Distress Signals

Shannon Brady

Want to know what if feels like? Find a former employee from the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader, who worked for close to a year while his paper rotted on the auction block. Have coffee with a staffer at the Star Tribune, who spent her summer wondering if the newsroom ranks would be thinned by a union-squashing conglomerate. Talk with radio rebel Kevin Cole, who gave birth to REV 105 only to see it slowly suffocate in the crib. The dream gig becomes fodder for your nightmares.

Instead of being inspired by the day's challenges, work becomes a weighty chore. Half-true rumors paralyze your imagination. Pencil pushers toy with your emotions. You become distrustful, your peers begin to backstab. Instead of going the extra mile you're encouraged to look for shortcuts. Instead of taking risks you're asked to play it safe. Yet you refuse to throw in the towel, refuse to accept the inevitable.

Want to know what it looks like? Share some time with Tom Cushman, the producer of NewsNight Minnesota, a 30-minute, locally produced newscast aired Monday through Thursday on Twin Cities Public Television (TCPT), KTCA's channels 2 and 17. Spent by a string of 10-hour days, Cushman's red-rimmed eyes often have the pained glaze of a long-distance runner. Even before the NewsNight crew's daily staff meeting at 9:15 a.m. his face betrays traces of a 5 o'clock shadow. His voice, like his demeanor, is quiescent, its flatness accented only by the

occasional shrug. Yet he keeps grinding it out, searching the dark clouds for a silver lining; not so much for outward appearances as for self-preservation.

"Morale was hell a month ago," he says, shaking his head to convince himself. "But I think things are getting better. There are no guarantees, but I think things are getting better."

In reality, of course, things couldn't get much worse. High noon is creeping over the horizon, not only for NewsNight but for KTCA's managerial hierarchy, a jittery bunch still hoping to cash in on a long shot.

NewsNight--which first aired on April 25, 1994--was the brainchild of former TCPT CEO Jack Willis. It was to be a thoughtful alternative to Minneapolis's white-bread network affiliates; a nightly opportunity to make publicly funded broadcasting relevant on a local level. Reporters were encouraged to avoid sensational sound bites and flush out the most meaningful stories. Producers were charged with bringing unique sources into the studio for meaty debates and discussion. Funders were sold on the show as a means of giving voice to "communities underserved" by the mainstream media.

"We wanted people to leave the broadcast with a better understanding of how society worked," says Bill Hanley, now TCPT's executive vice president for content. "We wanted to emanate from a grassroots perspective, wanted to be representative of what real people were thinking."

Four years later, NewsNight is a shadow of Willis's vision. As production costs have escalated, a station-wide fiscal squeeze has decreased the program's budget from $1.7 million in 1995 to $1.4 million in 1997, resulting in less reporting from the field and more staid, in-studio segments. A staff shrunk from 15 to 10 has made it even more difficult to scoop the daily papers or keep pace with an overcrowded broadcast-news market. Worse, say former and current staffers, the lingering threat of outright extinction has bottomed out morale.

"It's become a show were you do stories that have no news peg or come a couple of weeks too late," says former NewsNight host Cathy Wurzer from her new post at WCCO-TV, where she's been since February. "What you have now is radio on TV. I think that spark is missing because people are worried about their jobs. And it's hard to slog it out day in and day out when you don't know your future."

Like Cushman, NewsNight's remaining staff--from co-anchor/reporter Lou Harvin to Associate Producer Susan Ahn--is trying to hold on until April 15, when the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation will decide whether to approve a $1 million grant to help extend the show's life three more years. Even though Minneapolis's McKnight Foundation approved a like-size grant for the program at the end of March, the Blandin money is a must. Without it, says Willis's replacement, TCPT's new chief executive officer, James Pagliarini, it would take an unforeseen stream of cash to stay on the air beyond August.

The Blandin decision was originally scheduled for January, but was tabled until this month so the foundation could study NewsNight's effect on out-state Minnesota, home to the population Blandin seeks to serve. The postponement, coupled with stationwide layoffs and staff attrition, has fueled fears at KTCA of a worst-case scenario: that Blandin will conclude NewsNight has failed to reach rural viewers and not renew its initial three-year grant of $1 million, awarded in 1993.  

And while no one still fighting for the money--Hanley and Pagliarini included--dares to guess which way the Blandin board will go, two former staffers at NewsNight, including Wurzer, say they abandoned ship in part because they sensed funding was drying up.

"All of us could've found other jobs by now," co-anchor Harvin says. "I guess at this point the feeling is that we might as well hang on for a few more weeks."

Besides throwing the crew of NewsNight into a psychological tailspin, Blandin's do-or-die decision is forcing an internal debate over NewsNight's and KTCA's overall mission and effectiveness. If funding is approved for another cycle, Hanley and Pagliarini have made it clear NewsNight will become KTCA's flagship--an eventuality that terrifies many past and present staffers who mutter phrases such as "SnoozeNight," mourn the depletion of arts and cultural programming, and worry that the station's community mission will continue to be compromised by tight budgets and a lack of vision.

On the other hand, if NewsNight dies, it's not clear what would come next. Hanley says he hasn't had time to give it much thought. Pagliarini says he and the board would start over with a "blank page." Staffers, many of whom asked to talk off the record, hope it would mean a re-emphasis on locally produced documentaries and specials, not beholden to specific grants but funded by TCPT's core budget. Others believe it would kill any dwindling hopes for meaningful local production, turning KTCA into just another conduit for national programming.

Either way, the short life and hard times of NewsNight serve as a metaphor for the whole of KTCA. Known nationwide through most of the '80s and early '90s for its innovative, in-house programming, the station--like the show--has been backed into a corner, forced to compromise its vision in the name of survival.

ON FEBRUARY 25, Village Voice media columnist James Ledbetter was on Minnesota Public Radio's Mid-Morning program to discuss his 1997 book, Made Possible By...The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. Sympathetic to the original spirit of public broadcasting, Ledbetter is unrelentingly critical of the institution's frequent short-sightedness and weak-kneed leadership.

To start the interview off, Mid-Morning host John Rabe asked about the local relevance of Ledbetter's criticisms, pointing out that TCPT has a long tradition of vital community programming, citing shows such as NewsNight. The author, in the interests of getting the ball rolling, acknowledged TCPT's nationwide reputation for community-minded production and noted that other PBS affiliates were piloting nightly programs much like NewsNight.

The next day TCPT management sent excerpts of the exchange out in an all-staff e-mail. The implicit message was clear: Even Ledbetter, one of PBS's fiercest critics, had to admit KTCA was above the fray, ahead of the pack. What the note didn't mention was that a number of locals who called in during that episode of Mid-Morning were worried about recent programming cuts at KTCA. Not surprisingly, the e-mail also avoided any references to Made Possible By..., since it goes a long way toward explaining why the St. Paul station is slipping.

"Minnesota does have a tremendous history of public broadcasting," Ledbetter says a few weeks after his MPR interview. "But it seemed to me the vast majority of the callers that morning were agreeing with me. That their local public broadcasters are getting too commercial, too safe. That they aren't doing what they should do."

In his book Ledbetter contends political pressures have forced stations like KTCA to imitate the free market, where alternative content is scant, community involvement curtailed, and political commentary squashed. He argues that these same broadcasters are cultivating a culture of fear, where eking out a survival keeps stations from really living.

"I call it the half-loaf argument," he says. "Advocates for public broadcasting are very content with the half loaf and scared to death that someone will turn it into a quarter loaf. It's self-defeating. If you make all the compromises necessary to keep the half loaf alive, you'll never have a system vital enough to make the public stand up and say they must have the full loaf. You're just treading water."

For longer than most public broadcasters, TCPT managed to buck the two-decade attack on PBS, which was spearheaded first by Ronald Reagan in the early '80s and then reinvigorated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 104th Congress. In 1988, TCPT spent $12 million raised in a capital campaign to build a state-of-the-art building in downtown St. Paul, complete with roomy office suites and two mammoth studios. Video editors were blessed with computers that dwarfed the industry standard, audio technicians were digitally wired, and ranking administrators enjoyed rooms with a view.  

For the next five years KTCA's halls buzzed with the youthful, can-do energy of public television's best and brightest. They were rewarded with the chance to work on such cutting-edge documentaries as Hoop Dreams, and credited with generating local series such as Tapes Rolling and successfully franchising their nationally syndicated children's science show, Newton's Apple. Meanwhile longtime PBS heavy hitters such as New York City's WNET and Boston's WGBH floundered, replacing ambitious, community-minded programming with British sitcoms and gardening shows.

By 1995, though, the attack on public broadcasting started to take its toll on both KTCA's spirit and its purse strings. Kathy Halbreich, Walker Art Center director and current board secretary for TCPT, says the Republicans' two-front assault on the arts and public broadcasting hit KTCA where it lives. "Those were and these are remarkably complicated times for cultural organizations in this community, who in the past were able to support visions outside of the mainstream," says Halbreich. "So KTCA as a cultural institution in the largest sense suddenly was faced with making very conscious and judicious decisions."

Neil Seiling, the executive producer of ALIVE TV, an experimentally vibrant national arts showcase that started at KTCA and has since moved to New York, says the decisions to which Halbreich refers were shaped by fear of a public backlash; of being relegated to the fringe. "This is all a playing out of the right wing's attacks on the arts, starting with the National Endowment for the Arts and continuing with PBS. So the pendulum is swinging. The zeitgeist has changed from experimental culture in the '80s to more reality-based stuff in the '90s, like talk shows and news programs."

Willis, TCPT head for seven years before leaving last spring, originally conceived of NewsNight as a way of getting ahead of that trend; or, in Ledbetter's terms, of fighting for a full loaf. Barbara Wiener, a freelance producer who was once an executive producer at KTCA, says Willis believed he could spend his way past the right's attacks by throwing the station's support behind a dynamic, objective public-affairs show. Once people became accustomed to tuning in channels 2 and 17 for the daily news, less timely, more ambitious programming could be promoted and previewed in the time slot. This would lead to increased viewership, which in turn would yield an increase in individual contributions and corporate grants.

"Jack decided to try to reallocate resources," says Pagliarini. "The idea was to try to make NewsNight the primary vehicle to serve the community." The strategy failed. Instead of giving the station a boost or keeping the arts and culture department insulated from Gingrich & Co., NewsNight has presided helplessly over a tumultuous period.

Today KTCA's once-teeming edit suites are often empty, offices are dark, and the energy once expended on original programming is being sapped by worries over job security. According to Judy Diaz, a senior manager in TCPT's Marketing-Communications Department, full-time staff paid out of TCPT's core budget fell from an all-time high of 182 in 1995 to 157 in 1998. Of those full-time workers who were laid off, nine filled positions in production, five came from building administration, and another five came from advertising and promotion. Six others were eliminated from various jobs throughout the station. These figures do not reflect attrition or the massive restructuring of certain divisions, such as the creation of the Marketing-Communications Department, Diaz says.

Still, she and Pagliarini maintain the three-year slide has been minimal, emphasizing that of those nine production employees laid off, six have been brought back on a part-time, freelance basis. However, one of those six part-timers claims they've worked less than a week for TCPT since packing their bags: "They are the kings of spin. Whenever there was an all-staff meeting at the station we just laughed and got ready for the happy talk. If you looked at their flow charts you'd swear they were hiring more people."

Moreover, management's employee totals don't take into account personnel lost because of the elimination of locally focused shows such as Tapes Rolling, Portrait, Showcase, Arts on 2, and MNTV. That's because these programs were funded primarily by foundation and corporate grants given by everyone from McKnight to Honeywell. When a grant disappears, so do the positions it paid for.

Last fall, for example, the 15-year-old Newton's Apple--TCPT's high-profile pride and joy--stopped taping when it couldn't find a funder to replace 3M (NewsNight has since moved into their office suite and has space to spare). In all, the loss of these programs has meant that 16 full-time workers paid by grants, as well as dozens of part-timers and interns, are no longer wandering KTCA's hushed halls. And while it's true there's been restructuring, Diaz doesn't mention that many full-timers, including former TCPT senior producers Emily Goldberg and John Whitehead, both known for their documentary work, were shifted from their full-time jobs to grant-funded positions shortly before being laid off.  

PRACTICALLY speaking, NewsNight has been hit as hard as any division at KTCA. For proof, all you have to do is spend a day walking in Cushman's shoes. At the morning meeting he presides over a brainstorming session, scrambling for a missed angle on topics such as the tobacco trial or Norm Coleman's hockey arena. At midday he pulls an executive producer away from booking guests to tape some on-the-street interviews, just to break up that evening's program, give it some color. By 6 p.m., while the technical crew is plotting its limited number of camera moves, he's searching for a second wind to get him over the hump.

"I'm not a person that usually gets off on adrenaline," Cushman says, running down the stairs to give his director a revised script. "But every night it seems we have to push the panic button."

Of course, newsrooms are supposed to run on caffeine and cigarettes. Go to any TV station in town and you'll experience the same frenetic pace. The difference at NewsNight is that everyone, from the on-air hosts to the lowliest production assistant, is driving uphill in fourth gear just to get something on the air. Five fewer staffers means five fewer bodies to chase late-breaking news or take an extra minute to fuss over an eye-catching graphic. It means less expertise on both sides of the camera.

Wurzer, for instance, was a major loss because the remaining NewsNight crew had been counting on her network-made magnetism to smooth the transition from a show driven by segments videotaped in the field to an in-studio effort. "She had a presence that was second to nobody," raves NewsNight Executive Producer Fred de Sam Lazaro. "She was an inviting presence. Under the hot lights she made people comfortable to just sit and shoot the breeze."

Wurzer says she was reluctant to leave. "It's really too bad. I have so much respect for the people working on NewsNight. They're beating the odds every day," she says. "When we still had money, still hoped for additional resources, we were doing satellite interviews and traveling to out-state Minnesota and had the ability to do really good work. Then, about a year or so ago, the show just crashed into a wall."

On paper, NewsNight's budget reduction of $1.7 to $1.4 million seems negligible. According to one KTCA producer, however, the number is meaningless, reflecting a reduction in TCPT's overall support more than actual dollars spent on making a good-looking newscast. "Take a look at this show," the producer says. "If they're spending $1.4 million we're spending a billion. The production quality is one step above cable access." What's more significant, the same source says, is Pagliarini's message that NewsNight must "learn to live within its means." Already fewer station resources are being spent to fill in the cracks, and Hanley's made it clear that B-roll (videotape from the field) is a low priority.

Not even Cushman is privy to budget numbers, a puzzling fact considering the way he describes his job. "What does it mean to be a show producer?" he asks with a chuckle. "It means if there's no show it's my ass."

Despite NewsNight's slow starvation, some station staffers complain the program is still sapping too many crucial resources from other parts of the station. It's unclear whether this jealousy is justified, since TCPT will not reveal how much money it has given or will give NewsNight to augment private foundation support. However, if Blandin grants the program another million this month, Pagliarini says he will do whatever it takes over the next three years to pay for NewsNight out of the station's core budget, without the help of outside grants.

"I went through a very interesting first few months here, because I really had to look at NewsNight, which is somewhat controversial internally because, let's face it, it's a lot more fun to produce an arts program than it is a news program," says Pagliarini, who became CEO on September 1, 1997. "But if we're re-funded, NewsNight will become a key component to this station's presence in the community."

WHEN WILLIS and Hanley first approached corporate funders with their baby in 1993, they decided it would be easier to find support if they sold NewsNight as a show that would cater to two distinct audiences largely overlooked by KTCA's commercial competition: "under-represented communities" and "rural Minnesotans."

Michael O'Keefe, executive VP and CEO of the McKnight Foundation, says his organization was intrigued by the concept of a newscast that would go out of its way to serve women, minorities, and children. "We were drawn to the idea that a local TV station, a major media vehicle, would put emphasis on in-depth and objective local coverage," O'Keefe says. "We felt NewsNight was a creative approach to thinking through the role of a public TV station in the community."  

Kathryn Jensen, a senior vice president at Blandin, says her board was attracted to the idea of producing a daily newscast relevant to Minnesotans living outside the Twin Cities. "We were particularly excited about the 'OneMinnesota' focus of the program," she says, throwing out a term coined by the Blandin Foundation. "A program that would cover statewide news--both rural and urban--is extremely rare."

Hanley, Halbreich, and TCPT Board Chair Ellie Crosby argue that the two populations each funder hopes to serve aren't mutually exclusive. And in theory they're right. But in practice, despite the best efforts of Cushman and crew, a vibrant, well-watched mix of rural/urban news seems too much to ask for, especially given current budget constraints. So instead of being able to design the best possible news show, they're handcuffed by the wants and needs of their original funders.

Day after day, in NewsNight's morning production meetings, there's a relentless effort to de-localize spot news, turn metro-section commentary into something worthwhile for viewers on the Iron Range. It's a losing battle. For a staff of nine, it's hard to cover out-state issues in the first place, especially when there's only one photographer on staff.

Then, when a truly rural issue does makes its way onto the broadcast, it's seen by only a few people outside of the metro area, where most of NewsNight's audience lives. In part, Hanley says this is because smaller public TV stations in Minnesota can't afford to interrupt their feeds from PBS to air a Minneapolis program.

Jensen says it's also attributable to NewsNight's overall reputation as a Twin Cities-based product. "It's difficult to get the rural audience numbers as high as we would like, because of when the program is aired and regularity of coverage," Jensen says. "So, no, I don't think you can argue NewsNight has attracted a substantial rural audience."

The only hope for the renewal of NewsNight's Blandin grant, Jensen says, is to convince the foundation board that the show provides urban audiences with much-needed exposure to rural issues. "Many of our state's key decision-makers live in the urban core," she says. "So it's a good opportunity to educate them about what's going on beyond their backyard." In the end, though, even Jensen knows this lawyerly interpretation of the "OneMinnesota" concept is a stretch. "I'm trying," she laughs. "I'm trying."

NewsNight's other major sponsor, McKnight, has already committed to a $1.2 million grant to be used over the next three years. O'Keefe says the grant was renewed because of the program's in-depth coverage of and commitment to community issues. NewsNight, he insists, has improved steadily since the first grant was made: "Their concept has been refined and the relationship with the viewer has improved."

YOUTH VIOLENCE is NewsNight's topic of the day on Thursday, March 12. The concept is admirable, if a little stiff: interview a couple psychological experts and local law-enforcement officials to get past the often sensational statistics. The first 20 minutes of the show are business as usual for the TCPT production crew. A couple minutes of tape, a little prerecorded music, some simple graphics, a camera swivel or two; basic stuff for guys like cameraman Jim Kron, who's been shooting on-the-scene documentary footage and experimental arts specials for TCPT since 1989. Even Cushman's adrenaline is starting to settle as he watches things unfold in the control room.

Then, just minutes before the show is about to wrap, everyone from Kron to Cushman comes to life. Two performers from Thunder Knocking on the Door, a touring musical visiting the Guthrie Theater, are brought on the set to promote their production by playing its show-stopping number. Anderson Edwards sits at a grand piano, Cheryl Alexander stands in front of a microphone. Harvin improvises a short introduction and the two let it rip.

Kron, who says most of the technical staff is comprised of "frustrated musicians," seems to be dancing as he skates and swivels his camera across the studio floor. Jeff Weihe, the show's director, begins to wave his arms in the control room, asking for fades and different angles as if he were conducting an orchestra. Cushman balances on the edge of his chair. When the song is over everyone in the control room bursts into applause, their spirits lifted by the rare chance to be creative.

"The entire staff wants to take chances, wants to do unique television," says former Executive Producer Wiener. "That's the talk in the halls. While everyone is doing their best on shows like NewsNight, it's not the work we do uniquely. It's not what we do best."  

Both Emily Goldberg and John Whitehead, now working as freelance producers, say KTCA was at its best when the staff was showcasing local artists or was out in the world meeting its citizens face to face, offering a perspective unavailable on other local channels. They're quick to commend the embattled NewsNight staff and they'll never forget TCPT once gave them a rare chance to spread their wings. But they find NewsNight's increased dependence on studio-bound talking heads troublesome, especially since cultural programming has been relegated to a project-by-project, grant-by-grant basis.

"In the '80s we were about meeting the community, telling their stories and exposing each other to different cultures," Goldberg says. "That's what separated us from the pack."

Adds Whitehead: "To me, what NewsNight has evolved into is a lot like what everyone else is doing on the local dial."

Both Goldberg and Whitehead were initially encouraged by Willis's vision. So were other local freelance producers unwilling to comment for the record because they still depend, to varying degrees, on KTCA. They all describe Willis as a former documentary-maker who once spoke excitedly about the golden age of public TV, when rebellious broadcasters would hand video cameras to the disenfranchised and let it roll--just to get a response. He was, in a phrase, one of them. Unfortunately his vision didn't square with reality. Instead of opening more doors in the community, his legacy is a station stripped of its most ambitious, avant-garde products.

Before leaving KTCA to become an independent producer, Laurie Stern worked as a senior producer in TCPT's public-affairs unit and reported stories for NewsNight. After spending six years in commercial news, she remembers being excited about NewsNight's potential to break ground, to be "brilliant." "Because Jack (Willis) is such a good rhetorician, I thought he could pull it off," she says. "The idea of a community-driven broadcast really intrigued me. But nobody could agree on a vision, what NewsNight was supposed to be. Should there be tape in the show? Should we be breaking news or following the news? What topics should we explore? It was all very unclear."

Whitehead, who also did a few pieces for NewsNight, says initially the show hoped to be a real alternative to the standard public-affairs treatment on PBS, programs hosted by guys wearing "horn-rimmed glasses and carrying clipboards." Now, as footage from the field is replaced with panel discussions, he worries the show will be less likely to break the mold, its vision narrowed further by a lack of resources.

Ledbetter says this kind of conservatism, both in terms of public television's mission and the homogenous makeup of its decision-makers, is typical: "This is a problem reflected throughout the entire system. When your resources are depleted and your vision is incomplete, you turn to people who are familiar with mainstream media, people able to get something up and running without risk."

Understandably, Cushman bristles when it's suggested NewsNight is lounging in the shallow end--in part because he knows how hard his co-workers struggle day after day to contribute something above and beyond the call. "I think you see a hell of a lot of diversity on our channel that you don't see on other broadcasts," he says. "I think we give voice to a much more diverse group in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and age than you'll see anywhere in the Twin Cities. Could it be better? Sure. But frankly, whenever we do a show with all white men as guests, I notice it and I think, 'Damn, how did that happen?'"

Hanley predicts NewsNight will incorporate more arts and culture into its studio format. Co-anchor Harvin agrees, saying it's unrealistic to think a nine-person staff can get ahead of the network affiliates or the dailies, so more variety will be essential. He is also certain, after spending two decades as a reporter for KSTP-TV, that NewsNight can still offer viewers a meaningful alternative to the hollow glitz of network news.

"The problem is, in the '90s in-depth is synonymous with boring," he says. "But we're taking a risk. We're betting people care about the story behind the headlines."

Harvin's enthusiasm has merit. Even as toned-down from Willis's original vision as today's NewsNight is, the show still garners its share of attention. For his enterprising work concerning downsizing at Unisys Corp., in January co-anchor Ken Stone won a Silver Baton at the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards. Only 10 other journalists were so honored, including NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and 60 Minutes host Ed Bradley.  

Hanley calls the Unisys series a shining example of NewsNight at its best. Cushman says the award's prestige speaks for itself. De Sam Lazaro believes it proves NewsNight is "making an impact."

Skeptics rightly point out that Stone's Unisys work was done in the field, an aesthetic NewsNight is replacing with everything from documentary footage excerpted from PBS programs to musical guests; which begs the question, why not throw up a nightly arts program or a magazine show designed to exploit these very elements? Already each night's broadcast is being centered around an individual topic area so that extensive studio discussions can be formulated around one or two shorter pieces of tape.

Over the next few months, Cushman believes the program must evolve into a cross between Nightline and Charlie Rose--a talk show that can follow the news without having to count on enterprise reporting. Because even if NewsNight gets a stay of execution from Blandin, Hanley and Pagliarini have made it clear its beleaguered crew won't be relieved by fresh bodies. They must learn to live with less.

As Wurzer puts it, "radio with pictures."

DON'T BELIEVE the Hype is a 6-year-old project coordinated by KTCA's community-affairs unit. Funded in the past by Honeywell, the Minneapolis Foundation, Pillsbury, and others, this year Hype is living off a $150,000 grant from St. Paul Companies.

The gist is simple, the results refreshingly complex. A group of kids from diverse backgrounds get together on camera to talk about the challenges facing urban minorities; no censors, no agendas, no "guest experts." The Hype crew produces between one and three specials a year to be aired on TCPT. In between, the show's more than 20 teenage participants are involved in media education, community projects, and educational outreach to public schools. Last year, two Hype trainees traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in Vice President Al Gore's "Violence in the Media" conference.

Prompted by Hype Producer Daniel Bergin and Robin Hickman, manager of community-affairs production at TCPT, NewsNight agreed to incorporate Hype into its lineup. During the next year, using money not from the station's core budget but from St. Paul Companies, young trainees will produce between 10 and 12 feature stories to be aired on NewsNight.

On this afternoon, Hype members James Everett, Kou Her, Noel Lee, and Nkauj'lis Lyfoung are meeting in a KTCA conference room with Bergin, just down the hall from NewsNight's embattled offices. Their spontaneity is a welcome counterpoint to the adult world's workaday woes. In a week the four of them will be out with video cameras taping their first NewsNight segment, so Bergin's helping them formulate questions and coordinate shoots at three different area high schools. Within a month, assuming everything goes as planned, Twin Cities viewers will see a story on English as a second language, as told by those closest to the process.

"I'm excited as these young people prepare their first story," says Hickman. "It's historic. If we had the money for public relations I'd be on a media blitz."

Unfettered by station politics, happy just to be a part of KTCA's production schedule, Everett, Her, Lee, and Lyfoung see NewsNight through a different, unclouded lens. They see it as an opportunity. They also know their participation can help broaden the show's scope, at least for a few nights a year.

"NewsNight tries to take the time to look at an issue from all sides," says Lee. "That's what we want to do. We want to let people speak."

"They allow people to say what they really think," says Her, nodding.

"Yeah, but they need us," says Everett. "They need us to keep it real."

Keeping it real, especially as Cushman looks for ways to enliven a studio-bound news show, is crucial not only to the kids from Hype but should be central to NewsNight's effort to remain relevant. Everyone from Hanley to Halbreich to Pagliarini says the one thing NewsNight has that viewers can't get anywhere else in town is a finger on the pulse of the community; a concern for what people think about their neighborhoods, neighbors, and leaders. Unfortunately, whether it's because of time pressures, dwindling resources, or a lack of courage, the program is too often overrun with "experts"--the usual suspects who observe an event instead of experiencing it from the inside out, like the kids from Hype.

"One of the things I tried to guide my colleagues on early in the NewsNight process was that if they really wanted diversity the Rolodexes had to change," says Hickman. "We also had to be conscious that diversity didn't just mean covering a story in North Minneapolis or showing up at Cinco de Mayo. We have to incorporate those voices in a range of discussions. That's what I preached and preached.  

"Was it heard? Sometimes. But when you're talking about limited resources and a limited staff it's human nature to go back to what you know. So we have to keep putting things in place to stay out of that comfort zone."

When pressed about that comfort zone, asked why there are more news analysts on NewsNight than guests from the underserved communities the program was designed to cover, Hanley points to Hype. This irks more than a few staffers, who complain that 10 episodes a year don't do the trick.

"That's a crock," says one producer. "Hype should not be ghettoized that way, and NewsNight can't expect to be forgiven for all of their sins just because they let some kids tell their stories every now and then."

Hickman agrees Hype is only part of the answer. "You have a culture here that's not very diverse, organizationally," she says. "So there's not an overall sense of urgency in terms of diversity. It's due to a lack of experience. That concerns me."

Cushman agrees more should be done to diversify his guest list, but argues that the need to clearly communicate an issue sometimes supersedes TCPT's community-service mission. "Should we have more sources? Absolutely. That was my big push right after I started the show; dump the golden Rolodex and get real people on," he says. "That's what you should be doing, but frequently real people don't come across very well on TV. Some do, most don't. We did a show last week on housing. I went back and forth on whether I was going to put this resident in front of the camera. I've done that before and the person freezes, and then you've got nothing. I know people don't want to hear that. They'll say there must be something you can do.

"The reality is, getting real people on TV is tough. We're constantly striving for that middle ground."

Ledbetter has a different explanation. "Most organizations don't want to attach their name to a program that's uncomfortable or controversial," he counters. "So local public stations are nervous about making mistakes or providing a real mouthpiece for those not represented in the mainstream media. They're being funded to provide 'quality' and 'excellence,' and they know it. What that usually means is safe, bland, and narrow."

In the end, Ledbetter and Cushman are not that far apart. What separates them is TCPT's institutional reluctance to go out on a limb, to say to hell with the funders for the purposes of unique TV. Of course this is easier said than done. But next time Cushman's dragging and needs a boost to get him through another day; next time Pagliarini is musing over mission; next time anyone at TCPT wants a reminder what it's all about, they should sit in on a Hype meeting. Just sit in and watch. They'll see kids--some talking in broken English, some using slang, some just taking their time--talking about the world not as the mass media see it, not as some pundit sees it, but as they see it.

They'll see what NewsNight was supposed to be, before Newt Gingrich or budget cuts or grants gone bad. They'll see everyday people telling each other about their lives, keeping it real.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >