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Dirt, fuzz and videotape

One of the most interesting things about local television stations is that each has a unique culture. The bricks, mortar and electronic infrastructures are as diverse as individual station procedures and policies. Most employees share a common attitude, which may be entirely different from the attitude of employees at the competing station across town.

A professional building cleaner once told me he could tell how happy people were in a particular office building by how clean they kept it. It was his job to clean offices nightly, but how they appeared the next night revealed some interesting clues. Happy people use trash cans; unhappy people don’t or only come close. Happy people clean up after themselves; unhappy people don’t. We discussed how attitudes and cleanliness at the station had changed over the years, in both directions.

Right about now, you’re probably asking yourself what office cleanliness has to do with the transition to digital. I know I would. Well, the transition to digital has changed our attitude about cleanliness in broadcast facilities significantly. Dust and dirt, once the enemy of expensive video heads and maintenance budgets, is no longer as costly. As videotape and VTR maintenance is phased out, the case for station cleanliness is becoming a bit more difficult to argue in dollars and cents.

At one time, most technical facilities at stations were designed to be as dust-free as possible. But even when a facility is designed and built to minimize dust, it still gets dirty. There’s an industry story about a new TV facility that was built using the best available filtration and duct systems. A couple of months after the station moved into the new facility, people began to notice a white dust collecting, and it looked similar to house dust. After a great deal of investigation and discussion, the building contractor collected samples and had the dust examined with an electron microscope. It was, primarily, people fuzz — a mixture of material shed from clothing and human dander.

Another casualty of modern technology is air circulation. Without the heat loads of CRTs and studio light bulbs, older HVAC systems may be out of balance. An HVAC system in a studio where power-hungry lamps have been upgraded to florescent may only run for a few minutes a day. Over time, nature will take its course, water will condense and the likelihood of mold development will increase.

A station I was with had exactly this experience, which started with a weather reporter who was allergic to the mold that appeared about a year after we switched to florescent studio lighting. He spoke with the DoE, who took his complaint to the GM and the business manager. Fortunately, management took the reporter’s complaints seriously and hired mold mitigation professionals to treat the studio. The mold was mitigated and so were the complaints. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for a former Florida news anchor.

What not to do
This past week, that former anchor filed suit in Lee County, FL, against his former employer. The anchor had been with the station for 18 years, and was senior news anchor since 1996. Names won’t add to the story. What brought things to the point of litigation was dust and dirt in a newsroom and studio, and an anchor who says he was fired after complaining about it a little too loudly.

Apparently, this anchor hasn’t visited many 60+ DMA stations. Even in large markets, not all facilities deserve five stars for cleanliness. Not every station has nice furniture nor do they all hire regular cleaning people. When they do, I’ve known people who won’t let cleaners fully do their job because the vacuum cleaner makes too much noise. Okay, if not then, when?

The anchor states in his lawsuit that from the time he began working at the station in 1993, “the news studio and newsroom were extremely unclean and the office furnishings were in disrepair. Specifically, the carpeting on the riser upon which the anchor desk sat was caked with dust, dirt and the residue left by more than 10 years of cosmetics. Additionally, the floors in and around the cubicles and printers in the newsroom were greasy, grimy and covered in dust balls and a thick layer of dirt.”

According to lawsuit, six years ago the anchor began to cough uncontrollably when he entered the newsroom or studio, which affected his ability to present the news. He claims to only experience these physical symptoms when at work. He visited doctors who said his coughing was likely caused by environmental conditions. The on-air coughing continued to worsen despite the anchor’s best efforts to develop techniques to stifle his urge to cough. However, he waited three years to complain by e-mailing his complaints to the news director, GM and a station owner.

The situation became so bad that, according to the lawsuit, the station installed cough buttons in the anchor desk. In 2010, the anchor filed an anonymous complaint with OSHA. His employer found out it was he who filed the complaint, and he used a company computer to do it. Now he is looking for a new job and suing his former employer.

I’ve never visited the station nor do I know the anchor. I didn’t talk to anyone at the station because I don’t want to get involved. What I do know is that if the problem was that big for that long, then I have a couple of questions. How did they keep VCRs operating reliably in such an environment? Doesn’t anyone at the station know how to use a vacuum cleaner?

In my opinion, the anchor should have taken the time to clean the mess up himself. Instead, he’s looking for a job and filing a lawsuit that says “It’s not MY job” all over it. It’s not like he was underpaid or tied to a desk in the newsroom. On the other hand, I know news anchors. If he didn’t want to get his hands dirty, he should have said something to the chief or any staff engineer for that matter. From a distance, it looks like there’s plenty of blame to go around in this instance.

We’re no longer running down halls with the lead story tape in one hand and B-roll in the other. We don’t have shelves of active videotapes, and we don’t keep VTR heads and pinch rollers in stock. In fact, the transition to digital has done much to reduce what once differentiated broadcast facilities from average office buildings. Soon, a complete turnkey HDTV station technical facility complete with ingest, master control, studio control, newsroom, graphics and weather will fit into three racks. What continues to make us different is that we regularly deal with local celebrities. It always has and always will be show biz. And in show biz, some stars require special attention.

Broadcast engineers have many responsibilities at a station, but two have the highest priority. One is to keep the station on the air and the signal impeccable. The other is to ask others at the station what they need to do their jobs better. Ask, listen and follow up. It could make your building cleaner.