Monday, May 10, 2010

What to leave in, what to leave out

I was listening to a radio interview this morning with one of the survivors of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. It was the first story I'd heard that wasn't focused on the environmental nightmare that has us Gulf Coast residents so heartbroken (i.e., 5,000 barrels of oil still leaking into our oceans every day.).

This report was about the other heartbreak. A 23 year-old Texan who knew his job was dangerous, but who had just gotten married and was saving for a house. He told of 12-hour shifts and the magnificent sunrises and sunsets he saw. He told of that night, watching fire shoot 100 feet into the air and knowing at that moment he was going to die.

He didn't, though. And as I listened to him, I thought how radio really is unique in that the stories are so powerful heard alone, in a car. I sometimes listen to This American Life, and Ira Glass (the host) once said he edits his pieces with that in mind.

When I started my master's degree at LSU, I wanted to work in book publishing. I wanted to be an editor or some behind the scenes type of person. (Back then I didn't believe I could write a whole book.) I even had the brilliant idea I'd get a job at LSU Press so I wouldn't have to leave Baton Rouge.

Problem: the Manship School of Mass Communication had no course of study for book publishing. They had all the traditional journalism curricula, but my graduate advisor explained there just wasn't a lot of interest in that area.

They did offer one course "The Business of Book Publishing" taught by Katherine Fry, who was executive director or something at LSU Press, and that was it. No more courses.

Still, since I was a good student and a good writer, Dr. Nelson said I could take the basic required courses and then take whatever else interested me. And we'd figure out how to focus my thesis on the book biz.

So I took a course in film and video editing. It was amazingly fun, and the next semester, Dr. Nelson suggested I do an internship at WAFB-9 news, the CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge.

That was possibly the most fun course I ever took in college.

My first day in the newsroom was the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Schools were closed, so I didn't really have to go in, but I did because I'm a nerd.

I was also nervous. I was a nervous nerd, and I had no idea what to expect going into a newsroom filled with all those local celebrities I'd been watching since childhood. I just knew I'd be single-handedly responsible for blowing Phil Ranier's Health Report or knocking over the teleprompter during Donna Britt's breaking news story.

As it turned out, my job was to sit behind a desk, answer the phones, open the mail, and give my "boss" assignments editor Mark Lambert whatever looked good.

LTM: And I know what's "good" because...
ML: You're smart. You'll know.
LTM: (weak smile; sick feeling in stomach)

So there we were, all the morning news people who'd been at the station since 4 a.m. were clearing out, making jokes, going home, ignoring me sitting behind the news desk feeling overwhelmed.

No kidding, five minutes later all four police, fire, EMS and sheriff's radio scanners started going off at once.

Mark ran to the desk, cranked the volumes and stared at me: "What did they just say? What was the code?"

LTM: (panic) Code??? (Those boxes are doing more than just emitting shrieking noises that I can only assume are communications from the aliens???)

Turned out the code was a 10-71. Shots fired. I think they might've also issued a 10-99, which is officer in trouble or something. On the list behind the desk someone had scribbled "Hall butt" beside that one. I always wanted to correct it... should be "haul" ...

There had been a shooting at the MLKJ parade just blocks from our newsroom. Four little girls were shot in what turned out to be a domestic dispute. Shot celebrating the life of a man devoted to nonviolence.

Mark started punching buttons to see if he could get video from the camera on top of our building. At the same time, he got on the radio and started calling all the reporters to the station. The one morning anchor still there dropped her purse and grabbed a camera guy.

In the space of ten minutes, the newsroom was packed. Every talking head I'd been watching since I was a little kid was there. And all the backups. The phones behind the news desk (read, the ones I was supposed to answer) never stopped ringing.

I got calls from all the affiliates. I got calls from CBS news in New York, I got calls from the BBC in London... They wanted the facts, they wanted satellite feeds, they wanted video. I didn't leave until 11 p.m. that night.

And that was my first day in television.

As we were all dragging out of the newsroom that night, I was suddenly a colleague. Everyone was very kind and said I did a great job. They made comments like "that was some first day."

LTM: It's not always like that? It is in the movies...
(Weary laughter) A.m. news crew: We'll be back in five hours. You?

That semester was really busy, and by the end I was going out on stories with reporters, even alone with camera guys shooting B-roll for which I wrote the scripts for the anchors to read.

I learned that when you're working on a broadcast piece, you always get more video than you need and then you sift through it to find the most powerful 30 seconds. The clips that are going to capture the heart of the story the best.

It can be hard at first to get it just right. It also gave me a revised appreciation for what I see on TV. Somebody's behind the curtain making those decisions. It could even be somebody like me.

At the end of that semester, I was hired as an assistant weekend producer. I even interviewed for a full-time reporter position in Lafayette, but I didn't take it. I loved TV news. It's fast and fun and you'll look up and 18 months have passed...

Still, radio stories like the one I heard this morning make me misty. Even if I know there's a person somewhere sifting through the B-roll to find the exact segments to make it happen.

Eleven men died on the Deepwater Horizon. Sixty more watched as their derrick burned and melted into the black Gulf waters taking their friends with it.

Even sombody as inexperienced as me would know how to tell that story. Here's the link if you'd like to hear it.


JRichard said...

The human drama, the stories of what is real behind the Big Issues implicated by tragedies like the Deep Horizon explosion, get clouded by our culture's---all cultures'---need to reify personal experience into a more palatable, a more negotiable truism. So, for example, the DH explosion becomes the grim dark side to the fossil fuels' industry's fantastic profit. But while we paint the amorpohous "BP" as an evil, rapacious actor, it is true that the sailors and roughnecks and service folks out there on the rig were just trying to make a living---and it is also true that our planet's need for fuel to animate our mechanized subsistence is the vector which provided that living. Like September 11 in a microcosmic way, the DH explosion will go down in history as a black mark on the nexus between capitalism and reliance on fossil fuels, just as 9-11 will go down as a symbol of American decadence in the face of third-world suffering. But real people trying to do their jobs and live responsibly for those who relied upon them died in both. It is wrong to politicize---and forget---their innocent sacrifice.

Aimee Reynolds said...

Leigh, your words drew me in. You have a true gift. I feel like I know you a little better. Would love to know you deeper. Take care and keep the pen flowing.

LTM said...

@JRM: I've heard the complaints that the humans who died are being forgotten in the rush to save the animals and the beaches. As an amateur environmentalist sad for the loss of sealife, I want to be on record as not forgetting the workers.

LTM said...

@Aimee--thanks, lady! My words, but your pictures. Gorgeous~