by G. Jack Urso
It was late May 1987. Paul Andrews thumbed through the two pages of my resume and internship application as we sat at his desk in a back room filled with equipment at the New York Network (NYN), A service of the State University of New York (SUNY). Frankly, he wasn’t very impressed.
Paul was a broadcast engineer at NYN who served as manager of technical operations. Tall, thin, and gray, he was not far from retirement. His expression was sometimes in a state of near exasperation as he tried the herd the collection of oddballs that comprised the staff.
I can’t blame Paul for his doubts about my ability. The NYN had a steady stream of interns from various campuses within the SUNY system, all of whom had several technical courses under their belt before they ended up there. While I was a communications major, the small school I attended, Houghton College, focused on rhetorical skills, not technical skills. I only recently completed the sole technical course the college offered just a week before — a three-week crash course using equipment that was mostly nearly a decade old. Nevertheless, I did have some experience as a technician on the college’s innovative educational microwave link system that connected its main campus in Allegany County with its Suburban Buffalo campus in West Seneca, NY. Since a microwave link system was what the NYN used to connect with various stations throughout the state that piqued his interest.
“We usually only use interns from SUNY,” Paul pondered aloud, “but I think we can give you a shot.”
Paul led me down the hall to see Bill Snyder, the long-time director of the NYN. Snyder had been a reporter at WRGB in Schenectady (where Paul and some other personnel also worked at previously) and had a degree in theatre from SUNY-Albany (now UAlbany) in the 1960s. He also served in various press secretary positions for Governor Hugh L. Carey (with whose children I attended middle school). When Snyder saw my application/resume included information on having started and run a small drama group after high school, I think that helped soften the ground for me more than my brief experience with a microwave link system at college.
Ironically, I actually met Snyder’s wife Patricia a couple times. She headed the New York State Theater Institute (NYSTI) where I attended some acting classes as a high school student, though I never auditioned for a spot. I didn’t realize that at the time otherwise I would have used it to further ingratiate myself into his good graces.
Decisions . . . Decisions
The NYN wasn’t my first choice. I actually had an interview with local broadcasting powerhouse WRGB, Channel 6, Schenectady, earlier in the week. WRGB could boast of being one of the oldest television stations in the United States, if not the world, due to its association with General Electric who pioneered broadcasting technologies in its nearby Schenectady facility. It was my first pick for an internship and I was lucky to have scored an interview with them.
On the day of my interview, I went to a side door as instructed and rang the bell. A pretty blond, Elizabeth Sykes, about my age, came out meet me. Elizabeth was a college intern and she excitedly talked up WRGB as a great place for a student to learn. She brought me up to the bustling newsroom and introduced me to the then-news director Neil Goldstein. Neil was an intense young man with gelled-up, sort-of spikey hair and an earring. As I cut my long hair and took out my earring for the interview, I admit I was a little bummed, but the more Goldstein spoke, the more I was turned off.
One of my references worked at WRGB, and Neil, to his credit, offered me the position, but he kept emphasizing the station’s preeminence in local broadcasting — over and over and over.
“Channel 6 is the number one news station in the region and I will do anything to keep it that way,” Goldstein repeated several times during the course of the interview.
Yeah. OK. Got it. You’re super-awesome.
The pretty blond, Elizabeth, took me on a tour of the station. All the while I’m thinking how I could weasel out of this offer. On my way out, I told Goldstein I had another interview with the NYN and I would call him in a day or two with my decision. Talking with Elizabeth, it seemed the interns spent most of their time lugging equipment cases around, so I didn’t think I would get much of the technical experience I needed. Also, There was just something creepy in the way Goldstein kept stressing he would do anything to keep his station in the number one spot. It felt somewhat dubious and didn’t make me feel at all comfortable. Plus, what was the deal with hair and earring? Wasn’t he a bit old for that, particularly in his position? I was expecting Lou Grant but got a 30-something Doogie Howser. Something just felt off and before I got to my car I decided to pass on WRGB’s offer.
My intuition was onto something as several years later Goldstein was caught trying to sneak a camera into the troubled Hackett Middle School in Albany. His big plan was to recruit a student to stash a camera in their knapsack. I was a little surprised, not only because it put the student in danger and could have possibly violated student and staff privacy, but cameras back then were large compared to the palm-sized micro-machines we use today. Nothing could be more obvious. The station backed Goldstein, sort of. Apologies were made, but he moved on not long afterwards.
In retrospect, I probably should have taken the position since, as I would discover, TV news was more Neil Goldstein than Lou Grant.
Connecting to the Network
The New York Network (NYN) was ensconced on its own floor of the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building in downtown Albany, NY, directly across from the state capitol building and diagonally from the post-modern Empire State Plaza on one side and the Greco-Roman inspired State Education building (with the longest colonnade in the United States) on the other side.
Founded in 1967, the NYN’s main job was to provide coverage of official state functions, governor’s meetings, and various other goings-on in the State Capitol. Later on, it also began producing educational programming and broadcasted the daily New York Lottery numbers picks. Another main function the NYN served was to receive and rebroadcast the transmissions of PBS shows. The programs were transmitted from Washington DC to New York City to the NYN in Albany, which would then record and rebroadcast the shows to the rest of the state. Much of it was done via microwave link, a system of towers set within line-of-sight of each other that would receive and rebroadcast the transmissions. A satellite link was also available, though microwave systems seemed to carry most of the load.
It was my father, Joseph Urso, then associate director of the now-defunct Albany Adult Learning Center (ALC), who hooked me up with the NYN. Too shy myself to reach out to local TV stations, dear old dad called around to see if any had any internship opportunities. WTEN Channel 10 and WNYT Channel 13 did not have summer programs. Of course, the aforementioned WRGB Channel 6 did, but it was a co-worker in the ALC's small video production training program who turned dad, and myself, onto the NYN. Indeed, it was my father who first spoke to Paul Andrews, which then led to my interview and eventual hiring.
In the Pits
My first assignment at NYN was in tape operations. Every program transmitted to the network and rebroadcasted throughout the state went through tape operations. It was large room with eight one-inch reel-to-reel video tape recorders (VTRs) and two two-inch quad VTRs. All the programs we received were recorded onto the one-inch VTRs for later playback. The two-inch VTRs were seldom used and somewhat outdated by 1987 and I only recall them being used for broadcasting episodes of the Britcom Good Neighbors, starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal. All the programs were either PBS shows or New York State government-related news segments.
notes from tape ops.
A tape operator’s job was to load up the reel, set the audio and video levels and remote the VTR to master control so they could run it when scheduled. When all the VTRs were running, either recording or broadcasting, there could be as little as a couple minutes to switch out reels, cue up the next show, and set levels. So, speed and efficiency were key skill sets for tape operators. Vectorscopes and waveform monitors on both the VTRs and at the main control desk in tape operations allowed technicians to set and monitor audio and video levels.
Tape operations was probably my favorite spot. It was a bit boring at times, but it was one of the most crucial elements of NYN’s daily operations. Somewhat derisively referred to as “the pits,” tape operations was so named due to the dreary and repetitive nature of the work. Having a long learning curve, however, it suited me just fine as I had multiple opportunities to practice and master my newly-acquired skills.
What I quickly realized was that some of the employees I generally worked with had little interest in training interns, and I admit our presence must have been a distraction to their clockwork routines. In the pits, I worked with a young woman named Valerie. She was actually my age and only recently graduated from the SUNY system (I repeated seventh grade and didn’t start college immediately after high school, so I was slightly older than my fellow interns). While she was quick and efficient on loading up new shows for playback and setting the levels, she was generally more interested in balancing her checkbook and watching soap operas, which irritated me to no end. I was constantly reminded my job was to monitor the shows during playback, which I could not do if Valerie kept switching the monitor at the control desk where we sat to her favorite soap operas. Paul Andrews didn’t much care for it either, but Valerie had a force of personality that made him want to avoid any unnecessary confrontations with her as long as the shows were up and running by their scheduled broadcast time. It drove me nuts, however, and I frequently stood by the VTRs and monitored the shows from there rather than put up with soap operas at the main control desk.
Master Control and Traffic
In addition to tape operations, I
moved around between the various departments at NYN: master control, traffic,
production, and electronic news gathering (ENG). In reviewing my internship
report from that summer, I noted my successes and failures, sometimes a bit too
honestly. Unlike the busy news rooms of commercial TV, the master control room
at the NYN was usually occupied by only one engineer. Specific duties included
making sure the audio and video levels were set to broadcast standards, all
programs scheduled to broadcast were transmitted at their designated times,
making sure the right frequency is set on the microwave or satellite channels, and setting
up the looping for the microwave system that connects the network with other
PBS-affiliated stations around the state.
I had some experience at control via the small broadcasting facility at my high school, but nothing on the order of this complexity. Since many PBS stations across the state would transmit our programs at the time we broadcast them (some recorded them for later playback), and several programs could be starting at the same time, the master control director had to juggle many balls at the same time. I have to admit, my notes at the time indicate that I really did not have the kind of attention to detail required (i.e. I sucked at it). However, my report does stay that I was more successful at it when left alone, but there were few chances for that. The director was constantly looking over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, and often telling me to do things I was just about to do anyway. Then, while the shows were running, the director would laden me down with extraneous technical information that further compounded my confusion.
On one hand, I think his attitude it was just symptomatic of the doubt NYN personnel had in any intern who was not a SUNY student. On the other hand, it was probably appropriate since Houghton College did very little to prepare its students for broadcasting other than an optional three-week broadcast technology course and reporting the latest cow-tipping news on its small rural radio station.
I spent a few days in the traffic department, which had just one mellow, laid-back clerk. Traffic’s main job was to make sure the programs needed for tape operations were delivered on time for broadcast, make sure the daily logs were completed and distributed, and serve as a sort of librarian for NYN’s tape archive. As I recall, each one- or two-inch tape carried either two one-hour or four thirty-minute programs. There were probably two dozen large four-shelf back-to-back storage units whose entire catalog today could probably fit on one small portable 4 TB external hard drive.
Compared to the pressure of master control, traffic was a nice break, but in talking to the clerk, it seemed like traffic was a job few really set out to do and the person doing it usually just fell into it. As with tape operations, and to an extent master control, it had a repetitive routine that veered between boredom and tedium that was punctuated by an occasional five-minute panic. As a creative person by nature, I found myself resisting, rather than embracing the experience. That, however, would soon change.
My next assignment was a move over to Inside Albany, an independently produced public affairs program that ran statewide on PBS stations. Helmed by Dave Hepp, the show ran from 1975 through 2006 and it provides an excellent record of the major issues and major players in state politics during that time. The entire series archive is available online at Syracuse University.
Upon my arrival that first day I was met by the same pretty blond intern I met at WRGB for my interview with Neil Goldstein, Elizabeth Sykes. An unbelievable coincidence, it helped to ease my nerves — and I was nervous. As a grip, I would be working closely with the crew for interviews with major state political leaders, including the legendary Governor Mario Cuomo, whose was regarded nearly as a saint in my Italian family.
Albany’s production space was rented out from NYN and only comprised two
small bedroom-sized connected offices. The outer office was cramped with desks
for Dave, his co-host, and two for technicians, one of which I shared with my fellow intern Elizabeth. The inner office has an editing suite and served as a locked
storage room for the equipment. The staff was relatively small, with a staff of
five: Dave and his co-host Lise Bang-Jensen, the director Gary Glinski, and two camera operators, Caro Thompson and Mike Melita.
The pressures in putting out a weekly show are intense, but Dave Hepp was never anything less than a patient mentor. Caro Thompson was a female camera operator, a rarity back then in news gathering. In fact, she would often be the only female technician of any kind in the news crew scrums at press conferences. I was also in a bit of awe regarding Elizabeth's skills. She had more internship experience and often gave me pointers, tips, and helpful hints. I also can’t say enough about the director Gary Glinski. Gary gave me the hands-on experience and technical skills I needed and inspired me to use NYN’s resources to produce a video project to demonstrate my skills for prospective employers — something I actually never thought of, but was considered de rigueur when looking for a job in broadcasting.
I often joined Gary and the other camera operator, Mike, for trips out of town for location work, including one memorable trip to Yankee Stadium to film public service announcements with several of the Yankees’ top players, including Don Mattingly, and during which for ten eternal minutes I was the only person in the stadium, which I cover separately in my essay, “Yankee Stadium Doesn’t Exist Anymore.”
Working with the Inside Albany crew at the NYS Capitol gave me a look at its inner workings and the group dynamics of the press. The AP reporters were mostly a bunch of jerks, though one cool guy shared my interest in history and made me hip to some state capitol lore, such as the fact that Albany native and Civil War hero General Philip Sheridan, whose statue stands on the grounds, is quoted as saying, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Some disagree, but it does appears to be true and why this statue remains on state grounds is puzzling (see my post “Take This Statue Down!”).
I also got a look inside the press room at the state capitol. At the time it looked fairly unchanged since the 1940s or earlier, including the well-used furniture. There was an upper level loft which was apparently used for poker games while waiting out long assembly and senate sessions. I recall every royal flush going back for decades was proudly framed, dated, and hung for display. I ran afoul of one miserable old crank who was in charge of the press room. Gary and Mike left their equipment there and told me to look after it while they spoke to some politician to arrange an interview. Miserable old crank man came by shortly afterwards and angrily demanded I move the equipment. He didn't introduce himself, I didn't know who he was, I didn't like his attitude, the equipment was in no one's way, and I wasn't about to haul off thousands of dollars in equipment by myself just because a random old man about ten years past his retirement tells me to do so. All he saw was just some college kid and acted like I pissed on him, and at this point I wish I had, so I said no. He stormed off.
When Gary and Mike came back, I told them what happened and their faces blanched white when I pointed him out. They told me who he was, how long he worked there (apparently for several decades), and how well-respected he was. I was incredulous. I forget what I said exactly, but probably some wise-ass remark along the lines of, “If he's so well-respected then he should know how to treat people with respect.” Probably not my best moment, but I didn't like taking crap from anyone, particularly from people I didn't know. I think it was Mike who told me that sometimes you have to take crap to get the job done, particularly if you are in someone else's house. It was a life lesson as well.
While technically PBS employees at the
time, I don’t recall the local station, WMHT, contributing much of anything to the
production except for it's portion of the budget all state-wide PBS stations contributed. I do recall, however, that Hepp was doing some fundraising at the time. This
would later become an ongoing effort in 1995 when PBS cancelled the show and
Hepp consequently started his own independent production company, raising
$300,000 every year to keep this very important program, whose
coverage of state politics was unequaled, on the air. Inside Albany remained in production for another eleven years, coming to an end in 2006 for a total of thirty-one incredible seasons.
In the end credits, episode #1401
One thing I learned that summer was just how intelligent and politically savvy was Mario Cuomo. It was more than just trying to get state assembly and senate leaders to compromise, but also how he treated the reporters. That summer was a long one and budget negotiations went into the summer. News crews would wait for hours outside a leader’s’ meeting and afterwards drill Cuomo with question after question. Cuomo took every question seriously and gave carefully considered responses. He didn’t give quick responses either. Often he would cross his arms, holding his thumb and index finger thoughtfully on his chin, while he would wait, sometimes as long as thirty seconds or a minute as he pondered the question. If he didn’t know the answer, Cuomo would admit that he didn’t know and that he would look into it and get back to the reporter the next day.
Right, I thought the first time this happened, Cuomo was just ditching the question, but lo and behold at the next press conference Cuomo called out the reporter by name and told him he had an answer. I saw Cuomo do this numerous times and it created a great rapport between the governor and the press pool. Also, to his credit, Cuomo provided up close access to reporters, allowing them to gather in the hallway outside the leaders’ meeting room where budget negotiations took place, and only feet away from his office. A practice his Republican successor George Pataki quickly put an end to.
As a grip for Inside Albany, I also got to run sound for personal interviews with state leaders, including a memorable one with Cuomo in his office. The same office Teddy Roosevelt, Alfred E. Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nelson Rockefeller once sat in. It was a humbling experience. In addition to Inside Albany, I was parceled out to NYN’s own electronic news gathering (ENG) team, covering many of the same events Inside Albany covered.
Years later, when Inside Albany finally went off the air in 2006, I reached out to Dave Hepp to congratulate him on his long career, reminding him of my brief time with him as an intern. To my surprise, he not only remembered me, but also recalled my work in 1989 and early 1990 on WQBK, a local AM news-talk radio station where I did some political commentary, and at WAMC, a local public radio station where I did news reporting in the mid-90s — jobs I got in part due to my experience with Inside Albany. Dave’s patience as a mentor, and recollection of a former intern, greatly inspired me when I found myself in the same role as a college instructor. Along with Paul Andrews, I consider Dave Hepp a great influence on my career.
My next stop on the grand tour of NYN was a visit the main editing team in post-production. I was surprised to find them putting together segments for a show on Latin grammar with my old Latin teacher from Albany High School, Judith Greenwood, who was highly regarded as one of the best Latin teachers in the country at the time. This connection immediately fired up my excitement. The crew I worked with, as with Inside Albany, were among the most professional, and kindest, individuals I had the pleasure of working with. Ray Nodar was the technical director, Susan Gallagher was the editor, and Bob Racette worked the sound board. I actually ran into both Susan and Bob some twenty years later at Hudson Valley Community College where all three of us ended up working: Bob as head of the video technologies production group, Susan as head of the distance learning center, and myself in the English Department.
Their schedule was jammed–packed with projects from the state, independent producers, Inside Albany, and sometimes an occasional WMHT production. There was little time to molly-coddle yet another intern, including one from outside the SUNY system whose technical skills were not quite up to par with the SUNY students, but by this time in my internship I was familiar with the equipment and the personal, so I made the transition with relative ease.
As I recall, the equipment we used included an ADM BCS sound board, a Chyron Telesystems character generator, a Grass Valley Group Series digital effects generator/switcher, and an ISI-902 color special effects generator/switcher. When we were working on a production I was stationed at the Chyron, which gave me an opportunity to participate on some level and observe the team in action. Editing was accomplished via a computer that tied in five VTRs (3/4 and 1-inch tape machines) with the digital effects generator. Special effects could be set to kick-in at specific spots in the tape time code for a seamless final product, though the process could be time-consuming. While creating certain effects today is no more difficult than a press of a mouse button, back then a certain combination of settings were needed if you wanted anything more than a standard wipe.
I was also loaned out to an independent production company, Mountain View Productions. For one project, We went to New York City to shoot footage for a documentary on a young man with developmental disabilities who was working at a large hotel just off Times Square. The loading ramp was on Broadway just one building down from the corner of the square itself, so I walked up and leaned against a light pole to take the sights in. Within seconds I was approached by a rather worn-out older woman asking me if I was interested in a date. Missing teeth, questionable hygiene, and no pimp around, she seemed to be just a desperate person trying to survive. When I declined, she immediately withdrew, offering a stream of apologies. The crew had a good laugh at my expense, but the encounter haunted me a bit. Years later, teaching in prisons, I met many women like her, and the pimps who preyed on them. I tried to help the women acquire the skills and confidence to leave that life behind them. I was not always successful, but that encounter at Times Square was usually never far from my mind and in a way inspired me to try and make a difference in their lives.
Some Mountain View productions were just routine self-congratulatory corporate films. As usual, I found the technical personnel to be helpful, top-notch professionals. When the boss got involved, however, it usually descended into a micro-managed nightmare. On one such occasion, we were working on a shoot at the NYS Education Building, across the street from the NYN. The former state museum, it is reminiscent of a Greco-Roman temple with a long colonnade (longest in the United States) and other classical features. I visited it often as a child and looked forward to spending some time there. The big lesson I learned here was never let anyone check your equipment for you in preparing for a shoot. Mountain View had to borrow some equipment from the NYN, including a wireless microphone. A NYN tech, who clearly felt he had better things to do than wet-nurse an intern, drew me aside the morning of the shoot and loaded up the equipment case. He showed me the wireless mic, put in the battery and flipped the power toggle several times to show me how to turn it on and off.
Sure. Thanks. Like, I had absolutely no idea how to turn on a power switch.
Some four or five hours later that day when we needed the mic, a Mountain View tech pulled it out only to find that the power switch had been left in the on position and the battery was dead. The Mountain View boss who tagged along that day blew up, yelling at me like I was a school child. I told him I did not pack the equipment, I only hauled it down from the NYN, which seemed to anger him even more. The camera operator, not many years away from being an intern himself, explained to his boss that the power switch was left on by whoever loaded the equipment. Since the NYN was directly across the street getting a replacement would only take a few minutes. To his credit, the boss came to his senses, calmed downed, realized he jumped to a conclusion, and backed off. He tried to make amends by offering to buy me lunch during the break, but I declined. The NYN tech so concerned I had no idea how to flip a power switch apparently didn't know himself. I reported the incident to Paul Andrews, who understood. I was not the first intern that had something like this happened, but he emphasized that the lesson was to personally double-check the equipment myself before the shoot and again once on scene to avoid these kind of situations.
Back at NYN, I got to meet some interesting folks that summer in production,
including famed rock bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) who worked on the soundtrack to an anti-drunk driving PSA starring one
of the SUNY interns. It was shot in New York City and the intern raved
about the wrap party where he saw Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, at the party smoking a joint. I wasn’t there, so I’m just reporting what I was
told, but the idea of Big Bird or Oscar smoking a fat one is too irresistible an image not to share.
I also got to meet Nick Ercoline who, along with his then-girlfriend, and later wife, Bobbi, were featured on the cover of the classic album, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More (1970). Nick and Bobbi are pictured standing at Woodstock in the early morning, wrapped in a blanket with a brightly colored plastic butterfly mounted on a stick casually placed nearby. The image of two young people in love seemed to capture the spirit of the festival. For me, this was like meeting one of the twelve apostles. I forget what Ercoline was doing at NYN. Possibly it was as a consultant on a vocational training production. As I recall, Nick revealed that the blanket belonged to Bobbi’s mother. Over fifty years later, Nick and Bobbi are still together and apparently still living a life of peace and love.
Damn hippies. We sure could use more of them right now.
At Gary Glinski’s urging, I decided to produce an audition tape of my technical skills. It wasn't required for my internship, but Glinski said it was fairly common among SUNY students. I opted to do a music video. I wanted to do one for the short three-week video production course I took that previous May, but my advisor at Houghton College, communications professor Roger Rozendal, said it would be impossible to do using the equipment they had. Quite frankly I loathed Rozendal to a degree that has been unabated by over three decades distance, but it presented me with a challenge when I saw NYN had the same editing equipment as the college, a Panasonic AS-6000. The chance to stick it to my professor was too irresistible.
I approached Paul Andrews with my proposal. He was slightly skeptical of my music video idea, but agreed to loan me the equipment: a high-end, professional video camera and two portable 3/4 inch VTRs — a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment. He also allowed me to use the editing suite in his office after work hours. For the project, I found a talented young guitarist, Kevin Brandow, through a friend. Brandow would later
gain some fame in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene as a guitarist
for the band Petra. At the time, his band, Divine Right, recently won a
local Battle of the Bands concert and needed a music video for promotional purposes. Brandow rented a fog machine and lights and convinced a local middle school to allow us use of their auditorium. I enlisted the aid of a high school friend who also worked in video production and we tackled the project head-on.
I spent about ten hours preparing the scripting every second of screen time, eight hours shooting
the video, and another twenty hours editing it. It was so hot and humid in the auditorium I blew a fuse on one of the VTRs. I was horrified and Paul wasn't too happy about it either. The NYN repair tech blew it off as a minor inconvenience, but I doubt they would have let me borrow the equipment a second time. Looking back on it now, I find it quaint the VTRs even had fuses. Such problems would never happen anymore, and the equipment I needed a large equipment case for back then could probably be hauled around in a knapsack today.
Though I was not completely satisfied with my editing, the effort turned out pretty well for a first attempt. When I submitted it to Rozendal, along with a reminder I edited it with same equipment the college had and with which he said it would be impossible to do, he made no reply, though I did get an A. In the end, a more traditional news piece might have better helped my efforts at securing a job since all my subsequent post-graduate broadcast TV job search efforts came to naught.
You can see the results for yourself
This is the End, Sort of . . .
And with the completion of my project,
my internship came to an end. Paul Andrews gave me a positive report, though
honestly pointing out the areas I did not perform as well in as I could have,
such as master control, and watching my levels on ENG, but otherwise it was a
memorable experience, and I thought that would be the end of it.
There wasn’t much for me to do with my
newly acquired technical skills at remote, rural Houghton College. I was tapped
to help a group of local high school students at nearby Belfast Central School
prepare an entry for the New York State Learning Technologies Fair sponsored by the senate education committee. Belfast at
the time was a rural school district with a high degree of poverty, and all the
associated problems that came with it. The project was to be a political
campaign video. My job was mainly to advise the students, but they were
completely clueless and lacked any equipment. Their technology teacher showed
off somewhat sheepishly the school’s equipment, two black and white cameras
from the early 70s. It would not do. I borrowed a JVC BT-110 video camera from the college and edited the project on its Panasonic AS-6000 color special effects generator/switcher.
The student leading the group, Amber, was a shy ninth grader.
As I drove Amber home after a long day of filming I asked her what she wanted to do with her life after high school. She was non-committal.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe get pregnant like my sister.”
She wasn’t even sure she would graduate.
Amber, to her credit, had a clear idea of what topics she wanted to cover in the video. She would be the political candidate and her main issue would be teenage pregnancy. So, I worked with the girls, helped them prepare a shooting script and then spent about eight hours shooting the segments and another four or five hours editing it all together.
A remarkable change in Amber took place during the filming. She grew in confidence and determination and by the end of the project she wanted to go to college and getting pregnant was pushed off until after she completed her education. The project won third place in the Learning Technologies Fair, but for the girls it was as though they won first prize. It was a notable achievement. Amber and her group were in competition with school districts throughout the state, many of them far wealthier and better equipped than Belfast Central School.
I was greatly affected by the impact I had on the students and realized at that point I could make a longer-lasting contribution to society as an educator rather than as a camera jockey. It would take me a few years to make the transition, but the seeds were sown.
Rewind and Replay
After graduation I quickly fell back into my summer job working at a convenience store. Not exactly what I had planned for a broadcasting career, but I needed to make money and my old boss offered me a job as assistant manager. I reluctantly accepted, but honestly I never hated a job more than working in a convenience store. At our location, it was a steady stream of con artists, thieves, drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes, and cab drivers whose body odors were so bad I kept a can of air freshener under the counter.
A few weeks after graduation, late May 1988, I was sitting around reading The Tao and Wu Wei when I got a call from none other than Paul Andrews. Paul was hiring full-time summer relief technicians. It wasn’t permanent, and it would be all in tape operations, but Paul thought of me when trying to find qualified candidates. I didn’t have to think twice. I immediately quit the convenience store job and prepared to start at NYN the following Monday.
I only worked about a week or two in tape operations the previous summer, but mastered the basic skills required. Even better, I didn’t have to work with Valerie, so I wouldn’t have to put up with any soap operas. What I did discover, however, was the wealth of excellent PBS broadcasting. NYN transmitted at least two episodes every day of Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Zoobilee Zoo with Ben Vereen, Reading Rainbow with LaVar Burton, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross, Masterpiece Theater, and more. To my delight, Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood were repeating segments and episodes respectively that I saw when I was a kid, and I probably saw at least one hundred episodes of each that summer. Bob Ross was a wonderful, Zen-like, thirty-minute meditation. James Burke’s documentary series The Day the Universe Changed had a profound and enduring impact on me. For someone who loved educational programming, tape operations was not as much work as it was a daily devotional.
At the end of the summer Paul asked if I wanted to stay as an employee. I would have to enroll as a SUNY student, but that was problematic. While I still needed more technical training, I couldn’t get financial aid to participate in an academic program I already had a degree in and taking out more in student loans was out of the question. However, considering how much debt I would later acquire in pursuing my teaching degree it would have been minor by comparison. Paul's advice was solid and while I feel education was a right move for me, I regret not taking his advice.
I had my sights set on starting over in the larger media market of Rochester, and moved there by late August, but I stuck out gloriously after failing interviews at pretty much every radio and TV station in the city. I lived in a run-down hotel in a crime-ridden neighborhood and my next-door neighbor was Arthur Shawcross, the Genesee River Killer. Of course, I didn't know that then, but he did stand out as kind of creepy. That period of time marks one of the lowest periods of my life (see my essay, Arthur John Shawcross: The Monster on Alexander Street).
I returned to Albany in late 1988 and quickly scored a job in radio (for more information, please read my essay The Impact of the Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine on Talk Radio). I stuck with that job until late 1989 and continued producing a “point-counterpoint” type program through early 1990, but with only about three minutes allotted per daily segment there was not much time for my conservative colleague and myself to do much else but call each other names — though I think that was the station's intention. I felt that radio was descending into a soulless corporate hole, though honestly it was probably there all along. Radio station owners are without doubt among the lowest lifeforms on the planet. In 1988-1989, AM talk radio was making the switch to what has accurately been called hate-talk radio, and I wanted done of it. I found a job in prison education and felt I finally found my calling.
I worked on and off in radio part-time, both in commercial and non-commercial radio, as well as in print editorial positions through 2002. Public radio was not much better, except in the pay, but even then the station I worked for was filled with what can only politely be described as elite snobs. While no longer working in either radio or audio/video production, I use audio and video editing software for my own spoken word projects, or occasional videos for a local business’s website. I have some high-end audio equipment, a green screen and professional lighting, but no desire to go back along a path I have long since abandoned. I parlayed my reporting experience into defense analysis work, which I continue to do in addition to teaching.
There's not much documentation of the New York Network’s existence outside a few entries on some LinkedIn profiles, brief references in obscure technical documents, being mentioned in a few articles, and Paul Andrews’ and Bill Snyder’s obituaries. In 2004, it moved from the Alfred E. Smith building to another state facility close to the Empire State Plaza with a $10.4 million upgrade to its equipment, according to a Jan., 31, 2004, TV Technology report. Notably, the NYN became more involved in state-sanctioned gambling, broadcasting lottery picks from once a day in the 1980s to four times a day by the early 2000s. It also provided five video channels for New York Off Track Betting (OTB). The article notes that broadcasting was via New York’s SUNYSAT system on Ku-band satellite and cable television. Microwave transmission is not mentioned and neither is NYN's former responsibility in broadcasting PBS programs throughout the state.
Sometime around 2014 or possibly 2015, I saw a NYN representative manning an informational table on the concourse of the Empire State Plaza, but he seemed more interested in his cell phone than in discussing NYN. His disinterest was prophetic. The NYN was dissolved shortly thereafter and its responsibilities absorbed by other state agencies. Its web address, http://www.nyn.nyn.suny.edu, is not only a dead link that does not forward to a new state address, but it has been excluded from the archives of the Wayback Machine Internet Archive. According to the Wayback Machine website, this may be because the site was password protected or, more likely in this case, the state requested the site be excluded. If so, it is a bit of a loss to New York State broadcast history.
I did hear from Paul Andrews one more time, in 1996 while I was working at a local news-hate talk radio station. I just completed the early morning news when the phone rang and Paul was on the line. He had been listening to me and wanted to touch base and see how I was doing. He was retired by then and was an avid radio fan, remembering some of my previous gigs in commercial and public radio. I acknowledged my error in not heeding his advice to sign up as a SUNY student so he could retain me at NYN. The fact that he even remembered me at all touched me deeply. Paul lived into his 90s and remains, along with Dave Hepp, among those mentors whose guidance was not just applicable to my career, but to life as well.
The Evolution of Broadcasting Technology
Spurred on by development and widespread applications of the computer chip, broadcast technology was evolving. For instance, professional-quality video cameras in the 1970s might have no less than three tubes, but by the mid-1980s it was down to one tube. Today, of course, tubes are a thing of the distant past having been supplanted by solid-state digital imaging systems that began making their way onto the market in the mid-1980s. My internship report notes in the late 1970s editing was done using two-inch quad VTRs, but by 1987 one-inch and 3/4-inch VTRs used for editing was the standard while the two-inch quads were relegated to dusty corners. What took three mix effects buses to accomplish in 1980 took only one by 1987. The increasing use of consumer computer technology from the late 1970s forward allowed for pre-sets that minimized the time it took to create effects and made time-coded edits possible and precise.
As the state of technology has progressed, so has video production. The difference in the between the state of broadcast technology in 1987 and today is dramatic. Whatever equipment I was trained on at the NYN has become antiquated. Hard drives have replaced video tape storage. Editing and effects that once required highly-trained professionals can now be done by any middle school student. Video cameras with a quality and resolution far exceeding any of the cameras I used then now fit in the palm of my hand.
Most of the items listed below I trained on at the New York Network that summer of 1987. Those items marked with an asterisk (*) indicate the paltry few items Houghton College made available to its communications majors for three weeks a year. The double asterisks (**) indicate the equipment was available at the NYN and Houghton College:
- ADM BCS sound board
- Chyron Telesystems character generator
- Grass Valley Group Series digital effects generator/switcher
- Hitachi GP-7, Ikegami 79E, and JVC BT-110* video cameras
- ISI-902 color special effects generator/switcher
- Knox 128B character generator*
- Panasonic AS-6000 color special effects generator/switcher**
- Sony automatic editing control unites RM-330 and BE-800
- Sony 1 inch VTR BVH-2000
- Sony 3/4 inch U-matic VTR BVU-800/850 and VO-5800
- Teletronix 1720, 1730, & 1750 vectorscopes & waveform monitors
- Two-inch Quad VTRs
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