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Entrance to WPIX at NY News building


- a historical perspective from 1978 -

November 27, 1998 - WPIX news director John Parsons is a burly, sagacious, all-round colorful fellow who believes in asking his own questions and doing news his own way.

"Come on. Let's go get some coffee..." beckons Parsons as he leads me out of the station...

WPIX's coffee machine is on the fritz, so while most news writers are working diligently on their 7:30-8:00 A.M. newscasts, Parsons prepares to take a few minutes for a stroll down 42nd street, in search of a story and caffeine.

"I'd kinda like to see what it's like out there," says Parsons as we descend the 28 floors to the lobby, and then out the doors of the historic New York Daily News Building where WPIX-FM is housed.

After a week's worth of commentary and analysis, the story of the cult mass suicide in Guyana has become stale. The big news in New York this November 27th is the season's first respectable snow flurry (or "snowstorm," depending on your outlook).

NY News Department doord
The entrance to WPIX-FM, which is housed in the New York Daily News building.
Our destination, the Charles & Co. Deli, is a few hundred feet to the left, and as we walk we observe that it is indeed snowing, just as the United Press International news wire indicated. But not a heavy snow -- not a storm. Simple, but this is the kind of first-hand observation that Parsons prizes.

John Parsons is an intriguing mix of thorough independence blended with New York hipness and old school news ethic: "I used to work at channel 5 [WNEW-TV]," he recounts, while surveying a pile of jelly doughnuts strewn across an aluminum tray. "We called it the 'ugly news' 'cause everybody we had was ugly.  But now they've given in," he laments. "They just hired a new lady to do the weather."

Back at the station now, he gives a cup of coffee to disc jockey Jim Kerr before crumpling up a paper bag and throwing it at him. Parsons' aim is true; he hits both Kerr and the open microphone, creating an audible "bump" on ther air. And presently Parsons sets about preparing his 7:30 newscast.

Up in a corner of the tiny WPIX newsroom, a television set presents WNBC's version of the local news. The big story is the snow "storm."

Parsons frowns slightly as he looks over the copy of one of his reporters (see the script). But his expressions brightens considerably when he hears the accompanying actuality ["sound bite"]. It's with city snow clearer Joe Vitta, describing his department's readiness. Vitta's accent betrays a likely Brooklyn lineage.

"That's great!!!" Parsons is beaming. "Wow! You can almost see this guy!"

There is precious little on the wire to supplement the snow story.  As the Rolling Stones slam into the last few notes of the song "Shattered," our our WPIX news director informs us that what follows will be a "very rough newscast."

While WNBC-TV is billing the falling flakes outside as the "first snowstorm of the season,"  John Parsons prefers a more reserved approach:

"It's 7:30. This is WPIX 102... And it's really not that bad out there, I have to tell ya. I was just out a little while ago walking around.  And I've been listening to some of the other stations in town, and checking the television, and some of the wires... and people are talking about the first winter snowstorm of the season..."

"It's really not a storm, I don't think. There is some light snow , and you will see the light stuff about, but the cars are moving pretty good, and I suppose later today, when we get the freezing rain which is coming in, it's going to get even more nasty..."

All Parsons has in front of him now is a set of tattered wire copy, and a few notes. He hasn't touched a typewriter since before 7 AM. Yet the rest of the newscast goes off without a hitch.

WPIX Takes A Simple Approach to News

As sources, Parsons relies on UPI Greater New York and National Broadcast wires. He also pulls information from local television news  programs.

Then, of course, there are WOR and WCBS. Both have helicopters, a fact which WPIX uses to no small advantage in preparing traffic reports.

"You're probably look at the smallest news operation in the city," he points out with a smile. WPIX has only four reporters, one of them a part-timer. The approach to news, as Parsons sees it, is simple and direct.

"If anybody is looking for the news in the morning, we tell them what's going on, in a way that is easy to understand. Since it's radio, the notion, it seems to me, is that you are talking to people. You ought not to be formal and you ought not to be announcing. You oughtta be direct, and honest, and truthful."

Persons holds a particular disdain for wire service writing, and the kind of thinking that goes along with it.  And, even, sometimes, for the stiff approach of the city's all-news stations:

"That's just like 'CBS," be comments, listening with disparagement to the all-news operations snow story sound bite. "They call up the sanitation commissioner at his apartment.  We get the guy right off the truck!"

Eye Witness Resourcefulness

"Hear It!"
Hear how WPIX-FM sounds in 1978, plus an interview with colorful WPIX News Director John Parsons.
For more piquant versions of national stories, Parsons relies on various friends stationed at radio operations around the country. His coup of this particular morning involves friend and KSFO (San Francisco) reporter Tony Russomanno. Russomanno is just back from covering the megastory of the preceding week: A mass suicide of hundreds of People's Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana.

"Weirdness fucking story..." explains Russomanno (off air) starting into a description of the events surrounding the discovery of some half-million dollars, all destined for the Soviet embassy.

"STOP!! I don't wanna hear any more," interrupts Parsons. "Save it for the air."

The tale is everything Russomanno claims, and more:

"We are sitting at an open-air verandah, at this seedy, turn-of-the-century hotel. [The two Carter brothers] are telling of these mass suicides -- mass murders... by being ordered by the woman who served as the treasurer of the People's Temple... to help deliver a suitcase. And the suitcase was loaded with a half-million dollars cash, and there was a sealed letter addressed to the embassy of the Soviet Union. Strange. "

News Building Historical Marker
A historical marker placed on the New York News building in 1957.

"A survivor, and a refugee from Jonestown -- natural enemies now -- encircling each other... circling around me talking to these two brothers, with each guy appealing for protection to a huge, disinterested Guyanese guard who just happened to be wearing this incredibly large star of David medallion."

"Now on one side of the verandah, two dozen nine-year-old ballerinas in leotards dance to classical music recordings. And across the room, a benefit party for a local leprosy foundation was being entertained by a steel band playing Jingle Bells in 90-degree heat."

To document this otherwise fanciful sounding account, Russomanno came prepared with natural sound of the steel band playing Jingle Bells, which he plays through his Superscope TC-142 into the microphone.

Parsons is visibly delighted.

"I think the job of a broadcast journalist is to tell people what's going on," he says later. "I think as a general listener through the years, I have felt shortchanged. I have felt that I did not hear enough from people who actually see and experience events. It seems to me that a lot of reporters -- [or people] who are called reporters -- are removed from events.  I sort of thirst for first-hand information, and to the degree that I don't get it, I don't feel that we're doing our job."

An observer soon gets the impression that there is very little writing involved in a John Parsons newscast. "This newsroom functions out of my head.  The first thing I do when I get in is read everything. That way, you know what's going on."

Parsons admits to using raw wire copy extensively, but claims he ad-libs around it on the air. Analysis of air check versus original copy shows this is true (see an example in the script and transcript fo the snow story).

Riding the Mother Ship

Being the news director of the New York Daily News' own station has its advantages. With his passionate hatred of wire service 'daybook reporting,' Parsons can afford not to dispatch his people to the day's "bigger" stories. The News will always have the facts, and WPIX-TV (Channel 11) will more often than not provide the audio. Parsons considers rigid adherence to daybooks a trap into which far too many stations have fallen.

"A lot of reporters are assigned to 'non-events' and spend a lot of their time doing these, and not checking out and running down stories that require enterprise. I think there are some good individual reporters who have enterprise, and good instincts, and will follow up stores and dig for stories. But I think that's limited because of the pressure of this business to get out newscasts all the time."

Sports with Steve the Bartender

"Hear It!"
Hear Steve McPartlin tells how he got into sports radio, and listen to some air checks from his 1978 sportscasts.

It would probably come as no great surprise that WPIX-FM also does its sports differently from most other New York stations. Three times a week, listeners are presented with the 'working guy' commentaries of Steve "the bartender" McPartlin. A practicing bartender in real life, Steve admits he's not a favorite among the city's more polished sportswriters.

"I've had a running battle with a lot of the sportswriters in New York. They don't like me, and I don't like them either."

McPartlin says his frequently irreverent observations even prompted the New York Daily News' own sportswriter Dick Young to pose the question "What's a 'Steve the Bartender'?"

Steve McPartlin says he never set out to become a sportscasters, or commentator. But one evening, he and WPIX disk jockey Jim Kerr got to talking. For weather, Kerr has been featuring "Howard the Cabdriver" on his morning shift at ABC O&O WPLJ-FM, reasoning that a cab driver just off the night shift would know more about the weather than anyone.

"We were all watching the world's series," recants McPartlin, "so Jim decided 'who would know more about sports than a bartender?'"

McPartlin professes to know little more about sports than the average fan.  "I say what they'd like to say," he offers. I pretty much consider myself a spokesman for the guy who isn't an expert and doesn't necessarily have the opportunity to sit in a dining room with a bunch of athletes like some other sportscasters. I just know what I see, I know what I hear, and I know what I read."

Steve went on the air once a week for the first nine months, before beginning to come in every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When Jim Kerr left WPLJ for WPIX, Steve the Bartender and Howard the Cabdriver came with him.

With two solid years in the world's largest market under his belt, Steve can still be found tending bar at Second Avenue's "Court Street" bar and restaurant, four nights a week. He says there are two reasons why he hasn't relinquished his first job. First, he admits, "I do make a lot of money here. Tending bar in New York is entirely different from tending bar anywhere else in the country.  But also, I like doing it, because I get the opportunity to meet people -- to be in front of people all the time. It's a lot easier than sitting there and saying 'write me a letter' or 'call me.' People who listen to the radio station know where they can find me if they have a beer."

"Since I've been doing radio here for the last two years, I've realized exactly how important my (radio) job is... to a lot of people. It's almost scary how people rely on me."

- 30 -

See Also:

WPIX Sample Format - The newscast format, from a selected morning newscast, 1978.

WPIX News Schedules - Schedule of news from a selected Fall morning, 1978.

WPIX Scripts - An example news script from WPIX, with a comparison to what was read on air.

WPIX On-air Transcripts - Transcripts of sample on-air broadcasts.

WPIX Datasheet - Station stats on staffing, wires, cart machines, and much more!

An NYC 'Daybook' - What Parsons hates most: A Daybook from the wire service.

Visit more stations - Back to the home page to visit more stations' news departments.

WPIX-FM Elsewhere on the Internet:

References to WPIX-FM on the Internet are extremely sparse. If you have good references for this section, send them to martin @ hardee.net.

About this report
This research documentary is Copyright 1979, 2002  Martin Hardee - All Rights Reserved. (read more...) Material may be quoted or excerpted for non-profit research purposes without additional special permission. For additional information email martin @ hardee.net.