Friday, May 26, 2006
But the best example of why Philip Morris, or perhaps Lucky Strike, could be elected mayor of Milwaukee is the crossing guard that works the corner two doors away from my house. I walk to the bus every morning, and some days - depending on whether she's lighting up in her car parked adjacent to the corner, she "helps" me negotiate the crosswalk. Invariably, I'm carrying my travel mug of coffee, which she invariably comments on.
The other day, I promised I'd bring her an extra cup one of these days. She replied, "That's okay. I already drink too much coffee. Plus, I'm a heavy smoker, so I'm really trying to cut back on my caffeine."
Transit TV has added a spiffy new feature to their daily offerings on the Milwaukee County transit system - "Latin American TV", which does lifestyle features tailored to Latinos. This is probably an excellent idea, since up to this point, the only nod the Transit TV people have made to that demographic group has been to include Spanish-language trivia questions. And - granted I'm not Latino, so I'm not an expert - I'm not sure Spanish-language questions about the Jefferson Starship are necessarily making Transit TV programming relevant to the Latino community.
Now that I think of it, "Lucky Strike" would have to be the mayor of a town in the Old West.
And finally, another note from the commuting world. My bus made its usual pick-up in front of a local high school this morning, and a teenaged girl, dressed in a military (probably junior ROTC) uniform boarded. Her nametag read "Hollobeck", which stuck out in my memory. "Hollobeck... Hollobeck... why do I know that name?"
Ah yes, the graffiti on the seat in front of me: "Lara Hollobeck was here."
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Of note on today's program is an interview with Catherine Gilbert Murdock, who's written a very funny book for young adults called "Dairy Queen", about a Wisconsin farm girl who deals with the weight of the world and decides she wants to play high school football. (It's a very touching book, too, though you might need to be a parent to fully appreciate it at that level.) It is a really pleasant read, though I'll confess I did feel somewhat sheepish, on the bus, reading a book whose cover featured a cow with a tiara.
Also on today's program, interviews about the future of hybrid technology and fuel efficiency, and the concept of housing trust funds. They're interesting, too, though less cow- or tiara-intensive.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The real-life radio program we produce at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters ran an interview last Friday with the producer of an entertaining documentary called “The World’s Best Prom”. It’s about the combined prom the eight or nine high schools in Racine, Wisconsin, hold each year, and it tells the story through the experiences of a handful of students who were getting ready to attend the event in 1990.
It also features some archival footage of the joint prom’s early days – from the mid-1950s. And that footage brought to mind a question that’s gnawed at me for some time:
Why is it that teenagers from that era looked like adults (in fact, some of them look older than I do today, at age 37), while teenagers today look like, well, not adults.
Take this picture from the 1963 Racine prom: The high schoolers aren’t about to start collecting their Social Security checks, but nor does the word “Whooooooooo!” appear to be emanating from their lips. The guy, in particular, seems to have a world-weariness that doesn’t seem in keeping with either prom season, or even the general culture that (I’m told) was the norm during the Kennedy/Camelot era.
Flash forward 24 years. Around a generation later. High school seniors, as represented by this ill-advised picture of me taken in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, have become, well, doofuses. Somewhat innocent doofuses, but still, not quite the quasi-adults from the 1963 picture. In my defense, I’ll point out that the photographer and I had just run through a rainstorm. (I’m not sure there’s a defense for my fish tie.)
And yet, both the 1963 and 1987 photos attempt to convey some level of maturity (at least that’s the only legitimate explanation I can come up with for the fact that I was wearing a tie), which places them in something of a contrast with a recent prom picture I ran across from a high school in Ohio. I’m not certain, but I’m not sure “the verge of adulthood” is necessarily the image this picture’s subjects are trying to get across. What, exactly, the message might be, I can’t say for certain. (“MTV reality show viewing audience” might be a good start.)
But these things have a way of coming full-circle. Which is why I should start searching for cat’s eye glasses and an Audrey Hepburn dress for my daughter’s senior prom, scheduled for May of 2022.
Sunday, May 14, 2006
I've taken a lot of pictures of sporting events, for no particular reason, and with equipment that often doesn't quite fully capture the emotion of the event. For example, when I was a young person, I took a fair number of pictures of baseball games with a Kodak Instamatic camera, which did a fine job of taking pictures of the scoreboard, but - especially from the upper deck of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, did less well at capturing diving catches or plays at the plate.
I ran across a lot of these pictures as I was preparing to move from Arizona to Wisconsin several months ago. Packing also allowed me to uncover an interesting contrast between my wife and me, picture-wise. Growing up, I took a lot of pictures of sporting events, mountains, ducks, cars, and people with Mohawk haircuts on London street corners. My wife took lots of pictures of friends. To this day, I can't remember whether I just didn't have any friends, whether I considered the ducks and the mohawk-wearers to be my friends, or I just didn't bother taking any pictures of them.
But at least all of my pictures (and my wife's) were of something - there was a clear subject and a purpose to the picture.
This is in stark contrast to one picture I also ran across. I know exactly where it was taken (the hallway in front of the gym entrance at John F. Kennedy High School, Silver Spring, Maryland). I know exactly when it was taken (March 25, 1987, and God alone knows why I know that). And I know the circumstances surrounding the activity in the picture (the District 1 concert band competition, which our high school was hosting, and which our jazz band was staffing).
Here's the picture:
I'm the random guy in the middle, wearing the sweatshirt that says "Guides". (It was a Maine Guides minor league baseball team sweatshirt. I'm pretty sure I was the only guy at Kennedy High School with one of those.) My jazz instructor, Ron Kearns, is the smiling guy whom I'm just about to hand the envelope, or who just handed the envelope to me. I think, even, 18 years later, I can identify some of the other people in the picture (including a guy named "Doug", and my non-prom date from a previous post. I also think my ninth-grade biology teacher is in the picture, which doesn't make a great deal of sense, considering the context, but you never know.)
So the picture raises a number of interesting questions, which we'll handle in the order they occur to me as I wait for my 2-year old to wake up from her nap:
1. Who took this picture? Given that it's in black-and-white, it strikes me that it might have been a yearbook photographer. But wouldn't the yearbook have wanted pictures of the actual band competition, as opposed to random people milling around in the hallway outside the competition? I'm also not sure what the people from Abraham Zapruder High School were up to that day. Or
2. Why did this person take this picture? A question that we sort of dealt already. But we should also note that it's in focus, the lighting is decent, and no one's head appears cut off. So it's likely that it was at least taken intentionally.
3. Who (or what) was the subject of this picture? Granted, I'm sort of in the middle, but I'm not exactly doing anything interesting. Mr. Kearns is smiling, but not paying attention to the camera. So perhaps the photographer was tasked with capturing the magic of people milling around a high school hallway. Or perhaps he or she was hoping someone would write about the picture 18 years later.
4. How did I come into possession of this photo? Whoever developed the picture must have looked at the negative and - even realizing that it was a picture with no clear subject - went ahead and printed it, possibly only to pass it along to me. Which means I must have known the photographer, making the answer to Question #1 that much more mysterious.
So, to recap: We have here an 18-year-old picture that includes me, but features no particular subject nor any real artistic merit. And yet, I've held onto it for nearly two decades.
Why? My theory is that everyone of us has one of these pictures taken in our lifetimes - a picture that captures us in a context normally out of the realm of photography - and in doing so, actually gives us a glimpse of what we were like at that moment in our lives. (In my case, kind of doofy.)
But consider this picture of my paternal grandfather, taken on the streets of Havana, Cuba, in 1939.It differs a bit from "Kennedy High School Hallway" in that he was clearly the subject of the photo. Yet, the contextual questions remains: Why take a picture of a random guy walking down the street in Havana? And then, how do you get that picture to its subject? Do you stop him, midstride, and say, "Excuse me, random person walking down the street: I've just taken your picture. Would you like a copy of it, so future generations can write about it, 67 years from now?"
Or, maybe it was an automated sort of thing - the 1939 Havana equivalent of those cameras that automatically take pictures of people on the Flume Ride in the Wisconsin Dells.
I don't know. Maybe I should have taken the nap and let my two-year-old finish this post.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
(I should note that being on my own program wasn't my idea...)
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Much to my surprise - and the surprise of my colleagues with TV experience - the producers didn't change topics 30 minutes before air, and I didn't get bumped from the show. The car that picked me up was on time, the local station from which I was uplinked was expecting me, and there were no technical difficulties once they patched me through to master control in New York.
The surprising part was that I was basically on the show as the expert on the history of a missing person case that's more than a decade old - a case that I only really covered when it first broke. The fact that I covered it and that it happened so close to home has led me to follow developments more closely than most of the other stories I covered in 1995. (Whatever happened to that strike vote at the Hormel plant? Uh, next question.) But it's not like I've written a book on the case.
But hey - the more interesting part is about what the whole "Let's Appear on Nancy Grace" experience was like. For those of us in the public radio world (at least those of us not named "Cokie"), TV is a mysterious place, where you have to be careful about where you're looking when the camera is on, and they string mysterious wires down your shirt and up your back.
But I figured some of it would seem familiar, since - hey - I actually produce a daily talk show. Right off the bat, one major difference:
I got to the studio (in the newsroom at the Milwaukee NBC affiliate) around a half-hour before they needed me on the set, so I passed the time by perspiring freely and running to the bathroom roughly every 4 minutes. Also, since I hadn't expected to be on television when I left for work in the morning, I had run out and secured a new shirt for the occasion shortly before leaving for the studio. Of course, when I got there, I immediately got paranoid about whether the sleeves looked too long. I asked roughly every TV person I could find whether the shirt looked okay, and they all said it did, though - now that I think of it - none of them actually looked at the shirt when they said it.
Mitch's talk show: Guests drive themselves to the station. If they remember to bring their parking stub in with them, we can validate it. Otherwise, tough noogies.
Nancy Grace show: Limousine picks up guests. Drives them to the studio. Driver waits, then drives them back again.
So after 35 minutes, they moved me over to the set, which was a tall chair behind a podium, all on a riser slightly above the main level of the newsroom. This basically yielded the classic shot of the guest in front of what would have been a busy newsroom, had it not been 7:00 at night. Frankly, I had hoped for one of those city skyline backdrops, but I guess I'll have to do Larry King for that.
The local engineer wired me up with my earpiece, which for some reason is called an IFB, and connected the lavalliere microphone to my tie (also a new acquisition). I did the mic level check with a producer in New York, quickly ingratiating myself with her for doing more than just counting up to ten into her ear (I talked about Product 19, if I'm not mistaken). I continued to work on my new hobby of perspiring.
Ten minutes later, we checked mic levels again, by which point I had developed new material to say in lieu of counting ("You know, if I had known I was going to be on TV today, I would have been more attractive," and "If the camera adds 10 pounds, can the 10 pounds be mostly hair?"). The kind of stuff that was far more glib than anything I actually said on the air.
Actually, the show itself was fine. "Nancy Grace" feels a little different than a public radio talk show. For starters, the opening music was far more dramatic. ("You know, if I had known I was going to be on TV today, I would have worn my Darth Vader mask...") And throughout the show, little dramatic music stingers would come out of nowhere - presumably to illustrate something, though I was busy concentrating on not looking at the monitor, so as not to seem so shifty-eyed that a casual viewer would think I was a suspect.
I was the lead guest - which was fine, except that there was no real explanation for why a guy from Milwaukee Public Radio was talking about this case at all. We did some Q&A for a couple of minutes (or 3 hours, I'm not really sure), and I only bungled one part of the story. Then, she brought in another guest. And another. And several more. All of a sudden, she was interviewing a criminal case profiler. And one of Jodi Huisentruit's colleagues. And then a psychologist.
Stranger still, she introduced each one of them by saying something like "Let's go back to...", as though they had been guests on a special pre-show that the rest of us hadn't seen. As far as I could tell, I was the only guest she could go "back" to, and so every time she said "Let's go back to..." I would perk up, ready to answer a question, then exchange amused glances with the engineer. And go back to perspiring.
So she brought in something like seven guests over the next 20 minutes, and by 7:30, I figured I was done for the night. I was even feeling relatively dry, or at least less-damp. Then, all of a sudden, I was History Expert Dude again, and finally got to point out that I had been a reporter in southern Minnesota when the story initially broke.
The on-air highlight (aside from the commercials, I suppose) came when Nancy Grace asked me whether the local police had ever excavated any of the farm fields in the area after Huisentruit disappeared (particularly the one in the news today) - and if not, why not. I pointed out that since, essentially Mason City is located in the midst of roughly 46 billion farm fields, it would have been tough to dig up every single one of them.
"Mitch, Mitch, Mitch," she replied. "I'm a farm girl from Georgia - I know how rural farm country is." I have no idea whether she was agreeing with me, or trying to get me to say something else further, so I nodded broadly (a gesture I had decided would work well on TV) and went back to describing how rural northern Iowa is.
The whole segment lasted about 40 minutes, which is either impressive for TV, or a testament to how desperate cable outlets get when it comes to filling 24 hours a day with news. It also included a couple of phone callers, who also seemed to materialize from nowhere. But no one shouted, and even considering Nancy Grace's, um, brusque style, the whole thing stayed pretty civil. I'm not sure 40 minutes on Headline News brought investigators any closer to finding out what happened to Jodi Huisentruit. I hope it did.
And if nothing else, my limousine driver turned out to be a very nice retired botanist who had been featured in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last year, and might make a good guest on another - more local - talk show.
This week marked the 10th anniversary of her disappearance on the way to work one otherwise unremarkable morning. Mason City, and KIMT-TV is part of an odd media market. It’s the CBS affiliate. The ABC station is in Austin, Minnesota, and the NBC affiliate is in Rochester, Minnesota. Ten years ago, I was a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio in Rochester. The Huisentruit story was the first piece I ever produced for National Public Radio. I’ve done probably 30 since then and hundreds of local stories, and it’s still the only story I’ve ever done that still gives me chills.
I met Jodi Huisentruit a couple of times, though not actually when I was working in Rochester. We traded contact information on sources when I worked down the road from Mason City, in Decorah, Iowa. If I remember correctly, she had moved up to Mason City from Cedar Rapids about the same time I moved up from Cedar Rapids, because I also remember watching her there. The 20/20 story included a piece of tape of Jodi Huisentruit reporting in front of a farm park in Decorah. My first story in Decorah was about that farm.
The 20/20 piece – like most of the national coverage of the case – got the story both right and wrong. To portray it as a small town’s loss of innocence oversimplifies it. I had a tussle with my editor over just that point. He wanted to hear that people were
locking their doors, looking over their shoulders, and worrying that life in Mason City would never be the same.
My reporting told me that only the last point was really on target. I was 26 and it was my first NPR piece, so I lost the argument. In fact, this is how my story ended:"Investigators have called off the searches of nearby farmland in the
Winnebago River. They're now focusing on who Huisentruit may have seen or spoken with in the days before her apparent abduction, but police, community members, and reporters, all say that no matter how the case ends, Mason City will be changed. Front doors will be locked, people will look over their shoulders, and the early morning news will feel just a bit different. For National Public Radio, this is Mitch Teich reporting from Rochester, Minnesota."
The point was that most people in Mason City were no more worried that Jodi’s fate would happen to them than people in New York would have been if Dan Rather was kidnapped off the street. The likelihood was (and still is) that Jodi Huisentruit met with foul play because she was a celebrity in a place that had few celebrities.
In Mason City, and Rochester, and Flagstaff, Arizona, you can run into the local news anchor at Perkins. And that intimacy is both what makes living in places like Mason City special, and makes the disappearance of someone people know from television – and from the laundromat – all that much more difficult to take.
And as someone who’s worked in the media in small cities in Iowa and Minnesota and New York and Arizona, that’s why the goose bumps still come. Rochester, Minnesota – more than anywhere else I’ve worked – was filled with bright reporters from every media, who all genuinely enjoyed hanging out together. Maybe it was because, at the time, we all wanted to be somewhere else, but it was remarkable that so many people from TV, radio, and print welcomed each other’s company at settings besides press conferences. I interviewed a few of the women I knew in TV for the NPR piece I did ten years ago. And the vulnerability they were suddenly struck with in late June 1995 hangs with me today. It’s a depressing fact of media life that women in the broadcast media are subject to far more of the crap that comes with celebrity than men. It was the reporters who were looking over their shoulders.
Which is not to say that men are immune. My first paying job in radio was a one-night a week stint as the overnight DJ at a radio station in Cedar Rapids. I was to go on Thursday night at 11:00 pm. I trained in with the guy that did the overnight shift on Wednesday evening. His last piece of advice came at 5:30 the next morning. “People will call and offer to stop by and bring you food,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t let them in.” The first food offer came the next night.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that 10 years later, Jodi Huisentruit’s disappearance has yet to be solved. The Mason City Police Department is still actively investigating the case. They’re at (641) 421-3636.
And thus, I'm scheduled to be on the Nancy Grace program on CNN Headline News tonight - thanks to this blog entry from last year.
More developments as/if they happen.
Friday, May 05, 2006
I wrote this as a member of the minority on the bus who actually knew the answers to most of the Monty Python questions, and the "Who Am I?" features about Calvin Coolidge. But this morning, Transit TV one-upped me.
Who, in God's name, were they expecting to reach with this question?:
"What petition called on Czechoslovakia's communist authorities to respect the international human rights agreements they had signed? The document was drafted behind closed doors in late 1976, initially signed in Prague by some 300 people, mainly dissidents, and was released to foreign correspondents in January 1977."
The answer, of course (which the 17 foreign policy experts on the bus would have shouted out, had there been 17 foreign policy experts on the #44 bus), was "Charter 77."
The following question was a fill-in-the-blanks spelling puzzle, the answer to which was "Cheese Popcorn".