Adam Strong

Educational Television: Working Public TV in the ’90s

(Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash)

It was a heady time for TV in the 1990s. Adam Strong shares stories about what it was like working at a public television studio in the ’90s.

 

Before you went into Television, you wanted to produce something good. Then, you graduated, you lived in England, bummed around taking temp jobs and having adventures. When you got back, you had to get a job, at the commercial station, you worked the night shift. You got high and switched between the bland soup of TV commercials and the wedding cake and neon pomp of the local 10 O’Clock News. It was a TV station, but it was a TV station without a soul; ABC News, Nightline, continuous analysis of the same story: Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Monday Night Football.

Your co-workers worked in Television because they worshipped the box. They raised kids to watch TV with the same sense of reverence they had. One of your co-workers would come running in when there was a beautiful woman on the screen and, right away, he felt the need to capture this wonderful moment of a beautiful woman on screen, “We need to be rolling tape on this one, man.”

You stood there, you didn’t grab a tape.

***

After the 10 O’Clock News, most nights were quiet, just you filing tapes away. The sports guy ruined your buzz, you are listening to the satellite alternative music channel, weird videos 24/7 cranked loud; men in Beatles suits sing, “Destination Ursa Major.” You were singing along when Terry Chick, the sports guy, walked in.

Terry had a serious dome bouffant, enormous eyebrows covering up two slits for eyes. He’d want you to stop what you were doing and help him. He wanted to talk about NASCAR, he wanted to talk about Golf, NCAA Football. He had this bad-cologne, grope-y, used-car salesman vibe.

Your shift started at 10:00 p.m., lunch was at 3:00 a.m., quitting time was 6:00 a.m. Your reward? A bong hit or three in front of WKRP in Cincinnati.

Then you drift off to sleep by 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., wake at 4:00 p.m., it’s almost dark. Friends come by for a beer you don’t drink. They leave at 9:00, you go to work.

You start having panic attacks, which feel like your mind’s made out of razor blades.

The pilot light is out. You turned it off back in the summer when you first moved into this one-bedroom shack. You call the power company, wait on hold for an hour for someone to tell you that sending someone to come out to light the pilot light will cost you a couple of hundred dollars. Do you have any really long matches?

You open up the oven to warm up the bedroom. This place is all one room anyway. Get a space heater, have friends over for a bowl and an episode of Seinfeld, maybe a few klump thomps from DJ Shadow on your stereo system. When friends come over, they ask, “Can we go somewhere else?”

 

You hate the night shift. You work there for only a few months. One night, you lock yourself out for an hour and a half while having a smoke. Your job was to control the station. The station went black for 1.5 hours.

 

You hate the night shift. You work there for only a few months. One night, you lock yourself out for an hour and a half while having a smoke. Your job was to control the station. The station went black for 1.5 hours. No commercials, no programs, nothing. The people who paid for commercials got 90 minutes of dead air and an absent master control operator.

The next day, you quit before they can fire you. You show up to South Carolina ETV, you start in Marketing. A shirt and a tie and a boss who takes every advantage of every privilege the good ole boy system will allow. One night, you run into your boss at local bar Group Therapy. He is more loaded than you are. Ron and his friends buy you a shot, then another.

The next day is rough, but you manage to come in. You only make six dollars an hour. You’d better make it in. He calls in sick. You do all the orders and all you can remember is his pale ass dancing to Steve Miller the night before.

One day, he doesn’t come back.

“Oh yeah, Ron took a different job,” Lori, second in command, says a few weeks later. You liked Ron. He was an over-privileged former frat boy, but he was nice enough to give you additional responsibility. You got to call a meeting you arranged on your own, that felt pretty cool.

After Ron leaves, his assistant replaces him. Lori does not like you; she thinks you are weird and not dependable. She is probably correct on all of those accounts, but she is content to never speak to you directly, instead telling Michelle what it is you are supposed to do. You like Michelle. She, unlike Lori, has a sense of humor. You understand that Lori had to put up with a lot of bullshit to get that job, to be seen as a woman and a VP of Marketing. You know that now, you didn’t know it then.

Months go by, this is when the mouse babies are keeping you awake.

One day, there is an opening in the production department, floor crew, studio, making TV. Why you signed up for Marketing in the first place was to get your foot in the door. You’d been searching the Archaic State jobs website for weeks. And there it was, the position you’d been waiting for, your foot in the door.

Floor Crew Member 1 – Salary $15,000 per year. Assisting in all facets of the television production process possible duties include building and taking down sets, running camera for a variety of in-studio productions. Running graphics for studio productions, other duties as assigned. Must be able to lift 50 lbs. College degree required.

The first day you walked into Studio A, you were hired. You were elated, an actual, for-real production job, not hovering over the idea of TV Production in Marketing. Now, your bosses were a man named Peck, whom you haven’t met, and Johnny, the guy with the gravelly voice who drank too much until he got married.

Peck was a large gentle man who spoke with a thick low-country accent. He had a lot of air moving through that body of his.

“So, what you’re saying, Adam, is you gave up wearing a suit and tie and you make less money than you did before.”

Johnny and Peck’s office was where the orders come through, which shows we were setting up for. If it’s an episode of Crime to Court we need the Crime to Court set, there are judges’ benches and witness stands, tables and seats for the defendant and the prosecution, it takes hours to get that one right. Most of the other stuff is pretty minimal, they put the emphasis on the lighting, that’s where Landry and Sam and Jay and the smells come in.

 


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You work with different directors, Marc Manges, who worked with Letterman locally in Indiana. You are doing a teleconference for the National Psychiatric Association’s live call-in shows. You are in the control room with Manges. He’s a gruff ex-military guy who walks like Yosemite Sam and tells filthy jokes. He’s telling you about the strippers one night with Dave Letterman and the crew when they went out for drinks. You don’t know if this is true or not when one of the headshrinkers walks into the bathroom with his microphone on and his mic still hot.

So, all the grunts and oh yeahs and, yes, the peeing sounds, all of those men’s room relief sounds of a host who has held it for at least an hour are there for all of us in the control room to hear. The sound of urine hitting a toilet bowl, and the gurgle of toilet flush that follows.

The directors at ETV are a collection of characters.

There’s Jim Eddins. For a time, you will sleep with his daughter. Don’t know if he ever knew. He’s the one with the Emmy, he swears a lot for a meticulous pain in the ass but only during a show, afterwards, he is polite and occasionally kind.

Aaron, who is great, intuitive, not afraid to take risks, collaborative, he gives you all kinds of opportunities.

You become well known for doing solid graphics, you are good with computers; must’ve been all that time with the bong and solitaire.

 

Adam Strong

Adam Strong is the founder of the reading series Songbook PDX. His work has appeared in Entropy, the Atticus Review, NAILED Magazine, Gravity of the Thing, in the anthologies City of Weird, The Untold Gaze, and on the Storytellers Telling Stories podcast. He writes, draws, and loves in Portland, Oregon, and is a high school Digital Arts teacher.

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