Howard's Story, Part 2

Howard's Story (Part 2)

by Howard Dicus

For several years I was a morning anchor at UPI, with zero interest in being a manager. At first it worked like this: Henry Marcotte did the 5am, 6am, 7am, 9am and 11am newscasts. Camille Bohannon did the 8am, 10am, noon, 1pm and 2pm newscasts. And Ron Amadon did two-minute newscasts at the bottom of the hour from 6:30 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. Hank Marcotte worked Sunday-Thursday. Camille worked Tuesday-Sunday. I did Hank's newscasts on his days off and Camille's newscasts on her days off and somehow, every single week, they needed me to work a fifth day. There were no two-minute newscasts on weekends but I filled in on those, too. Later, Hank and Camille moved on and the morning crew consisted of Charles Van Dyke, Ron Amadon and me.

The UPI Radio physical set-up was strange and, I thought, ill-conceived. Remember, I had worked for several months at AP Radio, where audio cuts were carted and a partially-automated machine played the cuts in the right order. The original automation was called Pinball but when I was there they were already on Son of Pinball. The newscaster worked in the middle of the newsroom surrounded by tape editors where he "mostly males then--the morning man had been Tom Martin, who later went to Unistar, and afternoons were anchored by Dan Scanlan, who later worked for Mutual" could hear what was coming in. The carts were used by the anchor after the feed went out, and sometimes before. I learned later that subsequent anchors protested being in the thick of things, complaining that it was noisy and distracting, but to me it was a sensible way to be on top of developments every second.

At UPI, the editors produced audio feeds on open reel with leader tape spliced in between cuts. Even the beep tones were spliced in. Can you imagine what happened to morgue tapes once they got old, with all those splices? Cart machines with step tones were mature technology years before I got to UPI but some of the audio people were still acting like their system was more reliable. I was told that this system was kept through a couple of opportunities to change because it was thought to be more reliable than automated cart machines. But the system broke down all the time. It led to some bad journalism, too. Assembling feeds on open reel created a physical disincentive to exercise good judgment in what to leave off. The lazier one felt, or the busier one was, the more one tended to be "productive" by putting out too many cuts from one interview before proceeding to the next. To "leave out" marginal material one had to actively remove it, usually by spilling it to the carpet. Many of the editors would leave so little on the floor that a presidential news conference would practically be transmitted whole except with leader tape and beep tones in the breath pauses. Affiliates wasted time carting marginal cuts and then had to hunt for the one or two really killer sound bites.

Among the "affiliates" wasting time carting all these cuts were the newscasters down the hall, who were judged by the editors largely on the basis of how often or seldom they complained about the audio service. The system contributed to tension between editors and newscasters. I encountered some ill-feeling for complaining about failings of the audio service even though I was a regular and voluntary contributor to it. This was not the fault of either the editors or the anchors in my view but was an inevitable outgrowth of a poorly-designed production line.

When I arrived at UPI, Doug Ruhe and William Geissler owned the company and were busy running it into the ground. Creditors weren't always being paid and sometimes we ran low on office supplies. Bankruptcy followed in the fall, and the main thing I remember about that first Chapter 11 was how smoothly the operation ran while the judge was in charge of it. The head of the company, Luis Nogales, gave a speech to the staff telling them that we needed to go after niche markets because we would no longer be all things to all people. He outlined some vague plans to tailor new information products to non-traditional customers. He mentioned only one concrete idea for saving money, which was to stop having AM- and PM- cycles. Several wiresiders in the room murmured that that was the end of UPI as they knew it. Wire services in those days wrote stories for morning papers and then a rewrite desk would freshen the stories for the afternoon papers, or vice versa. Basically this meant that several good writers who could have been generating really good fresh news were rewriting old news, probably introducing errors in the process. I also sat in on the daily story conference a few times and was astonished at the way the editors tried to outdo each other at looking bored and unimpressed with the stories they were covering.

Anyone who worked for UPI Radio in the late 1980s will have fond memories of the people. It was a mix of people who had been with the old UPI Audio--Pye Chamberlayne, Jim Lounsbury, Craig Smith, Ed Kerins--a "next generation" of talents including Bill Small, Bob Fuss and Bonnie Erbe?and newer arrivals like religion editors Jon Petersen and Sharon Gotkin. Creation of a special service for religion stations gave us a niche market that helped keep UPI alive, and complaints from religion clients who listened intently for signs of liberal bias kept our coverage more balanced than some of our competitors, which in turn saved some business in the heartland. Another new arrival was Dennis Daily, whom I had known since we worked at WAVA. Dennis built a machine to alert the anchor when an audio feed was starting, and another to notify someone in the religion booth when they had a call back in "NewsPrep."

Dennis is a complicated person. One day he would be in trouble for adlibbing a content-free report for the audio service inviting people to vote. The next day, on election night, on his day off, he would come in and cook dinner for the staff with food bought with his own money. Others can tell tales of individuals of these years at UPI but I'll just mention in passing the wire basket Jim Lounsbury carried his newscast script and carts into the air booth with, the pranks played on Paul Westpheling, Greg Haber talking to himself in full voice and looking like a homeless person, then wandering into the booth to perform another flawless sportscast. Don Rollins spritzing NewsPrep with water at the start of his shift to keep down the dust.

Tom Foty, one of the nicest and most dedicated guys in the business, didn't seem to have Lou Giserman's full confidence. I liked both and never could figure out why the electricity between them wasn't better, although both were civil about it so far as I know. Mike Freedman came in from Detroit as a second deputy. Freedman had been an affiliate and had the credibility in management meetings of someone who had actually used the service. Foty left after a disagreement over the relative coverage of two simultaneous news events, a mass murder at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, Calif., and a presidential nominating convention for which we had promised wall-to-wall coverage. Foty would work for Unistar and later NBC Radio. Giserman later also left and went to Mutual leaving Freedman in charge. Giserman had some career reverses later but he did some good at UPI.

Freedman did a couple of tours of duty. At one point he left for an executive position at WJR Detroit and moved back there, only to return to UPI as the managing editor for both the radio network and the broadcast wire. But then he moved to Detroit yet again to work for WWJ. Later Freedman came back to Washington and worked for Rep. David Bonior and then George Washington University. Freedman, another huge fan of Pye Chamberlayne, thought Pye told stories even better than Paul Harvey did and created some news programs similar to Harvey's that Pye wrote and anchored. With little money for marketing, it never caught on, but I enjoyed listening to them, and felt hon ored to be chosen as Pye's stand-in when he couldn't work. I also count as one of my most enjoyable times in radio the summer that I covered the Senate for UPI Radio while Pye was having hip replacement surgery.

The specter of UPI's financial insecurities made many people leave for other jobs. I stayed but saw an opportunity to use UPI's staffing problems to expand my professional horizons. When feature writer positions were cut, I volunteered to review books and classical CDs for the wire, figuring this would mean that if UPI ever tanked there would be a couple more things I could do for a living. I enjoyed this work hugely, and because it obliged me to learn the wire service computer system it helped me a lot later on. The editors coordinating reviews, first Michelle Mundt and later Frank Csongos, were very kind to me and let me write some weird stuff. Once when I read an Irish novel with really, really long sentences, I wrote a review of it that consisted of a single incredibly long sentence in the style of the novel.

Once when I read a dull book about blues nightclubs across America, I reviewed it by writing a blues lyric about it. The classical reviews led to a regular column called Classical Movements that was routinely published by our remaining newspaper clients in the Far East. I loved this and it created in me an affection for the wire service to match my affection for the radio service. I began to regret the chasm between the two operations, whose personnel scarcely knew each other and tended to see each other as unfairly using up scarce resources. But I was a rank-and-filer at this point and wasn't in a position to do much about it.

An outside manager named John Wilkes was brought in at one point. He was appalled to find we were still writing newscast scripts on IBM Selectrics and imported a separate computer system for Radio. But it didn't work very well. Wilkes ordered us to shorten our correspondent reports so WINS New York would run them. WINS canceled anyway and then NPR threatened to cancel because the reports were too short! Wilkes seemed competent but like many managers hired from outside he was more interested in importing off-the-shelf solutions he was familiar with from other places than in learning how UPI worked, and he didn't stay long.

Mike Aulabaugh, who had been a UPI Audio sportscaster before going into sales, came to Washington after Freedman's second tour. Aulabaugh never pretended to be an experienced senior executive but he brought a sensible perspective to the job, because as a sales representative he knew what the clients said about the service.

Business editor Barbara Porter and then tape editor David Oziel were promoted from within to news director. It was Freedman who saw the potential in Porter and I believe senior wire executive Billy Ferguson, another sensible man who could have rescued UPI utterly in in the 1980s if he had been listened to more, made the decision to choose Oziel. Both Porter and Oziel presided over difficult downsizing imposed from above as UPI continued to hemorrhage clients. Porter was particularly effective in helping us to swallow the reality of a much leaner newscaster operation. By 1990 a single newscaster did all the broadcasts for an entire shift. It wasn't as much harder as it sounds, because much of the work load in the old days had been running each other's board, filing copy into a needlessly-elaborate system of file folders, and reading loads of copy from remote locales. By 1990 the wire was so much smaller that it was no longer so hard to keep track of all the stories, and some of us were beginning to realize that it was faster if you did it on wireside computers instead of piling up hard copy.

Management has never been my first love. I like to write, and to read what I have written on the air. I had been the news director of a radio station in my youth--not a solo news director but the kind with actual people to supervise--but gladly returned to the rank-and-file at WAVA, and the same thing happened after Mutual. But now I found myself intrigued by the puzzle of finding ways to do the work of UPI Radio with fewer people without cutting service. I sometimes wonder how things might have been different if I hadn't applied for the news director job, or if Billy Ferguson hadn't hired me for it.

Copyright © 1999 through 2002 by The Dead Microphone Club and the contributors. All Rights Reserved.

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