Combating Cliches in Television News

As one who teaches young people to enter the profession of broadcast journalism, I find interesting and often puzzling the things I have to do differently than I did 25 years ago.

For one, I struggle more and more to slow the pace of my students’ speech. I have no idea what happened a decade ago but, year by year, they talk faster and faster and faster.

They don’t just do it on the air. That’s the pace they address each other in conversation. I call it machine gun speech because they rattle out their words just about as fast.

I try to explain it this way: the viewer has one shot at hearing your delivery. They typically do not DVR newscasts. If you are delivering your copy as if you are in a hurry to get home, they will never grasp your information.

In years past, I often cringed or turned the channel when Jen Carfagno started at The Weather Channel. The young woman is popular enough now to be part of the early morning “AMHQ” team. I am sure she is a delightful person. When she began, she discussed cold fronts and high pressure systems as if she were racing a contender at the Kentucky Derby. How many times did I yell at the screen: “SLOW DOWN!” Someone must have worked with Carfagno. I can actually comprehend her detail now because her rate of speech has seriously declined from seven words per second.

A couple of weekends ago, I was watching the same network’s Saturday remote from an outdoor festival. Reagan Medgie, a correspondent for TWC, is engaging and pleasant. I am certain I would like her if I met her. However, she has a case of the Carfagnos from past years. When she tossed the segment back to Maria LaRosa and Paul Goodloe, so help me, I had no idea what she said, where she was or who she was because she was speaking at the speed of a hurricane.

Interestingly, some of my students give me pushback. “Well, that’s the way I normally talk,” I have heard more than one complain. That is when we go into the control room and look at their tape. Occasionally, I will bring in a colleague who will verify my assessment. Most pay attention, though begrudgingly at times. A few are just insistent that their high school flash-and-dash conversational rate of speech is acceptable.

The other challenge we face is to eliminate terrible use of the language, some of which the TV news industry has sadly adopted. Twitter has two identities, @tiredtvterms and @producerprobs. Both are dedicated to people like me who gripe about worn out clichés and bad phrases, even if we sound like old men in a rocking chair in front of a senior citizens’ center.

My biggest pet peeve is one I have been harping on for five years. When, oh when, are anchors and reporters going to stop using the ridiculous and incorrect phrase “went missing?”

Somehow, around the start of this decade, broadcast news adopted that phrase. Here’s how it typically is presented: “Thirty-two-year-old Brenda Kaddidlehopper went missing three days ago. Law enforcement authorities are asking for your help in finding her.”

To say one “went missing” or “has gone missing” is to suggest an active or planned intent by an individual to be missing. A person can be “reported missing” to authorities. You can say that same person “is missing.” Went missing or gone missing? Don’t ever say that in my presence. Yet, I will wager you will hear it on your local newscast in a matter of days.

On a similar note, I heard a new one last week. On the local news in the city where I live, an anchor received a press release from an area police department. I was emailed the same release. The anchor reported, “Police are searching for the whereabouts of 14-year-old ____________.”

Were police not searching for the girl? That is absolutely the first time I have ever heard a reporter state that officers were “searching for the whereabouts.”

I continue to cringe when I hear a reporter say, “Some 30,000 people marched in protest today.” I scream at my TV screen: “Which 30,000 people?”

More than 40 years ago, my major professor at the University of Georgia, the late Bill Martin, confronted “60 Minutes” commentator James J. Kilpatrick at a seminar about the inexplicable use of the word “some.” I’m paraphrasing but Kilpatrick said, in effect, “I don’t really know why we do it. I think we think it sounds good, so we do it.”

Here’s another irritant. I nearly come unglued if I watch morning television and the anchors switch to a reporter for a live segment on a murder, shooting or some other tragedy. The reporter in the field will, without fail, say: “Good morning, Jan and Richard.” Good morning?? When you are about to report on death or violence? Could we all agree to drop the happy greeting on the scene of disaster?

As for clichés, sportscasters are the absolute worst and I was one for 25 years. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, whose “Mike and Mike in the Morning” will soon end on ESPN2 after 18 years, are arguably the worst practitioners.

I wish I had $10 for every time either one has said “throw him under the bus” when a coach blames a player for a loss. I perhaps could retire before 2021.

As for another, I am convinced Golic invented the term “it is what it is,” an absolutely meaningless phrase he uses to describe something otherwise inexplicable.

When a team attempts to rebound after an off year, count on Mike or Mike to say, “They’re coming in with a chip on their shoulders.”

Once Greenberg or Golic establish a phrase enough times, count on the rest of the sports talk fraternity to adopt the same clichés ad nauseum.

News is not off the hook. During my first year in television news, I cannot count the number of times reporters would lead off stories depicting commemorative dates or events with, “It’s that time of year again.” I vowed never to use those six words in a news story. I never have.

I tell my student reporters if any of them send me a script that ends with “only time will tell,” that script will be sent right back until they come up with something original. That happened to me in the tenth grade when my English teacher Hazel Mancil returned a paper to me which ended with that very phrase.

I am also a curmudgeon about sentences that begin with the word “there,” such as “There are new tax proposals on the table from City Council.” I go back to one of the great English professors in history, Dr. Marvin Evans. He would toss back any paper that had sentences beginning with the word “there,” except in a direct quote. “There” is an existential. “There” is never a subject of a sentence, but always requires a verb.

Recently, I was watching a midday newscast on NewsON from the Southwest. A reporter actually said, “Police used firearms to shoot the suspect.” I had no idea an alternative form of ballistics had been developed.

Next time a hurricane begins making its way up the Florida coast, count how many times meteorologists or anchors will say, “Hurricane Otto is really packing a punch.” I never knew punches were packed. They are usually thrown in boxing matches or pier six brawls. I’d like to ask such people, “Did Otto pack his punch in American Tourister luggage (does that still exist?).

Thank goodness most news producers sent emails to their reporters last week after the O.J. Simpson parole hearing. The journalists were told not to say, “The Juice is loose.” Note that I said “most” news producers. Before the hearing, I saw this graphic on a local newscast: “Will the Juice get loose?”

In a few other choice examples of tired TV terms (and these are offered by interviewees as well as reporters), try these:

  • At the end of the day
  • It has a lot of moving parts
  • There, you see it (a favorite of sportscasters when a graphic appears)
  • Gave chase (to whom was the chase presented?)
  • Using -gate at the end of a term to depict every major scandal. Forty-five years ago, Watergate sent us on this long path. Most producers or young reporters have no idea that Watergate is an apartment complex.

Here is one more for your consideration. I would like to send a year’s supply of sour milk to the person who decided the proper way to begin a response to a question is with the word “so.” I see this happening largely when younger people are interviewed on midday newscasts. I am also seeing this creep into reporters’ answers to anchor questions during a remote. So help me, in scanning newscasts last week, I saw an anchor ask, “When do you expect the next briefing from the police?” Said the reporter: “Soooooo, we think that will probably happen in the next hour and a half to two hours.”

Every once in a while, though, phrases can be a bit original and creative. The one depicted in the accompanying picture was developed for a story involving a robbery in Jackson, Tn.  Police ultimately discovered the culprit hiding in an abandoned home.  The official police report indicated that the man charged showed officers where he had hidden the $432 taken from a convenience store—-in a toilet.

A rather inventive graphic headline writer offered the phrase:  Johnny Cash? Robbery Money Found in Toilet.

When I saw that, I was reminded of the year Tennessee Ernie Ford hosted the Country Music Association Awards. He said, “When I was young, I dated a girl who was so dumb she thought Johnny Cash was money you found in the commode.”

Television news and sports often rely far too much on worn out clichés. Despite this cry from the wildnerness, those stale phrases will continue.

During the 40-plus years since I joined the television news fraternity, I have read many interviews with news directors who are newly-hired. At least six of them included the quote, “We’re going to tighten up on the writing.” Did that mean the writing was loose?  Was a rope to be used to make the writing improve?

Sooooooo, such is life in the TV newsroom.  Time for me to retire to my rocking chair in front of the Ralston Hotel in Columbus, Ga.  I will take one “Johnny Cash?” graphic for 100 “only time will tell” endings—-any time.

Mornings Without Timmy B: Life Goes On…..Minus an Old Radio Friend

A month from now, the world will not be the same for some network sports talk loyalists.  Oh, life will go on unless we are stricken with a catastrophic illness.

However, someone we have come to feel as a good friend—-even if we have never so much as outstretched a hand for a greeting—-will not be where he has been for 14 years.

We will see Tim Brando with his heavy schedule of Fox Sports play-by-play—including Big 10/Pac-12/Big 12 football, Big East basketball, and an upcoming role in Fox’s maiden coverage of U.S. Open golf.

Two weeks ago, he told his audience, “This is a day that we were not looking forward to, but April 30th, ‘The Tim Brando Show’ will come to an end.”  The huge travel schedule for Fox (and for Raycom’s television coverage of ACC basketball) took him off his own show at times for extended periods.

In the last six months, Timmy B has been away from radio almost as much as Johnny Carson appeared to be absent from “The Tonight Show” during the seventies.  At one point, I jokingly said to Brando after he returned from a two-week sabbatical, “This is like having Johnny back after two weeks of John Davidson.”

Yet, from the afternoon he took a career gamble and went behind a microphone to launch “The Tim Brando Show” on Sporting News Radio, Timmy B has been an institution for thoughtful sports conversation, particularly of the college variety.

Southern radio listeners in six states were offered a daily sample of Brando’s analysis before he premiered “The Tim Brando Show.”

A regionally-syndicated afternoon talkfest, “Conference Call,” paired Tim with former Auburn (now Akron) coach Terry Bowden during college football season and with network analyst Billy Packer in the frozen months of college basketball.

You knew where things were headed on the first show.  At the time, Brando was the studio host for CBS SEC football.  Bowden was studio analyst for ABC’s Saturday football coverage.  Bowden hit the first salvo:  “Saturday, I was looking over at the monitor at CBS.  I just want to know one thing.  Is that Tim’s real hair?”

Three years later, after the owner of “Conference Call” fizzled in a sea of financial and legal implosions, Brando was approached by Sporting News Radio to take on the 4-to-7 slot in the afternoon.   NFL studio host James Brown anchored mornings on SNR.

Brando’s show premiered during Super Bowl week in 2001.  Facebook and Twitter had not been invented.  We were nine months away from the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was still a megahit for ABC.  George W. Bush had just been inaugurated for his first term.

Even though Timmy B was at the helm of a national show, the three hours had a local feel and flavor that endeared listeners to become christened Brandophiles.

The first week, a caller set the tone.  His name was George.  “Hey, I was just sittin’ here in my La-z-Boy havin’ a few and started turnin’ my radio dial,” George said.  “I stopped on this station and said, ‘That sounds like Tim Brando.’  Did you lose your job at CBS?”

Most of us who are regular listeners have never been in the same room with Brando.  Yet, we feel he is a friend.

Before he started the national show, I was still doing a website ( that followed the revival of big-money quiz shows and the expanding daytime games similar to a wire service.

Some of my readers were posting comments suggesting Brando, who was once a finalist for the host of daytime “Wheel of Fortune,” was on the short list of candidates to eventually replace Bob Barker on “The Price Is Right.”

I have never been one not to go to the horse’s mouth.  I called Timmy B on “Conference Call” and asked him outright if he might be a potential presider over the Showcase Showdown and Plinko.

“Well, I don’t know anything about it, though the idea is surely interesting,” he said.  “Since this has come up, I’m going to check out your site.”

I didn’t give a second thought to that, but he actually did.  Two days later, I had an e-mail from Brando with compliments on the professionalism.  “Most people don’t think of journalism involving game shows, but you’re doing it right, professor,” Brando wrote.

As a side note, Timmy B would have been a terrific choice to oversee the Cliffhangers game but CBS opted to go with a compromise selection after Barker’s departure.

Over these 14 years, “The Tim Brando Show” has been shifted to almost as many time slots as was “The Jeffersons” on network TV.  We followed him from 4:00 to 1:00 to 10:00 to 9:00 and back to 10.

Timmy B developed a sense of humor with a pinch of resignation over the migration of the show.  Sporting News Radio ultimately sold to Yahoo!  Neither of those entities possessed the syndication muscle of the six-headed monster, ESPN.  If the show was in a market on terrestrial radio, it may not be there the next week.

“We always know if our show is on your station on Friday and it’s not there on Monday, in most instances, that station has changed formats to religious,” Brando said.  “We have a laundry list of those markets.”

In the difficult world of sports talk radio, Timmy B was more of a survivor than Rich Hatch and Sue Hawk.  He took some insulting blows.  In the early ‘00s, XM Radio carried the full lineup of Sporting News Radio.  In January 2004, Brando was abruptly told that his 4-to-7 p.m. slot was being displaced on satellite radio by the inimitable Claire B. Lang.  If you love NASCAR, Claire B. may be your lady.  To say the Brandophiles were angry is mild.

Eventually, he reconnected on Sirius Radio, pre-merger with XM.  By then, the Brando show had moved to mornings.  Our guy was back five mornings a week.  Well, almost.

In pockets of a given week, usually on Mondays or Tuesdays, if you tuned to Sirius at 10 a.m. for Brando, you were treated to the excitement of a taped replay of World Cup Skiing.  For one thing, competitive skiing on radio is on a par with listening to a parade on your Sony Walkman.  But tape-delayed skiing?

I immediately shot an e-mail to Brando to ask what gives.  He had no idea.  “If that happens again, let me know as fast as you can,” he answered.  “This has everything to do with the people who advertise on our show.”  After six times of hearing about slaloms and missed gates, skiing disappeared.

In the fall of 2011, “The Tim Brando Show” made its way to television.  CBS Sports Network, which was stymied for an identity after purchase of the former College Sports Network, began turning to live programming.

Brando, the long-time studio host for the SEC on CBS, was tailor-made for mornings on CBSSN—which had largely been a haven for reruns of rodeo circuits.

For two-and-a-half years, we were entreated to Brando on-screen live from Shreveport with his entertaining crew of Rogers (Hey Boy) Hampton, producer Dave (Huba Druba) Druda, sports news update anchor Patrick (Mr. Know-It-All) Netherton and Jay (Call Screener) Whatley.

“The Tim Brando Show” was not a mega-ratings draw on CBS Sports Network.  Then, again, neither is anything else on CBS Sports Network.  I will make the unqualified case that CBS made the purchase of College Sports Network either to keep ESPN from swallowing yet another property or to at least have a token presence in sports cable television.

Notice how little conversation exists about Brando’s replacement “Boomer and Carton,” a New York-based sports talkfest.  If CBS wants properties to flourish on cable, that network needs to pony up for better cable sports properties than the service academies and the Mountain West Conference, and commit to solid, consistent promotion for its programming across all of its platforms, including big CBS.

Brando is where he is, in no small part, because he has one of those network-quality voices in the classic mold of a Lindsey Nelson, a Ray Scott, or a Curt Gowdy.  When Timmy B is there, you have a larger-than-life event even if the game is a long way from the Super Bowl or a conference championship game.

The Brando on radio delivers a side many of his play-by-play or studio viewers never see.  He offers sharp, well-defined, crisp commentary on the critical issues facing intercollegiate athletics.

He took on his own employer, The Sporting News, for publishing separate editions recognizing twin national champions in football in 2004, one for LSU and one for Southern Cal, when LSU won the BCS title that was the recognized achievement.  USC won a p.r. championship and Brando stuck it to The Sporting News for buying into it.

No one in a high-profile sports media capacity campaigned harder for more than a decade to end the ludicrous method of selecting a national football champion than Brando.  His relentless vocal campaign for a playoff at least peripherally led to Dan Wetzel’s outstanding book, “Death to the BCS,” which exposed the financial irregularities of the big bowl system.

Timmy B has been a one-man firewall against the often-irrational football fan base of The University of Alabama.  Brando is congratulatory on their success; he does not suffer fools who believe national championships are a birthright for the Crimson Tide merely for stepping on a field.

When CBS Sports lead anchor Jim Nantz was in the midst of a difficult divorce, Brando openly took on ESPN for singling out Nantz’s marital situation on SportsCenter.  “If that had been Chris Berman or Brent Musberger in the same situation, I wonder if it would have even been mentioned?” Brando questioned.  “Is there no such thing as privacy left?”

Brando is a sports broadcast historian.  While Colin Cowherd may have the power of the four-letter network behind his morning odyssey, Cowherd is perpetually dismissive of coaches and broadcasters of an earlier era.  Cowherd is so glued to ESPN’s daily focus group research that he would talk about Joba Chamberlain instead of the death of a legend, Pat Summerall.

Timmy B readily pays homage to his role model, the old Wyoming cowboy Curt Gowdy.  He has welcomed Verne Lundquist to the mike multiple times to tell some of his rich stories as a voice for ABC, CBS and the Dallas Cowboys.  The nation’s great college broadcasters always have had a home on Brando’s show.

I will single out two Brando shows that have meant more to me than any other over these 14 years.  Both of them involved interviews with the same coach.

In 2010, I encountered a bout with depression.  As anyone who has experienced it will tell you, the road back is often as slow and deliberate as basketball often was before the shot clock.  I was directed to take long walks during my spring break as a college professor.  I did.  I took along my Sirius portable radio and listened to Brando.

During NCAA Final Four week, Timmy B brought on Iowa’s newly-hired coach Fran McCaffery.  Brando started the interview by saying, in a perfect Musberger impersonation, “We have the new head coach of the HOCKEEEEEEYES, Fran McCaffery.  Fran, if you’re gonna make it in Iowa, you have to learn to say it like Brent—-the HOCK-EYEEEEEEEES.”

McCaffery erupted into an uncontrollable cackle that sounded like a cross between Barney Rubble and Michael Landon.  Brando egged him on and said “HOCK-eyeeeeeeeees” at least a half-dozen more times.  I had this visual picture of Fran about to fall off his chair.  I had not laughed in about three weeks.  I did that afternoon while walking in the park listening to Brando.  My healing was not immediate but that was the start of my journey back.

In March of last year, McCaffery was back on with Brando, only the interview was not for comedic relief.  Coach Fran told the story of his son Patrick’s bout with cancer.  Patrick McCaffery had surgery to remove a tumor on the very day the Hawkeyes were back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever done is not to get a team to buy into what it takes to make the NCAA tournament,” McCaffery said.  “It was to walk into my son’s room, wake him up, and tell him he had cancer.”

Brando was at his best that day.  He asked three questions during the entire 11 minutes of McCaffery’s segment.  Timmy B backed off and let the coach tell his emotional story.  Over these 14 years, that one segment is one that will stay with me when the memory of all the soreheads yapping about sportscaster bias has vanished.

In recent years, Timmy B has christened me The Ombudsman.  When issues of media coverage in sports raise questions, I periodically chime in on The Brando Show.  “Are we (the media) sometimes the problem?” is a question he sometimes tosses at me.  At times, I answer yes, in no small part because of the billions of dollars at stake in sports and the broadly increasing numbers of stakeholders for those billions.

For 13 years, I was the online video voice of the NAIA women’s national championship basketball tournament.  Virtually no one knew aside from the coaches and players of the 32 teams who came to Jackson, Tn., for the event.  Timmy B would always shoot me an email and ask me to call in on the day of the championship game.

“Who have you got tonight?” he asked before the 2010 title matchup.  “Union and Azusa Pacific, which I am sure are household names across the country,” I answered.

Brando reminded me of a salient point.  “Don’t ever minimize that,” he said.  “Somebody has to do that game and it happens to be you.  Always remember that your work means a lot to those kids and to their families who hear you call the game.  It doesn’t matter what level of play you’re at.”  He is right.

The month of May will bring on our first touch of humidity in the Southeast.  We will see some of the early signs of rye grass turning yellow.  Perhaps a thunderstorm or two will remind us of a change of seasons.  When Brandophiles turn on their SiriusXM radios in the mornings, Timmy B won’t be there.

Life will go on—-but mornings will not be the same without our old friend, who frequently reminds us:  “I don’t root for teams.  I root for people.”