I’m Just Mild About Harry

Did you read Prince Harry’s book, “Spare” ? Yeah, I did because it was in my house and my library books were all overdue. I also wanted to “get” all of Stephen Colbert’s jokes and craved anecdotes regarding what happens when you freeze your “todger.” It is winter, you know, and one can never be too prepared for the wonts of nature while pushing the snow blower in the driveway.

I’ve always looked at Great Britain’s monarchy as a human zoo. With no power and an unfathomable love for bagpipe music, really, what purpose does it serve other than a lucrative tourist attraction in a nation that sorely needs the quid.

Perhaps the nation would be better served hiring the functionless bluebloods as knowledgable tour guides to educate the public as they schlep through Buckingham Palace and other assorted castles and musty old places.

This way they’d earn their keep without sucking up scarce public funds to maintain an unjustifiably lavish lifestyle.

It would also be effective in addressing Harry’s main beef in the book regarding the scummy British tabloid press and paparazzi. If the former royals were just working stiffs they’d cease to be of interest. Who’s gonna buy a paper with a headline screaming, “Palace Tour Guides Break For Lunch!” Problem solved.

Now I’ll admit, I did learn some things in the Spare’s book. The boy doesn’t like beer? Doesn’t relish downing a pint of piss warm brew at the corner pub, opting for tequila or gin and tonic instead? Sorry, I can’t hang with a bloke like that.

I learned that freckles on the face of Harry’s wife Meghan were airbrushed out of official photos. He lamented he thinks the freckles are cute. I’d maintain you don’t just eliminate part of someone’s face, unless you’re going to eliminate all of Camilla’s.

I never got the function of curtseying. When I was in grade school they tried to teach us how to pull off a curtsey for some reason. The girls had no problem. They were graceful. The guys just fell down. I always thought if I was in a position where someone thought they had to curtsey to me I would start laughing as I told them, “if you’re gonna go down that far, may as well kill the cockroach by your left leg.”

Frankly, I don’t think the dear, late Queen enjoyed the curtsey. I always imagined Her Highness thinking, “oh for crissakes. I can hear your joints cracking and this purse isn’t getting any lighter.”

Harry does come off as a troubled guy having endured the trauma of his mother’s death fleeing the “paps”, a brother who is portrayed as a bit of a turd and a father more concerned with his image than his offspring.

In the end it’s a little hard to feel sorry for someone who’s living in ultra-rich Montecito, Calif.–.same hood as Oprah, Rob Lowe and Arianna Grande and lots of other lesser-known one percenters. But I appreciate Haz and his family can’t live in just any suburban subdivision given serious security concerns, so no gripe there. But man, the HOA fees must be a killer.

Well, after slogging through 407 pages of Harry’s mostly depressing travails, I’m good. I get it. I’ve had enough. That’s why when Harry revealed he actually cut about 400 pages of content to protect his family but could conceivably publish a sequel, my only reaction is, Spare me.

Secrets of CNN Center From Its First Supervising Producer

Two Eds are better than one. Ed Turner and me at the Supervising Producer pod in CNN Center

The news broke this week that CNN Center in Atlanta will be closing by the end of the year. Here’s something few people know. I was the first supervising producer on duty when CNN Center opened in 1987.

I was working the 11pm-7am shift in preparation for the morning show called Daybreak at the time. Sounds like a shitty graveyard shift, but overnight in the States is prime time for overseas news. Can’t say “foreign” news because Ted Turner didn’t allow it. You had to say “international” or some other synonym for news not happening in the U.S. because, he correctly asserted, people in Bulgaria hearing news about their country wouldn’t consider that news foreign. Ted was a pretty brilliant guy.

We weren’t actually on the air yet from CNN Center. That would happen when Daybreak signed on at 6am. The last live newscast from CNN’s original location at 1050 Techwood Drive across from Georgia Tech University was Newsnight Update, which ended at 1:30 am.

With a TBS camera rolling for an upcoming documentary on the move at the appointed time I called over to Techwood to say something like, “operations are complete at Techwood. Time to move the mile or so down to CNN Center.” I’m sure it was better than that but sadly I never documented my remarks because I was sure they were unremarkable.

A little while later, Susan Rook, who had anchored that last live show from Techwood, arrived at CNN Center with a gift for me. She had removed one of the CNN logos on the anchor set and presented it to me. It’s on my office wall along with a photo from the 1989 CNN bureau chief’s meeting in Ted’s office and a poster signed by Ted wishing the Detroit Bureau luck when it opened in 1982.

I was the Detroit Bureau chief and correspondent from May, 1989 to January, 2001. When I was laid off in the great purge of ’01 I took the framed poster with me. The bureau was closed later that year.

Something else about CNN to which I will sheepishly admit. While the place was under construction I was appointed to a committee to help design the layout of the newsroom. For some reason I had the hairbrained idea it would be cool to emulate a print newsroom set up with circular team workstations with an editor in the middle—the slot..get it?

To my dismay the others loved it and that’s the way the “pods” were built. They were almost universally despised. Writers and producers around the rims were uncomfortable and the editors often complained of feeling like chestnuts roasting on ambient fires.

Once I caught wind of this dissatisfaction I never once, until this moment, mentioned that I was largely responsible for my colleagues’ misery. Apparently no one else remembered and the subject was never brought up. Why am I admitting this now? Because someone is likely to write another “history” of CNN and not get it exactly right. Call me.

For many years I had the blueprints for the newsroom design and I still might, but I can’t lay my fingers on them because there’s a good chance one of my family members used it to wrap Christmas presents and they’ve long ago been buried in a Michigan landfill. I have some boxes to exhume. Maybe they’re in there. But I won’t be looking today.

One of my strongest recollections from being the first supervising producer at CNN Center was learning the layout, especially the location of the washrooms. You see, working at CNN could be very stressful and when someone had the need there could be no delay.

It actually cracked me up as I sat in the elevated supervising producers pod, which was crescent shaped and not round, and crazed producers and writers who hadn’t taken advantage of the advance tours, screamed at me, “where the hell is the fuckin’ bathrooooooom!” If it was someone who had exhibited especially ass-holey behavior to me in the past, I’d kinda look up and ask, “what?” “Gotta go!!!!! Where!!!!!????” they’d holler while nature was hollering back at them. Then I’d point them in the right direction.

Often, when there were finished doing their business and returned to the newsroom they’d offer their appreciation for the information I shared with a familiar hand gesture, which I’m sure, in some culture, meant, “Next time I will pee on your shoes.”

Being the supervising producer meant largely, um, nothing. You didn’t actually produce. You mainly made sure the upcoming newscasts were leading with the best and latest stories, the producers knew of new material coming in on the satellites and if someone called in sick you had to find a replacement.

I loved that part. A producer would call in sick at, say, 1am and I’d ring up the designated replacement. Without fail I had rousted that person from their chaotic dreams and they’d bark at me, “do you know it’s the middle of the freakin’ night?” I’d calmly reply, “it’s the middle of my work day. Need you to come in tomorrow and produce the 2pm show.” Rough words were exchanged but the deed was done. I’d won again.

Working in the middle of the night I often had conversations with correspondents stationed overseas. Sometimes it was to approve a script, but at least one based in Japan just wanted to talk because he was lonely.

During many of the hours when I had literally nothing to do, I’d decide to prowl the oddball nooks and crannies of CNN Center. From the top floor of the CNN space you could look out at the atrium and see all sorts of things. Sometimes I’d see couples emerging from the movie theater or Omni Hotel or offices that were coupled with other people in real life. Omerta!

I remember the very last time I was in CNN Center. I had come down from Detroit in late 2000 to meet with the bosses. It was a one-day quickie. Unremarkable, but somehow I knew my time at the network would end soon. I kinda turned around and took what I just felt was my last look at the place and cracked up to myself thinking, “those poor slobs are still sweating in my pods.”

Storm and Drang

Today’s the second day of winter. You know what happens in winter? It gets cold and often snows. What?????? This is news to you? For the past 48 hours weather people in at least three time zones have whipped up a frenzy about a coming winter storm. I know, they’re trying to give fair warning, keep people safe and mostly, boost ratings and web traffic.

You ever wonder what weather people do in places where none of the crap happens? Where there’s nothing to hype but another great day? It just so happens I was one of them very early in my career. My first TV job was as the weekend weather guy on KGUN in Tucson, Arizona while I was going to grad school at the University of Arizona to earn my Masters in Journalism.

I just happen to have one to show you.

You should know I had no weather training whatsoever. To get the job I went to the library, pulled some books on meteorology, learned a few words I could toss in to make it look good and learned how to decipher a weather map.

I showed up at the station for my audition and was told to just use the map the real weather guy just used on the air. Total prep time with that map, 10 minutes. No scripts. Like other weekend weather guys in that market, I was hired because I was good at spewing extemporaneous bullshit from my experience as a radio DJ.

Now Tucson has three basic weather features: hot, really hot, quick downpours in June and July called chubascos, or typhoons. The rain would last for about 20-30 minutes, flood the streets, then drain out into the desert. After that Tucson weather would revert to either hot or really hot.

That’s not much to fill a 3.5 minute weather cast. So what to do? Turns out there are a lot of snowbirds or permanent transplants from the midwest and the east coast. Many of them spent a lot of money to lead that lifestyle. So I was told to spend 3 of those 3.5 minutes recapping how crappy the weather was in those areas to make the transplants feel good about their moves, and also to give them fodder for calling their relatives and friends back home to rub it in. “Hey Izzie! I hear it sucks in Chicago…like 12 degrees, snow and bastard winds! It’s 103 for the 12th day in a row out here in Tucson…in December. I’m not even wearing pants! Take care, sucka!”

The final 30 seconds of the weathercast was the forecast for Tucson. “Yup, hot again. It might even be hotter this weekend.” One time, though, something unexpected happened. A rogue rainstorm cropped up on a Sunday. Came out of nowhere so it wasn’t in my “expert” forecast.

The next day while at the supermarket with my wife, some guy recognized me and started yelling, “you screwed up my family picnic on Sunday ya bastard!” The folks in the checkout line stared at me and one murmured, “ya eff’d up mine too.” Figures, the one time there was actual weather we missed it.

Weather was never gonna be my thing anyway. It was just a foot in the door on my way to my real goal of being a reporter. But my short experience ad libbing my ass off in front of a weather map followed me years later after I was at CNN for a few years.

I was working at the CNN headquarters on election night 1986 as a reporter when around midnight the weathercaster for the morning show called in that her mother had just died and of course, needed to take some time off. The backup weather guy didn’t answer his page, which caused some panic. Then one guy remembered my dark past and told the boss, “Hey Ed did weather in Tucson.”

The boss came to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot. Why not. We had an awesome weather producer name Ross Hayes and he got me through it. Made the maps, briefed me on top weather features and I had enough to wing it through a half dozen weather segments. I guess I did ok because the boss asked me if I wanted to be a permanent weather fill-in guy. Eh, by that time I was a full-time network correspondent but I didn’t say no. I was never asked the to the weather again.

I have to say, I did enjoy doing the weather because it was a chance to show a little personality, ad lib and not have to cover a shooting or plane crash or city council meeting.

I did learn, however, back in my KGUN days, people don’t always listen carefully. After popping onto the set to report a tornado warning my phone rang. At the other end of the line was a very irate senior citizen with a disturbing question and accusation. “What’s that you just said about President Carter dying?” I politely explained I said nothing of the sort, but rather I reported a tornado warning. “Ha!” she snorted. “Hiding the truth! Can’t trust you weather people!”

An Original’s View of the CNN2 Destruction

Me, on the right in the white jacket in 1982, working on my CNN2 newscast rundown at 1 a.m.

Listen to a podcast version at: https://anchor.fm/ed-garsten9/episodes/An-Originals-Requiem-For-HLN-e1rtb8c

Sometime in November, 1981 I got a tip. CNN was starting a second network and needed newscast producers. I just happened to be a newscast producer at KGUN, the ABC station in Tucson, Ariz.  The person who gave me the tip also gave me a number to call in Atlanta where CNN was based. I called the number, spoke to someone who told me to send a tape of my newscast.

Someone must have liked it because I received a call from Atlanta telling me an airline ticket would be waiting for me on Sunday, two days from then. I was to fly there, be interviewed, then fly back the same day.

The interview seemed to go well, but as one of the big bosses led me to the door to leave, he said, “good luck….no matter what happens.” Shit. It’s wasn’t gonna happen.

I read it wrong. The next day the top money man called me at my desk at KGUN and offered me the job to start as a producer for the new CNN2. Be there in two weeks..or sooner.

The big rush was because Ted Turner, founder and genius behind CNN, heard ABC was going to start a fast-paced headline news type network called Satellite News Channels in 1982. Ted instantly called upon his top people at the network and told them to create and launch a competitor by the first of the year, 1982.

They had just a few months to figure this out…and did. We not only beat SNC on the air, Turner bought it and shut it down.

My first day was November 30, 1981. I showed up in brown corduroy jeans and a checked button-down shirt. It’s the kind of stuff I wore in Tucson where life is eternally laid back. I quickly found out it’s not what you wear when showing up for work at a network.

All these guys in jackets and ties and women in fine business clothes stared at me. The boss smiled as he said to me, “you might have noticed there’s a dress code.” I do now.

Over the next five weeks I experienced the most intense training and evaluation period of my life. The new CNN2 format was brutal. Very fast, very structured and be ready for anything to change and know how to deal with it so it looked seamless on the air. Fun.

Some people didn’t last. I saw one person cry, walk away and never saw her again.

But it was awesome. We put together some of the fastest-paced, content-rich, creative newscasts you can imagine. Yes, the pace was brutal. I’d often get home and fall asleep at the dinner table from sheer fatigue.

However, even when I produced newscasts at 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. working overnights, we had a tight team camaraderie and yes, some spirited competition.

The first section of each half hour was eight minutes long—breaking news and latest content spilling down from the satellites. The goal was to show the anchors as little as possible, moving from video to video to video to soundbite to reporter package to video to video.

We producers took great pride in how much video we could stuff into those eight minutes. I think I once broke 30. The guy in playback collapsed on the couch in the atrium between CNN2 and CNN afterwards.

The pressure to find visual ways to tell a story resulted in some creative solutions. One time there was a story related to the war in El Salvador. I had no video but found a couple of photos on the wire. Hmm…what to do. It wouldn’t be good enough to just pop the photos on the air full screen, I wanted things to move.

So I had a conversation with my director. I asked him, “what if we started with a map showing the location of the battle over the anchor’s shoulder, push it full-screen after the first sentence, squeeze in one of the photos over the spot where it happened, do a 3D wipe to the next photo and pop it back over the anchor’s shoulder.

He loved it and we actually executed the complicated move live on the air. For 1982, that was pretty sophisticated.

You see, it was pure news. No interviews, no opinions, no bullshit. All content on a tight wheel where viewers could almost tell what time it was based on what was on the screen and know if they wanted the hear the latest in sports, around 17 after or 13 minutes before the hour was the time to tune in.

Then it all changed. First, the name. It went from CNN2 to CNN Headline News then Headline News and much later, HLN, which meant nothing to anyone. There was still some live programming but otherwise there was pre-produced content, much of it excellent. It just wasn’t “headline news.”

I worked at CNN2 until September, 1983 when I was promoted to the main network where I first produced the 2 p.m. newscast, then further moved up to the morning show, Daybreak. Eventually, and I’m skipping a lot of time here, I reached my real goal of being a reporter and was made a correspondent in the Atlanta-based Southeast Bureau, did some fill-in anchoring, even did the weather once in an emergency, and eventually was made Detroit Bureau Chief and Correspondent where I served for 12 years before being laid off in that “great” Time Warner-AOL merger of 2001. They also closed the bureau some months later since all that was left was a shooter and producer with no reporter.

Ah…yes..layoffs, shut downs, destruction. It was nothing CNN founder and head dreamer Ted Turner would have ever done. He was about building, supporting, enhancing, preserving. He was never about regression or destruction.

The original genius of CNN2 gradually and tragically morphed into a bit of a catch-all that made no sense. It had long ago served its purpose, vanquished a would-be enemy and probably should have left the scene once it veered off course.

As someone who was sent packing from a job I loved I feel awful for all those suffering the same fate. My message to them is know you did nothing wrong. You have plenty to offer and you will survive. I did so by reinventing myself as a print journalist, corporate communications executive and back to journalism.

Indeed, getting laid off by CNN was the best thing that happened to me. I found out I had much more in me than I thought, enjoyed great second and third acts in my life but always knew, without CNN on my resume, many of those doors may not have opened for me. 

So screw the bean counters, unimaginative executives, corporate assholes…there’s more out there and if the CNN line on your resume helps make it happen, use it..they owe ya one.

When Halloween Candy Turned to Copper

Some people are naturally good at Halloween, some aren’t. I don’t mind saying I, personally, suck at it and always have. That may be, in part, due to my upbringing. No one in my family really took it seriously.

I always had the crappy costume in a box that ripped after you hit three houses leaving my ass exposed to the fall chill while I made my candy demand rounds. Those costumes always included a mask with such sharp edges you looked like one of Freddy Krueger’s victims by the time you returned home.

I lived in a massive garden apartment complex in Queens, N.Y., that outer borough of New York City people in other boroughs kissed off as “out on the island,” meaning Long Island. No matter Brooklyn is also on Long Island, but that’s another battle for another day.

My street was one of three that intersected at a single point, meaning you could hit literally hundreds of apartments just by walking around. I’d score so much candy I’d have to make periodic stops at home to dump my bag. Bad move!

While I was on my next round my parents were picking through my stash keeping the good stuff and pulling aside what they deemed the losers—Mary Janes, marshmallow peanuts, Smarties, candy corn.

Oh no, they weren’t going to eat them. What was going on was a scheme worthy of Bernie Madoff. Instead of actually buying candy, they skimmed my sugar proceeds to dump in some other poor kid’s bag.

Like any pyramid scheme, the perps eventually either tap out or get busted. In my parent’s case, once the supply of their ill-gotten goodies was depleted they had to come with something, anything, to satisfy the treat or treaters.

That’s when things got ugly. My father would call for the extreme, and always, unsuccessful, backup plan—the Boston bean pot. It was way up high in the cupboard when they kept their booze, collection of swizzle sticks and matches. Indeed, the bean pot never made an appearance until late on Halloween night when the door bell still rang but the pile of pilfered candy evaporated.

But no one panicked. The Boston bean pot was moved near the door. When the next group of goblins arrived and demanded satisfaction my father gave them a big smile…reached into the bean pot, pulled out a penny and tossed it in the poor kid’s bag.

The bean pot held the ultimate booby prize– hundreds of pennies, saved all year long just for Halloween.

One kid just stood stock still and stared expecting the penny was just a down payment on something better, until an older kid who’d suffered similar disappointment at our door advised the tyke, “may as well move on. That ‘s all you’re fuckin’ getting here.” The little kid therefore learning a new lesson and a new word.

My brother and I tried to explain the penny thing wasn’t working and would certainly lead to some sort of Halloween retribution in the form of eggs on our door or windows, or us getting whacked with crushed colored chalk stuffed in a sock leaving our clothes and faces with clear signals we’d committted some heinous Halloween crime. Hey! It wasn’t us…it was our parents! Tough gezatz, as they’d say back then.

Once I grew up, got married and had kids I made sure we not only had candy in the house, but tons of it! We never ran out. In fact, we always had extra by the time Halloween ended, which is why we always bought stuff we all liked—Kit Kats, Twix, M&Ms—because we’d be snacking on that sugar all year long till we replenished our supply for the next Halloween.

Oh no…we would not be using coinage to conceal our bad planning and we certainly never stole our kids’ candy. I did tell them the story of my father, the bean pot and the pennies, to which they responded quite earnestly, “you do that, Dad, and our relationship is over.”

But damn, now what am I gonna go with all those pennies? I do have some spare nickels…hmm…

Happy Halloween!

Podcast: Tales From the Beat-Weekly Look At News and PR From Both Sides

One of the features I write for Franco PR as their Integrated Media Consultant is a look at news and PR issues from both sides of the scrimmage line given my long experience in both journalism and corporate communications. Recently, I decided to add a podcast version that I’d love to share with you all.

You can now listen to Tales From the Beat on Spotify, IHeartRadio, Amazon Music and Apple Music.

Here’s the first one related to the recently revived Detroit Auto Show. Love to get your feedback. Thanks!

Now It Can Be Told–How Mikhail Gorbachev Unknowingly Helped Me Save An Executive’s Day

Now that Mikhail Gorbachev is no longer with us, I don’t think he’d mind me telling this story. You see, he unknowingly participated in a little trick I pulled in order to help a major executive save face in front of an even bigger one.

The Dalai Lama and Mikhail Gorbachev

Back on April 25, 2012 a gathering was held in Chicago to honor past Nobel Prize winners. At the time I was the head of Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s digital communications team, which was part of the corporate communications department.

The Jeep Brand was sponsoring a luncheon and that included a keynote speech by our chief marketing officer.

One of the services we provided was shooting and editing video posted on the company’s media website for use by any media that wished to include it in their coverage of a particular story.

Normally, I wouldn’t be the one doing the shooting but on this day our two real videographers we otherwise assigned, so I jumped in, popping over to Chicago to shoot the speech and post it to the media site.

We got to the location a little early and after setting up my tripod in the best position to capture the speech I decided to shoot some b-roll. Good call. As I was shooting I can’t believe who I see through my viewfinder ambling into the room as if it was lunch time at the company cafeteria.

First there was the former President of Poland Lech Walesa, then the Dalai Lama and finally this smiling guy with a familiar port wine spot on his head, Mikhail Gorbachev. They all take seats at the round table with our CMO. I shoot and shoot, all the while not believing the giants I’m shooting sipping from their water glasses and munching on rolls.

About 15 minutes before his speech our CMO comes up to me and gives me a troubling order. “Do not shoot me. Just shoot these famous people LISTENING to me so I can bring the video back to the CEO to show him how interested these Nobel Laureates were in my speech.” The CEO was the late, wonderful and demanding Sergio Marchionne.

Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev

I explained I was there to shoot his speech for use on the media site and the media would not use video of that does not show the speaker. But he was desperate. “You have to help me. I don’t care about the video. I have to show Marchionne something!”

OK. I can appreciate not wanted to piss off the big boss. So I came up with a plan.

To satisfy the media I actually did shoot the entire speech, but when I emailed the edited version to the CMO it showed Gorbachev and Walesa and Penn and the Dalai Lama all raptly listening and even applauding! The speech was a freakin’ hit with these historic figures! See the video below!

Within hours I received a giddy email from the CMO telling me how much Marchionne loved the video and what a genius I am.

Genius? Wouldn’t go that far. I grabbed the shots of all those folks listening to a speech, but it was my executive’s—it was the person who spoke before him. Then I edited in clips from that footage into my executive’s speech so I looked like they were listening to him. I did shoot the actual applause that came after his speech. Since this version was for internal use only and not for editorial use, it seemed like an OK way to help out a stressed executive. After all, they all DID listen to him, but I was just one guy with one camera so I had to find a way to make it work.

After that day, every time I saw Gorbachev or Walesa or the Dalai Lama or Sean Penn I just smiled to myself, remembering my little editing sleight-of-hand using some slightly time-shifted shots of them to help out an important co-worker make an impression with the big boss.

Oh…the version released on the media site did NOT include my editing artwork—just the video of the speech.

The late Mr. Gorbachev, I’m sure, could relate to a bit of intrigue to save a colleague from the wrath of the supreme leader. Call it a bit of video perestroika—restructuring. Da?

Olivia Newton-John–She Had Me Before I Knew Her

I was in love with her before I ever saw her. It happened in 1973 when I spinning records at my first radio job out of college. The station was so crappy it didn’t have a format. We just played whatever free records came in the mail. A typical hour could include everything from Perry Como to Elvis to Gordon Lightfoot to Merle Haggard to Barry White.

One day, among the 45’s that arrived was one on the MCA label by an artist with three names—Olivia Newton-John. It was titled “Let Me Be There.” Well, I was so tired of playing the same stuff all the time I tossed it on the turntable without even listening to it first.

That’s not really smart because Olivia Newton-John could have been the pseudonym for a guy named Ferociously Fierce-Frank who sang “I Beat Iguanas” but we had no listeners except three guys who worked in the hardware store so the risk wasn’t high. Even the boss didn’t listen.

Well, from the first note of the vocal I was swooning. Hey, I was 21, making $1.85 an hour as a DJ and getting horny over an unknown singer was totally on point. As the song ended I opened the mic and actually said, to human people, “Oh Olivia..what I wouldn’t give ya!. You may already have deduced my radio career was not distinguished.

But yeah, I became fan. The 45 in the photo is one of the freebies we got in 1975– “Have You Never Been Mellow.” I was at a different station by then and by then the lovely Olivia was becoming a big star.

My wife and I scored tickets to her concert at the Syracuse War Memorial. We doubled with one of my colleagues and his wife. He thought Olivia singing romantic pop songs would be a nice touch as an anniversary present. The show was great. Olivia bounced around the stage in a pink party dress, wearing shiny, silvery boots. I guess my colleague’s wife wasn’t impressed. Within days she left him for the kids’ school bus driver.

I guess she honestly didn’t love him…anymore.

I got out of radio way back in 1979 but remained a fan of Olivia Newton-John. No, I never bought any of her records until last year. It was right after reading her memoirs. She was quite frank about her long battle with cancer. She was realistic about the prognosis but always hopeful.

Shortly after that we were in an antique mall that also sold used records. There was a beat up copy of her album that featured “Let Me Be There,” the first song I ever heard her sing when I spun it on that old turntable so many years ago and fell for that voice. I took it home and placed it on my own turntable, listened to that song replete with all the pops and clicks that come with an old vinyl platter abused by its original owner. It sounded perfect to me. It always will. Olivia, what I wouldn’t give ya…for those memories you gave me. RIP.

Retired For Six Years, It’s Time To Share The Beauty Of A Life Of Taking Chances Outside My Comfort Zone

Six years ago I swiped my Fiat Chrysler Automobiles badge for the last time, walked through the turnstile and extricated my Jeep Wrangler from the lowest level of the employee parking deck, drove home, poured myself a Jack Daniels on the rocks and told my wife I was now her slave for my remaining days.

I don’t think she was all that amused since I owned no particular skills that would benefit her aside from pushing a vacuum or unjustifiably killing spiders. But then again, I thought I could figure out whatever it is she wanted me to do in the future since I made a very nice living jumping into positions outside my comfort zone. I highly recommend it!

Here’s my long-ish story of a life totally enhanced simply by being willing to step outside my safe place—my comfort zone.

We can start with my very first shot at broadcasting. My brother and I used to make up fake radio shows using a music stand as a faux microphone and reading, singing (badly) popular songs using lyric sheets you could buy at the neighborhood candy store or newsstand. It was fun but I never thought of making it a career. Yet.

That changed when I entered college as a speech and theater major because I thought I could be an actor. Before I could audition for even one production, a month after arriving as a freshman, an upper classman decided I was funny and dragged me down to the campus radio station. He told the guy on the air at the time, “put my friend on the radio.”

He did. Gave me my own show. I was awful. I got better though and made the life-changing decision to pursue a broadcast career. That was pivot number one.

I worked in local radio in Central New York for a few years but that was a dead end. Pivot number two coming up. My wife and I decided we wanted to earn our Masters degrees, she in library science, me, in journalism because I loved news and to write and was better at it than making bad jokes as the goofy morning guy on the radio.

We planned well, quit our jobs, sold a lot of our stuff, put the rest on a moving van and hauled out to Tucson, Arizona to attend the University of Arizona and start new lives.

Single best move ever. She went to school full time, I went part-time and landed a radio job after a couple of days. It wasn’t because of my “talent.” The program director was intrigued that I typed my resume’ in blue instead of black.

“Who types in blue?” he asked. “I figured you had to be fun and different.” Whatever you say. I did morning drive until the program director quit and his replacement wanted my slot. I stayed for two more weeks.

Pivot number three. While I was working at the radio station I saw a notice on the wall in the UA journalism building the local ABC affiliate was looking for a weekend weather guy. Ha. Never did the weather, knew nothing about the weather, wanted the job.

I called the number, the news director granted me an audition and I took a couple of weather books from the library, cramming like it was finals to get just enough weather stuff in my head so I could fake it.

Worked out. Got the job. Now I was a weather guy…but I really wanted to be a reporter, so the assignment editor tossed some stories my way. One night the news director called me up and told me to meet him at a neighborhood bar in an hour. Over a couple of Olympias he told me one reporter quit and another got fired, so if I wanted a reporter job it was mine. I accepted without taking another sip.

It just gets better. About 18 months later our newscast producer with 20 years experience suddenly jumped to a station in Phoenix. News director calls me in. I’ll give you a six grand raise to ditch reporting and start producing.

I don’t know why he chose me but when you’re in the 82nd market six grand is a treasure so I took it. First night producing, President Reagan gets shot. The show didn’t crash. I didn’t get fired.

Six months later I get a tip CNN was starting a new network, what eventually became Headline News. Called the number I was given, flown out to Atlanta and got the job. They didn’t know I had only been producing newscasts for a few months but the boss liked my resume’ reel so I guess I fooled ’em.

Suddenly this green kid just in from Tucson is tossed into a 24-hour network newsroom tasked with producing big time broadcasts under massive time pressures and constantly changing conditions. Out of my comfort zone into an inferno. Didn’t get burned. Was promoted to the main network.

I still aspired to be a full-time reporter. Again, a sympathetic assignment editor came through, giving me stories during weekends. Bosses were happy. Gave me a full-time correspondent job out of the Southeast bureau based in Atlanta.

Ready for more? One day I see the anchor schedule on the bulletin board. I always looked there because I still produced occasionally and wanted to know who was anchoring my shows. Ha! I see my own name up there for the late night, west coast show. Well..I’d never anchored a full newscast in my life and now I was going to solo anchor a network show that included a live interview and audience call-ins.

So…okay! This comfort zone thing just seemed to have no boundaries. I guess I did well enough that they kept scheduling me to anchor. Until things changed again.

Not only did I prefer reporting but I aspired to be a bureau chief. I got wind the Detroit Bureau chief was being transferred overseas to Rome. I applied. Got it. Great job because you were both the BC and the correspondent and the team there was terrific.

All well and fine for the next 12 years until the disastrous merger between CNN and AOL. They ended up closing some small bureaus, including Detroit, laying off about 1,000 people. I was one of them.

Shit. Local stations wouldn’t hire me because I’m not really Mr. TV in terms of looks or flamboyance. Once local news director told me “not looking for journalists. We want street characters like you see in New York.”

Major comfort zone move. At the least I knew I was a good reporter and could write. Eternal thanks to Ed Lapham at Automotive News who made me a deal. He’d give me some stories to write on a freelance basis. If I passed the test, when a job opened I’d have a strong shot at it. Deal. Wrote a few, they like the stories, but there weren’t any available jobs.

Fair enough. The Associated Press chief of Detroit Bureau Charles Hill saw my resume on JournalismJobs.com. He needed a national auto write. We had a couple of lunches where he tried to figure out my real story and decide if an old TV guy could write for the wire. I didn’t enough know if I could write for the wire but boy, what an honor it would be to write for the AP knowing its reputation and exposure my stuff would get. I took a writing test and that, plus my performance at the lunches convinced him TV boy could do it.

Compared to a TV reporter package a wire story seems VERY LONG. So many words! I was allowed to use bigger ones too! But bless my editor Randy Berris who was extremely patient and instructive and turned me into a wire reporter.

Must have been OK. About 14 months after I started at the AP the auto editor at The Detroit News approached me about taking over the General Motors beat. I never worked at a newspaper but I was intrigued with the opportunity. During my interview lunch I mentioned that to the assistant managing editor. He said, “you write great stories. I’ll worry about how it actually gets into the paper.”

Suddenly I was a newspaper guy. I loved it—the opportunity to take a few days to work on and craft stories and build relationships. But three years later my comfort zone was challenged again.

I was approached about managing a new blog Jason Vines, the head of communications at then DaimlerChrysler was starting. This was 2005. Blogging was still fairly news and the term “social media” wasn’t yet in common use. Blackberrys were considered state of the art. Smartphones weren’t yet born.

Sure, why not? It was a big decision to jump from news to PR but this seemed like a chance to get in on an emerging communications mode and I had thought for a long time about working at one of the automakers I had covered for so many years.

I not only got to launch and manage Jason’s blog which was unlike any other. It wasn’t open to just anyone. He wanted to admit only “working media” so he could use the blog to comment on published stories and plant ideas for new stories. It was pretty controversial.

Of course I had zero experience blogging but again, out of the comfort zone and into the fire of cutting edge corporate communications. A year later things went so well, a new team was created around me because they never had anyone on staff before who had worked in virtually every corner of the media world. The new team was DaimlerChrysler Electronic Media. We later updated the name to Digital Media.

Our new team would handle broadcast media relations, the media website and social media. We soon added video production and pioneered the concept of “corporate journalism” creating owned media telling the company’s stories in a journalistic style.

I loved my team not only because they were good humans and talented and creative people but they were always game to try something new.

It’s with them I spent my final 11 years in the full-time workforce before retiring at the end of July, 2016.

Yes, this was a long story but one I hope convinces you to have the confidence in yourself and your skills to have the courage to jump out of your comfort zone in the event your current job suddenly ends or an unexpected opportunity presents itself that had never before been under consideration for you.

It can be scary to find yourself in a new work environment, expected to complete tasks with which you have scant, or no, experience, alongside co-workers with habits and sensitivities very different from those of your former colleagues.

But it’s also the most wonderful feeling in the world to discover your core skills and experiences are absolutely transferable opening doors to opportunities that will enrich your life and frankly, your finances.

Oh sure, I officially “retired” six years ago, but I can’t conceive of not continuing to create and learn, which is why I’ve taken on part-time freelance positions writing autos and mobility stories for Forbes.com and as an integrated media consultant for Franco.

I guess you could say working out of my comfort zone is completely within my comfort zone because the one thing I’m most comfortable with is growing. Try it. Yup..it’s a bit of a tightrope but you don’t need a net, because the only thing to fear is by not taking a risk you may miss the best opportunity you didn’t know you would love.

July 4th Memories: Footballs, Fireworks, Road Flares Falling Underwear, 2022 Update

july4thbbqFourth of July always meant two things back in Glen Oaks Village, where I grew up in eastern Queen, New York: a glorious barbecue behind the apartments with our four closest neighbors, and foolish decisions regarding fireworks.

First the barbecue. Glen Oaks is a community so large it has its own zip code and is home to about 50-thousand residents. Built in the 1940’s and written up in national magazines, it remains a showplace.

We shared a common backyard that contained a long clothesline for all to use and expanses of soft grass.  The neighbors set up long aluminum tables end to end in the backyard and each family had its own grill. Ours was a dinky thing we received as a free gift from the now defunct Bayside Federal Bank for opening up an account. It was just large enough, though, to cook a few hot dogs and burgers for my brother and me and our parents. Those big Weber grills hadn’t yet been invented.

One of our neighbors, the guy we always suspected was in the Mafia, had the best grill. It was about a yard in diameter on a fancy stand and he cooked Italian sausage. We always wondered what truck it fell off.

Another neighbor sounded like that old actor Peter Lorre and just as sinister. When he asked for another hot dog you could always imagine the next thing he’d say was, “or I’ll kill you.” Turns out he was very mild mannered. He just sounded like an assassin.

After eating we’d invariably start tossing around a football, which, in turn, always seemed to knock someone’s clean underwear drying on the clothesline onto the ground. That action sparked the owner of the drying underwear to stick their head out their back window overlooking the yard and shout things that directed all of us to burn in a very warm deep, underground place. This only sparked us to start aiming for other items drying on the line and if you could dump a fitted sheet you won the admiration of all, and the raising ire of the the sheet’s owner who would call the cops on us only to be told, “sorry, but we’ve got four cases of wet socks ahead of you.”

fireworksNow the fireworks. Our dads would score some firecrackers or more powerful ashcans from the docks in lower Manhattan and we’d pretty much shoot them off with no incident, although it was always entertaining to slip a few lit ones through someone’s mail slot.

Our dads were, if anything, both smart and devious. Two cases in point. First, was when they could only come up with sparklers instead of firecrackers or ashcans. C’mon, sparklers? No noise, no nothin’. Sparklers were for wimps or kids whose dads worked in the suburbs. But my dad was especially resourceful. After all, he was a World War II hero, winning medals for capturing a house of Germans by shouting orders in Yiddish, which sounds like Germans to exit the house and the idiots complied. So he knew a thing or two about misdirection.

“Look, you’re doing it wrong with the sparklers by just holding them,” he explained. “When they’re halfway done throw them in the air as high as you can and they become Roman Candles!” Crap! We had Roman Candles in our hands all this time and didn’t know it! Yes, sometimes kids were as gullible as wartime Germans. We totally bought it, and except for when a lit sparkler landed in someone’s garden igniting their pansies it was a damn good ruse.

Speaking of ruses, when our dads came up totally short they caucused in desperation and pulled out a couple of road flares and lit them. “We call them ground-level displays!” one would say. Ah..dads can be such good bullshitters. That’s why we love them.

Then there was the time the brother of one of our friends was on leave from the Navy. He thought it would be cool to wrap up some .22 caliber bullets in an envelope, stuff it in a drainpipe, light it up and run like hell. Guess what? Bullets are faster than idiotic Navy guys on leave.  The dumb guy spent the rest of the Fourth, and a good deal of the 5th through 8th in the hospital healing from his awesome stunt.

At least he didn’t shoot down anyone’s drying BVDs.