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In Medley, at NW 87th Avenue and NW South River Drive, in a ramshackle house stranded in the warehouse district, the fire blazes, and from across the river we can see the flashing lights, the orange flicker, the arc of hose-water. We speed along, looking for a bridge to cross, but by the time we pull up to the property, the fire is tamed. On our way over, Siegal has called both Channels 4 and 7. "Both of them sounded interested," he explains. "They'd prefer flames, though."
Eddie Cortes, the overnight cameraman for Miami Bureau, arrives soon after we do. Siegal uses the white hood of a police car to set his camera's tint balance and the two of them shoot, picking angles, zooming, kneeling. Fifty yards away, the owner of the house lies dead and shrouded on the ground. After almost 45 minutes of shooting, we finally film a statement from the improbably alliterative Pete Pacheco, Police PIO (Public Information Officer) for Medley, who then arranges for us to approach the house and shoot more detailed footage of its charred interior.
No footage of flames, though, and given what Siegal has said about station standards, I'm pessimistic about the possibility of selling smoke. In chance conversation with bystanders, some of whom work in warehouses surrounding the charbroiled home, Lib, a short man employed at Pepperidge Farm, declares proudly that he captured the early moments of the fire on his own camcorder. Lib is reluctant to surrender his videotape, which contains his daughter's Christmas party, but Siegal coaxes it from him, offering to courier the tape up and back from the TV stations, and to arrange that Lib be paid for his generosity. And he does - he drives the tape to Channel 7, dubs it onto a compatible cassette (in the name of affordability, Siegal shoots on Hi8 video, which must then be transferred onto the station's Beta operating format), runs the dubbed tape downstairs for editing. All this grunt work for no pay; at the very least he could rightfully have taken some money from Lib's end, negotiated a fair price for the driving and the dubbing. Plus, the longer Siegal spends at Channel 7, the slimmer the chance that he will beat the deadline for Channel 4's morning show, and he has already promised them film. But he's trying to build a business, he explains, and sometimes the early concessions improve your working relationships. So he doesn't touch the money that the station will pay Lib, and he doesn't complain about running up and down the control room stairs.
Channel 7 leads its 7:30 news with Lib's home video. Siegal's night's work - his seven hours of driving, the 100-mile strain on his odometer, his coffee and gas - nets only a few seconds of broadcast footage, a vocal bite from the Medley PIO. He bills, as usual, for $50.
Overnighting in general smacks of alienation, but even within his own field, Marc Siegal is an outsider, and the backbone of the Miami free-lance video news industry is composed of two other companies - Mo Moghari's Miami Bureau and Miami TV News, owned and operated by William Schmidt - with histories stretching back to the beginning of the decade.
Mo Moghari, born in Iran and educated in American universities, is generally considered the premier independent news videographer in Miami. Once a filmmaker in his native Iran, the 42-year-old Moghari came to the United States at the dawn of the Eighties, after the fall of the Shah, and took a position as a cameraman for WTVJ-TV Channel 4. It was there, as a staff videographer, that he detected the need for overnight coverage. "The morning assignment editors had no video, and they were going nuts. There was a 3:00 a.m. Eastern crash landing, and guys were digging for video. Or the Red Cross headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard caught on fire, and no one had that," says Moghari. "I had a regular daytime shift, but I volunteered for the night because I got to take the car, a gas card, and the gear. They said it was a great gig, that I would hardly ever get called. Then all of a sudden I was getting beeped three times a night and the next day I had to do my usual shift. My eyes were always red and blown out. People probably thought I was on dope or something."
In 1984, after nearly four years in local television, he quit and established his own business, Miami Bureau/Prime Time Productions, dedicated to free-lancing video to local television news programs. "When I first started, I thought I was crazy," he says. "I was considered a top-level videographer, and here I was taking a pay cut and worse hours. I thought I was ready, but there were times when I said, `This is bullshit,' when I wanted to quit. It was lonely and depressing."
Through the loneliness, the rampant crime of early-Eighties Miami kept Moghari company, and kept his company afloat. "I've lived in Beirut, and Miami at that time was worse, far worse," he says. "The news director used to say, `If it's not a triple [murder], don't even bother with it.' Once there was a shooting in a small bar, gunfire in a Little Havana club, Villa Havana. I'm a very aggressive driver with a lousy driving record - what do you expect, I'm a news photographer - so I get there, all enthused about covering it, I grab my camera and run in, and then I see a cop car coming. The police weren't even there yet. I threw myself on the ground and heard bullets above my head."