Saturday, January 3, 2015

Somewhere In Kansas

December of 1996 finds me busy up to my armpits, working on a news special in additon to my regular duties. I'm pulling some long hours and even a morning show shift. By the time Christmas rolls around, I'm glad to get home to St. Louis. When I return, I have an extra present waiting for me: a call on my answering machine from a news director at KSNW in Wichita, Kansas.

Jim Tellus has seen my first tape through that same headhunter that got my first tape to Texas. I return his call, we chat, and he wants to see more. Great, I say, I'll send you another tape from this coming weekend. We have a church bus accident on Sunday, and we're all over it. Out goes the tape, and two days later, he's calling me back saying he's equally impressed. Now we're moving into the interview phase.

However, we have a complication. We want to arrange it on my days off, next Monday and Tuesday, but those are days weather could foul things up. We're in danger of getting a freeze in the Rio Grande Valley, and when we get a freeze in the Valley, farmers start getting nervous, people start worrying about a citrus crop disaster, and the Expressway might close down because people don't know how to drive worth a darn on a slick highway. Maybe the Winter Texans do, but conventional wisdom says everybody else doesn't. In essence, all hands might be needed on deck.

It's time to talk to my mentor Jenny about how to break it to Mr. D. As a former news director in other markets, she could warn me about the trapdoors. She advises me to play it straight, as soon as possible. I approach the boss after the 6pm news in his office, and I frame it as a professional matter.

"This is not about the environment here," I tell him. "I've learned more here in three years than I learned at KOMU." And that's the truth. I also offer to work Monday and take a personal day on Wednesday. He advises me to just go ahead and do it on my days off so we wouldn't be setting a sticky precedent for anybody else doing an interview.

We set up the interview for Monday and Tuesday, even though ice threatens. After getting on the plane in McAllen at 7am, it takes the crew an hour to thaw out the plane, mainly because McAllen doesn't have any high-pressure hoses. As expected, DPS shuts down the entire expressway from Brownsville to Mission, but thankfully, I'm not driving that risky road. I spend my next few hours navigating through delays and cancelled flights until I finally make it into Wichita around 3pm.

KSNW may be licensed to Wichita, but it serves a huge wedge of central and western Kansas through a network of full-power repeater stations in small towns: KSNC in Great Bend, KSNG in Garden City and KSNK in Oberlin (which also serves the small community of McCook, Nebraska). It's true of Wichita's other network affiliates as well, as they extend the reach of their signals through lonely towers surrounded by golden fields across the vastness of the Sunflower state. KSN, as the network is collectively called, maintains bureaus and small studios at all its satellite stations. Reporters send in stories to Wichita through a network of microwave links, and during the 6pm news, the KSN satellites cut away from Wichita for about 2 minutes for headlines local to their respective areas. I've known about KSN from its inception in the early 1980's, seeing ads for it in TV Guide while living in Kansas City and occasionally picking up its stations from e-skip.

Under Jim Tellus, KSN stresses relevance, stories that matter to people's lives. Already I'm on board. The station has a feature called "KSN Listens" highlighting stories suggested by viewers. He tells me a viewer from the tiny southwestern Kansas community of Ulysses called in about a murder that had gone unreported for at least a week!

After a brief talk with Jim in his office, I hang around in the control room and watch their producers tackle the 4pm hour-long "Kansas Live!" show, a hybrid news-talk program with lifestyle segments and viewer calls. I watch the anchors try out a new soda between news segments, including a satellite shot from Topeka on the Kansas State of the State address. (KSNT in Topeka used to be part of the KSN network, but it isn't anymore.)

The producers boogie around the logistics of a loose 4pm format and "First News" at 5pm. Commercial breaks are short, as they are for many stations in January when people aren't buying as many ads.

"These one-minute breaks are killing me!" one director grumbles, frustrated at barely having enough time to catch his breath during a fast-paced half-hour.

"I know," the producer empathizes. "This is supposed to be the last week of these breaks."

Other problems pop up. The reporter in Topeka knocks what was supposed to be a package down to a SOT/VO/SOT/SOT/VO on two tapes at the last minute. It drives the video editors and the producer/assistant news director nuts. One tape has to be rolled hot from an edit bay, and it isn't routed correctly into the control room. Further confusion between producer and director leads to a butchered story on the air. The producer steams about it all through the newscast.

"I assure you, Chris," he says, "Things aren't always like this."

He, Jim and I do the wining-and-dining over at the Amarillo Grill near the airport. I need the nourishment, having eaten nothing but complimentary Girl Scout cookies someone brought to the newsroom. It's a jovial session, as Jim talks about life inside and outside the newsroom over steak and ale, passing on "many good things" he's heard about his second-in-command. I like this boss. I like him a lot because of his mellow, upbeat demeanor. He doesn't seem like the kind of person who whips a newsroom into shape, but rather a person whom talented people gravitate to for leadership and inspiration. Tomorrow, the real grilling begins, as I'm put through a 4-hour problem-solving test.

Make that plural. I sit in a windowless room, filling out a battery of multiple-choice exams with a No. 2 pencil. I plow through personality tests, critical thinking exams and leadership surveys. Then Jim gives me a 20-minute "mental alertness" test that measures how good I am with word problems, number sets, and word association. Nobody finishes it, he says, and I don't. either.

We both want to talk more, but as I'm busy with the tests, he's also busy with meetings. However, I do get to watch the assistant news director work on the day's 6pm, constructing a VO/SOT on an anti-drug program the Kansas governor mentioned in his speech last night. He scrounges for more stories, something I'm all too familiar with.

"This block just refuses to be written," he says.

He also mildly confronts the reporter who burned him in Topeka last night. "That was restraint," he tells me.

I sit in on the afternoon editorial meeting. Producers pitch their rundowns and talk about finding some additional content on a slow news day. "Gonna need a package," Jim observes patiently from behind his desk. His staff finds a way to pull it off.

Between observing and querying the staff, I have to confront some realities involving the icy weather. My flight from Wichita to DFW is cancelled, and the carrier doesn't have any other flight that will link me up with my connection to the Rio Grande Valley in time. So the airlines come up with some fancy re-routing.

Just after 4pm I'm back at the Wichita airport, with thanks to Jim for everything, hoping to pull off a two-cushion shot: Wichita to DFW, DFW to Houston, Houston to McAllen. I have to change terminals at DFW and Houston, and I end up running to make one of the connections, but it all works, and I'm back home around midnight. Now all I have to do is wait. I'm aiming for a slot helming the 10pm newscast. The money and the benefits seem right. The move seems right. It's definitely closer to St. Louis.

One week later, I come back home from the story to find another message from Jim on the machine. I immediately return it, and I have my answer.

KSN is going with a lady from Houston.

I can't believe somebody would want to jump from a top-ten market to a sixty-something market, but Jim explains she was looking to get off a morning show. And speaking of that, he has an offer for me to work on their morning show.

I can't take it. First and foremost, I hate morning-show hours. But more importantly, the pay is lower than what I'm currently making at KRGV. I explain it to Jim and he understands perfectly.

"I wouldn't want you to take a job that pays less," he says with his mellow understanding. We thank each other and he urges me to stay in touch.

I call Mr. D next. "The word's in from Wichita, and it looks like you're stuck with me."

"Well, I'm sorry and glad," he chuckles.

Working in Wichita would have been a nice step up. But as Jenny advised me, everything needs to move up, not just the market size. So life goes on at KRGV while I wait for the next opportunity... one from the Bluegrass state.


EPILOGUE: Jim Tellus made several moves up himself a few years after our meeting at KSN. He went on to become news director at WVEC in Norfolk, VA, then moved to KOMO in Seattle before taking the news department reins at WTHR in Indianapolis, where he then became General Manager. To the great shock of many in the broadcast industry, he died in 2010 of a heart attack while on a business trip in Ohio. It seemed so unfair at the time, and it still does.

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