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.