Saturday, January 15, 2022

Weekend Post

 

Great expression in Hollywood: Mentors get eaten by their young.

While there is certainly no shortage of that “All About Eve” type behavior, I must say that for myself, I would never be where I am today were it not for some exceptional mentors. It’s like I learned pitching from a staff of Sandy Koufaxes.  One reason I started this blog was to be able to give something back. I’m a big believer in “Pay it Forward”. So if any tips I share you find valuable you can thank these people.

Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, the Charles Brothers, Gene Reynolds, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Treva Silverman, and one name you’ve never heard – Bruce Anson. Don’t race to imdb to look him up. He’s not there. Even Googling him will yield no results. (There are others with that name but they’re not him.)

But Bruce Anson taught me more about the craft of writing than all my high school and college teachers combined.

I was a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. Bruce was one of their newscasters. He was in his 60s, smoked and drank too much (which I think was a prerequisite for getting hired in that department back then). He had been a booth announcer in the early days of TV and prior to that, network radio. And now he was pulling part-time Sunday night shifts, writing and delivering news twice an hour in between public service programs the station was obligated to run. When he finished at midnight the station went off the air for maintenance. So not exactly prime time.

He’d show up in shorts, loud Hawaiian shirts, and flip flops. Other newsmen reported for work in suits and ties.

My job was to write the sports portion of the newscast. Essentially a rundown of the day’s scores. Northwestern beat Ohio State 23-10, Notre Dame edged Army 21-20, etc. The most creative thing I did was once write: LSU puffed Rice 34-14.

During baseball season all the scores would be final by 6:00. There was no Sunday night baseball. Not even in Texas. The shift was until midnight but most sports interns would write up three sportscasts that could be rotated and went home six hours early. I went to Bruce and asked if I could help write his newscasts. He said, sure, but it’s not as easy as I think.

He was right.

I’d take a story from the United Press International wire, rewrite it, and hand it to Bruce. I assumed he’d say, “Great job. Thank you.”

No.

He said, “This sentence could be cut in half”, “There’s a better way of saying this”, “Use more descriptive words”, “This point should go ahead of that point”, “this phrase is a little confusing.” He’d then take a pen and start rewriting -- slashing words, replacing phrases, making it shorter, punchier, clearer, BETTER.

And so began a weekly pattern that lasted until football season. I would doggedly write story after story determined to just once please that son-of-a-bitch. Finally it happened. A house fire story. I don’t remember the details but I do remember I used the word “blaze”. It aired right before the vasectomy PSA. I was so proud.

Be ruthless. Always look to make it better. Have a little Bruce Anson sitting on your shoulder when you write. Ask him to put out the cigarette though.

I owe Bruce Anson a lot. I thank him for his time, his toughness, his talent. And if he were here today I'm sure he'd say "Isn't all the alliteration a little precious?"

22 comments :

sinyet said...

Thank you and Bruce for this.

Kevin from VA said...

Great post!

Pat Reeder said...

I can relate. My first job in radio was at a small Texas station where I was the only person around from 6-10 p.m. I had to DJ and play records while gathering wire copy and calling around to the police and other sources for local news. Then I wrote it up while the records were playing and delivered the final news report at 9:45.

That was great training for later writing our syndicated topical radio service, The Comedy Wire. Before writing the jokes, I had to write the news stories they were based on. They had to be clear, entertaining and convey the entire story, all in five lines of text or less. In the fax days, using a one-syllable word instead of two syllables could shorten a story just enough to leave space below for an extra one-line joke. So in our case, brevity really was the soul of wit.

Then came the Internet and no limits on the amount of text you could send or space you could waste, and people started going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and saying nothing.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

If only all young news people--broadcast or print--had such caring supervision. Good post today. Thank you, Mr. Levine (and Mr. Anson).

Dave Creek said...

The best early advice I had in broadcast writing came from the late John Lindgren when I was an intern at WHAS-TV in the late 70s. I was having trouble writing a story (I don't even remember the topic) and he asked me what it was about. I told him something happened a certain way, certain events unfolded, and it ended up with particular consequences. He said, "That's what you write."

As a friend of mine says, "Light dawned on Marblehead," and I was much more confident and assured in my writing after that.

Todd Everett said...

I like alliteration a lot.

Steve Mc said...

Years writing radio commercial copy helped tremendously with clarity and editing. A 30 second spot was 30 seconds…not 26, not 32…exactly 30. How can I say what needs to be said in a clear, interesting way? There are ALWAYS places you can edit

Jim said...

I accepted the non-challenge and found Bruce info online. He went to UCLA and his father was a doctor. He was 5-foot 11-1/2”, had two wives, three kids and at least two dogs. He died in SLO at age 74 in 1990.

His 1950 political party affiliation was “DS” (and not D). I cannot figure out what that means.



Pamela Atherton said...

Yeah, you'd write thirty and they'd tell us to deliver it in 29. 😂. But I'm totally with you. Learning to write commercials taught me the same. I think it has helped me tremendously with business writing over the years. Right to the point. No more than two syllables in a word. End with a call to action or clever tag. Best memos ever!

Michael said...

Ken and I have in common that while he's a writer and I'm a history professor, we both learned the art of storytelling in part from Vin Scully. But when it comes to writing, the historian Richard Hofstadter once said, "Make war on the verb to be." So when I wrote a textbook on Nevada, I decided to avoid using is, was, are, or were, except in quotations. That process proved harder than it looks.

Bob K said...

Great story, Ken. Reminds me a bit of my broadcast journalism class in college. The class was taught by a bureau chief of a major-market news radio station. Penalties on our weekly writing assignments doubled each week until it was 100 points off for any error. My writing got a lot better very quickly.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I remember John Lindgren well. He later became a highly regarded, longtime television newscaster here in Lexington, Kentucky, about 80 miles east of Louisville. Sadly, he died in 2001 after a brave and public battle with cancer. I didn't know Mr. Lindgren personally, but I appreciate your remembering him with this story.

Tom Reeder said...

Jim, In California back then, the political affiliation DS meant "Decline to State".

Mike McCann said...

Oh, those college football scores! Don't you wish you could have once slipped in alongside the real ones: William and Mary over Fred and Ethel, 24 - 14?

Archive Guy said...

Blaze? Ken! Never! It was a fire, maybe a house fire or an industrial fire, but who says "blaze" in normal conversation? When I was writing for radio (for about seven years in L.A.) we had to keep our writing conversational. Also, editors would throw our scripts back at us if we used phrases like winds will "die down" or so-and-so "passed away." Winds die, and so do people. When I first got into radio after working in print I had to learn to use fewer words and write shorter sentences. When I left radio for television news I found that the transition was easier because I could let the pictures tell much of the story. But I never used the word "blaze" instead of "fire." Today, I hear it quite often on TV and radio and it bothers me. I guess all of the editors who mentored me either retired or died before they could teach some of these writers.

Mike Bloodworth said...

This story reminded me of yours and David's "M*A*S*H" episode, "The Most Unforgettable Characters." Where Radar is taking a correspondence course in writing. Was it hard to write that badly on purpose?

I don't know if I could call myself a "mentor," but I was a defacto teacher at my first professional radio job. Rather than hire interns from college broadcasting classes the bosses would hire people off the street. O.K., that's hyperbole. But many had no or very little radio experience at all. That meant that I had to teach news and promo writing to these people. And I was barely out of college myself. It wasn't fun. But the best thing about it was that it made me a better news writer. Not only did I have to make sure that their stories made sense, but I had to be accurate and concise as an example to them as well.

I had much more empathy for my teachers after that.

M.B.

YEKIMI said...

In the declining days of my radio "career" [early 80s] I was also producing shows for local cable TV. Since a lot of high school students wanted to go into TV/radio they wrote some pretty bad stuff. One of them started bringing their scripts [or whatever they were writing] to me and asked me to see if it was OK. I read it and told him to "cut this line, this line and this line. You're just repeating what you said earlier with variations on a theme. You could shorten this up by about 10 minutes by eliminating this and this, it's just extraneous and adds nothing to what you're trying to tell." Mistake. Most of the students then started dropping off their stuff for me to read and critique. Drove me bonkers. When I started working for a government agency, I ended up doing the same for press releases that some of the workers were writing up. I was amazed at how bad some of the stuff was but helped them out best I could. Didn't like being the "grammar police" but felt it was better than making our department look like they were first graders.

ScarletNumber said...

I realize I am missing the point, but the score of that LSU-Rice game was probably 38-3.

Cap'n Bob said...

I cut my first novel from 125,000 words to 75,000 words by vetting each sentence for ways to shorten them. I also tossed a few chapters that contained an unnecessary subplot. It was the best learning experience of my writing life.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Pat Reeder: In our area, the 280-character limit on Twitter (and even more, the 140-character limit that preceded it), provides that sort of discipline and training ground.

wg

DyHrdMET said...

Were there seemingly unrelated skills learned or tasks performed in one career that helped you in one of your other careers? This story about writing and re-writing news copy for radio probably helped you in sitcoms and maybe even calling baseball games. But are there other skills or tasks that transferred?

Pat Reeder said...

To Wendy M. Grossman: I think the fact that Twitter felt it had to expand from 140 characters to 280 speaks volumes.