Jan 28, 2009
Susen Sawatzki

Randall CarlisleThere was a break in his voice and I detected the glistening of a tear in the corner of his eye as Randall Carlisle, former news anchor for ABC4, told how the news of John Lennon’s fatal shooting came noisily through the tele-type machine when he was a radio news reporter in Columbus, Ohio. “That was sad. I really love the Beatles,” he reflected. Randall began his broadcast news career as a radio reporter in Ohio and was once a few feet from a fellow reporter who got shot to death in the adjoining phone booth while he was reading in his news report of the race riots in Columbus. He was covering Kent State during the shootings and saw one of the students who was shot and wounded Laid off as news anchor for ABC4 on September 30, 2008, Randall looks back at a lifetime career in broadcast news.

He started reporting and broadcasting news over the radio in a small town in Ohio at the age of 14 and spent the next 40 some years loving the challenges, the heartbreak, the camaraderie and the glory of the broadcast news business. Of late, however, the desperation for viewers has placed broadcast news in the hands of consultants, all the while, the consumption of news is happening online and through many more multiples of cable stations. Randall comments on the state of the broadcast industry, “I don’t think I ever want to get back into TV news. I’m not faulting the industry for it but I don’t necessarily agree with what they’re doing.

There’s very little emphasis on experience now. I used to believe that TV news was important and I just don’t believe that it is anymore. And, it’s not fun like it used to be. You should do a job that you enjoy.” Randall remembers the heyday of broadcast news. He tells, “The FCC mandated that television stations had to do news and it was not intended as a revenue-producing center. Therefore they left us alone and didn’t focus on us at all. We were the stepchild off in some little room and everybody smoked cigarettes and cigars—it was the typical smoke-filled room. There were no females back then in either TV or radio news. I was in Columbus, Ohio at that time and the great thing was, we had so much fun because we weren’t expected to make any money for the station. “I don’t know when it began to happen, but when they realized they could make money from news broadcasts, especially TV, that’s when everything changed. Consultants sprang up and they started doing research and the whole thing changed as to doing news that people want as opposed to news that we think is important. In the old days we considered ourselves journalists, and I say that not in an arrogant way, but we were trained to figure out what was important in the news and so that’s how we would stack a newscast. That’s a massive model change and it’s been going on for years. “I can understand because the competition has stiffened for advertising dollars.

When I came to Salt Lake in 1980, there were only three TV stations and they all made money no matter what they did. Channel 2 had so many reporters—there were times that some reporters wouldn’t get on the air more than once or twice a week and so they had time to work on stories as opposed to churning out massive amounts of stuff every day. Today, staffs are cut all the time. “We had a unit at Channel 2 called EXTRA run by Bill Lord who is now vice president of news at one of the Washington D.C. stations. He had a staff of 10 and they could do esoteric stories that had nothing to do with local news. They would put together a half-hour show that was something like 60 minutes. You would never see that today. Plus, they had three or four long-form pieces each week. “There are so many other varieties of ways to get news today. You don’t have to watch the news to know what’s going on. In the old days, you had to. That’s why I felt there was some importance to the newscasts. “It used to be when I was growing up, my parents made me sit down and watch the news every night before I went to bed. And that’s just what everybody did. People don’t do that anymore. If you wanted to find out something in the news, you can just go home right now and Google it and you’ll know what’s happening. You don’t have to turn on the TV.

The wave of an Internet-literate generation skews the TV-viewing audience older. Randall comments, “Our demographics have aged for network broadcast newscasts—look at the commercials, you see erectile dysfunction, heartburn and all that kind of stuff geared for an older demographic because young people aren’t watching network newscasts. And if network TV is to survive, they’ve got to figure out a way to draw young people to watch news and as you know with your children, they just don’t do it. If I had the solution to that, I’d be a consultant and I’d be rich. Getting a younger audience is a struggle everybody’s fighting for right now. “Younger people have other ways of getting the news that is of interest to them. I ask younger people, ‘What would make you watch the news?’ They all say nothing. Nothing could get them to watch the news. We’ve done surveys that say younger people think they are getting a newscast when they watch Jon Stewart. And they are getting some information. So what do we do? Do we start doing news like that to get young people to watch? Someone’s going to have to change the model and nobody has.” And perhaps the methodology to determine (guess) what makes a winning news product is flawed by its very nature.

Two personal examples that Randall cites: “Focus groups and diaries determine our whole future for network and affiliate news. They don’t usually let anchors be privy to research results but I did see two reports done on me. “They did a lot of research on me and my co-anchor in Minneapolis. The research said I would be highly successful there and I bombed miserably. So, you have to wonder about research. I saw another research report back in the ‘80s and it was from the consultant who came up with the slogan “Eyewitness News.” The conclusion of the report that was done at the end of my first year at KUTV said I will never be successful in the Salt Lake market. I didn’t see all the verbatims but I think it’s so funny that that was his conclusion and I ended up being on the air here for 24 years on and off after that. So, I failed in Minneapolis and was supposed to be a star. I was destined to failure here and had some 24 good years. If consultants worked, every station would be number one.”

It took Randall a few weeks to quiet the alerted ear for the sound of fire engines and breaking news. “This is the first time in 40 years that I am not working,” he concludes. One by one, the familiar voices with authority and perspective disappear from the local TV newscasts.

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