Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Halcyon Days Remembered

Halcyon Days Remembered

Once Upon a Time …

For a little while, a long time ago—about 25 years, actually—there were halcyon days, salad days at one of Austin’s TV stations. With great vision, courage, and no a small amount of money invested, KVUE TV enjoyed huge ratings and happy people in the 1980s. The news department led by Russ Stockton, who died within the past year, was largely unfettered, free to pursue any story almost anywhere, so long as it was about Central Texas. And, we flourished. Further, we became family.

As in all families, some people move on. But the amazing thing about this special group is that while some notables such as anchors Margie Reedy and Kate Kelly moved on, most of us are still here in Austin 25 years later. Many are still in “the business” like Robert Hadlock at KXAN and Judy Maggio Ron Oliveira at KEYE. Several other photojournalists are still here too. They are freelancers in business for themselves. Others of us stay connected because we are public information officers, like Dick Ellis with Leander ISD and Geoff Wool with the state, educators or public relations people. Michelle Cheney (Michelle Martin when she anchored) is an account manager for KLBJ Radio.

December 15th, more than 30 of us gathered for lunch. The stated reason was that one of the “family members”, photojournalist Kenny Kaplan, was coming to town after shooting the Cowboys/Giants game Sunday. Kaplan lives in New York now. But, the larger purpose may have been to catch up, spent time. Similar gatherings have happened a few other times over the years. But it came home to me how special this time was and, yes, how special Austin is.

First of all, although Austin is the 49th market, it has been and is a destination. It is not a way station where people spend time before jumping to a bigger market. Austin is always on various lists for being one of the best cities in the nation. So, it is a small wonder why people come here, and they stay here. I didn’t know these things when I came here in 1970 planning to spend five years and leave. I’m a quick study.

So, while I’m talking about KVUE in the 1980s, the same could be said of other stations, I am sure. I know the people who were with me at KXAN in the 1990s feel the same. It’s about being in the same place at the same time and together doing worthwhile and even extraordinary things together. The accomplishment of these goals (In the case of television news, being #1) drew the group even closer together. Current KVUE news director Frank Volpecilla also joined us for lunch, and thus, joined the family Monday celebrating “… the people; the place; the times hung in memory.”

It also came home to me how the business is changing. These relationships may not happen again. Why? Mass communications is changing, fragmenting, and reinventing. Across the nation, experienced anchors, are walking away from the desk. Some, baby boomers, are retiring. Others are gone when their contracts are not renewed. This shared history is vanishing from the newsrooms. It is not just the highly-paid anchors who are being supplanted by younger and lower-paid people. It is happening at all levels as owners seek ways to cut costs. Entire photography staffs are being shown the door as stations choose to use freelancers. Freelancers don’t get benefits, you know.

While this old model is broken, a new model may rise up to take its place, creating a new ethos. But for a couple of hours, about 30 of us laughed and hugged and talked about “the good old days.” They were good.

[1] John Holmes, Part VII, “Map of My Country”.
Here’s a link: http://dca.lib.tufts.edu/features/holmes/world/map/map07.html

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