Friday, August 26, 2011

Coming home.

B.J. Sams and I at Empty Bowls 2008
I don’t talk much about my television days… at least, not here. Maybe at one point that was by design; I started this blog just weeks before I left the station and I was making a new start in my world. But maybe it’s time I did.

The station was Today’s THV. I spent eight years there, all of it on the morning show, producing Today’s THV This Morning. There are a lot of morning shows out there coast to coast, but this one was special. Different.

I started at Today’s THV in July 1999, just months before I married and after 10 months of drifting in Little Rock trying to figure out what I was going to do. I’d been in Jonesboro before that, a three year stint at KAIT-TV, where I got my feet wet in television and learned a lot about the world -- some good things, some very bad things.

When I came to Today’s THV I’d spent 10 months in different jobs. I’d been an executive assistant, a banking clerk, a radio traffic reporter, a receptionist, about 20 other things -- all while being a professional temp. I was waiting for my big break, and I thought it would come with KKYK-TV -- which my fiance worked for at the time.

I’d “settled” for working at Ron Sherman Teleproductions as a producer and production gal for about two months when I got the call to come back to Today’s THV for a follow-up interview. My first interview in September 1998, three days after I’d left KAIT, got blown when I was asked what a five o’clock news program should be. “Evrerything to all people,” I had said, and apparently I was wrong. The answer the management had been looking for was “caters to women,” and I failed.

But Lane Michaelson kept me in mind when a position came open on the morning show. It was supposed to be a temporary position -- three months as the third producer on the show while it went through an expansion. It had been 6-8 a.m. for a few years, but with CBS creating The Early Show for the Fall 1999 lineup the management had decided to start Today’s THV This Morning at 5 a.m., and they needed three producers instead of two.

It was a crapshoot, really -- leaving a job that was a certain steady paycheck for one that might evaporate a few months later. But I’d made myself a promise. See, at KAIT I had spent a year and a half producing the morning show. I enjoyed it -- the overnight hours, the quiet, the freedom to put together a show within a very loose frame. After the Westside School Shootings and the Manila Tornado I was given an involuntary boot up to the 10 p.m. producer spot -- which, frankly, bored me. I made myself a promise that if I ever ended up in television again and ever got the chance at a morning show, I would never leave it.

I guess it’s fortunate, then, that there was a stirring of the pot at the station. One producer left, another moved up, another… it came down to the morning show, and our lead producer Amy went to the 6 p.m. show, leaving me to step up. It wasn’t long before my co-producer and reporter Christa Olsen moved up, too.

Robyn met Bobby Vinton on our 2005 Branson trip.
The producers changed, but everything else stayed the same. It was unusual for any market, frankly -- for any group of people to keep working together on a morning show like we did. It started with the anchors, of cours. B.J. Sams was a veteran of Little Rock television dating back about as far as I could remember. Robyn Richardson (the former Robyn Lowry) had recently married and had started the show about the time I was finishing up my radio days. Tom Brannon had been there for a short while and was still getting used to (at the time) being the third wheel on the show. They didn’t know it then, but they’d be doing this for all the eight years I was there, together… in fact, until about three weeks after I left.

There was the director, Jerry Don Burch, who had been at Today’s THV for close to 40 years at that point. He used to come in every morning at 3 a.m. with his lunchbox, then come start up the printers. There was Hal Mitcham the audio guy, Brian Frazier the graphics guy, Robert Settles and Jimmy Staton (who started the same week I did) and Badi Galinkin and Sidney Woodbury on the floor, with Gary Burgess as the floor director. Mark Denny was in master control.

One of my favorite photos of Rich Gunter.
Then there were the editors… there was a string of editors, actually, but there was always Bill Ritter. And then Richard Gunter would come in each morning and shoot what needed to be shot. Sometimes one of the other photographers would come in for the morning show. Sometimes we’d have several people. One morning that first summer there were 21 people between the studio and the newsroom, all putting that show together.

We never got back to that number again after the first summer. But on the other hand, there weren’t a whole lot of new faces here and there, either. In the director’s box, Hal stepped up when Jerry Don retired, and Rob Hatfield came in to be the assistant director. Tim Sullivan became our man in the audio booth… they all developed nicknames, too. Tim was “Eric Clapton.” Hal was “Antonio Banderas.” You get the idea.

Tom thought he’d blown his interview
with Ray Stevens about 30 seconds in.
And there were the co-producers. After Amy and Christa there was Zrinka Rukavina, who went on to become a lawyer in Chicago (and who’s doing quite well, I’m happy to say). There was Sarah Holliman and Monica Rued (who’s still a web producer at the station) and Becca Buerkle, the last one I worked with. I always forget one… there were seven in all. All of them (with the exception of Sarah, who I believe ended up doing something with the police force, I’m not certain) moved up and onward at the station.

We called the Hogs with Dave Price.
There were a few here and there who were with us for a month or a year -- Davy Craft, Win Noble, Holly Terry, Larry Kreif -- I am startled I remember any of the names after all this time. They were all people who really influenced my life.

We had a lot of good times on the show. The station had this idea of creating this Weather Garden, and we took it and ran with it, filling it up with people and things and ideas. We came up with all sorts of neat promotions and contests and what have you. Probably the most famous of these were the Weddings of a Live Time we held -- three of them, crazy contests that culminated in nuptuals at dawn. Wow, huh?

I got to meet White House pastry chef
Roland Messnier when the Clinton
Presidential Center opened in 2004.
There were also the Zoo Tuesdays, the Breakfast with Tom segments, the Summer Cereal Drive and the road trips. There were seasons, too -- August, for instance, meant competing watermelon festivals, while every May we had Toad Suck Daze, Greek Food Festival, Riverfest.

Yet some of my favorite times from the show were when the anchors just had a chance to chat and relax and share a bit of their lives with us. I quite clearly remember the day after Game & Fish Night back in the summer of 2000, and that Robyn was supposed to race in it. We showed the footage, and then she mentioned that it was her husband Keith driving the car. She handed baby booties to B.J. and Tom, her way of letting everyone know she was pregnant.

I do believe I was the first person who told Robyn she was pregnant with her third child, Parker. She had just returned from maternity leave after having her son Lowry, and she kept having this flu that would not go away. One morning it struck me that we’d been to this rodeo before, and after the show I told her “Robyn, I think you’re pregnant.” She told me it wasn’t possible… and the next day came in and almost hissed at me… “how did you know?” Well, we’d been there with Lowry and with Olivia before that… go figure.

Our viewers got to know them as BJRobyn&Tom… it’d all run together, and everyone assumed they were a happy family. But it didn’t start off that way. I recall how Tom really didn’t rub the others the right way at first, and the friction between them. Way back in the day, Robyn would sometimes show irritation working with B.J. and vice versa. It didn’t blossom overnight.

But when it did, it was great. There was a chemistry between the three of them that just made the show. Yes, producing the show sometimes felt like pushing around an elephant, but at least with the three of them it was like pushing that elephant around on a dolly, instead of plain brute force.

I used to remind Tom about his wedding anniversary. I got married exactly a week before he did -- and so I’d always make a point to tell him not to forget LeAnn on the 20th of November.

I married Paul in November 1999.
B.J. used to read me his junk email… “I can get breast enhancements with this simple exercise, huh huh huh,” he’d laugh. He’d work the crossword and the Scramble in the paper between cut-ins after the show.

Boy, I am rambling on. I’d meant to just write a few paragraphs, but I suppose my time at THV just can’t be summed up that way.

Tom with Yakov Smirnoff.
When I was there, I felt like I was ever so lucky. I was working the coolest job in the world and I couldn’t ever see leaving it. There are about 12 reasons I did… but it still wasn’t an easy decision. I was tired of working up to 60 hours a week. I wanted to start a family. I felt like I was in a rut -- a fun rut, but a rut nonetheless. Wanted to try something new. Felt I was getting old.

Rich and I on his retirement day.
The kicker for me was the lurking spector of what would have turned out to be a huge paycut had I stayed. I’d negotiated in my contract when I started that I would be paid hourly; though my contract actually expired in 2000 no one ever asked me about signing a new one. Gannett’s blanket ruling to make all producers salaried workers would have cost me an estimated $12k a year in pay. It was, in the end, the deciding factor.

My last day was September 7, 2007. Walking away from the morning show was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I left behind my security, my friends and the career I thought I would follow for the rest of my life. I had no idea when I left that Friday morning if I’d ever enter that building again. I though I had a future in public relations, but hadn’t made up my mind. I was being courted heavily by the competition, but after about a week I realized my days in television -- at least on the reverse side of the camera -- were over.

You probably know the rest of the story… it’s documented on this blog. The places I’ve been and seen have been fabulous. I have, for the most part, created an entire career from scratch. I’ve gone through an interesting pregnancy and have started the process of raising a beautiful daughter. I’ve grown. As one of my friends recently put it to me, I’ve come into myself. I know who I am. Another friend says I’ve become my own brand. I can accept that too.

Yesterday I received a message from Tom, asking if I’d come stop by this morning. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but I figured that hey, it was about time. I’d missed out on the morning show the day B.J. retired and I felt bad about that -- but Hunter was still very young and it was outside her comfort zone. I did come for a gathering at the station later, though.

This morning was the first time I went back to the morning show in nearly four years. To say I was apprehensive would be mild. I really didn’t know what to expect.

But when I went through the gate, there was very little different from before. Well, there was the weirdness of having my name checked off by a list. I almost found myself doing the whole “do you know who I am?” to Tyler, one of the producers of the show today. But seeing so many other faces I recognized sort of soothed that over.

Rich Gunter was there -- he had retired about a year before I left and I hadn’t seen him in so long. I missed Rich. We used to spar a bit on our thoughts on live shots and the like, but he’s a great guy and he was usually right. Married life is treating him well. He told me they’d just got their first computer… I find it amusing.

James Staats from Golden Corral was there, as was Anthony Michael from Cross Eyed Pig BBQ, who was grilling up pork ribs for the occasion. The four of us were comparing notes and sharing memories when Robyn and B.J. passed in front of where we were standing and joined Tom and Alyse and Ashley. At one point Tom pointed us out to them, and I thought Robyn was going to flitter.

The show was different from what it used to be. We never really had an audience during my times. Sure, we might have a Weather Garden full of Taekwondo kids or Foodbank volunteers, but just folks who watched the show? Not often. There were maybe 30 in-garden guests and the whole cadre of us, talking with each other and sharing our memories. I talked with Dr. Bob Hale the veterinarian, with Derrick Rose the magician and with state trooper Cpl. Alvernon Rogers. Becca came in early (she now works upstairs from the newsroom, good for her!) and Matthew Carroll, the guy that replaced me (bless his heart) poked his head out.

I went in for a bit and walked around the control room -- which has changed a lot. No more clunky tubed video monitors. Now it’s all plasma screens and computer interfaces. Robert Settles was manning the cameras. Hal and Rob were still calling the shots and punching the show, and Tim was in the booth.

At the end of the show all us old-timers got together for one last shot, just for a minute. And then it was over. Some hung around for another hour, while others had to take off immediately. That’s life for ya.

I went to the newsroom to take a look around. It looks very similar and yet some things are different. The big computer monitors have been replaced with flat screens. There’s a new editing system that allows producers to put stuff together at their desks and make it all work.

This was my desk. You know, I think the only photo I have of my desk is from when I received the Employee of the Quarter my last year at the station. It doesn’t look that much different, just a lot cleaner. B.J. sat at the one across from this one, and Robyn’s desk was to the right on that side.

The dedication of the new studio, I think in 2005.
I wish I could have taken the photo with me that had been in the employee case back then, back when my hair was chin length and strawberry blonde. There is still one photo of me there, a group photo from when we debuted the new set back in 2005.

While talking with Matthew and watching the new producers Martha and Tyler and while catching up with Becca, I missed the big group photo apparently taken outside. But I did get this one. All those years, there was never a photo of me with my three anchors. I was always behind the camera and a little camera shy. I wanted to make sure there was one. This is it.

I thought I’d cry this morning, I really thought I would. I did cry, and profusely, the morning I left. I was pretty damaged back then. I didn’t know, couldn’t know, that in many ways I was emerging from my chrysalis that last morning. Most of the time I spent at Today’s THV I was a hermit, content to let someone else step in front of the camera and grab the glory. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I did. It’s part of me. I spent longer there than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

But this morning I realized not just how much that time meant to me, but that it is a time long past. I have grown, as have my fellow former co-workers. Life has proceeded apace and we have all moved on in our own ways. In just a few weeks I’ll mark my fourth anniversary away from the station, and it’ll be a happy one. I can finally hold my head high and confirm that I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams at this next segment of my life. Today’s THV This Morning wasn’t the zenith of my life. But it was important to me.

I may go back again. I don’t know. Going back this time, though… paved the way for more moments in my life. I have moved on. I am thankful and grateful for it all.


  1. What a cool story! That was so interesting to read.

    I must be very confused though on a different topic, your daughter.

    In the trip, it was just one girl and in this post, you said, one daughter, but I swear in posts back, you had two girls. I don't know how I picked that up.

  2. I so thankful i found you! very interesting and had to bookmark!
    Retirement Letters

  3. Great recount of your time with the show. We've been starting our mornings with the show since before Robyn got married. Thanks for sharing.

    We ate at Tavola Trattoria in Bentonville last night. I highly recommended giving it a try.

    Welcome home.

  4. In those days the THV was really cooking in the morning; okay we did have a lot of food but the show was really something. In those times with Jerry Don and you as well as Robyn and others our collective crazy notions actually made it to air. Back than we could take huge risks and have a lot of fun and made the show number one. Being gone from the station now those are the days I really do miss.


Be kind.