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.”

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