It seems strangely calm, that place in the corner of the TV newsroom. A single person taking phone calls, listening to police scanners, reading press releases, flipping through traffic cameras or watching social media. But, the assignment desk is the broadcasting equivalent to the low pressure area at the center of a tornado.
The assignment editor sits at the assignment desk. In radio. the news director can be the assignment editor too. But in both cases, they are responsible for taking the minute by minute pulse of story newsworthiness by watching their city electronically. And they are also gatekeepers by taking tips from callers and forwarding them to the right reporter. They then send those reporters and camera operators out the door into storms, floods, power failures, traffic accidents and crime scenes. They run them ragged, from one shoot to the next or divert them in route. They command them back because the story needs to run at noon, or five or eleven.
Everyday, stations have news meetings where the anchors and reporters postulate on what the best stories that day will be and where they are likely hiding. And everyday, they walk out of that room, with that plan in hand and into a shower of tiny wrenches. The assignment desk reminds them that the location of the open house has changed because the keynote speaker is delayed, or the city just closed Highway X, and now, you have to use Highway Y, which is going to make getting to that 1:30 press conference a challenge. Or what was going to be a voice-over video only shoot is now going to be a live remote, and oh, have you been trained on the new module? And BTW, you were going to have a reporter but now, you have to shoot it yourself.
Back in the newsroom, reporters, camera operators and producers hover around the assignment desk like moths to a flame. Or they yell back and forth to it from across the room.
“Who, again?” “What was it?” “When does it start?” “Where, exactly?” “Why are they doing that?” “How the hell did that happen?”
In response, assignment editors can be grumpy, but it is a grumpiness that I think is really a kind of world weariness. They know everything in their town; every schedule, every intersection, every official, every phone number, URL or email address. They know their team and may have even gotten into a shouting match or two with some the more high-maintenance among them. And they know each other. The know other desks can be just has loud, hot and turbulent as their own..
They truly are, constantly, drinking from a firehose. I can imagine that when these folks go home at the end of the day, they want to be as far away as possible from any word, voice, sound or picture that comes out of the end of a wire.
Seven days a week, 24-hours a day, the assignment desk is manned (or womanned). I have watched assignment editors work. They look calm, sitting over there by themselves.
But they are a force of nature, and everybody knows it.
At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static. When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem. I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station. I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you. I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control. At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line. I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.
The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned. And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening. Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that. Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem. So, why no mention?
My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control. It makes sense. Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever. Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio. So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there. The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.
But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge. And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners. We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories. All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives. It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.
So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs? If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?
When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over. Or, there would be long stretches of dead air. I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation. Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW. Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.
But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass. And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative. One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience. And that is a mistake.
Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it. Stuff happens.” And yes, that’s true. Why should we care? I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?
Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember? Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support. When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.
It’s a little thing, but not really.
Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace was talking to Jeff Selingo, author of the book, “There is Life after College“. He responded to a comment Mr. Selingo made about how, instead of recruiting seniors, businesses are now looking at sophmores so they can “try them out before they buy them.”
“That’s a little harsh”, Mr. Ryssdal responded. And then, three seconds of silence which, in radio, is a least one and a half forevers.
You could feel Mr. Selingo being pulled through the tiny hole Mr. Ryssdal had formed around his incredulity over how colleges are being ruthlessly business-like. Eventually, almost reluctantly it seemed, he replied. This led me to two observations;
1. I thought Marketplace was a business program that stared clear and cold eyed at business realities. This surprises you, really?
2. Again, the crushing weight of radio silence bent another human to its will.
I’ve talked about the host pause before, so no need to dwell on it here except to say, man, does it work.
I have been inside a broadcast facility twice when it lost power. Once was in Korea when lightning hit the antenna of AFKN, aka the military run, American Forces Korea Network. The other was at WKRC in Cincinnati. High up on Highland Drive, that huge red and white, 500-foot antenna also was a lightning magnet.
In both cases, it was very, very creepy. Somebody like me, who has practically grown up in studios, production rooms, edit bays, and news pits, surrounded by lights, buzzes, beeps, bells, flashes and static; to have all of that go dark and silent – for a minute, it can feel like the end of the world.
And God help you if you are in the path of a engineer, rocketing through the building with a waving flashlight and screaming that they have to get to the backup generator. Meanwhile, everybody sort of mills around with literally nothing to do because they have, literally, no way to do it.
A dark and silent TV or radio station is a thing against nature.
So it is with some sadness that I read that Al-Jazeera America is going dark after three years of trying to create an American market for it’s brand of newscasting. In Arabic, the name means, “The Peninsula”, a direct reference to the fact that the parent of Al Jazeera America is based in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.
According to Wikipedia, the network, which had its first broadcast on November 1, 1996, is sometimes perceived to have mainly Islamist perspectives, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, and having a pro-Sunni and an anti-Shia bias in its reporting of regional issues. It also accused of having an anti-Western bias. However, Al Jazeera insists it covers all sides of a debate
In an article by Laura Wagner, she quotes NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik as saying about the network:
“After an earlier channel called Al-Jazeera English failed to make a dent in the U.S., Al-Jazeera America was built on the acquisition of a liberal cable network called Current.”
Al Jazeera purchased Current in 2013, which was itself a struggling news network, from a consortium headed by former Vice President Al Gore. Folkenflik adds:
“The deal intended to ensure major distribution, but some cable providers resisted, saying that was a bait and switch. Al-Jazeera executives also promised the channel would not distribute its shows online, which meant that much of its content never became available digitally. Internal strife proved common and Al-Jazeera America never caught on — drawing audiences in the tens of thousands. Ultimately, the channel’s Qatari patrons pulled the plug.”
Wagner says “the network’s goal was to produce serious journalism and thorough reports, and it won several awards during its short run, including a Peabody and an Emmy. Its most well-known documentary was an expose that alleged several professional athletes used performance-enhancing drugs. Much of the evidence, however, hinged on the word of one person, Charlie Sly, a former intern at an Indianapolis clinic, who later recanted his story. The documentary was slammed by former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the athletes implicated in the story, and prompted defamation lawsuits from Major League Baseball players Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard.”
Al Jazeera will go dark Tuesday night after it airs, and repeats, a three-hour farewell. As a reporter and journalist, editor, writer, talent and lover of all things broadcasting, and politics notwithstanding, turning off that transmitter is a sadness I will feel in my bones.
“We thank X for his/her contributions here at W-whatever, and wish him/her the best in his/her future endeavors.”
How much more non-committal than that can an official statement announcing the departure of a broadcasting professional be? I recently saw that language used and decided to Google phrase keywords to see just how much of a stock phrase it is.
Among the results at the top:
Freshman Guard – University of Iowa
Artistic Director – Rockford Dance Company
Offensive Coach – Sacramento Kings
Chief Operating Officer – Lands’ End
Chief Financial Officer – Intelsat
Senior Official – Jet Airways
Google showed 242,000 more results
Statements like this don’t hint at whether the person was fired or quit (the sanitized version of the latter is “resigned”). Also, if the words “effective immediately” are high up in the statement, the goodbye was probably a bad one.
There seems to be a slight distinction between whether the person making the statement says “We” versus if they say “I”. People who say “I” tend to add more personal details, such as how long they’ve know the departing person and what they might specifically do after they go. And occasionally, these statements are very glowing. The speaker gives a history of the person’s accomplishments, talks about how much they will be missed, and reminds their new employer of how lucky they are.
Of course, it’s hard to know the sincerity of any these unless the person who themselves is leaving is standing and smiling beside the person making the statement. Unless it really feels like a friend and respected colleague is going away, you can bet everyone wants to get this part of turning the page over as quickly as possible.
Which is why, almost in the same breath, the speaker says something like, ‘Y will assume X’s duties temporarily”, followed by a description of Y’s qualifications. Besides the obvious, “We want to return to normal operations as soon as possible”, another message might be “We’re will immediately begin working to erase this person’s memory from our institution and your head.” Still, at least they merited a statement. How many employees are shoved off the edge of their desks into a shredder never to even be acknowledged?
Of course, if they committed a crime, weren’t meeting a standard or needed to go because management felt they were poisoning the work atmosphere, that’s management call. I’m sure the employee would have a different opinion. But it isn’t always so cut and dried. Someone who works hard to get where they are probably doesn’t choose to blow it up. And once a tide turns, there’s little they can do but let it wash them away. But that’s why America is the land of rebirths. A drone at a B-level job goes on to be a leader at an A-level job. It happens everyday.
Still, leaving is hard. Getting booted is harder and getting booted happens a lot. At the beginning of an ending, this is all the public will ever know. But when you hear this language, you know pretty much all you need to – something went very wrong and this person you’ve gotten to know is never, ever coming back.
I’m not sure how much credit graphics people at TV stations get, but they should get a lot more. And I think particular attention regarding computer graphics needs to go to meteorologists.
Those over the shoulder images you see when the anchor is doing the news were created by a team of one to a few people in a little room somewhere. If it doesn’t already exist in the station’s graphics library, or if it’s not part of a graphics package the station pays for, it has to be created in-house.
After a news meeting, the graphics people get a list of graphics needed for subsequent newscasts. These things take time to make. And consider a graphic that was accurate for a story last year, might need to be tweaked because an updated story needs an updated graphic. So the person doing the work needs to have computer savvy and arts expertise to put them together quickly and have them look good too. It’s important because if a graphic doesn’t fit the story, nobody is happy. Likewise, if the thing gets corrupted or deleted, that can give a news director or producer conniptions.
Meteorologists, also create graphics, but they are building their animated vs. static graphics that must be in real time to follow constantly changing weather. They don’t have a team. Instead, they have to do it themselves. It’s sort of like, the graphics people are cooks in a restaurant, while the meteorologists are cooking for themselves.
Interpreting high and low pressure areas, temperature isobars, radar images and satellite data, weather people have to turn National Weather Service information into something a viewer can plan painting their house or washing their car around. I imagine it gets to a point for them where it’s easy, but not necessarily simple. Proof of that is in the presentation of each channel’s weather.
None of the displays look the same. And the clickers they hold are different, meaning the hardware and probably software are different. Unlike static graphic folks who all probably use Adobe, for forecasters, it might not be as simple as choosing weather themes like writers get to choose font styles. WX people might need to learn all new packages when they move from station to station.
There is a lot more that goes on at a TV station besides video. Those static and animated images weren’t created by fairies. People who create graphics that also help tell the story, moving or not, are unsung heroes and heroines of the TV news business.
You can hear an announcer sound friendly. It’s when the corners of their mouth go up in a smile as they talk. You can actually hear it in your earbuds or speakers when it happens. It’s tangible. Just like you can hear when they inject a momentary laugh (that sounds almost like a stutter) into a sentence. In both cases, the speaker is trying to connect with you emotionally because they’ve been trained that a happy announcer makes for a relaxed listener.
You’ll hear that very short laugh, most often, when the speaker has made a mistake, like if they mispronounce a word. Almost instantly, you’ll hear the stutter laugh, which is deployed in a self-deprecating manner that says, “I’m human and I made a mistake. Isn’t that funny?” It’s interesting that so many announcers do it considering they are also trained to not draw attention to mistakes. But you’ll also hear that laugh when the announcer is trying to grease a thought that will help you slide along beside their intention. For instance, if a news reader is talking about a non profit’s mission that they believe in, although they can’t say so, they may unconsciously give a stutter laugh that quickly says, “This thing is good”, thus sending a flash message that it’s worth your consideration.
I also hear the stutter laugh is when the announcer, host or interviewer has a degree of contempt for something they’ve just heard or read. But most professionals are savvy enough to know that also sends a quick and clear message that could cause the audience to question their credibility and impartiality (if their audience cares about such things), so they don’t use that laugh as much. Often, I hear it used somewhere in a statement to add a momentary bit of levity to that statement. And sometimes, I hear it when the speaker is reacting to something that either is or isn’t funny, but only mildly so. But in almost all cases, it’s not about humor.
The smiling behind the mic is a little more involved. Admittedly, when I hear someone who sounds technically proficient but low on emotion versus someone who sounds warm, I gravitate to the warmth. In most situations where someone you can’t see is talking through a smile, they’re going to sound warm. The thing about that is even though it sounds really sincere, you couldn’t get away with it in person.
There’s this thing called the Facial Action Coding System, which was developed back in the 1970s. It identified every muscle of the face and created a matrix of combinations that identified almost every human emotion depending on which muscles you moved. Whether the test subjects actually felt the emotions that gave them the faces, or whether they forced the faces, the emotions, strangely, followed.
But faked emotions don’t work when you’re facing another human being because we’re way too sophisticated to be fooled by feelings that aren’t real even if all the right muscles are pulled. We add body language and vocal quality to facial expressions to help us calculate the honesty of the person we’re talking to. In interviews where people are sitting across from each other and feelings are faked, you can hear the conversation fall like a cinder block into a cow pasture.
You can only pull off false sincerity if nobody can see you (though, political campaigns would seem to contradict this). That’s different from a conversation that both people are clearly enjoying. There, you can hear the goodwill and the smiles are not fake. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the other thing; a solo announcer talking to and trying to somehow sway, the coveted “you”.
Talking through smiles and stutter laughs are two tools people behind microphones use to connect with you. And most likely, they use them so well, you hardly notice because they’re designed to set you at ease, not raise your awareness. These people don’t know you, but they want you to feel like they do (or would want to). Because in the world of broadcasting, where a successful connection means money or feet on the street, that’s good enough.