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 its waterfront home 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 5th floor newsroom of the Miami Herald on December 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, two years after I’d moved back home to Arkansas, 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 January 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, then 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 pose for a photo on Friday, August 29, 2003 while preparing to go on the air for the first time the following Monday. Photograph by Chuck Fadley/ Miami Herald.

The photo here was used in a Herald article 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 months were very trying for our department, 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 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 content 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 compensation. 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 been 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 to 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 as 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 saying that allowing medical records to be seized would set a dangerous precedent.

AUDIO: My report on a December 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 Limbaugh’s claim that investigators violated his constitutional rights by seizing medical records. This report aired January 13, 2004.

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 would be scanned.

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

Reporting for Radio and the Newspaper

After construction of our new radio studios was finally completed in the Miami Herald‘s newsroom, the radio staff slowly got to better know the rest of the newspaper staff. Not long after moving over, I had an enterprise story that I was pursuing for radio, which I pitched to an editor of the newspaper. It ended up being the first of many stories I would report jointly for radio and print. That story also ended up being picked up for the Spanish-language version, El Nuevo Herald, which played the story up a bit stronger by including a photo. The story came out at the same time, airing in morning newscasts the same day the stories ran in the newspapers. It was the beginning of me learning how to report simultaniously on multiple platforms. You can click on either of the images below to view a PDF of the newspaper articles.

AUDIO: Reports from November 2004 on a wrongful death lawsuit brought against Cuba by Janet Ray Weininger. Her father Thomas “Pete” Ray was a pilot for the CIA who was captured in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, then executed.

 

The relatives of four Cuban-Americans, who were killed when Cuban fighter jets shot down two small unarmed planes over international waters, marked the 10th anniversary of the incident on March 24, 2006. The members of Brothers To The Rescue had been in three planes in 1996 and say they were looking for rafters coming to the United States. But Cuban authorities asserted that members of the group had repeatedly violated the country’s airspace and had been dropping leaflets over the island nation. A third plane carrying the group’s leader Jose Basulto was able to make it back to Miami.

AUDIO: My report on the 10th anniversary of the Brothers To The Rescue shoot-down, airing February 23, 2006.

Miami’s historic Freedom Tower has been called the city’s Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island rolled into one. Built in 1925, it originally served as headquarters for The Miami News, a long-defunct newspaper. After Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, it’s where fleeing refugees were processed after arriving in the U.S. Therefore many were upset when a developer sought approval to build a 62-story condo building behind the Freedom Tower, which it was felt would dwarf the historic structure. I covered a heated public meeting on July 21, 2005 as Miami’s Planning Advisory Board considered the matter and advised against the project. The developer eventually donated the building to nearby Miami-Dade College and it would became a museum and educational center.

AUDIO: My report on a contentious meeting at Miami City Hall, July 21, 2005 ,on the future of the Freedom Tower.

One of Cuba’s top government officials opened himself up for a rare public questioning when he spoke live via satellite with members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, who were meeting in Fort Lauderdale. The comments by Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of Cuba’s National Assembly, came as many were pondering what life in Cuba would be like after the death of Fidel Castro. His most striking comments were directed at Cuban-Americans hoping to one day return to the island.

AUDIO: Report on the head of Cuba’s National Assembly speaking to a gathering of Hispanic journalists, which aired June 15, 2006.

WLRN-Miami Herald News Expands

The news staff in January 2005, from left to right: Joshua Johnson, Michael Hibblen (me), Rhonda Victor Sibilia, Patricia Nazario and News Director Irina Lallemand (seated).

We were able to slowly grow our department, adding two additional reporters by the time the photo to the right was taken after a staff meeting in January 2005. Joshua Johnson started within a few months of us going on the air, followed by Patricia Nazario. The only staffer not present from this time was part-time reporter and producer Shannon Novak, who was with us from the beginning. With more staffers we were able to expand the number of newscasts we were airing each day. Initially we were only doing local newscasts during Morning Edition, but soon added afternoon newscasts during All Things Considered and eventually added midday casts as well.

14 years after he started with us, it was great hearing Joshua become the host of NPR’s 1A, which filled the slot previously held by Diane Rehm. He was sharp then, but became even more polished during the interim at San Francisco’s KQED. All I can say is I knew him when.

Reporting on Commuter Rail Service Tri-Rail

To allow an increase in the number of commuter trains that could be run in South Florida, Tri-Rail embarked on a long and expensive project to lay a second set of rails alongside its existing line between Miami and West Palm Beach. But as I wrote about in several articles over the years, the $334-million project involving tracks shared by Tri-Rail, Amtrak and CSX freight trains was full of complications.

AUDIO: Hear my report from November 26, 2004 on construction of a second track for Tri-Rail to increase the number of commuter trains that could be run in South Florida.

Click to read article as a PDF.

In my article to the left from November 26, 2004, which you can read as a PDF file by clicking on the image, I note that while the work was underway, there were massive delays. In the summer of 2004 only 20 to 30 percent of Tri-Rail’s trains ran on time. Drivers needing to cross over the tracks were also severely impacted, as several major roadways had to be closed for days at a time while the second track was installed in the crossings. Stations had to be reconstructed and 12 new bridges, including one major project over the New River, had to be built along the 72-mile corridor. But once completed, Tri-Rail was finally able to begin offering much more frequent service.

With the sharp increase in the number of trains, residents near the tracks in Hollywood pushed for a ban on trains blowing their horns. As I reported on January 24, 2005, new federal regulations had opened the possibility if crossings were upgraded with new safety measures that would make it harder for vehicles to go around the downed gates. But there were concerns that it would still lead to an an increase in the number of collisions between cars and trains, based on what had happened years before on a different stretch of tracks used by the Florida East Coast Railway.

AUDIO: Hear my report on the proposed whistle ban for some neighborhoods, which aired January 24, 2005.

Click to read as a PDF file.

Two years later residents finally got their wish, as the so-called whistle ban went into effect on October 3, 2006. It came as the number of passenger and freight trains running on the tracks had reached nearly 60 a day. I wrote this follow up for the Miami Herald that ran the day before the ban went into effect, speaking again with nearby homeowners, as well as a former union leader who had worked for decades as an engineer on that stretch of tracks. Former United Transportation Union president Carl Cochran called train horns “one of the biggest safety items we’ve got,” and was vehemently opposed to the change.

AUDIO: The radio version of my story on the whistle ban going into effect, which aired October 2, 2006.

By October 2008 Tri-Rail had more than doubled the number of daily riders from three years earlier and was the third fastest growing commuter rail line in the country. It was running 50 trains a day and its executive director Joe Giuileti said the biggest complaint from riders was that they weren’t running trains frequently enough. But because of the economic downturn, Tri-Rail was struggling to maintain funding, with counties and the state considering cuts. Another issue addressed in my report from October 13, 2008 was safety. This was shortly after a commuter train in Los Angeles had collided head-on with a freight train killing 26 people. It was immediately determined that one of the engineers had apparently run through a red signal because he was distracted by sending text messages. A retired railroad union leader in South Florida felt that a device that would automatically stop a train if it ran through a red signal should be mandatory on all commuter trains, including Tri-Rail. But the problem is it’s extremely expensive, prompting former UTU president Carl Cochran to speculate that “maybe it’s dollars over safety.” Tri-Rail countered that it had a tremendous safety record.

AUDIO: My report on issues facing Tri-Rail, which aired October 13, 2008.

In 2000 Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating that the state build a high-speed rail network linking its five largest cities. But four years later a proposal that it be repealed went to voters. One month before the election, I put together this report looking at both sides of the debate. Voters would end up deciding to cancel plans for so-called bullet trains, though years later a private rail company would revive talk of high-speed rail.

AUDIO: My report, aired on October 4, 2004, looking at the proposed repeal of Florida’s high-speed rail plan.

One of the vintage locomotives maintained by the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, Florida East Coast Railway #1594, which is an E-8A model.

In June of 2004 I visited the Gold Coast Railroad Museum near Miami MetroZoo expecting to produce a short feature on the place. I was so struck by the collection of vintage engines and rail cars, including the Ferdinand Magellan, an armored car that was used by four U.S. Presidents, that I ended up producing a nearly half-hour long piece that was aired on WLRN’s afternoon talk show Topical Currents. It includes an audio tour of the museum’s collection and a ride down a short stretch of track that it uses to operate some of its rolling stock.

AUDIO: My nearly half-hour feature for WLRN providing a tour of the Gold Coast Railroad Museum.

Reporting on the Impacts of War and Terrorism

Military Chaplains play an important role in helping soldiers deal with horrors of war. They also have the difficult tasks of leading funeral services for those who have died and assisting grieving loved ones. But that can take quite a toll on them. Several dozen chaplains from across the country who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan gathered in January 2004 for a chaplains conference in Fort Lauderdale to discuss the best ways they can offer assistance while also helping each other through what they called a spiritual renewal.

AUDIO: Report on a conference of military chaplains which aired January 14, 2004.

More than a hundred citizen soldiers from south Florida got a heroes welcome upon their return from active duty in Iraq. It was an emotional reunion for family members at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, who were glad to see that all members of the 724th military police battalion made it back home safely. Their primary mission had been to set up a detention camp near the Persian Gulf.

AUDIO: Report on an emotional reunion for soldiers who had served in Iraq and their families, aired February 20, 2004.

A Fort Lauderdale high school student created quite a stir after traveling to Iraq by himself. Farris Hassan said he wanted to experience the lives of Iraqi people first hand after being inspired by a school project on immersion journalism. His parents had moved to the U.S. from Iraq 35 years before, but Hassan spoke little Arabic and ended up being picked up by the U.S. military and sent back home. This would win an award for Best Spot News in 2007 from the Florida Associated Press.

AUDIO: Reports from January 2006 on Farris Hassan’s trip to Iraq, which garnered major media attention.

Authorities arrested U.S. citizens in Florida and New York , charging them with providing support to terrorist group al-Qaeda. Prosecutors alleged an emergency room doctor from Boca Raton , Florida had agreed to provide medical treatment to jihadists in Saudi Arabia . He was arrested at his home in Boca Raton as he was supposedly preparing to fly to the country. Authorities also arrested a marshal arts expert in New York , claiming he had agreed to give training on hand-to-hand combat to terrorists.

AUDIO: My report for NPR News (introduced by Carl Kasell!) on the arrests of the alleged terrorist supporters, aired May 30, 2005.

On the 4th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Berry discussed the difficulty of doing his job in the aftermath of such national tragedies. I produced a piece with he and Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, in which Berry talked about how “anxiety is a good source of humor. People love that release that comes from being able to laugh about how bad things are.” He discussed the series of columns he wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which seemed to come very easily to him, compared with trying to write after the terrorist attacks.

AUDIO: The Miami Herald’s Dave Berry and Tom Fiedler on the 4th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, September 11, 2005.

Federal Air Marshals on an American Airlines flight boarding at Miami International Airport shot and killed a man on December 7, 2005 who threatened to have a bomb. He didn’t. His wife said he was bi-polar and had not taken his medication. The federal marshals were undercover as part of an anti-terrorism effort, with many discretely riding on various flights.

AUDIO: My report on federal air marshals shooting a man who claimed to have a bomb, aired December 8, 2005.

Two consecutive days in January 2007 brought Terrorism Scares at the Port of Miami. One was caused when an Iraqi-born truck driver was found to have two additional people hiding inside the cab of his truck at an entrance to the port. The other happened when an explosive detecting sensor went off.

AUDIO: Reports for WLRN and CBS Radio News on the terrorist scares at the Port of Miami.

New security screening equipment at Miami International Airport and a few others across the country is raising concerns about privacy. While so-called “whole body imaging” can reveal non-metallic weapons or explosives that would not be discovered by metal detectors, the technology essentially allows screeners to see travelers nude. As the equipment was being unveiled on two concourses at MIA, the ACLU questioned whether the first line of security for passengers should also be the most intrusive.

AUDIO: My report on “whole body imaging” at Miami International Airport, aired July 22, 2008.

 

Me posing for a photo from the second floor terrace of the Miami Herald in October 2006, with the downtown skyline in the background. The construction cranes show that a major housing boom was still active then, as a trio of 60-story condo towers were being built. But that boom would lead to a major bust in south Florida as part of a downturn in the economy. Photograph by David Scolli.

After spending nearly six years at the newspaper, in April 2009, I submitted my resignation to the Miami Herald. It had been a fascinating place to work, where I was given tremendous opportunities to branch out and try new things. It was also the first place that promoted me into a management position. I’m incredibly grateful to the paper and WLRN. The 12 years I spent in south Florida will always be a fond chapter in my life. I enjoyed the caliber of news and the warm weather, but felt it was the right moment for me to return to my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, in large part to be closer to family, but also to return to the city that I loved and missed. I had secured a position at a former employer, KUAR-FM 89.1, which is also an NPR station at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where I had gone to school about 15 years earlier. I was glad to stay in public broadcasting.

I’m working to rebuild my website and am currently revising this page, which more reports to be added in the coming weeks.

NEXT: KUAR – Little Rock, Arkansas