Bob Dotson on working with difficult people
Written by Bob Dotson
The first person to welcome me at NBC was a photojournalist named Cliff Adkins. Cliff died this month at 81. His wisdom and warmth guided my life and many others. Cliff worked with sound man Frank Greene, a whiskery little guy, standing on a chilly sidewalk waiting for a crew car to take us on assignment. Frank maintained a two-inch ash on the cigarette that he dangled from the corner of his mouth even when he talked.
He greeted me with one eye squinting through smoke.
“I just want youse ta know one ‘ting,” he said, his voice a low rasp. “I’ve been here thirty years and I’ll be here when you leave!”
Frank was nearing retirement. He must have had underwear older than I was. I had seldom worked with anyone over 50 and didn’t know what to say. Frank didn’t want an answer. He was simply telling me what to expect.
“When we go out on stories, I sits in the right front seat.”
A stiff breeze finally knocked the ash off Frank’s cigarette.
“I always sits next to the heater.”
He paused to puff.
“The cameraman drives, unless he doesn’t want to. Then, the electrician drives. Otherwise, the electrician—who we call 40-watt, cuz he’s usually a dim bulb—he sits in the back seat on the hump.”
Another puff. Frank smoked Camels. Once he lit a cigarette, it stayed in the corner of his mouth until he took it out to light another. Frank glanced at the crew car garage. No sign yet of our ride.
He continued, “The producer always sits in the back left seat, behind the driver, so he can flick ‘em on the ear and tell ‘em to turn right or left.”
A small smile.
“You? Reporters sit in the right rear seat.”
He wiggled his index finger.
“Don’t crowd 40-watt.”
The crew car pulled to the curb. Frank popped into the front seat next to the heater.
“Welcome to Cleveland,” he chortled, pointing to my place in back.
This was the first time that I had ever worked with a guy who cared more about heat than stories. At noon I learned he cared about food, too.
“Hey, Dotson,” he rasped. “Youse got ten more minutes!”
“Ten minutes until what, Frank?”
“Ten minutes, den I’m pulling my audio plug outta da camera and sittin’ in da car until we go to lunch.”
We were filming children on a playground. True to his word, ten minutes later, Frank yanked his audio line from the back of the camera and left. I looked at cameraman Cliff Adkins. Cliff shrugged.
“Well,” said Cliff. “At least Frank waited until we got a minutes worth of audio in the can. No one can fault him for not doing his job.”
I looked around glumly. “Yeah, but what are we going to do?” Was this the end of my big time career?
“Do you want to drive Frank nuts?” asked Cliff.
I grinned. “Sure.”
“He’s going to expect one of two things. Either we yell at him when we go back to the car or we give him the silent treatment.”
I nodded. Made sense.
“If you really want to drive him crazy, let’s act like nothing ever happened.”
“How will that drive him crazy?”
“You see, he wants to pick a fight so he can file a union grievance,” Cliff said. “That’ll take him out of the cold for days while the grievance committee sorts it all out. Meanwhile, he’ll be warm and get lunch on time.”
“Why doesn’t he just talk to the managers who assign the story? It’s not our fault he’s working through lunch.”
“He’s afraid,” said Cliff. “It’s easier and safer to take out his frustrations on us.”
“Great,” I sighed, looking glum.
“Well, let’s do it,” said Cliff. “Let’s pretend as if nothing ever happened, but you have to promise me one thing.”
“You’ve got to talk to Peter Menkes, the assignment editor, and remind him that Frank needs his lunch on time. Food and heat are important when you’re over sixty,” Cliff grinned, but he meant it.
We finished our shooting, then walked back to the crew car. Frank was hunkered in the front seat, next to the heater. Engine running.
“Hi, Frank!” I said. “Hey, where do you want to go eat?”
Two weeks later, we worked together again, meeting on that same chilly corner. Frank was pacing back and forth.
“All Right!” Frank growled. “What’s goin’ on!”
“Going on? What, Frank?”
“How come youse never yelled at me?”
“Yell at you, Frank? Why?”
“You know why!”
“Well,” I said. “I thought you made a good point about missing lunch, so I talked to the assignment editor when I got back to make sure you didn’t miss any more.”
Frank Greene was not our best soundman. He was known for letting the needle ride in the red. Didn’t pay much attention to over modulation, but from that day forward he got better
when he worked with me. I always made sure to highlight Frank’s audio in my stories. If he climbed down a hill to get sound of a rushing river, I would pause in my narration to let the sound play. Gradually, grudgingly, we became friends.
My wife, Linda, was eight months pregnant at the time. The day she flew from Oklahoma to join me in our new home, I met her at the airport with Frank and the crew. We were on our way to Cincinnati, assigned to do a Today show story. Would she care to fly along in the Lear jet?
“What’s another plane ride?” said Linda.
Off we went.
When we arrived in Cincinnati, 40-watt pulled the rental car alongside the plane. Frank hopped out and opened the car door — the front passenger door.
“Mrs. Dotson,” he motioned. “Would youse like to sit next to da heater?”
The next morning, over coffee, Cliff Adkins shook his head.
“I’ve worked for thirteen years with Frank Greene and I’ve never seen Frank give up the heater, not even for a pregnant nun!”
“Cliff,” I laughed, “Why is it we can communicate clearly with millions of people, but can’t seem to talk to the guy sitting next to us in the crew car?”
“We seldom work well together,” said Cliff, “because we blame everyone else while overlooking our own failures. I say, ‘My story would have been an award winner, but you wrote a terrible narration.’ You say, ‘Hey, Cliff, your shots are shaky and the audio is unusable.’
“Remember, Bob, the only person you can change is you. You want to get better. Make yourself better by helping others become better, too.”
The people who help us thrive in this world are not always the most pleasant. I’ve learned not to waste life waiting to work with the ‘best’ or cursing fate when faced with a ‘Frank Greene.’ Life is a rough and tumble business, like a football game. Change when you see an opening. I remember something Cliff told me when I thought my career wasn’t catching fire.
“Try to make yourself one of a kind. That will give you a distinctive voice others will want to hear. You might not get every assignment you want, but someday, someone will say: “We need a Bob Dotson story.” I’ve told this story to many young journalists over the years. Cliff Adkin’s wisdom lives on.
Former NBC Today Show Correspondent and New York Times Best Selling Author of “American Story, a lifetime search for ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.
His long-running series, “An American Story with Bob Dotson,” was a regular feature on the TODAY show and other NBC News programs. He has received more than 100 awards for his work in broadcast journalism, including eight National Emmys. In 2012 the Radio Television Digital News Association chose Dotson to receive the Edward R. Murrow Award for Writing a record sixth time and the Society of Professional Journalists cited Dotson’s columns for TODAY.COM as the “best writing in new media.” His work has also won top journalism awards from the National Press Photographers, Dupont-Columbia and Robert F. Kennedy Foundation.