Friday, January 18, 2013

The First Time I Saw Texas

My first TV news producing job out of college nearly took me to Kearney, Nebraska. Instead, I ended up in Weslaco, Texas, at powerhouse station KRGV. I had never been to Texas, and I had never even heard of Weslaco before then-news director Rick Diaz called me in July of 1994 after seeing one of my audition tapes. He'd gotten it through a consultant who doubled as a headhunter.

On August 3, 1994, I made the journey in two hops: From my St. Louis home to Houston, and from there to McAllen International Airport. I walked out of the gate in my dark blue suit, looking around to see if anybody had a card in their hand labeled "Francis." I saw nothing of the sort, so I kept on walking, down the row of gates scanning for somebody who might be looking for me. Maybe I should've worn a Cardinals baseball cap.

My first face-to-face encounter with "Mr. D" could've come straight from a spy film. He was leaning against a column near the airport entrance, reading a newspaper. He peered up to spot me looking around.

"Would you be Chris Francis?" he asked.

Soon we were in his private news vehicle, and he was describing how the lower Rio Grande Valley was going through a boom because of NAFTA. Shopping centers were going up all over the place in McAllen, it seemed.

Our first stop was the McAllen bureau, one of two KRGV has in the Valley. The area has so many communities to cover in four counties, it's almost like the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He introduced me to Sandra, bureau chief and crime-story specialist, and as they talked shop, I got wind of the kind of stories I would be filling newscasts with: a lot of crime, a lot of trials, a lot of action. The border would never be an "issues" market like central Nebraska, and I didn't mind whatsoever. I was more intrigued than alarmed.

I wouldn't have a lot of competition either. At the time, KRGV was pummeling the CBS affiliate, the only other station in town that did TV news. The NBC station tried news twice and failed both times.

After lunch with the assistant news director, Mr. D let me shadow Robert, one of the associate producers who also worked as a news photographer. I followed him around as he typed out a rundown put together by Jenny, the 6 and 10pm news producer (who's now news director there) and load up the "supers" -- those little titles with names and locations for video -- into the Chyron.

A lot of people would back away at playing around with a Chyron Infinit! But I was licking my chops: "I get to play with the toys?" It's a very user-friendly machine, although having a nerd background helps. I learned how to put in supers with very little assistance. I even got to run it during a newscast while Robert ran to the back to tune in a live shot, another of his responsibilities.

Mr. D loved the fact I was a "hacker" type. He didn't ask many questions when he quizzed me on my news judgment: "What would be the first thing you would do if you heard about a plane crash?" I told him I would get confirmation, and he agreed, but he wanted to make sure I was sending a live truck first. I was still learning on the job, but Mr. D didn't mind.

I also didn't mind the newsroom was still using Selectric typewriters, carbon-pack scripts, and a paper teleprompter in the computer age. I was already used to it at KOMU, where the newsroom automation left a lot to be desired.

After more shadowing, Rick dropped me off at my hotel room down the street. The boy at the front desk thought he saw a familiar face.

"Rick Diaz?" he asked. "Oh, I thought you looked like him!"

I didn't know the depth of Mr. D's fame at the time. He wasn't just a news director and 6pm anchor, he was a living legend. Rick started at the station in the 1960's and worked his way into the anchor chair at a time when Hispanic anchors nearly didn't exist, even in a heavily-Hispanic border town. Mr. D was our Walter Cronkite. And like all star anchors, he had his own sign-off line: "Good night, y que pasan muy buenos noches!"

After a good night's sleep, an employee picked me up and returned to the station one last time to chat up the crew -- many of whom were already rooting for me to get the job. As he dropped me off at McAllen International, he said he'd have his answer for me in about a week.

"But if you come here," he added. "We'd like you to stay at least a year."

"You give me two weeks to get down here," I said, "and I'll give you that year."

I ended up giving him five-and-a-half years.

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