The South likes to do things its own way. Screw Punxsutawney Phil. Deep in the heart of biscuit and grits country, the rodent with the lowdown on how much longer winter will last is named for the man who surrendered to Gen. Grant in the Civil War. Yes..it’s General Lee who’s rousted from his roost and grabbed by the scruff of his furry neck as a couple of good old boys who imbibe for breakfast decided whether or not the sleepy soldier saw his shadow. At least, that’s how it was when my assignment manager at CNN’s Southeast Bureau in Atlanta tossed this one in my lap. I duly showed up at 5:45am at the Yellow River Wildlife Ranch in suburban Snellville to wait for the big moment. To keep us reporters, um, engaged until then, there were bottles of something alcoholic, along with dozens of ham, bacon, egg and sausage biscuits. By the time poor old General Lee was poked until he came out of his slumber and investigated who the hell was bothering him, we were pretty well loaded and larded. It was dark when he emerged from his faux plantation home but the Yellow River boys insisted he saw his shadow. Fine. Six more weeks of winter in Atlanta just means six more weeks of spring. Oh, they had snow once or twice in the 8 years I lived there. I think it totalled a quarter inch, which sent the Georgia peaches into a hissy fit.
Personally, I think the whole groundhog thing is a ruse. A better gauge might be whether or not Ryan Gosling looks in the mirror and sees his five o’clock shadow. He’s Canadian, you know. It’s always winter to him.
Epilogue: You don’t see me in the package above. I did shoot a standup but a prissy anchor had it killed. I was in front of groundhog pelt nailed on the wall of the cabin across from General Lee’s enclosure. I said “…and if the ground hog is wrong….” and turned towards the pelt. Some people just have no sense of humor.
The Electoral College is this nebulous “thing” that no one ever really sees and the members seem to come and go in relative anonymity. So I appreciated very much the opportunity to cover for CNN Tennessee’s Electoral College vote after the chaotic 2000 election that saw Al Gore lose his home state to George W. Bush.
The night before the vote we met with several of Tennessee’s 11 electors at steak joint not too far from the state capitol in Nashville. It was December and it was unexpectedly frigid with the prospect of snow on the day of the actual vote. They were mostly down to earth folks who felt the gravity of their task and a devotion to the unique method the nation’s Founding Fathers conjured to basically ratify the election held a month earlier. None of them had any desire to flip their vote to their state’s native son. I don’t recall any of the electors using the term “rubber stamp,” but that’s pretty much the way they saw their responsibility. One even went to far as to say “that boy ain’t really a Tennessean anymore…he’s long gone D.C.”
The next day we showed up early to do our morning live shots but had the opportunity to eyeball the chamber where the 15-minute process would take place. We were told, very sternly, to remain in the visitor’s gallery and not to wander onto the floor. No problem. We were set up outside on the capitol steps to do our live shots and could only hear, vaguely, what was happening. At one point the anchor asked me to describe what was going on at that second even though I was 20 steps and at least 200 feet and a couple of doors away. No, I did not have a monitor to see the feed from the floor.
Check out the transcript from that liveshot I think I faked it pretty well! The magic of preparation. I’m certain it all went down just the way I reported it since no one called to correct me and the producer didn’t yell at me through my earpiece.
Afterwards, the deed done, we retreated to the visitor’s gallery, ostensibly to do a live interview with Lamar Alexander…an elector and former Tennessee governor, U.S. Senator and onetime presidential candidate. Nice man. As we waited for our slot to come up we made small talk, discussed the election and had a great old time. He didn’t seem to be in a rush. After about 30 minutes of this my field producer called down to the Atlanta control room to find out if/when we were going on since we were hanging onto a prominent politician who must have had plenty of better things to do than sit around jawing with a reporter awaiting a two-minute live interview. I got the word through my earpiece and immediately turned redder than Memphis barbecue sauce. “Um…I’m sorry Senator. The producer just informed me something else in the world has happened and our spot was dropped. I’m extremely sorry for holding you up for so long. It was a real pleasure to meet you.” Guess what? Sen. Alexander cracked up, shook my hand and said, “Honestly, the pleasure was mine. If you hadn’t kept me here I’d have to go back out in the cold and figure out what the hell to do the rest of the day.”
On February 20, 1962 I was in second grade at P.S. 186 in the New York City borough of Queens. Our teacher, a bubbly little delight with curly, dark brown hair, Mrs. Kantor, rolled in a TV set and we watched John Glenn become the first American in space orbit.
Once he touched down, our assignment was to write a “composition” relating our feelings about Glenn’s accomplishment.
I was already astounded by the pioneering sub-orbital flights of Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom, but this one rocked my world and touched my 10-year old heart. Instead of simply a summary of the event, my composition turned out to be a letter to Col. John Glenn. I told him how brave he was and how scary it must have been hurtling back down to Earth in a little capsule that had a suspect heat shield, leading TV commentators to wonder if after everything Glenn had gone through, he’d be burned to a crisp on his way back home. I told him how proud the country was of him and that I hoped, one day, to do something in my life as significant as he had just done.
That day stayed with me as I watched Glenn cruise down New York’s “Canyon of Heroes” in Manhattan during a celebratory ticker tape parade. I rooted for him during his down and up and down and up political career and hoped his bid for the Presidency would be successful.
Fast-forward to June 14, 1990. I was the CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent. There had been a terrible rainstorm causing a massive mudslide in a little Ohio River hamlet called Shadyside. 26 people died. My crew and I were quickly dispatched to cover the story. We hadn’t been on the ground more than 30 minutes when a couple of familiar looking figures arrived. I don’t often become starstruck since reporters often come in contact with celebrities. But I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of awe at my first site of Sen. John Glenn . Along with fellow Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, he had arrived to survey the scene and give comfort to the citizens of this devastated little burg.
They both came up to our camera and agreed to a short interview. As February 20, 1962 came roaring into my brain, I was suddenly shaking hands with the man to whom I’d written that letter, but never sent, all those years ago. I was looking into the eyes of a genuine hero and he was looking at me. Given the tragic situation that triggered this encounter, it was no time for small talk or any sort of personal discourse. I asked my questions related to the story, which he answered directly and respectfully. I detected a glistening in his eyes that had moments ago teared up on hearing of the extent of the loss of life and structural damage to the town. What struck me was that unlike some other politicians I had interviewed over the years, the only reference to “I” in his comments related to his profound concern for his constituents and the promise to get whatever emergency services and funding they needed.
The interview probably lasted less than two minutes, but to have shaken the hand of my hero, spoken to him, well, in that short moment, a part of my life had come full orbit.
It’s been a month since I left my laptop and iPhone on my desk, locked my office and walked out of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for the last time and into retirement. Since then, among other things, I’ve thought about my other workplace exits and how some were better than others.
This one was probably the best. I had it planned for several months so it came as no surprise to my boss, who had treated me royally. My wonderful team tossed me a great lunch, presented me with a basket of bourbon, signed each bottle, and produced several videos that absolutely blew me away ranging from heartfelt expressions of farewell, goodbye, thanks and hilarious wiseass comments–to a collection of outtakes from my standups that exposed me as more than fallible, and they even created a spoof of my infamous “April in the D” song with the words changed to “All Because of E.” It was very hard to keep it together viewing those videos knowing that short of an occasional lunch or drinks, after 11 years I wouldn’t be seeing my second family every day.
By the time my last day, July 29th, rolled around, I was spent from all the “goodbyes” and actually slipped out of the office with barely a word, swiped my badge for the last time, got in my car and called my wife, telling her “retirement as begun!”
But not every one of my employment exits was quite as, let’s say, smooth. There was the disastrous merger between Time Warner and AOL when I worked at CNN. We knew there would be layoffs but while I was at the Detroit Auto Show my boss took the time to page me (this was 2001) to let me know our bureau in Detroit would “not be touched.” Big relief! For 72 hours. A few days later I had returned from a shoot when my boss called me to let me know he was paying our bureau a visit the next day and that I should arrive and 9am and the rest of my staff should come an hour later. I was pretty obvious I was getting the boot. So I asked him what happened. “Oh,” changed our mind,” was his lame answer. I was pretty stunned and upset, then got it together spending the next few hour giving my staff the news, exchanging a few hugs, a few tears and then started gathering my stuff and put the past 20 years behind me. When the loser came in the next day to give me the official word and have me sign papers re my severance I asked again why the change of heart. He actually said, “now’s not the time.” Huh? Time had run out, and so did I.
When I left The Detroit News, it was to take the job that morphed into the one I held at FCA. The automaker was starting its first blog (2005) and the head of PR wanted an autowriter to manage and ghost write it for him. Cool job. I had been looking for work for a bit and six months prior had accepted a job at the rival Detroit Free Press but the News hated having their autowriters poached by the competition and gave me a huge raise to stay. So I did, but I still hated it there and kept looking. when the FCA job came through I jumped at it but never got a chance to give notice quite the way you should. While covering the annual auto industry conference in Traverse City, Mich., I called in a story we would be breaking, but I was flummoxed to find it wasn’t in the next day’s paper. That was the last straw for me after putting up with three years of what I thought was questionable and unethical editing decisions. What no one knew was that I had already sealed the deal on my new job so I had nothing to lose when I exploded in the media room at the conference, slamming down the phone and declaring, loud enough for all to hear, “screw it! I quit!” Of course it took only two breath’s time for that revelation to reach my boss back in Detroit who was not pleased to hear of my impending departure from a reporter at the Free Press. Oooops. They tossed me a goodbye thing anyway..maybe to make sure I was really leaving!
My favorite exit was from my part-time job as a stockboy/cashier at a department store on Long Island when I was in high school. Part of my duties was as the “bargain broadcaster,” announcing in-store sales from time-to-time as well as letting the shoppers know when the store was about to close. I shared the announcing duties with a friend who had a big, big voice. It was our last night on the job, and then we were headed Jones Beach to celebrate. But my friend and I were not what you would call “model employees.” He had been fired, twice, and I was laid off once. It was his turn in the booth to announce the impending closing of the store. He had to say, “Attention S. Klein shoppers. When you hear the bell, it means the store will close in 10 minutes. Please bring your purchases to the nearest cashier and check out.” Then the security guy named Bill would ring the bell. However, since it was our last night, my friend, whose name I am protecting, decided the announcement should be a little more, um, emphatic so he changed it. “Attention S. Klein shopper. When you hear the bell, it means the store will close in 10 minutes. Please bring your purchases to the nearest cashier and check out. SO BILL, RING THE EFFIN’ (he said the real word) BELL SO WE CAN ALL GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!” We hit the exit before security could propel us by our belt loops out onto the hot, asphalt parking lot.
What I learned over the years is no matter what the circumstances of your departure from a job, always leave on the best terms possible. In all cases, except for the department store thing, I made sure I shook the boss’s hand, left a nice, positive goodbye note to my co-workers and removed any rotting deli from my desk drawers.
On the occasion of my retirement this week, I thought I’d relate my long work history and the 8 very important workplace lessons I learned along the way.
My first paying job was at Mel’s Laundromat on Union Turnpike and 248th Street in Queens. Might have been around 1962. Now, everyone knows the “mat” part of “laundramat” means you do it yourself, but I got paid 25 cents a day to do it for busy or working moms who didn’t have the time or desire to hang around a hot, steamy, dumpy store while their family’s dirty clothes went round and round in the washer and dryer for more than an hour. That first work experience taught me workplace lesson number 1 –don’t ask for a raise after blowing a bubble all over your face. The boss will never take you seriously.
I quickly moved on to a much more high paying job, scoring a summer job as an assistant counselor at Great Neck Country Day Camp in tony Great Neck Long Island. At a sweet salary of $25 plus tips for the summer, that represented a big raise and I immediately began investing heavily…in Clearasil. I did so well, they hired me back at twice the money the following year and at that income level I had an endless supply of egg creams and Clark Bars. Yes. I was living the high life. That’s when I learned workplace lesson number 2–using your hard earned money to buy sugary treats makes you fat and pimply and offensive to any and all females.
By high school I gave up my starting position on the Martin Van Buren varsity soccer team to work in the linens and domestics department of the S. Klein department store in Lake Success, Long Island. It was a clear case of irony, since despite its lofty sounding location, the S. Klein chain went bankrupt, which, unknown to me then, led to workplace lesson number 3–you are now prepared to work in the auto industry.
During my college days I scored a political patronage job with the NYC Comptroller’s officer courtesy of my mother’s connections through the Eastern Queen Democratic Club. My job was to type out the checks to people who successfully sued the City of New York for car damage from potholes. The city was not a fast payer. In 1971 I wrote a check to someone who sued the city in 1957. Maybe the city believed if they waited for the payee to croak, the check would never be cashed. Hence, workplace lesson number 4–if you drag your heels long enough you might escape doing anything that requires actually working.
Once I entered the full time working world after graduating college I worked at a series crappy radio stations in Central New York and Tucson, Arizona. At the station in Tucson the general manager’s head popped through the roof right over the microphone while I was reading a newscast. “Dang!” he said in his big Texan drawl. “That ain’t right.” Yup. Workplace lesson number 5: Bosses will stick their heads where they don’t belong.
From there it was television station KGUN in Tucson where I was both the weekend weather caster and midweek nightside general assignment reporter. It could be confusing. One time when I covered a murder, as they brought the body out of the house a Tucson cop cracked, “why’s the weather guy here? Is it gonna rain on the stiff?”
Somehow that job led to being hired by CNN as one of the original producers of CNN2, which morphed into CNN Headline News, which much later, morphed in an unrecognizable channel I never watch. Over the next 20 years I would move from producer to correspondent, spot anchor and finally, Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent until I was laid off in 2001 as part of that awesome merger between Time Warner and AOL. I was actually laid off one day after interviewing the authors of a book on why employee evaluations are a total waste. When I asked why I was chosen to be laid off, the boss said, “now’s not the time.” Oh. Guess what? The boss ended up getting canned too. That led to workplace lesson number 6: Karma always wins.
A stint as national auto writer at the Associated Press and General Motors beat writer at The Detroit News followed. Two great jobs that taught me workplace lesson number 7: going to work is more fun when you don’t have to wear makeup.
And now..the end of the road. After 43 years in the workforce I’m hanging it up. I’ve spent the past 11 years at DaimlerChryslerChryslerFiatChryslerAutomobiles as the head of its digital communications team, which is a really wonderful, groundbreaking combination of broadcast, social media and video production. The job was created just for me. How lucky is that? It’s been a crazy ride through three owners, one bankruptcy and one gentle idiot who asked if we could post an item on both the “national and international Internet.” We assured him that since he asked nicely, we would accommodate that lofty request. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful team who will give most any of my nutty ideas a try and actually make them work. I will miss them terribly, but now it’s time to focus on my family, which has had to put up with my crazy hours and travel for many years, and to tackle some personal projects such as playing my drums for hours on end in order to smoke out those neighbors I haven’t yet met.
That leads to my 8th and final workplace lesson: When you’ve worked more years than most of your employee’s parents have been alive, it’s time to pack your paper clips and post it notes and, stop, smell the roses, and enjoy going to Kroger on a Tuesday, push the cart for your wife and carry home those heavy jugs of milk and orange juice. She’ll appreciate that.
The first television newscast I ever produced was on March 30, 1981. Know what happened that day? President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley. I was working at KGUN, Tucson, Arizona. I didn’t really aspire to be a producer. I had just finished earning my Masters in Journalism at the University of Arizona and had been working part-time as the weekend weatherman at KGUN, then fulltime as the nightside general assignment reporter three days a week and still doing the weekend weather.
One day our main newscast producer, who, by the way, had 20 years experience, up and left for a job at a Phoenix station which meant we were basically screwed. The news director called me into his office and said, “Look, we’re desperate, would you produce? I’ll move your pay from 14 grand to 20.” This was 1981, 20 grand was great money, especially in the 81st market. So why not? The outgoing producer gave me a quick lesson on what to do and suddenly I was on my own with a blank rundown sheet, a sharp pencil and a skeptical staff.
The day started off pretty routinely as I looked at filling the show’s news hole with the usual collection of stories ranging from the latest from the Tucson City Council, the stoners who became disoriented in the Catalina Mountains requiring rescue and something about a zoning kerfuffle. This job was gonna be a piece of cake, especially since I could exchange my suit and tie for golf shirts and jeans. Then my world was rocked. Screw the City Council and the stoners could figure it out on their own. Being an ABC affiliate, the anchor Frank Reynolds cut in with the news of an assassination attempt on President Reagan and that he was hit and in the hospital. Reynolds then got some bad info in his earpiece, his face turned ashen, and he announced the President was dead. But of course he wasn’t and the chagrined newscaster somberly made the on-air correction.
Our news director started barking orders for local reaction in the event the network broke from its wall-to-wall coverage for affiliates to air their own newscasts. I prepared a show of indeterminate length and in doubt of ever airing. But it did. I had had no prior experience stacking a show, backtiming or hitting the network to rejoin its programming other than my time as a radio announcer hitting the top of the hour network newscast. The big difference is in radio you can talk or play a long record to get you there. In television many other people are involved and they must all be on the same page. Our director Jim Shields helped me through it which was especially difficult since I almost failed math…every semester of my life. We hit the start of “Nightline” right on button and then, for the first time in 10 hours, I exhaled.
Only six months later I got the tip that CNN was starting up a new network and was looking for producers. What the hell…I had a few months experience so I applied. It just so happened the format I used for my late newscast was almost identical to what they had in mind for CNN2, which became Headline News and I was hired.
So there I was, now in Atlanta, fresh from Arizona at a network with all of these producers with years and years of experience, many in major markets, and I had only a few months putting together newscasts. I was totally intimidated but figured, I survived the Reagan assassination attempt, I can survive CNN. And I did…for 20 years, as a producer, correspondent, bureau chief and anchor…until being caught in the crossfire…between AOL and Time Warner.
We’ve enjoyed an unseasonably warm winter so far, but more powerful than El Nino, able to leap stationary fronts with a single low pressure system, able to bend the patience of steel-minded journalists…it’s the North American International Auto Show! That means snow is on the way, along with torrents of news and a deluge of drivable dreams under the Cobo canopy in downtown Detroit.
Truth be told there aren’t many surprises since the automakers generally give away the news in advance on an embargoed basis so their stories will show up in the morning papers. What’s left to wonder is what kind of swag awaits reporters who will do their best impressions of Ronda Rousey to fight for a free logo-embossed pretzel they can sell on eBay.
I worked the show for four different employers. I spent the longest time with CNN as the Detroit Bureau Chief. For a few consecutive years we produced special programs with the titles of “Route 1992, 1993, 1994, etc.” Production teams would traipse up from Atlanta and spend most of the week crabbing about the cold weather and the fact there wasn’t a Krystal burger joint in site. When one producer who had helmed a couple of these shows was finally re-assigned he got on his knees and..stayed there.
When I was the National Auto Writer for the Associated Press it was me against everyone. I thought I had a scoop when the then head of marketing for one automaker (I won’t say which because I work there) spilled the beans on a new incentive program. I later asked the CEO about that and his face got very red when he sputtered, “well he didn’t clear that with me!” “He” soon cleared out his office.
At the Detroit News, where I was the GM beat writer, I was told I had to come up with a lead story for the next day. We were in one of those hated group sessions with the GM CEO. No one was getting anything so I pulled the trigger asking him to react to the fact that Toyota would soon overtake the automaker as number one in sales. Let’s just say he became very unhappy, but coughed up the quote and I made my nut for that day.
Now that I work for an automaker, my main job is to make sure our stuff wins coverage, particularly from broadcast and digital media. It’s fascinating to be on the other side of the battle lines. I’ve come to appreciate the skills professional PR people need to hone to do their jobs properly, although as a former reporter, I can’t help telling a reporter who asks if they can get an interview regarding the new “Chrysler Impala” the view must be very dark inside their hindquarters.
Indeed, I look forward to the most important auto show of the year…seeing old friends, eating new shrimp and smiling at the nice young ladies offering mints as I tell them, “No thanks. I’ve breathed my last breath.”