Living In The Nation’s #1 Media Market
The New York TV news market is staffed by people who are really good at what they do. There are no beginners fresh out of college. The anchors are polished, the reporters are veterans, and the production values are through the roof. The pace is quick and mistakes are rare, which is really saying something since so many of the anchors take turns working from home during the plague.
WABC-TV7 is the most-watched TV station in the nation, and while my wife and I have sampled the newscasts on WNBC-TV4, WCBS-TV2, and WNYW-TV (Fox 5), we find ourselves watching more WABC-TV Ch 7 news than any of the many others.
The writing is crisp, sharp, grammatically correct, and seldom if ever will you hear any “news-speak.” Phrases like “fled on foot,” “the incident remains under investigation,” “officials say,” and similar cop-talk or officialese are absent from scripted copy and live ad-lib reports.
I’d expected WABC-TV would sound and look a lot like ABC-TV’s morning show, Good Morning America, but it does not. To me, GMA is largely unwatchable because the language their reporters speak is a horrible bastardization of standard English. Auxiliary verbs (is, are, was, were, has, have, had, and the 16 others) are almost never used. (Example: “Arizona authorities (are) looking for suspects…”)
GMA begins almost every story with “overnight” or “breaking now” or “this morning.” Everything is written and delivered in what news consultants call “forced present tense” which supposedly gives immediacy to the content, but in actual practice is quite difficult to listen to. Subjective adjectives like “shocking,” “amazing,” “terrifying,” “stunning” and others are frequently sprinkled in.
But you won’t hear any of that on the network flagship TV news operations. They speak conversational English without the newswriting clichés so often heard on network news presentations.
The weekend presentations aren’t quite as good as the weekday product. You’re likely to hear some news-speak, and some tortured usages like “ten-year anniversary” and outmoded descriptors like “wheelchair-bound.”
Because we live in Bridgeport, the largest city in Connecticut, 40-some miles from midtown Manhattan, all the New York City stations treat us as local. They include Bridgeport news and weather in all their newscasts. Our New York City-headquartered cable company, Optimum, also gives us several Connecticut TV stations from Hartford and New Haven. There, you’re more likely to hear fractured grammar, news-speak, and silly usages.
Sitting through a TV newscast with me is no picnic, but my wife, who’s accustomed to my constant commentary, puts up with it.
For those who don’t know, my wife was an on-camera TV reporter for many years in the 90’s and early 2000’s for the Madison CBS TV affiliate. Above is a screen-grab from one of her many live reports from the Chicago Bears Training Camp in Platteville in the summer of 2001.
For many years, I lived and worked in the nation’s second-largest TV market, Los Angeles, where the ABC flagship station there, KABC-TV 7 was my choice. I can still hear the late Jerry Dunphy’s famous opening line, “From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California, this is KABC-TV news.” Dunphy was born in Milwaukee and after paying his dues at smaller markets all over the country, became the lead anchor at KABC-TV and an icon of Los Angeles TV.
Another one of my favorites from my SoCal days is Ann Martin, who worked for nearly two decades at KABC-TV before KCBS-TV lured her away. There was absolutely nothing flashy about her style and delivery. She spoke plain English and never used any of the many horrible news-speak clichés. I remember one particular evening in 1988 that encapsulated her style for me. I had the TV on in the living room and was doing something in the kitchen, when I heard her say “if you’re somewhere else in your home listening to this broadcast but not in front of the TV screen, I’ll give you a moment to get in front of your TV because there’s some video here you’re going to want to see.” Although I don’t remember what the video was, I remember her lead-in.
Because of my job at the time, I was privileged to meet a lot of the Southern California TV news people. And I got to see first-hand the inner workings of the nightly newscasts on several of the Los Angeles TV stations, including KABC-TV, KNBC-TV, and KCBS-TV, where I met sports anchor Jim Hill, who played for the Packers in the mid-70’s.
Like most of Southern California, the atmosphere in these newsrooms and studios was laid back. You can’t be wound too tight and expect to get along well in SoCal. There was a sense of urgency, as there always is in TV news, but folks were seldom hyper. That seems to contrast with the prevailing vibe I’m getting here in the New York City metro, where people can be brusque and impatient.
Back in the mid-90’s I did a 10-minute Monday morning feature for WISC-TV in Madison called “The Week Ahead.” They had a TV camera in my radio newsroom on the other side of town, and I’d chat live on the air with WISC-TV news anchor Cheryl Schubert Hartung. We’d talk back and forth, previewing the major news stories we expected to cover during the week ahead.
Last week Cheryl and I were visiting on social media, talking about the higher intensity level on the east coast. Earlier in her TV career Cheryl was a reporter for a station in Albany, NY, and she told me a story about what that newsroom was like. She said a lot of the producers and anchors were refugees from the New York City TV market, and they were wound pretty tight. They didn’t want to raise their kids in NYC so they migrated to more family-friendly environs.
She told me one day, the news assignment manager was pitching a fit about something, ranting and hollering. He unplugged the phone that was on his desk and threw it into the newsroom, barely missing her head. She said after the storm calmed down, the News Director called her into his office and told her she was “too nice” and needed to “toughen up.”
I suspect a New York City TV newsroom is probably not the kind of place I’d like to visit in my advanced age. I can’t dodge flying telephones as quickly as I could have when I was younger.
Since I spent so many years programming and anchoring news radio stations, I’m compelled to give my two-cents-worth. There are several really top-notch radio news operations in New York City. The station I have on the most in the car is 1010 WINS. “Ten-ten WINS: WINS wins New York” is one of their many slogans, along with the evergreen “where the news never stops,” and their heritage slogan “Ten-ten-WINS: you give us 22 minutes, and we’ll give you the world.”
Fox News Radio actually plays it pretty much right down the middle, not like the Fox TV news product. But they often write sentences without auxiliary verbs, the most prominent form of news-speak, and force present tense. My wife’s ex-husband, Rich Denison, is one of the principal anchors at Fox News Radio in New York City, although since the onset of the plague he’s been delivering newscasts from his home studio in New Jersey.
And then there’s the most listened-to news-talk radio station in the nation, WABC-AM. Like WINS, WOR, and the other major New York City AM stations, it sounds like a million bucks: tight and bright, forward motion galore, and flawless execution.
The signature element for every AM radio station is what we broadcasters call the “top of the hour ID” or “legal ID.” (“Legal,” because the FCC used to require all stations to identify at the top of the hour, with the station’s call sign and city of license.) The Legal ID is the ten or fifteen second production element that serves as the audible logo of the station, the element that’s the station’s unique identifier.
Hearing WABC-AM at the top of the hour is a joy. I’ve simply got to go full radio geek on this one. Just before the end of the hour, you hear the jingle begin. And it’s a dandy – written by the late Mr. TM himself, Tom Merriman. More than a hundred musicians were used on the session to create the WABC top-of-hour jingle, and a small chorus of singers with Merriman’s signature tight harmonies.
You hear the jingle start to play, and Mr. Deep Voiced Announcer says, “reaching more Americans than any other news-talk station in the nation!” Immediately, the jingle singers come up to full volume singing “NewsTalk Radio 77, WABC” -and suddenly the key changes dramatically as the singers intone “New York City!”
Suddenly a voice comes in over the jingle, giving the time, saying “In the greatest city in the world, it’s five o’clock!” The jingle comes to a cold musical ending, immediately followed by the beginning of the ABC Radio Network News sounder and the start of the network newscast.
It’s the kind of thing that makes us old-time veteran AM radio guys giddy – that big, orchestral jingle, the deep-voiced announcer, perfect timing – it never fails to get me when I hear it.
The media mix is one of the fun things about living in the New York metro for me. Hopefully my long-suffering wife will continue to put up with my running commentary during the broadcasts.