Medford, Oregon isn’t exactly a huge town, so it was a huge deal to hear Johnny Cash was coming to perform.
Weekends provided a minimally staffed newsroom, and I wore the hats of assignment editor, reporter, photographer, editor, producer and anchor. Since the concert fell on a Saturday, I thought I’d try to pre-arrange an interview on the night of his performance. After many phone calls, I heard several versions of the same answer: “no, thank you” and “sorry, he’s unavailable” and other variations of NO WAY. As a reporter, that sounded a lot like “…so you’re saying there’s a chance?!” Later efforts produced the same non-results, right up to the week of the concert.
On the night of the show the early newscast was over at 6:30 p.m., and the concert was scheduled to begin at 7. Johnny Cash and the Carter Family were performing nearby at the Jackson County Expo, which seemed appropriate for a cowboy. It was also the largest venue available at the time (a guy named Bob Dylan played here once also; that’ll be another story.)
The TV station had state-of-the-art field gear for the time, which included a massive Ikegami camera, heavy Sony 3/4″ video tape deck, and thick six foot coiled umbilical. Combined it weighed 40 pounds I’m told. The Ikegami produced fantastic video, as long as there was adequate light. At night and in dark spaces, the video was marginal to unusable. We did have light kits in suitcases available, but they were hardly portable or friendly to spot news. One alternative that few people ever chose was to wear the scuba weight-belt-sized battery around your waist to power the ‘portable’ light that was then attached to the camera. It was heavy, it was unwieldy, it was way too bright for most uses, and did I mention it was heavy? I chose to wear it that night.
Although I wasn’t granted an interview, they did agree to let me get some concert footage. While the lights were still up, I gathered some b-roll and a few interviews from the mostly-local, and clearly enthusiastic crowd. The lights went down, the crowd went wild, and I got some decent video of June Carter from backstage. At that point I had enough to put together a nice VOSOT for the late newscast. While changing my location backstage, and walking in near darkness, I noticed two figures coming my way, including an unmistakable figure: it was The Man in Black! As we approached I simply nodded acknowledgement, then he said “how you doing tonight?” Naturally, I took that as an INVITATION for an interview, so I quickly responded “GREAT! Would it be okay if I asked you a few questions?” His handler quickly shook his head no, but Mr. Johnny Cash said “sure!” I powered up the deck, turned on the light, and started rolling. He was relaxed, friendly, and conversational. Nevermind his answers may have been delivered hundreds of times; it was the first time I’d heard them, and probably the first time for most of our viewers. Not more than two or three minutes later, I turned off the light, thanked him very much, and had recorded video gold.
He took the stage shortly after, sang, engaged the crowd, and I shot one more song. It would have been fun to stay for the entire concert, but the late newscasts were a solo-affair then, with one person producing, AND anchoring news, weather and sports.
When I returned to the edit bay, I realized that as a reporter, I couldn’t really add anything of value by writing copy or inserting MY voice into the story. What unfolded instead was a natural sound package, with Johnny Cash talking, his fans talking, and Johnny Cash singing. It turned out to be an easy story to assemble (since it effectively told itself,) and aired in all the newscasts the following day as-is.
Here are some of the lessons I learned: persistence can pay off. “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” If I didn’t have the stupid heavy battery belt, there would have been no video. I had 10-15 seconds to turn on my equipment and start the interview. If it had taken any more time than that, his manager would have hurried him along, and I’d only have a story of how I “said ‘hi’ to Johnny Cash” one night. That’s not really good TV.