Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rediscovering and Reuniting Veteran Los Angeles-area "News Geezers"

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, I loved almost all the local television news programs, particularly KTLA Channel 5's "News at Ten" and the ones on KNBC Channel 4.  The various reporters and journalists who worked for the LA stations were, as I recall, very articulate and detailed-oriented individuals.  They provided a level of intelligence and nuance to their news coverage which helped fuel an innate curiosity for the world that I still carry with me to this day.  Whenever I am back in Los Angeles on vacation and watch the current local news programs, I am continually dismayed at what I see.  While I think that there are still good journalists such as Gayle Anderson of KTLA Channel 5 (Anderson has that innate ability to effortlessly balance stories concerning community events with more serious, substantive fare and give each type of story their due), it's apparent to even a casual observer that the quality of broadcast journalism appears to have deteriorated in the decade since I have left my hometown.

It would be easy to snicker and make glib comments that the news in Los Angeles is now reported by inexperienced fashion models getting by on looks and charm.  However, that would be unfair because I am sure that the individual journalists and reporters currently covering Southern California are themselves intelligent people who are dedicated to doing good work.  I think the problem lies in the fact that current news programs appear to focus on providing a superficial, thumbnail overview of the day's events, as opposed to trying to provide viewers with substantive coverage and analysis.  In my opinion, the tone of the news is now so light-hearted that it comes to the point of trivializing what is being covered.  I never get the impression that any story is given a sufficient amount of time to allow the story at hand to be given its due.  This a very sad development because I always felt that the broadcast journalists covering Southern California in previous generations were superb professionals who set a high standard that the current generation should aspire to.

When I was in high school, I spent one summer working on a political campaign for a ballot initiative that would be voted on that Fall.  It was, as I recall, a school funding and accountability initiative.  The campaign had the unique idea of hiring young high school students to help develop and produce TV campaign commercials promoting the ballot initiative.  The commercial I worked on was made in a small studio in Burbank.  A few days before filming the commercial, we sent out press releases to local news stations and newspapers across the Southland inviting them to attend the shoot.  It was an opportunity to help publicize the ballot initiative's campaign and messaging.  I remember, on the morning of the shoot, seeing a news van for KNBC Channel 4 pull up to our studio.  To my amazement, KNBC's distinguished political editor Saul Halpert emerged from the van with his crew.  He introduced himself, thanked us for notifying him with our press release, and went about covering the production of the campaign commercial and interviewing the personnel involved.  For some reason, Mr. Halpert asked to interview me on camera.

I still remember Mr. Halpert's kindness and graciousness, and how he put me at ease when he interviewed me on camera.  He was polite and funny and immediately likeable.  I think I made him laugh because I told him about his colleague at Channel 4 who did a story covering the diversity at my high school the year before.  I explained that my fellow students and I intensely disliked his colleague because we felt her news story grossly misrepresented some of the people she had interviewed.  I told Mr. Halpert that she was the rare KNBC reporter who I didn't like.  I think my anecdote intrigued and amused him.  Anyway, I never saw Mr. Halpert's news segment concerning our campaign commercial, but I heard from others that it turned out very well.  It doesn't surprise me that it was a good story because Saul Halpert was one of the best reporters covering the Southland for decades.  If it was good, it was due to his high standards of professionalism, it had nothing to do with me having appeared in the story!

Through the years, I wondered how Mr. Halpert was doing and what he was up to.  As I understand it, he retired from KNBC in 1989 and became a freelance lecturer and media consultant.  I always wanted to speak with him again so I could thank him for his kindness and graciousness to me, and how he made a great impression on me.  A couple of months ago, when I was Googling his name, I stumbled upon videos and photos documenting a series of luncheons that have taken place in Southern California on a quarterly basis in the last three or four years entitled "News Geezers."  Organized by retired TV news writer and producer Bob Tarlau, who has worked at KTLA Channel 5, KABC Channel 7, KNXT Channel 2, and KTTV Channel 11 at different stages of his career, the "News Geezers" luncheons reunites personnel who worked both in front of the camera, and behind the scenes, in local Los Angeles television news.  The participants at these luncheons rekindle and reaffirm old friendships, share stories and anecdotes from their careers, and discuss the current state of both print and broadcast journalism in Los Angeles.  The "News Geezers" luncheons are not simply limited to people working in TV news.  As I understand it, newspaper and radio journalists also attend, as well as Producers, crew members, and other vital personnel who helped bring excellence to broadcast journalism in Los Angeles.

I have to admit, it was very emotional to watch some of these videos and see the photos taken at these luncheons.  It was wonderful to see people like Stan Chambers, Kelly Lange, Warren Olney, Marcia Brandwynne, Marta Waller, Melody Rogers, Gene Gleeson, John Marshall, Dave Lopez, Linda Breakstone, Stephen Gendel, Doug Kriegel, Joe Ramirez, Warren Wilson, David Sheehan, Adrienne Alpert, and many, many others who I fondly remember covering Southern California news and events for decades looking great and looking happy to see one another.  I was particularly moved to see Saul Halpert as a regular attendee at these luncheons in the videos and photos posted from the various gatherings.  He looked as distinguished and dignified as ever, and in some of the videos still has the wry and discerning wit and perspective that underscored why he was one of the best in his field for decades.  It was also great for me to see, in some of these videos, journalists such as John Marshall pick up the microphone and doing what they do best by interviewing many of the luncheon participants to ask them about their careers and accomplishments, their fondest memories working in broadcast journalism, and their thoughts as to the current state of the news.  Many of these videos were produced and edited by Mr. Tarlau, and they help to demonstrate how the people involved in producing them still have what it takes to put together an insightful and thought-provoking segment that engages the viewer by telling a good, informative story as effectively as possible.

I guess what I liked the most about seeing the videos and photos of the "News Geezers" quarterly reunion luncheons was the unmistakable sense of friendship, happiness and camaraderie that comes through.  It's clear that these people are really happy to see one another and share memories of their experiences covering news in the Southland.  While there is some commentary on the current state of broadcast journalism, it's never done with an air of condescension or resentment or bitterness to the people currently working in the field.  I feel that the commentary is done more in an encouraging manner in the hopes that it will remind people who are currently working what they should aspire to as opposed to putting anyone down.  As such, these "News Geezers" luncheons feel to me to be a celebration of what was great about both broadcast and print journalism in Southern California, as opposed to being a rumination as to its current state of being.

Bob Tarlau, who (along with his friend and former KTLA colleague Joel Tator) graciously consented to an interview with this blog to discuss these luncheons, recalls that the "News Geezers" luncheons began soon after he retired from KTTV as their Senior News Producer in 2010.  Tarlau realized that, "I'm already missing people that I worked with for 45, 46 years, and I kind of wondered whatever happened to a lot of these folks.  What I did was I called four people that I had worked with back at KTLA in the 1960s.  One of them is an absolutely brilliant director named Joel Tator.  The second one is a former director as well named Mike Conley.  Then there was Jack Terry.  It was basically four of us originally and I hadn't seen these guys in quite awhile and it was a couple of months after I retired and we got together and we had dinner.  And we had a great time and we had a lot of yucks and, you know, then we had another dinner so we could keep on talking.  And it was either me or somebody who said 'You know, we should invite a producer who is very well known in town named Gerry Ruben.'  So Gerry came along and then we thought, 'Well, jeez, there's a bunch of other people who it would be really fun to see' so we started calling and inviting them.  It was originally, quite frankly, sort of built around me.  I didn't want it that way but it had started out involving all these people that I had worked with at some time or other.  And it got to about 30 people and we moved to lunches because it was more convenient for people.  And there was a major turning point when it got to about 30 people, which must have been in late 2010.  I got a call from somebody at ABC network news who said, 'Look, you don't know me.  But I know of you and I used to work with such-and-such-and-such-and-such and I know you worked with all of those people.  What do you say I come along to one of your lunches?'  I said to him, 'I can't see any reason why not.  The others would be really happy to meet you.'  And I put down the phone and I realized 'OK, this thing's going in a different direction.  Well, that's not a bad deal.  I get to meet new people and this keeps getting bigger.'  I originally thought, 'OK, this will top out at 50 people.'  Well, at this point there's 230 people on the mailing list, and the most we've ever had at a lunch is 110 people!"

Tarlau recalls that the reason why the most well-attended luncheon of the "News Geezers," which took place in January 2014, topped out at 110 attendees is "because one of our members died, a gentleman by the name of Vince Brosnan.  He was one of those people that I never knew who just happened to join our group.  He was a longtime, very beloved editor at KNBC Channel 4 in Los Angeles and also for NBC News.  When he passed away, a couple of people called me and said 'You know, we really need to do something for Vinnie.'  I agreed and so I called Kelly Lange, who was a very well known anchorwoman for decades at KNBC Channel 4 and has been retired for many years, and I suggested to her, 'Why don't you anchor a tribute to Vinnie?  You can show pictures and show videos and call up people to participate with you, whatever you'd like to do.'  She said, 'Perfect.  I'll do it.  How long do I have?'  I said, 'Let's keep it around 15 minutes.'  She said '15 minutes, you got it!  You can count me down!  You know me, Bob, you can time me off!'  And she did 15 minutes of a tribute to Vinnie and it was terrific!  But a whole lot of extra people came, as a result, some people were introduced to the group and they came subsequently to the next and most recent lunch that we had in late April 2014."

Tarlau has found that the "News Geezers" luncheons, which started out very informally, has taken a life of its own and grown in more ways than he could've imagined.  As he explains, "When I started these lunches, I didn't want to make any speeches.  I never got up and spoke until the group got to about 25 people.  And then people said, 'You know, you're gonna have to get up and say something.'  So I started hosting it and I try to keep the program end of it really small.  This last time, a couple of members wanted to do an electric car presentation, which has nothing to do with us, but I have an electric car and so I thought, 'This'll be fun.'  So we got some dealers to come down and bring some electric cars and some individuals who brought Teslas and they gave the Geezers a chance to ride in them and drive in them and that was a lot of fun!  But, generally speaking, the luncheons are filled with war stories and fun and sharing memories and keeping these friendships alive.  That's the main agenda and, usually, I don't really want a formal program.  You don't really need one.  The people themselves are the program."

Tarlau admits that some of his favorite moments at the "News Geezers" luncheons have involved the participation of both Saul Halpert and legendary Los Angeles-area reporter Stan Chambers, who reported for over 60 years for KTLA Channel 5.  Tarlau says, "I enjoy seeing everyone there and two people who do mean a lot to me when they attend these luncheons are Saul Halpert and Stan Chambers.  There have been a couple of luncheons where they are there together.  We celebrated Stan's 90th birthday at one of the luncheons.  It's always great to hear their stories and to see their friendship up close."  Tarlau's friend and KTLA colleague Joel Tator echoes the sentiment and describes how "It's always an honor when Stan Chambers comes in.  You know he's retired and he's 92 years old and when he comes to those luncheons, it's really a big deal and he always gets a standing ovation, as does Saul.  And those are just great moments because people love to spend time with Stan and Saul.  I don't know if you read Stan Chambers' memoirs, but he's got a million stories.  He's so real and so honest and been through so much.  The only place he ever worked was KTLA for 65 years.  There's never going to be another case where one person works for a television station for 65 years because every time there's new management or new ownership or a new news director, they clean house.  He's been through, God knows, how many house cleanings but he managed to stay through all of it and never, ever worked anywhere else so when he comes into that room during these luncheons, it really is a special moment."

While the on-air news personnel attending these luncheons are the ones that casual observers would recognize, Tarlau emphasizes that the gathering is not limited to them.  People from a variety of different crafts and expertise who made valuable contributions to broadcast journalism in Los Angeles are welcome at these gatherings as well.  Tarlau explains, "Keep in mind that the gathering includes everyone from executives, former news directors, executive producers, assignment editors, even graphics people.  I think I've even had some hair and makeup people attend.  There's certainly been video editors and copy editors and managing editors, assistant news directors, line producers, writers, production assistants, as well as reporters and anchors.  Basically, everybody you can think of who works in a TV news room has been at these luncheons, plus people who were ancillary to the news operation such as engineers who ran the transmitter or worked in master control and they are welcome at these gatherings because they had a bearing on the news as well."

While Tarlau is clearly a very positive individual, the "News Geezers" luncheons do occasionally remind one of how the quality of local TV news reporting in Southern California has deteriorated, particularly in the last decade.  Tarlau candidly opines that, "Generally speaking, I think that the polish went out of it when the money went out of it.  And, by and large, the investigative reporting level is poor compared to what it used to be, with a few exceptions.  There are still talented people and still good work that gets done.  But with rushing around, short staffs, and low budgets, it is really hard to turn out the quality stuff that we were doing as recently as, say, ten years ago.  I think that's been a real disappointment for the audience.  I've had people come up to me, when they learn that I used to be in the business, and they say 'You know, local TV news isn't very good anymore!'  And, to be fair, a lot of it has to do with budget constraints and talented people who couldn't get raises moved on to other fields.  But, I say again, there are exceptions and there are some stations that will still spend money and time and resources and hire good talent both behind the camera and in front of the lens that do good work.  But, by and large, a lot of what I see is pretty mediocre."

Tarlau's friend and colleague at KTLA, director and producer Joel Tator, echoes Tarlau's opinion about the state of local news in Southern California.  With the same level of polite, friendly candor, Joel Tator explains how "the business has changed so much since we started back in the 1960s.  Sadly, news, particularly local news, is much less important than it used to be.  The ratings in this city are so low for newscasts.  I'm kind of a student of ratings, they've always been interesting to me, and I've never seen numbers that are so low for newscasts.  Of course, it's because nowadays people can get their news from so many other places that they don't do what they used to do, which was come home, turn on the set, and watch the local news.  Those of us who attend these luncheons--I hate the phrase 'The Good Ole Days'--but they really were a lot more interesting than what we have now and I would go so far as to say it was a lot more newsworthy in the past than they are now."

As an example as to how local area TV news in Los Angeles has deteriorated in quality and is now much less newsworthy, Tator describes how "We would never think back in those days to do a story like 'Oh, tonight on channel such-and-such, we've got an interesting miniseries and we're going to go tell you the background of the miniseries.  And look who's here?  The stars of the show are here!'  We wouldn't even think to do that because news was, I hate to say it and excuse me for using certain terms, it was kind of a sacred responsibility.  The interesting thing is that, if you go back, news was never meant to make money.  It was there as a service.  The newscasts were originally 5 minutes long, then 15 minutes long.  The most they ever were was 30 minutes long.  And then what happened was that when stations realized that they could expand their news to a longer time slot, all of a sudden they could make money on a newscast and that had never, ever been the case before.  All local stations spent their money on local programming, such as entertainment and kids shows and game shows and documentaries.  News was originally just an absolute after-thought to help you keep your broadcasting license, you know?"

Tator learned how profitable news programming could be when he was Executive Producer of the KTLA Morning News from 1992 to 1998.  With both humor and awe, Tator recalls how, "When I started with that show in 1992, it was two hours long.  It went from 7:00 am to 9:00 am.  And then somebody said, 'Well, you know the old saying?  The best lead-in to news is news!'  So we moved back our starting time to 6:00 am., so we were on from 6:00 am to 9:00 am.  And then somebody said, 'You know, we have pretty good ratings, here it is at 9:00 am why are we kissing that audience goodbye?  Let's extend it and go to 10:00 am!  So we were on from 6:00 am to 10:00 am, four hours.  And then somebody said, 'Well, jeez, why start at 6:00 am?  Let's go on at 5:30 am!  Well today, as of last year, the KTLA Morning News is on from 4:00 am to 10:00 am!  (laughs)  It's a 6-hour newscast and it's like printing money, you know?  Everyone's there anyway.  The writers are there, the anchors are there, let's just keep doing news shows and it won't cost us anything and we'll make nothing but profits!  The whole business really has changed.  Local stations don't do anything anymore except newscasts.  All of the programs that we all used to work on no longer are produced."

Even though morning news programs such as the KTLA Morning News have gotten longer, the actual quality of reporting of individual stories has not necessarily improved in a commensurate manner.  Tator opines that "when this group of us--the so-called "Geezers"--get together, it's really to celebrate what newscasts were, which was a clean report of the day's events starting with the amount of time that is needed to tell a story.  Nowadays, every story is a minute or less because they feel that the audience has no attention span.  So everything moves along, there's nothing in-depth.  I remember when I directed the Channel 4 news, as well as the Channel 5 news, if a story needed 8 or 9 minutes to tell because it was important, we would give them 8 or 9 minutes!  All of the stations in Los Angeles have closed their Sacramento bureaus.  They used to have Washington, DC bureaus because they felt it was important to gather and report the news.  But now, it's almost really a headline service, you know?  I think what happens when people sit around the table at these luncheons and they say 'Well, remember the time?  And remember the time?  And remember the time?' everybody remembers it because that kind of reporting--the time and the exactitude that we gave--doesn't happen anymore!  I think the memories, and remembrances, of the quality of news reporting in the past is what keeps these luncheons going."

Tator fondly describes the high calibre of people he worked with in local news throughout his career and recalls how "I was there for the Tom Brokaws and the Tom Snyders and the Jess Marlows.  I directed all of their shows and I also directed for Clete Roberts and folks like that.  News to them was Holy.  We call them 'News Shows' now, but back then they were not 'News Shows.'  They were 'News Programs.'  You know what I'm saying?  It wasn't a 'show.'  Now it's a 'show' and you have to have commensurate ratings to the shows that are opposite you.  Back then, it was more important that you do a responsible newscast than to get huge ratings.  Just to illustrate the situation for you, they have what they call the Golden Mic Awards, which are given out by the Southern California Press Association every year for radio and television.  The last few awards, in over 50 percent of the categories there was nothing deemed worthy of an award!  Now think about that for a second.  The actual categories that the Golden Mic people put out for 'Best Sports Story' or 'Best Investigation' or whatever other categories there are, out of 50 percent of those there was NOTHING deemed worthy of an award.  That's what it's come down to and it's difficult to give an award to a 60-second story, you know what I'm saying?  You want something that has a little more depth to it.  The other thing that's kind of embarrassing is when you go to a local Emmy awards, it's really embarrassing to see the shows that get nominated.  They have an award now for the Best 30-Second Promo.  I mean, how you can do a bad 30-Second Promo?  I don't see how you can do that, you know?  (laugh)  It's gotten to the point where it's almost laughable because, really, the content is down there with the ratings.   They're both sinking quickly and I don't know if it's recoverable."

While Tator mourns the declining substance and integrity of local news, he is also realistic enough to acknowledge that there has always a personality and entertainment-driven aspect to the medium.  Nevertheless, Tator maintains that style never trumped substance in generations past and recalls how "One of the best newsman in town, Tom Snyder, was a great personality who put on a little performance but he also had serious credentials and believability and took his work very seriously.  I also worked with George Putnam and George was a little more showy, but you know what?  He was very insistent on the accuracy of the newscasts and the importance of getting both sides of a story and, admittedly, his personality brought people into the tent.  No show is going to succeed if the ratings aren't there and, believe me, we certainly tried to maintain good ratings, but we tried it in a--let's use the phrase--newsworthy way to get our audience."

Even though the "News Geezers" luncheons celebrate the past greatness of Los Angeles broadcast journalism, and can't help but inadvertently evoke commentary as to its current state, both Bob Tarlau and Joel Tator emphasize that its ultimate purpose is to maintain continuity and friendship among the hundreds of individuals who have worked in the field throughout the decades.  As Tarlau explains, "It's all about reestablishing old friendships and making new ones and to prevent having a situation where somebody you worked with and cared about passes away and you think 'You know, I should've caught up with this guy over the years and I never did and I regret that because now he's gone.'  And I'm sure we've all felt that about people.  And this kind of takes away from that stigma.  Now that we've reconnected, when somebody passes away, we've been able to let each other know about it.  Not long after we started these luncheons, Mike Daniels, a longtime producer at Channel 2 during the glory days who went on to become a professor at USC, passed away.  He was in his late 70s and still teaching at USC when he died.  So I put the word out and they had the funeral at his favorite yacht club down at Marina Del Rey.  I attended with my wife and a whole bunch of people came up to me and said 'If it wasn't for the News Geezers luncheons, we wouldn't have known that Mike had passed away.  While this is not pleasant, the fact is that you reached out and told everybody and we really appreciate it because we were able to attend his memorial.'  And it was the same thing when Vinnie Brosnan, who I spoke about earlier, passed away.  People who otherwise wouldn't have known about his passing learned about it through the News Geezers and they were able to attend his memorial in San Diego.  It's allowed us to be there for one another and I'm very grateful for that."

(Photos courtesy of Bob Tarlau)