David Cohen became the new news director of KDNL (Channel 30) on March 23. It's a coming home of sorts after a seven-year hiatus; Channel 30 is the local affiliate of ABC News where Cohen spent 16 years, the bulk of his career in broadcasting. Having been a reporter and producer, Cohen talks in sound bites. He'd fall on an open microphone before using a TV cliche like, "Neighbors are shocked and dismayed in this semi-wooded rural area ..."
Cohen joined ABC radio news in New York, in 1975. He began the new year in 1982 by moving to Chicago as deputy chief of the ABC-TV Midwest Bureau, then the size of a St. Louis television newsroom with 70 staffers. When the bureau moved to St. Louis in 1986, he was appointed chief. Later, he was a Special Projects Producer and news segment producer.
Cohen has sat on both sides of the negotiating table with NABET, AFTRA and the Writers Guild, which gives him an understanding many news directors lack, They've spent their careers from 200th-size markets on as managers while Cohen, 45, understands how reporters work. He also knows how reporters dodge managers telling them how to cover a story over the two-way radio from inside a studio. And like most assignment desk editors who've worked for too long under too loud police and fire scanners, Cohen is a tad deaf.
He's an old-fashioned newsman who does more than react to a breaking story. He ponders, he reflects, he thinks.
"There are two types of interviews in broadcast or print," Cohen says. "Theres the informative where you probe and prod a person's psyche to get him to paint you a picture. Then there's the sound bite interview where you want Brett Hull to say, 'Fuck these people.'"
A man of depth, intelligence and an ego, Cohen loves to hold forth - so much so one fantasizes about hiring him his own editor - but only about the story. With Cohen, it's the story, stupid. With many broadcasters, they are the center of all stories.
Narcissism, however, propels good oversized ego to be willing to drive half-way across Nebraska to grab a story so he can be on the Evening News," Cohen points out. We both laugh.
Cohen bucks the trend of news managers who think of stations and newspapers as Army outposts of a media empire; whatever worked in Fort Benning, Ga., will work in Ft. Leonard Wood. Cohen knows his market and what's relevant - his favorite word - here. He has lived in St. Louis for 12 years come July. When ABC laid off 200 people in 1991, instead of joining the band of broadcast gypsies moving reels, Cohen took his Rolodex to Fleishman-Hillard where he became a senior vice president and director of video services.
Off-the-record sources say Cohen began to have disagreements with his new boss and left Fleishman-Hillard two months ago.
Did he feel he had sold his journalistic soul to the Great Satan, as reporters call the public relations firm where so many of them have gone?
"No. I've always considered myself a journalist," Cohen explains. "In PR, you're still telling stories. I didn't pine for my old way of life."
In his old days, Cohen, the field producer, would hop on a plane and not know how long he'd be gone. He flew to Louisville, Ky., the day after Thanksgiving, in 1985, to cover the second artificial heart operation and came home six months later.
"We had a goat that had to be continuously fed," he says of filing stories for "Good Morning America," "World News Tonight," and "Nightline" and radio. "The patient lived 700 days, far more than expected and with more operations. It made more sense to stay with docs and stay on top of the story." Cohen flew home once, his wife came down twice.
What about clothes? Birthdays? Dental appointments? "If something happened, you went," Cohen says. "News doesn't stop because it's Friday afternoon." Such a life was harder on camera crews and tape editors who were always on call. "When they finished one story, they'd be sent out of town on another," he says. Cohen had his first Christmas off in 1991 after he left ABC. "It's not my holiday," he says, "but it was nice to have it off and see how the real world lives."
Cohen's wife, the former Pat Wilson, adjusted early on to his peripatetic schedule, and they have no children. As a college student home on vacation, she saw Cohen the reporter on the screen in Lynchburg, Va., one night and so much liked what she saw, she mentioned it to her then brother-in-law, a police officer who marched into the station and told Cohen to call her. On their first date, Cohen asked if she'd like beef stroganoff for supper. When she agreed, he took her to his apartment where he'd already prepared the dish.
Cohen, then 20, had left his home in Boston at 17 to start college a year early at University of South Carolina. A nice Jewish boy from the big city in a Southern small town? "It was warm; it was cheap, and it was away," Cohen quips in his unhurried laid-back manner.
He spent one summer as a radio disc jockey, then dropped out of school to keep up the spin. As a radio news director in Roanoke, Va., he began reporting and producing. He did more reporting at WLVA radio and TV in Lynchburg. His mother later told him she was not surprised he went into journalism. "You were the nosiest of my four children," she said.
Cohen quotes Fred Friendly that the camera's purpose is to enlighten, not to add heat. He frowns on the KMOV (Channel 4) debacle of the Priest and the Prostitute. "Television isn't eye candy without any sense of right and wrong. Trying to nail the priest didn't tell us more than we already knew."
He abhors emphasizing the sizzle rather than the steak:
* "Chasing someone down the street with a camera is tacky."
* "The camera should be an observer not the catalyst. You don't have to be a jerk to cover the news well." What about the reporter who tracked down a rape victim and literally cried, "If you don't give me an interview, I'll get fired"? Cohen looks disgusted. "I'd fire her for saying that."
* Provoking a subject into anger. "There was a time when one station in town paid bonuses to reporters and crews who could get a subject to put his hand over the camera. That encourages being obnoxious. The bullies in the media are holier than thou."
* "I'll leave the dysfunctional family stories to Jerry Springer."
Cohen and his new boss, Channel 30 general manager Frank Quitoni, go back 20 years when Quitoni was ABC's director of ENG (Electronic News Gathering) and Cohen was a producer. "We spent a lot of time together on rooftops looking for microwave sites," Cohen says.
Another old ABC friend is now at the competition. Tim Larson, the news director at KSDK (Channel 5), was the news director at the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati when Cohen was in the Midwest Bureau. "I respect him," Cohen says.
"Channel 5 is the baseline for St. Louis TV news against which we're all measured. When I was at Fleishman, if we heard fire trucks, they'd turn on Channel 5," Cohen says. "We have to show we can do it, too. i'm not going to change long-term viewing habits in one book."
While he won't have the budget of Channel 5, Cohen argues he won't need it. "Change isn't predicated on throwing a ton of money on live reports nightly from spring training camp. That's only dessert, no meat." He says he learned at ABC how to offer high quality with fewer people and pieces of equipment.
What's essential to Cohen is to offer viewers stories that are relevant and detailed. So, Channel 30 will return to beat reporting. "It's basic journalism," Cohen points out. "The problem today is the story has become less important than the live shot" where a reporter stands in front of city hall at 10 p.m. and intones, "Earlier today ..."
"Content is the key," Cohen says. "The aerial shots from the chopper, the KU trucks and graphics must import information. Otherwise, the news director is only showing off he has a lot of money for toys."
He talks more of staff than equipment. "I want a newsroom mix: those with institutional history who do daythree analytical stories, those with story-telling talent, those who accurately gather the facts fast on a breaking story, those who do great live shots, those who write a script, produce a show, edit a tape, run crews. it's like an engine with eight cylinders. All eight have to fire to move the car well."
Cohen says he won't be steering the ship by himself: "Everybody in a newsroom has a voice, a brain, and the ability and the responsibility to contribute ideas for stories. Including the interns. There are no bad ideas, just some that aren't do-able." He repeats, "I'm not going in with dynamite to hire and fire."
What about weak talent with longterm contracts? "Give them the support to sound like Madeline Albright. Perception is reality," Cohen says citing one of the more disheartening principles of television. He tells the joke of the two monkeys. A keeper comes by daily and tosses a bushel of bananas to one monkey and a large steak to the other. "Why do I have to eat fruit while you get the meat?" the first monkey asks. "Because I'm in the budget as a gorilla," answers the other. Cohen has never worked with the reporter who said, "So, the little girl's got Down's Syndrome. Will she recover from it?"
Television's biggest problem, according to Cohen, is underestimating the viewers' intelligence. That's why news has become trivial. "If you get a pretty Asian female who's young, that's the daily trifecta," Cohen quips his eyes twinkling. "I hate MOS (man on the street).
"TV news has gotten lazy and local TV news even lazier. Why go find news when you can put a camera on the Tamm Avenue overpass? It's easier to do the junk, to listen to the scanners and chase police cars. That's spot news with no content. There's so much bubbling here below the surface that if you only chase flashing lights, there's no time for real stories."
Real stories require thinking and work. "It's easy to throw cheap stones at Civic Progress, but it's harder to do a solid story on who is and what is Civic Progress? Are they as diverse at St. Louis? And if it's bad, say why and how. At Channel 30, we'll refocus together to achieve sustainable high quality newscasts with a consistently high level of information." For example, a 10 p.m. live shot on Metropolis's downtown bar walks with a story on how the group is enticing suburbanites back to the city.
Cohen has already begun his rule of relevance: In his first late broadcast (after the Academy Awards, March 23), he proposed Phil Rozen's three-and-ahalf-minute piece on the advent of 24screen multiplexes in St. Louis. He suggested including comments from the king of the independent theaters, Joe Edwards, owner of the Tivoli and Hi-Point (and Blueberry Hill).
"The newsroom is connected to its community," Cohen emphasizes. "You gotta give them news that means something. You can eat away at Channel 5 and Channel 4 quickly with half-point gains," he pauses. "What you really want is to start a trend of community acceptance."
Ellen Harris is a St. Louis free-lance writer…