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.