Birth of a Station
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."
That message, it turned out, was most touchingly articulated by Leshem. "We're not going to be everything to everyone," he told me. "We say that we're aspirational, which means that we're looking for a viewer who wants to make himself a better person. It doesn't matter if he's a ditch digger or a heart surgeon, as long as he wants to make himself more interesting."
As he made this pronouncement, Leshem was sitting on the marble steps that are the centerpiece of the studio. From this perch he could gawk at the in-line skaters rolling down Lincoln Road, at the reporters scurrying about the WAMI newsroom, or at the construction workers still laboring over the cavernous studio, who at the moment were eating lunch at his feet. "That said," Leshem went on, "I don't want to posture that I am making the world a better place or am working for altruistic reasons. We're still trying to get ratings."
It's a good thing he added the caveat, because aspirational is not the first word that leaps to mind when considering the WAMI show entitled 10+ (the working title was Miami Hotties), which airs every Saturday from 11 to 11:30 p.m. To quote from the station's press kit: "Savor Miami's 'Hotties du Jour' in our postmodern, eye-candy feast. An interactive beauty contest where the audience votes on the hottest hottie and the hunkiest hunk. With tongue firmly in cheek, our cohosts track down the ultimate Hotties: male, female, gay, straight in their natural habitats with lots of flesh and humor. Basically a lighthearted beauty contest that hits the streets of South Florida."
Nor do the reruns of The Six Million Dollar Man, airing before 10+, appear to be especially aspirational.
But Leshem himself certainly is aspirational. At age 35, with precious little experience in the field, he's managed to land a gig overseeing the creative side of a TV station start-up. He's an actor by trade, performing off-Broadway after studying theater at Sarah Lawrence College. In Los Angeles he directed the video for "Baby I Love Your Way" by Big Mountain. Eventually he stumbled onto the Internet and his current perch on the so-called cutting edge. His Cobalt Moon, an "interactive entertainment company," linked the massive software outfit Microsoft with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. To read stories about his previous projects is to encounter adjectives such as "hip" and "cool." Leshem wears silver designer eyeglasses and a shaved head.
I asked Leshem to be a bit more specific about "aspirational." For example, who is his target audience? "You are!" he shot back, pointing his finger at my chest. "We're looking for someone just like you." Let's see, I'm a young man sucking in the last breaths of my twenties. Coca-Cola is my preferred soft drink. Does it matter that I'm married?
But Leshem isn't a numbers guy. Major editorial decisions at WAMI are often made on gut calls, he assured me, not market research. And there is little attention paid (at least at this time) to profit or ratings share. "I have a clear mandate," he asserted. "I am here to create new and interesting programming."
Some of WAMI's programming is interesting, and most of it is new in the sense that it hasn't been on the air before. But it's questionable how new it is creatively. The 7:30 p.m. talkfest Out Loud is a straight take on ABC's Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher. WAMI's press kit says as much. The dance show Barcode is referred to as "an American Bandstand for the new millennium." City Desk is "like COPS only with reporters."
For some reason Leshem bristled at the charge that his shows are derivative. "The Lips -- that's extraordinarily original!" he protested, referring to the pair of glossy red lips that reads news headlines every evening at 11. "The local Traffic Jams [a video traffic map accompanied by soft-rock pablum airing for three straight hours every weekday morning] could have originated anywhere, but it came out of here. We have the traffic patterns, we have a good traffic service in the county. And we have the initiative to pair that traffic with good tunes. That's it. And that's original.
"Look," Leshem explained, "the start of a station is like a birth. "Do you have kids? You should think about it. A birth is painful, it's messy, and it's also, in the end, extraordinary and brilliant."
For someone about to give birth, Veronica Puleo appeared remarkably trim. Technicians had yet to dress her in a hospital gown, nor had they duct-taped a pillow to her abdomen. The 25-year-old actress from New Jersey is WAMI's evening host. But on this day in late May, she was starring in a promotional skit that involved having her simulate delivering from her loins a large cardboard station logo, which is the word "Miami" enclosed in a cartoon dialogue balloon.
The shoot was taking place in the maternity ward at Miami Beach's Mount Sinai Hospital, which for some unknown reason I had been asked not to identify. A man hired as the station's weatherman (only to be dismissed before WAMI hit the air), had been recruited as the doctor. Rafael Oller, an assistant in the promotions department, might as well have been the midwife, for as director of the spot, he was orchestrating all the shots on the birth.
The idea was that this promo would be the first thing on the air when the station started up at 6 a.m. on June 8. "Ted Turner filmed one of these when he launched CNN," noted WAMI vice president and creative director Chris Sloan, who was recruited to play an orderly. "In their promo they said they'd be on the air until the end of the world. So at the same time, he also recorded a spot for Armageddon. Seriously, it says something like: We promised we'd be on until the end of the world. That time is now. May God be with you."
How about at WAMI? Will a doomsday announcement be waiting in the vault? "No way," Sloan said with a laugh. "Ours will be on in more like a year and a half."
A cast of a dozen surgical-scrub-clad extras culled from the station's promotions department fanned around a bed in which Puleo rested in the stirrups. The doomed weatherman hovered around her crotch in preparation for the birth. On command the extras shouted instructions to push, push, push. At regular intervals Puleo's face and arms were spritzed with baby oil to simulate sweat. Finally the giant cardboard logo appeared, splattered in raspberry-flavored Jell-O.
With all the separate takes and shifting camera angles and flubbed lines, the shoot ran more than three hours. It would take Oller, a filmmaker by trade, three days to edit the film into shape. The promo itself, when it finally aired, was one minute long.
The actual conception of the station was even more difficult. Leshem wasn't named as editor-in-chief until December of last year, giving him precious little time to develop, produce, schedule, and market a full lineup of local programming, all of which was expected of him. The station initially planned to launch in early spring but pushed that date back until after the May sweeps. Leshem explained at the time that the delay was caused in part by the difficulty of creating quality local programming.
Though the debut took place more than two weeks ago, the station's schedule is still in flux. A program featuring former Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan is not yet ready to roll. The late-night variety show Lincoln Lounge waits in dry dock. Given these hassles, is Leshem worried about developing new programming? Heck no: "It will only get easier once our infrastructure is in place. We've hired extremely talented producers who may not have done much TV production in the past, but they're learning. And as they learn, they're better at production, at knowing what they're supposed to do, and at how to pitch new and better shows."
When Diller first announced his plans for WAMI, much attention was lavished on his ambitious plans for news programming. In an article in BusinessWeek, Diller promised three hours of news per day. Leshem later boasted of his station's opportunity to reinvent insipid, bland local TV. "Will we cover a fire simply because it is happening when we're on the air?" he asked rhetorically. "No, we won't. There'll be no spot news at all if we can help it."
But for all this tough talk, WAMI in the end committed just a single half-hour of its 24-hour daily schedule to local news (though the show is rerun three times throughout the cycle). The final product, or at least its early incarnation, does manage to avoid replicating the standard format of a news show. But like almost everything else at WAMI, The Times, as the program is called, is derivative. Obvious influences are the Comedy Channel's Daily Show and (to keep things local) Channel 7's Deco Drive. The main news story of the day is used as fodder for snarky comments. For example, when a Miami City Commissioner was sent to jail, they referred to him not as Humberto Hernandez but as "baby-faced Bert Hernandez."
As advertised, the first two weeks featured zero stories about car wrecks or fires. Instead there was coverage of a symposium on political corruption, where Miami Mayor Joe Carollo was asked if the forum was convened to combat corruption or to teach politicians how to do it better. (Carollo, as anyone who has covered him knows, is virtually incapable of expressing humor.) One reporter interviewed the last surviving Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. Another profiled a sandcastle sculptor. Into this mix of (sometimes excellent) fluff can occasionally fall some serious journalism. In the station's third day on the air, for example, reporter John Mattes revealed that a Miami assistant city manager is under investigation for possibly rigging a city contract bid.
While WAMI's commitment to local news is still very much in question, there is little doubt that station honchos have done an excellent job wooing favor with the local media. To plug WAMI's behind-the-scenes look at the Herald newsroom, the daily paper placed an article about WAMI on the front page. Ocean Drive magazine, which got its own show, also published a flattering profile of Leshem. The Sun-Sentinel is not in any way affiliated with WAMI. Last week its TV critic, Tom Jicha, declared that WAMI's first week on the air "skirts truth-in-advertising laws in billing itself as bigtime."
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?"
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.
The long day -- a day filled with maddening technical glitches -- had left Miller, Sloan, and Leshem exhausted. Still the men waxed optimistic as they settled in to watch WAMI's first evening of prime-time programming. Neil at Night was the lead-off show, a half-hour video version of Neil Rogers' foul-mouthed and popular radio talk show. Miller and Leshem laughed at Rogers' ribald jokes. Someone relayed a bawdy wisecrack Rogers had made about Barry Diller's homosexuality, which the TV show's producers had carefully excised from the video broadcast. Then came the commercial.
But instead of a seamless segue into a spot for Pollo Tropical, the screen on the TV faded completely black, except for a block of white letters that read "BREAK #1." It was an incredible gaffe, hardly the "network quality" stuff promised in the station's brochure for advertisers. Leshem threw his six-foot-four-inch frame onto the floor and pounded the carpet in mock hysterics. Jon Miller showed less humor. Brusquely he ordered me from the room. The door slammed as soon as I left, but not before Sloan was also ejected.
The door swung open and Miller emerged. He yanked Sloan into another office. Even with the door closed, Miller could be heard (and seen through a glass wall) ripping into Sloan for letting a reporter from a newspaper -- specifically from a newspaper that does not have a programming partnership with the station -- see this embarrassing mistake.
Of course I could have seen the mistake just as easily if I had been watching at home. The only thing different about watching it with these WAMI hotshots was that I got to see Miller bawl out his underlings.
The display of frayed nerves was not exactly a shocker. Throughout the month or so I spent observing WAMI's preparations to air, it became increasingly obvious that there was a huge gap between the station's promises -- a veritable reinvention of the local programming form -- and what it was actually delivering.
By launch day eight hours of local programming were on the air. Leshem vowed that the station would eventually feature local stuff 24 hours a day. He did not have a time line, however, for when that lofty goal would be met. Leshem also reiterated that he wasn't worried about ratings during WAMI's infancy -- a good thing, because so far they've been anemic. Nor was the Pollo Tropical debacle an isolated flub. Sound levels have fallen so low as to be inaudible. Segments of programming have inadvertently been repeated. On the station's third broadcast day, a truck ran into the WAMI transmitter in Miramar, knocking the station off the air for several hours.
The truck accident wasn't an internal problem, of course, but most of the other glitches witnessed during the first couple of weeks on air were attributed to the inexperienced staff. Spokesman Adam Ware claimed the start-up kinks would be ironed out within four weeks. After nine weeks, maximum, everything would be running as smoothly as at any major network.
But the entire birthing process of WAMI was one that left most of its staff exhausted and not a little churlish. Leshem himself, perhaps the station's most visible booster, sounded downright ambivalent when asked how long he planned to stay with Diller's flagship. "As long as necessary," he said in one breath, and then in the next: "People don't stay with one job very long any more, and I am a man of many interests.
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