My Friday Nighttime At Nightline

The Nightline set is, to be kind, tiny. The street traffic behind the anchor plays off a server and is shown on a rear projection TV. Is nothing real?

When I came to WTNH the director of our evening newscasts was a young guy named Jeff Winn&#185. He had the thankless task of directing our newscasts on a chromakey set. This is much too complex to explain here except to say any mistake Jeff made was glaringly obvious to even a casual viewer. It was that obvious. Luckily, Jeff was good at what he did. Mistakes were few.

He left us and went on to bigger things. Again, too complex to explain here, plus if I thought about his career versus mine I’d openly weep. Jeff has seven Emmys, as do I. His are the much larger, heavier, impressive, national ones. Jeff won most of them directing “Real Sports” on HBO. He still does that on a monthly basis.

Jeff’s day night job is directing ABC News Nightline. Originally Ted Koppel’s nightly wrap-up of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and then a daily single subject half hour of hard news, Nightline post-Ted is flashier, lighter and more feature oriented. It’s also stronger in the ratings than it’s been in years, recently beating Letterman.

I’ve been meaning to watch Jeff direct for years but never had the chance. I went last night.

The drive to New York was speedy and without incident until the Bronx. What had been a wide open highway became a slow moving bumper-to-bumper grind. I broke free, headed down the West Side Highway and pulled into an open and totally legal parking space on Columbus Avenue directly across the street from ABC’s entrance.

Really–I found legal on-street parking in Manhattan. I’m available for autographs later.

When Nightline first went to its rotating three anchor configuration it came from a windowed studio above Times Square. Even now you can watch the traffic behind the anchor. Don’t be fooled (as I was). They moved around a year ago and now come from TV-3, the same studio as World News with Charlie Gibson. The Nightline set is, to be kind, tiny. The street traffic behind the anchor plays off a server and is shown on a rear projection TV. Is nothing real?

For much of the evening Jeff is ‘on a leash,’ even when there’s nothing to do. If a major story broke, he would direct live coverage across the full network. That is no small responsibility. ABC has standby staff just-in-case 24/7.

We took the grand tour to the control room passing through Nightline’s sparsely staffed offices. Most of the action happens here during the day. The show is anchored live, but the packages are mainly pre-produced at a more convenient hour. TV work isn’t as glamorous when you consider so much of it is “second shift.”

ABC’s New York headquarters is a confusing collection of mainly connected buildings on Manhattan’s West Side between 66th and 67th from Columbus Avenue to Central Park West. There are a few apartment buildings interspresed, but most of the block is ABC’s.

Back when I did some freelance work at the network (weather fill-ins on Good Morning America–you never call anymore–I’m crushed) I never ventured far from my studio (TV-2) lest I get lost! In some of the interconnections the floors don’t even line up!

The control room itself is very impressive with two rows of arena type seating, a few individual positions farther back and a separate audio booth. The production crew face a winged wall of large high definition flat panel monitors. Each monitor is split to show individual inputs as needed. Most are pretty standard cameras and servers, but I also saw tie-lines to Washington and Europe (feeding Arab language broadcasts back to New York last night).

Jeff sat down and with the technical director and assistant director went through the show’s scripts page-by-page making sure each input was properly marked and available. As far as I could tell only one small change was made during this run-through. A courtesy font for a photograph came positioned over the person’s face. It was moved to air in a less intrusive spot.

As 11:35 PM approached more and more people drifted in. By airtime there were around a dozen people at work. Actually, the show starts 15 seconds early as an animated countdown streams to the network. I’m hoping that’s a tradition carried over from the good old days, because by now the affiliates had better have synchronized clocks, wouldn’t you think?

One floor down Martin Bashir anchored. His only contact with the upstairs crew was electronic. I enjoyed when he read about someone being taken to the hospital and in his British English left out the article “the.” “He was taken to hospital,” was what the audience heard.

The show was flawless… at least it looked flawless to me. In many ways the production resembled a local newscast, but with longer packages, no live shots and more help. The producer even shuffled extra promo content in to help fill the show’s scheduled time.

Jeff and the team were relaxed and playful as the show aired. These are people working together every night. They know their jobs and at this level I suspect screw-ups aren’t tolerated long.

A little after midnight we were done.

&#185 – Our other director was Tom O’Brien, who moved out of directing to sales and then management. He is now general manager at WNBC in New York after a long stay as GM at KXAS Dallas.

WLNG The Radio Anachronism

They want to hear 10 minutes of commercials and six or seven jingles sandwiched between two marginal hits that haven’t gotten any radio play in 35 years.


Imagine you were tuning around on your car radio when all of a sudden one station came to you from out of the sixties. I’m not talking music as much as sound and style–right out of the sixties!

There is such a station and Helaine and I listened to it while we drove home along the Connecticut shoreline tonight. It is WLNG 92.1 in Sag Harbor, NY.

While I was still in high school, my friend John Wells and his parents invited me to their summer home, a little cottage on Shelter Island at Long Island’s east end. I first heard WLNG, then on 1600 AM, on that trip. Even in the late sixties WLNG was an anachronism.

No station in the history of broadcasting has done more remote broadcasts from appliance stores and drugstores and tiny parades with few spectators. No station runs more long and tedious public service announcements recorded over the phone. No station has, or plays, more jingles. No station plays more obscure music.

Last night on WLNG we heard “Goodbye” by Mary Hopkin and Donny Osmond’s version of “Hey Girl.” There were a few other songs too obscure for me to identify and I was a disk jockey on oldies stations for all of the seventies. This afternoon, while we were heading to Sleeping Giant, they played “Deck of Cards,” the 1950s ‘talkie’ song with a Christian theme by Wink Martindale (listed on the label as Win). I can virtually guarantee no other station in America is playing this song.

WLNG is in mono. Honest. Are there any commercial FM stations other than WLNG that don’t broadcast in stereo? As I understand it, then general manager Paul Sidney wanted the station to sound louder. The laws of physics make mono 3db louder than stereo.

Paul Sidney is another anachronism of WLNG. He is totally unflappable when on-the-air, usually broadcasting on-location, because he’s already experienced every on-air screw-up and failure possible. There is nothing smooth or polished about Paul. As you listen, you might think he’s on-the-air for the first time. Surprise, he’s been on WLNG 45 years!

I can’t think of any station with less employee turnover than WLNG. Many of their staffers have been there since the sixties and seventies. That’s unheard of. The morning man’s been there since 1964, another disk jockey since 1975. Paul Sidney’s been there even longer.

Any time I’ve ever had a friend in radio visit they always want to listen to WLNG. They want to hear 10 minutes of commercials and six or seven jingles sandwiched between two marginal hits that haven’t gotten any radio play in 35 years.

God, I love WLNG.

What To Do About Comments

I read my friend Mike’s blog&#185 and noticed all the comments he gets, and how he often responds. Usually that’s something I won’t do.

This will sound strange – I wanted to avoid starting a dialog with my readers. Why, you may ask? I’m not 100% sure.

Part of the reason, certainly, was because that makes it easier to disconnect my blog from my work. This blog has nothing to do with my work. Still, people comment from time-to-time and relate their comments to my work.

When people ask questions that relate to work, I’m in a tizzy. Let sleeping dogs lie, is my motto.

There’s also the question of how to respond to comments. If I write a personal note, you don’t see it here in context. If I respond online, I never know if the sender has seen it. There’s really no easy way to do both at once.

Like I said, I saw Mike’s blog, with comments answered, and decided to answer some tonight. We’ll see how it goes from here. There must be a happy medium somewhere.

&#185 – Mike is the general manager of the ABC affiliate in Nashville. He also hired me in Connecticut 22 years ago. We were both in elementary school then.

His blog is amazing because he is in a position of power and still writes entries that are freely spoken. Candor – that’s the word to describe his blog. He speaks with candor. He’s must reading for me.

Darren Kramer’s Goodbye Party

Darren Kramer, half of our morning anchoring team, is leaving the station Wednesday. Tonight, a party was thrown for him at a local restaurant/bar. This place is 2 half blocks away from the station and I’ve never been there. Shows you what my bar life is!

Darren is a great guy and very talented, with a good job in Chicago now… but I wouldn’t have gone had I not already been here for the evening. I’m not a real fan of going away parties. And, in my 19+ years here, there have been plenty. It’s sobering to think that everyone, without exception, on our air staff when I arrived is long gone.

When I worked in Buffalo, our general manager (a sour kind of guy) banned going away parties because he felt it only encouraged people to leave. Whether that’s true or not, I always found it sort of funny. And, of course, he really couldn’t ban them (though we couldn’t post details at work).

Kristen, Darren’s anchoring partner, will now have to find someone else to sit next to.

This is very much like a marriage. Anchoring with a partner is a matter of synergies. Can the person sitting next to you play into your strengths? Will they… that’s probably more important!

Of course Kristen won’t pick her next partner. She will meet some of the applicants; maybe even cut a tape with them, though that’s not always the case. Someone, or a group of someones, will make the decision in secret. It might be tested in front of a focus group, or the decision might be made by the seat of the pants. Neither way is a guarantee – good or bad.

Hopefully, it will be the right decision and we’ll all live happily ever after. But, again, it’s like a marriage. Anything can happen.

I’ve known anchors who were the best of friends. I also knew one who told her co-anchor he had no talent, just as the theme music was playing, while they were sitting on camera. As I understand it, she ended her diatribe as the mics were getting ready to be turned on, leaving him no time to do anything but sit there and stew.

Look Ma – I’m on Slashdot

I love Slashdot. How could I stay away from a site whose slogan is “News for Nerds. Stuff that matters.”

I am there at least 4-5 times a day, following their links to see the latest in high tech. It is Linux biased in much the way The Catholic Church is Christian biased. But, it’s geek and nerd populated and I share a certain sensibility with many of its habitues (though, unfortunately I no longer share the same generation with them)

Its readers, rapidly responding to the story postings, add insight, insult and everything in between.

What makes Slashdot so effective is its self moderating system which starts limiting what you easily read (you can always get to everything, but probably don’t want to) as users come on and rate the postings. Judging by what I see, there are a lot of people moderating at any given time, though Slashdot only gives you the opportunity to moderate every once in a while. Then, later, the moderations get moderated!

In many ways it is analogous to Google, where your association with others decides your relative importance and where your links appear.

Anyway, I’m writing all this because I finally got a posting of mine on to start a thread. It started this morning, early, when I saw an article in the New York Times about speeding up media (listening at double speed, for instance) and how that is a burgeoning field.

I have used that same technique in my studies at Mississippi State, watching DVD’s at double speed. For me, it’s been very effective. Now, it’s shared with others.

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