Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Sad Tale Of Brendan Dassey

First of all, I don’t know if Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach. I’m not sure we ever will know who brutally took her life in 2005. I’m not one of those who immediately jumped on the “Avery is Innocent” bandwagon after watching the entire Netflix Docudrama “Making A Murderer”.  Too many questions remain unanswered.

But what I did see in the hours and hours I invested in watching that sad tale is how flawed the criminal justice system can be. Particularly when it comes to dealing with people like Brendan Dassey. And even after ten years of imprisonment after being convicted of helping his uncle kill Halbach, I’m saddened to think that Dassey’s worst days may still be ahead.

Last Friday a Federal Judge overturned Dassey’s conviction. The judge didn’t say Dassey was innocent; the judge didn’t say Dassey should immediately be released. What the judge did say was that the so-called “confession” the cops bullied out of Dassey was bogus.

And since Dassey’s conviction was as a result of this bogus “confession”, those who might appeal the Federal Judge’s ruling have nothing to stand on. There’s no evidence that connects Dassey with the murder of Halbach. None. No photos, no DNA, no nothing.

Those who saw the interrogation of Dassey by watching “Making A Murderer” saw a kid, a 16-year-old special ed student apparently without the mental faculty to be scared, telling the cops what they wanted to hear – after repeatedly asking for his mother to be present. Dassey had no idea what was at stake here, and any reasonable person watching that horrible browbeating would conclude that the kid wanted his mom and would say anything the cops wanted to hear, in many cases, just parroting back the words they essentially put in his mouth.

Then, after enduring that disgusting interrogation, Dassey’s first lawyer, Len Kachinsky, threw his client under the bus and essentially functioned as an agent for the prosecution. That much was also clearly apparent to anyone who watched the Netflix series. Kachinsy was working for the prosecution, not for his client.

The Federal Judge’s ruling can be appealed within 90 days, and I suspect we’ll know shortly whether that’s going to happen or not. It’s also a reasonable assumption that an appeal will fail, barring any remarkable new evidence, and that Dassey will be released from prison.

That’s why I say his worst days may be yet to come.

He will be released with no education, no training, no real job prospects, and extremely limited social services support. He will, in no way, be prepared to navigate life as a 26-year-old man. His mom will not be able to provide the array of psychological and other rehabilitative services her son will need.

He certainly didn’t get any such help in prison. And he won’t get it when he’s released.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Good Gig, Producing Good Radio

A friend of mine, Jennifer, sent me a note the other day, proud that her son, who started his radio career in Waupaca, had just taken a new job with a radio station in Fond du Lac. The fellow her son replaced in Fond du Lac had been with that station for more than two decades.

One of Jennifer’s workmates threw shade (as they say nowadays) on the man my friend’s son replaced, implying that he must not have been good enough to work at a station in a larger market and his career had stalled there.

Two things that get me wound up easily are the idea that people who work in smaller radio markets aren’t as talented as people who work in larger markets, and people who say things like “oh, you’re in radio – do you think you’ll ever make it to TV?”

For those who don’t know me, I’ve worked in both radio and TV, and in markets small and large: the smallest was the Oshkosh/Appleton/Fox Valley market, and the largest was Los Angeles. And there were a few big markets in between, before I landed in Madison. And I loved working in TV, but my heart is in radio. It was fun working in the nation’s second-largest market, LA, but even more fun in Madison.

One of my favorite stories about radio and talent is one that’s quite personal. Circumstances were such in 1988 that I was compelled to relocate from Los Angeles to the Madison area. It’s too long a story to go into here, but when the move back to Wisconsin - where I was born and raised - became inevitable, I called the CEO of the broadcast group I’d worked for in Oshkosh years ago, and asked if there might be anything for me at the stations the group owned in Madison.

He said the legendary, heritage AM station which they owned in Madison – which used to be called WISM-AM – had transitioned from playing Top-40 hits to what was then a relatively new format: talk radio. Perhaps I could help bolster the station’s news image, which had been impeccable in the WISM days, but had lost a bit of luster in the new incarnation as WTDY-AM.

The days of Wayne Wallace, P.K. Powers, Bill Short, and other household names from WISM were gone. The irascible Mark Belling – a co-worker from my Oshkosh days who now holds forth in Milwaukee and frequently subs for the world’s biggest blowhard, Rush Limbaugh – had assembled an eager and talented news team for the station, but they didn’t really have an anchor with “gravitas”, according to the CEO. He suggested I might be able to help there.

To shorten the story and keep it moving along, I took a redeye flight from L-A to Madison, got off the plane, rented a car, and put the radio on 1480 AM. The first voice I heard was a woman named Toni Denison, who was doing a newscast. I immediately thought to myself “this woman could easily be working in Los Angeles.” She had a well-modulated alto voice, delivered at an appropriate rate, enunciated clearly, had great vocal inflection, and kept the newscast moving. In other words, easily major market talent. That was my first impression, having never laid eyes on her. She had big-market talent.

Full disclosure: she and I got married a few years after I met her.

As I listened across the radio dial to the Madison market on that first trip in from L-A 28 years ago, I heard a vibrant chorus of talented, professional newscasters, and quite a few on-air personalities who had, to my ear, the presence and luster to be working in one of the nation’s largest markets.

Back then, Madison had dozens of radio news people. The group I worked for had 8 full-timers and several part-timers. So did the group my friend Jennifer worked for. And there was another group that had a similar number of news folks. Public radio in Madison had – and still has – an active radio news gathering operation.  But of the three commercial groups that had active, competing news departments back in the late 80’s – well, I’m not sure, but I think there are about two full-time radio news people at commercial stations in Madison now. It could actually be one. My apologies if I’m failing to count someone who does news, and only news, full-time.

As usual, I digress.

The point my friend Jennifer made in her note to me was that the gentleman in Fond du Lac who spent more than two decades at the same station, in the same market, was talented enough to land a job in a much larger market. It’s probably because he didn’t WANT to. It’s far more likely that, as is the case with so many talented radio folks, he “found a good gig where he could produce good radio for good people”. Those are Jennifer’s exact words, far more eloquent than I’m capable of writing.

Some very talented radio folks, making good radio in smaller markets, could easily go through the steps of sending out their resume and CD, landing a job in a larger market, packing up all their stuff and moving, and doing it again in a year or two until they finally figured out they're where they want to be and they’re tired of moving.

And some have different aspirations: they realize they’re in a good gig, where the paychecks don’t bounce, they have reasonable freedom to make good radio without some corporate tyrant breathing down your neck, and they can send down roots, get married, buy a home, raise a family, and be an integral part of the community.

Take a look at the people doing news reporting on the Madison TV stations. They’re talented young folks, by and large, who come and go. Madison, for them, is a stopping point on a career that will take them around the nation. They’ll move every year or so, and mispronounce the local names, exposing their lack of experience in the community. And then there are those - in most cases, the news anchors, but there are a handful of reporters - who’ve been around for years and are established members of the community.  You know their names. They’re the ones who know how to pronounce cities like Shawano, Waukesha, Oconomowoc, and Ripon.

You can’t do the same in Madison radio any more, because there’s only one group owner left in commercial radio that even bothers to have a “news department”. My former colleague, Robin Colbert, is the news director there, and now that her dad, John, has retired, Robin is, I believe, the only full-time news person on the staff. A few of the FM stations have part-time “sidekicks” who read the news, but don’t actually go out and gather it.

And I know a lot of radio and TV news folks in Wisconsin, working in our state’s many small markets, who put in long hours at city council and county board and school board meetings at night and work a long shift during the day covering news, writing news, and reporting news, who have the talent needed to land a job in one of the nation’s largest markets. But they love what they’re doing and have roots in their community.

There is still, as my friend Jennifer wrote to me, a magic to small market radio – and TV, as far as that goes. Some of these folks are the shining star of a staff which consists largely of underpaid young people just learning the trade. Some of them will move on to jobs in the big markets, where every staff position is held by a highly talented broadcaster.

For some, it’s the journey, not the destination. Kudos. Here’s hoping you have a great career doing what you love, and that leaving your job is a decision you’ll make – and not have it made for you by some clueless overlord.