While starting an overnighting business is now relatively simple - a car, a camera, a map of the city, and any FM radio scanner - technology may soon be complicating the process. Many municipalities, including the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, have switched their police and fire transmissions to what is known as 800 MHz trunked radio, and Dade County has applied for frequencies to allow the change. Normally, dispatches are broadcast over a fixed frequency. In the 800-trunked configuration, broadcast occurs at a randomly selected, computer-determined open frequency that changes with each new sign-on, making 800-trunked systems devilishly hard to monitor.
That's where Bob Sherman comes in. A veteran still photographer who worked for Life magazine and United Press International, Sherman has, since 1974, been employed by the Carolyn Sherman News Service, named for and owned by his wife. The service monitors a variety of news sources and databases and provides tips and leads to local media. And it began as a bet with Ralph Renick. "We were having lunch, Ruth Sperling, Fred Francis [now NBC's Pentagon correspondent], Ralph Renick, and me," says Sherman. "At the time I was free-lancing. And Fred says, `Ralph, Bob throws more stories in the basket each day than we put on the air.' He couldn't believe it." Here, Sherman imitates the former WTVJ anchorman's trademark blustery baritone. "Renick said, `Do you mean to say that you, Bob Sherman, a relative unknown, come up with more and better stories than we do, Channel 4, rated number one?' I said I thought I did. So we bet. He agreed to pay me $25 per story I supplied, assuming that it was usable on the air, and that they didn't know about it already."
The first week, Sherman sold seven stories and won $175; Renick insisted it was a fluke and extended the wager another week. Six stories, $150. "At some point Ralph wanted to know if we could keep doing it," says Sherman. "Of course we could. It was easy money."
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For three years the Shermans supplied news exclusively to WTVJ, earning the nickname "Channel 4's Secret Weapon." "One day another station called, a splinter employee who knew what we did for Channel 4, and asked if we would tip them off also," says Sherman. "I came back and talked to my wife, and she agreed to run the business. I figured, why not, let's do it."
The Shermans provide leads and background research, but they also have an ace in the hole that makes them indispensable to the local news industry - their news service is the only media organization in town capable of monitoring 800-trunked systems. As a result, a substantial amount of overnight stories originate with Sherman - he picks up the tips, calls the stations, and they notify the night crawlers. "Scanners are becoming more and more passe," he says, and some of the free-lance videographers agree. "Scanners are only really useful for monitoring Dade County," says Miami TV News's Roger Prehoda. "Those transmissions broadcast on a 800 MHz system are constantly switching frequencies, and that's why we need Bob Sherman. He's got that stuff nailed down."
All four local English-speaking stations subscribe to Sherman's service, as well as Spanish-language Channel 23. "I know Metro is considering switching," says Prehoda, "and if they make the move, Bob Sherman's going to be making a whole lot more money than he's making now."
But other overnighters, including Marc Siegal, deny that a move to 800-trunked would deep-six their capability. "Probably it's in Bob Sherman's interest to assert that he's the only one who can receive 800-trunked, but that's not true," Siegal says. "I can get them. You just hear snippets, but if you concentrate hard and you know what to listen for, you can pick up enough.