Night Riders in Search of a Story
While most people sleep, a few free-lance video cameramen are awake, recording the night’s misery in the tradition of nocturnal newshounds, searching for the big scoop that will sell.
The woman lay in the street, screaming in pain. Paramedics worked frantically while police officers lit flares and directed traffic. Neighbors, wrapped in bathrobes to ward off the 4 a.m. chill, stepped onto balconies and front porches to watch. Blood trickled down a gutter in a slow stream.
Standing beside the Silver Lake street, Bob Cox took it all in through the lens of a video camera hoisted on his shoulder. After a few moments, he turned the camera off and began walking away.
“This just won’t make it,” he muttered, shaking his head. “We’ve got to get something better than this.” Cox climbed into a waiting van, and it sped off.
There were bigger stories out there in the big city, and he was intent on finding them.
Call Cox an ambulance chaser, call him gonzo or call him crazy, but don’t forget to call him when there is a grisly murder, big fire, multivehicle accident, natural disaster or celebrity in trouble.
Cox is a high-tech version of the nocturnal newshound. As an employee of the Reseda-based Newsreel Video Service, he carries on the tradition of street-wise free-lance photographers who for decades have sold pictures to newspapers and magazines.
The difference is that at NVS the tool of the trade is a video camera and the customers are television news operations.
Cox’s nightly mission might sound unappetizing, but without him and others in his field, TV coverage of such topics as gang warfare, freeway shootings and countless other personal tragedies would be a lot less commanding.
“We end up buying a lot of tape from NVS and some other free-lance services because we’re really intent on covering the gang story, for one example,” said Russell Grant, an assignment editor at the Los Angeles bureau of Cable News Network. “A lot of this activity goes on overnight, so these are the guys who get it.”
“I’d say we use material from NVS almost every other day,” said Cindy Jackson, who keeps track of free-lance video segments as part of her job with KTTV news.
But not just any tragedy will do. For that woman in the street, the driver of the car that hit her and the witnesses to the accident, this was a night they would never forget. For Cox, however, the incident was hardly memorable. Before dawn, he hoped to come upon something far more sensational, something that would mean a sure sale.
He slumped into his padded seat as David Graack, the driver of the van, pulled onto the Hollywood Freeway.
“It’s getting colder out,” Cox said. “People’s heaters will start kicking in. We might start getting fires.”
Cox and Graack had already been on the streets, searching for their big story for several hours. Their work night began at 9:30 p.m. at the Reseda home and office of Gary Arnote, founder and owner of NVS.
“I used to drive a tow truck all night, so I knew something about traffic accidents and such,” said the portly, bearded Arnote, 40, in an interview a few days before.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy who would rubberneck an accident as I went past it on the freeway,” he added. “I’m a buff. “
Arnote put his interest in disasters to work 12 years ago when he took up photography part time and began to sell pictures of accidents and fires to news services. Five years ago, with the financial assistance of his parents (Arnote, who is divorced, lives with them), he gave up the tow truck and still photography to switch to full-time video free-lancing.
There were other companies and individuals in the free-lance video business. NVS carved out its niche in the market by specializing in late-night coverage.
“I worked the late-night hours because that’s when television stations didn’t have a regular crew on. They came to depend on me to cover events at those hours,” said Arnote, who adopted the motto, “Don’t be envious, use NVS.”
After two years as a mostly one-man operation he was able to hire young cameramen who work in pairs, five nights on, two nights off.
“I graduated from the telecommunications department at San Diego State, and I wanted to work in television, so I applied here,” said Graack, 24, as he loaded the $30,000 portable camera-sound unit into the white Chevy van in Arnote’s driveway. The van is equipped with video dubbing machines, a TV monitor, 2-way radio, cellular telephone and several radio scanners. The top of the van is adorned with so many little antennas it brings to mind a punker’s spiked haircut.
As of this night, Graack had worked for NVS for only two weeks. “The first night out I saw a traffic accident so horrible I could hardly look at it,” he said as Cox climbed aboard.
As Graack pulled the van onto the street at 9:58 p.m. and headed for the freeway, he continued to describe the accident--a horrific scene of mangled bodies, glass and twisted metal. Cox, who was with him that night, did not remember it at first.
“You see so much of that kind of stuff that after awhile it doesn’t affect you much,” said Cox, 23, who came to NVS a year ago after graduating high school and leaving a job with a messenger service. He lives with his parents in Silver Lake.
“My mom says I’m a different person because of this job,” Cox said. “She thinks I’m not as sensitive. I don’t think that’s true, but she does know me better than anybody.”
After a stop at a restaurant in Monterey Park where Arnote was shooting a fireman’s retirement dinner, they pulled into their downtown “office,” the parking lot of a closed service station with quick access to four freeways. It was 11:02 p.m.
“Now, we listen and wait,” Graack said. He and Cox turned up the volume on the scanners tuned to frequencies used by police, fire and emergency medical services.
The miseries of life in the big city poured forth from the speakers. There were robberies, heart attacks, accidents, shootings, rapes, suicides, family disputes, “gang activity” and drug busts. Cox explained the scanner lingo: “P.O.” is police officer, “T.A.” is traffic accident, “D.B.” is dead body.
Cox and Graack don’t go after a story unless the incident sounds as if it will sell to TV. A shooting is no good unless it is an “ambulance shooting.” A fire is not worth their time unless several fire engines and paramedic teams are called to the scene.
At 11:36 p.m. came the call, “Shooting. West Adams and Normandie. 211.” Cox slamed the sliding door shut and the van zoomed onto the Harbor Freeway. A “211,” he explained, means “victims.”
In two minutes they were at a liquor store near the intersection that was obviously the site of the trouble. There were three police cars, a helicopter overhead and five suspects on their knees on the sidewalk, their hands behind them.
Cox quickly hoisted the camera onto his shoulder, turned on the video recorder and made his way into the scene with assurance. But a police officer who recognized him waved him away. “False alarm,” the officer called out.
Cox thanked him and climbed back in the van. “There almost has to be a body out in the street in an incident like this for it to sell,” he explained. “That cop knew there was nothing for us there.”
The next two calls they chased, a shooting and an accident, also yielded no results, and at 12:05 a.m. they were back at their service station. A stray puppy that comes by almost every night ran over to play and mooch the hot dog or beef jerky they usually feed him.
At 12:15 a.m. came the phrase “freeway shooting” on one of the radios.
“ That will sell,” said Cox as the van practically leaped onto the Hollywood Freeway on the way to the intersection of Burbank Boulevard and Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys. “If we can make it there on time.”
But when they arrived, at 12:29 a.m., the ambulance was just pulling away. All Cox got on tape was the victims’ car in the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr., some bloody clothing on the sidewalk and police milling about.
At every stop they had made, Cox and Graack were the only video cameramen on the scene.
“We used to cover shootings and other night stories,” said Bob Tur, owner of Los Angeles News Service, another free-lance video news outfit. “We couldn’t make enough money at it.”
Tur, who is also a reporter for KNX-AM radio, said his service goes after bigger stories, such as airplane crashes and the destruction caused by Hurricane Gilbert last month in Mexico.
Van Nuys-based Breaking News Network, headed by Gilbert P. Sanchez, does cover night stories but only when its equipment is not tied up on a story outside Los Angeles County or on an assignment given to them by one of their customers.
Cox and Graack headed out to see Arnote who was drinking coffee, listening to portable scanners and visiting with the regulars at an all-night coffee shop in South Gate.
Arnote was talking about NVS’ biggest successes. One was recent--he sold footage of last month’s massive evacuation after a chemical spill in the City of Commerce to domestic and foreign networks, in addition to his regular local customers.
“That was the biggest I had since Little Richard was in a car accident in Santa Monica in 1985. I was the only cameraman there when they pried open the wreck with the ‘jaws of life’ to get him out.
“Sold that all over the world. Even MTV bought it.”
Cox and Graack got back on the road. The next incident they covered was the woman struck by the car in Silver Lake. It clearly didn’t have enough news value, and Cox was getting frustrated. Even though he and Graack do not get paid on commission, they consider a night wasted if they don’t cover at least one saleable story. They continued to listen to the scanners.
At 4:29 a.m. came the words “hostage situation.”
At 4:47 a.m. they were at the corner of Avalon and Sepulveda boulevards in Carson where a SWAT team was establishing a command post. Cox videotaped the convoy of official vehicles moving into the Kentucky Fried Chicken stand the Special Weapons and Tactics unit had commandeered. A press information officer arrived to tell Cox that the SWAT team was there to serve a warrant to a man accused of “spousal abuse.”
The man’s wife told police her husband had a number of guns in the house and that she was afraid he would try to make their 4-year-old daughter his hostage.
This was a clearly saleable situation for NVS. The only worry for Cox and Graack was that, as the morning progressed, local stations would begin sending their own crews.
But at 8:37 a.m., when the man peacefully emerged from his house with his daughter in the arms of an officer, NVS had the only camera crew on the scene.
The biggest story of the night had come off without a shot being fired or blood being shed.
Graack drove the van toward Hollywood while Cox sat in the back copying tapes. Calls came in on the cellular phone from CNN and one local station that had gotten word of the hostage story and wanted to see if NVS had been on the scene.
Cox and Graack delivered tapes to CNN, as well as to KCBS, KABC, KNBC and KTTV. Each pays a basic rate of $125 to NVS every time they air its footage in a newscast. Arnote says on a good week, NVS footage will be used 25 to 30 times on local stations.
Arnote has told his crew that business is better than ever. But at least one station on the NVS delivery route may soon phase out its use of free-lance material.
“Most of the free-lance stuff we get here is awful,” said Pete Noyes, managing editor at KNBC news. “What they get us is cheap car accidents, cheap homicides. It’s not the kind of thing we should be covering. I am on a campaign to get rid of the free-lancers here.”
The politics and business of free-lancing are far from the minds of the NVS team as they head back to home base after making the last delivery at 10:15 a.m. Graack turned off the scanners and cranked up KROQ-FM.
Cox sprawled over the seat in the rear of the van, his head on the bottom cushion and his legs over the backrest. After several minutes of silence, he began to speak quietly.
“We don’t get paid much for doing this, not even overtime,” he said, staring at the van ceiling. “But it’s a steppingstone. I had no direction in life before I kind of fell into this job, no direction whatsoever.
“With all this experience, I can eventually move on to whatever will give me some kind of a future. It wouldn’t be so bad to work for someone like ‘Eye on L.A.’ Those guys get to go to Bermuda.”
Finally, Cox fell asleep.