Small Market TV: Home of the Heroes

I maphilandsteveke no bones about it:  I am a fan of small market television.  I always will be.

Two weeks ago, I was the subject of my old friend Phil Scoggins’ “Neighbors” segment on WRBL News 3 in Columbus, Ga.  Columbus is the town where I first became aware of the world in the late 1950s.  Columbus is where I first saw “I Love Lucy,” “The Real McCoys,” “American Bandstand,” “Your Hit Parade,” “The $64,000 Question” and my favorite of the era—“Leave It to Beaver.”

As Phil corraled a camera to do what more anchors are required to do for themselves today—shoot their own interviews—I scoured the nostalgic pictures in the WRBL executive conference room.

There I saw black-and-whites of the pioneers who built the house of Columbus television.  On one wall was Glen Broughman, the original news director (the term “anchor” had not yet been invented) from 1953 to 1962.  Legend has it that when Broughman walked into a city commission meeting to set up the bulky wooden tripod that housed his 16mm film camera, everything stopped until Glen was ready.  He was the first local newscaster I ever saw on television.

On another wall was Rozell Fabiani, queen of the classic women’s talk/service show.  Rozell, as everyone in Columbus knew her, fell just short of 10,000 broadcasts.  On her 9:30 a.m. half-hour in December 1958 was where I made my television debut.  As a four-year-old who had been the subject of a Columbus Ledger story about my early academic prowess, Rozell invited me on to write the names of the WRBL personalities on my own blackboard.  I also read the entire Thursday evening prime time schedule for the station.

Eighteen years later, I took that first baby step into a television news career at that same station where I was first exposed to the medium on a 21-inch black-and-white zenith.  Some of the legends were still at WRBL in the twilight of their careers.  Doug Wallace was still flipping the chalk in the air at the end of his nightly weathercasts.  Don Nahley, the station’s earliest sports director, was now in sales but delivering five minutes of news in the morning.  George Gingell, the station manager, continued a long tradition—-regular commentaries under the title “Personal Opinion.”  Ridley Bell, who did almost everything at the station in a storied career, was still hosting a weekly hunting/fishing show he began when I was five years old—“Sportsman’s Lodge.”  Yes, Rozell, was still there for an hour every morning from 8 to 9.

Regardless of what the future held, I may as well have been in television heaven.  The atmosphere was surreal to walk down the same halls as the men and women who wrote the rules of local television when no rules existed.

The only thing remotely comparable would have been to tell me I could work in the same weather office as the first broadcaster I ever heard introduced with the title “meteorologist,” the great George Winterling of WJXT in Jacksonville, Fla.

I made all of $134 a week during those first seven months at WRBL before I was bumped up to the grand total of $142 the next January.  Oh, I did receive a $30-a-week talent fee for co-anchoring “TV3 Sunday Evening News.”

Every day, young people and a few veterans walk into small buildings that bring television to viewers in the flyover states, in the South, and in cities where one doesn’t stay in a car two hours a day to commute to and from work.

They enter stations known as KTVO, WWAY, WBBJ, WSAV, WCJB, KELO, WDAZ, KIVI, WMBB or WTVM.  Figuring inflation over the last 38 years, many of them are still making the equivalent of what I did in 1976.  They struggle mightily to make financial ends meet every month, but they work every bit as hard—and sometimes harder—than those who toil at WCBS, KABC, KGO, WCVB, WDIV or WBBM for much larger salaries and notoriety.

Some of them have no choice but to take on roommates to help pay the bills.  Others stun the viewing public when they are seen working second jobs in a community.  People on television are not supposed to do that.  In 1990, five members of my 10-person news staff had part-time jobs.  Ironically, 15 years later when former ABC News religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer visited our city, she asked the reporter from the local station how much she was paid.  The young woman surprisingly revealed her salary out loud.  “That’s a crime,” exclaimed Ms. Wehmeyer.  One could hear the silent agreement of everyone in the room, including me—who had long since departed the daily news grind to become a broadcast journalism professor.

Some small market news personnel encounter encouraging managers.  Yes, some do exist.  Others have to deal with boorish micromanagers who are all-consumed with the evening’s product (and sometimes consumed with themselves) and rarely get to know their staffs as people.

I worked for all kinds in six different cities.   I found the book “Winning Through Intimidation” on the front seat of one of my news director’s cars years ago.  That, in itself, explained why he was the way he was.  I worked for one of the ultimate screamers, a physical exercise that did not usually result in better performance from me.

On the other hand, I worked for Dave Richardson, who believed in the philosophy of hiring good people and backing off to let them do their jobs.  I also had the joy of learning the ropes of management from George Diab, one of the last of the company presidents who believed in people first.  I was not a ball of fire in my first job as a news director, something most news directors will never admit, but George took me under his wing at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C., and taught me the financial side of television news.  George was a fatherly man and so many people stayed at WWAY years beyond the length they would remain at most other stations for one reason—-George.

I had offers over the years to go to Nashville, Milwaukee and South Florida.  I passed on them because I knew they would not be the right fit.

I was a small market guy and made no apologies for it (though I used to laugh at Radio-Television News Directors Association conventions when news directors or producers from Boston or Atlanta would refer to Orlando as a “medium market” or Las Vegas as a “small market”).

I made a lot of mistakes as both an anchor and reporter and as a news director.  A lot of my mistakes as a news chief probably occurred because I empathized with what my young staffs were experiencing.  I won’t soon forget the weekend sportscaster who had been with me for a year and went to the general manager to ask for a paltry $20 a week raise.  The man, who always seemed to have a fixed smile on his face, rejected the request with the happy news that “there’s always McDonald’s.”  Great textbook management.

Reporters and anchors at WECT and WNDU receive the same cranky phone calls from viewers as those at WNYW and WGN.  Sometimes they don’t like the type of earrings you wear if you’re a woman.  Other times, they misconstrue something in your story and no matter how you try to defend yourself, the viewer knows what he heard.

Barbara White Thompson was as steady and strong as any assignment editor who ever worked for me.  The one time I saw Barbara reduced to tears was when she took probably the 157th call in the newsroom on the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.  Barbara was shouted at, condemned and cursed because “One Life to Live” was not going to air and, in the viewer’s mind, it was Barbara’s fault.

Most reporters and anchors in small television markets don’t have agents.  Yet, many of them are asked to sign contracts with the same non-compete clauses as anchors are in New York and Philadelphia.  Because most of them cannot afford expensive attorneys, they can’t participate in a world where they can make a move to another company in the same city if their talents are valued more.

They work weekends and nights just as people do in retail stores.  They are on the job until past midnight when college and pro sports delay the start of their late newscasts.  They have to go in on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July and Labor Day.  The most ridiculous thing about television news is doing newscasts on Christmas Day, particularly on stations that do two to three hours of local news.  Station and news managers can decry this view all they want but precious little happens on Christmas Day in a community to fill even the old traditional 6 o’clock half-hour.  The only reason they “keep you informed” on December 25 is because advertisers want to push those all-important after-Christmas sales.

Young reporters come and go quickly from small market stations because of the economics of the medium.  The risks are greater as you climb the ladder to larger cities; yet, some reporters would be inclined to stay in a smaller city for even a paltry $2,000-a-year raise that rarely comes.

Today, with the 35-to-50 station chain, small market station employees work for executives who are often the equivalent of a branch manager of a local bank.  Many of the decisions that directly affect their station are dictated by corporate brass in cities thousands of miles away.  The companies own a lot of properties and the bigwigs all too often fail to realize that the look of television news in Denver is not what is going to sell in Panama City.

Small market reporters and anchors, just as those in big cities, have to deal with the equivalent of The Whammy on the old game show “Press Your Luck”—-the news consultant.  The station’s image, graphics, and—yes, personnel—are often dictated by market research conducted by a consulting firm.  Consultants are usually former news directors, producers, or even non-news alumni who operate with the title “talent coach.”  They are hired because upper managements often do not trust the judgment of the people they hire to run their news departments.  So, the consultant is the same as a distributor of products in the grocery business—-a middleman who vows to work miracles in your newsroom and if it doesn’t work in 18 months, then it surely is the fault of the on-air talent, the producers, or the existing news director.

News people who work in cities such as Green Bay, Ottumwa, North Platte, Ada or Tallahassee deal with the same emotions as the rest of us.  They lose family members, they experience tragedies, they encounter illnesses, and some even battle depression because of the high-stress, deadline-intense business in which they work because they had a dream to go into the profession.

One sportscaster in North Platte, Neb., recently lost his job because he offered an on-air salute to two veteran station employees who recently departed.  I’ll have a separate comment on that issue soon.

A long-time friend recently made a difficult decision to leave a station in the upper Midwest.  He went away with the greatest of dignity on his farewell night.  He had been on the air for 30 years there because the community was his home and he had built a lifetime of respect from viewers.  For months into the future, people will probably be asking why he left.  He is far too classy to publicly tell the entire story.

When I still had a big satellite dish, the network affiliates chosen for national distribution frequently changed.  At one point, WSEE in Erie, Pa., was offered for CBS.  I found myself frequently tuning into Erie because I had enormous respect for how news is presented on far fewer dollars with, often, many more obstacles within the same time demands as those in America’s megacities.

I love watching the folks at WALB in Albany, Ga., report the happenings of their community because they are probably more in touch with people in Tifton, Valdosta, Ashburn and Sylvester far more so than those in Cleveland are with people in their suburbs.  Nothing against Cleveland—-it’s just a fact of television life.

After nearly 22 years as a college professor, one of my students christened me a few years back with a variation on Steve Spurrier’s label as “The Ol’ Ball Coach.”  The Old TV News Coach understands that my aspiring journalists and news production personnel will have to launch their careers at places where salaries will force them to watch their budgets intensely, where equipment breaks down frequently, and where one learns quickly that covering city council meetings with old warhorses droning about ordinances are not as exciting as fraternity or sorority parties.

It’s all part of the maturing process if you are going to run the full race in local television news.  You’ll work for news directors who are good, understanding people.  You’ll work for news directors who immediately make you wonder how they were hired for their jobs.  You’ll learn patience with everything from low pay to equipment malfunctions to lack of spectacular night life, if that is your won’t—-or you will not stay in the profession.

Yet, local television news in the hinterlands is a gem.  Some awfully talented young people begin moving from point A to point B in their abilities in the Boises, the Grand Forkses and the Macons of America.  I am a fan of all of them—-and I always will be.

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