A chunk of 1995 on VHS

It’s a slow, rainy weekend, so I’ve spent a bit of time today getting back to some VHS archiving/digitization, a project I paused due to the move a year ago. I had to watch quite a lot of this to figure out what it was, because there was a lot of disjointed B-roll, and then a looooong stretch of me (and this is back when I had some hair, man) doing what sounds like a video letter to someone describing my job. Read More

Meet Explorer Earl

Dork HelmetOkay, I only thought this stuff was buried under a mile of soft peat somewhere.

Sometime in 1994, at the first TV station where I worked, I got shanghaied into being on-air talent during kids’ programming. Our kids’ club talent had just left, and there was a perfect storm brewing:

  1. The Humane Society did pet-of-the-week spots in our kids’ programming, which helped the station to fulfill its “local public service” quota. Those spots now had no host.
  2. The station had just gotten a pith helmet in a National Geographic promo kit.
  3. I was already on the payroll.

With no contract, no additional pay, and no perks, I was suddenly… Explorer Earl. Read More

Mixed Signals III: tonight’s gguuhhhhh will be… derp…

Dark HelmetSo where were we? Oh yeah – seeing off our former TV weather guy with a bang. He was leaving us anyway, so we gave him a memorable sendoff that no one watching at home would ever have known about.

Now the race was on to replace him. Our typically spendthrift manager and owner had a super spiffy idea: let’s not hire anyone new. Let’s just use the people who are already working here and not pay them any extra for suddenly being on-air talent.

That included me. Read More

Mixed Signals II: tonight’s forecast is…. gguuhhhhh.

Today's forecastSit back for this one. I’m about to tell you how I became a teevee weatherman. And what happened to the teevee weatherman I replaced.

Weather in a broadcast venue has always completely fascinated me. How the hell do these guys know this stuff? Of course, now I know: the nice government-employed meteorologists at the National Weather Service do most of the legwork for them. The TV guys said it with personality. Or at least that’s what it says on the job description when you sign on the dotted line. Read More

Going back to the beginning?

Master control, 1993-styleFamily members drew my attention to a news item in today’s local paper that is funny-in-a-sad-sort-of-way, and strangely intriguing at the same time. Here’s an excerpt.

TV station KFSM of Fort Smith is seeking a federal waiver of duopoly rules so that it can buy a second TV station in its market area, an official with the Fort Smith station confirmed Friday. Van Comer, president and general manager of KFSM, said his station and KPBI of Eureka Springs have been negotiating the sale for about a year and have signed an asset purchase agreement for $784,000.

Let’s go over the reactions to this that I had almost immediately upon hearing it, and why I had these reactions. Read More

Setting the Wiki record straight

Fox 46 control board, circa 1993After getting an e-mail tonight from someone questioning the chronology of my work section – apparently Wikipedia showed KPBI-TV as not having signed on until 1995 – I took my first shot at editing/contributing to a Wikipedia article, correcting the sign-on date and adding a notation about the meaning of the station’s call letters. I mean, it doesn’t change the world if everyone thinks that station didn’t exist until ’95, but it does make the article and the history wrong. Nowhere in the article is Pharis Broadcasting mentioned – it’s like Equity always ran the thing out of Little Rock. I know better. I was there. With KPBI’s recent nose-dive into oblivion – its Fox affiliation transferred quickly to another station in town and it seems to have vanished from cable – I’ll admit I’ve felt a pang of sadness that the station I worked for is essentially no more. It’s not Fox 46 anymore, though I guess it hasn’t been that in a long time. But it disturbs me that, however hamfisted the management occasionally was, however haphazardly it was operated, however barely-on-the-air it stayed by a thin string during the years I worked there, the sheer amount of sweat shed by all of us who were there and helped build and grow the place is unacknowledged. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need to see my name in that article (though I did give a momentary thought to adding a link to my work section, which is almost certainly the only video archive of what I consider KPBI’s “golden age” out there, and just as quickly decided against it). But a guy named Bill Pharis put it together from the ground up, sometimes almost literally with spit and bailing wire. And a bunch of us worked there, and for a nice purple patch in there from 1994-early ’96, it was a place to barely make a living, and to definitely have a lot of fun just making up the rules as we went. We didn’t sweat over sweeps months, we just tried to put cool crap on the air, and yes, we often did so in what seems now like an incredibly haphazard, amateur way. And sometimes I miss the whole “make it up as we went along” aspect of it – trying to get the higher-ups in corporate TV to think outside the box is frequently an exercise in interaction with a brick wall. I wouldn’t want to be working there now, but to have been there at that time, with those people, I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I’ve softened a bit in my opinion on Pharis and how he did things; toward the end of my time working for him, I was quite eager to leave, for what I still think were good reasons. But somehow, the guy made money at it. I can’t fault him for that – I probably should’ve paid attention and taken notes. I know there are others who worked there who haven’t softened their less-than-favorable opinions of the place, the people or the management one bit over the years, but part of me is itching to start a Wiki article on Pharis Broadcasting, so there’s something to refer to for KPBI. The KPBI article as it is strikes me as something that started as a “Wikipedia vanity plate” – i.e. the subject of the article wrote the article about itself (a Wikipedia phenomenon that I find more than a little irritating) – and has now become something that the folks behind the area’s new Fox station are editing as events unfold.

But I feel compelled to add to KPBI’s prehistory – the days before Equity Broadcasting. Part of me has always suspected that maybe there’s a book on that subject waiting to be written, possibly on the history of Fort Smith/Fayetteville broadcasting overall. Or maybe not a book. Maybe…a sitcom. 😆 Either way, it’s funny – now that the place is, for all intents and purposes, no more, I find myself remembering it fondly.

In the heat of at least three different nights.

True story, swear to God. I don’t know what made me think of this, but bear with me.

My boss at my first TV job was very hands-on. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a way that’d make anyone crazy. There’s something about knowing that the boss is in the trenches with you that does a wonder for morale. And then there’s micro-micro-micro-management, which can incite the urge to do bodily harm. He could do both. And what the hell, why not? We were the bottom-rated local TV station, something not unlike the inspiration for Weird Al’s UHF, only for real. What did we have to lose?

So anyway, the station was built into the second floor of a building in downtown Fort Smith that used to be a hotel. (Seriously – you could go look out the glass from our lobby and see the ballroom – now the building lobby – below.) The control room and studio were built into two smaller ballrooms. In the control room, there were two enormous shelves – one holding the mammoth 3/4″ videotapes of this week’s shows, and the other holding the mammoth 3/4″ videotapes of a motley assortment of stuff that we were recording to play back the following week, and stuff that we had already shown, which would soon be recorded over again. Once in a blue moon, a tape intended for one shelf would wind up on the other. And thus ensued mayhem.

Case in point.

I started our night syndicated episode of In The Heat Of The Night at 9 o’clock sharp one night, and it seemed awfully familiar. Then my boss called. Sure ’nuff, this one had aired something like four nights ago. (If it seems like I was a little slow to catch on, keep in mind that after a while, you tend to tune this stuff out and it all looks alike.) So here’s how the boss proposed to deal with the problem. “What I want you to do, Earl,” he said over the phone, “is grab the tape that’s on the shelf for tomorrow night, cue it up to the first act after the teaser, and roll that coming out of your first commercial break.”

I realized that this was crazy, and it’d completely wreck any attempt to follow whatever story was being told in either episode. Also, pulling the tape for the next night would leave us without a show to air for the next night. But I wasn’t being paid the big money to think about this stuff, so swap tapes I did. Between the teaser and act one, two completely different murders were being investigated in Sparta, Mississippi.

Also, apparently between the teaser and act one, Carroll O’Connor had gotten married to the city councilwoman. Talk about turning on the charm!

But there was one problem. This episode had just run too, even more recently than that one I had just aborted. Like clockwork, the phone rang.

“Okay, Earl, this is no good,” he said. “Obviously someone’s screwing up where they’re putting this stuff. I want you to grab one that’s on the ‘just recorded’ shelf, say like last night, and I’ll guarantee you that’s the right episode for tonight. Cue it up to act two, and switch off to that one coming out of your next commercial break.”

At this point, I did point out that the man was, in fact, completely crazy. But he’s the one signing the checks.

I grabbed the next tape, fast forwarded it to the appropriate place without even looking to see what it was, and gracefully swapped it out during the break, and lo and behold, when we came back for act two, Howard Rollins had retired and turned into Carl Weathers, and Carroll O’Connor was now the county sheriff instead of the chief of police. Damn, but O’Connor was a fast mover.

My boss stayed on the phone for this swap. There was a long silence.

“Well, that’s okay, Earl, I think we’ve done enough damage for one night.”

You ain’t kiddin’.