February 24, 2008

Odzer's odds

an interview with…


WTVJ-Channel 6

When Ari Odzer was taking broadcast classes at the University of Florida in mid-’80s, the career advice went something like this: Mail out 100 resumes, start out in small market, move out after a year or two, and repeat often.

Instead, Odzer landed a reporting and anchor job at WPEC, the CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach. Three years later, the Deerfield Beach High School grad became a general assignment reporter at WTVJ, the NBC affiliate in Miami.

And except for a year at New York’s WNBC – while his wife completed her residency at Cornell Medical Center – he’s been there ever since. There hasn't been a major South Florida crime, hurricane, or human interest story that Ozder hasn't covered.

“I'm fortunate, blessed, whatever you want to call it, “ he says. “I had the right mix of luck, skill, and being in the right place at the right time to make a go of this career.”

You worked in New York for a year while your wife completed her radiology residency. Any big differences between working in TV up there and down here?

The city presents many hurdles, from difficulties in navigating traffic to challenges in doing a live shot because the buildings block the transmitter. But the most surprising difference for me was that in NYC, the news photogs I worked with were, with some exceptions, markedly less skilled than the guys I work with here.

It was much harder to get a good product on the air there for a number of reasons, chief among them that the photogs don't edit their own pieces up there, so there's no ownership of the stories. They often go through the motions in the field, because they know some editor is going to "wallpaper" the piece anyway. Most editors don't have the time or motivation to actually watch all the video that was shot to really craft a good piece. They toss whatever fits into the black hole. That's not how things are done here.

In TV, you just have to look good and sound good – you don't need to know how write or do real journalism, right?

That's correct.

One thing the general public doesn't understand about your job?

That the answer to the previous question is not correct!

Most people I meet think there's a huge staff around me – that someone is writing what I say and there are makeup people making me look good (if there were, they'd be fired by now). They think the job is full of glamour.

The reality is there's never more than me and a photog on any story. The reality is I write everything I say on the air. Even when I anchor, I’ll rewrite the copy written by the producer. I often write the anchor's toss to my story, too.

Glamour? Once in a while, I'll do a story in which I interview someone famous or go someplace fabulous. But 95 percent of the time, I'm driving all over town, doing a quick interview here, another one there, shooting video at another location, jumping into a live truck and putting it all together under deadline pressure, and then figuring out what I'm going to say in the live shot.

There are many days when all that happens so fast, I'm literally composing my live intro and tag in my head within minutes of the actual live shot. And covering hurricanes and hideous crimes, when you're wet all day and sweating in the heat, those are really glamorous days.

Most frustrating part of your job?

The decisions made about your fate that you can't control. Many times, the producer wants a live shot that makes no sense, or they want you to include something in your story that ruins it, or they demand that you cut 15 seconds out of the piece even though that’ll butcher it. Technical problems are also a huge source of stress.

Funnest part of your job?

The camaraderie with the photogs every day. And sometimes, the stories are really a blast – landing on an aircraft carrier, going out on a police boat, playing hoops with the Globetrotters, and a thousand other experiences that I've been fortunate enough to have. At the end of the day, when our piece airs, there's a tremendous sense of satisfaction if everything comes out the way you envision it. When the piece is good, it makes everything more fun.

Career highlight?

Tough to pick, only because I've had so many that are important to me for different reasons. Went to Israel for a series in 1991 – and ended up meeting my wife on that trip! I interviewed Bono and Edge in 2001, two of my rock star heroes. I've been able to interview a bunch of my sports heroes, too.

Covering Hurricane Andrew will always stand out, as will covering the Gainesville student murders and the 2000 election recount fiasco. Sometimes you feel like you're in the middle of history. Other times, you're covering Anna Nicole Smith.

Amusing professional gaffe?

On more than one occasion, I've been standing in front of the camera, waiting to go live, and they punch me up early without my knowledge.

One time, I was joking with a reporter from another station who was waiting to do his live shot about three feet away from me. I forget what we were laughing about, but it was something hysterical. For about five seconds, the audience saw me laughing. Unfortunately, I was covering a trial in which someone just got sentenced to life in prison. So when they came to me a few minutes later for my live shot, the audience saw me in serious mode. I had no idea what had happened until the complaints came into the station.

Weird dues-paying story?

I don't really have one, except this: When I started at WPEC in West Palm in 1987, my salary was $11,800. I couldn't afford to pay dues!

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into college students and young professionals?

Become well read – and stay that way. Read the local papers everyday, read news periodicals, and have a basic grasp of culture, the humanities, and history. That will inform your work every day and make you seem smarter than you are!