March 1998 – March 2000
I worked as a reporter and anchor for WIOD, Newsradio 610, which was Miami’s top commercial, English-speaking news and talk station. Initially I was an afternoon reporter and evening anchor, later becoming the street reporter for Miami-Dade County. I would spend my entire shift running from one story to the next, often giving live reports from sometimes rather volatile breaking events. I covered a lot of hurricanes, crimes, trials, demonstrations, as well as the international custody fight over Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez.
I had been reporting traffic for WIOD (and predecessor WINZ, Newsradio 940) for six months while working at Metro Networks before I was hired at the station in March 1998, so I was already a familiar name on the air and to the staff. I had been talking with News Director Michael Woulfe a couple of years by then, sending him updated resumes and tapes periodically, starting when I was trying to get a job outside of Little Rock in 1996.
The first time I traveled down to South Florida was in 1995 when my old roommate Kevin Kilpatrick, who I worked with at KARN in Little Rock, got a job working for a production company in Fort Lauderdale. During that first visit I did a lot of scanning around the radio dial, listening to stations I had long heard about. I was immediately struck by the two news stations, WIOD-AM 610 and WINZ-AM 940. At that time they were still separately owned, had full news departments and were fiercely competitive. WIOD was especially interesting because it still had a full schedule of edgy local talk shows by the likes of Neil Rogers and Phil Hendrie.
I made calls to the news directors, Jennifer Rehm at WIOD and Michael Woulfe at WINZ, who were both encouraging, each telling me to send a tape and resume and that they would keep me in mind for future openings. In July 1996 I got a call from Jennifer Rehm at WIOD saying she would have an opening for a reporter soon and asking for another tape of more recent work. I sent one, but when I called back a week or so later she told me the staff had just learned the station was being sold to the company that owned WINZ and that she would be out of a job herself as the news operations would be merged together. The local news coverage was eventually moved from WINZ to WIOD, which had a better signal, but unfortunately most of the local programs on WIOD then disappeared.
When I was hired at WIOD in March 1998, I would start my shift at 2 p.m., often running out to cover stories or would chase news over the phone. Starting at 7 p.m., I would anchor newscasts every half-hour during Sportstalk 610, WIOD’s evening sports call-in show hosted by Kevin Courtney and later Phil Latzman. Below is an appearance I made on the show shortly after starting at the station. Kevin even ribs me a little, calling me “fresh from Arkansas” after we aired my interviews with a culturally diverse mix of people going into a Florida Marlins game.
AUDIO: Talking with upset Florida Marlins fans on WIOD’s evening sports program in April 1998 about star players being traded off to other teams after winning the 1997 World Series.
AUDIO: Covering future Florida Governor Jeb Bush during a campaign stop the night before the election in November 1998, then at an inaugural celebration in Miami in January 1999, the day before he was sworn into office.
As in Arkansas a few years earlier, my newscasts would be filled with details of investigations into President Bill Clinton, this time as impeachment hearings were being held over his relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky and whether he lied under oath.
AUDIO: A January 1999 newscast with the lead story being U.S. Representative Robert Wexler, a Democrat from South Florida, grilling Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr during impeachment hearings for President Bill Clinton.
AUDIO: In January 1999, I briefly interviewed former President Jimmy Carter before a book signing in Coral Gables, Florida, getting his opinion about the ongoing impeachment of President Clinton.
Here is my business card from WIOD, which by the time I started with station, had been absorbed by Clear Channel. The company had large business cards that folded in half, including the logos of all its stations in the market. More than half of these stations have since changed formats and identities.
At that time five of the seven stations were located in the old Love 94 building, just off U.S. highway 441 in northwest Miami-Dade County. It was a cool building, with the WIOD newsroom located in what seemed like a loft on the second floor, with a line of production booths linking a back hallway, which had windows looking down into the open space of the building that was mostly made up of sales cubicles. At that time, the FM stations still had live DJs on the air 24/7 and it was a lot of fun being around so much activity. The dark side of corporate radio hadn’t completely sunk in to me at that point. After I left, Clear Channel consolidated all of its stations in the market into a warehouse in Miramar.
Within a year of starting at WIOD, my position evolved into being a street reporter for Miami-Dade County, spending my entire shift, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., driving from one story to the next. I’d cover press conferences or get interviews, scribble out a script, usually while sitting in my news car, file the report over a cell phone, then rush off to the next story. There was rarely a slow moment. My editor Bob Sandler always seemed to find another story for me to cover. Often I would provide live reports, sometimes giving extended coverage from breaking events. I covered a lot crimes in Miami’s roughest neighborhoods and got to know police, especially the public information officers very well.
I also reported on dozens of trials of all sorts and really enjoyed when I could spend days at a time sitting in state or federal court following the proceedings. And there were many stories from city hall, political campaigns, demonstrations, as well as the occasional lifestyle or entertainment story. I also covered plenty of hurricanes, hunkered down in shelters with people who had evacuated their homes or packed alongside reporters at the National Hurricane Center. Reporting on the projected paths and power of the storms was a real learning experience. I also quickly learned a lot about the politics and issues important to South Florida’s Cuban-American and Haitian-American communities. While I had been living there a couple of years by then, being a full-time street reporter taught me a lot more about these people. It was also nice not being at the station, avoiding the often tense atmosphere there. I had a company-issued news car that I drove home each night, so I rarely had to go in, just kept filing spots over the phone and moving from one story to the next. The only exception was when they would want me to go into the studio to join anchors live on the air during morning drive on major stories, as in the report below.
AUDIO: WIOD and CBS reports on the trial of an airline maintenance company accused of causing the 1996 Valujet crash, which killed 110 people, by failing to properly handle oxygen generators which started a fire in the plane’s cargo area.
AUDIO: A report on a memorial service for beloved, longtime WIOD sports anchor Sonny Hirsh, March 29, 1999. This would win a 2nd place Florida Associated Press award for Short Serious Feature.
AUDIO: My report on a massive wildfire in the Florida Everglades led this CBS Radio News hourly newscast on April 18, 1999.
By far the biggest story I covered for WIOD was the international custody battle over Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez. I was working on Thanksgiving Day in 1999 when the five-year-old arrived along with two others on rafts. They were the only survivors of an accident at sea by a larger vessel which was trying to bring a group of migrants to the U.S. from Cuba. Elian’s mother was among those who died.
In my reports on that holiday I included sound from the U.S. Coast Guard, which had launched a wide search looking for survivors. I noted that the five-year-old, whose name we didn’t know at that point, was in fair condition and being treated for dehydration and cuts. A hospital spokeswoman said he was “alert and talkative.” We had no clue at that point the incredible battle that was about to begin between the U.S. and Cuba over this little boy. His Miami relatives were initially given custody of the boy, but Elian’s father, who still lived in Cuba, wanted him back. Of course there was speculation that the Cuban government was really behind the demand for his return, not wanting to give any kind of victory to the exile community in Miami.
AUDIO: A compilation of reports on the Elian Gonzalez custody battle in Miami from November 1999 and June 2000 for WIOD, CBS News and the Westwood One program America In The Morning.
The incredible drama stretched on for months, with me spending a lot of time in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, picking up a little Spanish as I got to know the family and the many players involved. In the photo here I was part of a large media mob talking with attorney Spencer Eig, who represented the Miami relatives, after a meeting with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in December 1999.
The story by then had become huge and was being reported by media outlets throughout the world. It helped me because, midway through the saga in March 2000, CBS Radio News decided it needed to have its own reporter in Miami and offered me a position. I had been reporting for the network regularly about six years by then, starting when I was at KARN, and had already filed a lot of stories about Elian Gonzalez. I was very excited to leave WIOD for a national network position, even though it was only a freelance position. But I’d known several people who made a decent living doing freelance and CBS said there would probably be plenty of work if I’d be willing to also travel to other parts of Florida when news broke, which I was.
The next couple of months would be nothing but the Elian Gonzalez saga, as U.S. officials eventually determined the boy should be returned to his father. The family refused to turn him over, so early one morning, heavily armed agents raided the family’s home, taking the boy. The community responded with widespread demonstrations that lasted for days. In the audio clip above, you can listen to a compilation of my reports on the Elian Gonzalez saga, including several where I’m in the middle of very raucous demonstrations.