• Which do you choose, a hard or soft option . . . in news?
• Old saying in the business: “Sports is the toy store of journalism.” If that’s true, then what’s news about entertainment?
• Would there be no turning back? Would the journalism gate-keepers ever let me back into the hard news fraternity?
During my time in broadcasting, entertainment news became so popular it birthed several syndicated TV shows such as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and Hard Copy, shows that devoted daily half-hours to the latest showbiz news. This gave rise to the term “infotainment,” which had a second meaning as an epithet often aimed at television journalism in general, to disparage it.
From my days doing news at FM rock radio stations through my time at network radio I had always trod in that demilitarized zone between hard news and soft news. Because radio stations playing music in those days still included news in their programming, I was assigned to report on rock concerts and interview musicians in between covering breaking news such as the US intervention in Lebanon and the Grenada invasion. In a bio I wrote for the video production company I formed after leaving CNN I described myself “as at home in a combat zone as he is on a Hollywood red carpet.”
What really worried me at the time was: if I took a job that had anything to do with covering entertainment, would there be no going back? Would the journalism gate-keepers ever let me back into the hard news fraternity? Or would I be irredeemably tainted with the sugary-sweet scent of soft news? Turns out, it didn’t really matter.
Frank Radice produced a daily half-hour show on CNN called “Showbiz Today.” We had gotten to know each other out in the field, when he worked for ABC’s “Nightline.” Even after I had left ABC, he would call me up every once in a while and ask me to appear live on the show as a “music industry expert.” For example, on the day the Grammy nominations would be handed down, I’d go on his show and be debriefed by the anchor, Laurin Sydney: Who were the big surprises? Who got snubbed? Who did I predict would be the big Grammy winners?
Frank decided to have an “expert” on every day of the week. One day someone would hold forth on new movies, another day about television, and Thursdays would be mine to talk about trends, controversies or personalities in pop and rock music. I’d pick the week’s topic, write up a piece, and fax it to a producer at the NY bureau who would assemble some music video or file footage to go with it. I’d put on a sport jacket and go into the studio for the 5:30 PM broadcast. I’d set it up with Laurin, they’d roll the taped piece and come back live to Laurin and me for a short Q and A. (It was called a “doughnut” – live talk surrounding the “hole” of the taped package.)
Then word came from the LA bureau that Frank was going to be leaving the show and his replacement was a guy named Scott Leon, who’d be relocating from CNN in LA to NY
Scott let me know he’d been watching my appearances and liked my work. After he got settled in he took me to lunch one day to offer me a fulltime correspondent’s job. He said his on-air staff was pretty great, made up of some sharp, attractive people who could do terrific interviews with movie stars at press junkets, but few of them had much experience with hard news or breaking news. He wanted me to be the guy whose phone would ring before dawn with the word that some celebrity had been arrested or hospitalized overnight – and would know how to swing into action and get the story up on CNN as quickly as possible. He liked what he saw in my resume.
There was a slight hitch, though. I was to replace a NY-based correspondent who had been doing most of the music coverage; Scott was not a fan of his work. But shortly after offering me the position, Scott apologized and explained that he had missed the renewal window in the 13-week cycle common to broadcasting contracts and would not be able to dismiss the guy for another three-plus months. Could I wait that long? I was married at that time and my wife worked full time, so I said I probably could, and continued to do my once-a-week appearances on the show. Awkward: the guy who didn’t know I was set to take his job came up to me one day in the newsroom to tell me his father watched the show and thought I was doing really well.