Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembering the KJZZ Cafe: Five Years Later

This past Thursday marked five years from the cancellation of the KJZZ Cafe. I was the producer of the Cafe during its brief on-air run from January of 2008 to November of that same year, and I have often marveled at the memory of what was easily one of the most unique professional experiences of my career.

I joined the team in the fall of 2007, after spending several months as a contributor to a small variety show called "B All Over" (named for its host, a local actor/comedian named Johnny B). KJZZ was developing a roundtable show to analyze current issues, built around a trio of hosts who would spearhead discussions on a variety of topics mined from national headlines. I was recruited to linger behind the scenes, organizing and managing the overall on-air narrative. As producer, I was more or less ground zero for the daily broadcast, arriving at the KJZZ studio around 1AM to start sorting through story pitches and checking online to see what we would use in the show. Our on-air anchors and Executive Producer would arrive by 3AM, when I would present a skeleton rundown of our 150 minute broadcast, and following that meeting, we had until 6:30 to produce our content before the show went on the air.

As a career night owl, it wasn't hard to get to work on time, or to stay attentive during the early morning hours on my own before the rest of the team arrived. But sleep was another issue. In the ten months we were on the air, I usually never got more than 3-4 hours of sleep a day. Not because I was busy, not because of the 24/7 nature of the modern news cycle...I just couldn't sleep. I'd go to bed knowing I had an 8-10 hour window before having to get ready for the next "day," but 3-4 hours later I would wake up unable to get back to sleep.

The schedule inadvertently led to my most embarrassing moment during the show's run. Once the show went on the air, my responsibility shifted from writer to timekeeper, monitoring our schedule, making sure we were covering our material at the right pace, and telling the on-air talent when to lead to a commercial break. If a guest was late for an interview or if we found out five seconds before a story that we didn't have a piece of video ready, I had to adjust the master plan on the fly. It was a challenge for a guy who usually likes to take his time making decisions, but it was good for me.

One morning, Steve Anderson, one of our anchors, started a routine guest interview. I can't remember who the guest was, or what the topic was, which might explain why sixty seconds into the segment I nodded off. This in and of itself was no big deal. Usually when something like this would happen, I would pop back up within a couple of seconds. The problem was that this time, I didn't pop back up, and no one tried to wake me. I was out for a full fifteen minutes, during which time poor Steve was out there desperately trying to continue a conversation that was only supposed to last about five minutes. Fifteen minutes may not sound like much in real life, but in TV time it was a veritable eternity.

But eternity eventually came to a close, and a few weeks later, so did the show. We were canceled less than a week after the presidential election, which almost seemed appropriate since so much of our time was spent following the primaries and the campaign of the previous year. I don't know if the show went off the air more because of ratings or because of the economy (I'll never forget sitting in the control room one morning during a broadcast and watching the DOW free fall on an adjacent monitor only seconds after the market opened), but it was an unforgettable experience...even if I wasn't technically awake for the whole thing.

My time at the Cafe was actually only one of several standout experiences in 2008. Unfortunately, our time on the air was bookended by a pair of deaths on my dad's side of the family. My grandmother died from complications from diabetes about two weeks after we went on the air, and a week after our cancellation, my grandfather passed away also. By the end of the calendar year, I had lost my job, my remaining grandparents, and I even got kicked out of the singles ward I had been attending for the better part of ten years. Plus there was that whole recession thing. If it hadn't been for my sister's wedding and a timely trip to Chicago with the Cheetahman, it would have been a miserable stretch.

In a strange twist of irony, I gave an on-air editorial during our last broadcast entitled, "The Liberation of Losing." (Ironic because we didn't know it was our last broadcast until after the show.) And, from an outside perspective, it would be fair to see a show that was only on the air for ten months as a loss. But over the course of its brief run, the "KJZZ Cafe" evolved considerably, and was on its way to becoming what we'd originally envisioned before starting the project. And when I think about where I started at the beginning of the experience, there's really no way for me to look at the experience as anything but a success.