Birth of a Station

Celebrated by a nationwide cavalcade of hype, Barry Diller's revolutionary new WAMI-TV hits the air. The verdict? Click.

Soaring in a universe far removed from Miami is an elite constellation of media moguls. Ted Turner is a member. So are Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, and a select few others. We all see their faces on the news, maybe catch a tuxedoed photo-shoot in Vanity Fair. Sometimes we skim reports of the stock-swapping and buyouts they execute as they fight for precious slivers of bandwidth. Sometimes we don't. For example, it flew right past me when Barry Diller bought control of a dozen TV stations, including Channel 69 in South Florida. That was nearly three years ago.

Diller is one of the brighter stars in this media galaxy, having run Paramount Studios, launched the Fox network, and transformed the lowly Home Shopping Network into a cubic zirconia-studded cash cow. Last year he announced plans to transform his local stations into a loose network. He vowed not to lard these stations with third-tier sitcoms and cop shows produced in Los Angeles but rather fill them with a slate of local fare. Most of the news, talk shows, and entertainment would be created and produced in the city in which it would air. South Florida's Channel 69 would be the flagship.

Diller and his minions leased studio space in the signature Sony Building on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. They changed the call letters of the station from WYHS to WAMI, darn near an acronym for We Are Miami. Construction began on the street-level studio. The ground floor picture windows were covered in vibrant murals advertising the station's slogan: The City Is Our Studio.

If the city is their studio, and if I am in the city, then I must be in the studio. The ramifications of this syllogism first became apparent in March, as I walked up Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. A friend visiting from Chicago decided that he wanted a smoothie, a concoction of fruit and protein powder popular with bodybuilders. I'm not normally much of a smoothie drinker (there are only so many amino acids I need in my system at any one time) but my friend insisted, and so we stepped into a smoothie shop.

A blond woman with a TV camera perched on her shoulder greeted us at the door. She said her name was Kelly -- "I'm not going to tell you my last name" -- and that she worked at USA Broadcasting, Diller's network. She identified herself as a reporter. Kelly didn't act much like a reporter, though. She acted more like, well, the director of a TV commercial.

"OK, I want you to do a few things for me," she said. "Go over to the counter and order your drinks." My friend chose a Berry Burn smoothie. I selected a Choc-O-Large.

"Don't look at the camera," Kelly cried as we reached for our drinks.
She turned to my friend. "OK, take a sip and say, 'That's the best smoothie I've ever had!'"

"That's the best smoothie I've ever had," he mimicked.
"Now you," she commanded, turning to the girl behind the counter. "Speak up really loud and ask him" -- that would be me -- "if he wants a smoothie card. Speak up really loud so it'll be heard."

"DO YOU WANT A SMOOTHIE CARD?" she bellowed at me.
"YES!" I shouted back. "I WOULD LIKE A SMOOTHIE CARD!"
"That was great," Kelly told my friend. To me she was less complimentary. "I'm cutting you," she said curtly. "I've already got a really fit guy for your footage." We asked when this probative piece of journalism might air, but Kelly demurred. "I'm really not allowed to talk about the station with anybody," she said. "They made that perfectly clear to me."

If the smoothie incident was my baptism into the world of WAMI, I didn't have to wait long for my catechism. Indeed, Diller's local-programming concept, which he labeled CityVision, generated a flood of national press from Fortune, Forbes, Wired, and countless trade mags and major daily newspapers. Diller billed CityVision as a throwback to the dawn of television, when stations prided themselves on producing on-site programming that lent them a distinctive local flavor.

"No local broadcaster deals locally any more," he told the Red Herring magazine, "which is why all the news looks the same and why everyone is covering birdbrain car crashes and murder and mayhem."

Thanks to Kelly, of course, I was already a member of the CityVision team (however minor). But I was naturally curious to see what lay behind all the hype. So I called up the folks at Channel 69 and explained my interest in writing a story about the birth of their station. The inquiry seemed natural enough. After all, Diller boasted to reporters that CityVision was to be modeled after alternative city papers just like New Times.

Sure enough, the initial responses were good. After some negotiating, I was promised full access to the station in the days preceding its June 8 launch; interviews with the head honchos, a seat at dramatic programming meetings, perhaps (I told myself) even the chance to cruise clubland with Barry himself.

That's not what I got, though. In the end, my access to the station and its staff was tightly regulated. Most of the top brass declined to be interviewed; it took four attempts, for instance, just to catch Matti Leshem, the station's editor-in-chief. All but the most innocuous of meetings were off-limits. For a station so much in the spotlight, WAMI proved pathologically bashful -- just as Kelly had warned. "It's not that we're paranoid," explained Malcolm Bird, producer of the station's late-night and kids' programs. "It's just that it's the basic start-up, and everyone wants to stay on message."

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