Penn State Beaver alumnus Chris Bowyer knows news. He knows cameras and video tape and satellite trucks, too. Mostly, though, he knows anything can happen when you’re trying to get your story on the air at 5 o’clock.
It’s sunny and calm on this almost-spring day as Chris Bowyer eases into work. Some days start like that for this Harrisburg TV news cameraman.
Email. Coffee. Wait for something to happen.
“I generally have no idea what I’m doing for the day when I come in,” says Bowyer ’09 Com, a 2005-07 Penn State Beaver alumnus. “I come in and speak with my assignment editor, who’s in charge of organizing stories for me. Then they’ll pair me up with a reporter, and we’ll hop in a live truck and head out to cover a story.”
Today the hopping will wait, at least for a little while. At some point Bowyer and CBS 21 News reporter Erica Moffitt will be heading to city hall. Their editor, Justine Hallgren, has assigned them to check on beefed up security measures in the wake of harassing letters and documents delivered by courier to Mayor Linda Thompson. But right now it’s unclear when someone will be available to talk with them.
So, it’s email and coffee and a brief birthday celebration for reporter Annie McCormick.
Red velvet cupcakes appear out of nowhere. Moffitt, whose son, William, is in preschool, provides juice boxes. (“I usually bring the treats to school. Someone already had that covered so I brought juice.”)
Flowers arrive right on cue.
“I want to get your picture with the flowers for Facebook,” says reporter Ewa Roman, pointing her iPhone at McCormick, who squats down obligingly next to the flowers.
“Stand by. In three. Two. One.”
Did she really count down that iPhone photo?
“It’s kind of our thing. We say ‘stand by’ for everything,” Bowyer says with a grin.
Bowyer grabs his faded Penn State water bottle, his insulated lunch bag and his thermos filled with espresso (“I only put a double shot in it,” he says defensively.) and heads outside to load up the SUV he and Moffitt will use this morning.
They don’t need the live truck, with its satellite dish up top and full editing station in back, for this jaunt downtown. There’s plenty of time to come back to the station to edit the story.
Bowyer grabs his equipment from the storage room.
Camera. Tripod. Microphones. Audio cables.
He leaves his light kit with its spots and reflective umbrella behind. There’s no need for it this morning. “I’ll get it later when we take the live truck,” he says.
Moffitt, her hair tidied, makeup on, and red, ruffled jacket buttoned up, comes out eating a cupcake. Inside she’d polished off a bag of carrots while reading her email.
“I eat constantly,” she says. “I figure the healthy stuff balances out the cupcakes and donuts.” Her trim figure shows that theory must be working.
Parking is surprisingly easy in downtown Harrisburg. Within a few minutes the news team heads into the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. City Government Center. There are no police officers blocking the way to either the front doors or the elevators that lead to the city offices. No one is checking bags or IDs. There’s not even a sign-in sheet.
So much for new security measures.
Upstairs police officers and city workers go about their business, threading their way around the news crews that have staked out the police chief’s office. Word is the mayor and chief are both out but the chief might be back soon.
Bowyer and Moffitt make themselves comfortable in a waiting room, pulling out cell phones to pass the time. On the couch next to Moffitt, Jim Sinkovitz of WGAL-8, the NBC affiliate, squints at his screen.
“You need glasses,” Moffitt tells him.
“Yeah, I know,” Sinkovitz replies. It’s clear he’s not keen on the idea.
“We’re all friendly to each other,” Bowyer says of the competing news organizations. “We’re all doing the same job.”
And then he smiles, a grin that splits his face and lights his eyes with mischief.
“Now, when Fox 43 comes in, you’ll see us all go green with envy. They have those new little cameras. They’re so light,” he says, giving a sideways glance at his 40-pound friend sitting solidly on the floor next to him.
“I used to say I wouldn’t want one of those. They’re so little they’re hard to stabilize. And then I saw that they have braces that go over your shoulder to stabilize them,” he says.
The grin gets wider and his voice gets deeper, manlier. “Now I’m like, who would want one of those little baby cameras when you could have a nice, big, bulky camera like this one? This is a real cameraman’s camera. You’ve got to be a real cameraman to carry it.”
Bowyer became a cameraman at Penn State, and he gives all the credit to Penn State Beaver for putting him on that path.
“My first experience with news came in a reporting class taught by Alan Buncher [at Penn State Beaver],” he says. “There was a guest speaker (Beaver County Times entertainment reporter Scott Tady) who showed up at one of the classes during the semester, and he was talking about news and media. Something just clicked while I listened to his speech. From that day on I figured out what profession I wanted to get into.”
Bowyer grew up in Beaver County and graduated from South Side High School. He enrolled at Penn State Beaver after his plans to attend Carlow University fell through.
“I ended up at Penn State Beaver kind of by accident,” he says. “My mother had talked to Dan Pinchot (’91 Com, ’04 M.Ed, director of enrollment), and he suggested I go there. I went for a visit, and after only a few minutes I was sold on going to school at Penn State Beaver.”
Bowyer moved to Penn State University Park after two years at Beaver and decided to major in telecommunications.
“I don’t know how I ended up in telecom, but I knew I wanted to be in journalism and I wanted to do TV, either on camera or off camera,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the new TV studio (at University Park) and learned everything I could. That’s how I got here.”
Moffitt is here, too, and she’s getting antsy. No matter how the day goes, how much waiting around there is, she and Bowyer have to turn in two stories before 5 p.m. The second story has yet to be assigned, and this first one has stalled.
“Days like this, you can sit around for a while,” Moffitt says. “But you know that around 3 …”
“The fit’s gonna hit the shan,” Bowyer finishes.
Hallgren calls. There’s a story that needs to be covered in Carlisle, about 20 minutes west of Harrisburg. She might send them there, but for now they should stand by at city hall.
Bowyer and Moffitt exchange a glance. They had hoped to stay in Harrisburg today and avoid a road trip.
CBS 21’s viewing area encompasses more than 10 counties around Harrisburg, stretching from Mifflin County in the northwest, south to Franklin and York counties, and east to Lebanon and Lancaster counties.
“I’ve covered stories all the way to the Maryland border,” Bowyer says.
The prospect of heading out of town, even to somewhere as close as Carlisle, doesn’t sound very appealing.
Moffitt and Bowyer grin at each other.
“At least it’s not York.”
It’s official: The mayor is out for the day but the police chief will be in the office around 3:30. The word is passed from news crew to news crew, and the cameramen begin to pack up their equipment.
Moffitt calls the newsroom for direction. A field reporter has submitted raw video, notes and interviews for a story that needs to be written and edited, something Moffitt and Bowyer can do at the office while they’re waiting to see the chief.
Another news team has been sent to Carlisle. Road trip averted.
After a quick trip to McDonald’s that includes Shamrock/chocolate milkshakes, Bowyer and Moffitt return to the station to craft the footage they’ve been handed into a one-minute story for the 5 p.m. news. Bowyer stows his gear in his cubbie.
Camera. Tripod. Microphones. Audio cables.
Moffitt dives into the story she’s been given. It’s on a bill that would ban the words “mental retardation” from state laws. She writes the script, including the intro the news anchor will read, and steps into a room to record a sound bite. Bowyer edits the video and sound and assembles the story. Later Moffitt will do a live remote from the station’s parking lot as a lead-in to the recorded story.
As Bowyer and Moffitt work, the living, breathing organism known as a newsroom buzzes around them.
“Who’s covering the story about the kid who got shot last night?”
“Ooo. Someone from Hershey’s dropped off a bag of chocolate. Give it here.”
“That ruling is in. They’re having a press conference on the steps at the top of the 5.”
“Do we have to use those annoying church people? I’m so sick of them.”
“I can understand how you might have never had a Shamrock shake, but I find it disturbing that you’ve never even heard of one.”
It’s time, finally, to go see the police chief. With luck they’ll get in right away and have their story done in plenty of time for the 5 p.m. broadcast.
Bowyer heads to the garage. “Gotta go get my ‘cameraman’s camera,’ ” he jokes.
He loads his equipment into the live truck.
Light kit. Tripod. Microphones. Audio cables.
The drive downtown is short. As if it had been reserved for them, a parking place is waiting behind all of the other stations’ live trucks in front of city hall. Moffitt makes a dash upstairs to check on the chief while Bowyer waits in the truck.
Bowyer started working at CBS 21 News shortly after graduating from Penn State in 2009. His parents had moved to Harrisburg, and he wanted to stay close to home.
At first he worked as a part-time production assistant, editing other people’s tape on the weekends. Before too long he was promoted to cameraman.
“I had to learn all this on the job,” he says, making a gesture that encompasses the equipment both inside and outside the truck.
“They don’t have live trucks at PSU. When I was a P.A. and it was really slow on the weekends, the other cameramen would take me out to the truck and show me how to use this stuff.”
Moffitt calls down from the police department. They’re on in a few minutes.
Bowyer gathers his equipment and braces for the weather outside. The day has gone from cool and calm to cold and blustery.
Light kit. Tripod. Microphones. Audio cables.
A look of panic flickers across Bowyer’s face.
Bowyer calls the newsroom. He explains. His camera is in his cubbie. Can someone please bring it to him right away?
He calls Moffitt. He explains. His camera is in his cubbie. Someone is bringing it to him right away.
“It’s a joke,” he says, not joking. “When someone leaves the newsroom, we always say, ‘Don’t forget your camera.’ I’ve never done it before. I can’t believe this.”
Bowyer braces against the wind and shifts from one foot to the other on the curb next to the truck. He clutches his equipment, ready to go.
Finally, an SUV pulls up. There’s an animated discussion between Bowyer and the driver, a flurry of activity. Cameras and equipment fly from SUV to live truck and back again. Bowyer, still without his camera, runs to city hall. A fully loaded cameraman follows.
“I have to take him upstairs to Erica. They need my truck.”
In York, the fit has definitely hit the shan.
Bowyer strings cables from his truck to the York County Courthouse, where a media circus is forming. The Supreme Court ruling that only the producers were interested in back in the newsroom is a major story, both for the country as a whole and for York itself.
Albert Snyder, the York father who sued the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., over their hate-filled protest at the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, will be holding a press conference. The court ruled 8-1 that the church’s protest, though hurtful and distasteful, was protected by the First Amendment.
But ask Bowyer what the story is and he’ll tell you he doesn’t know. He’s more concerned with the job to be done.
Later he explains. The live truck already on the scene was equipped with a microwave transmitter, not a satellite dish.
Microwave trucks can only send a live shot if they have a good, clear line of sight to the receiving tower and limited interference from other signals. The combination of tall buildings and the other live trucks on the scene rendered it useless.
Bowyer’s satellite truck saved the day.
By 4:55 everything is hooked up and ready to go. CBS 21 News reporter Christina Butler, smartly dressed in a white wool coat and heels, is poised for action.
“This is what we meant when we said it would get crazy later,” Bowyer says. “It always does.”
Snyder and his lawyers emerge from a nearby building, take their places in front of the microphones of nearly a dozen news outlets, and show their pain to the nation right on cue at 5 p.m.
The media circus crowds around them, then stills.
“My first thought was, eight justices don’t have the common sense God gave a goat,” Snyder says.
“We found out today that we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity. What is this country becoming?”
Bowyer stands tensely, alertly behind CBS News 21 cameraman Momin Bhatti as he films. Instead of running the camera himself, Bowyer is a second pair of hands, a second pair of legs ready to run and get and do.
The press conference over, reporters hurry to their cameras to sum up the story for their viewers. The wind whips all of their words away, barely caught by their microphones.
Between live remotes for the 5:30 and 6 p.m. newscasts and taping sound bites for the 11, the CBS 21 News crew relaxes at the truck.
Butler clutches her notes to protect them from the wind, which has tried to snatch them away several times.
John Leierzapf ’77 Lib, who spent two years at Penn State Wilkes-Barre and two at Penn State Harrisburg thanks to the GI Bill®, tells of landing his job at CBS News 21 by offering to develop film in the station’s dark room, a job these young guys know nothing about.
Bowyer has finally found his jacket. The sun is going down.
“You know the thing about this?” Bowyer says. “They can’t give me a hard time about forgetting my camera. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to bring the truck down here.”
That ever-present grin slashes across his face.
“I’m the hero.”
Originally written by Cathy Benscoter for the Penn State Beaver Nittany News alumni magazine, Spring 2011. Michael Mendicino ’10 Com contributed to this article.
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