Should Pounds Matter When Hiring Broadcast Journalists?

Tell the truth:  if you are a member of LinkedIn, why are you there?  Do you participate just so people can say you have more than 1,000 connections?  

I actually read intelligent LinkedIn posts from quality professionals who help me learn something in a given day.  Holly MacTaggart is a human resources executive. I was glued to one of her recent offerings because she made me introspective about the hiring process in broadcast journalism.20160730_205819-1

Here is an excerpt from Holly’s post:

Today, I was disappointed in my profession. I received a call from an HR professional whom I mentor….She told me that she had been pursued for a new role. She had several phone interviews and was asked if she could set up a very short Skype for a few “tactical” questions before going in for onsite interviews with the client. She rearranged her schedule, took the call from her home office and when the screen went live she saw the two recruiters look at each other, and slightly shake their head. Within 10 minutes, they said they had enough information. A few days later, they wrote and told her the position was on hold and thanked her. She said, “I think they didn’t like how I looked.”  Now, I don’t know what happened. I do know, she isn’t model thin … but what is in this woman’s head is amazing and she would be a tremendous benefit to any company. I explained that she needed to focus on the role she had, realize she “got off lucky” and continue to work her craft. Then I wondered … did the company even know what happened? Are we a culture of “how good you look” vs what knowledge and skills you bring to the table?

Holly’s last rhetorical question made me pause to think:  if we are truly honest, how would the television news industry as a whole answer?  

Before you start throwing brickbats and saying, “You, of all people, who used to supervise newsrooms should know appearance is one of the necessities of our business,” I simply want you to think.  How many people have news directors turned away over the years because they were overweight?  I will strike a little more terror into your hearts:  are most of those who were eliminated because of their weight female?

Let’s consider several givens:  I recognize viewers can be more incisive about the appearance of on-air journalists than a surgeon’s knife.  Without the benefit of empirical research, my experience during my news director years was that women viewers are far more critical of the look of women anchors and reporters than are men on men.  My first day in the news director’s chair in 1983 brought me this call from a woman who had no idea who I was:  “When are y’all gonna do somethin’ about them big swingin’ earrings that Catherine _________ wears?  I get dizzy just watchin’ them things swing.”  That’s no joke.  I suppose I could have told her, “If her earrings bother you that much, you can always change the channel,” but as a newcomer to town who wanted to encourage viewers to turn to us, I eschewed my initial inclination to respond with a smart aleck answer.

I am acutely aware that weight clauses exist in some anchor and reporter contracts, particularly in larger markets.  That is no different from the entertainment industry.  However, I ponder whether those continue because of the tradition of television news or because of the perceived expectation of viewers.

Further, news executives find no joy in their days having to field a call such as I did on my initial day on the job.  Add to that, they find even less joy taking a call from the general manager who says, “I’m getting more and more calls about ______________’s weight.”  Unspoken (or sometimes spoken) is the question:  “What are you going to do about it?”

An additional given is what should be a primary concern for anyone, regardless of their profession.  Excessive weight makes one vulnerable to health issues.  

Let me give you an example from my quarter century as a broadcast media professor.  For our purposes, I will refer to the young woman in question as “Janet.”  She entered our university as an enthusiastic, energetic 18-year-old with a goal.  Her heart and soul were focused on a career in TV news.  

When she arrived, she was—by society’s and the culture’s conventional standards—the picture of a future on-air personality in appearance.  She demonstrated maturity well beyond her years in her curiosity and performance.  However, in her first year, she tacked on the stereotypical “freshman 15” pounds.  By the end of the following year, that had become the “sophomore 60.”  One day, when I happened by the cafeteria, I passed by Janet and some of her friends.  I stopped to speak but privately was stunned.  Janet’s plate resembled the size of “The $100,000 Pyramid.”  A second casual visit revealed the same result.

Toward the end of Janet’s sophomore year, her mother called me.  Unlike typical helicopter parents of today, this was a very nice, concerned woman with a serious concern about her daughter.  “She has never been like this before in her life.  We are concerned, because she can’t push away from the table,” her mother said.  “What I want to know is this:  is she eating her way out of a chance to work in television?”

My first thought was:  how do I sensitively handle this with Janet’s mother and yet be honest.  In the next few minutes, I confided that Janet is still every bit the excellent potential journalist she was when she first entered college.  I explained to her mother that while as a college professor I can counsel with her and straightforwardly give Janet the facts of life about the profession, the industry is going to look the other way if she doesn’t begin to melt down some pounds.

Janet’s family and I both had sensitively-handled but direct conversations with her about the expectations of appearance in television news.  She received our advice affirmatively and constructively.  Sadly, she could not manage a way to drop even half of those extra 60 pounds.  Ultimately, she opted to switch her major to social work and has enjoyed a successful career in reaching out to people who are sometimes in difficult situations.

In the months after Janet graduated, I had one of those paradoxical moments of reflection.  Janet’s abilities and potential as a journalist did not deteriorate because of her weight.  I remember saying to a colleague, “I wonder what a TV news department is missing by not having her on staff, because she definitely had the tools.”  At the same time, I am confident Janet would have experienced the same as the woman in Holly MacTaggart’s example once a news director or station management would have seen that she was not model-thin.  I also asked rhetorically, “Is this really right?  What does it say about our industry?”

In the last year, I have become a huge fan of NewsON and frequently sample newscasts from around the country.  I have begun to see a miniscule increase in on-air anchors or reporters who, by the culture’s standards, would be considered overweight.  Each one of them had a pristine delivery and I could tell no difference in their communication skills than those who weighed 20 to 50 pounds less.  Likewise, each one was well-dressed and neatly groomed.  The only contrast to others on their staffs was the sizes of their clothes were larger.  In no way was I compelled to turn to another city’s newscast because of the sizes of these young men and women.

This is one of these “just asking” propositions:  does the local television news industry maintain a double standard when it comes to size?  In the last four years, we have seen lemon juice-vaccinated gripeboxes on Facebook and Twitter throwing cruel darts at pregnant women meteorologists who continue to work after their soon-to-become loved ones become significantly evident onscreen.  Some of these women have had the guts to strike back online.  In at least three instances in the last year, news directors have been quick to come to their defense and rightfully so.  I have personally emailed those three and, in so many words, let them know, “We’ve got your back.”

So here’s the opposite side of that question:  if we justifiably stand up for an expectant on-air employee who is increasing in size because she is about to experience one of the happy additions of life, are we being ambiguous if we close the door to a well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken reporter applicant because he or she happens to be overweight?  I imagine a number of people in hiring or decision-making capacities either don’t want to face the answer to that question or will dismiss it altogether with “TVnewsexecspeak.”

Holly MacTaggart’s true scenario that rekindled my thinking on this subject was of a woman who sensed immediately that she was being rejected for a job because of her weight.  No matter her ability or talents, which Holly could verify, those executives on Skype just shook their heads.

If lawsuits or job discrimination assertions are filed by people in taxpayer-paid, public positions because of weight issues, local TV news departments would be likely to pounce on that as a story.  Proving that someone is rejected for on-air employment because of weight is relative and on the burden of the prospect.  Yet, people who make such a decision know exactly if they are making that call because of pounds.  They really do.

I am convinced that “Janet” could have worked with competence and creativity as a journalist in any television news department.  She just happened to be 50 to 60 pounds over society’s (and television’s) expectation of appropriate weight.  

Given that she had talent, ability and may have broken stories that would have gained attention for your news team, just consider one question.  Would you have hired Janet?  Just asking.

 

 

Another TV Journalist Joins the Battle to Stamp Out Stigma of Emotional Illness

If you’re old enough to remember the assorted series produced by Quinn Martin from the 1960s through the ’80s, you may well remember two distinct trademarks.  Each segment was labeled Act I, Act II…..until the final three-to-four minute climax to wrap the evening’s story.  In the lower right corner of the screen was the word “Epilog.”

This is one of what may be many epilogs to our four-part series on depression and other emotional illnesses within television newsrooms.  Amidst the live shots, multiple deadlines, middle-of-the-night wakeup calls, and demands to be “on” for community service is a genuine vulnerability to depression.

Saturday, a reporter whose work I have viewed during crisis storm coverage in the last year opened up on Facebook about a struggle she has had and the dilemma as to whether to go public with her story.

Ashley HardingAshley Harding trudges the streets of North Florida for WJXT, the Jacksonville station I grew up watching and which influenced me to enter the field of broadcast journalism.

As background, Ashley and her husband had a child 16 months ago.  As is typical, her colleagues and the station in general celebrated the new birth.  However, Ashley began to experience the type of depression that is often only understood if one is a woman.

She, as did many of us, read of the tragic story of the suicide of Portland, Maine (WCSH) meteorologist Tom Johnston.  Before his tenure in Portland, Johnston was the morning meteorologist for Action News in Jacksonville.  On the air, Johnston was known for his lively personality and his sense of humor.  He was probably the last person most people would perceive would even fathom taking his own life.

Tom JohnstonWhat led Tom Johnston to his decision is still and may forever be unknown.  Ashley Harding was compelled to come forward with a story that had to play heavy in her own heart.  Please read her own account at the link above.  Here are some excerpts:

“For days, I had been mulling over and over in my head, asking myself…should I talk about this with the viewers? Should I share this?  I have been struggling with post-partum depression since our son was born in December 2015,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

As is the case with anyone struggling with depression, the dilemma is to accept that one needs help.  Ashley shared about the challenge of making an appointment with a psychiatrist, a difficult act that her husband finally did for her.  She then addressed personal thoughts about Tom Johnston.

“I did not know him when he worked here in Jacksonville, but this story really hit home for me. It’s time to get real about depression and mental illness. It’s okay to talk about it, and please people, get help if you need it. Reach out to those in your life who matter. Don’t wait as long as I did to try to get better. Rest in peace, Tom.”

I have communicated with Ashley via e-mail since her Facebook post went viral via TVSpy.  As I told her, she will never know whether one or 100 people are compelled to seek help because they have seen her daily on WJXT and recognize that she is not just a TV figure, but a real human who has real problems just as the rest of us do.

In her Facebook post, she details beginning the road back with low-dosage anti-depressants.  That is a common prescription for post-partum depression and for cases of clinical depression.  The key is being patient for the medication to work.  You cannot have the attitude of people who put on 15 pounds during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, hit the gym January 2 and expect those 15 to roll off in three or four days.  Any person experiencing depression may need weeks or even months to become one’s whole self again.

Ashley has taken the two most important steps—-she recognized she needed help and, with the help of her husband, she has sought it.  If she follows through on her treatment program—-and I have no doubt she will, she will get well.

Further, her courage to share her experience will be an inspiration to people in Jacksonville who may be going through the same struggles.  My personal hope is that her story will also encourage others in the television industry who need the same type of counseling and treatment to seek help.  As I have detailed previously, TV news is a profession that is a prime conduit of vulnerability to emotional illness.

One retired news director responded to my previous four-part blog with these words:  “This is a high-stress business.  Maybe people who have depression just shouldn’t be in it.”  That was a 1975-type answer.  

No, the time has come for the broadcast journalism industry and its managerial leaders to recognize that many talented people who work for them have their limits.  Depression can occur even to people in a low-stress profession.  Further, it is time for every broadcasting chain in America to require its senior managers and mid-level managers to undergo specific and disciplined training to understand the warning signs of depression and the sensitivity to be encouraging and patient with staff members who experience emotional illness.  Those who are dealing with depression could be some of those managers themselves.

As for Ashley Harding, she is taking the first steps on the road to a full recovery.  She is not alone.  She has a vast audience of people, many of whom she has never met, who are in her corner.  No doubt, her co-workers at WJXT are rooting for her.  So is The Old TV News Coach.

By telling her story, Ashley will have a positive influence on helping people she does not even know to take that first step of seeking help.  Likewise, she is helping to stamp out the stigma of ignorance and callousness concerning emotional illness.  What do we have to lose by talking about it?  We may save another life.

Photos courtesy wcsh6.com and news4jax.com

It’s National Hug a News Person Day….So Why Not Do It?

The catchy trend on Twitter is to declare national days in honor of a favorite event, person, fictional character, or food.  Some of them click.  Some of them roll over like a dog who just wants to go to sleep.

I know from experience.  I have declared the last two October 4ths as #NationalWardCleaverDay after my favorite TV dad of all time.  I think that one received six likes and two retweets.  I don’t care if it’s none and none.  I will observe #NationalWardCleaverDay this coming October 4th on the 60th anniversary of Leave It to Beaver.

A small group online have suggested we take the premiere date of Captain Kangaroo and declare the first #NationalMrGreenJeansDay this fall.  If you grew up with The Captain, how could you not love Mr. Green Jeans, who was a master of all farm animals and inventions?

That brings me to a slowly expanding online phenomenon of April 4.  I wish #Nationalhuganewspersonday had been around in the mid-1970s when I started in TV news.  Some days, a kind word was so elusive that I thought the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before I heard encouragement in my newsroom.  That was in the place where the news director/anchor once said in a staff meeting:  “You people are an extension of my arms to get to the places I can’t.  I would do it myself if I could but you’re here to carry out my mission.”  That was surely motivational.

Action 9 News Ad

In the location above, didn’t we all look young, vibrant, energetic, alive, and full of TV hair?  I almost cried when I uncovered this TV Guide ad last weekend for the first time in years.  I wondered, “Where did all my hair go?”  Then, I remembered I now have 15 fewer minutes needed to make those locks lay down.  

WTVM was actually a fun newsroom in which to work.  While we didn’t hug each other every day, we had far more virtual hugs and verbal cheers for each other.  We even laughed on a frequent basis, unlike some newsrooms where the temperature is often at the level of an Amana side-by-side.

Here’s the scoop:  especially in the smaller 125 markets, young people work hard every day to inform you and make the kinds of salaries that often cause them to struggle to make ends meet.  They are on call 24/7 for breaking stories, such as the one this morning in Orlando (and a few other cities) when tornado warnings were issued.  They work in a field which can strain relationships or social lives because of unorthodox schedules in which they work.  Try going in at 11:30 p.m. or 12 midnight to produce a morning show that can last as long as six hours in some cities.  When you accept a job in any television newsroom, you are rolling the dice.  You may be working for an encourager who truly cares about people as people, or you may be under the domain of a total autocrat who gives the impression of caring about nothing in life but what goes on the early evening news.

Here’s another scoop:  a significant number of people who contribute to your favorite local newscast every night are ones you never see.  When I tweeted today about #Nationalhuganewspersonday, I reminded people of the many producers, assignment editors, videographers, editors, directors, audio engineers and studio camera operators whose job it is to make a newscast and the people who deliver the information look good every night.  All too often, the news to viewers is only the people they see on camera.  When Lou Grant, Mary Richards and every one of the regular members of the WJM News staff were fired on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that group hug in which the gang all trotted together to grab tissues was one of the most hilarious physical comedy scenes ever.  Yet, where were the support personnel who made possible for them to do their jobs.

They deal some days with folks who are not very nice people.  Whoa be it answering a phone when a viewer calls enraged about a story which aired, even though that news watcher did not listen carefully and may have the facts out of context.  The news person’s skin has to be tougher than an overtanned sun worshiper’s face.

I hear some of you, including some veteran executives in the news business.  Some of you are saying, “What a silly thing to observe a day to hug a news person.”  Is it?

I read the accounts of former WDBJ (Roanoke, Va.) general manager Jeffrey Marks in the hours after reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward were shot to death during a live segment.  Marks gathered his staff together.  Spontaneously they sang “Amazing Grace” together and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Marks told reporters:  “I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family.  What can you do except bring people together?”

His news director said she began doing something she had never done before.  She began telling members of her staff she loved them.  Granted, if your staff has not experienced a cruel and inhumane loss of co-workers, you are not likely to tell your people you love them.  However, the sentiment, caring and sincerity are what count.

I recall 15 years ago when I was an RTNDA (before the acronym changed) Fellow.  One of my colleagues was assigned to serve his fellowship in a New England station.  He was told early on by the news director, “If I haven’t made a female cry at least once a week, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”  Yes, that was the culture in that newsroom.  I hope that management philosophy has changed, but I suspect we have a few news operations where that culture, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, prevails.

Sure, #Nationalhuganewspersonday is a fun creation of social media.  Yet, I find that unofficial observation playing into an important need in a highly stressful profession.  People in any line of work need reinforcement, encouragement and yes, at times, a small bit of love.  As deadline-driven and demanding as broadcast journalism is, if its practitioners are constantly in a den of negativity, that will create negative reinforcement, self-doubt and a reluctance to expand creative skills for fear of creating an eruption from temperamental bosses.

Dr. Brhett McCabe, a sports psychologist, recently said on The Paul Finebaum Show:   “Everything we experience is a big deal to us.  Performance anxiety is normal.  There’s a little voice inside that makes us worry about outcomes, rather than deliver outcomes.  That’s a little bit of a trap that keeps saying I have got to prevent mistakes from happening.”

 

So, if you work in a TV newsroom, put #Nationalhuganewspersonday into practice, at least for today.  Even if you’re not a hugger, at least offer a kind word or an ounce of encouragement to a co-worker—even if it’s one with whom you don’t particularly get along.  If you are married to a news person or are in a personal relationship with a journalist, make sure you give them a solid hug today as a reminder that what he or she does matters.  If you are a viewer, drop a positive email or a tweet to a favorite newscaster before midnight.  You may not see the smile on that journalist’s face, but—believe me—that will happen.

To all of you who toil on deadline every day to bring us information that is live….local….late-breaking, here is a virtual hug from The Old TV News Coach.  The same goes to all of you who once gave of yourselves in the industry and are now classified as retired.  I may not know many of you, but I definitely appreciate you.

Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult.  Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential.

We don’t have a data base of exact numbers of journalists who have experienced depression, anxiety, or any form of emotional illness.  

Yet, we know all too sadly the personal stories of many national figures in news and sports media who have been through the lowest of the low challenges in their lives. This list is only a partial one of those, both living and dead, who have battled depression:  Mike Wallace (CBS News), Art Buchwald (The Washington Post), Hunter S. Thompson (father of “gonzo” journalism), Terry Bradshaw (Fox Sports), Jack Marschall (WEWS, Cleveland), Lauren Rowe (WKMG, Orlando), Jim Jensen (WCBS, New York), Roy Hobbs (WBMA, Birmingham), John Head (USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Playing Hurt       A bittersweet posthumous autobiography, predominantly written before the untimely death of ESPN sportscaster and The Sports Reporters host John Saunders, details his adult struggle with depression.  The book, Playing Hurt:  My Journey from Despair to Hope, we see the other side of a man who visited in our homes more than some family members.  Google Books offers this preview:  “In Playing Hurt, a leading figure in the sports world-the quintessential ‘man’s man’ who seems to have it all-confesses his constant battle with depression. John Saunders welcomes readers into the heart of his desperate struggle through insights into the root causes of depression and explanations of modern medical and homeopathic treatments.”

Lest we forget the dramatically tragic story of Christine Chubbuck, the young Florida TV journalist, whose struggles with depression led her to take her own life with a gun on live television more than 40 years ago.

What we have no way of determining is the volume of journalists who have or have previously suffered with depression but have chosen to remain silent.

Add me to the list above.  While, thankfully, I have never been suicidal, depression has been as real for me as eating a meal or taking a walk.  Related stresses from television news, as well as my own personality makeup, were significant contributing factors.

I, as a former reporter-anchor-producer-substitute sports and weathercaster and news director, have battled depression for 26 years.  My initial diagnosis came when I was still an active news director.  Since then, in 2010 and 2014, I have had two subsequent serious bouts with depression that had at least a relationship to supervising a daily cable television newscast for students.

This personal diary is not written as even a remote suggestion that to enter broadcast journalism, one is likely to contract emotional depression.  Just as that silent illness is not “one size fits all,” neither are the personalities in a TV newsroom.  Because lives and personalities are not perfect, symmetrical clones, I am suggesting the nature of television news—particularly in a day where newsroom personnel are compelled to do far more in more on-air hours with less or little increase in support staff—the vulnerability to depression is greater than ever.

Let me be clear not to limit this to simply the on-air personnel.  The demands on videographers, producers, assignment editors, helicopter pilots, directors, technical directors and control room personnel are as stressful as ever.  

I am not what one would call a former “star” of local television news.  My career was not what one would call distinguished.  You would not find me within hundreds of miles of the Mount Rushmore of gamechangers in TV news.  I was a fairly steady, workmanlike political and education reporter, an anchor who was hired too young for the prime time desk, a producer and assistant news director in a top 35 market, and a news director of varying degrees of success and failure in three cities.

Yes, I have long since come to grips that some elements of my career were a failure.  Failure is a word news directors are never supposed to publicly admit.  Yet, only through failure can one appreciate whatever successes one achieves in any walk of life.

I won my fair share of personal journalism awards.  As a news director, a couple of my shops won Pacemaker Awards from the Associated Press as top performers in their market sizes.  I will also candidly tell you that none of those plaques means diddly-dip except for the fleeting moment at which one is given the honor.  You can possess a shelf full of certificates and hardware—-but if you don’t have your health, especially one’s mental health, awards and $4.95 will buy one a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

I remember my first trip in 1983 to a Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention in Las Vegas.  My most vivid memory was of dozens of guys in three-piece suits roaming the halls and floors, scrambling to find phones to call back to their newsrooms.  I never could figure if they were so attached to their stations that they couldn’t live without an hourly checkup, or if they had no faith in their senior staff.

I also observed how few people smiled.  When someone did, his or her mouth looked much as Nick Saban’s.  Ever notice even when Saban smiles after he wins another national title, his grin appears so painful and strained that he looks as if he’s constipated?

Perhaps that was the ultimate snapshot at the time of the profession I chose.

I was sent to a management seminar for ABC affiliate news directors at a Chicago hotel only two weeks after I was appointed to my first leadership role at a Georgia station.    The motivational speaker who led our first-day session offered some unmistakable words:  “Many of you are here today because you were either a good or a great reporter or perhaps an outstanding producer,” he said.  “If you’re new to the job, now that you’re the head coach, the world is going to take on a different level of challenges.  Some of you will enjoy them.  Some of you will despise them.”

When the boss who taught me more about TV news than anyone, Dave Richardson, learned that I was under consideration for two news director positions, he posed a question that made the clock stop for a few minutes.  “If you had to, could you fire me?” he asked.  Dave’s tree of future news directors was almost as large as Saban’s is of coordinators becoming head coaches in college football.

In my first stint as a news director, I gained interesting insight into the psychology of a staff that I never gleaned as a staff member.  I also learned a lot about me.  I had no medical evidence, but I am convinced I inherited at least four people who either were young alcoholics or well on the way to that category.  They were in the unofficial fraternity of news practitioners who hit the local bars religiously after the nightly on-air effort to “talk shop,” complain and drown themselves in the latest libation.

Some of them had genuine talent.  At least one is still in the profession.  Yet, I found myself spending significant time as amateur psychologist as well as news supervisor.  Yeah, I can read the reaction of the scroll of names who have held the title news director in the last 40 years.  Some of them are saying, “That was your first mistake.  You don’t have time or the need to be a counselor in a newsroom.”  Okay, maybe.  Just chalk it up that I believe in people and a whole person brings more to the table than what they can produce and deliver for a minute and a half in a nightly newscast.  If I blew it for that, I plead guilty.  

In 1990, after a few years voluntarily out of TV news to work on a graduate degree, I came back to the profession.  I was not looking to return as a news director; however, a friend and colleague (and, yes, he still is both today) told me of a job he was passing on because he received a significantly better offer elsewhere.  He suggested I at least call to talk to the people.  He had already told them about me.

The job was in a much smaller market than in any city where I had previously worked.  I had never heard of Jackson, Tn.  Geographically, I was ignorant of its location.  I had no idea the city was the home of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins or the original home of railroad legend Casey Jones.  I knew not that a long-time favorite of mine, Wink Martindale, was a native of Jackson.  Somehow, I missed that an NBC News correspondent I long admired, John Dancy, was from Jackson.

I made the six-hour journey to the place known as the Hub City of West Tennessee.  Largely, Jackson is the center of a rural area of 14 counties.  On a Friday or Saturday night, drop by any of the city’s many restaurants and one will see tons of auto tags from all 14 of those counties.  The school district had just consolidated from separate city and county systems into one metropolitan system.  The hope of key city leaders was that union would lead to a marriage of city and county government.  The latter has still not happened and probably never will.  The school situation remains a quagmire of constituencies and territorial lines.  At the moment, the district’s school board is in search of its tenth superintendent in 27 years.

Despite every visible reason not to come to Jackson, Tn., I accepted the job as news director at WBBJ, the ABC affiliate for central and upper West Tennessee.  The sole competition was a token UHF Fox affiliate with no news operation that basically delivered programming from a Memphis station.  Understand that after working in a Top 35 market, going to Jackson, Tn., is like accepting a head football coaching job at Florida Atlantic after working as a coordinator at North Carolina.  I didn’t care.  Somebody had to take that job.  Why not me?

I came to Jackson despite having seen a newsroom that physically and structurally appeared to be one clapboard away from a collapse.  The day I came to interview, not a single local news story was on the 6:00 newscast.  A 3 1/2-minute handout tape from the Department of Agriculture on how to raise pole beans was.  Weather ran an amazing six minutes, probably because of so little local news output.  Sports took up a similar amount of time, but all of it was the same stuff one would see on ESPN SportsCenter.

Over the course of the interview process, I was made assurances of a variety of items that were essential to me to have a fighting chance to rebuild a news department that was in shambles after seven months without a news director.  On a side note, the station had been without a permanent general manager for the same length of time.

Despite what any sane professional would say in evaluating the wisdom of taking such a job, I accepted.  I surmised that even small, incremental progress would be regarded as victories.  I thought to myself no way you could mess this one up.

Today’s cliche, particularly in college and pro athletics, is “changing the culture” when new leadership is hired.  In the case of WBBJ in May 1990, the job was actually to create a culture.  Nearly half the staff worked at second jobs because they could not afford to live on what the ownership paid.  The newsroom was included in that category.

Ten years later, ABC News religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer was in Jackson for a speaking engagement.  She asked the WBBJ reporter/weekend anchor present what her salary was.  To my shock, the young woman was gutsy enough to reveal her hourly pay.  “That…..is a crime!” Ms. Wehmeyer said without a beat.

Throughout the station, the issues were many.  The standard was primarily to get material on the air.  Quality?  No time for that.  Communication was marginal, at best.  On my fourth weekend in Jackson, no provision had been made for an audio operator for the 10:00 news.  The two fellows who rotated in the slot had convinced each other that the other was supposed to work that Saturday night.  On the air, no bumper music was available.  The director had no choice but to leave the anchor mike live.  The pleasant sound of paper-shuffling accompanied the transition to commercial breaks.

Very quickly, things that were not stated during the hiring process became quite clear.  When I was filling out the employment paperwork during my first week, I was greeted with the happy news that my health insurance coverage would not kick in for 90 days.  I had been told my staff would number 12 people.  “Oh, we’re under a hiring freeze,” I was told by the new general manager who took over the same day as I did as news director.  “You’re only going to have slots for 9 1/2 people.  But don’t worry.  I’m sure we’ll be out from under the freeze soon.”  Yeah.  Radio communication between a newsroom and crews is a staple as necessary as potatoes in a restaurant.  On my first day, I heard a crime call on the police monitor and asked the assignment editor to get a crew there.  “I can’t,” she said.  “We don’t have a two-way radio.”  This was a few years before cell phones.  

I had no idea how frustrated viewers were with the station’s news performance.  Within two weeks, I learned.  That two weeks spread into six weeks, then into twelve.  The calls often came in a dozen per night:  “When are you people finally going to get your act together down there and at least look like something other than a bunch of amateurs?”  That was one of the kinder ones.  Some of the responses bordered on what we define today as hate speech.  A few nights, I went home half-believing I must be the worst leader in America, or I made the dumbest decision of my life taking on this challenge.

I won’t bore you with the litany of other problems that had to be navigated.  Needless to say, every time I heard a news director from big market stations complain about their lot in life—and I certainly understood their mountains to climb, I wanted to ask, “Want to trade with me for a week?”

For 14 months, I scratched, clawed and struggled a day at a time just to make incremental progress.  In addition to having to largely teach a newsroom how to cover beats and how to report from scratch, I was also walking that slippery slope of managing up to a first-time general manager.  He was one of the world’s nicest men but was, in fact, learning how to manage up to his corporate headquarters.  Accordingly, progress was slower in developing than in academia.

Then, we had the day that the Associated Press wire service was suspended for every station in the chain.  Why?  The bill had not been paid.  A friend of mine and former news director was a rep for The AP.  I called him in Atlanta and asked what was going on.  He said, “Your owner has an agreement that only he personally can negotiate with us.  This is the third time your company has been late paying the bill.  We gave them grace before but we’re just not going to do it this time.”  The owner was off on a vacation where he could not be found for the weekend.  All of his stations were left without AP access for six days.  No wonder my hair was falling out with increasing speed and my blood pressure was elevated.

I made a huge mistake upon realizing how shorthanded this staff was to accomplish its daily mission.  I attempted to personally fill in the gaps and do the work of three people.  A psychologist later described that for me as a “Superman complex.”  No one human has the physical makeup of Superman.  Attempting to take on the tasks of multiple people never results in a positive result and often breaks the person who tries it.

Six months, eight months, ten months elapsed.  Improvement occurred in small doses.  Content and reporting were better.  Our on-air look and technical support were still lodged in the late 1970s.  I developed a log of 53 spot stories that we missed because we had no two-way radio communication in these pre-cell phone days to direct crews to a location.

To provide enough content to adequately fill the half-hour we were producing at 6:00 (heaven forbid if we had been doing two hours a night as the same station does today), I became an additional reporter as well as news director.  Nearly 15 years earlier, I had developed a skill of moving efficiently from one story to another.  Ask any news director if one can effectively administrate a news operation while trying to serve as an active, in-the-field journalist and you will hear the same reaction as a bank president attempting to serve as a teller.  The recipe is one for personal disaster.

Approximately 11 months into the job, I knew I was not myself.  I was chronically fatigued and on the verge of a total collapse.  I fooled myself into thinking things would improve, but I had no idea how to make that happen.  No additional staffing was on the horizon.  We had no signs of sorely-needed equipment coming into the house, despite repeated petitions to Charlotte.  

Likewise, I was feeling enormous guilt about moving us here and not having the foresight to take the job in which so many basics were different from what had been assured me when I came for the interview.  Extreme guilt coupled with exhaustion are two of the prime ingredients of depression.

On a Monday evening 13 months after I arrived in Jackson, I opened the front door of my house, dropped to my knees and had what in years past was referred to as a nervous breakdown.  Today, the customary term is an emotional collapse.  I erupted into uncontrollable tears.  The harder I tried to stop, the worse the crying spell became.  For 90 minutes—the length of a single episode of the old western series “The Virginian”—-I continued to cry.  Finally, after making several phone calls to determine how best to help, my wife convinced me to get in the shower and stay there until I could calm down, if that were possible.

One of the calls went to my father in Georgia.  If ever an expert on depression existed, he was one.  A Navy veteran who was injured in the Pacific during World War II, he was an active pastor for more than 40 years.  Anyone who thinks a minister’s life is a perpetual serene essence of service needs to have a few conversations.  F.J. Beverly Jr. was diagnosed with depression in 1971 in an era when stigmas and ignorant stereotypes of emotional illness were huge and demeaning.  Even fellow pastors shied away from him.  I had lived for 20 years with the worry that the characteristics of depression could be inherited.  Daddy had a chemical imbalance in his blood that was a trigger point of depression.  

For the next 42 days, television news was not a part of my life.  An emergency appointment was arranged the next morning with my family doctor.  The following day, I had a referral appointment with a first-class psychiatrist who was a great listener and approached elements of my problems with a Christian perspective.  What was difficult for me to grasp is those two days were just small building blocks.  That inbred Type A personality was expecting a quick turnaround.  I have likened it to people who balloon 10 to 15 pounds from binge eating between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  They either receive gift cards to a fitness center or make their first visit to a wellness facility in months.  If they don’t see those 15 pounds roll off in a week, you often hear a phrase common to South Georgia, “I’m not gonna fool with that mess.”

For Steve to be Steve again, two days were just the bottom of the mountain.  I was fortunate that my general manager was a kind and patient man.  He acknowledged that my 13 months in Jackson had been unlike any he had ever seen in broadcasting and that many assurances made by a previous administration were not delivered.  He said, “I want you to take whatever time you need to get well.”  He also said something that didn’t raise my spirits:  “We’re not paying you to do a $100,000-a-year job.  We’re paying you to do a $38,000 job.”  I never thought the salary was the basis on whether one did a job the right way.

My doctors strongly recommended that I not watch any newscasts until they cleared me to do so.  When that call was made, I thought back to the pack of guys on the RTNDA floor who seemingly couldn’t go 15 minutes without calling back to their stations.  My doctors’ prescription would have been a proverbial death sentence to those guys.

“You need a complete calming and a distance from what has put you in this situation,” I was told, “but you’re going to have to be patient with yourself.  This is not going to be a quick fix.  You’re going to have better days but it’s going to take time for the medication to work and we may have to make some adjustments.  This is going to be a gradual, incremental process.  You are physically exhausted as well as emotionally drained.”

He assured me that I was not “bipolar,” which today has a connotation many people automatically attach to depression.  I learned that depression is anything but one size fits all.  Depression is of varying degrees and depths in different people.  Only a minority of depression sufferers develop suicidal thoughts.

My grade was defined as “clinical depression,” which is brought on by at least four to five symptoms over a period of at least two weeks.   In my case, I was experiencing exhaustion and chronic fatigue, excessive guilt (over making the job decision to come to Jackson and inability to see faster progress at the station), significant weight loss (I had fallen to 155 pounds on a 6-foot-2 1/2 frame), reduced pleasure in daily activities, and loss of sleep despite a consistent desire to sleep more.

My enforced exile from the newsroom was underway.  The journalist in me had the inclination to turn on Channel 7 and see what we were doing.  The realist in me recognized my doctors were right.  I could not recover fully if I exposed myself, even just in my living room, to the environment that contributed to my breakdown.  I struggled with worry that I may not be able to continue in the job or possibly would be asked to step down from my job if I required an extended recovery period.  Regardless, this was not a “take two tablets and call me tomorrow” type of journey.  In this instance, improvement would be in incremental bits.

My first reaction to the prescribed medication was that I had become another person.  My emotions, responses and even the tempo of my speech had become slow.  Concerned that I was having a series of bad side effects, I phoned my doctor.  I was assured the meds were doing exactly as they were supposed to do.  All of us have neurotransmitters that affect our emotions and our behavior.  I had been so wired and intense that the physical me contributed to the deterioration of the emotional me.  My meds were designed to slow me down, even significantly so, in order to rebuild me.

Journalism, the constant deadlines, and the consistent “what-have-you-done-for-me-yesterday?” nature of the profession can make Type A personalities, such as myself, overachievers and highly-driven professionals candidates for depression.  Sometimes, the perfect storm of chemical makeup + physical stamina + emotional fatigue collides the same as when intense warm fronts and cold fronts meet to create thunderstorms or tornadoes.

Four weeks into my recovery, which included weekly visits to my counselor, I was beginning to feel stronger.  I decided the time had come to try returning to the office, even if just for a few hours a day.

I walked in the back door of the old newsroom, which was a wing of a Quonset hut.  The minute I entered, I had to turn right around and leave.  Despite seeing smiles on the faces of concerned people in the newsroom, all I heard was a chorus of hellos.  I erupted into tears again as I headed to the car.

I had a variety of emotions pass through my mind.  Did this mean I was weak, too weak to work in television again?  No, my doctor reassured me.  I just pulled the trigger too fast.  Did this indicate I would not recover?  No.  I was going to have to manage myself much better than I had in the past, but the day would come when I would be fine.  I was simply going to have to be more patient with myself.

That’s a huge key for depression sufferers, no matter the profession.  You have to be patient with yourself for your recovery.  Some people can reassemble the parts faster than others.  This is not like the flu where one is zapped, but usually is back in business in nine to ten days.  The reason many journalists are not patient with their own recoveries is that the field in which they work is an inconvenient and frequently impatient profession.  You are embedded in a culture that often is enslaved to a time deadline multiple times a day.  The show has to go on.  When you are recovering from depression, at times the show cannot go on.  One has to learn a characteristic that is often missing from television news, college football, and even church congregations—patience.

Two weeks later, I made a successful return to the newsroom but I had to make a gradual re-acclimation.  I worked half-days to three-quarter days for six weeks before I had the stamina to handle a full workload.  The environment was still not ideal but I proved to myself that I could handle it.  We began to make substantive improvements in our news ratings.  That was good for the station and for advertising sales.  I cannot honestly say I found the gains personally satisfying because I was still emerging from the most difficult recovery I had ever experienced.  I began to put into perspective that rating points, as important as they are in the television industry, are pale when compared to one’s health.

Late the following year, I made a calculated decision to leave WBBJ and accept a job as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University in Jackson.  I had never heard of Union until I moved here.  The relationship was a sea change for me.  I began the long transition from active practitioner to teacher and coach of students who want to join the profession I began in 1976.  I quickly learned the process was more deliberate and calm than in the frenetic activity of the TV newsroom.  At that point in my life, slowing down was a good thing.

My boss, Dr. Kina Mallard—now president of Reinhardt University in Georgia and one of the finest immediate superiors anyone could ever have—asked an early question during the interview period.  “What do you think you could do, if you could dream big, that could best help students toward a future career?” she asked.  The dream I expressed was to do a daily television newscast on cable with students.  Sound bizarre?  The idea probably was but I felt the ultimate lab experience would involve replicating the newsroom and production experience they would eventually face.

I had to wait 15 years on that dream to materialize.  In 2008, fiber optics were finally accessible from our studio to Jackson Energy Authority’s head end in downtown Jackson.  In October 2008, “Jackson 24/7” launched as what the academic community calls “teaching hospital.”  We moved the learning center for students into a studio-as-classroom laboratory.  The experiential learning proved to be a boon for twentysomethings anxious to drive their personal career preparation trains to a new level.  The transition also came with a personal cost.

I already had the experience of the demands of running a television newsroom and what at times are excessive stresses.  What I underestimated in the laboratory situation was the added hours of preparation time for me to have the basics ready for my student anchors, reporters and producers to deliver a 12 noon newscast Monday through Friday.  For the first two years of “Jackson 24/7,” I found myself in the building far too many evenings after my talented colleagues departed.  Part of this was the perfectionism in me (which does not exist in certain alternate areas of my life); another part was the burning desire to deliver a quality product for a local cable system committed to community programming.

Those hours began to mount.  Fatigue began to slowly set in night after night.  Much as happened nearly 20 years earlier, I saw an emotional and physical train wreck coming for about a month but seemed powerless to let go of the root causes.

Finally, after a Thursday edition of “Jackson 24/7,” our resident psychologist Dr. Joanne Stephenson waited until all of the other guests and students were gone.  She looked me squarely in the eye and said:  “THIS…..is an intervention.”  I knew exactly what she meant.  I broke into tears as she forthrightly said, “If we don’t do something now, you’re going to be dead by Christmas.”  When someone of Dr. Joanne’s experience uses the word “dead,” one with any degree of intelligence listens.  I asked how she knew I was struggling.  She said, “I could see it in your eyes for the last month.  You can’t keep going on like this.  One problem is you make this look too easy and no one on this campus recognizes the amount of work it takes to pull this off every day with students.”  She was particularly correct about that.  In many schools attempting to craft a daily newscast, the department has multiple professors in a journalism or communications school or department working together toward that end.  In my case, I was it.  Both journalism and production were under my umbrella—no co-professor(s).  Remember the old story at WBBJ of attempting to do the work of three people.  I forgot that lesson.  Dr. Joanne said, “You’re in depression.  You are not weak.  You are not a failure.  You just cannot keep up that constant amount of work and survive.”

As we continued what was a life-altering discussion, I told Dr. Joanne of an added issue that was not part of my first bout with depression.  At our university, we look for any excuse to celebrate:  someone’s birthday, a milestone anniversary, or a departmental meeting—any of these typically brings out the fellowship in my colleagues.  I am usually right in the middle of it either injecting humor or enjoying someone else’s.  Merely a few days before Dr. Joanne’s intervention, we were celebrating a fellow professor’s birthday.  The volume level and laughter, which I have perpetually enjoyed, was emotionally almost sending me to the ceiling.  I had to run, not just walk, to my office and close the door.  The same thing had happened at my church the previous week between Sunday School and the worship service.  I was experiencing anxiety attacks for the first time in my life.  Dr. Paul Deschenes, another respected psychologist, told me certain types of depression have a companion in anxiety.  Clinical depression is one of them.  

The prescription:  in addition to returning to medication that was a lower grade than I was on in 1991, I was ordered to do something that was extremely difficult.  Spring break was approaching.  “Jackson 24/7” went into “evergreen” mode during extended holidays (compilations of key news stories and interviews from previous broadcasts).  Dr. Joanne directed me not to come on or near the Union campus during that nine-day layoff.  “I don’t even want to hear that you have come here to have a workout,” she said.  “You need some distance and calming from the environment that has created the depression.”  I had begun a daily workout regimen in 2003, just before my 49th birthday.  Staying away from the elliptical and treadmill for more than a week was not on my agenda.  “I want you to get out in the sunshine and walk,” Dr. Joanne said.  “Four, five, even six miles a day.  Go to a park and be outside, put some music or something you enjoy on headphones and just walk.  It will be just as satisfying as coming in for a workout and it will be better for your overall mental health.”  I did just that and the entire routine was refreshing.  During a couple of those days, I averaged eight miles of walking.

Something greatly different from my previous experience, other than the anxiety, was a decision that was risky.  I continued to work while I battled the depression.  That is definitely not to be recommended for everyone.  I was able to tolerate the medication sufficiently to carry on, but I worked hard every day to mask the symptoms from my students.  To this day, I doubt if any knew what I was internally experiencing.  What I discovered in this instance was that putting on the facade of being okay was expending so much energy that on the back end, when I arrived home at night, I was drained.

My diagnosis was in March 2010.  Thankfully, spring break and the approaching summer hiatus provided necessary respites that aided in my recovery.  I did not feel my full self again until early August.  However, I could see the finish line coming by mid-June.  

I had another reoccurrence in the summer of 2014 which was part occupation-related and part the lingering aftermath of my father’s death.  After he broke a hip in late May 2013, I spent an entire summer as caregiver and administrator for both of my parents.  No one has a greater appreciation for daily caregivers and how their responsibilities can wear them down than do I.  I spent 80 days in South Georgia tending to their needs and watching my father slowly deteriorate.  I transitioned back to campus with only two days remaining before the semester.  I was physically and emotionally spent from the unplanned summer and just not ready for the transition.  Again, I had to seek the relief from medication and counseling.  In this case, I should have attempted to take a sabbatical but at our university, you need to receive a Pew research grant to be considered for that kind of extended time away.  The reinforcement I had from my family and my colleagues was exceptional in helping me to bounce back.

Today, I still take a low-grade medication, a generic of Lexapro, that keeps life from having too many deep drops.  I still have my days where I am not 100 percent (who does?).  Particularly during the days of late fall through mid-winter when the sun sets between 4:30 and 5 p.m. in the Central time zone, I have some down spots—not a crash but the same kinds of struggles as people with seasonal affective disorder face.  We have too few hours of sunshine.  If a winter has consecutive days of gray skies, I am just not as internally upbeat as when I arrive at work to a dazzling sun.

Could I have yet another serious bout with depression?  Sure.  Anyone who has had it knows that perfect storm can align between your emotions and your physical being and you can again be down in the depths.  What I have learned is how to manage myself better and to recognize that no one broadcast, no one segment, no one set of circumstances is worth sacrificing one’s health.  I can still have my moments but my students describe my personality as mellow these days.  That is definitely a good thing.

I have also made adjustments to my overall schedule that are working.  I am in the studio less than I once was, though still more hours in prep time than the average professor exercises for most classes.  I am gradually learning to say “no” to many requests that once led to an automatic “yes.”  However, our office administrative assistant said recently to me, “When are you going to learn how to say ‘no’ even more?”  She is right and I am still trying to pull that tug-of-war to more on the “no” side than on the “yes.”

In 2015, I embarked on a new mission:  openly discussing my bouts with depression, defining what it is, how I overcame it and how I still deal with it, sometimes for days in a row.  I became convicted of the need to do this after the suicide death of actor Robin Williams from extreme depression-related causes.  When that story appeared on my iPad on a Monday evening, I said to a journalist friend, “We’re going to all of a sudden see a rash of stories about depression, its causes and its treatment…..and some of them will not be thorough or accurate.  We’ll be flooded with talk about depression for about three weeks, maybe four and then it will all be forgotten.”  As I said in an on-air news commentary the next day:  “We should not need the death of an international celebrity to jump-start a discussion about mental illness, of which depression is a widespread component.”

What do I have to fear?  That someone who still lives in ignorance and stigma will offer a slur because I have experienced mental illness?  

So now, I tell my own story to church groups, civic organizations and—most recently—to the Union University student body, most of whom had no idea that I have had a 26-year battle with depression.  I agreed to talk about my experience in a chapel service because I know the numbers of that student body who have made appointments in the past year for counseling because of difficulty coping or even outright depression symptoms.  If we could help even one student realize that this is something one has to treat just like a broken leg, something you would not attempt to repair yourself, and get help, then every opportunity is well worth it.

I am occasionally told, “Thank you for your courage in telling your story.”  No thanks are necessary.  The man who paved the way for me was my father.  That’s the man who had the courage to start discussing his battle with depression in public back in the 1990’s when the stigma was beginning to melt away but still was a silent topic for many sufferers even within their own families.

I will go to any television (or newspaper/digital) newsroom of any kind in America and spend an hour or two discussing depression and how to deal with the warning signs and symptoms of it.  The offer is a standing one.  All it takes is a phone call or an email.  I say that but most TV news departments are so busy covering from six to 10 hours of day of local newscasts, largely understaffed, that they do not have time to schedule even a short seminar on what could be a life-saving or, at the very least, an emotion-saving message.

Journalists are in one of the most stress-driven professions in the nation.  They are multi-deadline driven every day.  They see death, dying and violence on a perpetual basis.  They are on call 24/7 to go to the next emergency call.  If they are married, they have to juggle family life with the demands of their jobs—often akin to rowing a boat in nine-foot tidal waves.  Some work for bad bosses.  Others work for screamers.  Many days find them fortunate to be able to wolf down unhealthy fast food because of the need to head to the next story.

Many deal with those demands and pressures quite well.  Others struggle with them but refuse to admit those internal challenges because of the constant preaching of mental toughness and the fear that to admit warning signs of depression is a suggestion of weakness—-something further from the truth than North Dakota is from Texas.  Some have succumbed to depression but have a similar story to mine—they sought help and received the right kind of help and gradually regained their full physical and mental health.  Sadly, a percentage have refused to seek help and have slid down a dark path, occasionally even to suicide.

The time has long passed for us to wipe out any stigma of this illness and openly discuss what depression is, how it is not one size fits all, and how to deal with it before it becomes all-consuming.  I reach out especially to any journalists who have been there or are at that point right now.  You do have hope.  You can make it back.  You have to do your part.  You have to accept you need help, get the help, do what you are told, take your medication, and be patient with yourself to recover.  

Depression need not be “the silent illness” any longer.

 

 

 

 

They Called Her ‘Cuz’

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Where broadcasters are concerned, my definition of the word “pioneer” is one who wrote the rules before we had any rules.

Few pioneers stay the course in one city any more.  The television business is far too migrant.

When the era of daily children’s shows ended, a part of the childhood of baby boomers was decimated.  Author Tim Hollis documented more than 1,400 local children’s shows airing from the early 1950s through the 1980s.  The hosts of these shows, usually playing a fictional character, became surrogate mothers and fathers to the thousands of kids they entertained and taught in television’s golden era.

Baby boomers in South Georgia, where I grew up, still fondly remember Ranger Hal (Henry Baron) and Skipper Ed (Ed McCullers) in Jacksonville, Captain Mercury (Grady Shadburn) in Albany, Miss Patsy (Patsy Avery) and Colonel Chick (Chick Autry) in Columbus, and the immortal Cap’n Sandy (Joe Cox) in Savannah.

In my town of Jackson, Tn., a call came to my house Saturday morning that I knew ultimately would bring some sad news.

Doris Freeman, the first woman broadcaster in Jackson and West Tennessee history, passed away peacefully at the age of 91.  Her grandson Brad Little said, “Her body finally just gave out.”

Few people in Jackson called her Doris.  In the 1940s, as a performer on radio and on old-time hillbilly shows, Doris created a character, Cousin Tuny, that became a Tennessee legend.  Tuny could have been the cousin or little sister of her friend and Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl.  Tuny’s attire and performing style were subsidiaries of Minnie.

“I was really born Tuny and Tuny was me,” she told me in an interview for a documentary I did on her life and career in 2001.

Her brother-in-law Aaron Robinson put WDXI on the air in 1945.  Robinson hired Doris as one of his first advertising account executives.

She definitely could sell.  However, her personality was too entertaining to leave at the ad table.  She reported news.  She read the noontime hog report.  She sang on both a big band and a country music show.

In 1955, Doris filed for the FCC license to add television to WDXI’s portfolio on Channel 7.  Robinson studied the landscape of local television.  He felt he needed an afternoon children’s program to connect with the community and attract advertisers.

“The Cousin Tuny Show” was born with a ranch-style set and room for up to 20 kids to make their TV debuts.  With a tacky hat, a red-checkered dress and pantaloons, Tuny became a second mother to children from up to 60 miles from Jackson.

Birthday parties, church children’s gatherings and school groups were on waiting lists to spend an afternoon with Tuny.  So popular was the 90-minute kidfest that the show had to be moved to a movie theater stage across the street from WDXI’s downtown studios.

“We had our cartunies, as I called them,” Tuny said.  “But I wanted to teach children much more.”

After the theme song, an old creation called “Doll Dance,” opened each episode of “The Cousin Tuny Show,” Tuny greeted the boys and girls in the studio and at home, then immediately led the pledge to the flag.

“Every day, I told the children on the show and all the ‘little cousins’ at home to say their prayers, clean their plates, mind their parents, and love everybody,” she said.  “We said the blessing every day before we had our milk and cake.  You won’t find that on television any more.”

For 11 years, “The Cousin Tuny Show” was appointment TV for children—most of whom are at least in their sixties today, some of whom Tuny outlived.  In 1966, a fateful turn was a carbon copy of what happened to many kids show hosts across the nation.

WDXI was sold to Cy Bahakel Broadcasting of Charlotte, N.C.  Tuny began to see the handwriting on the wall from the station’s new general manager Jerry Quick.

“He told me, ‘We want you to continue doing the show but we want to cut it to a half-hour.  You’ll produce it and host it, sell it and answer all the mail.  We’ll give you one dollar for every commercial.’

“I thought about it and I said, to have any content you couldn’t have any more than six commercials.  That meant $6 a show—-$30 a week,” she said.  “I told him, ‘You know I don’t know what in the world I would do with all that money.’  It was obvious he was the hatchet man and they wanted the show off the air.”

Three months later, in early 1967, Tuny finished her Friday afternoon show.  Quick came onto the set after the cameras went dark.  “Thanks a lot, Tuny, it’s been great,” she recalled him saying.

Stunned, Tuny asked, “What do you mean?” She was told, “This was the last show.”  Still in shock, she said, “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to the children at home.”  In virtual condescension, she was told, “Well, that’s the way it is.”

20160806_153754As was the case with scores of her colleagues in children’s television, Tuny was not given the dignity of a farewell show.  When callers flooded the station the following Monday, they were told Tuny “is going on to other things,” or “we’re just not going to have it any more.”

While Jackson was a one-station television market, local stations in Memphis and Nashville had begun attaching themselves to the popularity of 90-minute afternoon talk shows hosted by Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin.  Mike and Merv had strong appeal to women.  Moms began to control the television sets in late afternoons.  Kids were sent outside to play in increasing numbers rather than spend the pre-sunset period with their favorite local TV character.  Mike or Merv were a lock for an hour and a half of local and regional commercials at prices higher than a children’s show could bring.

“The Cousin Tuny Show” was history.  Over 12 years, the daily broadcast became an institution and made Doris Freeman an institution.  Viewers were beyond angry at the show’s departure but the outsider ownership and management could not have cared less.

As for Tuny, you could not keep her down.  She was in constant demand to make personal appearances all over West Tennessee despite losing the television show.

Doris Freeman was also a first-class businesswoman.  She eventually became marketing director and general manager of Old Hickory Mall in Jackson.

In the late 1960s, she began emceeing an annual telethon to raise money for Jackson’s Cerebral Palsy Center.  She had a heart for the children whose lives had left them with physical challenges.  From 1976-88, Jackson native Wink Martindale loaned his name to the telethon.  Tuny was there at every one of them.

In the ‘90s and the ‘00s, I co-hosted 16 of those telethons with her.  She taught me more about broadcasting than I learned in my entire four years at Valdosta State College and The University of Georgia.

Tell Tuny, “We need to fill four minutes and 18 seconds,” and she would fill it to the second with intelligence and wit.  If you told her to fill four hours and 18 minutes, she could have done the same thing.

In 1981, Tuny teamed with rockabilly music legend Carl Perkins to do a second annual telethon for the Exchange Club Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.  I did nine of those with Tuny and Carl until his death.

In 1990, I was named news director of WBBJ (the former WDXI) in Jackson.  For a variety of reasons I will soon discuss on this blog, I lapsed into depression in the summer of 1991.  I managed to force myself to attend a media luncheon to preview that year’s Carl Perkins Telethon.  I sat next to Tuny, who had only known me for about a year.

“Something’s not right, is it?” she asked.  Ordinarily, I would have deferred answering that question honestly.  However, if Tuny called you “cuz,” you could guarantee you were friend for life.  I told her, “No it isn’t.”  She knew the intense pressure I was under to rebuild a news department that had been virtually left unattended for eight months as the station searched for a news director and general manager.  The resources were not nearly enough to do the job right.  I was exhausted, overworked and folding quickly.

Tuny took me back to her office at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital where she was public relations director.  “I want you to take this book, but don’t just set it on your coffee table or your shelf.  Read it,” she said.  I might have otherwise done what she suspected.  Instead, I read the inspirational book by Og Mandino.  In short, he offered a message that the road back from depression includes letting go of the guilt one feels for being in that condition.  Months of medication and therapy, as well as clinging to the Bible for encouragement, finally brought me back from the depths.  Yet, the book Tuny loaned me planted a note of hope in me that I needed to stop blaming myself for the emotional straights I was experiencing.

That’s the kind of person she was.  If one of my reporters was feeling a sense of discouragement, Tuny was often a mother counselor.  Pam Nash, long-time director of the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, told me Saturday, “Tuny was my confidant.  I can’t tell you the number of times when something wasn’t going right and we’d sit on her porch.  We’d talk things out and she’d help me figure out an answer.”

For children who didn’t grow up in the “Cousin Tuny Show” era, Doris’s identity as Tuny continued through the telethons.

In 1999 and 2004, we had two chances to revisit television history.  The telethon producers surprised Tuny midway through the nine-hour fundraiser 17 years ago by re-creating the old Cousin Tuny set, complete with cartoon characters on the backdrop and 20 children to interact with a master of children’s entertainment.

A Jackson woman had even uncovered a brief silent 8mm color film of the day she had appeared on “The Cousin Tuny Show” at least 35 years earlier.

Tuny was at her best, acting as a female Art Linkletter.  “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked one child.  “Nope” was the quick response.  “Yes she does,” came a response from across the set.  “She has two.”  Tuny, still quick on the rejoinder, asked, “Isn’t that just like a bunch of women?”

Twelve years ago, Jackson Energy Authority entered the broadband internet/cable business.  As a professor of broadcast journalism at Union University, I entered into an agreement with the good people of JEA to provide news, sports and special programming for EPlusTV6, the local cable channel, as part of a laboratory for my students.

That first December in 2004, as a final project for fall semester, we recruited 14 children of Union University parents, built an inexpensive set, and my students learned a bundle by producing “The Cousin Tuny Christmas Show.”

We brought in a cake, milk and orange juice.  Tuny worked with producer April Houston and my crew with a basic outline of what she wanted to do.  As in every single one of her shows in 12 years on Channel 7, Tuny had no script.

“I did it from my heart,” Tuny said.  “I knew that children could see right through you if you were just reading off a Teleprompter.  You had to communicate with love and kindness.  You can’t do that with a script.”

We produced five 60-second snippets of my on-air students working with children to produce craft and gift ideas for Christmas.  They were inserted as breaks into Tuny’s special.  When she saw the final project, she loved the inserts because they maintained the Christmas theme of the show.

One dark period in the ’00s taught a few people a great lesson.  You don’t mess with an institution in a small television market.

A new executive director was hired to run the Cerebral Palsy Center in Jackson.  He and a couple of cohorts decided the annual telethon needed a new, younger, hipper look to energize the community’s contributions.

The man decided the time had come to end the Cousin Tuny era on the telethon.  However, he did not have the professional and ethical decency to call to tell her directly.  As a personal friend who had a long career in network television until the 1990s once told me, “When they decide they aren’t going to call you, they don’t call to tell you that.  They just don’t call you.”

That year’s Cerebral Palsy telethon went on the air with a combination of people who looked like guests in the wrong house.  My long-time friend and colleague Dee Ann Culbreath and I were assigned to anchor from the phone banks from 3 to 6 p.m.

The telephone operators were employees of the Center.  When I arrived, those operators and callers began flooding me with questions about when Tuny was going to come.  “She’s not,” I said.  They were aghast.  When asked why, I responded, “Ask your boss.”

The callers evolved from people intending to pledge to rage at Tuny’s absence and the lack of explanation.

When the telethon ended, pledges had fallen to a level not seen in nearly 30 years.  Three days later, the executive director was summarily dismissed.

The following year, a promo aired for two weeks prior to the telethon.  “I’m baaaaaaack,” said the enthusiastic voice in her traditional red attire.  Contributions nearly tripled with the return of Cousin Tuny.  In Jackson, Tn., you don’t mess with an institution.

In the spring of 2015, Tuny celebrated her 90th birthday at Regency Retirement Living.  Everybody who was anybody in Jackson turned out.  My students were producing a documentary on senior living in the city.  The celebration was a perfect segment for the half-hour.

“I’ve lived a wonderful life,” Tuny said.  “I’ve been blessed to have so many friends and to live in the greatest city in the world.  And I love all of my little cuzzins, some of them who are grandparents now.  I don’t know why I’m still around—-but I am.”

During the last two years, Tuny—whose health was beginning to fail—still managed to make her way in a wheelchair to do a few hours of the Carl Perkins Telethon.  When it came to children, she could not say no if in some small way she could help them have a better life.

“Children need encouragement.  We need to teach them three four-letter words—-WORK, LOVE and PRAY,” she said.  “If you wonder why we have so many problems today—it’s because we don’t have enough people teaching those to children.”

This coming Sunday, the annual Carl Perkins Telethon—the last of its kind in West Tennessee in a dying genre of broadcast fundraisers—will once again air.  An institution will not be there.  We knew that day would come—-but as we often said in recent years, “I hope it’s not this year.”

Today, television station managers aren’t looking for the next Cousin Tuny.  Their afternoon schedules are crammed full of dysfunctional families, people with aberrant behavior and contrived conflicts for TV psychologists or judges to resolve.  The greater the antagonism or the more angst between parties, the better.

We have become such a viewing culture that we have to constantly yell and scream at each other.  We whip an audience into a frenzy to offer daily standing ovations to national personalities who hardly deserve them.

We have closed the door to anything gentle and kind on television because that does not create an emotional response from the audience.  Maybe with Hallmark movies but not on syndicated television in the afternoon.

Cousin Tuny was not just a television personality.  She gave from her heart to children every day.  I still encounter people frequently who say, “I was on her show and it was one of the fondest memories of my childhood.”  Far more people have been telling stories of their day on TV with Tuny since the news of her death spread through West Tennessee last Saturday.

She was there for me at one of the lowest points of my life.  She always enjoyed a good, hefty laugh.  If you were her cuz, she truly cared about you.

Her grandson Brad said Saturday, “She always referred to the children at the Cerebral Palsy Center as God’s Special Children.  I think for everything she did for children and for her community, my grandmother was God’s Special Child.”

The term legend has become an exaggerated cliché.  Doris Freeman as Cousin Tuny was not only a broadcasting legend but a legend among people.  She was truly one of a kind.  You would have liked being her “cuz.”