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Television, the Hamer Way: Father-son tandem of Dave Hamer and Roger Hamer own combined 76 years in the TV news industry 


Television, the Hamer Way

Father-son tandem of Dave Hamer and Roger Hamer own combined 76 years in the TV news industry 

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of the New Horizons

Outside of Mike and Chris Wallace, there may not be another father-son tandem in broadcast journalism history with the pedigree and longevity of Omaha’s own Dave and Roger Hamer.

Retired television newsman Dave Hamer. 89. enjoyed a 1953 to 1991 career distinguished by many firsts. He was the first journalist to work at all three major Omaha network affiliates. He was America’s first local TV journalist to file stories from Vietnam. He was the first civilian reporter to fly a mission with the U.S. Air Force’s airborne command and control center, Looking Glass.

He covered the horror and hysteria of the Starkweather murder spree. As a street reporter-photographer, he  covered storms, accidents, riots, political rallies and athletic events. He wrote-produced newscasts and documentaries, He captured the return to Omaha Beach of a Heartland veteran who survived D-Day. He gave back to his profession as president of the Omaha Press Club, the Nebraska News Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association. He taught TV news at UNO and co-chaired the annual News Video Workshop at the University of Oklahoma.

He’s been honored for his contributions to the field as an inductee in the Omaha Press Club’s Journalists of Excellence Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.

Roger Hamer, 61, never intended following the family trade yet his 38-year TV news career now equals that of his father, Roger creates packages that see him do photography, reporting, editing. He also produces. He succeeded his father as a teacher at UNO. He, too..has earned much peer recognition for his work, including an Edward R. Murrow Award. He is well on his way to joining his father as a lifetime achievement honoree.

They have a combined 76 years in the business. Their professional paths formally intersected once, in 1991, when Roger, who began at KMTV, joined WOWT, where Dave worked his final decade. Roger is still there today.

“I kind of backed into the business. He never pressured me,” Roger said of his father.

“I don’t think I ever tried to talk you out of it either,” Dave told hm. “No, you never did,” Roger replied.

“i’ve been fortunate to always be surrounded by smart people very good at what they do. Of course, this guy,” Roger said, indicating his father, “helped me a lot when I was starting out. We would have lunch breaks in the edit booths at 3 (KMTV) and 6 (WOWT). I’d show him tapes and he’d critique them. We’d talk how to do stories. I learned a lot that way. He let me pick his brain. He was always generous in dealing with me.”

Then there came the workshop his father put on for newcomers and veterans.

“You don’t know how you’re going to act when your dad pops your videotape in and plays it in front of all these people and comments on it,” Roger recalled. “I hoped he was going to be as nice as he was when we were alone in the edit booths. But it was something along the lines of, ‘If this guy came in and wanted a job, I’d tell him to sell shoes,’ It was like the air in a balloon going out.

“But that was the best thing that could have happened because you need a kick in the pants now and then. The effort wasn’t there that he expected and that inspired me. It gave me a clue I could do better.”

 

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By the time Roger established himself, TV technology transitioned from film to video. It’s since gone to satellite uplinks and digital streaming.

“Now he’s shooting live shots alone with a tiny camera,” Dave marveled.

“No truck, no cables, no nothing,” Roger confirmed.

“As long as you’re in range of a cell tower, you can send a live picture anywhere,” Dave said, “It staggers my imagination.”

“There’s an app on my phone called TVU Anywhere,” Roger said. “All I have to do is to call into the station. They pull me up – and we’re on. It’s instantaneous.”

“I try to avoid saying, I wish we had that back when I was in TV,” Dave said, “but I do wish we had that. But what goes along with this is that you’re under more pressure.”

“Yeah,” Roger said, “the technology is phenomenal, but it’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is you can be live in a moment. The curse is the technology far exceeds our human capability of gathering information.”

Then there’s the rabbit hole of Google search results.

“With this avalanche of information you have access to, it can be overwhelming,” Roger said. “You have to determine when to stop because information overload can set in. There comes a point when you have to pull back and say, Okay, I know what I need to know.”

Roger’s grateful to have learned from a master like his father. “He’s a pioneer.”

A Wayne, Nebraska native, Dave Hamer segued from taking still photos in his hometown to stringing for KVTV in Sioux City. The eye he developed for composing portraits helped him transition to moving images.

A generation later his son Roger went from taking photos for the UNO Gateway and Papillion Times to breaking in at KMTV.

“The difficult part of going into motion (photography) was coming up with a closer,” Dave said. “You’ve told the story, but you have to have something at the end to cap it. You need the exclamation point.”

“Even now I struggle with closes.” Roger acknowledged.

They both love storytelling

“Every story’s got to have a beginning, middle and end. That’s utmost in television news,” Dave said. “You don’t just leave it hanging out there. I don’t think anybody ever told me how to do that. I just naturally fell into it.”

Both learned to cut in the camera.

Telling a story you pitched is preferred. “I had, and I think Roger has, the freedom to go to the front office and say, ‘Hey, this is a helluva story, We ought to do it.'”

Any excuse to get out of the newsroom.

“The daily routines never appealed that much to me,” Dave said. Same for Roger, who likes being “free from a desk” and “someone looking over my shoulder.”

Creativity and ineginuity come in handy on assignment.

“You run into situations you didn’t expect,” Dave said, “and you have to think on your feet, improvise and go with the flow. We always used to say, Have in mind where the story’s going to go but don’t be locked in because things will change. You’ll find better stuff than you imagined.”

When revisiting perennials, such as the winter’s first snowfall or spring flooding, Roger said, “the challenge is to make it  different from the story before or different from what your competition’s doing.”

“That’s the fun part of it.”

Then there’s following your instincts and, as Dave said, “making your own luck” by being where the action’s at and seeing-capturing what’s happening around you.

The year Roger was born, 1957, his father helped launch Omaha’s KETV on the air.

“I had been there only a week,” Dave said. “There were only four of us in the news department. Six days a week were the norm. Sometimes Sunday, too, It was a challenge and great responsibility, but also fun. You had to do everything – shoot it, write it, maybe voice it.”

He left KETV for KMTV, where he worked the bulk of his career and where his colleagues included future network stars Floyd Kalber and Tom Brokaw.

“What his generation did set the groundwork for what we do today,” Roger said admiringly. “The whole idea of visual storytelling – of stories that are concise, make sense, have impact, elicit emotion and are accurate.

“Today, I think we’ve lost a little bit of that desire to find out as much as we can and make it as accurate as possible. In the rush to get things on the air NOW, we don’t always have the information to back it up exactly.”

“That’s a helluva challenge.” said Dave.

Adding to it is an ever more competitive environment.

“Now,” Roger said, “it’s Channel 7 tweeted this or Channel 3 tweeted that. Personally, I don’t care because I live by what I learned from old pros Steve Murphy and Mark Gautier – ‘I don’t care about being first, I care about being right.’ That doesn’t seem to exist like it used to.

“It’s a matter of feeding the beast” – otherwise known as the 24/7 news cycle. “You have to do all this social media stuff my father’s generation didn’t have to worry about or deal with.”

When Dave Hamer started, there were just two newscasts per day. “and even with that and the technology being so much slower,” he recalled, “we were still pressed for time.” “I wrote for nine years the six and ten o’clock newscasts on Channel 3. You barely got six o’clock on the air before you started writing the ten o’clock. You were always up to the wire.”

Early news pioneers didn’t have access to the vast amounts of video-on-demand content Roger Hamer and his colleagues have at the ready on devices.

“It would take us three or four days,” Dave said.

Today’s constant content demands and deadlines can be exhausting.

“You just don’t have the longevity of people in the field   anymore,” Roger said. “People get burned out.”

Professionals with his equivalent experience in the biz, are “getting fewer and fewer,” he said, “and it bothers me because I don’t see the next wave of lifers coming up – and I wonder about that.”

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Oddities and happy accidents are bound to happen over careers as long as the Hamers. Once. Roger shot news footage of a pileup on an ice-covered section of Leavenworth Street south of downtown. “We sent it out to NBC,” he said. A couple weeks later the video showed up in an SNL skit.

“‘They pirated my video for entertainment purposes. It took a couple months, but I got 750 bucks out of them and gave them a tongue-lashing. How do you know people didn’t die in that crash? That blurring of the line between entertainment and news shouldn’t happen. Once you send video somewhere you don’t have any control over what happens to it. But even if i don’t send it, somebody else will. Many different people have access to my video than ever before.”

Standard protocol is for networks to ask local affiliates to provide video.

“Sometimes it was a bother because I’d be working on my piece for the six o’clock and they’d want something right now,” Dave said. “You would do everything you could to get it there.”

“It just may not be right now,” Roger said. “I’m not going to send it to them until we air it. My obligation is to my station first.”

Dave once fielded an NBC request for footage of a blizzard raging in Nebraska. They needed about a minute’s worth. He dutifully shot the storm.

“The network’s Huntley-Brinkley newscast switched to Omaha live. I was on the phone with the producer from New York. He told us when to roll the film. We’d built it logically to show the storm getting worse and worse. Well, the last shot came up and the film broke. We were on live coast-to-coast and I was like, Oh, my God. The producer comes on and says, ‘Great job, Omaha, Man. what a storm I couldn’t see anything in that last shot.’ We never told him.”

Memorably, Dave Hamer scooped the networks with his 1962 Vietnam reporting.

“The French had been kicked out in 1954. There was very little American involvement until about ’61 when we sent military advisers over. In April ’62 the first Nebraskan was killed in Vietnam – Army Special Forces Sergeant Wayne Marchand from Plattsmouth. He was wounded and captured in a firelight with the Viet Cong, then taken off and killed.

“We ran the wire story on the air. That was all we knew. Our general manager said, ‘What the hell was that all about? How come we’ve got people in – where is that place again? Within a month I was there because the front office said this is a story that should be told.”

Hamer and writer-producer Bob Fuller went as a two-man team.

“We did Marchand’s story, but while we were there we covered everything else we could find. We even did stories on Vietnam’s agricultural economy.”

The reporters stuck to a strategy.

“The first thing we did when we got in Saigon was check the overnight police reports for bombings, rocket fire at the airport and such to know what the hell was going on.

“We carried Department of Defense clearance paperwork that we never had to show. We had orders that allowed us to travel on military transport. If we couldn’t get military transport, we did what we could, even going by pedicab for God’s sake. Several times we hired a car with a driver. Sometimes we hired an interpreter. We could go anywhere we wanted. We checked in with the press office in Saigon when we got there and checked out when we left, They didn’t know where we were those three weeks. We were all over the country enmeshed in what was going on every day.”

Hamer and Fuller quickly learned U.S. involvement was larger than reported.

“There were 5,000 Americans in-country.. We went on helicopter support missions. Americans were flying planes and helicopters carrying South Vietnamese troops. The rule was fire only if fired upon,”

The entire western press corps in Vietnam then, he said, consisted of New York Times, AP and UPI correspondents, “and two guys from Omaha.”

“We had the whole story to ourselves. We did four half-hour documentary segments.”

The series was cited for special commendation by the Radio Television Council.

Fast forward three decades when Dave’s last major assignment took him to another war zone to cover Nebraska military personnel in Saudi Arabia.

Over time, he had offers to join the network in  Washington DC, New York and Paris, but he and his wife Verla deferred each time. They liked Omaha.

Roger Hamer “tested the waters” in other markets but stayed put.

Father and son “competed” when Dave was at WOWT and Roger at KMTV. They were briefly at WOWT at the same time but never covered a story together.

Roger said there’s much they share in common. “One thing we share is we’re not the story – the people are the story. Nobody wants to see us. They want to see the people living the experience.” They each derive satisfaction, he said, “just knowing that we did a good job and put a good story together.” “You get those four, five, six stories a year where you go, I nailed it. That’s what keeps you going.”

“We show up with a camera and people stop what they’re doing because they know you’re going to tell their story. It’s important to them,” Dave said.

“You have to be genuinely curious and caring and want to be involved in your community, and in telling the stories of its people,” said Roger, who, like his father, is grateful for the many fine collaborators he’s worked with. “It’s wonderful to work with people as passionate as you are and who are dedicated to their craft.”

A love for teaching is something else they share. “I found teaching very rewarding,” Dave said. “The satisfaction of sharing what you know and seeing the light bulb go off is a big part of it,” Roger said.

Not to be forgotten, Roger added, “We’ve both been blessed being married to very strong, supportive women that understood what we do and tolerated it.”

Dave and his late wife Verla were married 61 years. “Verla was interested in what we did and was our best promoter,” he said. The couple lost their other son, Dennis, to a coronary occlusion in 2002.

The quiet-spoken, TV news trailblazer gets choked up talking about family. “I’m very proud of this guy,” he said, clasping Roger’s knee. “Roger is his own man, has made his own reputation. and lives it every day on every story. He earned the Edward R. Murrow Award. I was never even close.”

Roger appreciates what his father’s given him – from leading Scouts canoe trips to being “a great mentor.” “He taught me that if I’m not trying, if I’m not pushing myself, if I’m not putting product out I’m happy with, then it’s time to walk away.”

There may not be a third-generation Hamer in the field  “Never say never,” cautioned Dave, a grandfather of two. Meanwhile, Dave writes a newsletter, Window on 53rd Street. he shares with family and friends. Like the man, it’s a warm, witty, sincere, humble take on a life         well-lived and a career well-earned.

Though louder and more outspoken than his father, Roger is a mensch among newsmen just like his old man. A passing of the torch has occurred in another way. Where Roger used to be asked, Are you any relation to Dave Hamer?, now Dave is asked, Are you related to Roger Hamer?

“Roger and me reversed roles.” Dave said. “I’m very proud to be asked if I’m related to Roger.”

“I’ve always been proud of my dad, ” Roger said. “He’s my hero.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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