50 Years of Change

LESSONS LEARNED: On the job at 11Alive

I am on vacation — and out of commission — for the next two weeks, so I wanted to use this space as a vehicle for reflection.

Since I started the Telling The Story blog last winter, I have written extensively about lessons about storytelling. Many of those have been learned through my own work as a reporter for WXIA-TV/11Alive in Atlanta. Here are three of the moments that stand out to me, along with brief snippets from the posts themselves:

Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera: Last April I was introduced to Tad Landau and Mary Wood. They are not famous; they are not what my producers would call “a big get” as far as stories are concerned. But they do share a beautiful friendship — and an unusual one, at that.

Landau is a firefighter for DeKalb County in Georgia. Wood is an elderly woman in his district whose 911 call two years ago was answered by Landau’s team.

The 911 call turned out to be a somewhat false alarm, but upon arriving at Wood’s house, Landau met a woman with little means or support and no living family in the area. She needed help in many ways but did not feel she could turn to anyone.

Landau changed that.

He became a friend and de facto aide for Wood, coming by her house regularly — often on shift breaks with his team — to make peanut butter sandwiches and help her sort through bills. He continues to visit faithfully and, if he does not see Wood on a given day, he hears from her on the phone.

On this surface, this was a nice story about an unique friendship. But I knew it would only work on television if I could capture that friendship organically on camera — a challenge made even steeper when I learned from Landau that Wood was very nervous about it.

But once we started rolling, it all came together.

Wood turned out to be a firecracker of a personality — an irrepressible octogenarian who quickly got used to my presence and, at least outwardly, did not worry whatsoever about being recorded. And when she saw Landau, she started glowing — no inhibitions at all.

In fact, she took advantage of my presence, making sure she said repeatedly on-camera how much she appreciated this godsend of a gift in her life.

A few days later, I attended Wood’s 90th birthday party — which Landau had organized — and again found her totally unfettered by the presence of a camera. She stole the show, and more importantly for the story, the pair allowed their friendship to shine through in a genuine fashion.

I simply did my best not to fight it. I got to know Wood by spending time with her, and I allowed both people to get comfortable with telling me their story. Then I got out of the way; in the story, I acknowledged their various on-camera winks and nods while staying in the background when those beautiful, organic moments arrived. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #8: Jeff Reid, producer, “Black in America” & “50 Years of Change”

Play

Can local TV stations produce compelling documentaries?

Allow me to make the argument against that idea:

  • Documentaries require significant topics.
  • Documentaries require significant resources.
  • Documentaries require significant talent.
  • Documentaries require significant vision.

Now, I would never argue that local news stations lack the vision, talent, resources, and topics to do compelling work. But very few have enough of each to commit to producing a hour of worthy television — that is, an hour beyond the numerous hours of newscasts they already produce.

And yet, last week, my station premiered a documentary, “50 Years Of Change”, about the Civil Rights events of 1963; it received praise from both viewers and local leaders. It is a product on which I had the privilege to work, and of which I am very proud. It aired on our station, WXIA-TV in Atlanta, last Wednesday, and an abridged version has been made available for schools to show their social studies classes.

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PODCAST PREVIEW: Jeff Reid: “This is one of my finest hours”

A week ago, I spoke of my pride for taking part in “50 Years Of Change”, an hour-long documentary about the Civil Rights events of 1963. It premiered last week to great acclaim from viewers and local leaders.

Now, allow me to introduce you to the man behind it.

Jeff Reid has been a co-worker of mine at WXIA-TV in Atlanta for more than a year; he joined us after spending 15 years at CNN, spearheading their documentary department and producing the much-discussed “Black in America”. He manages our enterprise content, meaning he oversees the production of long-form stories and investigations.

His other big mission? Get a few documentaries under our belts — and make them great.

In the recent history at our station, we had done the occasional single-topic newscast and even a documentary or two, but we had not tackled a topic as heavy as the Civil Rights movement — and we certainly had not filled an hour doing so — until “50 years Of Change”. For his part, Reid had never produced a documentary with so little time and staff; he spearheaded this one with a team of 8-10 people in barely a month.

Reid discusses the process with me on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

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JFK, MLK, and the crafting of a Civil Rights documentary

Rarely, as a local TV news reporter, do I get to spend two weeks on one story.

Rarely does that story get to be eight minutes long.

And rarely do those eight minutes contain an arsenal of powerful interviews from iconic figures.

So, when I received the opportunity to work on such a story earlier this month, I knew it would be special.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With that anniversary comes a documentary from my station in Atlanta, WXIA-TV, called “50 Years of Change”, which looks back on not just the famous march but the other major civil rights events of 1963:

  • the declaration, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” from Alabama governor George Wallace
  • the child protests in Birmingham
  • the nationally televised speech on civil rights from President Kennedy
  • the murder of Medgar Evers a day later
  • the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham
  • the assassination of President Kennedy

It’s an impressive list. (Last week we screened the documentary for local Atlanta leaders, and roughly three-quarters of the way through, one of the attendees turned around in his chair and remarked, “Man, a lot happened in ’63!”)

I was assigned the final story on the above list: the killing of John F. Kennedy, and what that meant for the civil rights movement. I went down to Dallas for a few days to get footage of the famous spots from the assassination (the book depository building, Dealey Plaza). I also interviewed several people who had been in Dallas that day, one of whom was a radio reporter at the time and stood a half-block away from Kennedy when the assassination occurred. Following that trip, I spent several days simply cobbling together old footage and photos — a difficult task, since most of the footage I wanted came with a price tag that exceeded our budget. Finally, I required two days to edit the whole thing, which included several hours reformatting all the old footage so that it looked consistent.

The process was exhaustive — and absorbing. But of all those arduous tasks, the most important thing I did was seemingly the simplest:

Listening.

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