White Van: Tales from a Mobile Newsroom

March 11, 2010

White Van

I drive a white Ford E-350 Econoline van.  It has FOX written on its side; on top, there's a telescoping mast, a TV microwave transmitter and a dish-type antenna.  The latter--mandated by the FCC--replaced rods, which looked like kabob skewers, a prop from Frankenstein movie.   This TV-land vehicle is called an electronic news gathering truck.  It isn't pretty.  I'm the electronic journalist.

The rest of this story needs what the biz calls a music-bed.  So fade in the "mind-curdling space age pop" of Juan Garcia Esquivel.  His over-the-top instrumental, bachelor-pad music is astonishingly orchestrated.  It was, in its time, hot stuff for guys who wanted to demonstrate their new hi-fi's stereophonic effects.  Esquivel's musical textures, replete with wordless whimsical vocals was also fodder for Ernie Kovac's avant-garde audio/video tricks.

It isn't easy being another ENG trucker-- (pow) an FCC-licensed TV broadcast engineer (bing) EJ.  (zu-zu-zu....) When I motor toward a news assignment, people share their heartfelt thoughts about my TV station.  For instance, many think that our news is the best.  Our promos say so.  Folks show their agreement with one finger raised.  They wave it wildly.  However, their index fingers and thumbs cannot be seen. (tukutututu.....oh, make up your own wordless vocals)

Gluteus Maximus

Then, there are those who must expose their telegenic side.  Problem is the what they show is crescent-shaped with a crack.  It doesn't look pretty hanging out of a car window. And think of the gas they're wasting with the additional aerodynamic drag!  I suppose people think their bottoms are tops.  Maybe NASA would be impressed.  Imagine the tease:  "More Apollo coverage, from a FOX ENG truck, after this message from Tang and our alternative sponsor Space Food Sticks."

There are the rubbernecks.  They swivel their heads, searching for what the biz calls talent.  If the truck is on location, these same folks will pound on its windows.  They look like moles that have fallen into basement window wells, their snouts desperately pressing against the glass.  They cannot help themselves.  Rather then let us perform our jobs and then watch the results at ten, rubbernecks demand instant gratification.  Alas, our ambulatory news room, is a mobile menagerie--a zoo where one wonders:  Who is watching whom?

One time I put up a sign saying "feed the engineer."  It didn't work.  Then I tried,  "Don't disturb the video animals."  In this veritable fishbowl of trucking, one cannot hide.  It's particularly uncomfortable when parked at one of Milwaukee's numerous summer festivals.  I call them "Fests of Hells"--for good reason.  For instance, an inquisitive fair goer, incessantly knocked on the right door window.  I opened it.  If images of Pandora's Box come to mind, you're on my wavelength.

Let Me Explain

It's a reversal of images, I know, but humor me, please.  An EJ opens windows with caution.  There are wackos, weirdos, and dimwits, who besides uttering the unoriginal refrain, "Put me on TV," which will probably be engraved on my tombstone, must demonstrate their utter lack of TV production techniques by asking, "Is this going to be on the news?" Anyhow, to the former demand, I reply in my best Jack Benny tone: "Set yourself on fire and I'll think about it."  It makes sense.  During the 60s, self-immolated monks were--say, surefire--a shoo-in for network newscasts.

Persistence of Vision

People are persistent in their quest for 15 frames of video fame.  And they are just as profoundly stupid.  Excuse me.  When they ask to be put them on TV do they ever notice that I'm not the photographer or a casting agency?  I'm the engineer.  Do I have a camera?  Usually,  No!  The photojournalist does and the story was shot hours ago.  The truck has a cigarette lighter, though.  Help yourself!

Now you're wondering whether TV engineers are rude.  They're not--crude--but not rude.  We've got work to perform and don't mix with the hoi polloi.   For good reason:  Remember those inquisitive types I previously mentioned?  Talk about rude. They do more than gawk--and do they ever.  When asked to wait five minutes, they're off in a huff.

Now, about that Pandora's Box:  This woman began banging on the Ford's side window.  I fumbled my way to the truck's front door, my workplace throne is a sad seat mounted mid-ship facing aft, which affords a great view of TV monitors, microwave transmitter controls, video routing switchers and the proverbial TV waveform monitor--a scope that lets me examine video signals.  It produces a fascinating ghastly green glow.  Unfortunately, there's no such device that warns me of the dangerous ‘vidiots' outside.  And before you ask, I'm not being paid amuse my eyeballs watching TV.  If you want money,  become a A. C. Nielsen family.

As I lowered the window, I thought, this could be my (do, do, do, do)  "Twilight Zone" moment--make that a Malox moment-- I must listen to the two-way radio; it's how I hear the director's cue and I cannot concentrate with that Anacin-like hammering.  Outside the window was a 40ish woman, jumping up-and-down as though she had to pee.  She said,  "I  want to see whether or not (why can't people just say whether) someone important is in there."   "Excuse me,"  I said, "Is there an intelligent life form outside?"  She stopped jumping, I caught my cue, performed some video magic and heard a distant, "Huh?...."

One wonders:  Do people really think Bill Murray is so hard up that he'd schlep around in a news gathering truck?  Do they have a life?  This isn't Groundhog Day and I'm not Bill Murray.  Get real!  Those TV promos showing hardworking anchors and photojournalists rushing to get you up-to-date news from an ENG truck are impostors.  In most major markets, the crews use cars or SUVs, and gather the important details via their cell phones.  If a reporter is riding in the truck it's because he/she has been dumped by a photographer who is probably feed up with chauffeuring talent.  Believe me, it can be a pain.  Usually the explanation for dumping is simple--costs and logistics. The PJ is on overtime and talent needs a ride home.

Besides,  when it comes to news gathering, the producer or news director already has the story written in his or her mind.  We must conform to news-making reality.  It's unbelievable.  You'll be sent to show storm damage, and what you find is a croquet tournament on a balmy green.  Yet, the newsroom wants pictures of mayhem; radar showed severe weather at the precise spot where you're standing.  Therefore, you get a sound bite, find a scrap of debris and you've got breaking news.  Or in this case, some people grilling bratwurst completely unaware that there were supposed to be neck-deep in water.

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