The Things I Carried

• Listen up you whippersnappers! When I was your age, I had to haul around a lot of crap

• There was heavy lifting in radio news

• Where was the digital age when I needed it?

One of the reasons I started blogging about my broadcasting career was because my three nephews, all “digital natives,” seemed curious about the way news was gathered and disseminated in the last half of the twentieth century. To them, some of the nuts and bolts of journalism in that era probably seemed as ancient as the telegraph, homing pigeons and the pony express did to me. Posts like this one, I hope, will be read by their children. They will know, then, that their great-uncle Mark was more than just the guy who spoiled their fathers behind their parents’ backs. No, but seriously, a little personal reminiscence could possibly spur an interest in history among members of a new generation. (Unlike me, a chronic underachiever in elementary and high school history classes.)

Anyway, when I ran around town as a local newsman and traipsed around the globe for ABC Radio News in the seventies and eighties, this is what was forever weighing down my left shoulder…and probably helping to permanently screw up my lower lumbar vertebrae:

What all was in there? Some of the basics:

Today, if I was sent on assignment, I wouldn’t need that bagful of stuff. Everything I would need to be a radio news reporter would fit in my shirt pocket.

“This just in: Radio Reporter Sheds Twenty Pounds of Ugly Equipment”

I find it absolutely amazing that a smartphone can now do everything a field reporter needs to do to file a story. Record, playback and edit interviews . . feed the soundbites and additional written material via email or text . . go live, via telephone. Of course, I would need Internet access or 4G and that would probably be a roadblock if I was back in, say, Africa, where there are vast remote stretches without W-Fi or a phone signal. A satellite phone would come in handy there.


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Wait – I mentioned a “mult box” in the video. What’s that? At a news conference, to ensure broadcasters get the best quality audio from the table or podium in the front of the room — and to avoid a thicket of mics on stands — there was sometimes a box toward the rear of the room which distributed the audio feed through multiple outlets. One needed to be prepared for any of a number of outlet types — RCA, mini plug, cannon plug, etc.

So what’s the deal with the odd-looking wrench?

In the late seventies, I found a wholesaler that sold tools for telephone company technicians (through a search in something called “The Yellow Pages,” kids. This was pre-Internet). The wrench was used to unscrew stubborn caps on telephone handsets. Inside the mouthpiece end were the two prongs to which I would attach my alligator clips, plugging the other end into my tape recorder. That’s how audio was fed back to the studio, where someone rolled a tape deck.

I often used pay phones to feed audio, but over time I noticed they were becoming harder and harder to unscrew, even with the wrench. I recall hearing, anecdotally, that phone companies were beginning to seal the caps with epoxy because thieves were stealing the copper wire or other metal elements for resale.

If I couldn’t find a pay phone (who can, now?) I would look for any kind of phone. In 1984, I was in Chicago when the ABC newsdesk in New York moved me to Detroit, where the Tigers were one win away from taking the World Series. It was too late, apparently, for me to secure a press pass, so I wandered around the periphery of Tiger Stadium during the game and interviewed fans. When the home team clinched the game and the championship, a riot broke out on the adjacent streets. (The illogic of rioting in victory is one of the mysteries of sports fandom.) After dodging flying bottles and oncoming police horses, I looked around for a pay phone so I could file. Seeing none, I entered a residential neighborhood across the street from the stadium, walked up to the front door of the first house, rang the bell and identified myself as a reporter. The friendly folks welcomed me in and watched as I unscrewed the mouthpiece on their living room telephone to file this:

1984 Detroit World Series Riot (:43)

And, one final example of how things have changed: when they first became available in the eighties, ABC Radio News obtained some mobile phones. “Mobile” is a relative term. These monsters were about the size of a car battery and nearly as heavy. They came with a shoulder strap. The first time I was handed one and told to file from some breaking story in Manhattan, there wasn’t time to fully show me how it worked. So, when it came time to call the newsroom, I punched in the number and waited for the call to go through. There’d been no dial tone and now no ringing sound. Nothing. Tried again. Nope. Repeated attempts brought the same silence.

Nobody had told me about this button that read: SEND.

-30-

(Note: The title of this post echoes that of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War book, “The Things They Carried.” I mean no disrespect to brave soldiers. Moreover, I honor brave war correspondents, including the many who gave their lives covering combat.)

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