In my twenties, I was an idealistic Producer at ABC News and always arguing with my bosses about trying to get meaningful stories on our hour-long program magazine show called, “PrimeTime Live” hosted then by Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson. I thought using the medium of television to help people tell their stories, and, in turn, to guide dollars in the right direction was the best work I could do with my skill set. If I wasn’t pitching do-gooder stories, I was trying to get them to focus on the international news I was interested in like all the coups that toppled communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Of course our ABC News show covered important breaking news better than anyone, but they didn’t much listen to my opinions on what stories we should be covering, they just assigned me stories they thought would go over well with our viewers …which was fine, they were paying me to produce for them…but I always pushed and in the process learned some lessons.
The Berlin Wall toppled on a Thursday night right when we were airing live — enabling us to use the best breaking news, live television know-how of our incredible staff from Berlin and New York in a one-hour special event broadcast on the Wall. I remember feeling so relieved my show was able to focus an entire show on a historic event rather than pepper the hour with tabloid tidbits about a celebrity or a ridiculous train wreck playing out in a courtroom.
I learned an important lesson that night because even though we covered the fall of the Berlin Wall better than any network, and Diane Sawyer was over there reporting live and meeting people who had fled the brutal Eastern regime for the first time, that show was one of our lowest rated shows ever. That meant people didn’t watch. I couldn’t believe it, that night was so glorious, but still…Americans wanted to turn to something else. So, I learned why my bosses weren’t listening to me so much. They tried as hard as they could to put important hard news stories on the air instead of the lighter fare, but the important stories had to have weight and a certain entertainment value in that they gripped the viewers…in order for us to keep the ratings up and for all of us to keep our jobs.
I started to understand they had a tougher time than I understood finding the right mix every week. So I didn’t complain so much after that when I got sent out on stories I didn’t think “mattered” like sitting on ice rinks for days trying to get Tonya Harding to talk to me after she had someone hit her Olympic skating rival Nancy Kerrigan in the knee. I also didn’t complain about taking in feeds of Kato Kaelin’s latest testimony about the bumps he heard against his guesthouse wall the night of Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder at the infamous O.J. Simpson trial. All exciting stuff in a tragic rubbernecking kind of way…but not so meaningful. I may not have complained but I did keep trying to find stories that gripped people and were “important”.
One day, a friend asked me to come up to a school in Harlem to see this very special school called the Children’s Storefront, an incredible little school that started out as a little pre-K safety zone for about a dozen kids almost 50 years ago on one of the roughest streets of Harlem. When I visited it the first time in the late nineties, there were so many crack vials on the streets outside that they crunched beneath our feet. The school has grown steadily over the years, but the resilience of the kids, families, and the teachers who sometimes have to trudge over to their homes to pick them up because no one at home can function well impressed me so much that I told my bosses that we needed to do a LONG piece on this school. They were so moved by the video I took that they gave me the money and significant airtime to tell this story properly. I stayed in touch with some of the families I met and a few years later, the school asked me to be on the Board. I still sit on the Board and still feel very devoted to the mission of this school. I hope you take the time to see the video below:
The Children’s Storefront is an independent, tuition-free school in Harlem committed to providing a comprehensive education to children with varied academic strengths from Pre-School through 8th grade. Our work is grounded in the conviction that every child deserves the opportunity for an excellent education. The Storefront works in partnership with families and community members to prepare children academically, socially and emotionally for further education, empowering each child to reach his or her potential. With our wraparound services, academics are at the core. Over 80% of our students test at or above grade level on standardized tests. 95% of Storefront students graduate from high school, compared to 49% in the Harlem community. Daily attendance, a predictor of long-range success, is at 95%. Every one of our 2013 graduates were accepted into private, parochial or competitive public high schools.
Give to the Storefront by visiting their website, www.thechildrensstorefront.org and clicking on the green Donate Now button in the top right corner. Donations can also be mailed to:
The Children’s Storefront
Development and Communications Office
70 East 129th Street
New York, NY 10035