By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Jacobs closes her ears to the critical chorus. "I mean, let's be honest: There's always disenchantment when people lose their jobs or when they're reassigned." That's a normal byproduct of change, she insists. And change happens all the time in the mercurial world of television.
Apparently not quite to the degree that it happens at WSVN. Nearly all of the current and former employees interviewed for this story -- many of whom have also worked at other local stations -- say changes at WSVN are far more frequent, and far more brutal, than elsewhere. The modus operandi: Hire young, keep wages low, and work the staff hard to feed the station's news appetite -- nearly seven hours of news programming a day. If you wear out, that's okay: There's always someone else to take your spot. "You turn out so much product in one day, it's like you're on an assembly line," says an editor who still works at the station. "It zaps the creativity out of you. But everybody's so hungry to work, they put up with it for a few years and burn out."
"It's a totally unhealthy place," echoes a former staffer who is a veteran of Miami newsrooms. "It's regarded as one of the most hellacious newsrooms in the country."
Charlie Folds, WSVN's buoyant director of community and public relations, confirms in part the station's operating principle. Many young people new to the business use Channel 7 as a "stepping stone" to other employment, says Folds, who has worked at WSVN for 39 years. "Most people who leave here go to better markets, better jobs," he says, adding that the size of the station's work force may help account for the seemingly high turnover: WSVN employs 347 people, 245 of whom are in the news operation, which places the station among the very biggest U.S. local news operations. As for the gripes about low pay, Folds says WSVN's wages are "in line with the industry."
To the criticism about working conditions, Folds responds, "Channel 7 is a tough place to work because we have high standards, we're extremely professional in terms of graphics, product, approach to the community, and our responsibility as a broadcaster."
Hiring and firing practices at Channel 7 seem to have worked in one regard: People are watching the station. A lot of people. Since 1989, when it lost its affiliation with NBC and moved to Fox, WSVN has filled its airtime with local news and made a rapid climb toward the top of the ratings. At present, WSVN's morning newscasts are at the top of the ratings heap; Channels 7 and 10 are engaged in a pitched battle for top ratings during later newscasts.
Folds says Sunbeam is "extremely healthy," and on the specific matter of Deco Drive, the corporation's executives declare their commitment to the show. Jacobs asserts that she is happy with the current staff and pleased with the anchor combo; after Aguirre's departure, Lynn Martinez was joined by news reporter Belkys Nerey.
"I feel that it's time for a relaunch," Jacobs continues. "We changed the show a couple of times, we changed anchors a couple of times, and I think we just needed to settle down. I hate to say the words 'stability' and 'settle down' because those don't have exactly great connotations." She pauses to consider exactly what connotations they do have. "It makes it sound ... boring." She wrinkles her nose. "I guess I get excited. I love this place! I love the flexibility of it! I prefer flexibility instead of stability!"
Enthusiasm for the sake of enthusiasm is rampant among WSVN management; Folds has it too. "There are a lot of people who knock Deco Drive," he says. "But the truth is the market is ripe for a local show like that. We're a hot, hip market." He pauses. "We're a great city." Pause. "The greatest city in the world! We think Deco Drive makes a statement!"
Whatever that statement is, of course, remains less than clear -- to the viewer and to many of the people who work on the show. Still, Jacobs hazards an explanation: "It's a way for people who get home at seven, seven-fifteen, a quarter of seven to get some news of the day -- whether it's national, local, world -- and some celebrity gossip and some entertainment and to know that 'here's what happened today, yeah, I'm getting it, it's kinda fun, so I'm not coming home from a ten-hour day and being bombarded with the daily tragedies that have happened, but instead I'm getting my fill of news and getting it in an entertaining fashion.'
"I'm going for a show for people coming home that is fun to watch, and they feel that they know what happened today, what happened everywhere," she continues. "If it happened and it's newsworthy, then it'll be on the show."
As Jacobs speaks, Deco Drive producers are clustered upstairs in their cluttered office, sketching out the contents of the evening's show, which will begin with a report about Whitewater defendant James MacDougal. Then a quick ascent into lighter fare, including: a man in Santa Ana, California, who has been burgled three times in quick succession ("Bill says he bought a gun for the next time the robbers pay a visit," anchor Martinez will announce and then add a touch of that celebrated attitude: "Deco says: You might want to consider moving"); a Metro-Dade police officer who delivers a baby on the street; parents in Dallas who enter their infants in a crawling race, the so-called Diaper Derby; and pieces of an airplane that fall from the sky and puncture a house in St. Petersburg ("I'm glad it wasn't a hole in my head!" exclaims the homeowner in a taped interview. "Yeah," snickers Belkys Nerey, "we're glad it wasn't either").