It was a supply closet off the main classroom, six feet across, with the only wall decoration being a length of pine board with a row of nails sticking out. Because of the terrible noise inside, the door was always shut. The two machines, industrial-era things that clamored and shook, spewed out a steady stream of hurt and lies and death. On this San Diego afternoon I was in the little room with my coffee, going through the accumulated Associated Press and UPI news that had cranked out of the wire machines during lunch and whatever regular classes I might have attended that day. Local stories, national and international bulletins, weather, sports, all by teletype, all through the thick bundles of wires from New York or Washington or Moscow to these billows of teletype paper on the floor. I scanned, ripped, and stuck the individual articles on the appropriate nail. When the spikes could hold no more, the entire bundle went into the trash. News is disposable, but the wire editor keeps a little bit of each story in memory, because it is that context and shallow-but-far reaching knowledge that lets the editor know what matters.
The machines started ringing in a way I’d never heard before, first the AP wire and then the smaller unit from United Press. Five bells meant something big. I watched the urgent bulletin type out the headline and first terse sentence: John Belushi — the comedy god of high school and college — was dead of an apparent heart attack. In this noisy closet, on March 5 of 1982, I began a crippling lifelong addiction to breaking news.
Because the broadcast I produced and hosted aired just once a week, on the Cox Cable educational channel, there wasn’t anything to do with this news but wander around the high school telling anyone who might care. It was still a week away from the speedball announcement — when the coroner and police said that Belushi was shot up with a fatal combination of cocaine and heroin after a night of heavy drinking — but people like John Belushi didn’t die at age 33 from natural causes. And if you were 16 years old and loved comedy and music, Belushi had been there to teach you about punk rock and R&B and Richard Nixon and college. The Blues Brothers was still playing in a couple of run-down mall theaters, and Animal House was already a staple on HBO. That Belushi had portrayed a Mike Royko-style Chicago newspaper columnist in his last movie, Continental Divide, only made him more essential to my particular set of interests.
Until that point, the “broadcast” part of the journalism world was just something I dabbled in because I could capably do it. The good stuff was writing for a newspaper. The great Mike Royko was syndicated in the same local evening paper that bought my prep sports reports — sports were meaningless to me but that’s all the Evening Tribune wanted from San Diego High School — and syndicated newspaper columnists were still important enough in the 1980s that Royko’s disgust over sushi being sold at San Diego’s baseball stadium was enough to cause a citywide uproar. But that clanging moment in the wire room caused me to reevaluate. Maybe broadcast news really was the future. The local NBC station had an intern program, and for a few short weeks before they figured out I wasn’t in college, I was an unpaid newsroom and studio intern at KSCT-TV for “Newscenter 39.”
After school, I drove to the NBC affiliate’s station that was, like most things in San Diego, in a commercial stretch of a suburb between a triangle of freeways. Always in my tie and jacket, I passed unnoticed through reception to the set, which used the working newsroom for transitions from the anchor desk to commercials. Because the news was written and produced before the 5 o’clock broadcast began, the people at the desks answering the phones and pretending to type were the makeup woman, the mobile cameraman on late duty and me. I also fed scripts into the teleprompter, brought around coffee, and occasionally got sent to the anchorman’s office to knock on his door when the newscast was about to go live. Sometimes he just did not want to come out of there. He was the main “talent” on the show, young and at the top of his game, and he did not display much respect for his inferiors. His name was Paul Bloom, longtime San Diego anchorman and a prime inspiration for Will Ferrell’s Anchorman.
The vanity, the pride, the mustache, the sense that he was in charge of San Diego itself — all of this was apparent in my few weeks of watching Bloom at work. But unlike the Will Ferrell character, Paul Bloom was smarter than anyone else in the room. Of the local news anchors, he was my favorite, and I had already stolen his signature bit — closing the newscast with a brief deadpan description of some idiocy or absurdity — for my weekly education news show. But he was vicious, too, and the time of great tension on “Newscenter 39” was when he would calmly mutter an insult to his co-anchor, a woman he obviously despised, because of something she flubbed on-air. Sometimes I could hear him, when I was working the teleprompter, but usually the savagery of his remark could only be gauged by the look of dull fury on her face. And then they would turn on the smiles when the floor director finished his countdown back to live television.
I don’t know who was or who wasn’t using cocaine all the time, but as Belushi’s death showed it was everywhere in the entertainment and media realms of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Anyone’s bad behavior in this television newsroom was ridiculed as “coke nerves,” and in this hostile local-news environment where backstabbing and cruel asides were commonplace, anchors and on-air reporters from this or competing stations were routinely characterized as being total cocaine addicts. Cokeheads or not, the people were usually polite to me, but it wasn’t a fun place to work. When the producer in charge of interns got around to formalizing my position and realized I was still in high school, my fledgling internship was immediately terminated.
“I thought you were from San Diego City College,” she told me. “Why did you tell us you were in college?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I was recommended by San Diego High School, from the broadcast journalism department.”
“You know you have to be 18 to be an intern here,” she said. Of course I did not know this — why would I be driving to this television station every day to work without pay for a bunch of sociopathic San Diego coke fiends if I wasn’t even eligible for their internship?
By the end of 1982, I had lost all interest in broadcast news. Despite it being the reason for my participation in the San Diego Unified School District’s magnet program to draw white kids to downtown and the barrio, I quit anchoring and writing “Action Focus News” and dedicated the final semester of high school to the student newspaper — I was also editor of this neglected hundred-year-old institution, called The Russ after the original name of this first high school in San Diego. It was starved for cash while the TV classes were equipped with a $300,000 broadcast and production facility. We made do with manual typewriters, and I drove 20 miles across town to the absolute cheapest typesetter, run by a couple of aging hippies in La Mesa who shared and encouraged my love for the counterculture comedians and underground press I’d learned about through the filter of National Lampoon and the original “Saturday Night Live.”
The underground press was mostly a rumor by the 1980s; punk rock fanzines were all that was left of a scene that had produced the Los Angeles Free Press and The Realist in the 1960s and the Village Voice in the 1950s. I had already been called to the principal’s office for running anti-draft ads in The Russ. The ad warned seniors that they could be forced into fighting Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars if they registered for the Selective Service, which Jimmy Carter had reinstated in 1980 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. America eventually found some locals to do the proxy fighting in Afghanistan, which crippled the USSR and generally worked pretty well until September 11 of 2001. But in the early 1980s the threat of a draft was very real. The principal didn’t care if I turned down the Army recruiting full-page ads that targeted the mostly Latino students, but encouraging people to resist Selective Service registration was supposedly a federal crime.
The only thing standing between me and publishing my own underground paper was a story. The draft issue was too obvious. Then my good friend Sam appeared in the Russ newsroom waving a few typed pages and all worked up about a meeting with this same principal, over some deficiencies in the college-prep classes and the barrio school’s apparent neglect of the college bound. This was meaningless to me, because my working-class family had never brought up college and I had neglected to even take the SATs. Sam insisted that it was a major problem and that it was way too hot for the school newspaper.
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s make an underground paper. We’ll call it the — “
“The Underground Russ,” Sam said. He later turned out to be an excellent namer of things, as proprietor of San Diego’s Whistle Stop, Station Tavern and Riviera Supper Club, but Underground Russ did not exactly dance off the tongue. Most kids at the school didn’t even realize the student paper was called The Russ, both because of the heavily stylized 1970s Star Wars-font masthead and the sad fact that few of the students would read anything they didn’t have to.
I took the copy to my hippie friends and asked them to typeset a single-page tabloid along with a doctored masthead that cleverly had the word “UNDERGROUND” in stencil font over the already clunky The Russ logo. It was hideous. As for the cost, I just had them bill the school for the $60 worth of time on the Linotype phototypesetter and a couple of hundred offset copies of the one-story issue, which had been reduced to 8.5×11 Xerox paper so we could do the printing in the little typesetting office, too. On the appointed day, we distributed the bootleg edition by leaving stacks outside each classroom. Sam decided to disguise himself as a cholo, clad in khakis and a crisp flannel buttoned only at the collar and Ray-Bans and a hairnet over his black hair. The actual cholos always walking the halls during classtime greeted him by name and asked why he was suddenly dressing cholo, which made the disguise even more ridiculous. I just walked around as usual, in my jacket and tie, and the burly adult hall monitors hired to break up gang fights on campus were all too used to seeing me everywhere but in a classroom.
There was a final obligation to the broadcast journalism department on that same day: an hour-long interview, Tom Snyder style in a in a darkened studio with two armchairs per my request, with the new superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. We shot these things live and mimicked commercial breaks to teach the production staff about the real world of local 30-second spots, and during the last sponsor break I pulled a folded copy of the Underground Russ from the inside pocket of my sportscoat and handed it to him with gravity.
“This was published today,” I said in a deep whisper learned from watching Paul Bloom insult his co-anchors. “There appears to be a controversy around the Advanced Placement classes and the qualifications of those teaching the courses.”
He took the sheet of paper and scanned the text, nodding in concentration. As the floor director counted down, the superintendent folded the page and tucked it into his own suit pocket.
“I’ll take a look into it,” he said. “I appreciate that you didn’t surprise me with this while we were taping.”
I had considered doing exactly that, but the fact that the interview was being taped made it very unlikely the exchange would make it to Cox Cable the following Friday. I had created an illicit publication, engaged in misappropriation of education funds, handed the evidence to the man in charge of the nation’s largest school district and effectively facilitated the mainstream media cover-up. It is amazing they ever let me graduate and deliver the benediction at commencement.
The author, seated, and his co-editors at the San Diego High School student newspaper, Spring 1983. Top photo: The author as anchor of “Action Focus News,” as seen through a typical home television set of the time, Fall 1982.
Ken Layne has held approximately a hundred media jobs around the world. He should’ve learned by now.