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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
"DOING THE SUMMER SHIMMY"
I have been the airport chauffer lately. You know the drill, the reporter candidate from KXXX needs a ride to the airport and you have a station car, you can edit that package when you get back. I love asking them what they think of Phoenix in July. Sometimes it is a polite smile, "It is not that bad...really... how many months is it like this?" Others are more blunt and humorous, "I would be able to cool off in my oven if I get the job." Job interviews in Phoenix during the summer are an effective weeding out process.
This is the time of year called "the summer shimmy". The kids are out of school, most stations are at the beginning or end of their fiscal year and need to make some hires before they lose the positions, the July book affords stations a chance to change personnel and test some things out without adversely affecting the major ad revenue generating months. This is when people move.
As incoming resume tapes fill the mailroom each morning, it is like searching for the golden egg. What makes a golden egg? It varies station to station, but there are a few universal things that apply in most markets for staff photographer positions. Now that I have about a half year of middle management (ugg, that sounds so weird) as assistant chief under my belt, how I view resume tapes and resumes has changed a lot, more than I ever imagined.
Let's start with the resume. It is the first thing a chief photographer or senior staffer is going to look at before they burn a minute finding a deck that matches the format of your tape.
Only one page please! When someone applies to be the CEO of a company or President of a University, they turn in a one page resume. Anything that spills onto a second page is not important and shows you to be long winded. You don't have to have all that stuff they told you to put on your resume in high school or Microsoft Resume Maker puts in the template like Objective or Purpose. You can accomplish that in your cover letter and have some extra space to say how great you are. Don't be afraid to let the computer help you out with its tools. My resume is in 10-point type single-spaced with half-inch margins on all sides, but it is still only one page.
Honesty is the best policy, even if it does not look cool. There is no quicker way to get your tape thrown in the trashcan than to lie on your resume. This is the most inbred who-knows-who business there is outside Hollywood. In real life, six degrees of separation may apply, but in TV News, it is more like two. If I don't know you, I probably know someone at your station or in your market or someone you worked with in the past. The larger the market you apply to, the more inbred it gets. Fudging years of experience or the position someone held is an instant red flag and results in getting their tape dubbed over with the Simpsons and King of the Hill. Even though it may look more impressive to say you have been a photographer for three years than to admit starting as a production assistant and editing over nights for a year until you filled in on weekends and moved into a full time photog job two years later; to a prospective chief photog, the truth shows you are someone with goals, determination and seeking growth.
Photog here does not mean photog there. Along with your job title and years you worked there, try to include a short job description. Photographer at one station may be just that, some one who shoots tape. While at another station, a photographer is someone who shoots, edits, runs live trucks and can even report in a pinch. You get one chance to make that first impression, let them know how valuable you are. Details like being able to write scripts or create interesting graphics are going to set you apart from the other hundred tapes of house fires, features on musicians and two part stand-ups while driving.
The awards debate. How many hundreds of posts have there been on the Message Board here about the importance of awards? Honestly, I recommend having two versions of your resume; one that lists all of your accolades and one that just hits the big ones or skips them all together. This is one of those line items that absolutely depends on the station. Do some research. Go to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences web page and see how many people from that station won Emmys in recent years. Check out RTNDA and the AP awards to see if that station sweeps them year after year. Check that station's web page and see if they toot their own horn about how much hardware they take home from rubber chicken banquets. If you see a station with a consistent record of winning awards (and bragging about them), then be ready to show off your own prizes. If a station does not seem to have much of an award-winning record, then save the space on your resume for something else. Some stations consider awards a measure of validation, others view them as a distraction from covering the news of the day. There are some awards that no one will deny are impressive: National Murrows, the Peabody, National Emmys and the duPont. Weigh how important regional and local awards really are before putting the laundry list on your resume and if there is something more important to tell them about yourself.
Yeah, but what else? So you don't have a truckload of Emmys to your name or years of network experience to dazzle them with, be memorable with your interests and experiences outside TV. These things make you special. Whether you collect WWII era military collar discs, raise rare tropical fish or worked as a wildland fire fighter for two years, these details build a better picture of you in that employer's head and give them a reason to connect with you. But just like going out on a date, don't make claims you can't live up to later. Don't say you are into B.A.S.E. jumping just to seem daring if you have never strapped on a chute and jumped off something higher than the roof of your house with a pillowcase when you were six. There is no shame in stating you worked in your parent's grocery store for eight years or that you love doing auto body work in your spare time. Just remember that it is a first impression and some things might be too colorful for the initial attack such as collecting vintage Playboys or working as a nude model at the art school.
Covering it with the cover letter. Most cover letters are too long. The folks doing the hiring don't need a lot of rhetoric about how "I will make you number one, you have never seen anything like me, I will knock your socks off!" They are interested in how many years you have been shooting, what special touches you bring to the table such as being a native of the area, where you saw the job posting, and why you are interested in coming to that station.
Include your references upfront. Keep in mind that your tape is one of dozens. If the whole package is not there, the chief may not want to waste time playing phone tag to get more information and your tape could hit the recycling pile. If management likes your resume, likes your tape, the next thing they want to do is start making sure you are for real. If you lose that momentum, another golden egg may land in the nest that made their job easier.
Let's go to the video! So you made it past the pulp stage and now the chief is ready to see if the tape matches the person on those pages. Even though it is not the greatest quality, VHS tapes are the best for most stations, everybody has a VHS player. DVCpro stations that came from MII may not have Beta, BetaSX stations that are going to DVCAM may not have a Beta Oxide deck, BetaSP stations probably don't have a DVCpro player. If the chief has to really work at finding a place to play your tape, there is a good chance they will end up getting yanked in another direction before they ever push play and again, the momentum is gone. Start at the Market Info page here at b-roll.net and check what tape format the station shoots on. If you match up, great, if you don't, go with VHS (and check your own station while you are there, if it is not right, let Kevin know). The techno-geek side of me is kind of impressed to see resume tapes on CD and DVD, but the "get-it-done" side of me has no time to run downstairs to watch it. The "get-it-done" side always wins.
Your friends in production had the night off. Slates are good, but not mandatory. If you don't have a slate on your tape, don't sweat it. It is cool if you have some friends in the graphics department or a buddy who is a director who can produce a fancy slate with a moving background and morphing shots of you in the field, but it won't get you the job. Worry about the content of your tape more than the production value of the slate. No more than :10 seconds of slate at the front, they know it's you.
Just Push Play! ALWAYS have your tape cued to the beginning (you would be amazed how many are not). If you know the "personality" of the station, have your tape geared toward that. If it is a hard news, crime and grime kind of place, that is what they want to see you handle on your tape. If it is a cerebral, enterprising eye candy kind of shop, then don't send them house fires and car accidents, they are looking for visual budget stories and tearjerker features. If you are not familiar with the station's style, then send a good rounded selection of stories; a Johnny on the spot breaking news story, a creative live shot, a solid general news story, a non-visual story you made sing with pictures, a fast paced sports story, and a plum feature they have not seen done a hundred times while Emmy/AP/NPPA judging. There is the old adage, "Put your best story first". But if everything you have is solid storytelling, try stacking them like you would a newscast. Breaking news and big stories first, then general news and enterprise pieces, followed by weather or sports and wrap it up with a feel good feature. It takes them on the same emotional roller coaster we put our viewers through every night and leaves them feeling good about you in the end.
Why haven't they called me yet? No matter what size market, most photographer positions will attract dozens of tapes from all skill levels. Before you start bad mouthing the chief, there are a few things to consider. Did you meet all of their qualifications and requisite experience? (if the job posting says 4 years of experience, it means 4 years of experience) Could the chief photographer or news director have bigger fires burning right now? Most chief photographers are not just administrators, they shoot several days a week if not full time on the street as well as take care of the staff. There is a lot on their plate including making new hires (imagine doing your job, plus lots of paperwork and meetings). Is there a huge story going on in the area of that station that might be the staff's focus or straining their resources? When wildfires and monsoons hit here in Arizona, all other activities are put on hold so we can throw everything and everyone at the big story. So many factors weigh in the process: in-house candidates, recommendations from reporters who worked with "the best photographer ever" at another station, intra-company transfers, or sometimes losing the position in the budget after it was posted.
Before you put that tape in the mail, take stock of your lot in life. Before you put yourself and your family through the "summer shimmy", determine why you are doing it.
Why do you want to leave? Ask yourself honestly if you are running toward something or running away from something. Have you hit your ceiling at this station and want to go somewhere else to keep growing...or have you burned some bridges and want to escape the cinders? Have you paid your dues and want to make the next step in your personal progression or do you have huge philosophical differences with management and hope the grass is greener somewhere else? (Experience has taught me it rarely is.)
Where do you REALLY want to go? My only goal when I started in TV was to work in Albuquerque so my Mom could see me on the news. After I hit that goal seven years ago, I have just let fate take me from place to place because it has been so much more fun and surprising. But if your goal is to work in a specific market such as Seattle or Dallas, consider how the station you are applying to will give you the pedigree to go there. Just like major league baseball teams have minor league farm teams, large market stations have smaller stations they pull from who match them in philosophy and proximity. If you want to work in Boston, Hartford is going to be a closer match than San Diego.
What will be the consequences of this move? Consider what you are giving up versus what you are getting. Seniority, a customized set of gear, a decent schedule, a good station car becomes low man on the totem pole, sharing the worst set of gear, working weekends and driving the '78 Chevy Celebrity station wagon with wood paneling. Are you just three months away from being vested? Are there things in the community you won't find at your next stop that make your life richer: great friends, your church, your favorite burrito stand.
THE BIG ONE: How will this affect your family? Seriously talk with your spouse and kids about their happiness with the move. Look into the school system and things your spouse will need to make life bearable there before you get your heart set on a place. I moved around A LOT as a kid, I can tell you from experience, it sucks. There is nothing worse than trying to fit in at a new junior high or high school. Little kids are adventurers and can handle the change much better than older kids. Be ready for a wild ride of rebellion with teenagers if you uproot them. However, I always liked the "clean slate" aspect of a new place, no one knew you were a chubby first grader or cried when you were asked to read out loud. I think that is part of the allure for us wanting to go to a new station to shoot. And if you are single or don't have kids, many of us are at the age where we have to start worrying about our parents as they age and who will take care of them. As desirable as that large market may be, sometimes you have to do the thing that lets you sleep well at night rather than what pleases you during the day.
It is time to shimmy! As you go through the negotiation process with a station, GET IT IN WRITING! Salary, overtime rate, moving expenses, proposed schedule if possible...all those things are easy to say over the phone and forget, so get it in writing. Don't burn any bridges you don't wish in cinders. You have an obligation to give two weeks notice and show up for those two weeks. You never know what is going to happen at that new job and you might have to come crawling back (it happens!).
Not in the cards. Winter of 1997, I applied for a bureau position at a Denver station. I was working in Albuquerque and it seemed like a good step up for me. I had enough experience to meet their qualifications and a mediocre resume tape. About a month later in early December, there was a message from the chief photographer on my answering machine, "Hi Lynn, I would like to talk to you about your tape, give me a call." All of the sudden my head swelled with the idea of moving to Boulder, Colorado, to a top 20 market, to an aggressive photographer's station. I wrote my resignation that afternoon at work and put it in my locker so I could present it at the appropriate moment after I talked to the chief. I called the chief the next morning. After some light conversation he got to the heart of the matter, "Lynn, you have some good skills that just need to grow some more, I would like you to keep in touch." He was so incredibly nice, but I was devastated. Down deep inside I knew why I was not ready for Denver, but my ego did not want to hear it. Then December 26, 1997, Jonbenet Ramsey was found murdered in Boulder. I thanked my lucky stars I was in Albuquerque gearing up for the legislature and ski season, rather than spending the next few years chasing one story. The path life took me down after that I would not trade for the world, some things are just not meant to be. Be ready for some rejection as you put those tapes in the mail. It is just part of this business, it does not define who you are or how you should feel about your work, sometimes things just don't come together the way you want them to, but it will be okay in the end.
Even if you are not looking to lay a golden egg in some TV station's mail room right now, keep shooting like are. Save those golden egg moments. Even if you have all the job security in the world at your station, it is still TV, you never know when you will have to shimmy.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or LEFrenchNM@msn.com.
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