Nat Sound Redemption

One the first essays written for b-roll.net was Nat Sound Redemption, Ron Messina‘s look at the frustrations of Television News Photography. It has always symbolized the spirit of this website… pushing to do the best work in an amazing profession… while many forces work against us. This is Part I…

Five years later, after “getting out,” Messina picks up his pen and paper to give us an update about life on the other side

From: Ron Messina

In the beginning you are fresh, eager and willing to hang from a helicopter skid with your teeth because you’re happy to be working in TV news. You cheerfully crawl into muddy caves, inhale smoke from burning buildings and wade in floodwater gathering news with a chunky old camera on your shoulder. You brave winter chill and summer heat. You stride into bad neighborhoods; fearless. You get sent to a million different places, and you love it. The pay is not good, but you make up for it by working 14 hour days. At first you make a few mistakes–you forget your camera; forget tapes and batteries, forget to white balance; you bring back orange video; bring back crooked video; you bring back blue video. But these are minor inconveniences. You have a cool job, and the last laugh on that stuffy old professor who figured you’d never work in journalism.

Later on you get off weekends, and start returning from stories with color perfect video. You hear about something called the NPPA TV News Video Workshop in Norman, Oklahoma, and decide to attend. A good decision. You find out what a heathen you’ve been in the house of true video enlightenment. Your stories begin to exhibit more focus and depth, and you learn to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Empowered by this new knowledge, you go forth and win a first place NPPA award.

In time you become a hot commodity. You change jobs, learn a new city; get married. This is the “golden era” in your career. You are young and talented. You travel to parts of the country you have never seen, meet people you would never ordinarily have met. You get sent out of the country on a huge story. You return to your newsroom a conquering hero with reels of good stuff. Life is great.

This goes on for years.

Then, as certain as a crackle in your wireless’ audio track, a cloud appears on the horizon. Subtle things begin to occur in your happy little world. You can’t get the vacation week to visit your folks because of ratings. You break your viewfinder. (How did that happen?) Your favorite reporter-the one who could write to video-gets a job in the big city. The grind of being called out at three in the morning to shoot that homicide every weekend of the long hot summer really starts getting on your nerves. Your second favorite reporter bails out of news altogether. A slackness sets in. You can’t remember the last good package you shot. Every year you do the same christmas tree recycling story; why does this bother you?

Something has definitely changed. You do not have the same enthusiasm for your job.

You know this because one day, suddenly, you find yourself burned out, battered emotionally and physically by the missile barrage of VO-SOT’s and PKG’s hurled by the desk. Some days are simply a revolving door flinging reporters at you. Why are they always in a hurry? No longer do you enter contests, and you are KlNG of something referred to as THE SLAP-A-PAK. You find you have a talent for editing a package in 15 minutes or less, and it’s not good.

Fortunately, this is just a minor scene in your career. A doldrum. But even when-it passes and you reclaim your rightful status with a second place NPPA Award, something lingers like a sunlight burn on an old tube camera, and you’re just not the same sterling lad who signed on as staff photoy way back when.

Maybe the problem is emotional weariness from being at too many opposite places in such short time periods. Like shooting heart surgery and a wine tasting, a murder and a PETA animal rights rally all in one day–and that’s before lunch. (In the PM you shoot a feature on barbie dolls, a Navy SEAL exercise, a church service, and high school football.) These divergent people and events leave you reeling, unable to find some common thread to tie it all together.

Maybe your problem stems from years of lunch breaks consisting of speeding down the interstate shoving a cheeseburger into your mouth. That’s on the days when you get a lunch.

Or from the stress of last minute field editing in a live van known as “the flamethrower.” Sure, the engineers say it will be fixed someday.

Maybe your brain is braised from stray microwave signals. Maybe you just need a vacation. Or maybe you need to start looking for a new job.

You have changed, and so has TV news. You’re older, and TV news is just more; more newscasts, more live shots, more quantity; less quality. The average new reporter that comes to work for your station is shockingly inept, both in journalistic ability and life skills. Integrity is at an all time low, as evidenced by young managers who are busy taking the consultants’ lame word as gospel. The stories you do now are merely a quick gloss-over of events; shallow and empty. More and more you see the influence of the tabloid / entertainment magazine shows popping up-that’s what the consultants say people want.

You thought you were busy a few years back. You are quite busy now. Your job has many more nagging little details these days. Everywhere you go you must lock up your camera with a heavy cable and padlock. But other than added responsibilities it hasn’t changed a whole lot. It is statuswise pretty much the same position you had a dozen years ago. (Has it been that long?) You are still a staff photog-older, more experienced-but your job is not all that different from any photog starting out anywhere. You are still working 50 hour weeks. You watch as your friends who work in other professions get better jobs with big promotions; but for you there’s no hope of going “up the ladder.”

There is no ladder, except the one on the back door of the live van. So you trudge on, a grunt in the frontline of the news game. Managers are fond of saying, “you guys are the backbone of the newsroom.” What they mean is, “thanks for working hard for hardly any wages; we appreciate it!”

Speaking of wages, they’ve increased over the years. No longer are they a mockery; just a bi-monthly insult. But that’s OK; you became a TV news photographer to be happy, not rich. It’s just that you’re not as happy these days.

Of course, a few things have improved over the years. Cameras are smaller and lighter. Wireless mics are wonderful. (Reporters, though, are still clueless.) You decide to try to concentrate on the little things that make you feel good–a nice sequence, good nat sound, an unusual interview. And this works for awhile.

Then one day, after a long incubation period of course, the bottom drops out. You become a parent.

“I have to stay home tonight to watch the baby,” is not a valid reason, in your boss’ mind, why you can’t work a little of the old spot news. Indeed, it seems to be making him angry. It doesn’t matter that you’ve put in 200 Trillion overtime hours in your career. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never turned down the desk before. (Well, maybe once. But you were fishing.)

You’re only as good as your last call-out. And you didn’t go. Around this time you begin to realize that most of the anchors and reporters in your shop don’t have much of a life outside of TV. Same with the managers. You’ve lived among them for many years, and now you see they are a different breed of truly unhappy people. News is like a religion to them. They have no hobbies or interests, and little chance for a long term relationship. (Besides that, they are pale and flabby.) Why did you never notice this before? Without makeup they could well be troglodytes like the producers who sit in the windowless newsroom, typing and complaining about story length.

Meanwhile, the news beast needs to be fed. You feed the beast very good quality images and sound, so they don’t fire you for your occasional lapse on spot news. You have never felt more fulfilled in life, except when it comes to your job. Why don’t you just change careers? You look to the old guys- the shooters who were working in TV news when you were still a toddler- for answers. They don’t provide any. They babble a lot about overtime and class action lawsuits. In fact, they are insane. The beast needs a live shot. Then one night you can’t sleep. You are thinking about all the places you have gone in your career, and you can’t remember them all. You remember places and faces and soundbites. The friends you made over the years. Are you dying? No, just digesting that sausage pizza and a career as a cameraman. Stories. So many stories you have told; so many blessed moments. Images parade before you happy and sad. Same you will remember forever. There were times when things clicked. You remember the zen-like feeling of shooting that raging fire and every shot told a tale. That’s only happened a couple times in your career. (you’ve got to work on that.) Other stories, natural sound ones you loved doing. You have seen some poor news stories, but never a really bad nat sound story. Maybe that’s because the subjects are just plain folk, and not newspeople. You feel like doing one, and drift off to sleep.

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