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The Eric Factor: The toughest part of the broadcasting business

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Every morning, I begin my day with several ideas of what to write. Maybe later on, I’ll post about how miserably cold our weekend will be. But as much as I’ve been complaining about the cold on Good Morning Quad Cities, I really need to keep everything in perspective.

My fellow StormTrack 8 Meteorologists and I are all a part of a closed group of weather folk on Facebook. There are 1,300 members in the group posting about bloopers, mergers, weather equipment, blizzards, and tornado events. For the past few years, it has been a great resource. Occasionally, you get a more personal question.

On April 3rd, a guy by the name of Russell Bird asked for some advice:

His words immediately took me back to the year 2000. We were in a new millennium and I was a thousand miles from home. Homesick in Tyler, Texas, I went through a tough time. Luckily, I had friends who took care of me. But just having loving friends couldn’t have gotten me through all of it. So I got a dog.

I offered my tidbit of advice to Russell.


35 other people offered advice to Russell on that Facebook thread. Great, positive and uplifting words. And he had the last comment. “Thanks, this job had been… Difficult but I always try to have a nice attitude and be nice to everyone around me. It gets hard at home.

But our words of encouragement weren’t enough. This morning, I received word that our colleague from Bend, Oregon, far from his hometown of Cincinnati took his own life.

KTVZ-TV announced the news to viewers last night.

The broadcasting business is so hard, especially for those in the trenches. Viewers always see us professional on the air. We put our game face on, even though we may not feel up to it. On sick days, we work through. On days when we’re grieving, we work through. On days when we don’t like our jobs, we work through. On days when we’re negative in our checking accounts, we work through. On days when the weight of the world is on us, we work through.

And I know these struggles aren’t unique to us, you do the same thing! But local television is the polar opposite of the “Lights! Camera! Action!” that people think it is. A few years ago in Rockford, one of our best directors (the people who punch the buttons in the control booth) quit her job to work for a call center. I asked her “Why are you leaving? You are so good at what you do!” Her response? “I get paid minimum wage and can’t live on that anymore.”

It concerns me that salaries in this business haven’t gone up, while the pressure to out-perform has. My first job in Lufkin, Texas in 1999 paid $20,000 per year. That’s $10 an hour…after a four-year degree! But it was a good offer for me. Coming out of college my first job offer in Rock Island, Illinois was for $15,500/year. My second job offer in Eau Claire, Wisconsin was $17,500/year. Texas was an obvious choice because gas was less than a buck, my rent was $550 a month, there was no state income tax, and I experienced tons of severe weather! Nowadays, the costs of everything have gone up. But salaries have not. Small-market TV still employs editors, photographers, reporters, and anchors who make less than cashiers at Walgreen’s and cooks at McDonald’s. And I know for a fact that in Rockford, answering phones pays more of the bills than directing an Emmy-award-winning newscast.

What needs to change? Salaries and/or quality of life, obviously. But I don’t know how. During the economic recession that began in 2008, broadcasting took a hit as people stopped buying things. Nowadays, it’s harder for television stations to make ad revenue as businesses and politicians search for less-general and more target-specific advertising. I know very little about the economics of television broadcasting, especially in a quickly changing field. But I do know from experience and the experiences of others that some upper management (thankfully not at my current employer) are more concerned about the bottom line profit than the condition of those working in the trenches. I make no connection or inference that this is what caused the tragedy for KTVZ-TV. But it is tremendously hard to be successful in this business. I am very thankful I am in a place where I can thrive personally and professionally.

Russell’s personal forecast was cloudy, every day. I am sad that even with him reaching out to his colleagues, our words of encouragement weren’t enough. Even though I didn’t know him, I am grieving for him, his friends, and his family. If you ever feel like the weight of the world is going to crush you, reach out. If that’s too hard for you to do, text 741-741.

Life will get better.

-Meteorologist Eric Sorensen

Russell Bird

Russell Bird. Photo posted to Facebook.

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