When Sadness Strikes a Television Station

At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.

However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station.  Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.

I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG.  I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.

In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire.  Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful.  She was found dead in the aftermath.

Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG.  You never see people such as her on camera.  With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.

Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television.  If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires.  They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather.  You want to keep the good ones.

Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years.  People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year.  If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom.  Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.

I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen.  However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.

Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business.  If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest.  You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard.  Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.

I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning.  The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building.  A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit.  John had taken his own life.  My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else.  When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more.  I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later.  “We’re still in shock,” he told me.  “None of us knew.  We still don’t know how to deal with it.”

I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer.  Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom.  She was always prepared and professional.  Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one.  She had not been able to work in her final nine months.  Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death.  “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me.  “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”

The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999.  In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show.  We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night.  On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment.  Lisa was 38.  She was to have taken over the team in full the following season.  I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me.  Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death.  We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood.  However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss.  Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast.  We had a little more than a month remaining in the season.  We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.

When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot.  Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.

Nancy AllenMy good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy.  That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff.  I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.

The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.”  The truth is:  any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.

If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside.  The staff has had to go on with business.  Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy.  Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN.   Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family.  Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.

 

 

 

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.