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The Richard W. Adkins Collection

In the midst of asking for writers, I dug into the b-roll.net archives. I found many classics that haven’t seen the light of day in a while. They may be a little dusty, but they’re still worth something.

Richard W. Adkins
Richard W. Adkins

Before there was such a thing as a “blog,” a chief photographer from WRAL-TV was the first to start a collection of work on b-roll.net.

In 1999, I started posting Richard W. Adkins’ stories in a section dubbed, “Tree’s House.” (Tree is a nickname for Richard that he’ll have to explain.) The recounting of his adventures on the coastline of North Carolina and around the world are both entertaining and educational.

For example…

As one of the first stations in the U.S. to go HD, WRAL was the proving ground. Richard and his team of shooters figured it out as they went along. Developing new workflows while retaining the basics of good photography. There is always a little bit of a teacher in all of Richard’s work.

Check out his collection – brought back from, (as Adkins put it himself) the “Commodore 64 version” of b-roll.net.

Richard’s Rules of Travel

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV, Raleigh, NC

Let’s face it, no matter what we say, we all got in this business for just one reason. It’s a cool job! And there is nothing cooler than traveling on the company budget. But before you pack the camera gear and cash the travel check, I’ve got a few words of wisdom I like to call Richard’s Rules of Travel.

On assignment in Panama with reporter Randy Renner, Adkins shoots back toward the Bridge of the Americas.

These rules are presented in no particular order, nor or they designed to override your own company’s rules or common sense. These are just my personal rules I’ve developed over 20 years in this business. These rules should also be read with a healthy dose skepticism.

  • Always travel with your own liquor. Seriously. Why do you think they sell those airline bottles anyway? When you travel, you often run into unknown and sometimes bizarre liquor laws. Often you are working way past the time local liquor stores close. When you’re finished for the day, an adult beverage may be just the ticket, you’ll be ready. Now imagine the end of a long workday, you’ve busted your hump and broadcast live at 5pm, 6pm, and 11pm. You and the reporter and Sat Truck operator meet at the hotel only find the bar is closed. You simply smile, invite the crowd to your room and you’ve suddenly endeared yourself to your coworkers.
  • Always pack your swimsuit. The chances are good that you’ll be booked into a fairly decent hotel… one with a pool. If you’re lucky, it’s an indoor pool for year-round use. Nothing relieves the frustration of a hard day like a nice cool dip in the pool. Some hotel will do you one better by offering a hot tub Jacuzzi. Combine that with the above mention drink and you’ll forget how the producer screwed up your live shot.
  • Always travel with a pack of playing cards. More specifically, pack them in your carry-on bag. From airport delays to court house stakeouts nothing passes the time like a good game of cards. If you’re stuck alone, solitaire will keep you sane. If you’ve got company, everything from Go Fish to Poker is fair game. The type of cards you carry says a lot about you, I carry a pack of Jack Daniels old number 7’s.
  • Always tip well. At the airport and the hotel, the baggage handlers can be your best friends. At the airport, let the SkyCap take your gear and luggage (except the camera). The SkyCap can get you checked in quicker and may be able to get you around any baggage overage charges. Tip well, and you can have a hassle free trip. Tip poorly and your tripod may end u
    * p routed to Tripoli. At the hotel, let the bellman tote your gear to the room. Tip him/her well going in and word will get around. When it comes time to check out you won’t have to wait.
  • Always stay low. I’m not talking about ducking through your newsroom to avoid that dreaded vo/sot. When staying in a nice hotel, forget the view from the 21st floor. Stay on a floor low enough that you don’t mind using the stairs. I’ve known more than one photographer and reporter who nearly missed a live shot waiting on a hotel elevator.
  • Always carry enough gear to shoot at least one story. When traveling by air, carry-on the camera, with a tape in the chamber, a mic, camera light and battery. This way if you didn’t tip the SkyCap well you can still knock out at least one story. On the return trip, bring all your shot tape as carry-on luggage. I had a friend travel to Russia many years ago to shoot an hour long documentary, only he checked his tapes on the return trip and the airline lost them. Keep the boss happy by bringing the tapes back.
  • Always get on first. Whether traveling by plane, train, boat or bus, be one of the first on. You want to make sure you have a safe place to stow your camera. In the case of air travel, I always ask to pre-board. If that’s not possible, I try to book my seat in the last row, when it’s time to board I’m right there ready to get an overhead bin with plenty of pillows for my camera.
  • Always bring home a gift for the kids. Even if you have to stop at the airport gift shop, buy something from the places you visit. Make a big deal about it when you give it to your child. Make sure your child knows that while you were away, they were still in your heart and you were thinking about them.
Adkins enjoys a day off while on assignment in Paris. This photo was taken from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Traveling for News can be fun and exciting, it can also be a pain in the butt. While my list is just a start, there are a thousand other helpful hints out there from veteran photogs who have earned their wings.

I did tell one little fib in the beginning of this article, that whole thing about these rules having no particular order. I do have one rule that takes priority over all else, That’s Richard’s Number One Rule of Travel… Always travel with your own liquor.

The Mind of Meikle

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV, Raleigh, NC

Robert Meikle - not an average guy
Robert Meikle - not an average guy

In a not so quiet neighborhood, in a not so ordinary house, not so far from the TV tower farm, Robert Meikle is a not so average guy.

“Welcome to the laboratory!” Meikle jokes, or rather half jokes…

OK, he’s really not joking at all.

“At least I’m not losing my marbles,” says Meikle.

No, he’s not. In fact Meikle knows where all of his hundreds of marbles are. They are caged in a large homemade marble game that Meikle made with his two children. “Here it is,” he says with a smirk befitting a mad scientist. His wife Betty stands near and simply says, “You never know what he’ll come up with.”

Four feet tall, five feet long, and three feet wide, “Marblopolis” is an unorthodox mix of foam board, hot glue, gravity and imagination… mostly imagination. Pour the marbles on the top and gravity takes over. Colors swirl as the glass orbs roll down ramps, bounce off bumpers, and drop through drains. Along the way are surprising turns, interesting twists and unexpected pauses. When the marbles finally reach the end, you want to grab them up and start the trip all over again.

“The first one of these I made was much smaller,” Meikle explains. “Now it’s too big to fit through the door, it’s stuck here.”

Robert Meikle is more than just a marble maniac. He is the award winning television news photographer for WRAL-TV’s consumer unit. And to understand Marblopolis is to understand Meikle’s photography… if understanding is even possible.

Meikle’s TV stories are a lot like his marble game- unorthodox, yet thrilling. He takes the viewer on a long exciting path, moving in unexpected directions, and in the end, leaving them awaiting an encore. His style is distinctive; his most recent accolade is a regional Murrow award. His mind is constantly churning with ideas. “Sometimes I have ideas I can never use,” he says.

tiny wires
Tiny wires made big.

To create this unique style of storytelling, Meikle often forsakes his $100,000 worth of company-issued gear. Instead he opts for a trunk full of other peoples trash that he calls treasure. He is the McGuiver of TV storytelling. “Check this out…” he brags as he demonstrates a miniature camera dolly made from skateboard wheels and an old tripod. He has a wide-angle lens removed from an old photo-copier, a kitchen cabinet light modified for use as a back-light and set of old tripod wheels with enough mileage to make any used car salesman proud.

And his ingenuity doesn’t end with finding new uses for old equipment.

Milk-made clouds in water.

He is also a one-man special effects department, creating in his camera what software developers toil for years to fake. Meikle has found ways to incorporate the clouds created as milk was dropped in water, 8mm film projection, and miniature cameras streaked across circuit boards in his recent stories.

“(My ideas) don’t always work,” Meikle says, “but for every one that fails, I get another idea. Something will come out of it.” His greatest treasure is the handwritten notebook where he keeps all of his ideas, both the successes and the failures. “I go through it before a tough shoot. If I know I’m in trouble, I read through that and get ideas.”

More often than not Meikle’s stories are illustrative presentations of consumer issues. It’s his job to make overcharged phone bills and mechanically deficient used cars into interesting TV stories. “It’s mental,” says Meikle. “This is photography you have to think about.”

When his brain is tired, Meikle likes to take a break, occasionally shooting a feature that’s just pure photography. “This is the stuff you don’t have to think about,” Meikle says of his third place win in the 2000 2nd quarter Region 6 NPPA competition for In-depth Photography. But in true Meikle style he couldn’t do it the easy way. He took a two-day llama trek through the Great Smokey Mountains, lugging his gear, and bringing back spectacular video. “Shooting the beautiful pictures should be just like breathing… you shouldn’t have to think about it.”

Meikle grew up in the Raleigh area; Cary, North Carolina to be exact. He started shooting in Asheville, then moved to Florida. He returned to Raleigh six years ago to be Chief Photographer at WRAL, a stint that lasted about two years once he realized he would much rather shoot than manage. “I like the photography part of it,” he says. “To be a good chief you have to be able to teach. I have a hard enough time trying to describe what I do, and I can’t explain it to others.”

Even at home, Meikle is more or less still engaged in his work. He attends film festivals, tinkers with old film and video cameras, and of course, builds his marble game. He even combined the three by making a short film titled Marblopolis… a Meikle’s-eye-view of a Meikle world. “That was just fun to shoot and fun to edit. It was a natural sequence. It was the perfect sequence.” The closing credits of the film list four Meikles – his wife and two children are major components of his work.

Many great artists are a little off, Robert Meikle is definitely skewed. His coworkers view his work with both admiration and amazement. He considers what he does as art, and maybe someday we will see his art in a not so average gallery show… “That may be my second career.” He says. After all, Robert Meikle is a not so average guy.

ABOVE The call of duty

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV Raleigh, NC

Photo: Rihcard W. Adkins
Photo: Richard W. Adkins

It’s just before dawn. A breeze is blowing from the south and even though the sky is dark, you can tell the clouds are weaving a blanket high above.

“It makes for an interesting sunrise,” figures Gil Hollingsworth as he snakes up the spiral staircase to the roof. The steel staircase transitions to a wooden walkway, then a large platform and a shiny new Bell 407 helicopter known as “The New Sky 5,” WRAL’s latest and greatest news gathering tool. Hollingsworth hesitates just a second in the helipad lights, “I love to fly.” He will say that 7 more times in the next two hours.

Hollingsworth is one of hundreds of television news photographers who use helicopters in their daily storytelling. Two recent crashes have a lot of photographers questioning the necessity, safety and sanity of aerial news photography.

On this day pilot Glenn Brown climbs into the front right seat and starts the blades spinning. There is a nerve-racking number of moving parts. Hollingsworth watches as the blades pick up speed. “You just have to trust the aircraft is properly maintained,” he says matter-of-factly. A subtle hand gesture from the pilot lets Hollingsworth know to unplug the external power supply from the aircraft and climb onboard.

The blades spin about two minutes before Brown instructs “Coming up!” He pulls pitch and the 5,200-pound helicopter gently lifts up, spins slightly counter-clockwise and takes off southwest over the city. Hollingsworth is unfazed by this mechanical magic, he doesn’t even look out the window. “It’s pretty standard stuff,” he says as he fiddles with the camera controls.

Photo: Rihcard W. Adkins
Photo: Richard W. Adkins

Once airborne, Hollingsworth has a little time to reflect on his feelings about flying. “I love to fly,” he says again, “I trust the pilot.” Trust seems to be the key to the Photographer/Pilot relationship. “My focus has to be on the ground,” Hollingsworth points out, “I can’t afford to be looking around second guessing the pilot.” Pilot Brown agrees, “I tell these (photographers) to speak up if they see another aircraft, let me know if they have a question.”

Aboard “The New Sky 5,” surrounded by air-conditioning, tinted windows and leather seats, Hollingsworth remembers a time when flying for news was not nearly so extravagant… or safe. “It was 1980,” he says of his first news helicopter flight, “It was a Hughes 500.” Hollingsworth recounts having to twist and turn to get the camera out the side of the 4-seat helicopter, and the fact there was no door between him and the ground below. They would fly “low and slow”, a risky technique needed for steady hand-held camera work.

This is not 1980, and Brown says advances in gyro-stabilized cameras with long lenses have made flying for news much safer. “If I have a problem, I need airspeed and altitude, if I’m low and slow, I’m screwed.” Brown routinely flies at 1000 feet or higher.

Shelly Leslie used to fly in a Hughes 500 as well. But that was before the crash of a competitor’s helicopter, and the death of three people onboard. “The thought we would crash entered my mind every time I flew,” said Leslie. Then the crash, pregnancy and her husband’s concern swayed her to decide not to fly anymore. “It had nothing to do with the helicopter or the pilot,” Leslie remembers, “but suddenly I knew the threat of crashing was real.”

WRAL’s Chief Pilot Steve Wiley understands some photographers’ uneasiness with flying, and he says being comfortable aboard a helicopter is the first step to safer flying. “I think one of the keys to employing happy flyers, whether it is reporters or photographers, is the person has to genuinely love flying,” Wiley says. “Once you have a desire to fly, an open minded pilot can teach the individual to be a crew member (an extra set of eyes) thereby making the trip more rewarding and increasing the safety factor.”

Wiley says putting people in an aircraft who don’t want to be there is unproductive in the news gathering process. “I don’t like to fly with people who are scared, it takes a lot of air time to make them feel comfortable with the machine and the pilot, and I don’t think the apprehension ever really goes away. So, when picking air crew it is better to find someone who really enjoys the aircraft and wants to learn not only the camera but aviation, rather than trying to force the issue with someone that does not enjoy the experience.”

Hollingsworth does enjoy the experience, “I love to fly, I always have”. The helicopter settles into a hover for the morning’s third live look at rush-hour traffic. “Damn!” complains Brown over the headset system. The helicopter pitches slightly side to side and Brown cusses the increasing wind gusts. Hollingsworth sits emotionless. “I’ve been in this aircraft long enough to get used to it, you can tell when something is not right.” In this case everything is right, and Brown maneuvers the aircraft slightly to smooth out the hover.

Photo: Richard W. Adkins
Photo: Richard W. Adkins

The helicopter’s nose is facing due south and to the east the sun is starting to peek through a slit in the cloud blanket. Orange rays wash the side of the helicopter as Hollingsworth points the camera for a beauty shot. It’s times like this when he and Brown make light of their simple safety rule. “Rotor on top,” Hollingsworth says in the direction of the front seat. “Rotor on top,” Brown volleys back.

Hollingsworth’s comfort level in the left rear seat of the jet helicopter is evident. It’s obvious he feels safe at 1300 feet. He says the helicopter is no different than any other piece of broadcast equipment, “It’s like a satellite truck, or a microwave truck or any piece of equipment we use – it can kill you if you don’t use it right.”

Two hours after lift-off, the rooftop platform is now in view again. Hollingsworth begins to stow the remote camera equipment and takes the chance to look out the window. The helicopter’s rotor wash greets an unsuspecting woman walking through the parking lot. The mechanical power of the machine is amazing… so is its power over Hollingsworth, “I want to fly all the time, I love to fly!”

Sky5 Fact File

Make & Model: Bell 407
Cruising Speed: 140 knots
Capacity: Pilot plus 4 passengers
Gross Weight: 5,250 lbs.
Maximum Flight Duration: 3+ hours

The helicopter has five on-board cameras; three are inside the chopper, and two are outside. One of the outside cameras is a Wescam Gyro-stabilized camera system. In addition to the cameras, there is a moving map that can be used on the air to show viewers where the helicopter is. The aircraft is equipped with DVCPRO videotape editing. There is also a StormScope which identifies lightning activity in the area.

About the Chief Pilot

Name: Steve Wiley
Date of Birth: 11/04/55
Birthplace: Beaconsfield, England
Helicopter Flying Hours: 9,700
Flying Experience: 13 years with Sky5; Flew for WPVI in Philadelphia and WABC in New York; Flight instructor for 5 years
Aircraft Experience: Flown everything from one passenger piston helicopters to multi-engine 12-passenger helicopters.

The Good Ol’ Days

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV, Raleigh, NC

Remember the Good Ol’ Days? No, not the days of film, I mean the other good Ol’ days. The days when you and I and most other mid-life TV ‘togs showed up bright eyed and high spirited for our first News Photographer job. Boy, those were the days!

There is nothing like the sight of a late 70’s Chevy station wagon loaded with a RCA TK-76, six battery belts that lasted five minutes each, a Sony 110 recorder and a pile of used ¾” resume tapes that the ND just handed you to shoot on.

Does anyone out there remember those first few assignments? Remember that one that went so badly you erased the tape and claimed the deck got a head clog so you got nothing? Or how about that 15 second VO you shot three 20 minutes field tapes worth of b-roll for? Do you remember that white balance? What color was that anyway? You couldn’t duplicate it now if you had too.

Hey, how about that old guy sitting in photog room, the one who has worked there 30 years. Remember his words? “I’ve seen a hundred like you come and go, and I’ll see a hundred more before I retire.” Do you ever go back and visit him?

Remember that Tie you wore your first day of work?

Do you remember when you used to speed to spot news? Do remember that state trooper with absolutely no sense of humor? Remember when the ND called you into the office because someone complained about your aggressive driving… and he/she ended that conversation with a wink and a smile?

Do you ever think about any of those thoughts when the new guy comes into your current shop, he looks at that beat-up hand me down Chevy mini-van and sees the 3 batteries that are so bad no one stole them with the rest of the gear?

Every day I hate my job by 9:30am, and every night I dream about it and can’t wait to get to work the next morning. It nice to live in a world where there are very few rules, bad experiences are fond memories and everyday I make a difference in someone’s life… Even if it’s my own.

My Flight Through Floyd

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV, Raleigh, NC

Photo: Richard W. Adkins
Photo: Richard W. Adkins

I love what I do. I love it on many levels. And one of the reasons I love it is because things are never the way you think they will be.

I headed in for work on Wednesday thinking I was bound for the barrier islands.

Floyd was predicted to hit North Carolina in 24 hours and I knew I would be at ground zero. Surprising, I found myself heading west instead of east.

We had exiled the helicopter to Johnson City, Tennessee before the storm. The plan was simple. I was to drive to Columbia, South Carolina. The helicopter was to leave Tennessee at first light Thursday and pick me up in South Carolina. We were to circle south around the back of the storm and come in behind the Killer Hurricane.

Yes, the plan worked wonderfully, but not without a hitch. As first light broke Thursday morning the helicopter took off and headed across the mountains. At the same time my next door neighbor crossed our yards. He said he heard the noise at 4:30am. At first light he went to investigate.

My neighbor Ned looked over the damage, took a quick inventory and made the call. He was kind enough to call the newsroom. He told the assignment editor that six big trees had crashed onto my house.

Two Hundred miles away my pager went off. I was in the lobby of Eagle Air in Columbia, South Carolina. I listened to the message, took a moment to let it sink in and put the thought aside. The helicopter was here. It was time to fly.

I saw that day houses flooded to the roof. I saw pigs swimming, horses heading for high ground and people being rescued by boat where once a cheap automobile would have tread easily. I saw water rise beyond belief and hope fall below expectations. In all that I saw that no matter what I would find at home nothing could be as bad as what I had seen in eastern North Carolina.

Photo: Richard W. Adkins
Photo: Richard W. Adkins

The chopper finally hit the roof of the TV station at 5:45pm. I disembarked and made slot for the 6pm news. The drive home was long. The sun sets here at about 7:15pm. The shadows are long and make the world seem slow. I walked around back of my home and found 6 large trees resting comfortably in various places on my home. The roof is open to the sky. The Deck is filled with oak. My daughter’s room is a water park. My life is now leafy.

But I take comfort in the fact that I know I’m much luckier than many post-Floyd families. I’ll take a day or two off work. I’ll use this experience the next time I stick my camera in the face of a victim and ask, “How does it feel?”

Two kinds of Smuckers

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV Raleigh, NC

I learned a lot about my coworkers last week or maybe I learned nothing. But one thing is for sure, I have a new perspective on some of  them. You see, last week was my week on Lighthouse duty.

Way back in February the News Director called me in to his office. With a sort of crooked smile and a half-shake of the head he told of the plan. I was to create a schedule of photographers to live on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The subject of this assignment: The Relocation of the Cape  Hatteras Lighthouse. Each photographer would stay one week, I ended  up with nine photographers (all men) to rotate. Everyone would get two weeks, one at a time, some would end up being there three.

I was first up on the rotation, it was a ten day stint with the first few days devoted to finding a house for the photographers to live in. Oh sure, I spent a lot of time shooting at the lighthouse, but this little missive is not about that.

The little “fisherman’s cottage” in Cape Hatteras, NC (Photo: Richard Adkins)
The little “fisherman’s cottage” in Cape Hatteras, NC (Photo: Richard Adkins)

You see, the house I found is what they call a “fisherman’s cottage”. It’s just a small two bedroom, 1 bath, house with a small kitchen. Not much, but enough to call home for a week at a time. Like I said, that was back in February, its now July and I finally got my second week at the coast.

When I left after that first week, I was kind enough to leave a few beers in the fridge for the next photographer serving his coastal duty. That’s it. Just a few beers. When I returned last week I opened the fridge to see what the person before me had left behind. What I found was a future archaeologist’s refrigerated riches.

The kitchen of a photog house can be a scary place.
The kitchen of a photog house can be a scary place. (Photo: Richard Adkins)

On the top shelf we had milk. Three plastic jugs. All three stamped with dates of weeks past. They stood like tombstones, listing only their name and date of expiration. I sent them on to the local landfill.

Interestingly, there was lunchmeat, cheese, and bread, but not a vegetable to be found in the place.

Like I said, nine photogs. All men.

There was three kinds of beer, two kinds of wine, three kinds of soda, orange juice and one lone can of Slim Fast. Yes, Slim Fast.

There was a pack of Jello Snack Pack Pudding and three snack packs of Motts Applesauce, Strawberry flavor.

Nine photogs. All men.

In the door we had Ketchup and Catsup, three plastic squirt bottles of French’s Yellow Mustard, two kinds of steak sauce, salad dressing and mayo. And two kinds of Smucker’s Strawberry Jelly. One was low sugar.

In the freezer six Lean Cuisine. Nine photogs. All Men.

On the counter top I found three bags of chips and a bag of pretzels, all with just a half-handful of leftover crumbs. To the left of the stove top Wesson Oil. I don’t want to know more.

To my satisfaction, the house was still standing, there were a few other assorted additions, at least one subtraction, from the way I had left the house so many months ago. But the one thing that really disturb me as I continued to look around was two small pieces of yellow plastic blowing on the laundry line just out front of the cottage. Written in bold black letters were the words “Fire Line” and “Do Not Cross”.

Nine photogs. Hmmm?