Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas on the Air

I've worked a few Christmases, mostly during my years in the newsroom, but the most memorable was 30 years ago tonight.

I had an evening talk show on KVOR-AM in Colorado Springs, which was just switching to a news/talk format. My show had begun that fall, which I remember because my time segment happened to be when the station in years past would have run the baseball playoffs.

That wouldn't have been a problem except that, for one thing, the station never came through with all the publicity they told me they were going to mount for this new program and, secondly, I had no producer answering phones in the control room, which meant that people were calling in to find out where the baseball game was and their calls were coming straight through to the studio.

So I'd be talking to an author about the ecological effects of Agent Orange on the people and wildlife in the Mekong Delta and I'd take a call and it would be someone asking when the ball game came on.

Later, as fall gave way to winter, that changed, so that, in the middle of interviewing someone, I'd get a call asking if Monument Pass was open, which was a reasonable question to ask our newsroom but not always relevant to the topic of the show.

I also had kids call in who had figured out that there was nobody screening calls and no 7-second delay, but, fortunately, they'd get so excited that they'd scream the F-word instead of just saying it, and all you'd hear on the air was a burst of incoherent noise.

And I would say to the program director that I really needed a call-screener, but, as with putting my face on the sides of buses, the answer was that, until the show was more established, they didn't have budget for that.

I'd done enough advertising work by then to know where publicity fits in the timeline of success, and I also knew that the quality of the show was suffering because of idiotic, irrelevant calls coming straight to the studio.

But I'd also done enough work in the world to know when the boss was going to get his own way regardless of whether or not it made good sense.

So Christmas comes along, and I get a few days off, because the station has bought a package of pre-recorded tapes of Christmas music and is about to become the community's Yuletide background sound for the week leading up to Christmas. And I had small boys and a wife and a home to go to, so it was fine with me.

Only the program director approached me a few days before the Christmas thing began and said they had miscalculated on something: The package ended at 6 p.m. Christmas day, the time my show would normally go on the air.

They could cobble something together, he said, but he wanted to let me know. And I said that I'd be happy to come in, because Christmas would be pretty much over at my house, and anybody who needed talk radio on Christmas Day really needed a familiar voice.

The problem was, I wasn't going to get any calls and I was going to be hard-pressed to line up a guest for a show that nobody was going to be listening to.

But the news director was letting his staff off for the night and he said he'd be happy to come be my guest. We'd sit and swap stories through the three hours, and if anyone called in, that would be a bonus.

So the program started and it was the two of us sitting there in the empty studio talking about the various holidays we'd had as kids and inviting listeners to share their favorite holiday story, and a little old lady called in to say how much she liked Perry Como and we talked to her for awhile and then we talked to each other about Christmas music, and TV specials and suchlike.

And then we got a call from someone who said, "I don't know what I'm going to do." And then he said it again, and then he said he was going to kill himself.

And then he hung up.

The plan for the evening had changed, and I told him he had to call back because it wasn't fair to lay this on me and not give me a chance to do anything about it. And the phone rang, and it was him again, and his voice was unnaturally low, the voice of someone in a deep depression, and he said he didn't want to talk to me because I knew too much about him already.

And then he hung up again.

He may have said something else, because, despite the depressed tone, I suddenly knew who it was: Steve, a regular caller who was a Biblical literalist who used to call me to debate Scripture.

And who, I knew, had a sister who had taken her own life.

So the show went from "What are your favorite Christmas memories?" to "Call me back, Steve." The news director was a gem -- he let me drive the bus while he just sat back and made calm, neutral comments of support.

And we went on for about half an hour, blowing off all the commercial breaks, blowing off the five minute Dan Rather commentary, and a young engineer came in, who was supposed to work later than night but had heard what was going on.

At some point, I said that, if Steve didn't want to talk on the air, I could understand that, so I turned over the on-air component to the news director and the engineer and went back into the control room. And they were champions -- they kept it low key and supportive and they didn't make any leading statements or say anything stupid and they were wonderful.

I was in the control room hoping Steve would call, but also going through the phone book looking for his church, which had a fairly generic name. I found one minister at home but he wasn't the right guy.

And then finally, nearly an hour after this whole thing had started, Steve called, and I hit the wrong button and hung up on him. But he called back, and he said he was all right now, and he thanked me for caring. And I made him promise to call me back in the morning and let me know he was really okay.

Which he did. Apparently, the problem was that he had fallen in love with a Jewish girl, so the people in his house told him he was going to Hell and they threw him out on the street as a sinner who they couldn't associate with anymore.

But he realized now that it was going to be okay, and he was going to be fine. And he thanked me again for being there.

Meanwhile, the news director and I had to explain to management why we had blown off all the commercials for over 45 minutes, including Dan Rather's commentary and the news at the top of the hour. And we explained it to them.

And the next time I went on the air, by golly, they had finally given me someone to screen my calls and hang up on anybody who shouldn't get on the air.

God bless us, every one!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tales from the backshop
(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, March 24, 1996)

Today, the term "boilerplate" is usually associated with lawyers: It's those required blocks of verbiage that never change from one contract to another.

But boilerplate was a newspaper term in the days before offset printing, and it rose up to bite the Plattsburgh Daily Press a century ago.

On March 23, 1896, the Press ran a column headlined "Unfathomable Snobbery," about a young army officer harrassed until he resigned his commission by fellow officers and their wives for marrying the daughter of an enlisted man. It was, the story said, "a systematic persecution ... at the hands of the tabbies of both sexes who constitute our snobbish and ridiculous army aristocracy."

But there was a problem: The story had been revealed as a falsehood several weeks before, by a military writer who reported that the young officer was popular and happy at his post and had resigned for health reasons.

It was a terrible mistake for a paper in the hometown of Plattsburgh Barracks, and the redfaced Press included the facts of the case the next day in an editorial that contained an odd mix of explanation and self-forgiveness: 

"The article in question was a product of the syndicate system and did not come to the knowledge of any member of the editorial staff before its appearance," the editorialist wrote. "This explanation will be sufficient to relieve us of any imputation of intention to attack the social usages of the army."

But it wasn't sufficient in the view of the Plattsburgh Republican, a feisty little weekly ever willing to chortle publicly over such a delicious blunder by its larger rival:

"This apology ... naturally suggests an inquiry or two," the Republican scoffed: "Since no member of the editorial staff had any knowledge of this article, how then did it get into the Press...? Was it the office cat or the stock 'scapegoat?'"

The delighted Republican also ran outraged letters to the editor, calling it "scurrilous journalism ... of a character to make Ben Franklin turn in his grave and the shades of Faust and Gutenberg regret that printing was ever discovered," wrote an anonymous "Citizen," warming up for this indignant run-on sentence: 

"Our citizens feel ashamed of so unworthy an item in their only daily journal, for although that journal itself is an unworthy representative of journalism, printing its news after it is 24 hours old, yet in the absence of any other daily newspaper it has been tolerated, but it was not expected that it would add spite to its other weaknesses."

The second letter was suspiciously loaded with inside references to the operations of a newspaper: "A pall of mystery hangs over our great freight train-despatch daily," wrote the anonymous critic.

"Who done it? ... Was it Cock Robin? Or the Official Papster? Or the Bucksaw Editor? Alibis are in order...."

References to a "freight-train-despatch daily" and the "Bucksaw Editor" were slams at the Press for not including enough local writing. It's likely the article was boilerplate: Part of a long bar of lead print, typeset in New York City and sent to Plattsburgh to be cut to fit whatever holes in the paper needed filling. A feature article like this could be held to run anytime, and, in this case, had apparently been sitting around since before the follow-up story that branded it a lie. Then, when something that length was needed to fill the column, the story had been sawn off and put into place.

The Republican's editorialist merrily hammered the point home: "By the way, it has generally been understood that the Press's 'news' departments were filled with 'boilerplate' matter, cast in New York, but since when has its editorial pablum been created in the same manner, by a boilerplate 'Editorial Syndicate?' And where does the work of the 'Editorial Staff come in, since, as it appears, a handsaw is all that is needed to get the work of the editorial syndicate into shape for printing?"

Today, the technology has changed: Local media still rely on outside features, though they arrive through satellite dishes instead of trains, and it still happens that, for all the editorial controls in place, something occasionally gets through that oughtn't to have. And it still causes gleeful guffaws among media rivals when it happens.

Today, of course, those rivals are TV and radio stations, but the big difference is that we've all become too mature, professional and responsible to publicly ridicule the mistakes of our competitors.

Or maybe we've become too thin-skinned to risk having the tables turned.

(The media still decline to criticize each other with much in the way of élan, though there's no reluctance on the part of various web sites. The real trick is finding web sites that understand how these things happen. Recently, we lost one of the greats, Charlie Stough, and I would direct you to this remembrance of a funny, funny ink-stained wretch.)