The Ice Palace

January 1, 2011

My readers know I have worked at the most prestigious address in the world – but they might not know there were several other addresses I worked from that came in a close second.

For a couple of years, a long time ago, I worked at The Ice Palace. And I am not talking about that hotel in Sweden.

My media roots are in TV News. I learned journalism by dealing with constant deadlines, deciding what was news, what to ask, what to show, how to present the lineup, and making hard calls about what to air or what not to air with input, whether I wanted it or not, from politicians, judges, social workers, station management, my competition, or just plain folks. I also had help from my network, but more about that later.

Journalists are a special class of people. Not special in the sense of WOW, look at us, we are on TV and we don’t even have to be naked or set our hair on fire.

Special as in – specific freedoms are guaranteed to “the Press”  in the U.S. Constitution.

State legislatures have created special “shield” laws to allow the news media, in general, the freedom to say what they see and to keep sources confidential.

Special as in – granted a unique trust and place by and in society.

Because our founding mothers and fathers (mostly fathers) knew that the free flow of information, as embarrassing or hurtful to those in power – or the power structure itself – as it may be, is essential to a democracy.

But that said, not everyone who is on the air is a journalist. As you watch your local news (probably for the weather and the sports and not for what passes as news these days) you can easily see who is a journalist, and who is posing as one but has other ambitions.

The first TV News operation I worked in was at one of the smallest TV Stations in America – back then a CBS affiliate, now an NBC or Comcast affiliate known as KTVF – In Fairbanks, Alaska – complete with a 50,000 watt clear channel radio station – KFRB and rebranded KCBF during the time I was broadcasting news way up north.

It was my good fortune to be the morning man, the evening man, the Saturday man, as well as the Assignment Editor, Newscast Director, Camera Man, Editor, Writer, Weather Man, Sports Guy. Did I mention reporter?

Don’t get me wrong -we had a small news staff, including people that did all those roles most days and nights – but you can imagine, that over the course of a couple of years, every job that could be done in a Radio and TV news operation, I did.

And eventually, when I earned it, became News Director and a card carrying member of the RTNDA.

I was paid 8 dollars an hour – with no overtime.  And I was glad for it.

Though I had a Masters Degree from Yale’s School of Management, and was occasionally jealous that most of my classmates were working on Wall Street for many, many times more money, I was learning how to do what I loved – visual media – and more importantly TV news – from the ground up.  And getting paid for it!

It really was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  Having grown up in NYC – but not having enough suck to land a job with any of the news media there… I shelved my dream and did a bunch of other stuff, until the time was right.

And January 21, 1981 turned out to be the right time. To this day I remember myself on an Alaska Airlines jet, with a one way ticket, bound for a place I had never been, to do a job I had never done, way, way up north.

I knew, when I landed, that I was in a different place. It was early afternoon, and the city was surrounded by the suspended ice crystals that make up ice fog – twinkling in the headlights of a taxi driving through the semi darkness of no real sun until spring – a taxi whose heaters were straining to keep the 30 below outside, as we headed to the Maranatha Hotel in downtown Fairbanks.

That evening, I met the news director at the station. She gave me a key to the front door, a station tour, showed me where the AP teletype was, how to type a script on multi-part paper… and assured me she would meet me at 7:00 in the morning the next day to show me the ropes.

She didn’t show up the next day.  I went on the air because there was no one else there… and the show must go on. A career was born.

I found the job listing in a physical Fairbanks newspaper, on file in the basement of the old Seattle Public Library. I was living in the Emerald City – when Microsoft was a gleam in Bill’s eye.  It had been founded, but not yet incorporated. The city was in one of its periodic economic slumps.  No one was hiring. Safeco was laying off people. Boeing was laying off people. People looked at my newly minted Yale degree as so much kindling.

Every day, when I searched for work, I made my geographic target a bit wider from its Seattle epicenter. First Olympia, then Portland, then Walla Walla, then Anchorage. Now Fairbanks.

The newspaper ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner said – TV and Radio Reporter Wanted – Experience Desirable – send resume and samples to Northern Television, Northward Building, Fairbanks, Alaska.

By the way, the Northward Building was so symbolic a northern landmark – a novel – The Ice Palace – was written by Edna Ferber in 1958 and made into a movie staring Richard Burton in 1960 featured the building.

If broadcasting from “The Last Frontier” didn’t sound like an adventure to a kid who grew up in Brooklyn, I don’t know what would.

So I applied… and was rejected.  Not enough experience.

This was totally understandable. I had no actual broadcast experience.  You really couldn’t count being a news announcer at college radio station –  WBOR-  for the year I attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine where I caught the broadcast news bug.  It was a time of college protests against the Vietnam War. 4 dead in Ohio. Draft Lotteries. News that was relevant to college students. And because of that teletype that connected me to the news world, I knew before anyone else. And I learned to write it and shape it so it was most relevant for my audience.

So Fairbanks said no. But I applied again, and called (back then Long Distance – was quite pricey, especially for a guy who was broke, out of work, and crashing on the floor of his father’s one-room apartment at the foot of Queen Anne Hill – calling all the way to 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle).

And I wrote her. And wrote. And wrote.

A couple months later, the News Director came to Seattle and agreed to interview me in the cafeteria of the Virginia Mason Clinic – after which she told me “I don’t know why you would want the job – but if you want it – it is yours.”

It didn’t matter to me whether they ran out of semi-literate people to put in front of a camera, or I just plain wore her down. No one was ever happier to get a job. I flew up a couple of weeks later and started my career.

I was determined to stick it out for at least a year, because at 8 dollars an hour, I didn’t know whether I could ever repay the cost of the one way ticket,  they provided me (on a trade, I later found out). I also didn’t know whether I could save up enough money to actually buy myself a ticket back to the lower 48 if I need to get back to ci-vile-ization.

But there I was, having finished my first set of radio newscasts, and TV News Cut-Ins. Feeling proud that I made it through, diligently trying my best, and very happy no one I knew could see and hear me stumble over the Eskimo and Athabascan names I tried to pronounce.

Later that morning, when the apologetic News Director came in (to this day I think she let me sink or swim on purpose, to see what I was made of), she finished the introductions to the station staff and gave me a copy of something I would be willing to bet few people are given any more. Something I still have somewhere. My TV News Bible.

It was something called the CBS News Standards Handbook – a physical binder of the latest CBS Network rules governing how and with what a newscast is to be constructed, including such things as what actually would constitute news in the newscast, what kinds of words and images can be used, and the role of advertising (as best as I remember), whether newscasters could participate in what kind of promotions and the like.

It was around this the time that one of my my heros – legendary CBS Evening News West Coast Anchor Terry Drinkwater was suspended, in part, because he violated these standards.  He allegedly, among other things staged “b roll” – directing someone to walk in front of his camera, or pick up a phone and pretend to answer a call – a shot so typically used now to “set-up” an interview, I dare you to find a newscast anywhere in which you don’t see such staged shots throughout.

But the point is… people cared about the sanctity of the news program.

Here I was at the smallest affiliate in America – literally 5 time zones away (before a later Alaskan time zone consolidation) from NYC in a place where the public road pretty much ended – and they were handing me a guide from the Network and told me what I said on the air did matter.

There was a feeling of public service – a public right and need to know. And back then television stations were required to perform a public service, in exchange for being granted their license to broadcast. Our radio station was heard from one end of the state to the other most nights. We were a vital, potentially life saving source of news, weather and information.

And that is why and how I got into the business, 30 years ago this month.

I wanted to tell stories, using pictures and words using the most modern tools available – as a way to educate, and further the discussion.

By the way, I spent 5 years in Alaska, and loved it so much I almost stayed forever.

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