for the Big Story. Some are, certainly, but my favorite news gatherers have an acute appreciate of the little things in life. You know, like the lowly tale of a mangy mutt hovering over the remains of a fallen friend. A scenario like that won’t top anyone’s line-up, but when properly documented, it can connect with viewers in a way that over-hyped, undercover expose never will. Those of us with enough time in the trenches recognize this salient fact and will bludgeon each other with our wireless microphones to be the first on the scene of a story with water-cooler chat potential. Such was the case yesterday when I dropped a stack of American Idol discs to race to the side of the canine in question.

Mourning DogToo bad a pair of powerful storytellers were already stalking the perimeter. Intrepid White and resourceful Weaver preceded me by only about ten minutes, but by the time I rolled up the master hunters already had their quarry in sights. I knew immediately the spoils would be theirs and dug out my digital camera to better record the recorders. Whitey and Weave barely acknowledged my presence. Instead they focused on the reticent cur in the distance, a mysterious animal who’d attracted the attention of news crews and pet lovers alike with his insistent vigil over a decomposing companion. With every furtive move my colleagues made, the poor mutt cowered and retreated, reluctant to leave his post but mistrustful of human encroachment.

Fox 8 Gang 024But my friends meant no harm. They merely wanted to chronicle the act of loyalty at hand, capture it from every angle and mine them all for any emotion. To that end, Team W had a great deal of assistance from a curious passerby who just happened to be an impassioned advocate for animal rights. As the kindly woman spilled lucid sound-bites into my co-workers’ microphones, I thought of all those days I’d spent chasing far less memorable fodder to absolutely no avail. On this day however, the News Gods smiled, blessing those of my logo with unlikely visuals, repetitive action and enthusiastic sound. And though they never made eye contact with me, I saw a look of quiet satisfaction on Weaver’s face. When I crawled back in Unit 4, I wore my own smile, sorry only that the masterpiece in the making wasn’t mine.

So I drowned my sorrows in red carpet soliloquies and syncopated sound. I guess Idol’s good for something.

Monday, March 13, 2006

More than Caddies to the Nearly Famous

Here's a group of fellas you don't see together very often, the FOX 8 Photojournalists. Normally, it takes a Presidential visit or a storm with a nickname to cause us to gather en masse like this, even then we're not known to cluster in more than fours. It's not that we're antisocial ... WE'RE BUSY! You would be too if you raced through life with one eye pressed to a viewfinder and the other one on the clock. 32 hours of high-quality news a week doesn't get to your set by itself, ya know. It's hand-crafted daily with sweat, back-ache and artistry by the guys to the left. As always, I'm proud to be among this group of news pirates - especially since we're being recognized by the National Press Photographers Association as Medium Market Station of the Year. Ruh-SPECT!

Eddie Hughes, PlayaOkay, so normally I don't go for contests. The whole selection process seems so arbitrary as to be suspect and I really don't care for a prize I gotta nominate myself for. But my colleague Chris Weaver is of a different mind-set. Recently he took it upon himself to assemble a compilation tape of the photog's finest offerings from the past year. Am I ever glad he did - and not just because I got to wear a station parka in eighty five degree weather for the resulting publicity shot! No, I'm happy because, for once, the people who very often care the most are getting a little credit. Credit - that's something we who turn the spotlight on others quickly learn to live without.

Satellite DanWe're not complaining, though - for the low profile is the price we pay for all that freedom we spend so recklessly. Be it a sat truck circus or a crime-tape summit, we get around, deciding in the process how much of it you'll see while sitting on your couch. As a result, every member of our wildly different group knows the ins and outs of the oddest of scenarios; whirlwind election stops, zombified ground-breakings and the occasional meth-lab takedown. These experiences won't buy us summer homes, lavish trips or even fancy cars. But neither will we lie on our deathbeds and reminisce about working on the Simpkins Account. No, we'll recall that time we noshed on frozen ham sandwiches as a Class 2 hurricane lashed our sat truck home. We'll remember chasing hysterical kids through a public housing project as they hurled ghetto-snowballs at our lens. We'll reflect on solemn moments as first responders held white sheets between us and the freshly dead. On second thought, maybe that Simpkins Account doesn't sound so bad after all.

Wesley BarrettThen again, all that deathbed talk is a tad premature. We still got alot of adventures to shoot - some of us more than others. I for one, am dedicated to at least five more years of this silly job, a veritable eternity when you measure time in hourly deadlines. Personally, I know of no other way, and of no other group I'd want to hang out with than the rugged individuals who take in life through a tube. We may not have the fattest compensation packages, but we got stories - the kind of street level tall tales that would be unbelievable if we didn't have the videotape to back it up. So say congrats to the people I work with, the guys I lunch with, the flesh and blood photogs I so very often write about on this humble site. Just don't tell 'em where you live, for they'll surround your domicile in high-powered logo-mobiles if they think for a moment you got a story to tell. Then they may very well eat you out of house and home.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bucky Covington: On the Red Carpet

"This is more you can even hope for, just hope it keeps kickin'."
Bucky Covington Holds CourtOf all the contestants at the American Idol party, it was Bucky Covington I looked forward to seeing the most. Shannon and I had bonded with the Rockingham car painter on our last trip to L.A., when he pointed out the Hollywoood sign from our posh Beverly Hills hotel balcony. Since then, we'd both been rooting for the laid back good ole boy. Why, just an hour earlier, I almost ran the rent-a-car off Rodeo Drive when Shannon's husband called to report that Bucky had made it into the Final 12, but not before Ryan Seachrest and the producers tortured him with the possibility of ejection.
"I tell ya they're good at playin' games but whatever makes good TV show makes makes good TV show, so I'm up for it, I'm up for games."
Long-limbed, witty and f-a-r from urbane, Bucky reminds me of my dear childhood friend, Jon Harrison. Both men radiate an easy-going, Southern sensibility that I personally find appealing and their shared accent reminds me of my youthful days Downeast. Of course to most of America, Bucky no doubt sounds like a hick, but he's far`savvier than he appears on-screen and holds no illusions of satisfying Simon.
"I play to these," he said, pointing to the many lenses pointed at him, "'cause that's where the people are that count."
About the unlikely journey he's found himself on, the 28 year old Richmond County high school graduate is downright philosophical.
"California, I think, is known as chasin' dreams and I almost got it, ya know, I'm that close there's the door , I got my hand on the door knob just gotta get the right key to get it open."
One gets the feeling that Bucky doesn't expect to be the next American Idol, but he doesn't have to leave Hollywood a winner.
"Worryin' don't solve anything, I'm so close now if I gotta play bar to bar across America that's what I'm gonna be doin'."
Bucky Covington and MeHe'll have a hell of a head-start when he does but he shouldn't count himself out just yet. By making it into the Final 12, he'll have access to a new level of dream fullfillment, but I get the feeling he's not letting himself look too far into thr future. Over and over again, he thanked Shannon and I for traveling to Rockingham to interview his father, friends and twin brother Rocky. We were happy to do so and enjoyed our brief visit to Covington's Body Shop, but to Bucky the act seems to have made an indelible impression.
"To hear what ya'll have done for me back home," he said without a trace of his goofy grin, "I can't express the words to thank ya'll for it."
'Don't mention it,' I said to Bucky and Rocky over a round of after-party adult beverages, 'hanging with you guys beats the hell out of my normal gig.'

Chris Daughtry: On the Red Carpet

Chris Daughtry  Answers UpThe Chris Daughtry that approached my camera Thursday night was positively electrified. That hasn’t always been the case, as off-stage, the diminutive bald rocker can sometimes look like he’s waiting on a bus. It’s that working class humility that so compliments his stratospheric vocals, even if it does vex the guy in the black V-neck from time to time. When I first met Chris that day outside the Green Bean, I was summarily under-whelmed. Then he cocked his head back and rattled the restaurant’s windows with his turbo-charged howl. Since then, I’ve delighted in watching him impress everyone else who hears him sing. Many others have joined me in the conversation and to them Chris has this to say:
"Everybody that’s doing that, writin’ about me, I’m readin’ it. Thank you so much and thank you for voting for me."
So far in the competition, the former automotive service writer has been able to stick to his blue collar rock and roll roots. That will soon change, as now the producers have total control of song selection. Chris is confident he can get through this week’s Stevie Wonder canon, but he admits the songs in his immediate future scare him a bit.
"If they do show tunes that might be a little weird but I’m just gonna try to keep my style infused into every song I do and do it my way and stay true to what I do. And as long as I do that hopefully people will keep voting for me and keep me around a little longer."
That shouldn’t be a problem, as Chris is a front-runner. So far he’s the only contestant whose recent performance caused the band he was covering, Fuel, to beg him to be their new lead singer.
"They called me yesterday. It’s crazy when you got a band that you’ve been listening to ever since you were like 14 and you respect them as songwriters and they inspire you as a musician and they’re calling you offering you the job as their singer..."
Shannon Smith & Chris DaughtryBut Chris ain’t leavin’. How could he? He’s on his way to becoming the next American Idol. At least that’s what you're friendly lenslinger is becoming growingly convinced of, as I cover this unassuming young bald guy with the bored-out vocal pipes. Chris might not be quite as confident as I am, but he does seem to realize the possibilities before him for perhaps the first time. Here’s hoping he won’t stumble on his path to global rock stardom, what with frayed nerves, unblinking satellites and divine intervention.
"I pray to God that I don’t hit a bad note that I don’t hit a bad note, you know, do something stupid or fall - you’re on national TV and anything can happen so I always just hope not to be one of those embarrassing moments."
Careful with the show-tunes, dude...

Kellie Pickler: On the Red Carpet

Kellie Pickler DIshes"Hey ya’ll!" Kellie Pickler hugged Shannon and waved to me. The other news crews leaned in around us and stuck their logo’d microphones into my shot. Perched on a stepstool above the others, I leaned precariously leftward and zoomed in a little as the pack of cameramen held me in place. Though Kellie was standing in front of me, I could barely hear her true voice over the chattering masses. Instead, I picked up her audio through my earpiece, her country drawl coming through in waves.
"Ya know, I didn’t just wake up with this accent, I kinda was born with it so anything I sing I’m probably gonna have that little southern t-w-a-n-g but us I’m just gonna be real and consistent and bring everything to the table."
Shannon asked Kellie how it felt to be in the final 12. We’d first met the Albermarle roller-waitress back in August, when she rendered the judges smitten with her voice, looks and charm. A hard-luck back-story didn’t hurt either, of course. But her endearing spirit and drop-dead appearance - as much as her pipes - that got her to the red carpet.
"Look at this, I gotta touch it to make sure it’s real" Kellie dropped to the carpet and flattened her palm. Popping back up, she twinkled into my lens. "It’s real… I’m here."
Like the rest of the contestants to follow, Kellie was pumped, grateful and focused. While still the down-home sweetheart I watched pace around a conference room of the Greensboro Marriot, she spoke with a conviction I hadn’t heard her use before. Even if she was nervous as hell each time she took the American Idol stage.
"I say a little prayer, take deep breaths and just try to give it my all. I’m goin’ from the shower to singing for millions of people, its incredible."
Kellie Pickler & Shannon SmithWith a leading spot in the Final 12, the pressure is on for little Miss Pickler. She must conquer a soundstage, connect with a much larger studio audience and suffer the woes of high minded stylists. Luckily GrandDaddy Clyde, the man who was always there in her jailed father’s absence, is flying in to Cali to lend her a hand. It’s hard to imagine the kindly old man I visited with in Rockingham traversing the pitfalls of Hollyweird, but I get the feeling his beloved Kellie is gonna hook a Grandpa up.
"It’ll be his first time in L.A.”, she giggled. "I’m gonna get him to try that cala-mauri."

Gauntlet of Adulation

Idling on the Red CarpetThe Pacific Design Center was buzzing before the first psuedo-celebrity ever arrived. Camera crews from Entertainment Tonight, E!, MTV and countless FOX affiliates flanked the long red carpet as publicists and stylists checked their look in each other's designer sunglasses. Amid this sea of gliteratti, Shannon Smith and I staked out our territory - a lowly strip of duct tape emblazoned with our station call letters. Unfolding a step-stool I'd carted cross-country, I planted it in the name of WGHP. On either side, other photogs jockeyed for their own spot, most avoiding eye contact as they too settled for a 12 inch swath of red carpet. Shoulder to sore shoulder we stood, our cameras locked and loaded. From behind, our well-coiffed better-halves slithered into place, filling in the tiny gap between the lenses and the velvet rope. A wall of flashbulbs erupted down the way and we craned our collective necks to see just what semi-famous face was making the still-cams go crazy. The velvet barrier strained as we leaned forward and I suddenly smelled onions. As something dug into the small of my back it occured to me why they call us the Press.

Randy Jackson and Simon CowellAt the top of the red carpet, Bo Bice bathed in the klieg lights. Last year's runner-up had just made a triumphant return to the American Idol stage, performing his new single while this year's contestants wondered if they were about to be voted off the show. With that now decided, only a gauntlet of adulation seperated the Final 12 from one mother of a private party. I too planned to toss back a few highballs before the night was through, but not before earning my keep with a disc or two full of giddy soundbites. With that in mind, I tweaked an audio channel dial by feel as Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell filled my viewfinder's one inch screen. "Kellie and Chris got a good shot..." Randy said without calling anyone 'Dawg'. Shannon asked Simon why he was so rough on Chris and I looked at my watch - itself a monumental effort under the crush of showbiz hounds around me. 7:05 - a half dozen minutes before we due to go live for out station's ten o clock news. As always, were serving two masters: the diety of E.N.G. and the angry live shot gods. Shannon and I had spent almost six hours wedged into a pressurized tube to get here. Chris, Kellie and Bucky were our primary targets - anything less than extended interviews would be a mission scrubbed. But for the moment we had to risk losing our spot for a satellite hit with the folks back home. As the guy in the muscle shirt yammered on, we extracted ourselves from the media pack and sought higher ground.

Shannon Smith & Stewart Pittman"This is your video connection, here's your IFB." The Fox News Channel truck technician looked bored and a little constipated. I had no time to offer him a laxative however, as back East a news desk full of colleagues was about to direct the Piedmont's attention to my lens. Huddled over my camera, I plugged in cables and wrestled with the headphones. A roar of approval rang out to the far left and I stood to see the Final 12 contestants posing at the top of the red carpet. Like a group of singing superheroes, they paused and glistened as shouts and flashbulbs burst all around them. They had arrived - beating out 93 thousand other auditioning hopefuls to secure a spot in America's imagination. Soundstages and teams of stylists would now be at their disposal, once they got through their first ever red carpet affair. 'That's gotta be a brain scrambler' I thought as I cranked the headset volume until I heard a very distant Neill McNeill. In front of the camera, Shannon gave me a longtime partner nod. It seemed we would be able to go live without missing our N.C three after all. With the magazine shows swarming the dynamic dozen, we'd be back manning our duct tape before they moved an inch. First though, there was a sat shot to be nailed. Knowing a guest would be best, Shannon reached out to a certain long-haired pedestrian.

"Can you chat with us?"

"Yes Ma'am," Bo said and stepped happily into frame. Pulling out to a wide shot, I feathered my focus as an expected refrain emanated from my earpiece.

"Shannon Smith now joins us live from Hollywood, where the American Idol contestants are celebrating. Shannon, who ya got with ya?"