Monday, January 17, 2005

Operation Idol

Check it out dude, You're in 'US Weekly'."

Operation:IDOLLooking down at the glossy magazine thrust in front of me, I took in the two page spread. 'Is Clay About To Crack?' asked the headline. Underneath, Clay Aiken lounged seductively in a blue pantsuit. Scanning the page, I spotted the picture in question - a tiny inset photo of the American Idol runner-up being swarmed by cameramen. There I was smack dab in the middle - my future bald spot already shining in the spotlights glare. Chuckling to myself, I thought about how much work it took to snag that particular spot.


My Monday started early one morning last spring when the cell phone inside my company car began pitching it's usual fit.. Distant klaxons blared warnings inside my head as I opened the door, grabbed the offensive gadget and looked at my watch.

"8:00" -- it blinked in bright-blue digits. This can't be good.

"Unit 4."

"Stewart, do you have gear?", a familiar female voice sputtered.

Hmm. Morning assignment editor, sounding panicky. Trouble indeed.

"Yeah, I'm leavin' the house."

"Great. We're gonna need to send you to Raleigh ASAP. But you need to come here and pick up Cindy. Clay Aiken is visiting with the Governor."

"Who the hell's Clay Aiken?"

"CLAY AIKEN! American Idol! He's one of three contestants left on the show! He's from Raleigh and we just found out he's visiting the Governor at ten!"

"Ten o'clock! Geez, that's gonna be TIGHT!"

"Yeah I know, but Lance is on call and I can't find him. We gotta get moving". The exasperation in her voice rang all too familiar. It was in fact, a well-worn groove inside my battered cell phone.

"All right". Pulling out of my neighborhood, I leaned on the gas and did the math.

Greensboro to Raleigh, hour and a half - but I gotta pick up Cindy - fifteen minutes away in the other direction. This bites.

As I wove my marked news unit through cross-town traffic, I tilted the rear view mirror to check the equipment stashed behind my seat. Camera, batteries, tapes and tripod. That and a mountain of other gadgets in sight told me I was ready to go. Sure as I was of it's status, I'd glance reassuringly at the gear to my rear a dozen more times during the trip. Call it professional paranoia, or some weird occupational tic. But rolling up on a raging warehouse fire out of town only to find an empty camera case in back will do strange things to a fellow. Even if it was thirteen years ago.

But today my luck was better. A song or two from a favorite Chilli Peppers CD and a few cross-city short cuts got to me to the TV station I worked for in record time. As I swerved into the parking lot and gunned it for the loading ramp, I felt a little better about my chances of making it.

"Can you believe this?", Cindy Farmer asked as she climbed into the Explorer with her purse, briefcase and breakfast. "You're gonna really have to shag a ---"

SLAM!!! I punched the accelerator the moment she slammed the door. The perky soccer mom fell back in the seat but juggled her biscuit and oversized fountain drink like the news veteran I knew she was. I steered my mobile office out of the parking lot and quickly ducked onto the interstate ramp. To our left, ten eighteen-wheelers jockeyed for position at 80 miles an hour. I zipped in between two semi's, got in front of one of them and stood on the gas. As I left the convoy of big-rigs on my mad dash eastward, I chewed a toothpick and punched the clock in my head. Yet another sudden jaunt into The Great Unknown - all for a few fleeting moments of pixilated gossip. Not exactly what I had in mind when I used to watch "Lou Grant' on my parents' television.

But life's not a Mary Tyler Moore spin-off, and I ain't 'Animal'. The job at hand was Clay What's-His-Name, and if his mug on tape was what it took to get me home this evening, then pity the fool who gets in my way. With new resolve I leaned into the steering wheel and eyed the cluster of vehicles in the distance. Beside me, our station's sweetheart polished off her breakfast with the veracity of a cross-country trucker. Picking crumbs off her canary-yellow business suit, she placed them in the biscuit's wrapper and filled me on the American Idol Dynamo.

Something I had assiduously avoided until then. By it's second season the show was one of the few treasured franchises in the Fox line-up. Unlike much of the network's current programming, American Idol posted stellar numbers in a key time slots, creating huge lead-in audiences for the local Fox newscasts that followed at ten p.m.

That included the station I worked for - in fact, we boasted one of the highest local ratings of American Idol in the country. Thanks, unbeknownst to me, to some jug-eared warbler from Raleigh. Though I'd yet to witness the reason for all the Clay-mania, his legion of fans were quickly extrapolating all over the state, and sending my news managers into a frenzy.

Recognizing the local angle to a national phenomenon, my bosses had recently shifted their considerable focus away from the crime-and-grime of the day just long enough to exploit all things Idol. Well-dressed junior executives could be seen huddling together in conference rooms - pouring over network press kits secure in the knowledge that it held the key to their future. I'd floated on it's far edges as long as I could, but now I was hurtling toward the very vortex of the Clay Aiken Experience.

"I've been talkin' to his mom," said Cindy, sipping her lipstick-stained straw. " Real sweet lady. Called me this morning to say he's in town. They're on a break before the final two shows, and the Governors giving him the royal treatment. So much for my promo shoot."

Our station's popular morning anchor had done her homework. As soon as the awkward crooner belted out his first show tune for Simon, Randy and Paula, she begun a prolonged telephone-courtship of the singer's family. It paid off a few days ago, when Cindy and another photog had traveled to suburban Raleigh for a on-camera interview with the Aiken matriarch. Now, a chance to score a one-on-one with the human muppet himself was at hand, but only if we bent time and space to get there.

Which is what we pretty much did along the crowded corridor of I-40. Not that I went faster than five or six miles over the speed limit. News stories, especially ones this silly, weren't worth the trouble of tickets and such. If we made it on-time (and it looked like we would), we'd do so without breaking the law or endangering lives. Anything else, however, is fair game. After all, no one likes to be late in my business, especially at a press conference. When you're dragging camera, tripod and lights with you - there is no sneaking in quietly. Especially in a small room with too many people in it; the very definition of a 'press-conference' in the first place.

Lucky for me, mid-morning traffic was light and we dodged getting hemmed in by any of those spontaneous parking lots along the interstate. By the time nine-fifty rolled around we were hurtling along Raleigh's inner belt line and closing in quickly.

"Take South Saunders. The Administrative Building is on Wilson Street." After eight minutes (and one U-turn) we were mere blocks away from our destination.

"I think we're gonna make it after all. You GO, Stew!" chirped the mother-of-two beside me as she applied fresh make-up to her face.

"We ain't there yet, you wanna stick mike or lav?"

"Lav's fine. Holy ---"

BWWWAAAAAAAA! From the left a live truck from Durham station veered in front of us, his horn trailing back over the stowed-mast atop the oversized broadcast van. When the driver took a sharp right ahead, I followed. The administrative building loomed before us, but every available parking space was taken - with brightly-stickered SUVs, wagons and step vans from other TV stations. I'd expected one or two crews to be there, but I quickly counted thirteen different logos, all promising to be first, fair and accurate and provide team coverage that's working for me.

"That's a lot kids in the sandbox ", Cindy mumbled. Through the windshield, I saw a photographer break from his parked car and sprint for the door. The clock in Unit Four's dashboard read 9:58. Time for action.

"Hold on."

With a grunt, I squeezed in a half-sized space behind a Toyota 4Runner From a Charlotte station, hoping my own logos and commercial plate would convince any meter maids to ignore the fact that the back two tires were on the sidewalk. Slamming it in park, we jumped out and ran to the back of Unit 4. I popped the tailgate and fished a bulging red fanny pack out. Clicking it around my waist, I grabbed my camera and sticks - then tossed Cindy the wireless microphone transmitter, a metal box about the size of a cigarette pack with a corded lapel microphone on it's side.

"Use all your womanly charms to get this around his neck," I said -slamming the tailgate shut and triggering the automatic lock tab in my pocket.

"I don't think you understand..." Cindy giggled as we both made a mad dash up the state office building steps.

---------------

Inside, a small hallway gave way to a large two-story domed atrium. Mid-morning daylight filtered in through high windows on the statues and busts of lawmakers past that stood guard in the round high-ceilinged rotunda. At the entrance to the grand space, a uniformed security guard rode a podium, and chatted with a woman in a powder-blue pant suit. Gripping a palm pilot in quiet indignation, she approached us as we entered.

"Everyone's already set up in the Gov'nuh's office," she said, motioning to a side door. "There's not much room."

Peeking inside, I saw she wasn't kidding. Photographers, reporters, PR flacks, and assorted government officials packed almost every square inch of the small ceremonial office. Through the crush I could see a forest of cameras on tripods set up in a semi-circle around an oversized mahogany desk. Wrapped around each of those cameras was a surly photojournalist, each flipping switches, squinting through viewfinders and trying to expand their personal space. A local shooter with a frayed ball cap spotted my late arrival and nudged his buddy from across the street.

"Man, they're comin' out of the woodwork. This one's all the way from Greens-berry"

With that, the crowd of weary lenslingers chuckled as a whole. A few glanced up, smirking as they surveyed the shiny logos on my less than shiny gear. I returned their expressions with a sour smile and quickly raised my tripod to it's highest position. As I methodically untwisted the telescopic legs at lightning speed I stared defiantly at the electronic pack - hoping they'd somehow sense this wasn't my first trip to Capitol City.

It was a half-cocky move I felt pretty good about, until I tripped an extension cord with the sweep of a tripod leg - unplugging the hastily-erected spotlights and plunging the whole room into dim-blue overcast daylight.

"Yo! Check it! --- lights OUT!" --hmph! - LO-SER!!"

Their jaunts and sneers fell around me as I plugged the cord back into the low wall outlet. As the lights popped back on, I stood to face the crowd of news gatherers - all craning backwards to get a better look at me. Rumpled camera lifers in utility vests stood upright, abandoning the blue glow of their viewfinders to watch the bumbling latecomer upsetting the scene. Well-lacquered anchor bunnies even looked up from their nails and giggled. Print photographers leaned on their monopods and silently sized me up. Even the gaggle of government pages stopped cackling long enough to take in the long awkward looks being exchanged around the room. From the corner of my eye, I could see Cindy slowly creeping away from me and trying to melt into the wall, not an easy feat in her canary-yellow business suit. All around the room, weary eyeballs danced and darted in my direction, and somewhere overhead God pressed the slow-mo button.

Tough Crowd... I HATE Mondays...

The unsettling silence continued as I slowly hoisted my camera into it's home atop the towering tripod. As I powered-up, a rustling sound from the front of the room signaled the start of competition. Like birds on a high wire reacting to an unseen force, the flock of news hawks wheeled in unison and bent back over their cameras. A dozen recording decks engaged as two figures entered the room from a door I hadn't even noticed yet.

Craning my neck upward into my high tripod perch I shot over the crowd of station ball caps and zoomed in on Governor Mike Easley. Grinning goofily, the top lawmaker escorted a foppish young gentleman around the assembled pack of media hounds to the prearranged spot in front of the huge State Seal .The clutch of office onlookers erupted in excited whispers - one raised her well-manicured hand to her mouth in frenzied glee. I glanced over at Cindy alongside the far wall and the dizzy twinkle in her own eyes told me the guest of honor had indeed arrived.

As flashbulbs popped and the Governor made small talk, I took a closer look at the gangly young chap standing beside him. With his untucked long sleeve shirt and carefully-arranged bed head, Clay Aiken looked more like he should be folding clearance-items at the nearest Old Navy, instead of stealing the spotlight of the World's Most Overly-Hyped Talent Show.

This is the guy I raced through five counties for? For him I gotta fight off a pack of pissed-off news-hunters? All for a shot of Opie with a bad hair-cut?

Still, I'd covered contrivances far more mind-numbing than this. So with a heavy sigh I was getting all too used to, I zeroed in on today's target of choice and tried to put all thoughts of why aside. Watching the one-inch black and white screen with the distracted intent of a veteran cabbie, I zoomed, racked and focused - collecting every conceivable vista from the limited perch of my too-tall tripod. As the throng of competitors leaned into their own cameras, Governor Easley presented the blushing young crooner with a picture of the 'James Taylor Bridge' - a recently dedicated passage named for another famous tarheel tune smith. Focusing in on the picture, I tilted up for a tight-shot of the current hometown hero. Looking overwhelmed at all the fuss around him, the skinny twenty-something giggled nervously, eyes darting at the pack of gadget-bearing strangers tracking his every move.

But for me, it was just another day behind the lens - what exactly I pointed it at these days sometimes ceased to matter. Today I'm stalking a fledgling pop star, tomorrow I'll be camped out at a train wreck. I get the Good, the Bad and the Stupid, and rarely in that order. As a result, I'm a little burnt-out from being so close to the media blowtorch all these many years. Sometimes I wonder if I can be surprised anymore.

Back in the Governors Office Clay Aiken laughed it up with the Governor as the print guys clamored for close-ups. Perched high in the back, I worked my own lens. As I eyed the red glow of the 'RECORD' light, I chewed my lip, and stopped wondering what Alfred E. Newman's gay younger brother might look like.

From there my mind could have wandered even farther of-center, had something the Governor said not pulled me out of my stupor.

" ..and in just a moment we wanna regroup in the rotunda but for now let me say how proud I am..."

The Governors voice continued, and I monitored it's pitch and fall by watching the audio needle dance on the side of my camera. Glancing the other way, I spotted Cindy still inching along the side wall. She was only a few feet from the door the Governor and Clay had entered through, which was now blocked by a burly government thug in a blue blazer. I watched her flash him her perfectly toothy telegenic smile, channeling all her southern-fried trophy-wife charm on the big lug, as if he were the floating floor cam she flirted with four hours a day every morning. Of all the on-air talent I've worked with over the years, a select few give you the feeling you could wake them from a deep slumber and they'd immediately be ON. Perky, aware, informative. Bubbling over with natural verve and wit --spouting all the appropriate non-sequitors and broadcast cliches right on cue. Cindy Farmer is one of those people. So it was no surprise when I saw her pass by the now-beaming blue-blazered hulk to just a few feet away from the gushing songbird and the giddy Governor..

Slipping my camera's coiled ear piece into my right ear, I quietly pulled the lever on the tripod plate, picked up the camera and shouldered it. Feeling it's familiar heft, I slowly side stepped toward the door I'd entered from. Up in front, the Governor continued his rant praising Raleigh's new favored son, and wishing him luck on the upcoming final two episodes of American Idol. As he held the pack of electron hunters in rapt attention, I gave my tripod one last, reluctant tug across the floor. Leaving it there, I backpedaled out noiselessly - hoping my over-extended tripod parked in the doorway there wouldn't be TOO MUCH of an obstacle for my fellow journalists.

-------------------

The first thing to hit me was the noise. The mixed chirp and chatter of a preadolescent army filled the high-domed interior as what looked like fifteen fourth grade field trips ambled about the marbled floors. What had been a quiet lobby leading to a calm stately space was now overrun with hundreds of bored, insolent teens. Up above, little faces peered back down from the circular railway lining the second and third stories that formed the Rotunda. Hugging a wall next to what I thought might be the correct door, I checked the camera's time code and watched the kids pass by. Before I could think, a bored nine year old noticed my camera and it's Fox logo. The gig was up.

"Ooh Fox TV! Hey Mister, PUT ME ON TEE-VEE! I WANNA BE ON THE NEWS!!"

A thousand bike-ramp haircuts and ponytails swiveled in my direction - Tired of hearing their surly teachers drone on about the Old North State's many founders, the pack of preadolescent angst'ers descended on me with a fervor not unlike early Beatlemania. As the pitch of their young vocal cords heightened to a deafening shriek, I shooed the kids away and tried to look mean. It was no use - their honest excitement at having discovered a true-life news cameraman during their forced march through state history was undulating through the preteen crowd, whipping them into an eerie frenzy.

Looking up past the throng of faces I tried to concentrate on the tiny dust motes floating in the invading daylight at the top of the painted dome roof. As it backlit the circular throng of screaming kids at the balconies, I once again wondered about my career choice.

Coulda been a paramedic, a salesman, maybe a park ranger...

I stood half-frozen there, musing on what all this bedlam was doing to my plan, when my ear piece sprung to life and almost shattered my eardrum.

"YEAH IF I COULD JUST PIN THIS ON YA! SO HOW YOU DOING - YOU HAVE TO BE SO EXCITED...."

Cindy's syrupy sweet voice filled my head at an unbearably high volume. Cranking down my monitor switch I listened as Cindy chatted up her prey with practiced skill. As she pinned the lavalier microphone to something scratchy, I heard static and fabric rustling -- followed by the giggle of what sounded like Michael Jackson with a southern drawl.

"YES! So YOU'RE the 'triad connection', Mama's mentioned YOU!"

Stepping out from my shelter of the wall, I looked back in time to see the door to the Governors office swing open. An invading flank of photogs, reporters, sound guys and radio hacks poured forth through the narrow doorway, wading into the sea of fourth graders towards me. The local news division was now decamped and it was every man (and woman) for himself. No holds barred - no quarter given.

Spinning back around to the suspected (but still closed) door - I peered through my viewfinder, steadied a shot and braced myself for the lightning round of Elbow Fiesta that was about to ensue. I'd barely remembered to roll tape myself when the door swung open and out strode The Governor, The Star, and one brightly-clad bubbly morning anchor. Camera-mounted lights popped on and closed in behind me, triggering a renewed series of screams from the astonished ten year olds. As the throng of lenslingers congealed around the Governor and his guests, I found myself being squeezed into it's epicenter. Suddenly I was face to face with the Guv and the Showstopper as camera jocks of every description trampled the shrieking field trippers around me. Soon I was shoulder to shoulder with photogs on both sides, bracing myself against the push of the pack as the American Idol wannabe stood just inches away from me. A large boom microphone dangled overhead and the crush became even tighter. Wedged up against the Governor, Clay and a tightening throng of photog body parts and lenses, I could smell what many of them had for breakfast. They call these little get-togethers 'gang bags' for a reason.

Sensing the crowd was at maximum density, the State's top Bureaucrat piped up with a sense of delight not even exhibited the night he gained that lofty office. I should know - I was there.

"Now Clay, if you could favor us with a few bars of a song from your upcoming album. Now I don't wanna plug your album..."

"OH! I'LL plug it !" the alleged singer gushed and chortled - in much the same manner Charles Nelson Reilly did back on Match Game 76.

Looking up at the oval of young faces staring down at him, Clay Aiken cleared his throat and for a moment gained the composure of someone totally enlightened and free.

"YES - YOU BELONG TO ME! I'M YOURS EXCLUSIVE-LEE-EEE"

With a force of nature unexpected from such a birdlike chest, Clay's voice rang out rich and true. Preteens and media jackals alike fell silent as his majestic voice filled ever crevice of the historical structure.

"INSEPARABLE IT SEEMS! WE'RE FLOWING LIKE A STREAM"

The VU meter on my camera pegged at precisely the right point, as my wireless microphone on Clay's collar captured every nuance of his incredibly powerful pipes.

"RUNNING FREE FLOWING - ON THE WINGS OF LO-O-O-VE"

Through my viewfinder I zoomed in on the rapturous expression that floated over the psuedo-celebritiy's visage. As he attacked the refrain with a voice that would send Jeffery Osbourne back to his singing coach, I followed his voice with my camera, panning up to the frozen throng of onlookers - their mouths forming tiny O's at the undeniable glory of this unlikely heartthrob's golden throat.

"TOGETHER , FLYING HI-I-I-GH!

FLY-ING HIGH UPON THE WINGS OF L-O-O-O-O-O-O-V-E!"

As the apparently seasoned showtune-belter wrung the last syllable for all it was worth, a collective gasp of serendipity floated over the frozen onlookers. Even the ivory-white busts of long-dead lawmakers seemed to smile and sigh. When the expertly bent final note finally echoed to a close, a burst of enthusiastic applause took over the room. I would have clapped myself had my hands not been full of badly-aging television equipment. Trying to regain my well-earned armor of nonchalance, I no longer wondered what made this jug-eared kid special in the eyes and ears of viewers. Simply put, the dude could WAIL - wherever the current craze took him, he would definitely earn his living with his golden pipes. And no doubt it would be a very good living indeed. For a moment I felt a bit foolish for having so heavily disparaged the American Idol juggernaut. But that feeling quickly turned to panic as the Governor dismissed quickly himself to a cadre of awaiting handlers. As the pack of media hounds surged toward Clay for the traditional torrent of questions and answers I couldn't help but notice my 'weak battery' light flashing furiously inside my viewfinder.

There was no time to switch out batteries however as well-dressed arms jammed logo'd-microphones under the singer's chin and the talking hair-do's took over. Through the pack I noticed a patch of canary yellow growing bigger as Cindy stretched by and reached over a fellow anchor-lady , finally clearing enough room to slither through. Her normally expertly-groomed appearance paid dearly in the process but the plucky veteran of a thousand newsroom wars wasn't going to let a few out-of-place hairs deny her 'The Get' she'd worked so long and hard for.

"So, Clay" - she continued as if the two were gossiping idly at the corner deli, "Tell us all about that mean nasty Simon..."

As Clay began defending the Brit's barrage of pithy insults, microphones, zoom- lenses and tape recorders leaned in even further and swallowed my peripheral version. Every few minutes another blown-dry reporter would try to wiggle in on Cindy's turf but she fended them off with the ease of Michael Vick slipping off would-be tacklers on the gridiron. Cindy was, after all, a Virginia Tech grad, and her allegiance to her school's conquering quarterback was legendary. From the look of her moves she had studied the game films.

Fighting my own leaning battle against the crush of lens jockeys to either side of me, I reached down and plucked my wide-angle attachment from my belt pouch. Trying not to upset anyone's shot too much, I fixed it to the front of my lens, recording the rest of the prolonged interview on a wide two shot. Figuring the promotion guys would appreciate footage of Clay and Cindy in the same shot, I stared at the blinking red battery light piercing the blue calm of my viewfinder. Through sheer willpower I drained every bit of life force the old battery had to offer at an achingly slow rate. All while Cindy gabbed with the Golden Voiced Skinny One like they both belonged to the same sorority. By the time my battery finally sputtered, choked and died, Cindy had wrung the Idol-in-the-making of every detail she could possibly think of. It was just as well, as the other news teams clamoring for questions were growing increasingly exasperated at Cindy and Clay's extended girl talk. The two spotlight hogs half-hugged each other as Cindy pulled the lav mike off his shirt.

As we broke away, the jostling scrum of dry-cleaned talent and wrinkled photogs closed in the gap -- the hired mouthpieces all shouting questions in a confusing blend of well-trained voices. While the pack desperately played catch-up under the ticking Rolex of a power-suited Fox rep, Cindy and I sauntered off more than a little triumphantly. Her canary-yellow suit looked like she'd taken out a few of the dirtier fourth-graders by force and my ugly Hawaiian shirt sported a whole new network of stains and wrinkles. Looking at my watch, I was astonished to see it was only Ten-thirty. A scant half-hour had passed since we'd first stormed the premises. Grabbing my tripod from the empty office door, I collapsed the legs and hoisted it over my shoulder. As Cindy held the door, I high-fived her with my only free hand.

"That, " I said through deep breaths, "was a surgical strike to be proud of..."

"Yeah," she answered, straightening her skirt as we trudged back to the badly-parked news car, "too bad no one will remember it a week from now..."

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