Tales from Small-town TV (Podcast tie-in)

For a while in 2003, I was the head of the news department at a tiny television station, KFBB, in Great Falls, Montana. That job was more stressful than you might imagine, or rather, more stressful than I had imagined it would be.

It involved meetings and budgets and many more administrative tasks. Being in charge of a news department, it turned out, had frustratingly little to do with journalism.

The station was owned by an out-of-state publishing company, which spent virtually no money on the operation. That was hard enough.

It was a real hands-on job, though. The station had a very small-time feel. How small? One of the two weathermen (we didn’t have meteorologists) would don a giant bumblebee costume for public events. Get it? The KFBB Bee? Yeah.

That danged bee
That danged bee

It took several arguments to get across the point to the weatherman that we were trying to change the image of the station, and once he showed up to an event where I’d specifically told him not to wear the costume, assuming I wouldn’t be there. That was entertaining.

My whole goal was to treat the station’s newscasts, and its viewers, with respect, and to give the news a big-city feel.

Change #1: I threw out the station’s poorly done, small-town newscast openings and replaced them with new ones. We used a powerful news music theme, the creative guys shot some nice stuff of the anchors working, and I pulled off a major coup by getting national voice talent Charlie Van Dyke to read the introduction for far less than he usually charged.

“Now … live from Great Falls,” Van Dyke growled, “Casey Kelly. Charlie Heit with weather. Chris Nettleton on sports. Just you watch: This is ABC 5 News.”

We looked slick, and it signaled to the audience that something new and better was coming.

The team that would change the face of low-budget TV news.
The team that would change the face of low-budget TV news.

Change #2: The last several news directors had co-anchored the show, another small-time decision. I wouldn’t anchor, and we wouldn’t have co-anchors at all. I chose one strong young anchor, a woman named Casey Kelly, and built the evening newscasts around her. Another young woman, Rebecca Taylor, would anchor the AM and Noon shows.

The sales staff was a little taken aback—just one anchor, and it would be a woman?

But I knew these two could handle it, and they did.

Change #3: Dust off the station’s ancient live microwave truck and start using it. We did live reports everywhere, from news stories, to complete newscasts at major events, like a big rodeo that came to town, or the city’s Christmas parade.

Change #4: Turn the AM show into something special that viewers would actually watch.

The Team Goes to Work

We altered the morning show format pretty substantially.

The biggest change I made was to give (nearly) free reign to a man who had been doing some sports and weather, but whose stock-in-trade was snarkiness, Jason Walker.

He did a daily segment on entertainment and odd news – “Jason’s Take” – and he also booked live bands to appear on Friday mornings. We got some real up-and-comers, like Emerson Drive and Trick Pony when they came to Great Falls on a tour stop.

We nailed down the parameters of Jason’s on-air activities thusly:

“Scott, you remember in the Howard Stern movie how his ratings went up because half the audience loved him and the other half hated him, but listened to find out what he’d do next?” Jason asked me.

“Yes…” I said, knowing what came next.

“That’s what I want to do.”

“Okay, just don’t endanger our license,” I said. I kept my hands off his stuff (well, almost always), and he never let me down. His segment became the “talker” of Great Falls.

Casey Kelly and Lyndsay Mammen on set in 2003.
Casey Kelly and Lyndsay Mammen on set in 2003.

I also gave free reporter reign to a fantastic journalist named Lindsay Mammen, who proceeded to produce solid stories every day. We frequently discussed the idea that the daily newspaper would have a lead story the next day, and her job was to have it first. She usually did.

My biggest “find,” though, was when I hired a young guy named Chris Nagle to anchor and report sports. Chris was straight out of college, but I knew when I saw his tape that we’d be lucky to have him. With a big-time TV look and presentation, he dominated the sports reporting scene in Great Falls.

How good was this kid? His first TV job was with us. His second, for which I gave him a recommendation, was in Denver, which is a massive TV sports town. (They made him change his name to Chris Tanaka, to make him seem more … multicultural.)

We had a few of the usual moments common to small-town stations, like the time one of my reporters did an on-camera bit in a t-shirt and hoodie. He couldn’t understand what was wrong with that.

One night, the evening director got angry with me during a newscast and jumped up, shouting, “You want to direct this show? Fine, you do it!”

(Having directed before, I did and got us through it, but we needed him back.)

But mostly, we amazed even ourselves.

When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing all aboard, the entire reporting staff made themselves available and we produced a very solid show that evening. Jason even produced a closing montage of the astronauts to country artist Garth Brooks’ song, “The Dance,” that had everyone teary-eyed.

When the U.S. went to war in Iraq, we really played that up, including having one of our reporters, Joe LePage, doing a live shot on the airfield as a jet full of National Guard troops took off behind him.

Jason and I even used early internet technology to steal the benefit of the competitor’s network showing the Academy of Country Music Awards. (Remember, Montana is big cowboy country.) I convinced the station’s general manager to let us go to Las Vegas for three days and do stories about the ACMs.

“Yes, they’ll have the three-hour awards show Wednesday, but we’ll have everything up to it, starting Sunday,” I reasoned. The GM agreed and we flew down to cover the festivities, with Jason reporting and me shooting.

The funniest moment of that trip came when Jason found himself standing on the orange carpet (yes, orange) next to Robin Leach, one-time host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and, at the time, an entertainment reporter for a Las Vegas TV station.

“Say, who are those two?” he asked Jason, in his trademark British accent, guesting to some arriving artists.

“Well, that’s Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn,” Jason said, helpfully.

“Oh. Are they important?”

Stifling a laugh, he said, “Yeah, kinda,” as the duo, known for 20 number-one country hits, approached.

“Right, then,” Leach said, and shouted, “Oh, Ronnie, over here!”

That awards show was special to us because of one particular man we met. We drew a lot of attention among the media, because we were the only ABC affiliate to be covering the CBS awards show.

Word of our presence at the awards rehearsal made its way to the top, and, as we recorded a segment of Brooks and Dunn doing a sound check for their latest hit, “Red Dirt Road,” the executive producer of the show walked up.

It was Dick Clark.

He wanted to thank us for doing stories about his award show.

We were awestruck, and believe me, by this point in my career, I didn’t get awestruck anymore.

Dick was still at the prime of his career behind the scenes. He was sharply dressed in a sweater vest and slacks, standing out from nearly everyone else in the venue, who wore jeans and t-shirts. (Later, when he returned in the evening, he wore a suit. That’s class.)

He was genuinely appreciative, shook our hands, and said he had to go. Jason and I just looked at each other.

Every few hours, we’d go back to our hotel room to edit the video on my laptop computer and then send it by internet to the station. We couldn’t afford satellite time, but $10 internet from the hotel was within our budget, and Jason would talk to Rebecca by telephone as our video rolled.

The project was a big hit.

The End

After I’d been at KFBB for nearly a year, the ownership suddenly decided that it didn’t need a news director at that station – they would run the whole operation from their Billings station –and fired me with about 15 minutes’ notice. A cost-savings move, they said.

The reporter who took "No" for an answer--she never called me for comment when the company wouldn't.
The reporter who took “No” for an answer–she never called me for comment when the company wouldn’t.

I was frustrated. The station had been a solid number two in the ratings for over a decade, and seemed to be mired there permanently. But I had made changes that I’d admittedly stolen from larger markets, and had high hopes that the changes would turn things around.

Susan, who worked at the station as a newscast director, came into my office, and I said I’d been let go, as I packed some papers.

“Well, it’s only 10:30, so they need to keep me at least until 12:30,” when the noon news ended, she said with a sarcastic laugh.

Right on cue, her supervisor stepped into my office and asked to speak with her.

They walked out and Susan came back a couple of minutes later.

“They let me go, too,” she said.

“But what about the noon show?” I asked.

“They cancelled it. And the morning news, too,” she said. “They called it – “

“A cost-cutting move,” I finished. This was the weirdest thing I’d seen management of a TV station do, and I’d seen plenty of weirdness. It was as if the corporate people woke up that morning and decided to make some deep cuts. (They probably did – this was not a savvy company.)

A few weeks later, I got phone call from Casey Kelly, telling me that a salesperson came to the newsroom, waving a ratings book, and saying, “We’re number one! Finally!”

“Enjoy it,” she told the salesperson, “because it’s the last number-one you’re going to see. They killed the golden goose.”

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