Birth of a Station

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

But thanks to Diller's own savvy, WAMI doesn't even have to live up to expectations in order to make money. Adam Ware, the limousine-riding spokesman for the network, says the station could start making money in only a few months. Within just a few years, Diller may recover the estimated $30 million he reportedly is investing in the start-up.

But none of that really matters -- Diller is poised to make money no matter how badly the station tanks, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year the court ruled that cable companies must include all local broadcast stations on their menu of channels. This means that on a dial where ESPN2 battles with the Cartoon Network and a dozen other cable channels for a limited number of channels, WAMI is guaranteed a spot on the roster of every cable company from Key Largo to Margate.

That ruling alone jacked up the value of WAMI and of all the other stations in the USA Broadcasting network. If this experiment in local programming doesn't bear fruit, Diller can just sell everything and move on to the next venture flush with capital.

Of course, these larger economic considerations mean little to Diller's aspirational foot soldiers, who spent the weeks previous to the launch running themselves ragged to ensure that WAMI would live up to its hype.

At 11 p.m. on a Saturday before the launch, Chris Sloan's dress clothes were gone, replaced by shorts and a gray T-shirt. I had dropped by the Lincoln Road studios to see what was going on. The obvious answer: work. "Most people can't do more than one start-up in their lives," Sloan allowed. "It's just too hard, too hard." He clicked a mouse to show off the new weather system he'd purchased. This was of particular relevance to Sloan, because he is not just WAMI's creative director, he is also the station's acting weatherman. On this Saturday night, the vice president/weatherman labored until 2 a.m.

Promotions producer Rafael Oller toiled on the mezzanine. On the floor between the studio and the station's main offices is a row of tiny cubicles enclosed behind sliding glass doors. In each cubicle is a set of computer screens, mixing boards, and other equipment necessary to produce shows and promos. Oller was deep into a promo for Ocean Drive, the TV show. A glow from the screen illuminated his face. It took him a full day or two to patch together the video, music, and voice-over required for each spot. "Maybe it's not exactly fair to say it takes that long," he said. "We're multitasking, so it takes me longer to finish a promo than it would if I was just working on promos alone."

Oller, who is 34 years old, once smuggled a camera onto the Guantanamo naval base and shot a 90-minute documentary on Cuban refugees detained there. He took a job with WAMI because it allowed him to flex the creative muscles he'd developed in filmmaking. "They've given me the freedom to realize my visions," he noted. So far, though, his duties at WAMI have consisted mostly of creating promos for the kids show WAMI on Miami, for Ocean Drive, and for the Miami Heat, among others. For a brief period of time, he dressed up as a parrot and stalked Miami's then-Mayor Xavier Suarez as part of a guerrilla marketing stunt.

Oller and Sloan are not alone in doing double duty. Kathleen Murphy is one of two hosts of Sportstown Miami, a nightly look at the Marlins, Dolphins, and other teams. She also is expected to cohost Lincoln Lounge. The cameraman who trails Herald reporters for City Desk also edits all the footage himself.

"This is a very high-pressure situation," Leshem said a few days before WAMI's official June 8 debut. "The whole world is waiting for us to fail. I've got to come up with programming to keep 150 people employed and to win a share of the ratings, and to prove that we can succeed in the market. I don't need the pressure to succeed to come from Barry Diller. I'm putting more than enough pressure on myself."

If there is any doubt that the start-up of a new TV station is a high-pressure gig, the night of the launch proved it conclusively. On that night Jon Miller, president and chief executive officer of the station's parent company, USA Broadcasting, was in town to see what his flagship station had come up with. He reclined in an office chair. His white sneakers rested on a desk adorned with an empty pizza box and two coffee mugs from a syndicated game show. With him were Leshem and Sloan, who had kindly invited me along to this informal screening in a corner office of the WAMI studios.

Sloan leaned against a credenza. Leshem, dressed down in a baby blue WAMI T-shirt, leaned forward in a chair so that his face was no more than four feet from the glowing TV monitor. Most of WAMI's staff had arrived at the station before 6 a.m. so they could toast the on-air debut by popping the corks from bottles of warm champagne.

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