Hollywood for Ugly People – Frank Zappa, Tipper Gore, Prince, Pearl Jam and Gerald Ford

•  James Carville and/or Paul Begala called Washington, DC “Hollywood for Ugly People”

•   I must have fit right in; I got sent there often enough

•   Me and Tipper Gore in a hotel room

I was based in New York with ABC News and CNN from 1983 to 2001. But I spent considerable time on the Eastern Shuttle between NY and DC, the city labeled “Hollywood for Ugly People” by either James Carville or Paul Begala (the latter says he might have heard it in a bar in Texas in the ‘80s).

One of the more memorable DC assignments began with a radio interview I taped in a New York hotel with Tipper Gore, then the wife of Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee. This was in 1985 and I believe mine was the first radio interview she did after announcing on morning television the goals of her newly co-founded Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). She told me of her concern when she listened to a song her pre-teen daughter liked. It was Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” and there’s a line that goes, “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” Ms. Gore made it clear she would have wanted to know in advance that her 11-year-old, Karenna, was going to hear something like that on her Walkman. While I consider myself a free speech advocate and First Amendment near-absolutist, I could see she had a fair point. Luckily for all concerned, Tipper did not bring Karenna along to the interview. Here’s one of the wraparounds I filed:

The recording industry quickly proposed posting a sticker on recordings that contained explicitly sexual or violent lyrics. The PMRC wasn’t satisfied, calling for a ratings system like movies have. Also unsatisfied were many musicians who resisted the idea of warning labels on cassettes and CDs. In September of ’85, I covered a Senate committee hearing on the controversy, where testimony was heard from opponents Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister, John Denver(!) and Frank Zappa.

Photo by Bill Gubbins

The musicians let their testimony speak for itself, not making themselves available for 1-on-1 interviews, so I had to file voicers from the Capitol, like this one:

In 1994 I was back on Capitol Hill covering Pearl Jam’s war against Ticketmaster. The band claimed the ticketing giant was gouging its fans with monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. Band members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament testified before a congressional subcommittee and I was there for CNN.

In January of 1995, CNN sent me down to DC again to cover the swearing in of Rep. Sonny Bono of California’s 44th district. The former mayor of Palm Springs and Cher punching bag was one of the genuinely entertaining members of the large group of newly-elected representatives known as the Republican Revolution or Gingrich Revolution. Bono’s fellow congressional freshmen included “Morning” Joe Scarborough and Lindsey Graham, who it could be argued, have grown into amusing TV talents themselves.

Rep. Sonny Bono

I don’t have access to the story I filed that day but I feel certain if there was a way to work the phrases “I got you, babe” or “the beat goes on,” into the track, I did.

On that trip, my crew and I traversed the subway tunnel from the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol. We had to walk alongside the tracks where motorized cars carry members and staff. The cars are off-limits to anyone else during House votes; that must have also applied to swearing-in days.

And then there was my long-ago visit to the White House, which I almost missed in a private airplane mishap. Gerald Ford, who became president after Nixon resigned, was seeking election two years later, in 1976. His campaign invited local radio and TV reporters from swing states to a day at the West Wing. When it was Ohio’s turn, the owner of my radio station, WEBN-FM, Frank Wood, Sr., offered to fly me from Cincinnati to Washington for the event. He piloted a twin-engine plane based at Lunken Airport.

Frank Wood, Sr. (third from left) and crack WEBN-FM Sales Staff

As Frank was, let’s say, getting up in years, some of my radio colleagues jokingly said, “Good luck, Mark.” But I was up for it, glad to sit in the co-pilot’s seat and confident that if anything went wrong, I could take over and get us safely down. Not because I’d ever taken a single flying lesson but because my father was a pilot and I like to think it’s in my genes. Hah.  

So, about a half hour after takeoff, flying east into a rising sun, Frank appeared a little agitated. He told me over our radio headsets that we had to turn back. He couldn’t get the cabin pressurized and we couldn’t stay at the lower altitude we’d reached for the whole trip to DC. We landed back at Lunken and taxied to a stop. I then noticed Frank twisting a handle toward the rear of the console. With a sheepish look on his face he looked up and said, oh . . . this is what I forgot to do.

I rushed across the river to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport and caught the next commercial flight to Washington. I arrived just in time for the news conference Ford was holding for the Ohio media folks. My WEBN News colleague Craig Kopp had taken an earlier commercial flight after subbing for me on the morning drive newscasts and arrived well ahead of me. He was sitting on the aisle up near the front and when Ford finished and stepped down from the podium to make his way to the back of the room, Craig, showing the resourcefulness of a great newsman, flipped over his clipboard where, on the back, he had an Aerosmith bumper sticker…and got the President’s autograph on it.

All I got was this tepid story about an air disaster that didn’t happen.


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