Friday, September 29, 2006

The Week in Fluff

Spotlight CalendarIf you haven’t heard me complain about work lately, there’s a reason. I’ve exiled myself from “The A-Block”. That’s TV talk for the opening segment of your favorite newscast. You know, that nightly barrage of breathless live shots, over-coiffed gravitas and police blotter expose...B-L-E-C-H-H! I’d rather do my time on the far side of the commercial break, where gauzy close-ups and slow dissolves outnumber body bag shots by at least two to one. Judged on that criteria, the past week was a breeze...

MONDAY: The Chatty and the Absent

Here’s something I bet they don’t teach in J-School: How to shoot a news story on a theory or a myth. It’s exactly what certified meteorologist Charles Ewing and I were up to in Asheboro as we looked for a good place to shoot a proposed greenway. Our search led us to a swanky neighborhood quite near the Zoo, where after panning the horizon for invisible sidewalks, we spotted a Soccer Mom out for a jog. Moments later she was fanning herself in front of our lens, offering opinions she didn’t really hold. God Bless the Talkative.

TUESDAY: Cameraman Crunch Time

Then there’s the Quick Turnaround. A skill borne of sheer repetition, it’s the ability to turn a 3:30 event into a 5:30 lead. No one likes to do it, but performing meatball surgery can save more than your bacon. It can preserve the sanity of a tortured show producer, who’s already promo’d the Ghetto Preacher six times and doesn’t want to hear one syllable about how the guy has postponed his speech. Trust me, it’s easier to bend space and time than take on a show-stacker hopped-up on office popcorn.

WEDNESDAY: Feats of Charity

On Hump-Day, I journeyed to Pinnacle Elementary School - where, besides one hell of a view of Pilot Mountain, they got a national treasure named Charity Richardson. Wearing bulky hearing aids and a dazzling smile, the second grader helped me put a face on Deaf Awareness Week. Sure, her parents, the administrators and even her interpreter kicked in a few sound-bites, but nothing trumps an on-camera exchange with a child so unafraid to be herself. Piece of the Week!

THURSDAY: Hectic Erection

“Think Extreme Makeover: Playground Edition.” The foreman was right. Minus the male model with the hair gel and megaphone, the Boys and Girls Club of East Burlington looked just like the Sunday night schmaltz-fest. An army of hard-hat volunteers in bright yellow t-shirts, pre-fab jungle gym pieces and a mountain or two of designer mulch. Throw in an orchestra of power saws, drills and hammer hits and you have a television photojournalist’s wet dream. Sorry, Mom.

FRIDAY: Mums on the Move

File this one under S-T-R-E-T-C-H. How else do you turn 700 measly mums into ninety seconds of compelling television? Simple, you play up the fact they’ll soon be beautifying the White House lawn, overshoot the repetitive action and poke a little fun at your old pal Steve Troxler. Before you know it, you got a glistening chunk of B-Block gold, complete with petal-popping visuals, conveyor belt sound pops and for the folks in the cheap seats, a few patriotic overtones.

Somebody roll credits, it’s Bourbon-Thirty.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Senior Citizen Media

Hey, here's a piece of push-button publishing I can really get behind:Port Orange Images, a crime news website lovingly crafted by 69 year old Hank Springer, retired cop turned hyper-local media mogul. Though he doesn't walk a beat anymore, this veteran of the force can't get the spot news out of his system. Why even try? Hank didn't; instead he launched POI - a little place on the interweb where he could share photos, spark conversations and post enough car crash porn to make a Driver's Ed instructor run off the road. Up and running since 2002, the site attracts between 800 to 1,000 hits per day. He's even getting some attention from the antiquated press - but who still reads newspapers anyway? I don't.

Okay, so maybe I flip through the N&R every morning, but it's a cursory search for strange images and familiar bylines. I spend alot more time skimming the internets for blogs, vlogs and other citizen-centric sites. Port Orange Images is a living, breathing example of just that: a user-generated, niche-specific localized data stream - one that can be can be as easily embraced by the surfing public as it can be derided or ignored. Surely some will call it a kooky way to spend one's golden years. Others will cite Port Orange Images as another example of The Long Tail.

But maybe it's not so new after all. From family newsletter overlords to ham radio hermits to your smelly cousin who lives to scrapbook ... we all got relatives with information compulsions. Only now, locking them away in some upstairs bedroom won't silence them. Not unless you slice their broadband. And who would do that to a loveable old guy with so many gizmos around his neck? I vote we give him a few free clicks instead. Who knows what the MySpace/FaceBook generation will come up with when they retire? Sure, we'll be disembodied heads in some scientist's jar by then, but a cameraman can dream, can't he?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Early TV: The Stupid Years

Dustin MillerWhen I last saw my old buddy Dustin Miller, he pressed a freshly-burned CD in my hand and warned me not to watch it in front of the kids. I did as instructed and immediately understood why - for some of the uglier footage on that disc is hard enough to explain to rational adults, let alone wide-eyed offspring. Still, it made for stimulating if not wince-inducing television. Cobbled together from back in the day, it’s a quick-cut clip-fest of two young production dorks learning to use news cameras. I’d stick the whole thing on YouTube were I glutton for punishment, but alas, I still have some pride. So instead, I thought I’d feature a few dear friends of mine who were unfortunate enough to score a cameo. Let’s start with Dustin himself, seen here sporting more hair and more freedom than either of us are allowed to leave the house with these days. As for what’s really in that cup, let’s just call it the elixir of youth. That, or Bacardi 151.

Serge BrockmanI don't know what's more ludicrous: the fact that I used to appear on camera every night around dinner time, the way my shirt just happens to match that electric blue windscreen, or the way some bleary-eyed graphic operator mislabeled me as the geriatric checker player I was profiling that day. Either way, it's a classic screen-grab - one that takes me back to the distant Saturday on which it was first recorded ... Morehead City, circa 1991 - a gaggle of senior citizens holed up in some shoreside hotel for the mother of all checkerboard show-downs. I was but a rookie reporter schlepping an outdated lens from table to table and eyeing the newfangled defibrillators on the walls. When no immediate coronaries went down, I set up my sticks and mumbled something contrived into the camera, not knowing I'd one day riff from from afar on the very idea of shooting my own stand-up. Good times...

Andy & CarolynLook past the freshly arrested David Melvin and you're sure to catch a fleeting glimpse of my two earliest mentors. When cross-town competitors Andy Cordan and Carolyn Kusbit weren't eating my lunch, they were teaching me the finer points of street-level newsgathering. That's Carolyn thrusting her microphone forward, a formidable weapon in the hands of such a professional. It was she who first taught me to get it right, reminding me always that no amount of flashy video would make up for a lack of facts come broadcast time. Sadly, she's no longer in the biz, but I for one am a better journalist, thanks to her time in service. Behind her the great Andy Cordan can be seen tracking the bad guy's every move. Far less refined than Carolyn, Cordan was a whirling dervish of a one-man-band, cracking the VJ mold before Rosenblum ever got around to re-inventing it. These days, he's still quite the pioneer, and if I know Andy, still pretty ticked off.

Paul DunnAs vital to my journalistic upbringing as Carolyn and Andy were, neither could hold a dying frezzi light to this guy: Paul Vernon Dunn. Part Principled Newsman, part Southern-fried Shyster, no one taught me more about the art of the grab than ole Vern. He could fast-talk a deputy, convince The Weather Channel into buying footage sight unseen and turn a cop-shop walkdown into a handcuffed confessional before I could even get my camera powered-up. Whatsmore, he could do it all with the most beguiling disposition, eliciting the most evocative responses from those in his crosshairs in a way that brought to mind Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. To the loss of my industry, he too left the fold, employing his many skills in the private sector. That stinks, as no one's more fun to hang out with by the crime tape than Mr. Dunn. No wonder Carolyn married him.

Mullet ManI suppose I should stop right there, but as a special gift to my half dozen loyal readers, I leave you this: Me, with a mullet. Humiliating, yes - but what stroll down memory lane is complete without at least one unfortunate haircut? None, in my book. Speaking of my book, it's still f-a-r from a finished manuscript. Truthbetold, I haven't made alot of progress on it as of late, but when I do, I'll know where to start: The Good Ole Days - that wobbly launch of my working life when cigarettes coudn't hurt you, police scanners burped all through the night and everything that went down inside a dusty viewfinder was of great and noble import. If the last ten years of lenslinging has left me bent and embittered, it's only 'cause I'm still comin' off one hell of a start to my newsgathering career. Thanks for the flashbacks, Dustin. Now, destroy the masters...please?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Zed's Dead

The TV news business is a small one, with only so many media outlets per populated spot. That’s changing quickly of course as the laptop nation gets in on the act, but for now it’s still a pretty cloistered world of drama queens and A/V geeks. I was reminded of that today when I fell into easy conversation with a striking young woman who used to be in ‘the biz‘. Huddling by the door of a middle school’s gymnatorium, we cackled like hens about look-lives, vosots and re-cuts. As we did, the woman’s husband - a menacing hulk of a man with a close-shaven head and faded gang tattoos - worked the microphone, warning a bleacher full of bored adolescents against a life of crime, drug abuse and ill-gotten bling. Prowling the floor in blinding white Air Jordans and sleek designer sweats, the admitted ex-thug turned motivational speaker held the student body in the palm of his beefy hand. I’d been pretty enraptured too, until my well-honed photog senses told me I’d bagged enough shots for the buck-fifteen report that would air in a couple of hours. Dropping my sticks to their lowest position, I set my camera on the floor and waited for the burly speaker to complete his story arc - at which point I’d retrieve the lavaliere microphone I pinned to him and skulk off to an edit bay thirty miles away. That’s when his wife moved in.

Blonde, smiley and thoroughly lovely, the woman seemed eager to talk. She’d been a reporter/anchor at some hyphenated market in Ohio before leaving the trade to work with her husband. I congratulated her on said sound judgment; she quizzed me about the market size of our particular TV region. When I told her it was in the mid-forties, she expressed surprise. Apparently the clutch of Randolph County towns she’d traveled through hadn’t properly belied our broadcast tower’s reach. Next came a barrage of questions: How many hours of news do you crank out a week? (36, I think) How many live trucks does each station have ? (Too damn many). How often did I work alone? (Every chance I get!) No doubt the lady was just killing time, shooting the breeze with the latest in a long line of crusty cameramen while her virile hubby worked up a tip. I didn’t mind; until I got my microphone back I was a captive audience and what better way to spend ten minutes I ain’t got than in the presence of someone whose perfume smelled so good. At that point, sunlight pierced through the high gym windows and glinted off the speaker’s bald head, reminding me instantly who he looked like ... Ving Rhames, the actor best known for his role as a drug kingpin in Pulp Fiction. In it, Rhames character terrorizes his hyper-violent lackies, suffers righteous abuse from a hillbilly named Zed and - in a key plot point - throws a man off a ledge, for reportedly giving his wife a foot massage.

I spent the rest of the speech back by the bleachers, chatting up the school’s janitorial staff.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Special Place in Hell

I was scouring a few sites for possible story fodder when Turd Polisher's latest entry stopped me in my cyber-tracks. 'Horror' is a bracing account of a roadside atrocity, an unthinkable scene our narrator doesn't particularly want to witness, even as he finds himself racing toward it:
A few vehicles parked akimbo on the shoulder of Interstate 110. Drivers and passengers lined along the retaining wall separating opposing traffic. All had clipboards. All were stooped over writing. I didn't want to become part of the scene, but the news desk is screaming for this non-event. So I shoulder the 700 and sprint across four lanes of northbound traffic...
What follows is an unflinching description of a completely evil deed. Far from easy reading, it contains imagery that will not quickly fade away. So, proceed at your own imagination's risk. Then consider the collective psyche of the cops, firefighters and yes, even TV news cameramen, who rarely have that option.

Horror, indeed.