While news radio might seem "stodgy" in comparison to music and sports stations, there's "plenty of personality" to be found at WCBS NewsRadio 880. Levon Putney, is one shining example of a reporter who knows how to "deliver the news" in a way that's engaging and "on-point."
In this candid, funny and enlightening interview, learn more on how Levon Putney got his start, the importance of support and his relevant advice for aspiring reporters.
A. On a normal day, I'll wake up around 7am, check emails, notes and newspapers, then call in at 8am to talk with producer about the stories I'll cover that day. From there I get up and out, either going to the scene/location of the story, or calling sources to meet up with them for interviews. A lot of times, I'm also emailing and talking with sources to set up stories for later or to check on ideas.
Once I've got all the info and interviews (on tape) needed for a story, I call the producer to see when they want to slot the story to run, and I'll start pumping out two or three different versions of the story for them to slot in the casts. Nine out of 10-times, I'm in the car - (yes, my car is my office lol) - so, I work on a laptop with sort of a mixer connected to it, and that way I can plug in a mic to voice my stories. I write up the story versions, mix the voice with interview soundbites and (if available) sound from the scene by using digital editing software - we've come a long way from carts, reel-to-reel, splicing tape and alligator clips to connect to pay phones!
I then send the story versions--which will be about 40-seconds or less through a newsroom program, so they can put in the cast to air. Once I finish the first story, I normally eat lunch in the car before heading to the next story to do the process over again. I'll usually cover one or two stories per day in New Jersey on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and will also do a couple of stories to run over the weekend.
Nowadays, I also anchor weekend overnights-- Saturday nights/Sunday mornings and Sunday nights/Monday mornings, getting off at 5am Monday, and picking up my two year old daughter in the Bronx at 6:45am to keep at my home in Newark until I go back to work Wednesday morning; so, I'm usually a zombie Monday mornings before getting her down for a nap.
Q2. What led you to become a reporter? At what age did you know?
A. My dad was a radio anchor and reporter in my hometown of Houston and in L.A., and it always looked like a fun job, so watching him led me to want to go into radio...and even in elementary school I fought to be the student PA announcer one year, so I guess I've always wanted to be in radio news.
Q3. Did you receive any encouragement from your family? Please explain?
A. My mother, father and grandmother were always great about encouraging whatever I wanted to do. I guess I could say I was blessed in that sense, since in hindsight, it was their encouragement that got me through school and into my career.
I was always a good writer, so my mother and grandmother would always push me to keep practicing, and my father would bring me to the station and show me how the equipment works, introduce me to co-workers who would tell me how they put together shows, and my dad would always give me advice, whether or not I wanted to hear it at the time. LOL.
A. My mother led me to Mizzou. I, being a teenaged boy, wanted to go to LSU to date pretty, brown-eyed Creole girls, but since mom knew I wanted to go into journalism, she looked up J-schools, and saw MU was among the best...and TOLD me that's where I was going. (FYI: I'm glad I didn't follow my hormones. Lol!)
The best part about Mizzou's J-school is the hands-on, practical experience approach by giving students the experience of working in actual newsrooms, which is part of the class work. Students in the print and advertising sequences work for a daily newspaper, those of us in the broadcast sequence work as reporters, anchors, producers and photographers in an NPR radio station and then at a NBC-affiliate TV station.
After graduating and working with grads from other schools, it became apparent that the experience I got while in school, along with MU's great instructors were the main reasons I felt better prepared than most colleagues of the same age.
Q5. Can you name a couple of stories that you're most proud of? Why?
A. I'm probably most proud of a story I worked on for months in Cleveland - I worked at WTAM Newsradio station there for six years - I did a lot of research on an old murder case, where two guys had already done over 10-years in prison after being convicted. The case was mostly circumstantial, one eyewitness only saw figures in the dark, and the prosecutor was not forthcoming with key info which pointed to reasonable doubt, yet they were convicted. I did a couple jailhouse interviews with both men, aired the story, followed up with a segment on our top-rated afternoon talk show, and soon after that--an appeals judge granted a hearing, and the guys were released not long after.
The other story was an allegation of misappropriating funds at a local newspaper. I was a student reporter at the NPR station at MU, and a friend of mine worked at a cleaners, and gave me a piece of paper she found in the pocket of a university official which outlined the allegation they were looking into, and I was able to confirm campus police and the FBI were investigating.
It was a thrilling start to a career, because I was called into the J-School Dean's office to make sure I had my 'ducks in a row,' and to make sure I understood the effects of my story. The managing editor of that paper called to "yell at me," which I thought was all kind of amusing, mostly because that paper was (and still is) one of the city's two daily newspapers, and run by the print sequence of the J-School - Columbia Missourian.
That story was my own personal ethics test, at least the way I saw it. I'll never forget a fellow student asking me, "would you take down your own school for the sake of a story?" My answer was something like - for the story? "No." But for the truth, "yes." In the end, it got shut down when police told me a day later they were no longer investigating, but that story taught me a lot about digging for info, not revealing sources and how to deal with all players involved in a story like that.
Q6. There has always been a push to "diversify journalism." What changes have you seen? What more needs to be done?
A. Since the late 90s (when I started professionally), I've seen stations make more of an effort to put women and minorities on-air, and I've had news directors personally not only ask how could they recruit more minority applicants, but to their credit (for example my old news director RC Bauer at WTAM 1100 in Cleveland)- followed up by attending conferences like the annual
National Association of Black Journalists.
However, more of that kind of active recruiting is needed to hire African, Latino/Hispanic and Asian Americans, and it's just as important for minority groups to encourage and prepare more to be a qualified applicant...because it helps no one to hire a minority if they're not ready for the job. So, I think local chapters of minority journalism organizations should work with high school programs to both foster interest in the field, and to teach the practical skills needed to make it in the industry.
Q7. How can parents encourage their kids who want to enter this field? What steps should be taken?
A. Parents can encourage their kids who want to enter this field--for starters--by simply doing just that. I cannot tell you where I'd be had my mother, father and grandmother not pushed me to go after being a news reporter, but I likely wouldn't have gone this far. Many of us are raised without a lot of money, so many times it takes a collective struggle. My mother and grandmother LITERALLY sacrificed the roof over our heads to get me through my last year in college.
I came home after graduation to find the living room, kitchen and hallway ceilings caved in from rain. A musty smell of wet drywall and wood met my nose when I walked in, and my mother and grandmother left a note saying they were staying in a hotel. When I saw them that night, I'll never forget what my grandmother told me, "It was either your last year in school, or the roof."
Sacrifice and encouragement. That's what it takes from parents. Because, the result is I, for one, made it my goal to go as far in this field, so as to make their sacrifice and encouragement worth the struggle.
Q8. What future trends do you see on the horizon that kids need to be aware of, and prepare for?
A. Kids interested in journalism need to know they'll need not only writing and speaking skills, but will have to know how to handle a still and/or video camera, operate digital editing equipment...and that goes for broadcast AND print. Newsrooms are shrinking to the point where everyone is increasingly multi-tasking. Radio reporters shoot pictures for the website, print reporters are packing video cameras to shoot for their website, and TV reporters are--more and more--shooting and editing their own video.
Top J-Schools like at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Syracuse University, the University of Florida and Northwestern University have started catering to this trend--Mizzou now has an entire sequence called 'Convergence,' which teaches to this trend, because newsrooms are, indeed, "converging." Young students should also "prepare to be broke," while breaking into this
field. No joke! My first radio job after graduating--from Mizzou, mind you!--paid minimum wage, and I worked six-to-seven day weeks. My second job paid $9 an hour before I struck it 'rich' in Cleveland with a livable wage.
Q9. What are your future plans in this industry?
A. Good question. Hell if I know. :) But seriously, I love writing and telling stories, so for me it's simple - I'll be a reporter/anchor as long as I'm allowed. There is not a single day when I wake up not wanting to go to work. The 'juice' for me is learning about all the different things within a story, and being able to ball it up into a neat package to inform and entertain. I'm a simple, complex man.
Q10. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
A. Aside from loved ones, surrounding oneself with positive friends/people is probably as important for young (and older, really) people as learning all the skills needed to do whatever in life. I've been blessed to have great friends "from the street" I grew up on who always supported and encouraged me, just as my parents did. Peer pressure can be just as good as it can be bad, and too many talents are never realized, because they weren't "pressured" to put those talents to good use. So, shying away from negative in favor of positive people is as important to success as any skill a person could ever learn.
And, now, you know, the REST of the story. Good day.
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