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Free Samples of a Sleep-Deprived Brain

…or what happens when family meets work meets severe weather meets baseball…

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Journalism

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Well. Ready or not, it’s here. And it’s time.

After 14 years and almost seven months, my time at KVOE Radio in Emporia, Kan. — and in media in general — has come to an end.

Starting Monday, I become the community relations director for USD 253 Emporia. It’s a job that, honestly, is a natural extension of my career the past 20 years and a family link to education spanning several generations.

It’s a job that I’m excited to assume for a number of reasons. Having a normal schedule is something both I and my family are more than pleased to start. And it’s not just with the work schedule: the home schedule will change a lot next week, but I’m looking forward to the madness that is morning with kids.

The schedule is a key part of the excitement, but it’s only part of the picture. Family is the big reason for the change in careers.

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The past several years have seen an increase in overall news duties have increased along with, unfortunately, department turnover. That combination has meant a lot more time at the station or in the field than it had when I started. By extension, that meant less time at home. I’ve always wanted to be a full-time husband and father, and honestly I was serving in a part-time role in both capacities at a time when it was becoming more clear our two adoptive children have special needs relating to neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition leading to physical issues, sensory issues and delays for speech and motor skills. The further along I went, the more part-time I became.

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Station management thought outside the normal box, allowing me more flexibility to go to medical appointments and approving the addition of part-time news employees. In the end, though, it was clear I needed a 50-hour work week instead of a 70-hour week. I could cut back on the amount of news I generated, and eventually I did to a degree. However, I felt that cutting back any more than I did would be doing a disservice to the community.

Choosing a career path outside of radio was really a no-brainer. For years, I’ve had a mild interest in media relations, but recently I realized I had a few things going for me if I ever made the jump. I enjoy writing. I enjoy social media, which has become a major part of media as a whole. I adapt to different situations fairly quickly. I also realized my options were, frankly, limited because I still need at least two years of education to get my bachelor’s degree.

And as I’ve said to different media outlets and people around the area, the Emporia district has a lot going for it, so for me this is the perfect place to land as I change my career direction. There’s a reason the #EmporiaProud hashtag has taken off since Kevin Case became superintendent last year. Whether it’s student accomplishments, student-generated projects, teacher and staffer ventures and the like, KVOE’s Feel Good Friday segment could be populated several times a month with the good things coming from the district. I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of dedicated staffers at all levels in USD 253, so I consider myself very fortunate to go from the radio station to the district and utilize all the media skills I’ve developed over the past two decades.

My decision to pursue the community relations position was simultaneously easy and hard. Easy, because of the schedule, the ability to tell this district’s stories and the aforementioned ripple effect of the daily news grind.

Hard, because I never seriously considered any other career until relatively recently and realizing a switch likely ends two career dreams I’ve had for years: being the voice of a major college or professional baseball team and, more recently, owning a cluster of radio stations.

You may well have heard the story (a few times) before. Back in 1980, when i was 9, I was listening to my first Kansas City Royals radio broadcast. Before my second inning of listening, I knew sports play-by-play — particularly baseball — was what I wanted to do as a career. I already had an ear towards media as a potential career. My brother, Pete, and I constantly broke down larger cardboard boxes and turned them into news desks as young kids, and the Omaha tornado of 1975 had fostered a lifelong interest in severe weather. But above all, especially when I realized exactly how much math was in in meteorology, even with a dabble into music education as I transitioned from high school to higher education, I wanted to be involved in sports (and, no, I don’t have a pic of those days, so this earlier rendition will have to do).

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I got my chance at sports broadcasting at KLIN in Lincoln, Neb., but I had to earn it. First, I had the part-timer trial by fire (rather, trial by boredom) as the overnight board op. Once I proved relatively competent at that, I was shifted to days — and then several duties opened up in relatively rapid succession. I was allowed to fulfill my weather fix as a spotter/reporter, including reports on a small twister near Cortland. I was also allowed to be the station board operator on several sports, including Lincoln Stars junior hockey, and the network board operator for Pinnacle Sports coverage of several University of Nebraska sports, including Husker football. (Talk about a Saturday: pregame coverage — 4.5 hours, game coverage — 3.5 hours, postgame coverage — up to 5 hours…a predecessor of things to come). And I got my first taste of professional news.

News as a career was never a goal of mine. I repeat: never a goal. But apparently I had a nose for it. I should have known from my days at the Burke High Beat and North Star high school newspapers that I’d go into news at some point. And like my early days behind the markered-up cardboard box, I had a premonition of things to come from family. My aunt, Cheryl Butler, spent decades in print journalism, including lengthy stops at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Washington Post. And my mom was starting to launch her own writing career — and cementing her status in the world of quilting as a result.

Starting as a cub reporter, I went from fires to school boards to the Upfront Story, our in-depth (as in-depth as you can get in 95 seconds) feature of the day several times a week. And then — something I didn’t appreciate fully at the time — I was put on Live at 5, KLIN’s afternoon drive-time news show at the time as a co-anchor. Jane Monnich, John Soukup and I worked to sculpt newscasts and snag guests for the hour-long program before Jane and I — along with Dan “The Weatherman” Staehr and Jim Rose — wrapped up the day’s local, regional and occasionally national events.

Mind you, this was all as a part-timer. It was the inability to gain full-time status that led me to a three-year stint in print journalism, first at the Wahoo Newspaper (yes, that is indeed the paper’s name) before two years at the Lincoln Journal Star. At the Wahoo Newspaper, I was again a multi-duty staffer, handling news, sports, photography and page design. At the Journal Star, I was strictly behind the desk, editing copy and designing pages.

But I couldn’t stay away from radio. And even though I couldn’t get a full-time position in sports (trust me — I tried), I could at least keep my foot in the sports door by taking a position at KVOE. So in October 2002, after a gentle nudge from former general manager Lee Schroeder, I packed up with the help of my dad and made the four-hour trip from Lincoln to Emporia. And on Oct. 14, 2002, I took the air in the Kansas Flint Hills for the first time.

The position was officially for a news anchor/reporter, which automatically involved severe weather. It also involved high school sports and remotes — so essentially exactly what I was doing at KLIN with a full-time paycheck to go with it. However, it was, admittedly, rocky at the start. I was so nervous and so eager to please that I sprinted through my newscasts like a chipmunk on meth (cheetah on crack…you get the picture) and then I stumbled through some casts like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner…before he went cliffdiving (it happened every episode on TV and it almost happened every newscast). How I won a first-place newscast award from the Kansas Associated Press my second year was beyond me. Still is, honestly.

Quickly on awards, since I brought up that topic: I’ve been fortunate to win my share from the Kansas Association of Broadcasters for news, features, severe weather and sports. Maybe it’s wrong of me to say, but I’ve always considered awards as validation for what I’m doing, either individually or as part of a team, and just as importantly as enhancement of the station’s prestige. I’d like to say I’ve added to that prestige the past 14 years, but that’s not my place to judge.

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Much more than the awards, though, my focal points as a news reporter have been to be complete, be fair to all sides, to ask the necessary questions (realizing it may be quite some time before those questions get answered), to eliminate anything subjective in the on-air and online reports and to learn from all my interactions. The learning aspect is underrated among today’s new reporters, in my estimation. I’ve seen several incoming reporters who have a set idea about media, whether it’s in the broadcast persona, what should or shouldn’t be covered and even how to deal with their management or employers. Reporters with a split persona (one for the airwaves and one for everybody else) have a much better chance of a sustained career, in my opinion, although I’m not so sure that should be the case.

As a sports broadcaster, I’ve always felt my role has been to relay exactly what’s happening, both on and off the field of play. It was never enough to just report the on-field action; I also wanted to capture the emotional ebb and flow of the game I was covering. Leaving that out, to me, ignored a critical piece of the action for listeners and later viewers as our high school sports coverage went online.

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Speaking of online: There’s no doubt the advent of the Internet and social media has thoroughly transformed news outlets. It certainly transformed operations at KVOE. Starting with a series of Microsoft Word documents that served as a rudimentary website, KVOE’s online presence has transformed into an award-winning, content-rich website (emphasis on content-rich). Facebook and Twitter see several updates a day, and that’s leaving out the rapid-fire severe weather and breaking news alerts. My goal has been to drive people from the web and social media to the airwaves and back again, using one form of media to highlight and bring attention to the others.

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I’m grateful for the in-house relationships I’ve developed at KVOE, whether it be the Morning Show and ESU football crew of Ron Thomas and Greg Rahe, evenings and weekends with Sean Thornton, high school sports with Scott Hayes and the off-mike interactions with the sales staff, secretaries, part-time employees and station owner Steve Sauder. They mean more than you will realize.

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I’m also marveling at the sheer number of stories over the past 14-plus years, sometimes up to 12 a day, and the breadth of news:

I’ve covered destructive fires, whether it be homes or the Fourth Avenue Dining Company. I’ve seen people die just feet from me as I covered crashes and trauma calls. I’ve seen the pain of victims in murder and sexual abuse cases as their situations work through the court process.

I’ve seen massive shifts in legislative policy in Kansas, ranging from the so-called three-legged stool to the glide path to zero. I’ve also watched a decade-long fight over education funding.

I’ve watched Emporia develop a vibe and mojo — thanks to events like the Dirty Kanza and major disc golf tournaments as well as a concerted effort by local government leaders and education administrators to think outside the box towards that very end.

I’ve had the chance to broadcast state basketball championships, attend a Major League Baseball All-Star Game and fulfill my long-deferred goals of doing baseball and football play-by-play, even if only on a fill-in basis.

I’ve had a chance to interview a Heisman trophy winner, a local racing hero, baseball legends, world-known musicians and influential politicians — and a lot of people I only run into either downtown or at Emporia’s Walmart.

I’ve watched moderate risk severe weather days turn into absolute busts. And I’ve seen severe thunderstorm watch boxes turn into destructive tornadoes in Reading and Eureka.

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And I’ve been honored to balance the bad news with the good. The Feel Good, that is. KVOE’s weekly Friday feature has been an absolute joy, and not just because of the 2 minute, 5 seconds of finished product. I’ve had the good fortune of listening and learning to some wonderful stories and meeting some great people as a result. As far as I have been concerned the past few years, the report every Friday morning has been gravy at the end of the weekly process.

Yes, there have been lots of fun and interesting times as well. I’ve dressed up as an 1980s-era rock star to cover Boo in the Zoo (wearing far more hair than I’ve ever had naturally in my life). I’ve served as a pitchman for a weight loss drink. I’ve emceed bridal fairs, just weeks before I’ve dressed as a Smurf or a Flintstone to generate money for Special Olympics and had my head shaved to raise money for St. Baldricks.  (I’m still trying to forget my alter ego, “Anita Shaver”…)

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It’s been a great career, but it’s time to turn in my key card, delete my scanner app and launch forward.

Besides telling the positive stories for USD 253 Emporia, I’ll also be filling you in on any breaking and rapidly developing situations affecting schools and school kids. On top of that, I’ll be coordinating all things enrollment. I’ll also be attending all USD 253 Board of Education meetings and helping to facilitate projects like the Hopkins Awards, American Education Week cookie delivery and other special events. So my plate will be full, even though my schedule will be considered normal by most (totally different to me).

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I’ll also be taking over for a local legend, whether she likes the designation or not. Nancy Horst has held the community relations position for over two decades after a notable career at the Emporia Gazette, and she has been the embodiment of professionalism during my tenure at KVOE. She has also been more than generous with her time as I start peppering her with questions about my new job. I have two big shoes to fill coming Monday morning.

But I don’t forge ahead before saying thank you to my family. They helped me keep my sanity, even though they may well have been losing theirs with the number of short-notice schedule changes and lengthy times away.

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And I want to thank you for listening. Thanks for having me with you as you wake up…whether it’s at the breakfast table, in the shower, in bed or wherever. Thanks for hacking through 14-plus years of stumbling newscasts. Thanks for bearing with some admittedly inane, silly, occasionally stupid and sometimes totally off-target references to different topics. And thanks for trusting me as a reporter for the news happening around the world and here at home all these years.

Time to wrap it up and ice it down. Thanks, everybody. See you around town.

To be or not to be: Dramatic news writing is the question

News writing is a lot harder than it looks.

Part of that is just the nature of news. We have to get a lot of information out, and for broadcast — radio and TV — we typically don’t have a lot of regurgitation time (insert your own visual here). I’m fortunate in my current position because upper levels of management have given my department the leeway to give a 15-minute news hole for our featured newscasts. This means our staffers have the unmentioned go-ahead to flesh out stories with all the necessary details so our listeners and Web site readers get more details than other broadcast media outlets can provide. It’s not to the level of print journalism — again, the time factor rears its ugly head, especially with the number of stories we’re generating — but it’s one of the things I really like about small-town journalism in general and our station policy in particular.

But part of that is also a desire to, well, spice up the news. And, in some cases, that’s being kind.

I remember a TV news anchor in Omaha from the late 1980s who relayed all information — all information — in the most dramatic terms possible. Car crash? Disastrous, even if it was a fender-bender. Fire? Always destructive — which technically was true, but obviously there are different levels of destruction from such incidents.

It didn’t take long for said anchor to depart the TV station for greener pastures and more mundane news writing (and news delivering) to return to that station’s airwaves.

The problems with dramatic news writing, especially for basic and breaking news, are severalfold. First, it’s distracting to the listener and to the Web site reader. Second, it’s numbing to the audience, especially when people eventually figure out the adjectives and the actions don’t match.

Problems don’t stop there on the broadcast side because a dramatically-written story automatically causes an anchor to change his delivery emphasis — and in some cases to leave what’s actually important underemphasized.

News stories written with a lot of flowery language may generate more online clicks for a certain period of time. However, once readers realize there’s much ado about very little, they will find other news sources that focus on the truth, regardless of how boring the details may be. And your news operation will suffer a damaged reputation as a result.

As far as I’m concerned, a news department’s focus should be in the following order.

  1. Truth in all aspects
  2. Engage with details
  3. Entertain if dictated by content

As you can see, embellishment of details is nowhere on this list. However, go back to the paragraph about online traffic. Once grandiose language is allowed and online traffic seems to increase, a news reporter can be easily tempted to either write things out of context, blow things out of proportion or write things that simply can’t happen just so more people come on board the Web site. Many have taken to the temptation…to the detriment of the profession.

After having seen dramatic language — both elsewhere and, unfortunately, in my department — and after hearing from people over the course of time, it’s my experience that the story content drives readership and listenership far more than how dramatically it’s presented.

Basic is boring when it comes to news writing, especially for hard news. There’s no doubt about that. But given the choice between dramatic and dry, basic is also best.

Advice for New Journalists (i.e., Bust Your Butt Because Stuff’s Gotta Get Done)

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Recently, I had the good fortune to rub shoulders with a couple sets of college journalists. We didn’t discuss a whole lot other than their assignments, but they seemed pretty into their work and eager to join the profession. I have to say I was pretty impressed with their drive.

Thinking about those encounters got me thinking about something else: exactly what young journalists need to know about the profession before they get into it. Honestly, I’m not sure what’s being taught in the classroom these days — especially when it comes to the day-to-day, common-sense things journalists have needed throughout history. And to tell you the truth, I never got that far in my formal college education to find out because I was already learning on the job and had made the fateful decision to pursue the position rather than the degree. Maybe that lack of a diploma disqualifies me from giving advice, but I think my 20 years in the field as a reporter, copy editor, page designer, play-by-play voice, color commentator and department director make me rather qualified for what I’m about to say in a bit.

(A foreword and an insight into my news coverage philosophy: On my Twitter page, I’ll often use the hashtag #SGGD when things are busy — like today, when I’ve written nine stories between 7 and 11 am. Translation? Stuff’s Gotta Get Done).

With that in mind, here’s my advice for those either set to enter the journalism field or those even considering journalism as a profession. Think of this as a guide to helping you be a better journalist, increasing your personal and news outlet’s credibility and keeping your supervisors gruntled (as opposed to the picture at the top of this post). As usual, there is no particular order to these different points:

Don’t ever underestimate the importance of breaking news. It may seem like this should go without saying, but if you don’t cover breaking news correctly, you and your station lose a lot of credibility in a very short time period. Just based on our website numbers, breaking news — even if it doesn’t turn out to be anything serious — will easily outpace your other stories that could well be of more importance to more people. If, by chance, you miss something like a crash or a fire, you’ll hear about it in house for a long time. And your bosses will hear about it from community members for a longer period of time.

You absolutely cannot have a lasseiz-faire attitude when it comes to breaking news. That can be reserved for others in your operation. But you have to think worst-case scenario until proven otherwise. Once you think you don’t have to go all out, especially in the first few moments of an event, you tend to miss something big. You don’t want to answer the questions that follow something like that.

Have what I call professional curiosity…or, related, Go beyond the assignment list. This is the journalism equivalent of playing through the whistle in sports. Has something come down on email or social media that wasn’t on your assignment list but you’re the only one on duty? See something like a water main break or construction around a previously burned-out building? Follow up and let your supervisor know. Few things aggravate superiors more so than egregious errors in your work…but high up on the list is having reporters know of stories and refusing to pursue them.

Speaking of the assignment list, follow that completely and let your supervisor or news director know if there is something you can’t get written up. It’s aggravating to see a story assigned with photos or a video and only seeing the story. There are reasons your supervisor has assigned those stories to you and given you related assignments like pics or videos as well. If you have questions about the train of thought involved, just ask.

Translate lessons from one situation to another. This typically comes after mistakes. The goal here is to learn what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again — and you avoid incurring the wrath of your supervisors for repeated issues or outright failures.

Don’ t pass your work off on anybody else, let alone your supervisor. Don’t be that guy (or that girl) who covers something but tells your supervisor something along the lines of, “I left that pic up on the desktop so you can load that later” or “I’ll let you handle that interview for (fill in the blank reason).” You didn’t make the assignment so don’t act like you did. You’ll be lucky to see it go online and you may get a rather sharp retort to finish your assignment.

Be prepared for some very long work days and work weeks. My work day typically starts around 4 am and usually doesn’t get done until around 2 or 3 pm — and that’s if I don’t have an evening meeting, breaking news assignment during our late afternoon newscast cycle or severe weather to handle. It adds up. My work week is typically in the 60- to 70-hour range, and during vacations it climbs to around 90 hours to make sure everything (or most everything) is covered. Take your downtime whenever you can. Find some way to get away, if only for short chunks of time. And make sure you get sleep when you can. Sleep becomes a priceless commodity in this business.

Put another way: your work day isn’t over just because your shift is done.

A broad range of interests can only help you. You have to cover everything from performing arts events to zoning meetings to school board budgets to deaths. The full news coverage pie is a meaty, meaty offering. It all needs to be covered to the best of your ability. Don’t get a reputation for fully covering only a small slice of your pie and leaving the rest virtually untouched.

What you say…or type…can come back to haunt you. You have to be on the level, whether you’re writing a story or talking about other matters. If you’re caught lying about off-work stuff, it automatically calls your credibility into question about what you write. Automatically. And heaven help you if you are caught lying about something you did or didn’t do for work.

Be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. You may have to wake up at 5 am to cover a wreck when you just got back home at midnight after a long meeting. Severe weather may hit during a late afternoon newscast. Somebody notable to your area may resign or die and you don’t hear about until Saturday afternoon. You know it in your head that a lot of news stories don’t have a schedule, but you will have that lesson drilled into you during your first six to nine months on the job. You have to be flexible in this business.

Bottom line? Even in a small market, journalism is a field that mandates a high-revving motor. You’re going to make your mistakes. There will be stories or angles of stories you don’t immediately see. Even seasoned veterans have some major screw-ups or dumb thought processes (just ask NBC’s Brian Williams). You’ll get somebody mad at least once a week for how you write a story, no matter how fair you are. But nobody should question your work ethic. If you have a slow-running motor, it’s best to avoid this field even if you like to write and interact with people. If your motor runs high, then certain things you don’t do so well will at least be tolerated until you can bring those up to speed — and you will be expected to do so in short order.

#SGGD. And you’ll be hired to get that stuff done. Good luck…and may the news force be with you.

The author is the news director of KVOE Radio in Emporia, Kan.

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