PRODUCING: Love at First Booth
As a child, I went through many things I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an actress so I could meet Ricky Schroeder when I was 11 (dating myself, I know). I wanted to a model when I was 13 to justify why I was 6′ tall as a barely-teenager and was made fun of relentlessly. When I used my height to my advantage to be a stellar softball player, I wanted to be the first female first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. The female Jack Clark.
I went to college with a theatre major for a hot second, then switched to the broad “Communications” field when I realized I was not a triple threat or even a double threat. I had acting chops, but that’s just to say I could err on the side of the dramatic.
Three years into college at Southwest Missouri State University (now known as Missouri State), I did a summer internship in local newsroom KSPR. On day one, my life changed.
I walked into the room filled with scanner noises, people talking, phones ringing, and suddenly knew the chaos felt like home. I thought the title “producer” sounded cool so I asked to meet a producer. It was a perfect fit.
I sat down with a man who was putting together his newscast, clearly annoyed “the new intern” was assigned to him. I’m sure with my sorority hair bow and “this is so cool” look in my eyes, I was nothing more than a bother for a busy day. It would take me just a few years to understand why – he wasn’t annoyed – he was busy as all hell and didn’t have time to delay.
But he took the time with me, by force or by choice, I’ll never know. I proudly said “I want to be a producer” and he looked at me and said “You want to be a producer? You want to spend the day spoonfeeding information to people who don’t know what OSHA stands for? YOU KNOW WHAT OSHA STANDS FOR, RIGHT?” To this day, if you get a current events quiz, and you have a question “What does OSHA stand for?”, it’s in tribute to this man!”
Despite my desires, the “desk” thought all producers wanted to be reporters, so I was sent out with photogs to get the stories – that I now know – are the stories no reporter jumps to go to. We went to ribbon-cuttings and restaurant openings and even babysat some crime scenes.
One, in particular, stands out. A body had been found in a house. It had been there for a while. In the humid, hot, sunny midwestern day, I kept saying all day to my photog “This neighborhood stinks.”
Finally, the moment came when the body came out. It was on a stretcher, but it didn’t look like a body on a stretcher. Think about what a humid, hot condition can do to a body rotting in a basement. As it came closer, the smell was unbearable. I backed up, when I felt a pull on my shoulder. The photog said “Oh no, get up here. You need to see what you’ll be sending your crews out to and experience what they will go through. It’s not all makeup and studio lights and excitement.” I’ll never forget the smell of death. If you’ve smelled it, you know.
My assignments that summer became odder. A man who cut out his girlfriend’s breast implant as a demand for repayment of something he purchased. Another man put his kids in big barrels during the day while he worked.
My only hope was that when we got back to the station, I could write these stories. Sometimes I could, sometimes a reporter took them over.
One story I was writing I felt was worthy of every award, I was halfway done with the General Manager came in and said “what are you working on?”. I explained my story and he sat and watched as I wrote it and ripped it to shreds. I was terrified to write another word and at some point felt like I didn’t even know the English language. I’ve never been good with someone watching over my shoulder. I thought my producing career was over. As he left he said “good effort and keep working on it.”
Working on it, I sure did.
My only dream, aside from being a producer, was getting as far away from the midwest as possible. I was over flat and boring and bugs and familiar places. I had wanderlust that hasn’t left me to this day.
Two weeks after graduation, I was working in catering in St. Louis, worried about why I didn’t have my dream job yet.
I got a call from a station in Reno for an overnight editor position. One fine day, I was catering a Bare Naked Ladies concert back when “Old Apartment” was their only hit (dating myself again), and I called the News Director from a payphone. He offered me the job and I accepted. I rushed to the catering line to tell someone, but my colleagues had gone back to get the food. The only people there were The Barenaked Ladies. I didn’t care. They were people and people needed to know I got a job. I burst out with an “I GOT MY FIRST JOB IN TELEVISION!” They cheers me with the beers they were drinking after their pre-show run. To this day, I like to brag that a hit band was the first to know my career milestone.
Less than a month later, after a drive across the country with dad, I was in Reno, in a small apartment I nicknamed “the rat trap” for how awful it was, and ready to start work.
The overnight shift isn’t for the weak. On my second day, I overslept and thought I was fired. When I returned to work filled with apologies the producer said “the last two editors just walked away and never came back. We thought you quit!”. Let the record show, I have never overslept another day in my life.
So I edited video, tape to tape, tearing holes in my fingers with each edit. I had tough anchors. I made mistakes. I got my first paycheck, and at $8 an hour it was only $5 more than my rent. Thank goodness for graduation cash to tide me over.
As time went on, I made fewer mistakes, even got some accolades for my work and music selections on teases. Life was good.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I became a damn good video editor. So much so that I got moved to another shift. Grrr. I wanted to be a producer. Finally, I tried to make my own path. When I was fast enough at editing, I asked the producer if I could write the kicker. A kicker turned into a few other stories in the C Block, and eventually, I wrote the B Block and down, dealing with many critiques along the way.
“Why are you doing it like that?”
“Where is that story from?”
“That story doesn’t make sense. Let me show you how to do this.”
But I kept trying to write and write to video and be clever with my writing.
As we transitioned to non-linear editing, the producers had to learn to edit, and one day someone needed to fill in on the 5 pm news. I said, “I can do it!”. So. Many. Glares. My. Way. I promised – I CAN DO THIS. A few producers backed me up and offered to help if/when I crashed and burned.
Wouldn’t you know it that was the day a Capitol Police Officer was shot? Everyone was at lunch when it happened and I was the only one in the newsroom. There were no text message options or phones to call. It was me, a big story, and my life on the line (in my own mind.)
I started getting a hold of reporters and we made some plans. When the team returned from lunch I explained what was happening and the next few hours were a blur of phone calls, satellite bookings, writing and re-writing, and then came time for the booth.
I walked into the News Director’s Office who was there with the Executive Producer. I gathered all the courage my 22-year-old body could muster and said “Look if you trust me to booth this I have to be alone in there. I can’t handle people looking over my shoulder. I think I can do this, but if you don’t agree then have someone else booth.”
I was asked to leave the room and summoned back shortly. I was allowed to booth – BUT – the EP was going to be right outside the control room door.
During the show, everything went wrong behind the scenes. Satellite time had to be moved, live shot was up moments before we went, production asked questions at the rate of 5 times a second. I gave answers I didn’t even know I knew and was amazed at my own natural instincts to do this.
“Senator Reid is delayed and Vegas gets him first, move him down in the show!!!” came the call from the newsroom. My fingers worked like magical little elves making the changes correctly.
The show went on and after an eternity it ended. As we counted down the final 5 seconds, and we tossed to network. I looked around, I was covered in phone cords from the IFB phones (back when they were actual phone lines), I was hot, sweaty, and felt something I had never felt before. I finally let out a loud sigh, ready to say something great, when I burst into tears.
“The new girl is crying. I said – the new girl is crying” a less-than-impressed director said into the headset.
Several people walked in and someone said “Are you okay?”
All I could say was the words that still live true – “That was the BEST THING EVER. I mean, EVER. Of all the best things, that is the best best thing EVER. Can we do that again? I mean that was just awesome.”
I barely cleaned my tear-stained face as I walked down the hall to face my boss and the other producers. My News Director smiled a big, toothy smile – “You’ve got chops, kid. Keep it up.”
And I was hooked. I was in love with producing. It’s an art, a technical beast, a critical line of communication and my headset was the entry point to the world of telling people about it.