John Steed retired from WBTV after spending 51 years as a cameraman. From film to video, from news to commercials, Steed has shot it all. “I am a little different animal,” Steed says. “I like change. I like learning new things. In fact, I told people if I don’t learn something new every day I feel like it has not been a good day.”
John Steed retired from WBTV on Friday, Oct. 4, after spending 51 years at Gray’s CBS affiliate in Charlotte, N.C. I got a note from Robby Thomas, WBTV’s creative services director, alerting me about John.
“He’s one the nicest people in our building and has relentlessly kept up with the changing technology throughout the decades to remain a valuable member of our team,” said Thomas. “He has patiently coached generations of producers and is responsible for so many positive client relationships on the sales side. We hate to see him go, but obviously wish him nothing but the very best!”
Fifty-one years at one TV station shooting and editing news, commercials, documentaries, whatever, you know how it is, this was someone I wanted to talk to.
Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with John Steed who told me that now he plans to refurbish a 1970 British racing car.
Greeley: John, if I did my math right, you started at WBTV in 1968, is that right?
Right, June the eighth 1968.
What were you hired to do?
I started out in High Point, N.C., as a news photographer and then I moved here after the assistant news director called me and said they had an opening. So I came down here as a news photographer. At that time, the reporters were shooting for each other. They would go out in twosomes and on one story, the reporter would do the reporting and the other reporter would shoot it. So that is how they were operating and then they decided they were going to go to the photographer route and called me and I was the first news photographer they hired.
What were you shooting on?
When I first came here, they had just converted to color film with magnetic sound track. We were shooting with Arkon cameras, ones that had been converted to take a 400-foot Mitchell magazine.
How much time would a 400-foot magazine allow you?
About 10 minutes or so. Then we had this Bell and Howell camera. It was spring loaded, you had to wind it up and you would get about a 30-second run off of a full line and that would be two and a half minutes there on a 100-foot reel. That would be about right 10 minutes for a 400-foot roll.
So you started out as a news photographer. That must have been exciting.
Yeah it really was because when I came to Charlotte I really had not done a whole lot of traveling. So in 1968, I went to most of the national political conventions in Miami and I think the Republican was in Miami and the Democratic convention was in Chicago where they had the riots.
So you were there?
Yeah, but we stayed away from the riots. We let CBS handle that and we stayed pretty much with our local delegates.
How long were you a news photographer?
That was until 1973. That is when I moved over to the programming department and got out of the news business and start shooting commercials, documentaries and we were doing all kinds of shows back then.
Were you still shooting on film in 1973?
Yeah we were still shooting on film.
So once you shot the film, you brought it back to the station. Then in the editing process I guess you had a Steenbeck?
When I moved over to the programming department, I’m talking them into getting us an eight-plate Steenbeck editing bench. Then I talked them into letting me get Magna-Tape recorders so we could mix our own audio before we went downstairs because we were having trouble getting a good audio mix.
I look back on when I started and you had to go downstairs into production in order to do something simple, like a dissolve. You were relying on the A/B role.
We had a grocery store and we did a commercial for them and it needed an effect at the end. I mean it is a simple effect when you look at today’s editing, but the only way we could do it was to take the footage to the optical house in New York and have them print it for us. But now that I look back, and see what we were doing when we went to Avid and Premiere Pro. All those things are so simple. It is unbelievable.
So that was 1973 and you were in programming and sales, shooting local commercials. How long did you do that, for the rest of your career?
Well it has been pretty much the rest of my career. But then, the promotion department didn’t have photographers or editors per se. In fact, in the ’70s they had a still photographer. So they were not shooting much film at that point.
How about the sales? Would you say that most of what you were doing from 1973 on involved making local TV commercials? How important is it to have somebody like you to help the local advertisers create a spot?
When the emphasis is on new business and you have got all these small clients out there that are wanting to advertise, but they can’t afford a big production on commercials, it is very important. It’s a big part of our sales department to produce commercials for the clients who don’t have commercials. They found, over the years, if you do the commercials, you kind of have some control over the air buy.
That is exactly right. They might buy on the other stations, but you tend to get the lion’s share. Not only that, but it helps build a stronger relationship, I think, with the advertiser. You have an ‘in’. You know what I mean?
Oh yeah, you really do. I mean we have got several car dealerships that we have been doing since the early ’90s and late ’80s and one of them is just like a regular friend. Most of these small clients, they have no experience in advertising and so they look for our sales folks and our writer/producers to help educate them and steer them in the direction that will give them the most benefit for the money they are spending. We have developed, over the years, like brands or looks and feel that the client likes and got good reception for, and stuck with it for quite a while.
Yeah well, that is the key to marketing. You find something that works and you are consistent with it. It is a look and feel that the audience recognizes and feels good about.
Sometimes it’s the music that you use over and over. They will hear that theme song or whatever and instantly they will know what client it might be.
So how many TV commercials do you think you have written and produced?
Oh God. Over the years, I have no idea.
So I guess you have seen a lot of young producers come in. According to the note I got, it says you have kept up with the changing technology. Did you embrace it?
Yes I did. I am a little different animal or something. I like change. I like learning new things. In fact, I told people if I don’t learn something new every day I feel like it has not been a good day. Whenever we were shooting film and starting the transition to videotape, I remember some of the film guys said, I don’t want to go that route. Eventually, if they stayed in the business, they had to learn to shoot video because that is the way everything pretty much has gone. I have enjoyed it.
You have been responsible for coaching generations of producers. Do they look at you like the old man?
Like I am a dinosaur or something? Yeah, but I have been pretty lucky. These folks have been real good to work with and they have accepted what I would tell them.
As a photographer, what was your favorite thing to shoot?
I think that one of the best assignments I had was, in 1970, we started a thing called Carolina Camera. That was in the news department when I was working there. It was kind of like Charles Kuralt’s On The Road, where we would travel around North and South Carolina. We had a moonshiner from up in the mountains. He was a character. He had a still, he would fire the still up and we went through the whole deal of him making some corn liquor. And he played the banjo. He was picking the banjo and dancing all at the same time. So that was one of my favorite shoots. Also, in the ’70s, we would go to New York once or twice a year to film the fall fashions or the spring fashions at the Plaza Hotel and that was always fun.
WTTG/WDCA-TV, the Fox-owned affiliate in Washington, D.C. is seeking a seasoned creative services producer to conceptualize, write and produce dynamic promotional spots that promote our programming while reinforcing and expanding the stations brand and image.
This is a fast-paced, large market environment. The qualified candidate must work effectively within specific time constraints and in conjunction with producers, department management, newsroom and station personnel. Duties include, but are not limited to: project development & execution, writing, producing and editing of on-air topicals, show promotions, sales promos, station image campaigns, and digital content. Click here for more specifics and how to apply.