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Thread: December 17, 1973

  1. #1
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    Thirty nine years ago today, I did my first TV news report at the old WHEN TV5 in Syracuse, New York. WHEN is now WTVH and it no longer has an independent TV news department, which is too bad -- and another story.

    But this is about my first day as a TV reporter. I recently graduated from Syracuse University and I had been working as a news reporter, newscast anchor and disc jockey at WFBL Radio in Syracuse.

    My first day at WHEN was a cold, snowy day and my very first TV news report was about the price of a gallon of gas hitting 49.9-cents a gallon and I illustrated the story with an interview with a traveling salesman who told me how difficult it was to make ends meet with gas at 49.9-cents a gallon.

    Wow, how we would all love gas at 49.9-cents a gallon now! 49.9-cents was a high price back then and in Syracuse newly constructed homes were selling for about $18,000 and new Lincoln Continentals had a sticker price of about $8,000 and hot from the oven donuts at Abe's Donut Supreme on Erie Boulevard were 15-cents each... or were they 10-cents each?

    I was hired at WHEN by the legendary TV newsman and news director Andy Brigham, and the main anchorman at WHEN was the legendary Ron Curtis who was the most prominent figure on Central New York TV for decades until his death just a few years ago. I lost track of Andy and last I heard was that he was retired somewhere in the Southeast.

    WHEN-TV had a rich history of famous alumni. Al Roker of the NBC Today Show had a stint as the weather man at WHEN and he used his talents as an artist and cartoonist to liven up his weather casts.

    Larry Price who went on to a career at the Associated Press (and is still there I think) was our weekend anchor and a fine reporter.

    Nancy Duffy was a memorable feature reporter and I will never forget the story she did on edible sand. In her "standup" she swallowed the edible sand and was left breathless and choking.

    Jay Newman was a reporter at the station who later went on to be a news director at a small station in Pennsylvania and now is a general manager of a major TV station in Detroit, I think.

    I shot my first story with Dexter Blake, I don't know what happened to him. I worked for several years mostly with photographer Jon Bowman who later went on to be a prominent news reporter in Denver. Jon was also my best man at my first wedding. We haven't spoken in years and I wonder about his son who was born when I worked with him. He'd be about 38 years old now. Jibri -- is how I think his name was spelled.

    Those were the days of film when we went out on a story with restrictions on how much film we could shoot. We were limited to fifty feet of sound film and 100 feet of silent film per story to hold down costs. You had to get your standup right on the first take because there often wasn't enough film left for a second take.

    Our studio didn't have Teleprompters either. So it was an art reading the script and looking up to the camera to make eye contact.

    We didn't have electronic lettering on the screen either to identify speakers or locations. Today there is electronic overkill on TV news with words including location, exclusive, names of speakers, time of day, crowding the screen. We couldn't do that back in 1973.

    In fact in 1973 when we wanted to put words and names over the picture on the TV screen we used what was called a "spaghetti board" which was a black felt with letters that was often found in restaurants and diners to announce daily specials.

    But I do remember when WHEN got its first electronic system. When the operator of the system had some friends at the station before a newscast he showed them how it worked. And while demonstrating the electronic system, he "fooled around" and on the weather cast graphics he changed "extended forecast" to "extended foreskin" but he forgot to change it back before the 6-PM news. It was probably one of the most exciting moments in Syracuse TV history.

    WHEN did make TV history many times and Ron Curtis and Andy Brigham were being it.

    I have a few vivid memories from my days at WHEN including the night during my second week on the job when I sat at my desk crying -- really, crying -- because I felt I couldn't do the job. Ron Curtis being the fatherly figure he was reassured me I had a future in TV.

    My other vivid memory was when I hosted the late night half-hour talk show on WHEN and my guest who wrote a book about the JFK assassination brought in a copy of the Zapruder assassination film. We showed the film on the show -- and we were one of the first TV stations to show it.

    One of the most controversial stories I did on TV was about the Gay Lifestyle in Syracuse. This was 1975. You didn't talk about the "Gay Lifestyle" in Syracuse in 1975, but Andy and Ron said "okay."

    I also profiled a young girl who worked as a prostitute, interviewed her, and Jon Bowman using a "see in the dark" film camera showed her working the streets in downtown -- also unheard of in Syracuse TV in 1975.

    The story that got me in hot water with viewers was the one about a family of five that died in a house fire. My description of the bodies was too graphic and the station was flooded with complaints. But when Syracuse Fire Chief Tom Hanlon heard about the complaints, he came out in support of me saying that he hoped my graphic reporting would prompt more people to be more careful because there were too many fires. Syracuse did have a lot of house fires in the winter where wood frame homes dominated the city and families used space heaters and fire places to keep warm on frigid nights.

    Ironically, I took part in a station telethon to raise money for kidney disease when I was at WHEN in 1975. This was before I became diabetic and decades before I would have kidney failure, and then a kidney/pancreas transplant. But I remember talking with some of the young men who came to the station to help with the telethon and listened to the hardships they faced and looked at their faces that were swollen from the combination of drugs they took for their kidney problems.

    I also remember doing a story about a young man who was near death and the Onondaga County welfare department wouldn't pay his bills even though he was "in the system" and the medical bills should have been paid. After I did the story, the bills were paid giving the family one less thing to worry about during his final days.

    I left WHEN TV5 in October of 1976 to join CBS News as an Associate Producer. But it was my news reporting and experience from WHEN that helped me advance at CBS News. But many times I thought about how working in Syracuse at the James Street studios were great days, and they were days and people I missed very much.
    Alan Mendelson
    www.AlanBestBuys.com
    "(Alan) simply can't get past a die having six sides." -- Michael Shackleford May 12, 2015

  2. #2
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    Nice stories Alan, and congratulations on a long and successful career.

    Could you please elaborate on what "edible sand" is? I've never heard of such a thing before and I've grown weary of my regular diet and I'm looking to expand my horizons.

  3. #3
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    It was sand in a bottle that you would "eat" and I don't remember what the purpose of eating it was!!
    Alan Mendelson
    www.AlanBestBuys.com
    "(Alan) simply can't get past a die having six sides." -- Michael Shackleford May 12, 2015

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