Chambers, Fishman reminisce

Los Angeles native Stan Chambers came to work at KTLA in 1947 and was joined there by Hal Fishman in 1965. Together, they have spent more than a century reporting news for the station. Variety sat down in Chambers’ office for a conversation with the iconic KTLA figures.

Variety: You came to KTLA the year the station opened. Can you describe what KTLA was like when you arrived?

Chambers: I was over at USC, and I heard that a station was expanding its broadcast schedule. I was working at the radio station, KUSC, so we decided we would come up with an idea for a television show. So I called them up (at KTLA), and I had one or two meetings, and they said, “Well, let’s do one.”

So a bunch of the kids there, we all worked on the campus magazine, and we came over and did a half-hour show in April of 1947, which would have been, what, two months after the station went on the air. And that was how I was able to make my contacts.

Then that fall, when they expanded the schedule, I got a call asking if I’d like to come work at KTLA. So I jumped at it — dollar and a quarter an hour and time-and-a-half for overtime. It was just like going into another world, because it was owned by Paramount Pictures, and they had this great big old garage, and so the rooms were divided by hanging drapes down — we didn’t have regular rooms — just very primitive.

And the big thing — heavy lights, lights you had to move in, real hot, bright lights, and it was pretty hard to stay cool in front of all of that. And the cameras had big cables, and cameras were always having trouble. Oh, they had to nurse those cameras all the way through.

Variety: Did you know that television was going to become this dominant medium? Did you know what you were getting into?

Stan: No, it was just kind of a lark, really. Looking back, you can’t imagine it, because, you know, I didn’t know what television really was. The picture was so fascinating, you thought that’s all it will ever be — the little screens and the engineers running around trying to get everything working so we could go on the air live, and it was just really from my point of view just a lot of fun.

Variety: Did you own a TV at this time?

Chambers: No, and I didn’t know anyone who owned a TV at that time.

In April 1949, 3-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned water well in San Marino, northeast of downtown Los Angeles. It is generally accepted that KTLA’s coverage of the tragedy established the model for on-the-scene news reporting on television.

Variety: Where were you when the news about Kathy Fiscus first came?

Chambers: I was giving a speech down at the Biltmore Hotel, and while we were there we got a call from my mother saying, “They’re trying to get ahold of you,” and to go out to San Marino. So it was one of those things where luckily I was near a telephone, because of course we didn’t have beepers or cell phones or things like that, and also I didn’t drive — I didn’t have a car. So, the lady at the luncheon (asked) her husband, who agreed to take me out to San Marino.

There was this huge rescue operation going, with dozens of people, cameras were getting ready to go, and from the time we started until the time we finished, it was 27½ hours (though the rescuers) had been there like a day before. But the key was Klaus Landsberg, who was our station manager. He was a great engineer — very creative. … He had success (once before) taking all these big huge cameras and the big trucks and going out there and finding power and getting ‘em all working.

But of course, no one had a television set — there were just a few hundred.

Variety: When so few people had television sets, did you feel like you were talking to yourself?

Chambers: I have a very vivid memory of maybe 2 o’clock in the morning, sitting in one of the trucks out there, just with that exact question: “Who in the world would be watching this?” …

We thought there was no one listening, but in reality, the whole city was listening. Everybody knew somebody who had a television set. They were over there. They were sleeping on the floor.

Fishman: They were watching in storefronts, also.

Chambers: Just amazing.

Variety: And what were you saying for 27½ hours?

Chambers: There was always something. There were guys going down in the hole who did the rescue work, and they would come up, and then we could talk to them about how (the situation) had changed and what they were doing. And there was a whole work crew, and they were changing the way they did it. And so there was always news.

(Fellow reporter) Bill Welsh and I worked together on that, so he would go for a while, and then he would give it over to me, and we were able to work it that way. So we never had time-filling, which is interesting.

… And then, when the word came out that she was dead, it just hit the city just like a blow right to the stomach. Emotional. People were tremendously moved. Nobody realized that this could happen. So here was a television set which was a very placid thing, showing the real world, showing the tremendous drama that had taken place, and from that moment on, it all changed, because people started buying their television sets. Kathy Fiscus actually invented television out there in the city.

Fishman: I think it was that and the Watts riots, which really catapulted the station into prominence in Los Angeles, because if you wanted breaking news, you’d tune into KTLA.

Variety: Hal, before coming to KTLA, you started at KCOP (Channel 13) in 1960.

Fishman: Yes. It was totally accidental. I was a political science professor at Cal State University, and in 1960, the Democratic Convention was out here, the one that nominated John F. Kennedy. I had done some radio just as a lark when I was at Cornell, and when I was out here, I think I was the first news commentator on KPFK, the listener-sponsored radio station. It was run by a friend of mine, Terry Drinkwater, who later went to CBS. And he was running this station, and he asked me, ‘Would you help me out and do a commentary?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ It was just fun.

So then I was teaching, and they came to me and they said on Channel 13 they were doing a course on television during the summer for students who could not come to the university — they were workers, working in restaurants and factories and everything else. So they asked me if I would teach the course, called “American Political Parties and Politics,” because the convention was out here. So I said, “No.” (He laughs.) I did not want to teach the course, I said. I was finishing my doctorate at the time, and I said, “Those lights are very hot, and it’s summertime, and I have no desire to go on television.”

And I was dating a young girl at that time who was an actress around town and said, ‘Guess who they want to go on television.” She said, “Oh, you should do it. You’ll have fun. It’ll be interesting.” That’s how I did it.

So I taught the course, and I had the Kennedys on, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, and all the Democrats were out here and they nominated John F. Kennedy. Then I went in to say goodbye to the general manager, Al Flanagan, and he said what I didn’t know was that other people were watching the course, too, around town, and he said, “How would you like to come on our news and anchor your own spot?” I said I would.

Baxter Ward (a future Los Angeles County Supervisor) was the newscaster. I would come on and anchor a little spot on international relations and foreign policy, and that’s how it all began.

Variety: Describe what it was like in 1965 when you arrived at KTLA.

Fishman: Well, I arrived here as a result of Gene Autry. I met him after a show — I was sitting in a bar, called the Red Roulette Room, in a hotel that he owned on the Strip, called, I think, the Continental Hy
att at that time. And about 1 o’clock in the morning, this man and woman come down. I’m sitting there with a date and having a couple of drinks, and this woman says, “Oh, you’re Professor Fishman, aren’t you? This is my husband Gene, Gene Autry. I’m Ina Autry.” I said, “I’m very pleased to meet you.” She said, “We just bought KTLA, and we’ve been watching you and we would like you to come over and join our news staff.” So, after a couple of meetings with them I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

When I came over here, there was, as I recall, a 30-minute news program, with Hugh Brundage and Dick Garten and Stan, and I joined the news team. And we put on a 30-minute show I think twice a day — 5 o’clock and 10 o’clock.

And shortly thereafter, the Watts riots broke out in August of 1965, and we were the only ones at that time to have a telecopter. The police didn’t even have a helicopter. There were no helicopters except ours up there that could broadcast a live television picture. So I was down at the emergency command center, and they would ask me … “Could you send your helicopter over to 43rd and Central – we have reports of an officer down, we want to see what it looks like over there.”

So that’s typical of what KTLA was. The thing that impressed me most of all by coming here was innovation. They were on the cutting edge of technology. Just like Stan said, in 1947, they were live — going live in 1947. And we were in the midst of this civil unrest in 1965, and we were the only ones who had a helicopter.

Variety: And that was driven just by the leadership? You didn’t have more money, obviously, than anyone else.

Fishman: We probably had less money than many stations. We were not affiliated with a network. We were an independent, and certainly it was a spirit of innovation and the desire to perfect technology. Shortly thereafter we went to color — I remember that. The most important thing, though, the most salient thing was the telemobile and the telecopter, able to bring into your living room instantaneously what was happening. And KTLA has been a pioneer in innovation ever since.

Variety: As much as you have at your disposal today, in 1965 you could put that story on the air as soon as you could physically get there.

Fishman: That’s right. We were the only ones who could. I remember, for example, even in 1968, on the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, when they called me up and said, “Can you get back here –Bobby Kennedy — they’ve made an attempt on his life at the Ambassador Hotel,” and I was broadcasting from … I think it was Queen of Angels Hospital. We were the only ones who could get on the air that fast. The networks were taking our broadcast nationally until they were able to get all their big units in place. Then they took over. Then they went with their own reporters, their own people. But as I recall, we were the only ones who could go live at that time and so fast.

Variety: How would you describe the nature of the news broadcast, the tone of the news broadcast in the 1960s compared to today?

Fishman: In a way, I hate to say this, but in a way it was more news-intense. It was concerned solely with bringing viewers what was happening at that time in their local communities and then expanding into state, national and international. … Now there tends to be more of an entertainment feature in news. We’ll bring you the news, of course, but we have more pieces of features, and I’d say that it was a harder news program in those days, which was inherited traditionally from radio broadcasting and newspaper people who entered the television profession.

Ed Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, these were all very serious journalists who came out of the press, came out of radio. Nowadays, there’s more of an emphasis on what is appealing to the audience, rather than what they should know and what we felt they should be given.

Variety: Would you say there were stories that you could get on the air in 1970 that you’d have trouble getting on the air today?

Fishman: There would be stuff that would be considered irrelevant in 1970. First of all, don’t let me be too critical about that. There was a lot less time for news. We were doing 15-minute news broadcasts and 30 minutes. So we had to cram everything into that. Now we have (more time). So you can afford to have the features and the fluff, if you like. It becomes more entertainment.

But in those days, we had only 30 minutes, and you had to get everything that was going on. And remember, there was a war going on also, the Vietnam War, and we had to bring that news to people. And there was a riot in Los Angeles in ’65; there was student unrest and riots on college campuses. All that had to be crammed into 30 minutes of a news broadcast.

Variety: As a local station, where was your emphasis? Were you trying to cover everything globally?

Fishman: Yes. We were trying to everything globally, because of the fact that every station was basically local. All the newscasts that were on were local, like they are today, except maybe at 6:30 the three networks will have a 30-minute newscast. They’re still 30 minutes, 6:30 to 7. But every other news that comes on, whether it be on 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, no matter where it is, it’s local.

And so people are depending on us not just for the local, but for state, national, international — my God, the thing that is affecting most people … a New York Times survey said what do Americans care about most, it’s the Iraq War. And after that, there are a number of issues, but none of them were local.

So we have to bring people everything. I like to put it this way: We have to give them the full meal — all seven courses, because people are tuning in and that’s what they expect.

Variety: Stan, what kind of stories attract you today? What do you get excited to cover?

Chambers: I’m doing some specialized stuff now, which is kind of people-helping-people type news rather than the breaking stuff, but to me, the breaking stuff is still the essence of everything. And to have the equipment, to have the helicopter, to have all the crews, if it’s there, we have it, we have that ability to get out there and do it, and that’s the big luxury (today). You have a lot of people and a lot of equipment, and with good judgment you can take care of all those big stories.

Variety: In what other ways have things changed?

Chambers: In the old days, we literally did not have television crews for many years, and when we did, it was silent footage, filmed, and we’d have to go over to the lab and develop the film, and it was negative film. So we edited in negative and then we pushed a button and that became positive. It was as primitive as that. And then it was just pictures — the sound came a little later on. But we made arrangements with San Francisco and San Diego and other cities that if something happened up there, they’d send copies back to us and we’d send copies back to them. We actually had a freelance cameraman in Korea, he on his own would send us color film, and that was a big thing.

Fishman: I remember, for example, as late as the ’70s, I was shooting 16mm film from my airplane, like in the blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel, when the oil well blew, I’d go up in my plane with my 16mm camera and photograph the oil well and how it was spilling out onto the beaches. I’d buzz the beaches and show that, and then come back, and then we had to develop the film, and we’d get it on that night. So, it was as recently as that. I seem to remember that the Mount St. Helens volcano, which was in the early ’80s, I flew up there, and we still used film. Weren’t we using film?

Chambers: Oh sure.

Fishman: I remember circling over the rim of the volcano, which had just erupted, and shooting down into that volcano, and using film — it was not videotape. Now I use a video camera.

Variety: You mentioned Watts a
nd you mentioned Kennedy. What are the other most memorable newscasts for you?

Fishman: Well, I’ll mention just two of them. One is the plane in the wires. A plane got stuck in the wires approaching Ontario Intl. Airport — these guys were trapped up there in high-tension wires — could get electrocuted at any moment. They had to shut the power down. … We were communicating back and forth — I was here and Stan was out at the scene. That was certainly memorable.

But I would say unqualifiedly the most memorable of all and the most important, and to show how news can change the course of history, is the time I came into the studio and the producer said to me, “Hey we’ve got this tape here. We’re the only ones who have it. I think it’s highly inflammatory. I don’t know if you want to run this.” It was the early 1990s.

So I go, ‘Let’s take a look at it.” And they say this is brought in by a guy named George Holliday from Lake View Terrace. So I looked at the tape, and it was cops beating this guy, this motorist. I said, “Wow, this is inflammatory.” I said, “Before we put that on the air, we’ve got to check with the LAPD to make sure this actually happened. Might be a hoax — you know, people come in with hoaxes.”

At about 20 minutes to 10, as I recall, he came back and said the LAPD confirmed that happened — it was an event. We had the only copy. He said, “What do you want to do with this?” I said two words that changed the course of history: “Run it.” That’s our obligation. …

Chambers: I think that the audience has a rapport with KTLA, It really is a Los Angeles station. We’ve always tried to be the local station in Los Angeles, and then we add to it. Now we have the world, we can get programming from all over. But we still are the local station. We are interested in what happens here, and we try to report what happens here in the city. And that’s the hard part of the news. Now as you get longer newscasts, you’re going to do a lot of feature stories to augment that, but when you tune to the news broadcast, you’re going to find out what is happening basically in L.A. and now in the world.

Variety: At this point in your career, what advice would you give the newsgathering business?

Fishman: I think if you had to make a suggestion to the news business, I would say to strive for excellence. Excellence meaning qualifications of the people who are delivering the news and writing the news. I think there’s too much of an emphasis on the superficial these days, whereas previously, 40 years ago, there was an emphasis on journalism, quality journalism, quality reporting by highly skilled individuals.

I think that if news organizations would strive more for those qualities that existed then, they would be repaid in the ratings and the viewership that they strive for today. Because the viewer wants their news delivered by newscasters who know what they’re talking about. The television camera doesn’t lie. It can see, and the viewer is sophisticated enough to determine who is knowledgeable about what they’re talking about and who is just reading.

Variety: So you don’t feel the audience is demanding the superficial; they’re just having to take it?

Fishman: That’s precisely the point, that they should strive more for excellence, you should have the qualified people. For example, if you hang out a shingle that says “lawyer” or “doctor,” you have to meet certain credentials. You have to meet certain requirements in the state of California or in any state. You can’t just say, “Hey, I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.” Even if you’re a teacher, you have to have certain credentials. We don’t have any in this business, none whatsoever, other than the viewer making the determination of who has the credentials for giving them and bringing them the news. This is a vitally important point in a democratic society.

Maybe I’m too much the academician. Maybe I’m back to my professor days. But I really believe that it’s essential in a democratic society that you can’t have a properly functioning democracy without an enlightened electorate. It’s our job to enlighten the electorate. The guy working all day doesn’t have time to analyze and see what’s been going on all day — that’s our job. You come home, you turn on that set, we’re going to bring you the full meal — what happened. All day long. So that’s my view: Instead of a decline from excellence, let’s have a striving for excellence.

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