Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Sin of Sinclair

The death of local television news is coming.  And the Federal Communications Commission is doing all it can to help it along.  Just as the Internet has gutted local newspapers, the FCC is looking the other way as local stations, which use the public airwaves, are rapidly turned into cookie-cutter, profit centers, unconcerned about the communities they are pledged to serve.

I started working in television news in 1978.  The ownership rules limited groups to holding no more than seven stations.  Then President Reagan came along and those rules were loosened to 12 stations.  The FCC also began to look the other way when it came to the rules which forced television stations to share the various voices that made up its community.  Between the FCC and the surge of consultants and the crapola that too many of them offer, local TV news began a decades long slide.

I worked for a "cheap" group, Taft.  Long gone from the television landscape, Taft managed to run good news operations.  Taft was one of the first companies to take advantage of the looser ownership rules.  Flush with cash and great stations in growth markets, it became a target.  The result was a hostile takeover, a splintered group and new ownership left with a billion dollars in debt.

The bulk of the former Taft stations didn't recover from the 1988 financial bombing until FOX, yes Rupert Murdoch's FOX, purchased the group.  It was about this time that station groups run by accountants were swallowing up stations with abandon.  The FCC had further loosened ownership rules so along came Nexstar and Sinclair, buying TV stations at break neck speed.

By the mid-1990's there were only a handful of ownership groups worth a damn.  The stations owned and operated by the networks, Cox, Belo, Gannett, Hearst, and Meredith enjoyed reputations as good groups to be a journalist.  20 plus years later that list is shrinking.  The O and O's are still held in good regard as is Cox.  Hearst saved itself by buying out its shareholders and going private.

Gannett is now Tegna and has joined the race to the bottom with other big groups such as Nexstar and Sinclair.  Yet as bad as some of these groups are, none can compete in absolute awfulness with Sinclair.  The company holds an ultra-conservative bent that makes FOX look liberal.  It has been gobbling up stations for the past 25 years and wants to add even more stations by adding the Tribune group.

25 years ago television groups were limited to 12 stations.  Sinclair currently owns 173 stations in 80 of America's 210 television markets.  The Tribune deal would add 42 more stations to its massive groups.  The FCC stands ready to approve this deal but a handful of conservative groups are howling about the acquisition as are a murderers row of liberals.

The FCC may require Sinclair to sell off a handful of stations to get this deal through, but it will go through.  When that happens, I will wait for the other shoe to drop.  Sinclair is up to its eyeball in debt.  The company came dangerously close to bankruptcy in 2008 when the economy tanked.  The next hiccup in the economy will be Sinclair's undoing.  The viewers won't be the only ones getting screwed.  The stockholders will too.

Sinclair is marching toward centralized news.  They are shuttering local newsrooms and offering "local" news from other stations located miles and miles away from the communities they are mandated to serve.  Look at the ratings of these awful Sinclair owned stations and they without fail rank at the bottom.  The stations are poorly equipped.  The employees, save for upper management, is poorly compensated.  And yet the FCC looks the other way while Sinclair's competitors look and begin to wonder if this approach to "television news" is the way, the future.  It isn't, it's truly the vast wasteland.

But here's the final rub, my television home for 12 years, WDAF TV, is one of those Tribune stations about to be swallowed up by Sinclair.  I think of my work colleagues who have stayed on Signal Hill more than 10, 20, or 30 plus years.  Their world is about to implode.  The debacle of the Bass Brothers in 1988 will look like the good old days.  For those on the verge of retirement, this will be the final shove.  For those who have spent the better part of 20 years at FOX 4 and looked forward to making it their home for the entirety of their broadcast career, I share your heartache.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Chuck

I am absolutely crushed this morning.  I just found out that Chuck Woodling has died.  His passing is like losing a piece of my childhood.  He was a cornerstone of my love of all things Jayhawk.  Strange to write a man who graduated from the University of Missouri.

Let me start at the beginning.  Chuck started as a byline to me.  My mother took a subscription to the Lawrence Journal-World when we lived in Abilene, Kansas.  By the late 60's I devoured the Journal-World sports section to keep up on all things regarding athletics at the University of Kansas.  There were Bill Mayer's opinion pieces but it was Chuck Woodling's stories about Kansas basketball that really warmed my heart.  It really helped stoke my love of sports and got me to thinking about a career that somehow involved sports.

Chuck made Jayhawk sports stars like John Riggins and Dave Robisch come alive for me.  He was a subtle homer, carrying the banner but if you read between the lines you could see the where the success and failings lie with any given individual or team.  I also enjoyed reading his columns.  They weren't as pointed as Mayer's or full of the down home humor of Topeka Capital-Journal legend Bob Hentzen, but he filled it with facts, facts that might have escaped the reader in the course of a week.

Fast-forward five years later and I'm a freshman at K.U.  My path began to cross Chuck's in the press box at football games.  He was really hard to read.  What at first appeared to be a standoff personality was really just a man who possessed an incredibly dry wit.  It took a few years to figure out that this was who Chuck really was.  So for those first two or three years, I was simply scared of him.

But I began to realize that Chuck shared a deep love of track and field, just as I did.  And our friendship began to form over that mutual love.  A moment that stands out for me was a simple act that happened after the 1977 Big 8 Indoor in Lincoln.  I had traveled to meet with the late Allen Quakenbush, who had left the Journal-World for the Capital-Journal.  Chuck was sitting in the parking lot stranded.  Allen and I helped Chuck out with a jump and got him back on the road.  The next week he gave us a subtle thank you in his weekly column.  It made me realize what a big heart he really had.

As my career progressed and I became a journalist I would always delight in seeing Chuck.  His humor was always there.  I hadn't seen him since 2006 when he was at the start of his retirement and I was trying to build a news operation in Topeka.  I didn't know he had been battling leukemia the last four years.  I simply enjoyed his snarky broadsides on Facebook, usually aimed at the Kansas football program.

I realized today that Chuck was one of the reasons that I became a journalist.  Reading him, listening to Jerry Bailey and Tom Hedrick broadcast Kansas sports, watching Bruce Rice and Len Dawson on television, all made me think about a career in sports journalism.  And then there were men like Rich Bailey who mentored me through college and helped me become a television journalist.  Thanks Chuck, thanks for all those stories.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Irma

I have been asked over and over, why did I stay.  It was a confluence of events that led me to ride the hurricane out in my home.  Trust me, I was ready to fly out to Kansas City on Wednesday but I don't want to get ahead of myself.

Saturday, September 2nd, I drove my wife to Fort Lauderdale where she boarded a flight for Riga, Latvia.  I knew Irma was out there.  All signs showed the storm was supposed to take a swing up the east coast and miss Florida entirely.

The next day it became clear that Irma was tracking further west.  That sickening feeling of anxiety swept over me as I watched the forecasts every three hours.  Given the size of the storm, it was going to do hit the entire state.  This wasn't anything like Hurricane Charley, which is the worst storm I had experienced.  Charley was small and intense.  Irma was a beast.

Monday my anxiety began to wane.  It looked for sure to be headed up the east side of Florida.  Being on the west side of a big hurricane isn't nearly as bad as being on the east side of the eye wall.  Little did I know how prophetic those thoughts would be.

Lee County was being swept up in hurricane insanity.  Every old fart was out on the road looking for gas, water and food.  It was pandemonium driving around the city.  By the end of the day, finding gas to fill up my car was a challenge.  My wife's children asked me for my big gas can that I had filled for the emergency, reluctantly I agreed to hand it over.

That night the thought crossed my mind to book a flight Wednesday to fly out to Kansas City.  Seats were still available and I had plenty of miles to cover it.  But here's the rub, I was sponsoring the county's biggest cross country meet on Saturday.  At that time, the meet was still on.  I had to be here for it, plus the storm was still tracking east.

Tuesday, the shit hit the fan.  At 11 a.m. I am informed by Fort Myers High School that our meet is being moved to Thursday afternoon.  I scrambled to make arraignments to get my friends from Saucony included in this change.  Two hours later the school district decided to cancel all events beginning Wednesday afternoon.  I think they overreacted.  But it is what it is.  Now I had to consider my options.  Flying out of Fort Myers was no longer one of them, plus I had to implement a plan to protect my home and my store.

Thursday I had a detailed approach to prepping the store and the house.  I had plenty of water.  I had a small generator.  I knew I would close the store on Friday.  Business the entire week had been paltry.  I brought in every item sitting outside that could end up turning into a missile.

Back at the house I sweated my ass off putting up the window shutters.  We hadn't used them in more than eight years and it was a bit of a challenge.  They are old and need to be replaced.  Oh, did I mention, we were supposed to have hurricane proof glass installed by August but that's another story.

Friday morning the son-in-law helped me get the big aluminum pieces in place over the large windows.  I eagerly watched the forecast and it was clear this storm was moving to the west and aimed at Southwest Florida.  I thought about driving out Friday afternoon.  I was talking to my wife, weighing my options when disaster struck.  At 5 p.m. my cell phone died.  It wouldn't charge.  I cleaned to contact points of the battery.  It was dead.

I desperately drove around town looking to see if T-Mobile was still open or WalMart.  Everything was closed.  Feeling betrayed, I decided to head out to Sarasota County, an hour north, where stores were still open.  As I left at 7:30 p.m. and headed to the interstate, I noticed a B.J. Wholesale store still open.  I went inside to a staff on full zombie mode.  Without a membership, they sold me a Samsung phone and a data plan for $158.  I was connected back to the world.  It was late and I didn't relish the thought of hitting the interstate but I did advise my step-kids to evacuate, which they did.

Saturday I woke up weighing my options.  I could flee and go to a friend's house in Orlando.  Flee and hope to find a hotel.  Flee and get caught in gnarly traffic.  I searched the internet for hotels.  Everything in the state appeared booked.  I thought carefully about what being on the east side of the storm would mean.  My guts told me east of Fort Myers might not be a good place to be.

I spent 30 minutes on Skype talking with the Czarina about the options.  Driving out of town into a gas starved state with uncertain traffic conditions at the beginning of tropical storm force conditions just seemed like a big risk.  I decided to stay.  I was at peace.  I knew the storm wouldn't kill me if I took the right precautions.

I prepared a safe place in an interior bathroom.  I had pillows, a helmet and a large mattress to cover me.  I made sure every door in the house was closed.  I carefully parked my truck up against the garage door to secure it against the wind.  Then I realized that I had left one of my most precious possessions in my store and hurried out just before dark to retrieve it.  I was ready.

I woke up earlier than I planned on Sunday.  It was very brisk outside but I wish I had gone for a run.  The run on Saturday was a joy.  The weather was almost crisp.  It was even better than Sunday morning.  Media friends began to reach out to me for Skype interviews and phoners.  As the weather worsened I started playing reporter.

My power finally went out at 2:28 p.m.  I began using my new phone as a hot spot and watched the live stream of the local station.  I could see that the most powerful part of the storm would pass to the east of I-75.  I live four miles to the west of it.  I knew it would be rough, but I was ready.

As the weather got worse, I continued to do interviews for various media.  Then disaster struck.  As hurricane force winds began to pound the house, I notice a shutter was banging violently against the window.  I stripped down, grabbed a pair of exercise shorts and a bike helmet and headed outside.  The pins that hold the shutter down had come free.  I rapidly put them back in place.  They both seemed tight and secure.

One hour later one of the pins had come free again.  The weather was bad but not awful, so I repeated the exercise.  I wish it had occurred to me to grab with plastic wire to tie it down but I was thinking too clearly.  30 minutes later it was loose again and now the storm was reaching its peak.  I made one last frantic dash outside and secured it only to watch it fail again 15 minutes later.  At this point the eye was on the house and I went and hid hoping the shutter wouldn't fly off.

Sometime in the next 45 minutes a large tree in front of the house split in half while another large limb next to my route to the bad shutter also came down.  I am so glad that I wasn't outside for that.
I must admit that last dash outside was exhilarating.  A couple of 100 mile per hour gusts slammed against my body was I was crouched down on the ground.  The rain was vertical and stinging my body.

The worst of the storm lasted less than 90 minutes.  I had survived.  The street had flooded.  My garage and lanai had minor flooding, but it was over and I was incredibly relieved.

I went out at 8 a.m. the next morning and saw the damage to my property and to my neighbors.  I carefully drove to my store which was in the heart of a zone that was supposed to be hit by terrible flooding.  The store was untouched.  As I drove through my community, the tree damage was abundant, but we had escaped what could have been a catastrophic storm.

Just 30 miles to the south in Naples, the people of Collier County were not so lucky.  Irma was still a very strong hurricane when it came ashore in Marco Island.  The flooding was much more intense.  It will take weeks if not months for some part of that county to recover.

 I'm guessing that the following six weeks will be very, very lean at Run Florida On McGregor.  Paying bills could be a challenge.  But it is much better than the alternative.

I am a very lucky man.  Next time I will button up and leave early.  Lesson learned.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Fail

Weather is the bread and butter of local television news.  How stations manage a weather crisis can well position a news operation as the market leader for years ahead.  This weekend the three newsrooms that cover Southwest Florida missed the mark in the midst and immediate aftermath of major floods that swept through Lee County.

While the nation is transfixed on the events surrounding Harvey and the awful destruction the storm has brought to the Texas gulf coast, a tropical system sat atop Southwest Florida dumping copious amounts of rain over a four day period.  The street where I live floods about every five years.  After two days of rain, water covered the road in front of our home on Saturday.  I must admit I didn't give it a second thought.

Heavy rains on Sunday changed the equation, completely.  By 3 p.m. Sunday, water was lapping at the front of my garage and creeping across its floor.  Cars began stalling out in my neighborhood as fools attempted to drive through 18 inches of water.  I flipped on the television expecting to see some coverage of what I suspected was a flooding mess that was sweeping across the county.  What I didn't see shocked me.

I flipped through the five channels that one could view local news on.  NBC had NASCAR, CBS golf, FOX was showing NFL, ABC the Little League World Series and the CW had a movie on.  The only consistent crawl I saw was on ABC warning about the flood danger across the area.  Now mind you, flooding was rampant, not just in my little slice of the world.  Roads were covered with dangerous amounts of water over a large area.  Houses a mere five miles from mine were filling up with water.

I saw no cut-in's, no urgent warnings, nothing from the local media outside of pictures on my Facebook feed which should the unfolding disaster.  It wasn't until 6 p.m. when the NBC station finally hit the air that you had a sense that something big was unfolding because all of their main anchors were on the set.  The ABC station took the same tact at 6:30 p.m. as did the CW although all of their main players weren't on the air as one would expect.  The CBS station which owns the CW didn't hit the air until 11 p.m.

All we got from each station was a 30 minute slice of the flooding.  Worse still, it was a mostly light, fluffy, look at the high water type of coverage, outside of the evacuation of a nursing home.  Meanwhile in the Island Park area of Lee County, people were getting water in their homes.  That news really didn't come to light for another 24 hours.

I knew in my guts by 5 p.m. Sunday that this weather event was an all hands on deck type of event for local journalists.  It was as bad as a tropical storm, without the winds.   A tropical storm would bring wall to wall coverage yet none of the stations made the effort.  Fortunately the damage was only in terms of property and not in lives lost.  But Fort Myers news directors need to reassess their coverage plans after Sundays big fail.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Resurrection

USA distance running is back baby.  The latest ten day run of the World Track and Field Championships in London confirmed the success the United States enjoyed last summer at the Olympics in Rio.  American runners are snapping necks and cashing checks.

From 800 meters to the marathon, the United States scored medals.  The highlight of this spectacular success was Friday night's one-two finish in the women's steeplechase where Emma Coburn claimed gold and an American Record while Courtney Frerich grabbed the silver, also dipping under the old AR.  Going into the race Coburn, who won Olympic bronze in Rio, was considered on the outside looking in when it came to a medal.  Frerich wasn't even in the conversation. The one-two finish by these two remarkable runners may well be the biggest upset scored by an American distance runner since Billy Mills took gold at 10,000 meters in Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics.

When you add Evan Jager's steeplechase bronze American runners out medaled Kenya in an event they have traditionally owned.  Jager joined Coburn, Paul Chelimo in the 5,000 and Jenny Simpson in the 1,500 as repeat medal winners from Rio.  Simpson's wonderful dash to silver over the last 100 meters was certainly the second biggest surprise springing from the championships.  Her joyous post-race celebration was awesome.  The medal also stamped Simpson as the greatest championship middle distance runner in American history, man or woman.

Amy Cragg's bronze medal in the marathon was the third biggest surprise in London.  A bevy of Kenyans and Ethiopians were expected to sweep all of the hardware.  But Hastings put in a gut-busting run over the last half mile to snatch her medal from a Kenyan rival.

The other American medal came from Ajee Wilson who took bronze at 800 meters.  Wilson's performance put it just a couple of steps behind the American Record.  And given the controversy surrounding the two women who finished in front of her, Wilson could be a favorite for gold in three years in Tokyo.

The only distance where America was shut out was over 10,000 meters.  But a bigger disappointment was over 1,500 meters where a season of injury and health issues caught up to Rio gold medalist Matt Centrowitz.  His body betrayed him over the last lap of the qualifying heat and he finished dead last.

Those are small blemishes over an otherwise incredible string of races by America.  A seven medal haul in London is one better than the six claimed in Rio.  Overall team USA took 30 track and field medals, a fine performance indeed.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Justin

They booed him.  I understood why they were booing him but I chose to cheer him.  I've always had a soft spot for Justin Gatlin and now he had dethroned the greatest sprinter in running history, Usain Bolt.  12 years after winning his first World Championship 100 meter title, the ancient one, Justin Gatlin, was again World Champion.

Gatlin had always struck me as a gentle soul.  When he captured 100 meter Gold at the 2004 Olympics, he was the polar opposite of the man considered America's best sprinter, Maurice Greene.  I liked Greene, a native of Kansas City, Kansas.  He often raced at the Kansas Relays and was a fun interview. 
So that explains this picture.  Sorry for the quality but I took it with my phone, as the photo itself hangs on a wall in my house.  If you look closely you can see Maurice Greene far behind Gatlin as they competed in a 4 x 100 relay at the 2006 Kansas Relays.

The photo was taken by my stepson Andrei, as I stood behind him and we watched this incredible piece of running together.  Little did either one of know that shortly after this race, Gatlin would be drug tested.  He was found positive for a steroid and banned from racing for four years.  At age 26 a ban of that length was tantamount to death penalty for his track and field career.

Gatlin claimed that after the race his therapist rubbed a cream containing testosterone into his legs causing the positive.  Now, I believe that a lot of world class track and field athletes use illegal performance enhancing drugs.  But there was always a small part of me that wanted to believe Gatlin's story.

Despite the badge of dishonor, Andrei had taken such a great picture, the Czarina and I agreed to have the print framed and placed on the wall.  We were both fans.  It was a special moment in history that I had witness. 

Nine years later I would be in Eugene at the Prefontaine Classic.  While catching up with some friends at Track Town Pizza, I spied Gatlin enjoying a slice with some friends across the room.  I don't usually approach athletes or any celebrity, especially when they are eating.  But I walked over and introduced myself and told Justin that I was a big fan.

I was struck by how small he is.  Gatlin is not especially tall and while powerfully built, he didn't have the pitbull body of his one time rival, Maurice Greene.  Gatlin was incredibly gracious and kind.  A warm smile floated across his face.  I wanted to tell him that his picture hung in my house and the race it came from but I knew better than to uncover old wounds.

Gatlin's return to the sport after his suspension offered little promise.  He looked lost.  Few meets wanted him.  When Gatlin did race he looked ragged.  Somehow by 2012 he was an Olympian.  He would spent the next five years nipping at the heels of the great Usain Bolt.  Then came August 5, 2017 and the 100 meter final at the World Championships in London.

The smile on Gatlin's face as he hit the finish line summed it all up.  He knew he had won.  Bolt had no inkling that Gatlin had exploded over the final 20 meters to overtake him and Christian Coleman.  Gatlin, not surprisingly, bowed down to Bolt when the great champion turned to congratulate his rival.  And yet the fans booed.  Well let them boo.  It was a hell of a race. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Future Is Hugh

I've written a lot about the plentiful distance talent among the high school girls in Lee County.  Then, Hugh Brittenham wandered into the store Friday to look at cross country spikes.  Now, I could have sworn I had written something up about this outstanding, young distance talent, but alas I had only a few blurbs to Facebook.  The boys are getting short shrift.
Hugh is preparing for his junior season at Estero High School.  He has a chance to be the best male middle distance runner to ever lace on a pair of spikes in Lee County.  I first noticed his name when he was a mere freshman, breaking 10 minutes for the 3200 and 4:40 for the 1600.  Those kind of times will catch my attention.

The wake up call came like a thunder shot in early spring at a meet in March.  Hugh Brittenham clocked a stunning 1:52.84 800 coming out of the slow heat at the Florida State Relays.  Let me repeat this, 1:52.84 in the slow heat.  He was just a sophomore.

I was stunned because I had seen him run a couple of weeks before at the Edison Relays in Fort Myers.  At that meet he ran a respectable triple which included a leg on the 4 x 800, a 4th place in the 1600 in 4:26.69 and a somewhat surprising win in the 800 in 1:59.37.  The 800 should have been a tip off about what was coming.  He disposed rather easily of Fort Myers senior Evan Babitz who had run 1:56 the year before.  What I saw was a lot of strength by a young runner.  I just didn't realize Hugh had the speed to go with it.

An IT band issue kept him away from the track for a couple of weeks before Hugh returned to take both the 1600 and 800 at the county championships.  At state, Brittenham would finish 2nd in the 1600 in a PR 4:17.78 losing to senior Matt Clark by six tenths of a second.  It wouldn't be until the New Balance Outdoor Nationals that Hugh would show that he indeed had the goods.  He clocked a 1:52.88 800 to finish 2nd in the emerging elite segment of the meet. 

Assuming he stays healthy and continues to prosper under the fine coaching of Ben Pignatone, the sky is the limit.  I think Hugh Brittenham could be the first Lee County boy to break 1:50 in the 800 and 4:10 in the 1600.  He's humble, appears hungry and seems realistic about the path to running faster.  Let's he comes back in for those cross country spikes.  I wouldn't mind putting a pair of shoes on a future state champion.