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For me, CNN became more than just a lucky break


(CNN) -- When CNN was born in June 1980, I was working at an all-news radio station in Washington, D.C. How could all-news television work when we were having trouble getting all-news radio to work well?

While some of my former college classmates were taking jobs at the cable start-up, I stayed put. I loved being in radio -- theater of the mind -- and heard the salaries at CNN were very low and the jobs were not union jobs.

Over the next seven years, as I stayed and progressed at WTOP Radio, many of my colleagues made career decisions to leave the safety of radio and take a chance with CNN. Among the recognizable names were former CNN World Affairs Correspondent Ralph Begleiter and CNN Los Angeles Correspondent Greg LaMotte. Mike Roselli was another who traded radio comfort for a chance at CNN and spent 10 years as CNN's chief Capitol Hill producer.

Nothing lasts forever, and my radio career ended abruptly in 1987 (not my choice). CNN was my life raft. I was hired by CNN's Washington Bureau as a producer/writer, which was interesting since I had never been a television news producer. My experience as a news writer got me in the door. The television part just fell into place. Almost like radio with pictures.

A love-hate relationship

I arrived at CNN at just the right time. Two weeks after I was hired the company raised salaries across the board. Mine was boosted 21 percent. Two years later there was another across-the-board raise. So much for my concerns about low CNN salaries.

My experience in the Washington Bureau became a love-hate relationship.

The love part allowed me to be involved with some of the best journalists in the business, covering the day-to-day workings of the government and the fascinating side-issues that come along with it: President Reagan's testimony in the Iran-Contra investigation; the inauguration of President Bush; the confirmation hearings for John Tower and Clarence Thomas; and perhaps the biggest highlight of my CNN career so far, the Persian Gulf War.

I was the Washington producer for Prime News, CNN's 8 p.m. show. At 6:43 p.m. on January 16, I was preparing for our show, managing a staff of three writers and a production assistant when I heard the words from Baghdad delivered by our anchor, Bernard Shaw: The bombs had begun to fall.

Bernie and I had been working together only a short time, but I felt a bond growing. He had gone to Baghdad reluctantly, but had been promised a one-on-one interview with Saddam Hussein.

I spoke to him the day before the war began. He sounded frustrated over the stalling and was planning to wait just one more day before giving up and coming home. He told me he did not want to be in the middle of the battle.

Opening night of the Persian Gulf War, January 16, 1991: White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater announces, "The liberation of Kuwait has begun .... As of 7 p.m. EST Operation Desert Storm forces were engaging targets in Kuwait and Iraq."  

For me, being in the middle of the battle meant being in the producer's chair, figuring out how it looks on television. I got that chance the next night when Iraq launched its Scud missiles against Israel, giving me the biggest adrenaline rush I had ever experienced in the business to that point.

A different perspective

The Persian Gulf War experience began my "hate" experience with the Washington Bureau. It gave me a taste of being the one making the decisions about what gets on television and how it is presented. That led me to seek a job at the Atlanta headquarters, where at the time all of the news shows were produced and all the major decisions made.

The move to Atlanta meant of course that in the eyes of my Washington colleagues I had gone over to the other side -- I was one of "them," one of the people who make decisions in the news vacuum that is Atlanta.

As is probably the case at other networks, there is a professional argument between headquarters and Washington over news judgment. People at headquarters believe the Washington people have their heads too inside the beltway, without a pulse on how the rest of the country feels. Washington people look at ideas and orders from headquarters as ignorant -- in their view all the real news comes from Washington.

The move to Atlanta turned out to be a positive turning point in my career as I moved up the ladder to my current assignment, executive producer of "The World Today," CNN's flagship newscast. The ability to take the bits of pieces of news and put them together as a puzzle to create a picture of "The World Today" is tremendously satisfying, even though the ratings are disappointing.

For years CNN did not look at ratings. Now the ratings are dissected, as are the ratings of CNN's competitors, as everyone in the cable business tries to determine how to make money from fractions of a percent of the viewership.

There is a lot to be said for working in a business in which the elements of work change every day. It is exciting to go to work each day and know something totally different can happen at any time, something that can either change the world, or just one little corner of it. That is what makes working for CNN enjoyable.

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CNN was the only network to sustain live reporting from Baghdad the night the air war began. Its worldwide audience of close to one billion was the largest for a non-sporting event in television history (1991)

CNN offered the 24-part landmark documentary series "Cold War," accompanying CD-ROM and teaching materials free to schools worldwide

CNN/U.S. is available to 78 million households and more than 890,000 hotel rooms across the United States