WLRN – Miami Herald News

August 2003 – April 2009

For nearly six years I worked for a unique radio partnership between daily newspaper the Miami Herald and South Florida NPR station WLRN-FM 91.3. I started with the launch of the department in August 2003, initially serving as a morning news anchor and reporter. I was promoted to the newly-created position of department editor in 2005, handling assignments, editing copy from our radio reporters and working with print reporters to prepare broadcast versions of their stories. I became assistant news director in January 2008, picking up additional managerial duties while continuing to anchor and report as needed. I also frequently got the opportunity to write articles for the newspaper.

Me admiring the Miami Herald‘s headquarters on Biscayne Bay on July 9, 2008, knowing by then that the prime piece of property would eventually be sold. Photograph by Jim Wyess/ Miami Herald.

At that time the newspaper was still located at One Herald Plaza in Miami, alongside the MacArthur Causeway, with an incredible view of Biscayne Bay. Its location said a lot about the stature newspapers once held, being housed on such a prime piece of real estate.

The iconic building had housed the offices and printing facility for almost half a century by that point and many legends of journalism had worked there. It’s also where the newspaper was based when it received 19 of the Pulitzer Prizes it had been awarded. Also of interest to a radio nerd like me was the radio tower on the water. For decades it had broadcast the signal of storied AM station WQAM, but by the time I was there, I understand it was only kept as a backup tower for the station.

A sunrise as seen from the newsroom of the Miami Herald on Dec. 24, 2004. Photograph by Michael Hibblen.

A huge treat of working in WLRN’s studios at the Miami Herald during the early morning shift was seeing the incredible sunrises from the 5th floor newsroom windows looking east. The newspaper building was usually pretty desolate at those hours and I don’t know how many people working there knew just how vivid those sunrises would often be.

Sadly, soaring real estate values, combined with declining newspaper revenues, led to the 14 acre property being sold. While I was still there, it was announced the parking lots surrounding the building were being sold, then in 2011, a resort company offered $236 million for the waterfront property the building sat on. The newspaper relocated to the suburb of Doral, while the slow demolition of the building began on April 28, 2014.

Below I’ve included many of the more memorable stories I covered for the Miami Herald, both on the radio and in print. Some are grouped by topic, others are listed a little more randomly. It was a slow evolutionary process as our radio department was developed from scratch, with us determining the best ways to make use of the Herald‘s large staff (at least compared to radio newsrooms) and vast resources. We had to find a way to reflect the newspaper, while also serving the interests of the local NPR audience.

AUDIO: Covering a raucous demonstration with more than a thousand people outside the Israeli Consulate in Miami on Jan. 4, 2009, as Israel was conducting a military attack.
AUDIO: An October 31, 2006 debate for Florida governor became very lively, with host Chris Matthews, Republican Charlie Crist, Democrat Jim Davis and a third party candidate added at the last moment.

I learned about the Miami Herald‘s plans to create a radio department at a good time. At that point in 2003 I’d had several good years working as a Miami-based stringer reporter for CBS Radio News, which sent me all over Florida and the Bahamas covering major stories. But the build up to the U.S. war in Iraq dominated national news coverage that year and suddenly I had a hard time getting any interest in what was happening in my region. I was going weeks at a time without any work, so I started sending out resumes to various news organizations. I believe it was Phillip Davis, who at that time was NPR’s Miami-based reporter, who first told me about plans between the Miami Herald and WLRN. I sent a letter, resume and CD of recent work and soon heard back from newly hired News Director Irina Lallemand, who was working to quickly assemble a staff. I had four rounds of interviews, first with her, then Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, WLRN managers Ted Eldredge and John LaBonia, and finally with the Herald‘s human resource manager. I was happy to be offered the job and started alongside co-anchor Rhonda Victor Sibilia on August 11, 2003, three weeks before we would hit the air.

The Miami Herald logo and a WLRN bumper sticker.In that time, Irina, Rhonda and I had to decide on formatics and how to best incorporate the newspaper’s content into our radio reports. We were not limited to only reporting what was in the Miami Herald. We certainly had the freedom to cover anything else that seemed interesting to us, but took our access to the Herald and knowing what was going to be in the newspaper well ahead of time as a great advantage. In Miami, like most news markets at the time, newspapers had the largest newsrooms and generated the most stories, especially unique enterprise or investigative pieces. In most radio newsrooms I had worked in before that, when the paper arrived in the morning it would be ripped open and we would see what stories we could incorporate. Often stories that would be covered that day came from the morning newspaper. We took advantage of knowing what was going to be in the next day’s newspaper by pursuing sound and having it ready so that when a story appeared in that day’s paper we also had a version of it on the air that morning.

Rhonda Victor Sibilia and I stop to pose for a photo while doing practice runs of our morning newscasts on Friday, August 29, 2003, before going on the air for the first time the following Monday. Photograph by Chuck Fadley/ Miami Herald.

The photo here was used in a story about the launch of the radio department. Rhonda and I were doing practice runs of our newscasts before going on the air the following week. Initially she and I would alternate doing four minute newscasts every half hour following network news from NPR. We worked out of the radio station for the first nine months until work was completed building two studios and cubicles for the radio staff within the newsroom on the fifth floor of the Herald.

Those first many months were quite a challenge, shuffling back and forth between news meetings at the newspaper and doing our production and newscasts at WLRN, which fortunately was only a few blocks away. We also faced a good deal of skepticism from many people. Even before our first newscast aired, there were complaints from listeners of WLRN who didn’t like the idea of the major newspaper “taking over local newscasts” as some people put it. But we weren’t necessarily taking anything away from the station. It never really had a newsroom, but rather local hosts who would mostly read AP news summaries and play reports by Florida Public Radio, which was run by WFSU in Tallahassee. We tried to convince those who complained that we would be greatly expanding local news coverage by doing our own reporting in the field, using the resources and voices of reporters from the Herald while continuing to air some material from Florida Public Radio. But some still didn’t like the idea of a corporate newspaper providing news for a public radio station. That was understandable.

We also faced uneasy eyes from some reporters at the Herald who viewed the addition of radio as potentially one more duty they would have to do without any additional pay. Veteran reporters had worked in a time when their key responsibility was writing one version of their story for the next day’s newspaper. But by the 1990s, they also had to crank out a quick version for the Herald‘s website to be posted immediately and keep in mind multimedia elements that could be incorporated. Some also needed to assist the local TV news partner. Initially, we often interviewed reporters about their stories and pulled short debrief cuts that could be incorporated into our newscasts. But as our department grew, we started getting out and covering a lot more stories ourselves, using reporter interviews only when they would lend themselves as a good way of explaining a story. We also had some print reporters who welcomed the opportunity to take recorders out with them as they did their reporting and would then come back and work with us to produce radio versions of their stories. Many became very good at this and we greatly appreciated their contributions, giving us more voices in our newscasts. Several print reporters liked doing radio so much that they took their careers in that direction.

I think a good example of how we would incorporate Miami Herald reporters on the air is this segment from July 24, 2008. An extensive investigation by the newspaper revealed that lax oversight by the state allowed thousands of convicted swindlers to become licensed to work in Florida’s mortgage industry. They then victimized thousands of people who were trying to buy homes. The Herald‘s series prompted a state investigation and led to the resignation of a top Florida official. I spoke with reporter Jack Dolan, who did much of the leg work on the series of stories, which would eventually win several awards.

AUDIO: A July 24, 2008 report on a Miami Herald investigation that found a lack of state oversight allowed thousands of felons to work in Florida’s mortgage industry, who then victimized thousands of people.
AUDIO: Report on a victory parade in downtown Miami on Oct. 29, 2003 celebrating the Florida Marlins winning baseball’s World Series.

Covering a victory parade in downtown Miami a few days after the Florida Marlins won the 2003 World Series.

One of the first big stories we had in the months after hitting the air was the Florida Marlins (today known as the Miami Marlins) winning the World Series in October 2003. It may not seem like a public radio kind of story, but the team’s surprising success that season, after top players had traded off to other teams following their 1997 victory, had an incredible drama to it that was a lot of fun to follow and report on.

Lionel Tate

Another big story concerned a new development in the case of Lionel Tate. I had reported on his story for CBS when he became the youngest American ever sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted of beating a six-year-old playmate to death when he was 12. His mother had turned down a plea agreement that would have allowed juvenile detention and Tate’s release when he turned 18. His attorney argued that the boy trying to imitate wrestling moves he had seen on TV when he inflicted the fatal injuries on Tiffany Eunick. Tate was convicted of first degree murder and given the mandatory life sentence. But on December 10, 2003 an appeals court threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial.

AUDIO: A report aired Dec. 11, 2003 on the highly publicized case of Lionel Tate winning an appeal for a new trial.
AUDIO: Lionel Tate was released from prison on Jan. 29, 2004, a day a day before his 17th birthday. But he soon violated probation with a conviction of robbing a pizza deliveryman and was sent back to prison.

Rush Limbaugh attorney Roy Black leaving the Palm Beach County courthouse after a hearing, with me among reporters trailing after him after he refused to comment. Photograph: Palm Beach Post.

In 2003 the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s office launched an investigation to determine if conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh was illegally obtaining powerful prescription pain killers. In an effort to keep medical records from being turned over to investigators, his attorney argued that would violate Limbaugh’s privacy rights. Prosecutors wanted to determine if Limbaugh was doctor shopping to obtain drugs.

I covered a couple of court hearings in West Palm Beach that December, then a month later reported on Limbaugh getting an unlikely supporter when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief supporting Limbaugh’s argument and arguing allowing medical records to be seized would set a dangerous precedent.

AUDIO: Report on a Dec. 11, 2003 court hearing in West Palm Beach on whether Rush Limbaugh’s medical records should be turned over to prosecutors.
AUDIO: The ACLU filed a friend of the court brief supporting Rush Limbaugh’s claim that investigators violated his constitutional rights by seizing Limbaugh’s medical records.

Touch screen voting machines were supposed to restore faith in the voting process in Florida after the embarrassment caused by punch cards in the 2000 presidential election. But the new equipment didn’t inspire confidence. Here’s a collection of my reports from 2004 looking at the problematic computerized equipment. This montage would win a 2005 Florida Associated Press second place award for Best Continuing Coverage. The year started off with a Florida House election that was won by just 12 votes. As it got closer to 2004’s presidential election, concerns about the lack of a paper trail prompted U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and civil rights groups to call for an investigation. The controversy got even hotter as filmmaker Michael Moore rallied crowds in Fort Lauderdale on the eve of the Presidential election. In the end there would indeed be some problems, but not like those seen in 2000. Florida Governor Charlie Crist would eventually scrap the computerized touch screen voting machines in favor of optical scan equipment, in which voters fill in their choices on paper ballots that are scanned.

AUDIO: A montage of reports about Florida’s 2004 election woes, which won a second place award from the Florida Associated Press the following year for Best Continuing Coverage..

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