Thursday, January 1, 2015

Somewhere In Nebraska

I begin a new edition of 30/30 with a look back at several job-seeking trips. Let us start in a rural part of America, where one doesn't expect to find a TV station...

It's a long-day rim-shot journey in July of 1994 on my father's frequent-flyer miles: a 7am flight to Minneapolis from St. Louis, down to Lincoln, Nebraska, and into a rental car -- a rental car that costs double what it should've because I'm under 25. Then I'm off on a road trip for about 100 miles west to Kearney, a small town off Interstate 80, a somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

This is my first shot at a TV job outside college. I've been sending out resumes, audition tapes, and writing samples for the past two months. I have cast a wide net, taking shots at both reporting and producing positions. I've considered a job-hunting trip, where I would throw some tapes in the back of my car and journey to several stations in Illinois, giving a heads-up to news directors I'm passing their way and offering a quick interview.

I get a tip about KHGI in Kearney, pronounced "car-knee," from an advisor who knows they have some job openings and whose news director doesn't mind getting a cold call. Better, he likes hiring University of Missouri grads.

I dial the station. I don't get the news director, but I do get Jim (name changed). He's a reporter and fellow Mizzou grad who gives me some inside dope on the news director's ego: "It's his way or the highway." He outlines it for me, and I can feel his eyes shifting over the phone. "Guard the door, man," he says parenthetically to somebody out of range.

Mr. News Director calls about a week later. "Got a few minutes?" he asks. He says he has the audition tape and writings samples I've sent over and he likes what he sees. He also has a few tough questions.

"Define journalism."

"Define success."

"Why do you what to do this?"

I have to pause more than a few times to dig out the right words -- which I now forget. But I pass the test, and Mr. ND wants to "take it to the next level." He queries if I want to pursue reporting or producing, and I choose producing. Great, he says, let's see a producing tape. I send him one. Another week later and we're setting up the interview. He doesn't have budget to pay for a flight, but he can help with hotel and gas expenses if I can get there. Driving 10 hours from St. Louis is not something I'm up for, even though my 1986 Chevy Celebrity is built like a tank. Fortunately, Dad steps into offer a few flight miles.

I land in area where stations from different smaller cities overlap in a patchwork quilt like the farmland I gaze at on the final leg of the flight, one of those small commuter jets where you drop off your baggage by the side of the plane and pick it up the same way.

KHGI, Channel 13, sits in the middle of a field about 10 miles south of town. Along with repeater stations KSNB in Superior to the east, KWNB in Hayes Center to the West, and a handful of low-powered translator stations, the ABC affiliate serves a gigantic wedge of south-central Nebraska under the "Nebraska Television" banner.

Inside the lobby, next to a TV playing General Hospital, the station proudly shows up one of its original studio cameras with a giant "NTV" logo inspired by a road sign. Mr. ND meets me, greets me, and takes me to the conference room, where I meet the operations manager and they begin their interrogation.

"The hours are bad. The pay is [bleep]. Why do you want to do this?" Mr. ND asks.

I tell him, without sounding arrogant, I have a talent I would like to exploit. I pass the interview.

Mr. ND gives me the standard station tour, navigating me through the bowels of Master Control. He shows off the station's M-II tape decks ("People rip on this format, but it's really not too bad") and the new receivers going in to let the station carry football via the Fox network. I catch glimpses of the Kodak slides still used for station ID's and weather bulletins sitting near the ancient TCR-100 cart machine. We venture into the newsroom. Aging 3/4" U-matic tape decks sit in the edit bays next to Commodore 64 computers which provide video slates for each story cut on tape. But those are the only computers in the operation. The newsroom is getting computers very soon, I'm promised. "What did we hear back from the hospital sponsoring the closed-captioning?" Mr. ND asks his second-in-command. Reporters and producers are still pounding out scripts on IBM Selectric typewriters, and now it's my turn. I have to rewrite some wire copy as I move into the writing test.

Some of my copy looks downright ugly because I've been using word processors since elementary school. I'm used to typing something, backing up and correcting it, and then wrestling with it some more. Typewriters force you to think before writing. Deadlines force you to write before thinking. Mr. ND wanted to see how I'd handle it.

To my amazement, some stories I wrote for the test shared a lot of similarities to the scripts actually making it on the air from the same source material. Mr. ND says I have solid writing skills, but I tend to overwrite. I hope that isn't a deal-breaker.

I watch the 6pm news tucked into a small corner of the control room, right next to the audio board, which is next to a small slice of real estate for the producer, who has to contend with a few buttons, a gooseneck microphone, and a two-way radio wired to a phone receiver. The Grass Valley switcher dates back to the 1970's, old enough for me to hear the buttons (or relays) clicking inside when the director changes a source. To his side is one of the first-generation "slide-squeezes," those devices that can shrink video into boxes and move it all over the place.

Mr. ND invites me to get dinner on my own and take a spin around town, coming back for the 10pm. He has to produce -- as well as co-anchor -- the 10pm newscast. If I do well on this tryout, the 10pm will eventually be my show.

(This clip with director comments to the crew is from 1998, but it's similar to what I saw and heard four years earlier.)

Kearney is not a one-horse town. It's a town with the branch of the University of Nebraska and a growing population. Why? Mr. ND explains people are finding it is "just a good place to raise a family." Grandma Lawson seems to agree when she spots it on the map: "That ought to be a busy little town right off the interstate!"

Indeed, it's intriguing. It's not too big and not too small, a lot like Columbia, Missouri -- where I just graduated from college and where I would like to stay if I can get a job there. Chances for that are slipping away unless I want to work for the University of Missouri, and that's out of the question. It's time to start working in the real world, making real money, and getting clear of academia.

I grub up at a rock-and-roll diner near the interstate before heading back to the station to watch the 10. The director helps keep time from a paper rundown with back-time information scribbled in. At every commercial break, he grabs the gooseneck and fills them in: "30 seconds over," "Forty-five under." The weather and sports guys can help cover or cut the excess when needed. Especially the weather guy: Bob Geiger, aka "The Weather Tiger." Viewers love him. He's their Walter Cronkite.

After the late show, the talent and staff gather around the anchor desk while the ops manager goes over what the other stations had. It's not a heated competition for spot news in this part of the country. The NTV reporters chase issues, not ambulances. Mr. ND and a few others stack a few tapes and pre-written carbon-pack scripts up on a desk to help the morning show get ready before calling it a night. I thank the man who may be my future boss, who tells me he'll have a decision soon. I'm up against a few other candidates.

At the hotel, I meet up with a friend and fellow Mizzou grad in town who's hoping to land a bureau chief position at NTV's Grand Island bureau. We trade gossip, and he lets me on a secret: "He told me your writing knocks the hell out of him."

About two weeks later, Mr. ND makes his decision, and it's not me. He calls to tell me I lost in a three-way tie: "All three of you could have come in and done the job," he consoled. The job went to a young lady from North Platte who had the advantage of already having some knowledge of Nebraska issues and politics. My friend fares much better: he lands the bureau chief gig and he's already on the beat.

It's a completely fair and reasonable decision. And when I get the news, I'm not discouraged one bit, because the salary offer is significantly below what I would be making if I land my next job prospect... in Texas.


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