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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
December 2003

"What is this we are listening to?" my friend Julia from Raleigh asked as we sat on my porch on a warm fall Arizona night while drinking Canadian beer and eating Salsa Verde Doritos. "Me First and the Gimme-gimmes", I proudly proclaimed. "It's SKA punk versions of 80's power ballads, it is great to do housework to." She gave me that look I have known for years---how do you come up with these things?

I love cover tunes. Some take a great song and deliver it in a unique but equally good fashion. Others take a mediocre song and make it much better, and others are horrible manifestations of tunes that were once excellent and will forever be soiled.

Before TV, there was radio---if you look at my resume. I wish I could claim I was some cool rock jock spinnin' the freshest tunes or a journalistically sharp reporter on the NPR station hosting Morning Edition. But no, instead I worked an after school job at a low watt AM/FM community station in rural New Mexico where I read the farm report, obituaries and the police blotter in between easy listening tunes played from 45 vinyl singles (the most random talent I possess from that job: I can recite all of the lyrics to Brenda Russell's "Piano In the Dark" in under 26 seconds, I played it that many times).

It was during the "Radio Years", that I learned to appreciate cover tunes. Twice a year we had to participate in the heinous activity of BMI logs. You have probably had to endure a bean counter meeting or at least a few e-mails about logging any music used on the air that is not from your station's music library. For most TV stations, it is cheaper to pay a per use fee on licensed music rather than the monthly blanket fees to ASCAP and BMI just because most of us don't use that much music in our newscasts compared to radio stations. But back in the waning moments of analog radio equipment, pre-automation and when stations actually adhered to FCC rules concerning station ids and "the seven dirty words", stations would fill out these BMI logs to dictate how much they should be charged for their blanket fees.

The log was a disgusting amount of paperwork for someone making minimum wage and violating child labor laws. You would write down the title of the song, what time you played it, what percentage of it you played, who is the artist, the author and the record company. Generally we would play about 10 songs per hour with a seven minute newscast and four commercial breaks thrown in. Sounds easy enough. But oh no, we also had to include all of the music beds from the commercials, any music used in the news stories, if we were broadcasting a high school football game, we had to include the songs the band played in the background. It was a bullet to the brain experience. And it was before the internet, so I could not just quickly look up the author of "Louie, Louie" on Google. Instead I had to hunt down the record sleeve of the Kingsmen and hope it had not faded so much I could not read the tiny writing in parenthesis under the song title. But during this time I learned that a lot of the songs I really liked were written by artists I would not listen to otherwise and someone was able to take their idea and improve up on it.

One year we had to do BMI logs during the week before Christmas. You don't realize how many times you hear "White Christmas" or the vast versions of "Silver Bells" that have been recorded in the last forty years. 99% of the Christmas carols you will hear over the next few weeks while shooting stories, using as nat sound pops and doing live shots at the mall are all cover tunes. Quick, name an original Christmas song performed by the original artist. Yeah, I could not do it either. (I thought I had one..."River" that was used last year in a Circuit City promotion to send DVD players and recorded messages overseas to soldiers. But through some quick research, it is a Joni Mitchell tune covered by Robert Downey Jr.---how random is that?---but if you need a kickass piece of music for a story on troops in Iraq during the holidays, THIS IS IT! Here is the is only available on the CD "Ally McBeal---A Very Ally Christmas" I will warn you now, it is going to hurt to buy it. Just to save face at my favorite independent record store, I sandwiched it between a Frank Zappa re-issue and the latest release from the Ataris while wearing my rattiest punk sweatshirt and the coolest pair of Doc Martens in existence in hopes that the heavily pierced young man behind the counter would think I was just being ironic in my very Ally purchase, but no, instead he gave me that look of, "what, no Kenny G probably already have it".)

Just like the lack of original Christmas songs, there is a serious lack of original Christmas stories. They are all essentially cover tunes...cover stories. Over theses next few weeks we all will be asked to cover some "cover" stories.

My top 10 LEAST favorite Christmas "cover" stories:

10. Tips for parking at the mall during the holidays

9. Hottest gifts this holiday season

8. Procrastinating for the holidays

7. Fighting holiday weight gain

6. Holiday shopping on-line

5. Surviving the holidays on a budget

4. People who work on holidays

3. Crowds at the airport during the holidays

2. Economic impact of the holiday shopping season

1. MOS's of what people want for Christmas---- KILL ME!!!!

Just the thought of attacking people in the Target parking lot with those lame-o questions makes me want to change my career to something in cost accounting. Really, how many ways can you shoot a cash register receipt printing or kids sitting on Santa's lap (and why do I always get the grumpy Santa?)

Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit with Eddie Murphy, "Buckwheat Sings"? I love the line, "Once Buckwheat sings a song, it's his forever" Buckwheat then breaks into a resounding rendition of "Wookin' Pa Nub". Here is your challenge. If you are stuck with one of the above mentioned "standards" , strive to do it in a way that makes it yours forever. Or shoot it in a way no one ever imagined. Sometimes in my head I try to determine, "How would Stanley Kubrick shoot Christmas tree safety?" One year I got stuck with "protecting your holiday packages from thieves" UGGGHHHH! We got the requisite police officer interview talking about putting them in the trunk of the car rather than the back seat, don't keep all of your credit cards in your purse, be aware of your surroundings... blah...blah...blah. But in deep streak of sarcasm, the reporter let me shoot the package from the viewpoint of the thief; spying on shoppers through the Christmas tree, following people in the parking lot until they turned around and shrieked, and the coup de gras: I hid in the trunk of the car with the camera and the reporter did his stand up by opening the trunk and setting shopping bags on me and the lens (warn the director if you do this so they don't freak out when the package is in black before the trunk opens).

As many times as we have shot these stories, our views have seen them. They are just as bored by them as we are. If you can take one of the "cover stories" and do it in a way that changes the beat and predictable rhythm but maintains the lyrics, you just made that story yours forever.

But here is something better. Write an original tune...find stories you have never done before and bring them to light. I know it sounds abstract, at my station we lovingly refer to it as "producer vision"---"there is a story out there about a lady who does this thing and it is really cool...go find her and turn it for tonight." These stories won't be as easy to do as the hottest trends in wrapping paper, but they will challenge you as a photographer and storyteller and give your viewers something real.

As I have recommended before, find a reporter to team up with who will be your advocate in the morning meeting and help you do some of the leg work. Be ready for some rejection by both your station and the subjects, but when it comes together, you will not be stuck doing "financial planning for the holidays" this year and next year you will be ahead of the game.

Check in with a family who was struck by tragedy earlier in the year. I can guarantee this one will not feel good when you first start trying to put it together. No matter what market you work in, during this year, you covered a crime scene where someone lost a loved one or a part of their life. It may be a police officer who was killed in the line of duty or a woman who was hit by a car while leading her child across the a busy street. Although their lives have come to an end, their families still have to continue on. It will be quite a fishing expedition, but someone out there will open up their home to you as part of their healing. Be very honest with them about the story you want to do and respectful of their boundaries. You may want to show how they remember their fallen officer during this time. Or it may be someone telling how hard the holidays are without their deceased child. If you have been in the market awhile or work with a reporter who has some history to them, check in with a family who was the center a attention a few years ago but has fallen off the radar. Maybe it is a family whose child was abducted and they hold on to hope or it is the child who survived a horrible situation and is grown up now with a family of their own. It does not have to necessarily be tragic. It may be visiting that set of quads that was born a few years ago around the time of the McCaughey seven (1997). Or how is that adopted Chinese baby you waited six hours at the airport for three years ago? Usually you will get in the car after shooting these and feel really good just because it shows the resiliency of people.

Find something your community does that effects everyone's Christmas. One of my biggest career regrets is never doing the "Christmas by Krebs" story. Most upscale department stores and holiday specialty shops in North America carry a very special type of Christmas decoration. Next time (probably this week) while you are shooting decoration displays, look for green boxes of Christmas balls with gold writing that says "Christmas by Krebs". They are the most beautiful glass ornaments done is classic simple styles. Then look at where they are produced...Roswell, New Mexico. I worked in Roswell for three years and never did the story, I knew the factory was there, I went on a tour of it when I was in the first grade. But we were always so caught up in tree lightings and shopping stories that we forgot about what our town provided to the rest of the world. Maybe you are near the Santa suit factory or where they bake huge amounts of fruit cake. The story is not so much the product as the role your community plays in others' holidays.

You ain't from around here. Luminarias? Faralitos? Bagalitos! When I worked in Albuquerque, we had an on-air war of words between our native New Mexican anchor and our main anchor who had worked in the market 25 years as to what the proper name is for those little brown paper bags filled with sand and candles. The native New Mexican said they are faralitos and the long-timer said they were luminarias. My best friend came up with the term I now use---bagalitos. Along with the regular "standards" of cover stories, there are also the local acts. Working mostly in southern border states, I have done every possible version of the tradition of Christmas Eve tamales (this one is actually okay because you are guaranteed free food). The way I keep this annual tradition fresh is to take along a new reporter who is from some other part of the country. Even though I know the drill inside and out, it will be exciting to them and they will attack the story with a lot of enthusiasm.

The Harvest of Shame that is rather bountiful. This is probably the toughest of the alternative holiday assignments. Consider going into the poorest part of your city and show your viewer how to celebrate Christmas when you have nothing. Or if you work in an area with a significant population of illegal immigrants, how do you have Christmas when your family is thousands of miles away and you are in the midst of a foreign culture?

When I worked on the assignment desk in El Paso many years ago, I resigned from TV News, I really thought I was done. My last day at KVIA was Christmas Day 1995. On Christmas Eve, we decided to send a crew over the border into Anapra---one of the cardboard colonies across the river. It is so devastated by poverty, I have yet to see a place in the United States at a lower standard (and I have worked in rural New Mexico and the back woods of North Carolina, there is some serious poverty out there). We just wanted to show how these people could possibly celebrate Christmas. Now that sounds so crass, but at the time it was rather innocent. The story Jose and Alex brought back is one of my favorite top ten stories of all time. I think our intention was to make our viewers feel good about the wealth they have in their lives, both monetary and spiritual...sort of the line of "things could be a lot worse...look at this".

Alex and Jose focused on one family. Unlike most of our assignments like this, they did not have to knock on the door, there was no door, just a blanket hanging over the frame. Inside the one room house (and I use the term house loosely), on the dirt floor was a single mattress with no sheets, just filthy blankets, a few broken chairs and a table with an ancient TV on it. The television was the centerpiece of the entire home. Outside was a single power pole with hundreds of black strands of pirated power leading to the paper shacks. They may not have food tonight, but they will have TV---if that does not make you think about the role we play in our viewer's lives. If memory serves me right, they had four children...and one pair of shoes. Depending on who would be working today, that determined who would wear the shoes. The package was a tearjerker from the opening line, a little round, brown faced three year old boy staring down the barrel of the lens with his huge dark eyes...cooing, "Tengo frio" essentially "I am cold". The story introduced us to their living conditions, but then we met the youngest daughter, about five years old, a toothy gray smile from ear to ear as she holds up a wiggly yellow puppy to the camera, its eyes are not even open yet. Something so new for a little girl who has never known anything other than a hand-me-down from the dumpster. She then directs the camera to look inside a rusted 55 gallon barrel on its side, peeking out from the dark...more puppies. Anyone who has ever lived in a border town knows the fate of those puppies, but for that moment, they were perfect and new. The father shows us their Christmas tree, a leafless branch from a cottonwood tree replanted in the hard clay with a few broken toys under it. But then he explains, "Christmas is not presents, it is us...being together."

My absolute favorite Christmas carol...cover "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". And it is only for one line, "may we all be here together next year, if the fates allow". In this business, somebody has to work Christmas, but make sure you take time to remember what this season is really about.

In the tag to colonias story, the reporter mentioned that Christmas morning she and her mom were driving back over the border to deliver some blankets and food to this family. Within minutes the assignment desk phone lit up, viewers calling to ask if they could send some clothes and toys with Alex. The next morning when I showed up at the station at 6:30am on Christmas morning for what I thought was my last day of TV news, there were mountains of Christmas presents on the front doorstep...clothes, toys, firewood, food, some with notes about just wanting to help and others with deep felt thanks for our Christmas Eve story. We ended up loading up three station cars with donations and Alex had to do some serious explaining at the Juarez bridge to get it all into Mexico, but it got there. Our viewer's generosity was our lead story that night at 5:30, until someone killed someone else and then they got bumped to the b-block. I walked out of the station that night thinking I had made the right decision, to take a nice 9 to 5 office job with the cable company. After eight months of getting an hour lunch every day, I returned to shooting...working overnights in Albuquerque. You can have everything and have nothing, or have nothing and have everything.

In the grand scheme of things , I would rather shoot MOSs of how much weight people gained while looking for parking spaces at the mall while shopping on-line from their PDA than be confined to a cubicle. And as I head out on some producer vision story about Hokey Pokey Elmo, I count my blessings that this is the biggest thing going on in our often bad world. I would do a hundred stories on Sponge Bob Squarepants if I did not ever have to cover five year old twins being kept in cages or a seven year old starved to death in a closet. Those are two of the horrific stories I have covered this year, and as mindless as most of the holiday "cover" stories are, if that really is the biggest thing going on, then the world has not been too bad today.

Finally, I leave you with a few of my Favorite Cover Tunes of the Moment in no particular order:

"All Along the Watchtower" Yul Anderson (written by Bob Dylan, originally performed by Jimi Hendrix) from the beautifully shot film "The Dancer Upstairs" but released on the CD The Wind Starlight (NBE Records)

"With or Without You" Brent Truitt, Earl Palmer, Byron House (written and originally performed by U2) from the best Sunday afternoon barbeque CD Pickin' on U2: A Bluegrass Tribute (CMH Records)

"The Boys of Summer" The Ataris (written and originally performed by Don Henley) from a great CD to drive to Yuma to So Long Astoria (Sony Records)

"One" Johnny Cash (written and originally performed by U2) from the incredible collection of American Recordings American III: Solitary Man (American Records)

"End of the Road" Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (originally performed by Boys II Men--and I hated it back then) from the best CD to do housework to Take a Break (Fat Wreck Chords)


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