Other Matters: Return Of The One-Man Band

No, not the Sidney Bechet “Sheik of Araby” kind of one man band, but the television news kind. Today, Howard Kurtz devotes his column in The Washington Post to a phenomenon brought about in broadcast news by the convergence of technology and economic hard times.

Scott Broom turns his tripod toward the wall of gray mailboxes, adjusts the camera, walks into the shot and delivers his spiel.
“Here’s how bad it is for the U.S. Postal Service,” the WUSA reporter says as a handful of customers at the Garrett Park post office look on. Invoking the organization’s growing deficit, which he just looked up on a laptop in his car, he puts a stamp on an envelope and declares: “At 44 cents a shot, that is a lot of peeling and sticking.”
Broom then thrusts the envelope toward the lens — and blows out the iris, which has to be reset so he can try the stand-up again. It’s one of the occupational hazards of being a journalistic jack of all trades — the equivalent of singing while playing the keyboard, guitar and drums.

To read all of Kurtz’s column, go here. It made me think about about standard practice in many television markets during my early years in broadcast journalism, before the digital revolution produced tiny cameras.
In 1963, I went to the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, to interview Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. American troop levels in the Viet Nam war had tripled and tripled again and I had lots of Auricon.jpgquestions for him. I drove the KOIN-TV van to the hotel and schlepped the gear into the lobby only to learn that a power disturbance had fried the system that controlled the elevators. They were all out of commission. I hauled the big Pro 600 Auricon conversion 16-millimeter film camera (pictured) up six flights of stairs, knocked on the door of Mundt’s suite, said I was from Channel 6 News and explained that I had to go back down for the rest of the equipment.
In three subsequent trips, I wrangled the enormous wooden tripod, the lights and their stands, amplifier, cables and sound apparatus up six stories. As I brought each new batch ofKarl Mundt capitol in window cropped small.jpg paraphernalia into their room, Senator and Mrs. Mundt sat on the sofa sipping coffee. Small, round people with kind faces, they watched my exertions with interest and patience. I forget what Senate business took Mundt to Portland, but he did not have the entourage of staff people today’s ranking politicians seem unable to do without. If he had, I would have recruited them to help carry the gear.
As I positioned the lights, set the zoom lens for a two-shot, focused and prepared to displace Mrs. Mundt on the sofa for the interview, the senator said, “Will the reporter be here soon?”
I told him that I was the reporter and crew.
“Oh,” he said. “That isn’t how they do it in Washington.”
It is now.

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  1. James H. Esser says

    Not only would you be a one-man-band if you were reporting in Washington today, you would be reporting for several newsrooms at the same time.

  2. Jon Foley says

    From correspondence with friends who are still there, I understand the same thing is happening in Providence RI, the last place where I worked in television. Veteran TV reporters are having to quickly learn how to operate a camera in order to keep their jobs. That’s the way it was done in 1971 when I started in TV; it was unprofessional then, and it’s unprofessional now.
    Of course, the corporations that own television stations could find the money to pay two-person crews by cutting back on executive salaries and perks – anyone think that’s going to happen?

  3. Mike Ferring says

    SIX floors! I think I would have asked the good Senator to join me on the street. Yes, at KCRG in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1967, I started by lugging around a Pro 600 with wooden tripod, etc. The creative news director, Dave Carter, and I cobbled together a hand truck with a screw jack bolted to it with a place for the camera, amp and cables. Fold down an adjustable third leg and it became the tripod. Rube, your camera is here. For several months of my 13-month stay at KCRG the single sound camera went out for repairs and all we had was the silent stuff. Lighter though.
    It’s a different TV world now, isn’t it? Or does this just mean we’ve gone back to the future?

  4. says

    Amen, it certainly is now. But I ran a newsroom in Wilmington, NC, for two years with one-man bands, and one full-time photog for one year because I had three anchors with contracts that read they didn’t have to shoot and edit. They’re no longer there…neither is that lone photographer. They also offered the anchor 60% of his pay if he chose to stay. The president of the broadcast company told me last July that “anyone can read the news.” And now anyone is…
    The notion of public service belongs with aged hippies like myself…ah, well, I’m playing lead now with the Brunswick Big Band and concentrating on hitting high “D’s” without rupturing myself, have a screenplay in development and a book a year overdue. Better and bigger fish to fry. Still, to see the profession that you and I spent the majority of our working years in turn to nothing more than commercial filler isn’t easy.