by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy Ken Owen
Call that youthful glint of optimism winking from the eye of the average twenty-something universal if you want to. Say that the lad sporting stockings, breeches and a tri-corner hat walks with the same confident ambition as the millennial peeking at you from over the top of his rapidly heating Samsung. Common sense and a 100-level psychology textbook will probably back you up. But take that idealism, capture it on magnetic tape, and then give it thirty years to ferment. That’s when it transforms into a mixture of pop-art and wistful nostalgia.
On my tablet screen, a 26-year-old Ken Owen flashes the same slightly crooked grin I saw when I sat down with his 56-year-old counterpart. He still squints that left eye just a tad more than the right in the same manner, and still conveys that notion that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. That younger Owen, walled off from us by a grainy film and blurred lines (something we once thought would never happen to videotape) makes direct eye contact and lets us know that he’s going to conquer the world. Today’s Owen, captured in the pristine clarity of high definition, reminds us that conquering the world never really mattered. Living in the world, soaking it up, and making something of it. That’s why we’re here.
Table of Contents: Click the Links to Skip to Each Section
Click: The Changing News Culture
Click: Becoming a Newsman
Click: Walking Away from the News
Click: The Greatest Experience
Click: Life after the News and Advice for the Young
The Changing News Culture
Donovan Wheeler: What do you think about when you watch the news today?
Ken Owen: “Today there are so many viewing choices. When I was growing up, there were three local network affiliates, a PBS, and maybe an independent station or two. So out of that you had maybe three or four stations presenting news…usually a half-hour at 6:00, a half-hour at 10:00 or 11:00, and—maybe—a half-hour at noon. So those were valuable minutes. Sure they didn’t have great resources, because back then news departments weren’t great profit centers, but they did want to treat those minutes with respect and fill them with things which mattered and deliver the local community what it needed.”
DW: Did much of this change after you left television, or did you see it unfold when you were there?
KO: “It was changing when I left, but it really started to change in 1995 with the development of overnight ratings and a focus on ‘breaking news’ and ‘live technology.’ It all transitioned away from covering school board meetings…you know…things which require time and are non-visual, but they are things which are really important to a community. In the course of my career I saw us go from a one-hour evening newscast to a 90-minute show, and now you’ve got stations running from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM. And on the other end of the day the morning shows have done the same thing. And it’s all repetition. It’s just same handful of stories over and over and over. And increasingly they’re covering fires, overnight fender-benders, lane closures on 465…that kind of thing.”
DW: How do you think this emphasis on “breaking news” has impacted the perception that Indianapolis is a violent town?
KO: “It’s a strange thing because, from a statistical standpoint, crime has been going down for 30 years. I suppose some element of danger has always been around. If you lived out here in the 1780’s, and your neighbor who lived three miles away had a musket, I suppose he could have one day knocked on your door and shot you with his musket…”
Here we both laugh.
KO: “But today, with the instant communication and technology available to us I think we’ve created a culture of fear. It’s this sense where you don’t really want to get to know your neighbor because he might be a child molester or he might be making meth in the basement. I know that I tend to be a Pollyanna sometimes, but we’ve gotten away from that Frank Capra view of the world we once shared. We used to believe that people are inherently good…that common decency wins the day. But today we’ve become jaded. Today we walk into a conversation or encounter, and we expect the other person to be a problem, instead of walking into that encounter and expecting the best.”
“If a news station’s market research shows that a puppy caught in a sewer drain is going to get several hundred hits in the first two hours, but the school board meeting is only going to get eight…then they’re going to cover that puppy every time.”
DW: Besides the impact on the general population, what are your thoughts about the impact of social media on the work of producing the news?
KO: “It’s created more work for certain. It used to be that you would ‘manage’ an announcement. If you were holding a news blurb, you would put it out, and it would have a shelf-life of about a half-day or so. But what’s happened because of social media and the ubiquity of information, is that the news blurb now has a much shorter shelf-life. And you can see the effect of that in the kind of stories stations and newscasters are putting out.”
KO: “Outlets are broadcasting and printing stories based on what they perceive to be the audience interest in them. So if their market research shows that a puppy that gets caught in a sewer drain is going to get several hundred hits in the first two hours, but the school board meeting is only going to get eight…then they’re going to cover that puppy every time. And usually the puppy is some repurposed story from Atlanta, so he’s not even a local puppy to boot.”
DW: You said that you were there when these changes happened. What do you mean?
KO: “In 1995, when I worked at WISH (Channel 8) we had a consultant who held this big meeting with everyone, and he said, ‘From this day forward, the key words at Channel 8 are going to be News In Progress. The only things that matter are the things that are happening right now.’ I asked him what that meant for long-range stories…more slowly developing pieces. And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll still do that, but really need to focus on what’s going on right now, and shoot more stories from live locations around the city.’ That was prescient. Whether it’s good or bad, that’s where we are now. Everything’s live. Everything’s on location somewhere, and the more ‘live’ and ‘breaking’ you can put on it, the more play it’s going to get. Of course the other big change was the advent of overnight ratings.”
DW: Explain the difference between the old rating system and the overnight system.
KO: “Prior to the mid ‘90’s, television stations would get their ratings results four times a year. The Nielson company would send their diaries out to a small sample of families in the city, something like 400 households. It was small, but it was a relevant sample.”
DW: I thought the Neilson Company used machines they attached to your televisions.
KO: “What you’re talking about is a meter, something like a cable-box, which they would install on televisions. Actually, a little later on, they developed meters with sensors on them which could tell if you were actually sitting in front of the TV watching it instead of having the set on while you were washing dishes. But even though they went with the electronic monitoring, they still used the diaries quite a bit.”
DW: But all that changed…
KO: “Yes. Very quickly we transitioned from the diary data to those meters which then transmitted data to a central collection facility overnight. Then you’d walk into work the next morning and see a sheet on the wall spelling out how your newscast performed. So we went from the old quarterly paradigm, where we would go about our work for a month putting out the best stories you can…doing the best work you can. And then two or three weeks after the ratings session closed this book would arrive, and you would see the news director standing over it with a whiteboard marker in his other hand. He would write ‘Noon news: 4.7…’ And you would look at that think, ‘Well, it’s up from 4.5…that’s good.’”
KO: “But in the new paradigm you walk in and see data from the day before, each and every day, broken down in 15 minute chunks. I remember one day the station’s general manager said, ‘What the hell happened in that quarter-hour?’ pointing at the sheet…as if there’s some justification you can give for us dropping .2 of a point at 5:45. The sun might have come out…somebody may have decided to walk their dog…I mean it wouldn’t take much. So what you saw as a result, is that television stations started to game those numbers. The first segment always went nine minutes because if you can keep a viewer for more than seven, they count toward the quarter-hour. You also started to see a lot more deep-teasing: ‘Coming up a 5:33, we’ll tell you about the puppy dog saved from the sewer.’ So, along with teasing, finding promotable stories you could deep tease also became more important.”
DW: And when those stories do finally run, they never last very long.
KO: “Thirty seconds…if you’re lucky, and viewers feel really gypped. So it’s not a surprise to me that—between those types of decisions and the increased viewing options consumers have—that viewership has diminished substantially since those days. When I look at the ratings for the number-one station today, those are the kind of numbers the third or fourt-ranked station was putting up two decades ago.”
DW: Do you think that traditional television stations and networks have simply been slow to catch onto the idea of finding niche audiences?
KO: “I think that’s a big part of it. Those vehicles—those stations—are designed to be broad-casters, but we now live in a world of narrow-casters. Fox News is a great example of narrow-casting. Clearly, if you lean left, you’re not watching Fox, but there are enough people who lean right that it gives them a built-in…and very loyal…audience. I even remember when cable began and The Weather Channel appeared. I thought that was the dumbest thing in the world. Can you imagine? Sitting around the camera talking about the weather for 24 hours? It was almost like the Saturday Night Live skit about the Scotch Tape Store: ‘Do you have any masking tape? No, I’m sorry, we only have Scotch Tape.’ But my mother is 81 years-old, and she watches it all day…as if the weather’s going to change. I haven’t been in a broadcast executive suite for a long time, but I do think that for a long time people sat in those and thought that, somewhere out there, was a magic elixir they could use to get the mass-audience back.”
DW: But that’s not going to happen anymore.
KO: “The only ‘appointment television’ that’s left is the Super Bowl…and maybe election night, but I’m not even sure that many people watch that. It’s so much easier to follow an election on the Internet, and the tools on the Internet are much better, too. If you wanted to follow a race in the last election that New York Times page was so thorough and visually appealing. It was great.”
Ken Owen’s Final Sign Off
DW: But even if with the Internet, I’ve realized that very local races, for state house seats and the like, are hard to find. It seems like, even with the localization of the web, that interest goes about as low as America’s Got Talent or The Voice, and after that…nobody cares about what’s going on, anymore.
KO: “And that’s dangerous because the really important decisions are made at the lower levels of government. If you’re not sending a reporter to the county council meetings…that’s where the nuts and bolts of government takes place. It doesn’t happen with these great proclamations on Capitol Hill or with some statewide referendum. In other words, being well-informed about local policy requires you to function as a detective.”
DW: Now we live in a world where groups such as Anonymous seem to be doing a lot of that.
KO: “The advantage of any news organization is that there is some accountability. You can call, you can send a letter to the editor, you can complain. I’m not sure that media outlets are as in-tune with their readers and viewers as they were twenty years ago, but the accountability is still there. And if someone still screws up wildly, then there are ramifications.”
DW: Are you making an implicit reference to fake news phenomenon?
KO: “Well, there’s quite a bit of that. When we were kids you needed a broadcast tower and printing press to get your voice out. But today everyone has a broadcast tower and printing press. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s sort of like giving the keys to an Indy race car to everyone in the world: Some people can probably navigate the streets well and keep the car under 80 miles-per-hour, but several others are going to be jugheads, go out there, and do the wrong things.”
DW: Listening to you talk about this makes me think about the craft beer culture today. You have this one business model where the local people are slowly chipping away at the market share of the giants. Do you think that the Internet, in its best form, may have the ability to do the same thing with the local news?
KO: “I think that some of the most accountable journalism is done at the local level. To get back to your beer analogy…at the end of the day, you trust that beer-maker or you don’t based upon his product. So, if he’s serving up something that’s ‘horse-dispensed’ the night before, you’d look at him askance and think, ‘Well, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ But if he’s making really good beer, then it’s his beer, and he’s proud of the fact that it’s his beer, and he’s going to continue to make good beer.”
DW: And then you’ll be loyal to him.
KO: “Yes. I mean the low-hanging fruit on that conversation is that—whether you’re the New York Times or the local newspaper—you’re critical of your own work. But I think what complicates this today is that; for too many viewers, readers, and listeners the individual bias kicks in, and if what you’re reporting doesn’t comport with their view of the world, then there’s not much you can do. And I think this gets trickier when you factor in individual bloggers and journalists. I would think that to be an informed media consumer today…that would almost require a course starting sometime around the third-grade. You almost have to teach kids to consume media the way we teach them how to drive. We really need to teach them how the news is created…how it’s produced…and how to look at it with a jaundiced eye.”
Becoming a Newsman
DW: How did you end up in broadcast journalism?
KO: “My high school had a broadcast radio station, and I really thought I wanted to be disc-jockey because you worked four-hour days, you get calls from girls, and you play all those records. How bad can that be? I really wanted to be like Larry Lujack. I wanted to work a morning radio show in a big city—if I could pull that off—and I loved music, and I was on that track. Then during my senior year I took a broadcast journalism course…and I had done some news…and a lot of sports, but I always thought news people were dry and boring. But when I took that class, I found myself enjoying the process of putting a story together.”
DW: Did you go directly into television from college, then?
KO: “Not a first. I wound up interning at WIRE in Indianapolis—which was the number-two radio station at the time. It was a country music AM station with a strong signal in the daytime, which got pretty weak at night. They put me on the air on the first day of DePauw’s winter term. I was covering Mayor Hudnut, and I was in the middle of a lot of things. And after that internship ended they said, ‘We’d really like to keep you with us. We’ll pay you $4.50 an hour, and we’ll need you come in at 7:00PM and work until 2:00AM. I’m a senior in college, so I said, ‘Okay.’ So I would come in and cover the news until about 10:00. Then I would anchor the news until about 1:00. Then I would come back to DePauw’s station and sign on there in the morning, so I was sleeping something like two hours a day.”
DW: That’s a heck of a first job.
KO: “Yeah. Our news director was a guy who was extremely gruff, but he was a terrific writer. I’d come in every morning, and he’d take my scripts…they were these half-sheets with not a lot words on them, but I remember seeing red marks all over them. It looked like I’d been the worst kid in school. At the time I thought he was over-the-top, but now I’m very grateful that I had a boss who was that tough on me. I see people who have been allowed to escape early in their careers, then they get to the middle of their careers, and they’re not doing it anymore because they never really dedicated themselves to getting better.”
DW: How did you transition to television?
KO: “It was funny, actually. Somebody had gotten the word to me that Channel 59 was doing news, and they were looking for people, and that they wanted their newscast to be different. They liked my work on the radio, and they wanted to see what I would look like on television, so they said, ‘Bring in a script. We’ll put it on the teleprompter and have you read it.’ I sat at a card table because they were literally building the station around us, and I was wearing one of the two suits I owned at the time. On the basis of that tape they hired me.”
DW: What was your role at Channel 59?
KO: “I was a 23-year-old anchor for the first-ever newscast they put on. I had this David Bowie perm, and it’s not that I was full of myself, but it was more that I had no idea what I was getting into. I had been working for WIBC…I auditioned for the job…got it, and I had been working there for seven months when they called us into the office and said, ‘This isn’t working. We’re going to run late-night movies instead of the news.’”
DW: So you left for WANE in Fort Wayne. What was that experience like for you?
KO: “That was the best thing that could have happened to me. Because, by going from the 25th largest market to the 97th, I had to learn how to edit tape. I had to learn how to produce the news. I had to learn how to shoot, and I had to learn how to do a lot of things that I didn’t know how to do. It gave me a great appreciation for how the pieces of the puzzle come together every night.”
Ken Owen’s Trip to the Soviet Union with Billy Graham
Walking Away from the News
DW: So after your stints in Fort Wayne; then Asheville, North Carolina; and finally back in Indy you walked away from the business. I can kind of guess at why, but I’m curious about how it played out.
KO: “It became less about journalism and more about marketing. And it was also about management at times, as well. At Channel 8 our crew: Mike Ahern, Debby Knox, Mark Patrick, Tina Cosby, and a host of others had taken the station to number one in our market…things were great. Then we got a new station-manager who held a station-wide meeting. Everybody was there. And he said, ‘I just want you all to know there’s going to be some changes. I can’t tell you what they’re going to be, but I wanted you to know they’re coming.’ That’s the worst thing you can hear a meeting, because everyone leaves asking, is it us? A couple of weeks later, I got my answer, and I lost my 5:30 news desk. So my status at the station was up in the air for quite a while after that.”
KO: “My contract was up soon, so I asked them, ‘What’s my status? You’ve seen me in the batter’s box for nine years and you know if I can hit the curveball or not–so, am I the guy when Mike retires?’ They harrumphed and waffled, and I took all of that as a ‘maybe.’ Eventually, they sat me down and told me I had to sign a new contract or leave. But they doubled the length of my non-compete clause and wouldn’t clearly define my role. I was willing to stay in my role at the time. The money was good, and I was happy. But they basically said, ‘If you don’t sign this you have to leave.’ I didn’t sign it, so I had to leave.”
DW: Describe your state of limbo after leaving WISH-TV.
KO: “I wasn’t allowed to work in television for six months because of the non-compete clause, so I grew this Ted Kaczynski beard, sat in my robe all day, and traded stocks on the Internet. I made more money doing that than I ever made working in television. In fact, I would turn on the TV and see former coworkers reporting from outside in the snow, warning people to stay home, and I thought, ‘Why did I ever do that?’”
DW: But you did go back to TV.
KO: “I worked for a couple more years with Channel 6, but by the end of it several of us were all pretty fed up with it. I remember one morning I sat in yet another meeting, and the management told us, ‘The Pacers are playing tomorrow night, so we want everyone to wear blue and gold on air.’ Me being me, I said, ‘Eli Lilly reports its earnings next Tuesday, so why don’t we all wear red and white and cheer for another penny?’ The newscast experience shifted more of its focus to sports or entertainment or sponsorship pieces. And every segment was ‘brought you by’ a pizza chain or a grocery store. And what does that do to you as a news person, if one of your sponsors ends up behaving unethically? How do you cover that?”
DW: How did the DePauw opportunity open up for you?
KO: “I love coming back here, going to a Monon Bell game, having a few drinks with my old classmates…but I couldn’t imagine this being my office. At the time the job opened, working here was the last thing I wanted to do. But DePauw kept calling me asking if I knew somebody who could take this job, and I gave them a handful of names. None of those worked out. I ended up on the phone with Mitch Daniels, of all people—a mutual friend suggested we talk to each other—and he told me I should go for the job. At the time I was still holding out for some kind of broadcasting utopia, which was never going to happen.”
DW: So you interviewed.
KO: “I did. And it went well, but I still felt unsure, so I turned DePauw down. That’s when Bob Bottoms called me a day or two later and said, ‘Ken, if you’re going to turn DePauw down, then you have to come here and turn me down.’ So I went back to Greencastle to meet with him…and here I am.”
DW: Besides your work with media, you also run the Ubben Lecture series. Describe the impact of the Ubben on both DePauw and Greencastle.
KO: “I think there’s great value for Greencastle and DePauw in getting people such as David Cameron here. The earned media we got from that event was something north of $2 million. It was in the British press every day for almost two weeks, and every one of those articles mentioned ‘DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.’ One of the papers said the Ubben was ‘an important series for people beginning their speaking careers.’ When I read that I thought, ‘That’s kind of an interesting leap of faith, but I’ll take that.’ It’s certainly not one of the things I thought I’d be doing, but it’s become one of those special joys in my work.”
The Greatest Experience
DW: Of all of your experiences in television, do you have one which stands out as your hallmark moment?
KO: “In June of 1988 I traveled to the Soviet Union with Billy Graham. When the station told me I was going to Russia for ten days, I wasn’t really that excited at first. I was actually looking forward to spending the summer on my new deck. I didn’t have any particular feelings toward Billy Graham one way or the other. I suppose I had probably lumped him in with the Pat Robertsons and the Jerry Falwells…which is unfair, because he’s quite a remarkable man. So we get on a plane: myself, a producer, and photographer. We’re carrying a huge container of beta tapes, recording gear, a tripod, and all our bags…and when we land in the Soviet Union, the car we thought would be waiting for us wasn’t there. We had to bribe a ride to our hotel, which was an awful hotel, by the way.”
KO: “Yeah. It was like a bad spy movie from the ‘60s. Then a little later, when Billy Graham landed and we met him, he reached out a give me this great big hug. It was such an amazing opportunity to meet him and spend time with him. And it wasn’t until we got home that I realized that: A) We were on diplomatic Visas, which means that we probably got away with a little more than we were supposed to, and B) The Soviet Union only allowed one Western news crew to travel with Graham. We found out later that Bill Moyers wanted to go as well as the networks. But since Graham lived in our viewing area, he picked us. I don’t think anything like would happen today in the modern media age.”
DW: What was the occasion? What would prompt the Soviet Union, of all nations, to go along with something such as this?
KO: “They brought him over to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church. Raisa Gorbachev attended one of the ceremonies, which was simply remarkable. In 1988, if you stood on the sidewalk in Russia with a sandwich board saying, ‘I love Jesus…’ That would be it. You’d be hauled off. Yet hundreds of people waited in line for hours to hear Billy speak. Of course it wasn’t long after that ‘Tear down this wall’ led to major changes in the Communist Bloc, but at the time we were there, those changes didn’t seem evident.”
DW: And you remained close with Reverend Graham after that trip?
KO: “He later invited me over to his house, and even let me sit in on the Easter service with his wife, Ruth, in 1989, in his little church in Montreat, which was a pretty hard ‘ticket’ to snag. We continued to correspond for a long time after that. Just an amazing guy. There won’t be another Billy Graham. The farther away I get from that experience the more power it has.”
Life after the News and Advice for the Young
DW: So now that you’ve been away from the news desk, what do you miss about it?
KO: “I miss the camaraderie, and I miss laughing with colleagues in the newsroom. I also miss the access. I certainly miss the ability to interview people, to cover newsmakers, and be in the middle of things that are happening. And I miss working in a field viewed by a bunch of people every day. It’s almost like working the window at Sak’s Fifth Avenue on the Christmas holiday.”
DW: I appreciate the honest nod to the ego in that statement.
KO: “I understand that this sounds egotistical, but this does affect your ego when you go away because I like people for one thing. And, when you’re a news anchor you get a lot of eyeballs every day, so it’s a blessing and it’s also a curse. You go out to dinner, and everyone recognizes you. But it goes away pretty quickly after you leave it behind. All of the sudden, you’re just another guy. Still…it’s a special privilege to know that you’re counted on by people for information…to know that you’re as true and honest and down-the-middle as you can be.”
DW: So, given that you now work in a college media department, surrounded by young people—many of whom presumably want to pursue a life similar to the one you’ve lived—how you reconcile your disillusionment with the changes in the news world with all of that youthful idealism swimming around you?
KO: “First of all, there are places out there that do good things, and there are organizations which are run by good people. Then, as I tell them: I loved it when I loved it. Do it as long as you love it, but when it starts to compromise you…when you start to feel as if it’s not the right thing, then that’s the time to reconsider.”
KO: “The other thing I tell them is to be careful what you wish for. Because the higher you go up the market chain, the less fun news work is apt to be. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for working in a top-25 market, but some of the most fun I had was when I worked in Fort Wayne. We were all the same age, a few years out of college. We were all hungry, and we had standards we were trying to meet. We were in love with the idea of producing something good. We would get off the air and all go to a bar down the street and unwind. But when I went to Ashville and later back to Indy, my coworkers were older and had families. They were great people, and those were great relationships, but they were also different relationships.”
DW: And given your earlier comments about what you had learned in Fort Wayne, the smaller markets are great training grounds for larger market talent.
KO: “Yes. I always tell our kids here that the most important thing you can do is go somewhere small and make a lot of mistakes. You can go to big-city TV station, but you’re going to get all the crappy jobs, and who knows when you’ll get on the air. But if you’re in Terre Haute or in Anchorage, Alaska…somewhere that you probably wouldn’t pick if you grew up in St. Louis or Chicago, you’ll be better off if you go somewhere like that. Somewhere where you pay your dues, make your mistakes, and decide that you’re going to be honest about getting better.”
Sixteen Christmases ago, Owen walked off the set of his last newscast, and came to his office at DePauw. He had only planned to stay for a couple years…a regrouping phase before he landed his next TV gig (and not his first regrouping phase at that). Instead the happy convergence of time and fate kept him here, and today he’s home running the media department of his beloved alma-mater and spearheading a prestigious lecture series attracting some of the biggest names in entertainment, politics, and world culture. It may not have been the blessed life he had envisioned for himself when graduated from DePauw over three decades ago, but it has been a blessed life nonetheless.