Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Circle 4 Ranch

I spent the longest portion of my career in television news in Kansas City working at WDAF TV.  My first of three, yes three stints, began on Monday October 20, 1980.  Mike McDonald had rescued me from the little dictator, Gary Long, who had ruthlessly ruled the roost at KARK.

It was the beginning of a remarkable run for both my professional life and for the station.  WDAF had long been the Kansas City market's running joke.  I can remember sitting at KMBC watching their newscasts and taking an oath to never work there.

McDonald was pulling together a team of aggressive, young, reporters and producers to support the anchor team of Stacy Smith and Cynthia Smith.  Dan Henry was the resident comedian and weathercaster and the final piece of our anchor puzzle would arrive from Green Bay when Frank Boal took over the sports team.

A combination of hard work and luck took this dumpster of a station from #3 to #1 in just about two years.  The keys were the new found stability at the anchor desk, improving ratings at NBC, and holding the television rights to the then wildly popular Kansas City Royals.  The addition of a 6 p.m. newscast proved to be the final piece of the puzzle.  Action 4 News as it was known then had the only 5 p.m. newscast in town and thus the #1 slot because at the time nobody else did news at that time slot.  But it took the addition of news at 6 to give the station the kind of credibility it needed and in the capable hands of Dennis McCullough the newscast steadily rose in the ratings.

The names that helped power the push to number one are many, some even well known, like Gayle King and Del Walters.  Jan Smith, our city hall reporter and soon to be wife to legendary White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, ended up at the fledgling FOX News.  But a lot of behind the scenes people like Mike Lewis, Bruce Lindsay, and Jenny Wolfe brought their touches as well.  Other brilliant young producers would come and go, Howard Bernstein and Marsha Kindrachuk come to mind, we saw a lot of talent come through our doors only to leave for bigger markets and more money.

Our night side crew was killer.  Bob Thill who later left for KCTV and then for his own production company, was simply the best reporter on the streets of Kansas City during my tenure there.  He could handle everything from crime, to city hall, to the silly features we would dream up.  A classic moment came after he covered the hard core punk band, Wendy and the Plasmastics, taking a pie in the face just as he signed off from his live shot.

Mike Maier was a photographer was a lightning quick temper and a razor sharp wit that constantly kept me on my toes.  He was a bear of a man who lived worked hard and played harder.  Being around Mike was like walking a tightrope but the thrill of witnessing his newsroom escapades and tirades proved more thrilling than any ride at Worlds of Fun.

Doug Sudhoff, now a professor at Northwest Missouri State was the steady horse in our stable.  He worked tirelessly and without complaint as an under appreciated reporter.  Doug made my life easy because I didn't have to worry about his effort like I did with some other folks.

The station hit its pinnacle shortly after 1984 with the addition of Oprah Winfrey's new show as a lead in to our 5 p.m. and a staff addition in Dave Helling, quite simply the best political reporter in Kansas City television history, and that's taking nothing away from KMBC's Mike Mahoney who I deeply admire.  Helling is the smartest reporter I've ever worked with.  His desk would be stacked with video tapes and GAO reports, voluminous government studies, that he would sift through for story ideas.  Helling could turn a complete package with multiple sound bites without ever leaving the station.  He always thought ahead, asking questions of his interview subjects for stories he knew that he would turn in the days or weeks to come.  His output of work was prodigious.

I brought my own touches to my job.  My shows had a style about them with snappy writing and outside the box efforts at news gathering.  My newscasts were such that our competitors could tell when I was producing a particular newscast by its pace and particular sense of storytelling.  I took it as a compliment that KMBC's management worked tirelessly at getting me to take jobs outside the market.

The wheels began to come off in 1986 when the station decided not to renew its contract with Oprah.  KMBC quickly snatched up the hot property.  From everything I heard our GM Earl Beall fought to keep the show but the tightfisted owners of Taft Broadcasting would hear none of it.  I felt trapped now entering my seventh year as 10 p.m. producer.  Despite an incredible track record I couldn't land an executive producer job anywhere and my path at WDAF was blocked by Jenny.  Part of the problem is that I'm hit and miss at job interviews.  People either loved me or hated me, there was very little middle ground.

I grew suspicious that McDonald was blocking my efforts to move up at one of the other Taft stations so when a potential EP opportunity came my way in the late spring of 1987 I jumped at it.  I flew to Phoenix to interview at one of sister stations where I would become the new 10 p.m. producer and move into the EP slot because the current one was having a baby and not expected to return.  In the past I always told McDonald when I had opportunities at other Taft stations, this time I didn't.

A job offer came, but it was for less money.  Larry Rickle, a consultant, who knew the Phoenix situation and was at our station the day the offer came through, told me I should take it.  I think that probably played the largest part in my decision making.  I went to bed that night 75 percent sure I would take the offer and then at 4 a.m. I got the worst case of food poisoning in my life.  I got next to no sleep and the phone rang at 8:30 a.m.  It was McDonald, furious, cussing like a madman, wanting to know about the Phoenix situation.  Someone in Phoenix had leaked word of the offer.  I told him I wouldn't be coming to work that day which only made the tirade even worse.  His anger made my decision easy.

I left WDAF in June 1987 and started my new job in Phoenix in early July.  I was in a top 20 market producing the #1 10 p.m. newscast at a well staffed station and a chance at management.  The future looked bright in the Valley of the Sun.

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