Blond, Bland and Boring


I got lucky. I picked a profession--- broadcast news--- when I was in college and it worked out pretty well. It hasn’t always been easy, of course.

As a news director I once worked for told me, “You’re blond, bland, and boring.” How then, have I managed to hold some pretty good jobs in the business?

Johnny Cash might have the answer. Or at least his character in the movie Walk the Line. I use an excerpt from it in a broadcast journalism class that I’ve taught at the University of Houston.


What Johnny Cash Can Teach Us


                The lesson is: In broadcast news, like in show business, you have to believe in what you’re doing. If you don’t, your audience will see right through you. And you’d better tell them a story that’s relevant to their lives and tell it to that at a time when their receptive to hearing it.


                Here’s the excerpt from the film. The scene involves a young Johnny Cash auditioning for record producer Sam Phillips. Johnny starts singing a gospel song but Sam stops him.


Sam Phillips: I don't record material that doesn't sell, Mr. Cash, and gospel like that doesn't sell.

Johnny Cash: Was it the gospel or the way I sing it?

SP: Both.

JC: What's wrong with the way I sing it?

SP: I don't believe you.

Johnny’s offended, thinks he’s being called an atheist, but then Phillips says:


SP: We've already heard that song a hundred times, just like that, just like how you sang it…

If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying and you had time to sing, one song, huh, one song people would remember before you're dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, you telling me that's the song you'd sing? Or would you sing something different? Something real, something you felt? Because I'm telling you, right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believing in yourself.

JC: Well, I've got a couple songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?

SP: Nope.

JC: I do.


Pow! The secret is revealed! Johnny Cash began his leap to stardom because Sam Phillips showed him the key: You can sing pretty songs (or deliver pretty broadcast news stories), but if they lack originality, if they have no punch because the writer has no emotional or intellectual investment in them, the end result may be a perfectly fine example of a good song (or nice story), but it won’t stand out. And worse yet, if, as in Johnny Cash’s supposed audition, you deliver a message that doesn’t truly make an emotional connection to the audience, what you say will soon be forgotten.


Applying Johnny’s Secret


In TV news, being “blond, bland and boring” and therefore not having much that was intrinsically interesting to the audience may have pushed me to try harder to find a unique angle or, if I was lucky, to uncover an entire story no one else had. I always felt viewers never owed me a second of their time. I had to keep earning it as I told them the story.


               It’s how a TV newscast can be effective even without “stars” or “characters” to deliver the news. If the content is original, compelling and hits a nerve (powerless people treated unfairly, hard-earned tax dollars wasted, the powerful exposed as empty suits), then the station will succeed in gaining audience share.


Creating Value, Ringing True


It’s not easy. Because CREATING VALUE never is, especially as newsrooms continue to reduce staff and resources. There’s probably not a reporter out there who hasn’t heard some variation of, “Gee, that exclusive investigative piece you worked on for a week was great. Now, we want you to do TWO just like...every week!”

   The story or newscast must also have one other component to stand out and this gets back to our Walk the Line excerpt: It must RING TRUE.

What doesn’t ring true is what we so often see: The reporter interviews someone complaining about something or making a wild allegation and you want to scream at the set, “Seriously? You expect me to believe that?”

You want the reporter/anchor to say it for you. If they do, great. If not, they’ve just lost the viewer. Like Sam Phillips said, it has to be “something real, something you felt.”

  Things that lose the viewer include teases that lead to stories that don’t deliver, “exclusives” that every station had, and “shocking” news that isn’t. Catchy promotional slogans alone don’t “create value” and they often don’t “ring true”.


Leaving TV


Having left commercial TV news, I now work in public media. The content we create at NPR StateImpact and what’s being produced by other non-profits like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune is filling a void.

It’s the void left as so many commercial broadcasters and newspapers have virtually abandoned any true commitment to addressing the needs of their communities with original, vital, investigative reporting that truly matters. It’s also a void that, as ProPublica’s website points out, has not been adequately filled by the proliferation of digital media which has been hugely successful at publishing opinions (and “aggregating” the news content of others), but has been less successful in generating original, enterprise reporting.

As I have witnessed firsthand, people have a hunger for such reporting and will not hesitate to tell you how much they “love” it. Not like it. Love it.  They love to hear how public policy works, how it could be making their lives better, or why it is not. It’s a function that is so basic to making a democracy work. And for me, it’s great to have the opportunity to be back doing work that hopefully is original and vital and that matters