Birth of a Station

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

For anyone on hand during the auditions for Lincoln Lounge, the crisis facing WAMI -- how to create a station with network standards using local talent -- was manifest.

Heavy curtains blocked sunlight from entering the ballroom of the Ritz Plaza Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Spotlights blazed circles on a carpeted stage at the ballroom's east end, erected for this open casting call. One by one the talent trooped forward, a steady stream of aspirants awaiting their moment to shine. A boy performed a magic act with a trick rope. A guitar player sang an ode to beer. A fly girl in sweatpants and running shoes twirled out a break dance (yes, break dance) routine. Facing the stage were the producers of Lincoln Lounge. They did not look especially pleased.

This was the talent pool, after all, and it was not proving to be very deep. After a three-hour parade of show tunes and bad poetry, only one or two acts seemed worthy of attention. The pickings were so slim that in the weeks to come producer Malcolm Bird and Leshem delayed the launch of Lincoln Lounge. Among other changes, they considered adding more national acts.

This was an odd decision for a station that continually squawks about how darn local it is. "We're not going to be produced in Los Angeles by someone who lives in Los Angeles. We're going to be all about Miami," said Leshem, who moved here in December from Los Angeles. His boss, 41-year-old Jon Miller, lives in Los Angeles. Another high-ranking exec, 34-year-old Doug Binzak, is a fellow Angelino. For that matter, so is Barry Diller.

Alfredo Duran is local. The 36-year-old titular head of business operations came over from Miami's defunct AExito!, the Spanish-language free weekly published by the Sun-Sentinel. Before that he managed Univision's Channel 23. I filed four requests to speak with Duran and never got my interview. When I pressed for answers to a couple simple business questions, I was finally patched through to Adam Ware, a USA Broadcasting vice president who spoke from a limousine in New York City.

The out-of-towners are not mere supervisors of the local operation; they have extraordinary input into what goes on the air in South Florida. For instance, it was Diller's idea to broadcast old radio entertainment programs over contemporary video footage of Miami Beach street scenes. The resulting show, RadioVision, is only slightly more captivating than a blank screen.

Al Galvez, a 24-year-old musician from Cutler Ridge who helped create the dance show Barcode, recalled the awe he felt in meetings with the billionaire media mogul: "I'm in a room with this guy talking about a dance show and all I'm thinking is: Wow, this dude owns a quarter of the world. And I don't."

Leshem acknowledged his boss' strong involvement: "Barry Diller, for all his skills, is still a programmer at heart. He is really good at it. We'll be working on a program for three months, and he'll come in and in four minutes get right to the heart of the problem we've been having with it."

The only indisputably local aspect, then, is the talent. At the cattle call for Lincoln Lounge, a befuddled older woman warbled cabaret standards and tossed out a few corny jokes. After she stepped down from the stage, she asked Malcolm Bird if he was aware that Barry Diller had plans to bring a new station to town. "You're looking at it, darling," Bird reassured her. "We're it."

The room broke into giggles. "That was great. That was just great," Bird cracked as he checked to make sure the audition was videotaped. "We've got to show that to Barry."

The station's prelaunch party was held in its new Lincoln Road studio, which at the time -- only two weeks from broadcast -- was still not yet complete. It was an extremely exclusive affair, the chance for station officials to show off their artfully decorated Lincoln Road offices and fancy new electronic gear. The event was so exclusive that Matti Leshem banned WAMI's own news reporters from attending. At least initially. Only after protest did he change his mind and allow staff. Spouses were still banned.

Owing to limited space, the invited guests were only the biggest of the big names. As might be expected, though, not everyone showed up, and the crowd was thinner than anticipated. Those who did make it sipped champagne and wandered around the reverberating studio. Soon enough they departed into the palm trees of Lincoln Road. Simultaneously the curious denizens of Lincoln Road spilled inside the studio; people were simply walking in off the street. The entertainment headliner, Cuban songstress Albita Rodriguez, showed up 20 minutes late.

The highlight of the evening, from the station's standpoint, was the debut of a promotional video. The slick commercial was intended to sell "the message" to potential advertisers, with an emphasis on those aspirational (and presumably free-spending) viewers. When the "play" button was pressed on the VCR, the crowd turned to a large screen in anticipation. But the commercial did not appear on the big screen. Most of the crowd craned their necks in confusion. Only a few noticed the tiny monitors off to the side of the studio on which the promo was playing. "The evening didn't quite work out as we had intended," winced WAMI creative director Chris Sloan afterward. "I see it as a metaphor for our launch in June. I mean, whatever lives up to expectations?"

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