March 1980 I loaded my Toyota and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas to work as the 10 p.m. producer. The station at the time was owned by Gannett and it was one of the top rated NBC stations in the country. The network's ratings were even worse then then they are now if you can believe it. We even had a helicopter which was unheard of for a market that size.
John Hudgens, who had returned to KARK after losing out to Brink Chipman in the tussle over who would run WTCN's newsroom, had been instrumental in bringing me to Little Rock. I'm not sure what John saw in me. The newsroom was full of talented people with tons of personality. Anchor/reporter Ron Gardner befriended me immediately. I think at the time was on marriage number five and it was number eight for his wife.
Bill Sadler worked out of the Pine Bluff bureau and he's currently the spokesman for the state police. Steve Narisi was a great reporter and worked as a network producer for NBC for a number of years. Perry Boxx, currently a news director in Madison, did just about everything under the sun. Noel Sederstrom, now a news director in Minnesota, produced the 5 p.m. The late Leo Greene produced the 6 p.m. and always kept a bottle of codeine in his desk which he sipped from regularly.e And least I forget there was Fred Williams, another man who could report, handle the assignment desk, and produce. Fred went on to become a news director in Texas and later a GM. He had also worked in Minneapolis for a short time but he was about as comfortable as a frog on a hot stove.
The photographers were great too. I can only remember a few of their names, the mammoth Richard Little was a great guy, the best shooter was a guy named Phil and even Gary Coursen made a brief stop as a shooter there. Gary's been a news director forever in Youngstown, Ohio.
The main anchor was a local legend, Roy Mitchell. He was as solid as a rock but liked to get half in the bag between the 6 and 10. Tom Bonner was the suave weatherman who's ego could fill the entire state. Dave Woodman was the sports anchor and was about as good as they come.
The first couple of months were easy because it was horse racing season which meant I rarely saw the news director Gary Long. Gary loved the horses and loved to drink. Gary was a real innovator, probably the most innovative news manager I ever worked for. When the horses had stopped running Gary started riding me. The job turned into a living hell. Every day when I came into work and Gary would spend 15 minutes telling me why my newscast from the night before had sucked. I learned more in the next four months about producing than I had before or since. My shows improved, I began to understand the need for pacing, the ebb and flow of sound and video, and I saw a master at work when breaking news hit. Gary wasn't afraid to make decisions.
The moment of all moments for me came six months into the job September 18, 1980. Saddler listening to his short wave in Pine Bluff overheard military chatter about an accident at a nuclear missile silo more than 100 miles to his north in a tiny burg called Damascus. An airmen had dropped a tool which hit the fuel tank on a Titan II nuclear missile. John Hudgens and the chief photographer named Lou made the drive from Little Rock and he did a phoner from the scene. This was before satellite trucks and Damascus was well outside microwave range.
A crew from NBC pulled into the station shortly after the 10 p.m. news having arrived to cover a different story. When I told them what was going on they told me to call the network, but to not reveal their presence. Well of course NBC knew Willie Monroe was there and told him to go to the scene. By midnight Hudgens had returned to the station with some video and asked me to join him for the drive back to Damascus. I declined and went to my apartment and went to sleep at 1 a.m.
Sometime after 4 a.m. my phone rang and it was a photographer named Joe screaming, "It blew! It blew!" As I scrambled around to pull on my jeans I looked around to see if the world was on fire and thought to myself why am I still alive. When I got to the station it would begin a long 18 hour day of endless coverage.
The Air Force in its infinite wisdom had closed the blast doors after the leak began. The pressure build up led to an explosion that blew the massive blast doors off and in the process sending the nuclear warhead slamming into the doors and cracking it. Hudgens had been driving behind an Arkansas State Trooper about a half mile from the scene when the missile exploded. Both men did 180's in their cars and raced away. John told me later that after about two miles they realized they weren't dead and turned around and went back.
I got very, very, drunk that night, at the largess of Mr. Long. I think I got to bed at 2 a.m. and slept through my alarm for a 7 a.m. flight to Wichita for a job interview at the NBC station there. It was a blessing because I would later learn the news director, Al Sandubrae, is a real horses ass. And it was all the better because in less than a month Mike McDonald would ask me to join his team at WDAF TV in Kansas City.