Friday, July 21, 2006

Saying So Long To The Dynamic Duo

Two of my favorite people on Earth are leaving Tucson -- KOLD News 13 anchor Kris Pickel and her husband, KOLD News 13 photographer Carl Lemon. Having worked with them for the last 6 1/2 years, it's the farewell I hoped I would never have to say.

When I arrived at KOLD in January 2000, I stepped into a station lifting itself from bad ownership and ratings challenges. Kris had been with the station three years and was clicking with Randy Garsee as part of the weeknight 6 and 10 news team. I produced on weekends, filling in during the week. I felt extra heat on my rear. Management fired my predecessor, a person who believed she could slack her way through stacking a newscast, so I had to prove this mysterious stranger imported from Texas bore no resemblance. I also had to tweak my news philosophy and ramp up my writing output. I won Kris' support quickly. During the early sessions of cranking out scripts for her, she slipped me instant messages through the newsroom computer system: "Your writing is excellent!" Those encouraged me, especially having dealt with two difficult anchors at my previous station.

From the start, Kris' go-getter attitude stood out. She liked anchoring and reporting, something former news director Carolyn Kane found essential. Mrs. Kane didn't hire anchors to solely sit at a desk. "You've got Kris, too," she reminded me when I filled in on late newscasts and we went over the nightside crews. True to form, Kris ran on breaking news stories several times. If you have ever seen Kris report live on breaking news, you know she's the stuff.

When part of the Tucson Convention Center caught fire during a movie shoot in December 2004, I sent her to the scene for the 10pm newscast. She was the only Tucson anchor live on the scene. She owned the coverage, right down to the moment when she and a Tucson firefighter showed us a burned fragment of the TCC on live television. During that memorable moment, we also saw KVOA's microwave truck in the background, leaving the premises. The competition was cutting and running while we were still developing the story.

Kris and I have had occasional disagreements on news issues, but she never ripped me apart. In 6 1/2 years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have angered her. And then, the spat never lasted long. No lingering grudges, no simmering resentment.

You find the same qualities in her husband Carl, an ace with a camera and overflowing with creativity. He doesn't need prodding to find new ways of telling a story in pictures.

One Saturday night in 2000, he shot a short feature on a Mexican folkloric dance troupe. He asked what images I was looking for, and I remember doing my poor imitation of the signature shot I wanted: stamping my feet while clenching an imaginary frilly dress. Make sure we saw that, I think I said. But I also wanted some of the other dances on the card.

"A montage!" he suggested. Yeah, that was it. The story occupied a mere 25 seconds of air, but that montage made every second count.

Hard news often looks like art through Carl's camera: a silhouette of rescuers pulling someone out of a flooded wash, the light coming from the beams of rescue vehicles. A rancher talking with a reporter against a sunset as if Sergio Leone had lined up the shot. The framing. The lighting. The bursts of sound.

"Either you're going to win, or the moment's going to win," I once heard him tell an intern who wanted to get into news photography. Carl wins most of the time, and even when he doesn't, he does. Photographers often grumble about aging or buggy equipment, but Carl makes it work and meets his deadlines. I have never had to "float" any of his stories because of delays.

Put Carl and Kris together and they're dynamite. They work together all the time on stories, but my vote for masterpiece comes from 2001. They put together a 17-minute special report on the use of force by Tucson Police on rioting basketball fans after the Arizona Wildcats lost the NCAA championship. Fourth Avenue degraded into mob rule. Officers fired tear gas and "stingballs" into the crowd after fans set fires and turned over cars. Several people filed complaints about police tactics, including one University of Arizona freshman who lost an eye to a less-lethal projectile.

"Decide for yourself," Kris told viewers. "Did police abuse their power or take effective measures to bring a violent situation under control?"

The report played a role in the revision of TPD's riot-control policies. And it won Kris and Carl an Edward R. Murrow award -- at least one league above an Emmy.

One day two months ago, Kris asked to talk to me just after I arrived for work. She led me out to the parking lot.

"Am I in trouble?" I asked.

"No," she laughed. "That would've been, 'Francis, get over here!'"

Once we were by the photographers' vehicles, she dropped it on me.

"I'm giving my notice today."

My mouth fell open and my insides hollowed out. Half my molecules locked up while the others plunged into mourning. I couldn't do anything but stare, dumbstruck, as my eyes began to water.

She wanted me and a few select others to know before the official announcement. I thought the day might come, but I brushed it off: Surely Kris had too much going for her in Tucson to up and leave.

Kris loves Tucson, but she also loves her two young boys, and she wants more for them... more time with family. For this she is trading her crown as Tucson's News Queen for an anchoring and reporting job at KOVR in Sacramento. Carl will also trade stations but remain behind the camera. It takes a lot to sacrifice contentment for the benefit of your children. Kris and Carl surprise me not. They are people of principle and character.

"When you stop caring, it's time to leave," Kris once told me about the news business. I have stayed. Kris and Carl are staying, just in a different city, and they will continue to pour professionalism into their work, just as before.

And yet the poet Robert Frost tells us "Nothing gold can stay." The verse applies to so many things, for life's only true constant is change, no matter how much we wish or pray it isn't. In broadcast news, moving on and moving up is how the game is played. But this doesn't inoculate you against the pain of saying goodbye to your endearing colleagues when they head off to new opportunities -- even if it's not really goodbye, just "send me an email."

Sacramento, you're getting two of the best in the business.

1 comment:

mikemcguff said...

Being married to someone in the business must be tough. It's hard enough for one person to get a job in a new market, much less two.

The reporter I work with did it successfully though.