Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Somewhere In Arizona

I spend September and October of 1999 dealing with the grind of producing two newscasts a day amid staffing issues, equipment issues and consulant issues. More duties end up in my lap, lengthening my already long days, when we dismiss a news promotions person. I'm growing depressed and irritable and waking up every morning dreading what I'm going to have to deal with. But I also know I'm out when I get the right opportunity.

It starts with a phone call from a news director at KOLD in Tucson on November 9, 1999. Diane (name changed) asks for a tape, in what is a standard ritual with so many ND's and Executive Producers. I don't know a think about the station, but I find out she's already called Jenny. I wonder if she's called my other boss.

This time, the tape gets some action, and Diane decides to kick it up to the next level. She books a flight for me on November 20th.

"Kiss a cactus for me," Jenny jibes.

The flight runs behind because of fog, but I make to Tucson, and to the start of a new beginning.

Diane and KOLD General Manager Mike (name changed) meet me together at Tucson International Airport, but rather than take me back to the station for the power interview, we do it over a power lunch in the airport lounge. "Welcome to Tucson!" Diane smiles as we clink glasses. She goes through her news philosophy, and I go through mine. I answer a few questions about what I believe and why. It's not a tough sell.

"I think you've told us everything we need to know," Mike says with a smile.

It's small talk from here out, as Diane gives me a lightning tour of Tucson, winding me around through the University of Arizona ("I know the Wildcats are gonna go far!") and out to Old Tucson Studios ("We were the only station out here live when they had the fire..."). We get to the newsroom, and I meet Assistant News Director Gary (name changed), along with the weekend anchor duo of Dan Marries and Valerie Cavazos.

Gary is friendly and highly organized. He's got the 5:30 Saturday newscast lined up with no sweat for stories. The station has toys, including digital videotape, a monitor wall, and a helicopter. The big story today is "El Tour De Tucson," a giant bicycle race. It's a neat weekend story. We also get some neat spot news: lots of dogs removed from a home. Any other place, that might be a lead, but I'm not going to quibble with Gary's choice. It's different and fun, and he has team coverage built around it with the sports guy.

I watch him roll through the 5:30, and we grab a quick bite from McDonald's before coming back to do the 10. Gary unleashes me on writing a couple of stories in the rundown, and I tear into them quickly. I ask if I can help write anything else, and I take on one more story, meaning we get written in what seems like record time.

The 10pm sails by, and I'm liking what I see and feel, and it's not just the huge newsroom with high ceilings and monitors all over this place. This is a nice station with nice people and a good team spirit. I want to work here. I want it.

As we're calling it a night, Gary realizes we have a problem. Diane has forgotten to take my luggage out of her car after dropping me off at the station earlier in the day. Now we have to go to her house and get it. I now get a look at Tucson at night, during which Gary fills me in on the weekend team and how they operate.

We get to Diana's house, and we can see through the window she's asleep on the couch. But Gary can see my luggage inside. Gary tries ringing the doorbell, but when that has no effect, he quietly slips through the unlocked door. He grabs my bag as I stand guard outside under a full Arizona coyote moon.

Gary and I laugh about it in the car on our way back to my hotel. "This has to be the strangest interview experience I've ever had!" I say.

We have some slight trouble with the hotel reservation, but I get a room for the night, walking over to a Denny's after I check in for a tall milkshake. It's like I'm celebrating early. Diana picks me up the next morning, and we continue small-talking at the breakfast counter until she realizes I may miss my flight.

"I gotta get you to the airport," she says, half-alarmed.

I make the flight less than a half-hour before departure time, meaning I lose an assigned seat but not the plane.

Back in the Rio Grande Valley, I'm looking forward to what's next. Thanksgiving comes and goes, and I don't have an answer. But on December 1, 1999, I get it.

KOLD wants to hire me for a weekend producer position. The money is right. The environment is right. The vibe is right.

"You got me," I smile over the phone.

A contract arrives in the mail a few days later, and I break the word to my boss. He knew this day was coming, and still he grumbles.

As I prepare to make my move over the next two weeks, a burden lifts from me. I can enjoy the approaching holidays. I don't care about the headaches or the grind so much anymore. The light is in sight. My co-worker friends hate to see me leave, but many have been rooting for me. "How's Tucson grab ya?" I had told one of my directors, who loves the idea of me going west to Arizona.

I begin my new job on December 31, 1999 -- a heckuva day to start with everybody worried about the Y2K bug or fired up about the year 2000. I would've started earlier, had it not been for the sudden loss of my Grandfather Francis, a sad counterweight to the Christmas and New Years' season. But I have a new chapter of my life to begin... no more sending out tapes, no more returning calls.

I'm free... I'm free...

EPILOGUE: To this day, KRGV remains a dominant station in the Rio Grande Valley, and Rick "Mr. D" Diaz remains on the anchor desk. He retired as news director and left the station in the late 1990's only to come back as a fill-in anchor when his desk mate, Peter Torgerson, hit a Texas Lottery jackpot. It became the longest fill-in anchor gig I've ever seen. Jenny, mentor and friend, is now news director.

Fifteen years later, I'm still at KOLD. I've moved from weekends to weeknights to weekdays and seen a lot of comings and goings, but I have absolutely no regrets about making the move when I did. So how long will I be here? I'm leaving that to GOD...

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