Friday, September 12, 2008

The history of Eyewitness News

Every once in awhile you get to blow your own horn over something special. This is somewhat of a long story, but bear with me 'cause it shows how a chance meeting can change your life.

Back in the late 1970's I'd been kicking around working for newspapers and radio stations. It was in the middle of a recession and good jobs were hard to come by. Anyway, one day I went to get a haircut from the nice Italian lady who cut hair in the neighborhood. She knew I wanted to get into the television news business, and mentioned that she had started cutting the hair of a guy from WABC-TV in New York named Al Primo. "You want me to talk to him about you?" she asked.

Well, uh, yeah.

WABC-TV was the home of Eyewitness News, the newscast format that had completely changed the face of local news around the country. Before Al Primo arrived in 1968, local news primarily consisted of a solo male anchor that delivered the entire newscast. Primo created a beat system, put a culturally diverse news team on the air (one that actually included women), and put reporters on the set. He gave first jobs to people like Geraldo Rivera and Rose Ann Scamardella (later immortalized as Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live.) It was the number one newscast in New York, and I'd been watching it for ten years.

Anyway, Mickey the hairstylist talked to Al and he told her he'd be happy to meet me. I ended up doing some writing for him.

Eventually I broke into local news and over the next three decades ran into Al on occasion at RTNDA conventions and church fairs when I visited the old neighborhood, since he still lives there. When I was a manager I wanted to use the name Eyewitness News, and got his blessing.

Last summer Al called me up out of the blue and told me he needed someone to help him write his book on the creation of Eyewitness News… and he'd remembered my writing style. From 1980! He knew I was familiar with the early Eyewitness News product of New York and needed someone with a background in TV news to help write the book. Naturally I was thrilled with the opportunity. He sent an early draft and several hours of interviews he'd done, newspaper articles, etc. So I set about working with him to put together a book that was part life story, part history of television news.

We emailed chapters back and forth and several months later had a manuscript. But something was missing…. other points of view. Al sent me a list of television news veterans and I interviewed them over the phone, collecting some amazing stories that can only happen in the business. It was incredible to actually talk with some legends of broadcasting. One day I came home, hit the answering machine and heard, "Randy, Frank Gifford. Sorry I missed your call." (I still haven't erased the message.)

Those stories were woven into the manuscript, and the book was completed. Al poured through the hundreds of pictures he had in his scrapbook to add some wonderful color to the project.

The result is "Eyewitness Newsman" and I'm proud to have a part in chronicling such an important part of broadcasting history.

We have a number of advance copies available, and right now you can get them directly from Al Primo through the book's website:

There's a preview of the book on the site, along with some vintage pictures. Turn up the sound and you'll hear the original news theme. If you put a nice note in with your order Al will autograph the book for you. You can also get them from if you prefer. The links are on the right side of this blog.

Even if you didn't grow up in New York, and even if you weren't alive during that time period, I think you'll enjoy the story of how the newscast of today started forty years ago. Incredible as it may seem, a lot of what news people did in 1968 still applies today.

Friday's story ideas

Oil has dropped to nearly 100 dollars per barrel, almost a third from its high point. Yet gas has no dropped the same percentage. Explain this to viewers.

Some states have a teacher surplus while others have a shortage. And those with a shortage have to recruit.

In light of 9/11 yesterday, there might be more interest in volunteerism.

Hurricane shutters. How effective are they?

For those in Ike's path... what constitutes price gouging, and how can you report it?

Cruising in the Caribbean during the fall means you run the risk of changing itineraries due to hurricanes. What is cruise insurance, and what are your rights if the ship has to change course?

The OJ trial will have people interested in courts again. Since most people have never been in a courtroom, show viewers how jury selection works.

And for those of you covering the hurricane, safety first.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11: Rest in peace, Sara Low

On September 11, 2001 I was working as an assistant news director in Arkansas. When names of the victims were released, it was discovered one of the flight attendants was from our area. Naturally every station in the Midwest wanted a live shot. Since none of our reporters had ever done a series of satellite shots, I rolled on the story. The young woman’s name was Sara Low. The townspeople were handing out red, white and blue ribbons when we arrived. I pinned one on my lapel, put together a package and did my live shots. That week I, like most people, couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing Sara’s face even though I'd never met her and had only seen her picture. I got up in the middle of the night and started to write.

Two years later I was field producing the 9/11 anniversary coverage in New York City. As we were gathering video a man carrying a stack of American flags came by and handed one to us. Since we were very busy, I thanked him, put it in my satchel and forgot about it.

Two days later I unpacked and discovered this wasn’t just any flag. The stripes contain the names of all the 9/11 victims. The sheer volume of names is enough to make you cry, which is what it did to me. I unfolded the flag, determined to find Sara’s name. I didn’t have to look far. Hers was on the first row.

I had saved the ribbon from that day in 2001, and pinned it to her name. The flag hangs over my desk in my home to this day.

The story I wrote after she died follows. I share this with you in the hopes that whenever you cover a tragic story, you will remember there is a life behind every name and every number…


by Randy Tatano

They say the eyes are the windows of the soul.

The eyes tell me the soul wants to be anywhere but in front of a camera. I am number three in a succession of local and network reporters; we’ve been circling, waiting to prey on the man’s grief in quest of the perfect sound bite.

Don’t pick too much now, reporter number one. Leave some for the rest of us...

I am reminded of a rule lawyers follow. Never ask a question unless you know the answer. So why, I wonder, as I flap my wings and circle, do so many reporters follow that rule in times like these and ask the world’s most stupid question?

“How do you feel?”

I shake my head as we sit in the outer office, sinking into the soft leather chair that feels like money. Reporter number two enters the buffet line as number one exits, licking his chops. They nod at each other and smile as they pass.

I wonder if there will be anything left when it is my turn. I think of the stranger I'm about to interview and put myself in his place, a person I’ve never met whose life I’m about to invade with all the subtlety of a punch in the mouth. How would I answer the world’s stupidest question?

How do you think he feels after watching her plane fly into the World Trade Center and blow up on national television every ten minutes in slow motion, frame by frame? You already know, so why ask?

Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry sir, but it’s my job and the viewers want to share your grief and maybe seeing someone from their hometown they can make a connection and...

Oh, please.

“He’ll see you now.”

I grab the electronic sword I’m about to jab into his heart.

After all, it is my job.

And the viewers want to know, right?

Number two and a photographer blow out the door, and I know it is my turn. He comes out of the office and moves forward to greet me. The handshake is tired and without sincerity. The windows to his soul are wide open, shattered by insensitive questions and demands on personal grief God never meant to be shared, much less broadcast to millions of people. It will be a while before the windows will close again.

He invites me into the office and sits at a conference table. I take a seat opposite him as the photographer sets up his gear. His eyes beg you not to take that road for the umpteenth time. Please, not again. Please. Yes, I know you’re just doing your job, and the people want to know, but please, not there again.

So I won’t go there. I won’t tread through the footprints that have already beaten a path across this man’s heart. The preceding reporters have already picked the man clean. There’s nothing left.

I’ll take the road not taken.

“Tell me something about her that makes you smile. Give me a happy memory.”

The eyes breathe a sigh of relief. The words flow. He remembers how she lived, not how she died. He has a picture and shares it with me. She had a name, Sara Low, and a life. She was young and pretty and single and probably had the world by the tail; a small town girl making it as a flight attendant in the big city. She had a smile that was no doubt vaporized in an instant but one that left a permanent fingerprint on his heart. It is perfectly silent in the office as he chooses his words. He pauses for a moment; it is so quiet I hear the sound of the electronic zoom lens. The shot tightens up, the eyes brighter now; the tears which clouded the windows are gone.

We’re done in two minutes. The photographer takes Sara’s photograph and frames up a shot. As I look at it, she seems to be looking right into my soul.

Though we've never met.

He stands up and shakes my hand, warmly this time. “Thank you,” he says.

I steal one more glance at Sara’s picture. I don’t want to forget her.

We pack up and head across town to meet the satellite truck.

I discover I am the lead in everyone’s newscast. Big surprise.

Suddenly the irony hits me.

I am reminded of the old newsroom joke about why we cover tragedy so often. Would anyone watch if we started our newscast by saying “a plane didn’t crash today?”

You’re darned right they would.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In matters of weather, nothing is certain

Over the years I've been involved in the coverage of many hurricanes. And very few of them have actually taken the path they were "supposed" to take.

On one occasion every report and computer model had a storm heading due west. It was supposed to come close to us by miss us. Still, we were doing cut-ins in the middle of the night. At about three in the morning, the hurricane decided to make a right turn and we took a direct hit.

On another occasion we had the entire staff braced and ready for what was supposed to be a direct hit on a Saturday. Several hours before landfall the storm veered off in the opposite direction. A bunch of us ended up playing golf that day, as the weather turned out to be beautiful.

Remember Hurricane Ivan? It whacked the Gulf Coast, went up the Eastern seaboard, turned around and hit the Gulf again.

The only thing certain about nature is weather is its unpredictability. So when I see anchors, reporters and weathercasters talk with certainty about nature, I can only roll my eyes.

On one side of the coin, we have the "sky is falling" alarmists who ring the panic bell when hurricanes are a week away. On the other, the people who assure viewers that the hurricane will strike in a certain spot and they either need to evacuate or not worry.

I'm not sure who first coined the phrase "cone of uncertainty" but you need to pay attention to the "uncertainty" part. When it comes to hurricanes, it aint over till its over.

Your viewers need to be informed and prepared, but not scared or lulled into a false sense of security. Whether you're a weather person, anchor or reporter, be judicious with your comments and stay away from predictions.

The only true expert is Mother Nature.

Wednesday's story ideas

Congress considering financial assistance for mass transit systems.

The drinking age was a hot topic last week, now the driving age moves to the forefront. What's the situation in your state?

Prescription wars. Drugstore chains are advertising generics at bargain prices when you order a 90 day supply. Who has the best deal, and do insurance companies & Medicare let people buy drugs that far in advance?

Time to start thinking about holiday travel. With so many flights cancelled, how much will is cost this year?

Medical experts say many hospitals don't do enough post-surgery checking when it comes to colon cancer.

Insulating your home now for the winter. It's easy to do yourself, and with high heating prices coming, it makes sense. How much do you need?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tuesday's story ideas

Declaring a disaster area. We hear it every time a hurricane comes within breathing distance of a state, but what does it actually mean?

Consumer story: Checking your bills. It seems that every month I find a mistake on a utility bill, a medical insurance bill, or something else. Show consumers how to be extra vigilant.

Non-smoking men are more likely to get lung cancer than non-smoking women.

Medical experts are saying that children need to get flu shots, as they are likely to be carriers.

Troops will be coming home soon... so what's happening with recruiting for the Armed Forces? Are more people signing up?

Some airlines change frequent flier rules, giving out fewer miles for flights and charging more miles to get a freebie.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Monday's story ideas

Unemployment is high, so why not show viewers all the job hunting resources available locally.

With Hurricane Ike taking aim at the Gulf Coast, the "gas station generator laws" are worth exploring. Certain stations are required to have generator power so they can pump gas during evacuations.

There are new EPA emissions standards for things like lawn mowers, boat motors, and gas powered garden tools.

Some women are opting for MRIs instead of traditional mammograms. What is the difference, and what are the medical implications?

What does the government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mean to Joe and Mabel Sixpack's mortgage?

Feature: Sarah Palin's eyeglasses are flying off the shelves.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Will the DVR change political advertising?

We all know that very soon we'll be inundated with political commercials. Those of you new to the business might not know that elections are big business to local stations, as it is "easy money." Sales people certainly don't have to go after it, and many politicians have deep pockets.

I was talking to a small business owner yesterday and asked her if she advertised. She said something I hadn't considered... she'd done TV before, but with more and more people getting DVRs she was thinking about going in another direction, as the DVR makes it so easy to skip commercials.

Yes, people have been skipping commercials since the advent of the VCR, but the DVR makes it so much simpler to record everything and watch it all at once. You can whip through commercials in record time.

You may have noticed that the McCain campaign has released a lot of commercials that only "air" on the Internet. The cost? Producing the commercial. No ad time to buy, and the commercial runs as many times as people choose to look at it.

While October isn't a sweeps month, a good "series" (and yes, you can do them out of sweeps months) would be to look at political advertising. How are campaign managers changing their "media buys?" How many people now have DVRs? And how many hits are those spots that run solely on the Internet getting?

This would be a nice series to run right before the election.