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Sig Mickelson
Sig Mickelson
From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite
ISBN: 0275923517
From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite
The former head of CBS news in the 1950's, Sig Mickelson discussed issues surrounding his book, "From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite: Four Decades of Politics and Television." He addressed his career and the evolution of network news coverage since his days with CBS. He focused on technological change and the competition it produced between newspaper, cable, and telephone industries. Mickelson also analyzed the effect of TV coverage on the U.S. electorate. He attributed a decline in voter turnout since the 1950's to an increasing complexity of issues and a lack of development of major issues by the media. Currently a professor of journalism at San Diego State University, Mickelson concluded the interview by sharing his thoughts on the future of the network news industry.
From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite
Program Air Date: January 7, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sig Mickelson, author of "From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite," I want to go to your last chapter first.
LAMB: “The Frustrated Dream,” Chapter 12. What is your frustrated dream?
MICKELSON: Well, the frustrated dream is that all those things that we were so convinced were going to happen in 1952 have simply never come to pass. It simply hasn't happened. You know, we were hoping that we'd get more voters to the polls; we were hoping we'd have better candidates, better-informed candidates; that the charlatans were out of business completely; that the X-ray eye would expose all the charlatanism. I don't know whether we have better candidates or not. That's debatable. And I don't know what the rules are going to be, but certainly we haven't more people going to the polls. From 1952, we went uphill to 1960; we've been sliding down a toboggan slide ever since. And surely there is no exposure of the charlatans anymore. The X-ray eye probably has a stigmatism of some kind or other. And all of those things that we hoped were going to happen just never came to fruition.
LAMB: You're talking about television news.
MICKELSON: I'm talking television news. I'm confining what I'm doing to television news. I'm leaving cable out of this one.
LAMB: Where were you in 1952?
MICKELSON: Where? I was at CBS News. I was in charge of television news and public affairs.
LAMB: What was so exciting about '52?
MICKELSON: Well, I guess the excitement stemmed from various things. But I think the major factor was the fact this was all new. There were no guidelines; there was no path you could follow. Nobody blazed a trail for us in advance. So everything we did was first time out. It was all pioneering. And, of course, it just so happened that politics in 1952 was more exciting than it had been for many years because there were no holdover candidates, so the two major parties -- I'm talking presidential race only -- so everything had to start from scratch. There was no pattern for covering primaries, and we covered primaries intensively and, I'm afraid, made more out of the primary than we should have made it, because the primaries have become overwhelmingly important ever since.
LAMB: When did you first go to work for CBS?
MICKELSON: Well, now this goes back to 1943, out in Minneapolis. At that time, CBS owned WCCO in Minneapolis and St. Paul. And I was brought in to organize the news staff there.
LAMB: Radio?
MICKELSON: Radio. I stayed there for six years and then was moved out to New York to take over public affairs for radio and television, which after a year developed into television only -- news and public affairs. And then, three years later, the radio and television, in the news and pubic affairs area, were coordinated into an autonomous division. So I followed through in that route.
LAMB: When did you leave television?
LAMB: Where did you go?
MICKELSON: Went from there to Time Inc. Now, I didn't leave television; I stayed with television. I went over to Time Incorporated. Time, at that time, was developing quite a lot of revenue overseas; excess profits tax were quite high. And rather than bring the excess profits back and get hit with a big tax on it, they decided to reinvest overseas. Television was just catching hold in Europe, South America, the Far East. And I was asked to go and see what I could do about trying to pry loose licenses to operate in some of the areas where it was assumed that there'd be some growth of television.
LAMB: And how long did you stay with Time Inc.?
MICKELSON: Ten years.
LAMB: Then what?
MICKELSON: Then, I'd been meeting Bill Benton from time to time, and he said, “Come on out to Chicago and join the Encyclopedia Britannica group,” which I did for a couple of years. Then I was romanced by Northwestern University and decided to leave the commercial life completely and go to the campus, which I did for three years. The fire bell rang again; Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were looking for a president of a new consolidated organization, so I went there.
LAMB: And now?
MICKELSON: Now, I left there -- well, I did a three-year contract and got to retirement age and decided that now I'd live on my own. San Diego State had approached me several years earlier about a distinguished visiting professorship, they called it. I said, “When I'm ready, I'll let you know.” And I let them know and moved out to San Diego, and I haven't been dislodged since.
LAMB: When did you get an idea to write this book?
MICKELSON: Well, I did something comparable to this back almost 20 years ago. This idea, I think, came largely from the publisher, who approached me about five years ago, and said, “Look, we'd like very much to have a new book on politics and television.” And I thought about it for some time, and got away from it, did some other things, then got back and said, “Do you still want it?” And they said yes. That's about two years ago.
LAMB: Now this book is available both in paperback and hardback?
LAMB: How long has it been in the bookstores?
MICKELSON: Well, I'm not sure. That's a big puzzle with any kind of book publishing. I think somebody told me that October 13th was supposed to have been the date it would be in the bookstores.
LAMB: What would you hope that people that read this book would get out of it?
MICKELSON: Well, I think probably they would get some understanding of how this whole business started -- some of the excitement value out of it. But I think also they would begin to see, I hope, that there -- I don't want government action to change some of the patterns, but I would hope they'd begin to see that through the visual mediand I say visual media rather than television -- that it is possible to achieve a good bit in terms of increasing the understanding of political processes and political methodology. And out of it eventually we might have elections which will focus more intensively on issues and the qualifications of candidates to deliver on the issues than we've had in the past.
LAMB: Go back to the '50s, and tell us what the size of CBS News was then.
MICKELSON: Well, we had a total, I think, in the news department, as such, of 14 people. That was the whole news department. We had a few stringers here and there, but they worked sporadically. So that was it.
LAMB: And then what? Mr. MICHELSON: Now, we had some additional -- another 10 or so in public affairs.
LAMB: Was that in television, 14 people?
MICKELSON: Just television, 14 people.
LAMB: And what did they do?
MICKELSON: Well, we had, I think, if I'm not mistaken, four combination film editors/photographers, four graphic artists, three directors, four writers and a sort of a chief factotum.
LAMB: How about an on-air person?
MICKELSON: On-air person: Doug Edwards. He was actually on the radio staff.
LAMB: And how much -- at that time what kind of a newscast did you have?
MICKELSON: Fifteen minutes -- 7:30 to 7:45. Now within a year and a half or so, we added 15 minutes on Sunday evenings. A couple years later we started a morning show and did some five-minute break-ins in the morning. But then we got a a Sunday night 11:00 to 11:15 on the network.
LAMB: What made you grow?
MICKELSON: Well, the simple growth of television. Look, in 1951, when I took over the command of television news, the total number of television receivers in the country was somewhere in the 10 million range. In the summer of 1951, the reach of the AT&T microwave and coaxial facilities extended only as far as Omaha. And that was a one-way channel from Chicago on. It extended as far as Atlanta, Georgia, and out to New Orleans, Houston and Dallas. But much of that was one-way only, and only one single link. Now you see, as television grew, as people became accustomed to it, as "I Love Lucy" began to move up to compete with Milton Berle and run ahead and the public bought receivers, television became a major force in the country almost overnight.
LAMB: Let's compare what you were able to do back in 1952 with what is done today. Let's say that the San Francisco earthquake happened back in your day when you were at CBS News. What would we have seen?
MICKELSON: Well, it would have taken some time before you would have seen anything. You would have had a lot of audio reports from there. You see, we couldn't get a signal -- in 1951 -- from San Francisco to New York. The best we could do is have camera teams get there as fast as possible and do a lot of film work with 16-millimeter motion picture film. That would have had to have been flown across the country on a reciprocating-engine aircraft with a maximum speed of about 250 miles an hour. So it was really a full day or a full night getting into New York, process it in the lab, get it to the studio, cut the film down, get it on the air and go with it. Now when we got it, we might very well have done a special because it was the first motion picture film of the earthquake. But it would have been vastly different.
LAMB: How many other channels had news shows in '52?
MICKELSON: Well, really, I think the three networks probably were all their local stations -- in New York, now, we're talking. I think there was some rudimentary television coverage on some of the other independents in New York. In Washington, there were news programs on, I think, four stations, including the Dumont station. Chicago, I'm sure there were four. St. Louis was experimenting. But they were almost all 15 minutes. And the early evening on CBS, we went to 7:30 to 7:45, many of the local shows 7:45 to 8:00.
LAMB: When did you go to a half an hour?
MICKELSON: Half an hour didn't come until 1964.
LAMB: Half an hour news in 1964.
LAMB: When did you go to color?
MICKELSON: Color was sometime later than that. I remember doing the political conventions in 1964 all in black and white. There were not enough color cameras to do it, and we didn't have the lighting to make it possible.
LAMB: When were you first able to bring a microwave signal from as far away as San Francisco into New York and then on the network?
MICKELSON: I'll give you the exact date. September 4th, 1951. The occasion was the Japanese Peace Conference. AT&T permitted us to open up their microwave circuit about two months before they put it into commercial use.
LAMB: What did that cost you?
MICKELSON: I think that was more or less free at that time, because they were interested in testing it, and getting the publicity out of it. I don't remember what it cost, but I don't think there was any charge.
LAMB: In your book you talk about it costing $80,000 to bring a television signal from Abilene, Kansas, to New York when General Eisenhower gave a speech.
LAMB: Would you recall that story in here and the influence of Bill Paley on the decision to carry it?
MICKELSON: Yeah. In that case, we knew that the general was coming into New York two or three days earlier, and he'd make his official announcement out in Abilene, which is his hometown. We thought that should be covered, and we started investigating what it would take. The main link went as far as Omaha. In order to get a signal into New York, we had to actually build a temporary facility from Omaha down to Abilene, which is 250 to 300 miles. We thought it should be covered. I approached the chairman on it, and the first reaction was negative. But then sometime later, he came back and said, “Don't you think we ought to cover it?” And I said, “Of course, we should.” So he agreed if we could get NBC to go along with it, to put up the $80,000.
LAMB: So you split it $40,000 each?
MICKELSON: Split it 40/40.
LAMB: But you talk -- you suggest in the book that the chairman at that time, William Paley -- still is chairman -- was interested for reasons other than news purposes?
MICKELSON: Yeah. I can't prove that, but I know that he was, well of course, obviously close to his brother-in-law, Jock Whitney, who was very, very important in the Eisenhower support group. And I'm sure that his interests lay in that direction. And I thought probably he was more disposed to spending the money. Because this really was an outrageous expenditure, in terms of what we were spending at that time. But, of course, I have no evidence to prove that.
LAMB: Did you cover the Taft announcement? Or the Stevenson announcement and others?
MICKELSON: No, I don't think we did. And I don't recall that there ever was any specific announcement time for Taft or Stevenson or Governor Kerr or Dick Russell or any of the others who were running. The Eisenhower situation was quite different because, you see, Eisenhower had been in Europe as the supreme commander for NATO, and there had been a lot of speculation that he would run. His name was placed in nomination in New Hampshire by his supporters. We had Cabot Lodge on a half-hour program supporting him at one time, so we had covered it. But there was enormous interest attached to: will he or will he not decide to run for the presidency? And we followed that from Paris. And then it was announced that he would go out to Abilene and formally announce himself as a candidate. Well, this became quite an important news story.
LAMB: You also suggest that, from a news standpoint, you would have rather covered the news conference than the speech. Did you end up carrying both of them?
MICKELSON: We ended up carrying both. The Eisenhower supporters at that time didn't particularly want a press conference. Eisenhower himself was uneasy in press conferences. At NATO, for example, he'd normally had three conferences: one for the print press, the second one for the radio, a third one for television. And he couldn't be dissuaded from it. So when we got to Abilene -- I'd been pushing for coverage of it a long time and the chairman had been resisting it, so it looked as if we were not going to be able to. Bob Mullen, who was handling Eisenhower's public relations, told me later that the press was adamantly opposed to it -- the pen-and-pencil people -- and he further said that if we went ahead and put our cameras in it, that the media, the press media, were going to hire Boy Scouts to run short takes out and there'd be absolute chaos up and down the aisles. And he said for that reason he couldn't do anything with it.

But the man I sent out there, Paul Levitan, who was our special events director, didn't want to give up. And the night after the speech, in the open air in Abilene, was a disaster -- Levitan took the trouble to move his hardware over in the lobby of this Abilene motion picture theater. So he had it there. Earlier that morning, I got a call from Paley, and he started out by saying, “Oh Sig, shouldn't we be covering the press conference out there?” Well, I didn't say, “Look, Bill, for all these months I've been telling you we ought to cover it.” I said, “Of course we should.” He said, “Well, let's cover it.” I said, “Very good. I'll get right on it.”

So I called Abilene and got the thing started. Levitan told me he had his hardware -- his gear -- all set to go. So we went in and covered it. I told him to tell Bob Mullen that we were going to. Mullen was frightened to death apparently, but he talked to Eisenhower, and Eisenhower said, “Well, if the cameras are in here, let's go ahead and do it.” I think it may have saved the Eisenhower campaign.
LAMB: Why?
MICKELSON: Because the speech the night before had been an utter disaster. They decided to hold it in an open-air park; they had no auditorium large enough to accommodate it. They held it out-of-doors; he spoke from the back end of a wagon. A rainstorm came up just about the time the speech was starting; somebody held an umbrella up over his head so he wouldn't get wet while he was doing it, but the man holding the umbrella got so fascinated by the whole thing he'd move the umbrella back and forth. The general got raindrops down against his forehead, washing against his glasses. And he was bored to death by the speech anyway. And I think -- well, he looked so bad at the end of that time that we needed to revive him.
LAMB: We're talking with Sig Mickelson, who ran CBS News for a number of years back in the '50s. He has a book out, both hardback and paperback, called "From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite." What about CBS News? When was it, in your opinion, the most powerful?
MICKELSON: Well, that's a very difficult question to answer. You know, it's been in a state of constant flux ever since 1937, which is roughly the beginning of it. And, of course, it's had different personnel to deal with. It's had different environmental circumstances. It's had different equipment. I'm not sure when it was the most powerful. I think that we had so few personnel and so little equipment -- so little hardware -- to work with back in that period that I can't call that the most influential. But I think it was influential, enormously influential, because it really started what became a new industry.

In terms of where it stands now, the audiences, of course, have been falling off for several years, as anybody in the cable business really knows. And it's partly a matter of cable and it's partly a matter of VCRs that are cutting the concentration, cutting the homes using television down. So if you're talking in terms of total audience, I suppose maybe five, six, seven years ago it hit a zenith. In terms of influence, I'd like to think that we had more influence back in the days when we probably were doing a harder news report than is being done now and we were backed up by real documentaries, the "See It Now" group and the "CBS Reports" group and quite a number of others that we did.
LAMB: You read often in bios of Edward R. Murrow and others at CBS -- people romanticize that period back in those days. Are they right? Or does history make it look better than it really was?
MICKELSON: History always makes it look better than it was. I don't think there was any golden age. I think everything then would look quite primitive currently. I think perhaps we were given a little more latitude to go out and do more serious programming, and perhaps to promote it a little harder -- not only harder, but more seriously at that time. And we may have had more impact through the 1960s on the public than television has now.
LAMB: How influential should television news be?
MICKELSON: Well, television news should certainly be influential. But you can't isolate it out and separate it in a separate compartment entirely. I take these Roper studies with a grain of salt. I think what they say, that more people that get more news from television than from any other source, that is probably true in terms of the raw numbers of the populace. But on the other hand, if you're talking about absorption and understanding, it seems to me that more bulk still, and more understanding, probably still comes from newspapers. How influential should it be? I think it probably should be more influential than it is.
LAMB: Why?
MICKELSON: Well, I think this is a medium which has an immediate impact on the public. It has an impact on the public because it comes in several dimensions. And it comes wrapped up in entertainment values, so you can deliver enormous audiences -- considerably more than Life magazine, which I guess was the greatest engine in history in delivering information to the public ever was. And that should be an influential medium, but I don't think it's quite living up to that.
LAMB: Do you think CBS or any of the networks ever abused their power?
MICKELSON: No. When you say abused the power, you can talk about the quiz scandals, I suppose, and you can talk about circumstances in which we did certain things that we probably resisted a little bit. I don't think there's been a serious abuse of power. I think, by and large, the networks, particularly, have been very careful to try to the best of their ability to serve the public.
LAMB: When I said “abuse,” let me go back to another story you tell in your book, when Frank Stanton, who was the president of CBS, called you on the phone one day and said, “I think we can cover an Eisenhower Cabinet meeting live 7:00 at night.'
MICKELSON: That was an abuse of power.
LAMB: How did that come about?
MICKELSON: It came about -- I got the call mid to late afternoon on a Sunday. And we'd been talking about expanding, doing different things, things that hadn't been done before: covering Cabinets or getting into the House and Congress. I'd been carrying on a campaign for some time to get cameras into Congress, which you've finally succeeded in doing. But when I got the call, over my misgivings, I said, “By all means, let's go in. Let's establish a precedent.” So I accepted it. I should have given more careful thought to the fact that the Republicans were running way behind in the polls at that time, in the Senatorial and House elections coming up.
LAMB: Is this '58?
MICKELSON: '58. And that this was on a Monday night eight days before the election. And the Cabinet, to my knowledge in history, had never met at 7:00 Eastern Time at night, and that they had never permitted the television cameras to come in to a really important Cabinet meeting. And I should have said, “No, thank you. We shouldn't do it.” But we went ahead and did it anyway.
LAMB: What was it like?
MICKELSON: It was very dull. The president presided. He asked each Cabinet member in turn to make a report. Each Cabinet member made his report. And it's interesting that they all seemed to confine to be confined to a time schedule. And he got around to the last Cabinet member, and the hour was up. And the Cabinet was adjourned.
LAMB: Was that the last time that a Cabinet meeting was ever opened to the television cameras?
MICKELSON: I would think it probably is. I don't know. I don't think it's ever happened since.
LAMB: Do you think it'll ever happen again?
MICKELSON: No, I don't. Because I think there's too much business that's got to be conducted privately in any kind of board of directors, which the Cabinet is.
LAMB: If you had to list the things that you did and your group did -- by the way, how big was CBS News when you left in '61?
MICKELSON: We had about 400, I think.
LAMB: How big is it today? Do you know?
MICKELSON: Oh, I don't know. I can't guess.
LAMB: The budget today is reportedly somewhere around $250 million to $300 million for CBS News. What was it when you left in '61?
MICKELSON: The last budget that I proposed was $35 million, but that included a very substantial amount for sports. I think about $15 million or $16 million on sports, which leaves about $20 million, and a great portion of that was attached to "CBS Reports," the documentary series.
LAMB: Let me go back to the question I was going to ask you. If you had to list the things that you all pioneered, what are some of them?
MICKELSON: Well, of course, special events coverage was definitely pioneered.
LAMB: What do you mean by special events?
MICKELSON: Well, I mean the kind of thing that isn't scheduled on the air or on a daily basis. I'm talking now about political primaries, political conventions, election coverage, coronations of queens, sports events -- which you schedule, yes, but they're, as the British would call it, outside broadcasts. So we pioneered, I think, most of that. We pioneered professional football.

We were doing most of our do-good programs on Saturday afternoons, and we discovered in 1955 that we were getting only 19 or 20 stations accepting them. So what's the reason for it? I asked for some kind of explanation. Well, we found out that our affiliates were drifting away and carrying local football in their regions. So we thought, rather than let them drift away on that, why don't we give them the football instead. So we put together the whole National Professional Football League into a single network, and it's still prevailing to this period.

We didn't pioneer documentaries necessarily because I think CBS Radio did back in the late '40s, when Ed Murrow was the vice president in charge. They did some very good, hard-hitting radio documentaries. Well, we converted it into television. But NBC was doing the same thing, and I think ABC later was doing the same thing. But I guess in news, I'm not sure precisely what we've pioneered because the whole thing was evolutionary.
LAMB: Did you start "Face the Nation" when you were ...
MICKELSON: Yes. We started "Face the Nation." We'd had a "People's Platform," so-called, a regular debate coming out of Washington, and it seemed to make more sense to go to a different style. So we started the "Face the Nation" program. And it's still there, I guess today -- still moving along.
LAMB: Did you start it because there was "Meet the Press"?
MICKELSON: Yeah, we picked up the "Meet the Press" format and went on with it.
LAMB: I mean, did you feel the competition from the other ...
MICKELSON: Well, there two things really I've got to say. In the first place, we knew that we had to get Washington people to talk. Secondly, of course, we knew that there was a shortage of news in the newspapers on Monday morning. So a good time to go was on Sunday afternoon. This was an opportunity to get Washington people, or major figures around the world, in front of the camera to confront them with major issues and be sure we could get coverage on Monday morning -- a lot of it.
LAMB: How much of that was currying favor with the politicians?
MICKELSON: I suppose a certain amount of it was to curry favor to the extent that we could find a way to put them on the air. On the other hand, we wanted to be harsh enough and demanding enough so that we weren't catering to them particularly. And originally the idea of "Face the Nation" was not to use the Washington correspondent group, but really to go out into the field and get somebody from Chicago, and somebody from St. Louis and maybe somebody from Atlanta, Georgia, to throw the questions. Well, we tried that, but unfortunately it didn't work because the facilities were simply not available by the time we started the show. And there's another thing we discovered, and that is you almost have to be a news reporter to be able to do the kind of interrogation that will elicit the responses that will interest the audience.
LAMB: When you were in 1960-'61, did you get much feedback directly from the public? Were people mad at you then, like you read now of telephone calls coming into the switchboard and things are said on the network? Did you get feedback in those days?
MICKELSON: We didn't get very much. No, I think that came later. Occasionally we'd get calls, but public reaction was relatively mild in that respect.
LAMB: What has caused, in recent years, the anger that some people in the public have had with the networks?
MICKELSON: Well, I suppose the fact that they've become so overwhelmingly important, so omnipresent. The public is always suspicious of size, and since that time, the networks have grown to this enormous size, and I think that's part of it. But I think you also find waves. I think during the '20s, for example, there was a lot of criticism of newspapers. By the '30s and '40s, the criticism began to attach to radio. You've got well into the '50s and up into the '60s, the new thing, the new boy on the block, is television, so it takes the criticism.
LAMB: Are there people that you brought into CBS News that went on to make names for themselves? People we would know.
MICKELSON: Oh yeah. Two of them I can recall particularly are Harry Reasoner and Charlie Kuralt. Harry I'd known up in Minneapolis very briefly. And he came in one day and said, “I'd like a job.” And I said, “Harry, what have you been doing?” “Well, I've been working in the Philippines with the USIA.” “Have you done any television?” “No, but I want to.” So I said, “Well, why don't you go out and get yourself a television job for a year and come on back?” A year later, almost to the day, Harry was back with five or six kids, and was willing to take a job for $165 a week on the bet that he could extend a temporary job into a permanent one, which, of course, he obviously did. He had the talent.

When I first got into New York, I had a letter from Jack Knell the news director in Charlotte, telling me that a young man that had just graduated from high school in Charlotte and had won an American Legion Oratorical Prize. “Why don't you write him a note of congratulations?” So I did. Five years later, I guess it was, I got another note from Jack Knell saying, “By the way, you don't remember the letter you wrote five years ago, but the fellow you wrote to has now won an Ernie Pyle Award for feature reporting. He's been in one of the Charlotte newspapers since he graduated from the University of North Carolina.” Well, I wrote the letter. Got the letter back. He said what he wanted to do most was work for CBS News. So I sent it on down to the news director, and Charlie was on the payroll. So there are two. Shad Northshield, the producer was ...
LAMB: Of that show? Of the Sunday show?
MICKELSON: Of the Sunday show. Now was out in Chicago at the Chicago Sun-Times doing science reporting. We were starting a sort of a science show called "Adventure." Ski Wolff, the producer, said, “There's a good guy out in Chicago we ought to bring in, Shad Northshield.” So they brought him in 1953 I think, and he's still there.
LAMB: Did you see at the time that there would soon develop high-paid stars in the news business?
MICKELSON: Well, I guess I knew that they'd be paid a lot more than they were being paid. Again, you might be leading into a conversation with Walter Cronkite between the two political conventions out in Chicago. And I'd arranged to get Walter out there as the so-called anchorman. Between the two conventions we were taking a walk up Michigan Avenue one night to go to dinner up on the near North Side somewhere, and Walter said to me, “I've just been approached by a couple of agents, Jeff Gude and Tom Stix, and they want me to sign up with them. What do you think?'

And my answer to that was, “I think you better sign up with them because we're going to want you for a lot of other engagements of this sort, and I would rather not negotiate with you directly. I'd rather have your agents negotiate with my agent, and we'll have a much better relationship.” He signed up with Gude & Stix. Now, I didn't know that he was going to be in a $2 million, $3 million, $4 million category. I had no idea of that. But I knew that he was going to become a famous public hero.
LAMB: Agree or disagree with that?
MICKELSON: With the salaries?
LAMB: Yes.
MICKELSON: They're in show business. And if a heavyweight fighter can draw $15 million or $25 million for an appearance, or if a movie star can draw $5 million, $6 million, $7 million, $8 million, $10 million, you know, why can't somebody who's in the public eye do the same? Shortly after ABC hired their woman star away from NBC from ...
LAMB: Barbara Walters?
MICKELSON: Barbara Walters. I was over in Munich in -- at RVRL -- and Elmer Lower came over to do a job that I wanted him to do.
LAMB: Used to be with ABC?
MICKELSON: He was at ABC at the time. And he said, “You may want to know why we hired Barbara Walters.” I said, “I think I know the reason for it. She's going to bring you advertising immediately that's going to pay her salary from the beginning. So why not?”
LAMB: Sig Mickelson is our guest, and we're talking about his new book, that's been in the bookstores now for several days, called "From Whistle Stop to Sound Bite." You're now at San Diego State.
LAMB: The Lionel Van Dearlin chair. What do you do?
MICKELSON: Well, in the Lionel Van Dearlin chair, I have one seminar on current problems in broadcast and the communications regulation primarily. We're doing some research. We have a monograph coming out on the real meaning of the common carrier principle, which is being bandied about so much in connection with the battle between the regional Bell operating companies and the newspapers and Judge Harold Greene, that I thought it might be interesting to do a summary of just what is the common carrier principle. So we've done that.

I'm also involved in an organization we call the San Diego Communications Council, which I think is genuinely unique in the fullest sense of that word. It's an organization made up of representatives from newspapers, broadcasters, telephone companies, cable companies, high-tech communications manufacturers. The function is to try to get these people together to try to speculate on what's going to happen to their businesses down the road into the future. When the barriers separating them begin to erode, and as the technologies converge, what do the regulators do to keep it separate? How do they establish niches for themselves that they can maintain? And we've had a fascinating time doing it.
LAMB: From your experience, how often do competing industries, or does one industry, prevent another industry from growing?
MICKELSON: Well, it can't really prevent it from growing. But it can find some process of negotiation or accommodation which permits it to work with another industry. Now the newspapers, for example, tried awfully hard to keep radio out of the news business in the 1930s. They established regulations that made it virtually impossible for radio to get any news to broadcast. Eventually, of course, that broke down because the public wanted news. Then the newspapers found out that they could work with radio, and they weren't going to be damaged severely.

With television, I think we had some of the same kind of an early period. I think they looked askance at news in the early period. Now, I think they've accepted it as as a going institution. But I think in the future something different is happening, because there have been technological barriers which have separated, and now those technological barriers are beginning to break down. It's conceivably possible, for example, that fiber optics would make it possible for the telephone companies to function as distributors of information directly into the home, which would effectively eliminate the coaxial cable used by the cable companies. Now, does that mean that the telephone companies will become directly competitive with cable, set up their own facilities which are parallel? Or does it mean that cable and telephone companies will find some kind of a mutual accommodation and they'll work together? -- which I think is the most likely possibility.
LAMB: You read, though, that the broadcasters, the newspapers and the cable folks don't want the telephone company to be in the distribution of information. Will they be able to stop them from being in it?
MICKELSON: No, I don't think they'll be able to stop them. But I think economics will stop them, and I think the fact that ...
LAMB: Economics will stop the telephone companies?
MICKELSON: Yes, in the sense that in order to become direct competitors of the others, they'd have to establish enormous news-gathering facilities and program-production facilities. I think it's a lot more reasonable for them to go to the cable companies and go to the newspapers and go to television to get the raw material, because they have the distribution facilities, but they don't have the organizations to create a finished product out of raw material.
LAMB: In your book, you spent a lot of time talking about the 1952 gavel-to-gavel coverage of the political conventions, which the networks don't do anymore. Are you disappointed in that?
MICKELSON: No. I think the networks should have quit long ago. I think the networks should have quit gavel-to-gavel in 1956. The reason that we went gavel-to-gavel is something which nobody could now understand, but there were two reasons for it. In the first place, in order to reach Southern states, there was a single channel -- we'd get multiple coverage down as far as Atlanta; Atlanta to Miami was single; Atlanta over to New Orleans was single; and the whole Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama was all single net -- single coverage. To go to Texas, we'd have to go to St. Louis, down the Mississippi Valley, across over to Houston, up to Dallas-Ft. Worth, up into Kansas.
LAMB: You're talking about the microwave facilities?
MICKELSON: I'm talking the microwave to get a signal out. Only one signal could travel to at least half the country.
LAMB: Alright -- just for a second, and I know this is technical, but why was that so hard? How does microwave work? And what was the difficulty in getting a signal out?
MICKELSON: Well, the difficulty is, you've got to build these circuits. And a microwave signal normally will travel a maximum -- it's got to be in line of sight, which means you have to have a tower here, a tower here. You put a sender in this tower and a receiver in this tower, so it goes from here to here.
LAMB: When people drive across the country, can they see these things in the fields?
MICKELSON: They can see a lot of these microwave towers, yes.
LAMB: Any way to describe what they look like?
MICKELSON: Well, there are a lot of varieties of them. Some on mountaintops don't have the tall towers along with them. You can see them -- usually some kind of a dish.
LAMB: But in order to get a signal in those days from, say New York to Los Angeles, how many miles apart would these towers have to be?
MICKELSON: Usually an average of 60 across the country.
LAMB: Sixty towers.
MICKELSON: No, 60 miles from tower to tower.
LAMB: Sixty miles.
MICKELSON: Now, from a mountain peak to a mountain peak, you might do a line of sight for more than that, but they averaged about 60 miles.
LAMB: So you're talking about a very cumbersome process.
MICKELSON: You're talking about a very cumbersome, costly process. Then you see, you also had to put in the senders and the receivers, because the signal would come in this side at a receiver, be transferred to -- well, it's a transponder arrangement, which sends it out to the next one. And, of course, this had to work like clockwork.
LAMB: Now, back to '52. You're talking about needing to get down into the southern area to do the gavel-to-gavel?
MICKELSON: And we had nothing west of Omaha to the West Coast. We couldn't reach the West Coast except with one single signal. Well, then there was another problem at that time. CBS and ABC had been very relaxed about going out and getting television affiliates. NBC had been aggressive. So they had single-station markets. There was only one station in Buffalo -- NBC; single station in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids -- NBC. So NBC, if they could have gobbled up all the single-channel links and the single-station markets would have had the whole thing. Well, they were willing to yield on that, so we got together and said, “We've got to have some kind of a common denominator. What do we do?” Well, the common denominator seemed to be to establish gavel-to-gavel as the point of departure, and then we'd pool from gavel-to-gavel and we'd separate out, draw straws to see who took session one, two, three, and rotate. So that's how gavel-to-gavel got started.
LAMB: So in other words, you and NBC and ABC all paid the price of transmitting it across the country.
MICKELSON: That's right. We divided the price.
LAMB: We hear a lot of argument since then about sharing things like that. Are they as interested today in sharing these circuits as they were then?
MICKELSON: Well, we don't need to share circuits anymore because now we've got all the circuits we could possibly use, and more with the satellites. You see, we've got an excess capacity almost literally into the hundreds.
LAMB: Well, let me rephrase the question. You do hear a lot of unhappiness among networks when they have to share a pool -- say covering Iran Contra hearings, where everybody had to use the same cameras because of space problems. You think that's a good or bad idea?
MICKELSON: Space problems. In connection with the political conventions, we operated a pool. And we knew that we had to operate one within the convention hall because, of course, it would have been absolute chaos if each one of us had tried to get in with seven or eight or 10 cameras. There wouldn't have been room for delegates.
LAMB: When did you develop a competitive spirit between, say CBS and NBC and then ABC? Did you always feel competitive back in the '50s?
MICKELSON: Oh, sure. Absolutely.
LAMB: Where'd you get that? I mean, CBS is known as having a tough, competitive organization all these years in the news.
MICKELSON: Well, the fact is, you see, that when I got into the television news end of it in midsummer 1951, NBC had all the single-station markets. They'd built a bigger news organization -- much bigger than ours -- in the late 1940s, and we were the new boy on the block, and we had to fight hard to achieve any kind of parity with them. And of course, you talk about ratings now. We looked at those rating books. I never went without a vest-pocket Nielsen, which I could pull out and look at. We were concerned about ratings.
LAMB: Do you think it's a good idea to run a news department on ratings?
MICKELSON: No, it isn't a good idea to run it on ratings, but at the same time, if you're talking to nobody, you better know it. You better know whether you've got some audience out there you're reaching. And also, ratings can be a guide, if you use them properly, to give you some indication as to what you're doing wrong.
LAMB: What's your guess as to what will happen with the news departments of the major commercial networks 20 years from now? What will they look like?
MICKELSON: I'm not sure that they'll change much, but I think they've got to expand and find new outlets for the product. I think they're very well geared to delivering a lot more product than they're now delivering. I would guess that the television networks will continue to erode as more competition comes from cable, from VCRs and from maybe DBS -- direct broadcasting satellite, which we haven't really experienced very much yet. Or from a host of other new technologies that may be developed. Therefore the question is: what do the networks do if there is a shrinkage in their basic method of release?
LAMB: You think they're going toward more stars and paying more money for personalities or the other way?
MICKELSON: No, I think they'll have to go the other way. Because I don't think the money will be there. I think what they've got to do is work on arrangements with cable to sell news service to cable. I think if the telephone companies ever want to get into the business of distribution of information, news information, the RBOCs that is, to deliver through the fiber optic lines.
LAMB: RBOC stands for?
MICKELSON: Regional Bell Operating Companies.
LAMB: And that would be like US West or ...
MICKELSON: Yes, US West, Pacific Telesis. Here it's at Atlantic.
LAMB: Bell Atlantic.
MICKELSON: Bell Atlantic, BellSouth. If they get permission from the modified final judgment to be able to deliver directly to the home, and if they can find the investment capital to install fiber into the home, then they're in a position to deliver. But they've got to look around for some kind of a mechanism to deliver what they're going to deliver into the home. Then it seems to me the networks are in a position to go to the telephone companies and say, “We'll furnish that service for you on some kind of a business relationship.”
LAMB: You talk a lot in your book about voter turnout, and you point out that the voter turnout since 1960 just keeps going down, down, down.
LAMB: What's your theory as to why that is happening?
MICKELSON: I suppose much of it is the simple complexity of the issues that the public has to face up to. I suppose there also is perhaps a surfeit of entertainment and a disregard for information. I think perhaps the news programming has gotten softer over the period of time. There is less emphasis on understanding important issues. And I think probably the public has responded to all of that by simply being less interested. The campaigns have not been particularly interesting; they've been pretty superficial. I think there's a tendency to throw up their hands and say, “Oh, we're not interested.”
LAMB: There was a time, though, when you thought television would change that.
MICKELSON: Absolutely. We started out thinking we're going to have a more interested electorate; we're going to have better candidates; we're going to have less travel -- candidates will stay in one central location, the back-porch campaign sort of thing. We thought the charlatans were going to be eliminated because we've got an X-ray eye in this camera. But it just didn't develop that way.
LAMB: Why not?
MICKELSON: Well, I suppose in the first place it didn't develop because the camera doesn't have any of those magic properties that we thought it might have. I think it also developed because we were thinking of a very simple age, and society became much more complex than it was at that time. It becomes much more difficult to explain the complexities of modern civilization. I think we were oversimplifying the whole thing.
LAMB: Where do you call home, originally?
MICKELSON: Home, originally, Minnesota.
LAMB: When do you first remember getting interested in the news business?
MICKELSON: Oh, about the time I was in the fifth or sixth grade the local newspaper was conducting some kind of a competition in the grade schools for somebody to write an essay on why I read the daily newspaper. And I wrote one and got space on the front page of the paper. And that probably had an influence. I guess I started reading when I was maybe seven.
LAMB: Did you have influence to do such things from home?
MICKELSON: Well, I certainly always had a daily newspaper around, and certainly nobody took the newspaper away from me when I was reading it.
LAMB: After you got that interest and you started reading the newspaper, when was the first time you actually used your interest for your future profession?
MICKELSON: Well, I suppose probably when I got a part-time job at a daily newspaper. And it gradually expanded and expanded to the point where I was hip-deep, immersed in the newspaper business.
LAMB: And then what happened? How did you get into radio?
MICKELSON: Well, I was in a peculiar position. This was Sioux Falls, South Dakota, actually. And I was doing work for the radio station and for the daily Argus Leader in the same city at the same time. And there was a major suit going on at that time, in which the AP and the Argus Leader was suing the station I was also working for. So I was once given instructions by the managing editor -- or told that the publisher had said, “Never permit that man inside the door again.” So I was squarely in the middle of it. But I had done some radio, and well, I decided what I had to do was get some graduate degrees. So I went up to the University of Minnesota.

I got a graduate degree in journalism, went down to Louisiana State to teach journalism. I wanted to go back to newspapering, but the director of the school got me into teaching. But there, I got thrown into broadcasting classes -- it's a thing that universities do. They'll take you, if you don't have any experience, and still make an educator out of you. And I got interested in it then. I got back by a process of a couple of stops to the University of Minnesota, where I was teaching. And CBS decided that the rip-and-read process being used at WCCO had to be eliminated; they had to develop a news department which would edit copy -- write and edit rather than just take it off the wires. So I was approached then by the manager to come on down and start a news department, so by that time, I was really in radio.
LAMB: And television, did you like television when you first got in it?
MICKELSON: Yeah. Of course, I was curious about television from the very beginning. And yes, I liked it from the beginning. There was an excitement value to it. And also it had dimensions to it that were not available in radio. Radio is sort of unidimensional, but television had all of these other dimensions. You know, the set, and the lights, and the props, and the film, and the stills and the performance that goes along with it.
LAMB: And you spent time at Northwestern, time at Time Inc., at San Diego State now. Of all the jobs you've had over the years, which one do you think was the most satisfying?
MICKELSON: Well, certainly the most exciting was CBS. There isn't any question about that because that was a period of exploring new routines, new avenues, and using new technologies, setting patterns. So I suppose you've got to say that that was the most satisfying. You know, after a time it gets pretty complicated because you get the reputation as being an excessive spender and, you know, of fighting management too frequently. So there comes a time when you've got to step aside and get out of it.
LAMB: Did you ever see a time as you built this CBS News department up, and since then, that there's much waste in television news?
MICKELSON: Oh, I think there's enormous waste, yeah.
LAMB: How does it happen?
MICKELSON: Well, I think each person involved is trying to protect himself. And the way you protect yourself is by overdoing whatever you're doing. A cameraman overshoots, and you know, an editor delivers too much, a writer writes excessively, and a lot of the waste comes from that. If you've got a lot of additional personnel scattered -- I was appalled at one book I read about the morning program on CBS. The number of little production units they had for doing a two-hour program. I thought it was absolutely appalling that they've wasted that much manpower on it. Now I can understand that they wanted perfection, but I think you can get perfection without quite that much.
LAMB: Television had such little competition over the years, compared to, say, radio. Do you think television news, if it had the same competition, 40 and 50 radio stations in a market, that it would have developed differently?
MICKELSON: No, I have a feeling it would not have developed differently. I think the development was normal -- it was evolutionary. And I think it developed as the capacity to deliver the picture developed and as the facilities for bringing the signal out to more people developed. Through all of this period you had a normal process, and I think the stations and the networks rose to the demands. Now, I think we got too soft in the process, but that's something else.
LAMB: Got a couple of minutes left. Was this book hard to write?
MICKELSON: Well, any book is hard to write. You sweat when you're doing any kind of writing. It was fun to write because it was a chance to go back through the files and go back through memory and to call up people, and recall about specific individuals and look into some old daybooks, diaries, to find out what had happened. So, no, it was fun to be able to recall some of these episodes and put them into some kind of perspective. But at the same time, you sweat bullets, as they say, when you're sitting down at that computer cranking out words.
LAMB: When did you physically start to write it and when did you finish it?
MICKELSON: Well, I guess I physically started probably some time in 1956 and -- probably late 1956. I actually finished at the end of -- not '56 -- '86, I'm trying to say. Probably finished at the end of '88, but I'd taken a couple of long periods off in the process.
LAMB: What time of day do you write?
MICKELSON: Oh, normally as soon as I finish newspapers in the morning, which is by 10:00 or so, and then work up until four in the afternoon, 4:30.
LAMB: You taught at Northwestern and at San Diego State. What do you see in today's student studying media and news?
MICKELSON: Well, I see too much tendency toward glamorizing the businesses and too much tendency toward looking at the show business aspects of it, rather than the real strength, which is -- it's down here in the guts of the organization where the real work is being done. I think they're too inclined to think about their performance on the air.
LAMB: Why? What's created that?
MICKELSON: That's glamour. They see Walter Cronkite on the air; they want to be Walter Cronkite. They know that he and Dan Rather are making millions of dollars, and they like the idea of equating with it. They see their local people on the air. They see that an anchorman in San Diego will make -- I'm not sure -- $100,000, $150,000 and be seen by everybody and noticed as he walks down the street. So the natural inclination is to want to be out in front rather than behind the scenes, which actually is a lot more fun, because there you're dealing with the real problems.
LAMB: Who for your taste, pound for pound, is the best television -- you don't have to name just one -- but who are the best television journalists today?
MICKELSON: Well, I think Walter, who is not off the air completely, but out of that seat for some time -- is still a very good journalist. Walter always did his -- Cronkite, that is -- always did his homework, always had an understanding of what he was doing, kept his contacts to the point where he had a feel for it. I'm very fond of the work that Peter Jennings is doing on the air. I think he does a very, very good job. I like, on CBS -- Bob Schieffer, I think, is an excellent reporter. I think that Lesley Stahl is doing very well as a reporter.
LAMB: What kind of a grade do you give CNN?
MICKELSON: I think that CNN gets a very good grade. I don't think they have quite the caliber at the top level that the networks have. I don't think they've gotten quite to that extent yet. But I like CNN. I think they're doing very well in being able to -- since they're on the air, and have the facilities, you can always be sure that the story's on CNN -- you can be sure it's going to be there. You might not get quite the same type of background you got from the stars on the networks yet, but you'll get it.

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