|Former CNN Headline News anchorman Bob Losure loosens his newscaster's tie for a candid and humorous look at what can and will go wrong when you're doing live television, in his new book, Five Seconds To Air: Broadcast Journalism Behind the Scenes, published by Hilisboro Press and now on many bookstore shelves nationwide.
Losure draws on 30 years experience in broadcasting, from his beginnings in his
hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to CKLW Radio in the Motor City at age 22, and
finally to anchoring at CNN Headline News, known in its early days as the
Chicken Noodle Network.
Losure has some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories to tell, all chronicled in the book--
Barging unannounced with a live crew into Tina Turner's dressing room
Chatting with a pajama-clad Ted Turner in the middle of the night at the old CNN facilities
Watching fellow CNN Headline News anchor Don Harrison narrowly escape broadcasting disaster when told to read a bulletin that President Bush had died, only to find out later that the source was an institutionalized mental patient calling from a pay phone
Being on the wrong side of the microphone when Ed Bradley spars with him on 60 Minutes over of some controversial John F. Kennedy documents
On a more serious note, Five Seconds to Air relates Losure's uneasy departure from CNN after eleven years and gives his uncompromising view of where CNN should be headed. The book describes his fight through three surgeries and three sessions of chemotherapy to win a battle against cancer in 1985, a victory that propelled him to seek the CNN job. Seen around the world, his reporting of such history-making events as the San Francisco earthquake, Manuel Noriega's capture, and Nelson MandeIa's visit to America has given him a level of experience few national and international anchors have been privileged to have.
Losure now shares his broadcasting expertise as he speaks around the country on his inside knowledge of CNN's coverage of world events, how college grads can prepare for that first interview for a TV reporting job, and how corporate spokespersons can get their point across to the media in a positive light when only bad news is swirling around them. His sense of humor has made him a favorite of organizations ranging from the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce to the International Television Association based in Dallas.
Losure welcomes speech inquiries from associations, colleges, and charitable organizations. For information about his booksigning tour schedule and his availability for speaking engagements, please email Mr. Losure at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHAPTER 12- "Anchors Say The Darndest Things"
Anchoring live television news really gives the "bloopers" people a field day, especially since news and sports shows generally are the only ones that are "live" anymore. There was a veteran noon anchorman on a local Atlanta station a few years ago who just finished his weather forecast and was headed back into the news segment, when he was handed one of those 'just in" notes. He correctly adlibbed that a former football hero from the University of Georgia in the 40's, who won the Heisman Trophy, had passed on. He then dead-panned that the deceased was 70 degrees. Then without skipping a beat, he went on to other news.
During the commercial break, the anchor was told what he had said. The commercial break ended, the anchor was back on camera, and he apologized, adding,
"What we meant to say was, 'He was 70 degrees."'
By now, the man probably was at room temperature or below. The anchor had done it again. Station management reportedly presented him with an unexpected, but timely, two weeks off immediately following the newscast.
Journalists slip up in the "history" area too, even when it's recent history.
An anchor was reading a story a few years ago on an Oklahoma City station about native Oklahoma actor Ridge Bond, the rugged cowboy character "Curly" in the first performance of the musical Oklahoma on Broadway. He was to be honored for the 1944 stage role by the Oklahoma Heritage Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Then the writer's knowledge of history got a little fuzzy.
"Bond will be inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight," the announcer proclaimed.
"He played the part of 'Curly', one of the Three Stooges, longer than anyone else."
You don't have to be reading the news live to find yourself in a predicament either. My statuesque Headline News anchor colleague Lynne Russell, who I get asked about more than any other CNN or Headline News Anchor, always tries to stay ahead of a potential disaster on the news set.
She refuses to read the copy off the electronic TelePrompter unless she has the paper copy in her hand--just in case the TelePrompter suddenly fails. She's not bluffing either. If the story doesn't make it into her hands before the camera tally light comes on, she'll simply disregard the TelePrompter and read whatever looks good from other stories she has in her hand. Producers may pull their hair out because they couldn't get the so-called "hard copy" to her in time, but Lynne is consistent and goes pretty well unchallenged.
She's the subject of numerous articles, and appeared in Atlanta Magazine's April, 1995 issue a couple of years ago. On the cover she was shown in what looked to be a patent leather outfit with fishnet hose and one leg hiked up and touching her other knee. Inside the magazine, photos of her with her husband in a formal dining atmosphere; in a katate gee; and on her side, dress raised high to reveal the now-famous thigh holster.
For those of you who missed the show, she showed up on the Late Night With Conan O'Brien show on NBC a couple of years ago. O'Brien questioned her about her work as a part-time private eye and sheriff's deputy, and her skills to be a ballerina on the one hand, yet a tough-as-nails black belt in tai chi on the other.
"Yes, we catch philandering husbands all the time in my private detective work," she said. "Of course, we do most of it with long range lenses on the cameras, so it's seldom I have to get involved with actually serving them the lawsuit."
Then Conan asked the inevitable question about how she's able to hide her 9-millimeter thigh-holster and pistol when she's in a dress.
That, of course, elicited a few whistles as Lynne used her charm to bring the audience into the tent:
"Can I really do this on television?" she said somewhat bashfully.
"This could get me fired, you know. Actually, it's quite simple to hide it..."
At that point she slowly began to raise her dress, and for those men watching the Conan O'Brien that night, time suddenly stood still. For one brief moment in time, the show had the full attention of every male who was watching across America.
Lynne continued hiking up her dress, revealing the holster and gun. She unsnapped the holster, then snapped it back again.
No wonder she gets so much respect from the floor crew when she sits down in the anchor chair.
For almost 50 years, Art Linkletter has made a living off his original Kids Say The Darndest Things, then reviving it every few years--because kids in an unrehearsed situation still give us our most honest look at the world around us.
So it is with anchors and reporters. Sometimes we fail in our unrehearsed, unedited live situations on location, and sometimes we succeed
In 1989 and 1990 I would be in Miami one week for Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega's return to the U.S., then in New York the next week to cover a deadly Avianca Airlines disaster on Long Island. It was quite a challenge, and there was a big audience for the CNN Newsource live reports to over 300 ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox TV stations.
In October of '89 I was sitting at home in Atlanta watching the pre-game show before the start of the World Series, and suddenly saw ABC's Al Michael's describing the undulating shaking of the stands, the power outages across a wide area, and the fires blazing in San Francisco's Marina District. Little did I know I'd be standing next to those burned out buildings the following night, getting reports that 90 people had died, then having to reverse myself the next hour and say the death toll had just been lowered to 60..
It's a very eerie feeling in a bustling city like San Francisco after dark, and there are no street lights, no traffic lights, no lights in the building windows. Add to that the face that here I was, standing 20 feet from Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, with another 35 reporters all in a row, like some chorus line, with all of us talking simultaneously precisely at the beginning of each hour and half-hour.
Concentration on what you're saying while this rock concert level of anchor-mania is going on is absolutely essential. The minute you get distracted and start listening to what the anchor next to you is barking out, you're dead in the water.
In fact, our communication lines, in those early days of CNN NewsSource, were so primitive that at one point, we had to synchronize our watches in San Francisco with WWOR-TV in New York.
WWOR TV in New York wanted to do a customized live report with us in San Francisco. Now, when I say "customized", I mean that anchor Roland Smith would announce at approximately 11:01:00 p.m. EST that "Bob Losure is now here to give us an update on the casualty figures from San Francisco..."
I would thank Roland, get into the lead to the story, then play a pre-produced report, then close out the piece standing in front of the fires in the Marina District. Roland would say "thank you" and go on to his next story.
The problem was I wouldn't be able to hear Roland because my IFB, or Interrupted Feedback Device, couldn't be wired to the WWOR signal. So we synchronyzed our watches with New York, and in the dark, in the midst of chaos, we tried our luck.
With no one to listen to, just dead silence, I took the field producer's drop-of-the-hand cue at exactly 11:01 p.m. and began with, "Thank you, Roland. Here in San Francisco..."
I don 't know how it worked, but it did.
His intro ended at the precise second that I began by thanking him. Fortunately, we never had to do that again, and the audience never knew that I didn't see or hear Roland Smith at all that night.
In 1989, a devastating tornado plowed through a busy commercial area of Huntsville, Alabama, flattening buildings and killing 9 people. It alternately rained, then sleeted, then snowed while I was doing my daytime live reports from the main commercial area that had been devastated. As night fell, our generators had to be used for the lights, and we had to make do with what we could find for electricity for the reports themselves. That happened to be an electrical box from a steakhouse that had been blown over. We hooked up our lights and cameras. Then we routed the device to what is called an IFB, which stands for interrupted feedback device, so that I could hear myself and other anchors introducing me from other cities.
It was cold, it was windy, and it was pitch black when the anchors in West Palm Beach Florida said "We now go 'live' to Bob Losure in Huntsville for this update on the deadly tornado there:"
I responded with, "That's right, 9 people are dead..."
No sooner did I get those words out than a gravelly-toned voice blared into my ear.
"Hey, Mack," he yelled as my IFB reverberated.
"I need an order to go. Give me three chicken fried steaks, four baked potatoes... Oh yeah, how about two of those cobbettes..."
By now I was thinking: Did I say 16 people were injured or 16 cobettes were injured?
The one-way conversation continued.
"Hey, can you hear me? It sounds like some guy is broadcasting the news..."
All I could think about was to keep right on talking, even if the words didn't make any sense. It was like the lyrics, "Row, row, row your boat.."while a chorus of 10 people are joining in every five seconds. I had to remember that only I could hear him, and nobody else.
He finally gave up, because I finally heard a dial tone for the rest of my report.
Do you remember when President Bush got sick in 1990 on that Far East trip to Tokyo? When he collapsed because of jet lag, or sleep deprivation, or just food that didn't agree with him, there were several minutes when the world didn't know how serious his dilemma was.
And therein, lies the basis for this story.
That morning, shortly after the President collapsed, a phone call was made to a CNN medical reporter at CNN in Atlanta. The caller, purporting to be the President's physician, Dr. Burton Lee, told the reporter that he wanted to let CNN know first that the President had died.
The reporter, thinking that he had a major story, turned to his computer, opened up the "Read-Me" file where CNN employees are alerted on company business and news judgment calls. He typed in the statement that he had word from a man, purporting to be the President's doctor, that President Bush had died.
The rather gray area of all this is that at the time, in 1990, there were no hard-and-fast rules of what "was" and "was not" supposed to go on-air from the "Read-Me" file.
Immediately, two CNN Vice-Presidents descended on the CNN medical reporter's office to find out what was going on. At Headline News, two floors below, where the normal supervising producer--Dave Willis--was in a meeting, the less-experienced line producer in the director's booth noticed what was going on. Through the IFB communication line to anchor Don Harrison on the set, the line producer asked Don to read the buletin in the "Read-Me" file as soon as the report then-playing ended.
Don, with 35 years in TV news behind him, argued that there was no corroboration of the statement from any other news sources, so he didn't feel Headline News should air it.
Now, that's where this story should have ended, because in most local newsrooms, the main anchor's experience gives him or her a certain degree of latitude to decide such issues. However, at Headline News, and at CNN for that matter, there has always been a rush for each to beat the other with a major bulletin, even if it's by a scant 15 seconds.
So the line producer raced out of the director's booth, down the hall, and into the office of senior producer Roger Bahre. Bahre, then third in the management hierarchy at Headline News, got just a quick briefing, and in his haste to get the story on-the-air ahead of CNN, told Don to read it.
So, here was Don Harrison--a man in a quandary. If he didn't read it and it was true, he'd be accused of insubordination. If he did read it, and the story proved to be a hoax, he'd know what it felt like to be the captain of the Titanic shortly after hitting that iceberg.
The tally light on the top of the studio camera came on, and there sat Don Harrison... stuck in the twilight zone and aging by the minute.
He stalled for a few seconds, saying "There has been a report of tragic news involving the president... and we have no corroboration on it yet.. No confirmation from The White House. Nothing from the A-P.. No word from Reuters..."
Just as he was about to include the fact that his third cousin had not confirmed the story either, Rober Bahre began waving frantically at Harrison from out of camera range, but within Don's peripheral vision, pleading with him to forget the story.
It had just been stricken from the "Read-Me" file by the CNN team upstairs.
Harrison glanced incredulously at the senior producer and returned his gaze to the camera.
"We'll have that news a little later on for you," he blurted out. "Let's go to the business desk in New York now, to get the latest on trading at the opening of today's session..."
The President, as we all know, was not dead. The call was later traced to a phone used by a mental patient in Idaho. It was not the President's doctor.
Don Harrison had saved the network. Both current and former CNN and Headline News employees might still be wearing brown paper sacks over their heads with little holes punched out for the eyes if Harrison had not vamped for a few seconds.
Time, Newsweek, and other magazine reporters were watching though, and were quick to point out the near calamity. CNN's public relations spin on it was that an alert producer had stepped in to save Don. Actually, Don, by stalling for just a minute, saved us all.