Thursday, March 7, 2013

Heading South

Along the way this blog, which passed the 4 year mark several weeks ago, has chronicled my rather lengthy journey through the land of television news.  When I last wrote about my career I posted about Fargo and my three years at KVLY.  I went to Fargo with the idea that it would be a stepping stone job.  Looking back that was a big mistake.  I should have been satisfied with where I was and what I was doing. 

But nothing lasts forever and by the end of that third year the Czarina was itching to go somewhere a lot warmer.  I had said no to a news directors job in Eugene, Oregon.  I had lost out on two other jobs back in Kansas.  All the Czarina cared about was getting away from the miserable winters.  Her two words to me as I started my job search in earnest were warm and water.

On a whim I applied for the executive producer position at WINK TV in Fort Myers, Florida.  I had a hard time of getting past my thinking of Fort Myers as a backwater stop because when I started in the business, it ranked somewhere below 130 out of the 200 plus Nielson television markets.  I always flash back to an eager Craig Sager sending film of the Kansas City Royals going through the paces at spring training back in 1978 hoping that it would land him a job at KMBC.  I think Mr. Sager did okay for himself.

I was shocked when I got a call from Rick Gevers, a respected TV agent and former news director, telling me that WINK news director John Emmert wanted to hire me.  I think my jaw hit the floor and more or less didn't take it very seriously.  Rick launched into a persuasive pitch on why I should hop on a jet and visit Mr. Emmert and the warmer climbs that beckoned in Southwest Florida sounded pretty good when I got the phone call in late November.

The Czarina and I had a marathon planned in Tucson in early December so I put off the visit until the second week of that month.  I flew down and met John and WINK's consultant, Frank Graham.  I surprised Frank when I reminded him that he didn't hire me for an EP job in Baltimore when he was news director there 15 years prior.  Mr. Emmert launched into a pretty hard pitch but what sold me was the staff, specifically 2 former Jayhawks.
KU grads Molly Dallen and Jeannie McCarragher both pulled me aside and made the case why WINK was a worthwhile gig.  Their enthusiasm and the surprising quality of the news product won me over.  Plus, Mr. Emmert didn't throttle me when I told him what I thought was wrong with the product.  Money was a major issue, but the general manager Gary Gardner assured me the cash would come if the station could reclaim its old position as the top station in the market.  WINK had lost its grasp atop the ratings heap after being a powerhouse for 40 years.

Fort Myers was at market 67 with a bullet when I joined in January 2003.  The economy in Southwest Florida was on fire.  They couldn't build houses and strip malls fast enough.  Despite the attractiveness of the area, we couldn't keep staff to save our lives.  Turnover was rampant, at a pace that paled to what I experienced in Fargo.  I was constantly on the prowl for producers and associate producers.

Within a few months on the job I was very comfortable in my role of running the day to day operations of the newsroom.  John Emmert and I formed a good bond.  It was all going pretty smoothly for that first year until my diverticulitis flared up in the late spring.  It was just the opening round of what would be a trying summer.

The Czarina and I were supposed to make a trip in late August to Riga but first Hurricane Charley came along on August 13, 2004.  That storm was followed by Frances and Jeannie.  That ended any trip to Riga and WINK stiffed on the ticket I ate.  By the end of September my health was a wreck.  Mr. Emmert's wasn't much better as his heart landed him in the hospital.  My stomach was giving out.

By December I was recovering from one surgery later and another looming on the horizon I was back in the newsroom in January of 2005 slowly on the road to recovery.  My contract had expired in January and WINK was back on top of the ratings.  The money promised didn't materialize.  So unhappily I agreed to another 2 year deal with a big fat news director out. 

Looking back I should have been happy with the measly raise I had received given I would miss more than a month of work due to my surgeries.  However, I felt slighted and unappreciated.  Plus, I dreaded going through another hurricane season.  Covering Charley and the storms that followed was the most exhausting experience of my career in journalism. 

I decided to cast about for another news directors job.  It didn't take long for a new job to come my way, one Mr. Emmert would warn me to walk away from, advice I wish I had taken.  It was hard to pass up a chance to return to Kansas and build something from scratch, but more on that in another blog.

I took much more away from WINK than I ever gave.  I learned a whole new way to look at what's required to work in this business from John Emmert.  I learned how to cover a hurricane.  We did big "J" journalism and didn't chase car wrecks, fires and crime like our main competitor.  I got to work with a talented staff of anchors, reporters, producers and yes, even a few good photographers.  WINK under John Emmert's guidance was the way television news should be.

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