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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
"M-O-S spells H-E-L-L"
NOTE: the article on killing clichés is trapped in my faithful laptop that died a tragic death. It sounded like a freight train. The article will make an appearance sometime soon after the hard drive goes through recovery. It is a parent's worst nightmare.
Recently I was in the Vegas airport. I headed to my favorite ATM near the B gates to replenish my cash so I could at least pay parking when I got home to Phoenix. After my luck on the slots, I needed something to give me money, even it was my own.
But before I got to the cash machine, I was hit with a tragic sight. There stood the pitiful couple, so needy, so down trodden. They were not a set of newly weds who just lost the down payment on the house at the craps table; they looked more forlorn than that. Their begging broke my heart because I know it so well.
I stood at the ATM watching them over my shoulder as they boldly approached passing passengers. I live in a big city; normally I can look the other way and ignore this type of thing with a clean conscience, but not this time. I approached them slowly, "What are you guys doing?" The girl lit up and her partner sighed in relief.
The reporter from the Vegas CBS affiliate bounced on her heels as she explained that they were getting reaction to a proposal to decrease the number of security screeners which would increase the amount of airline passengers spend in line. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the photographer zooming in and focusing on me. She then smiled, "Can we talk to you?" Although I work for an NBC affiliate and hate to be in front of the camera and I looked like I had just spent a weekend in Vegas and never bothered to visit the hotel room, I agreed. She smiled ear to ear as she lifted the mic to my mouth. Every part of me wanted to bat it down about eight inches with the explanation that mic flags are stupid and there is no reason why she needed to "mark" my interview with her station's logo other than to please some idiot consultant and a news director who would not know an original thought if it accosted him in the airport (news directors: if you are reading this, first I commend you for your interest in the photographers' world, second... get the damn mic flags out interviews on your air---it is distracting to the viewer and annoying to the person you are interviewing).
I have no idea if I ended up in the package or not, but it felt good to help others escape hell if just for a moment.
I hate MOS's, hate 'em, hate 'em, HATE THEM! Normally I can put a happy face on just about anything---"You want me to wait for the walk down of the prisoner that could happen anytime in the next eight hours and I will be on an unshaded sidewalk in the blazing 110 degree Phoenix sun...I can work on my tan"... "No lunch today, that is okay, as long as I have Diet Coke, I have everything I need"... "The desk says to stay at the SWAT standoff until it is over even though it is 6:30 on Friday evening...I will take the overtime." But MOS's bring out the beast in me.
The only thing that I will openly protest is freak'n Man on the Street Interviews. I can't even control my disdain for the random acts of bothering strangers to fill 30 seconds. I used to work with a photographer in Raleigh, NC who referred to them as "triple A's"---Ask Any A$$hole. And at my station, the producers LOVE them. All too often the afternoon editorial meeting comes to a screeching halt when an issue comes up like the Diamondbacks losing streak..."Oh a photog can just go get MOS's". This phrase is followed by a sweep of eyes around the conference table as they lock onto the poor soul who will soon be standing in front of Target accosting shoppers, "Hey, I'm from Channel 12 (so they don't think you are begging for spare change), and today we are looking for folks' reaction to the Diamondback's recent losing streak? Do you see us getting to go to another World Series or should they hang up their cleats now?"
Honestly, I feel like a prostitute, in fact there are times I would rather ask people if they want a date instead of their opinion on whether Weapons of Mass Destruction really existed in Iraq. The worst ever: stalking shoppers at the Safeway in Litchfield on a Saturday night to see if they agree with a class action lawsuit suing all Catholic bishops in the United States for conspiring to cover up pedophile problems within the Church. I did not even have an answer in my own head to this obscure question, how could I expect someone juggling a case of Budweiser and Fudgecicles to give a coherent answer?
Here is the deal. MOS's are a fact of life, just like taxes, hot car seats, food poisoning or power outages. They really suck at the time but you will live through it. It has taken me a few years to accept this fact and try to find some ways to make them bearable.
Keep it in context: If you are looking for folks to talk about baseball, go where baseball fans will be. When I get hit with "will people pay more for next season's tickets?", I go to where they are buying the tickets. Such a big part of our jobs is being part psychologist. If I go to the ticket counter at 9:30am when the assignment is made, nobody is going to be there. When do people buy baseball tickets---their lunch hour. No, I will never have time on my lunch hour to buy baseball tickets, but then again, we don't get normal lunch hours, but most of our viewers do. By looking at the essence of the question you are pimping, going to a place in the proper context of that question will bring you much better answers quicker! It is easy to go to the Target parking lot where you will have lots of shoppers pouring in and out, but are these people truly affected by your question? Everyone who walks up to the ticket window at Bank One Ballpark is there to buy a ticket (except for that one guy looking for the basketball arena), but at Target, it is a crap shoot (literally).
It is All in the Approach: Honey, nobody goes out to shoot MOS's with a worse attitude than me. BUT, I leave it in the live truck. The people you are bugging can tell if you are tortured. They will not want to talk to you any more than you want to eat lunch the spooky guy in the tin foil hat on the park bench mumbling to himself needing more ammunition. I promise myself a reward to bring my spirits up---a Chocolate Dr. Pepper at Sonic---just the thought of caffeine, sugar and chocolate in one drink makes me a sweeter person.
Sometimes I tell myself that I need to ask the question to the lady walking toward me like she in the Station Manager's wife.
Sometimes I hit it with the "I will not be denied" attitude and chase people down with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader on speed where they are partly entertained and partly annoyed and just want me to go away but know I won't until they say something.
Sometimes I use the opportunity on especially dumb questions to practice some stand-up comedy. WWSD? What would Seinfeld Do? "You're not going to believe this, but we are actually asking people what they want for Christmas? What do I want for Christmas? To win the lottery so I don't have to ask this question anymore. I hope you want something more interesting than that---so what do you want for Christmas?"
Get the TV Mojo working: When I have to do the MOS thing, I unleash everything I have to make it feel as "TV" as possible. Face it, that is why the people are talking to you; they want to be on "TV". I take our Happy Meal Box lookin' live truck, I slap a mic flag on the RE-50 (I know I can keep it out of the shot), I hang my driver's license quality photo credential around my neck and sport the Club Dozen polo shirt. People have no doubt where you are from and what your intentions are with their face---even though once a year I get "so when is this going to be in the newspaper?"
Will They or Won't They: Women in gray pinstripe suits who wear their hair in a bun will not even make eye contact. A guy in a baseball cap turned backwards with a funny saying printed on his t-shirt is money in the bank. Woman in jeans and a tank top with hair in a ponytail, if the tank top is white or pastel---no, if tank top is a bright color or black---yes. Guy in ironed polo shirt and pressed khakis, gotta go to the shoes: oxfords---no, loafers---yes. This goes back to being the photog/psychologist. You have to be fascinated by people to love our job. MOS's are a top-notch social experiment if nothing else. I love to play inside my head, "Will they or Won't they?" Man with a toddler---like shooting fish in a barrel. Woman with a teenage son---don't bet on it. If you watch people enough you can read them like books just from how they walk down the street. There is one guaranteed interview out there. People with little kids. We are as fascinating to kids as 3 minutes of Disneyland. Parents will almost always talk because they know it looks cool to their kids and they know it will come up in dinner conversation for months. Grandparents with youngsters in tow WILL ALWAYS talk to us. They know they are gods to their grandkids; this just makes them even more magical.
Show the Interns Some True TV Glamour: Do you have a bumper crop of post-pubescent anchor wanna-be's hanging around the station this summer? Pull them out of the air conditioning and let them see first hand how people really feel about the media. This is also a good experiment with several outcomes: they will be excited about asking people questions and attack it with gusto, you will be done in no time and find a budding network correspondent; OR they will be even more embarrassed to do this than going into Victoria's Secret with their Dad and sit in the live truck on the cell phone telling their friends how lame you are; OR they will play shy until you have to lecture them on getting out there and doing it no matter what if they are really serious about reporting, then they will cry and hit you up to shoot some stand-ups for their resume tape.
Sometimes You Have to Suck It Up: You can do anything for ten minutes. On really stupid questions, I give it ten minutes. You have to work it for that ten minutes, but then you are off the hook.
For all the goofiness of gathering MOS's, there is a valid point behind them: they are the voice of the common man. They were the right person at the right time willing to answer the question and no matter what they say, it will be the right answer. I don't think they are the answer to every question out there and I try to pick my battles as to when a question is not right for MOS (sometimes I lose as in the bishop lawsuit question, but sometimes we find a better way to express the public's opinion). And for at least one of the people you interview in that ten minutes, it will be the highlight of their day and they will call a dozen of their friends and family members to tell them to watch the news and your station's ratings will go up and the ad revenue will increase and your station will make more money and be able to buy better equipment and pay you more. Or not.
If you ever see me in the Phoenix airport (probably at the baggage claim) poking my Sennheiser at you while asking some lame question about holiday travel, just know I will be nine minutes away from a Chocolate Dr. Pepper. Yep, still hate 'em.
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