Friday, July 19, 2013

Flashback Friday: Success in 60 Minutes

(Once upon a time, specifically Aug. 8, 1994, The News Herald published this profile of longtime Bay County resident John Hamlin, who traveled the world as a producer for CBS 60 Minutes. We had a nice interview at a downtown restaurant, and afterward John asked me to delay running the article for a while because of personal reasons; an editor ran it anyway, about a week earlier than John had asked. He called to thank me for publishing it early, as shortly after that his mother had died, and if the story had been held any longer, she wouldn't have seen it. She was rightfully very proud of him, and he was glad she had seen the article and knew her friends and family would see it too. He joined CMT in 2007, where he serves as Senior Vice President for Music Events and Talent.)

Success in 60 Minutes

Former Bay resident credits luck, timing and more in becoming producer for TV's top news magazine

John Hamlin, CMTPress.com
John Hamlin grew up in Bay County and visits his family here twice a year.

That is, when he's not chasing Mexican guerrillas in the high jungles, chatting with Mick Jagger about the 1994 Rolling Stones tour, or setting up a prison interview with Mike Tyson for his boss, Ed Bradley of CBS-TV's 60 Minutes.

Hamlin, 33, talked about his on-the-job adventures during a recent trip home. His parents are retired U.S. Air Force Col. Ralph E. and Mary Bruce Hamlin of Callaway.

Hamlin is one of five producers on Bradley's news team, each of whom is challenged to create five quality stories each season. Last year, he got interviews for Bradley with an ex-undercover agent for the DEA, a retired U.S. army colonel who became Commander-in-Chief of the Estonia military, "parachute" lawyers who specialize in disaster lawsuits, and a Mexican rebel leader.

This year, he's putting together stories on international arms deals, the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam and a "secret" story he can't discuss yet.

Hamlin considers the Mexico piece on Subcomandante Marcos his personal "coup," having made two excursions into the jungle to secure Bradley the interview. After arriving at the appointed meeting place — about four hours' drive into the jungle — the crew was told Marcos could not do the interview.

That night, as Bradley slept in the jeep and the crew slept around a camp fire, armed guerrillas in ski masks and bandoleras surrounded them. They were rousted out and hustled into an abandoned school building. Minutes later, Marcos appeared, finally ready to talk.

"His English isn't the best, and he said, 'Good night. I am Subcommandante Marcos.' We offered him something to drink and he said, 'You have Boodweiser?'"

Hamlin said the interview that resulted will be re-run in mid-August, just in time for the Mexican elections.

LUCKY BREAKS?

Hamlin's family first came to Bay County when his father was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base during John's sixth-grade year. They returned to settle in Callaway when his father retired. He attended Rutherford High School and Gulf Coast Community College, where he was a DJ on WKGC.

"I was a really terrible disc jockey, but it was fun, and I figured out I could interview people," Hamlin said. "I would talk to bands when they came into town and run the interviews during my show."

One of his real talents was shooting stills of rock bands, Hamlin said. A photo of his appeared on a Journey album cover and he had a small article published in Rolling Stone. "But I was a better photographer than writer," he said.

After getting his degree in journalism from the University of South Florida, Hamlin began looking for jobs in TV news all over the Southeast.

"Charlie Wooten at KGC told me Channel 7 had better equipment and Channel 13 had better people. I chose the people, but the equipment (was bad). We literally used Band-Aids to keep things together," Hamlin said. "Of course, it isn't like that now."

He shot, wrote and edited two reports a day for three years, motivated by two factors: "beat Channel 7 and do good work so I could move on to a network."

"My only dilemma now is figuring out a way to get 60 Minutes to let me have a Panama City Beach bureau. Panama City is a great place to work and live, but I couldn't be an anchor; I looked young, I didn't have good delivery. So I couldn't make a good living on the air."

A stint at ESPN followed, including a job as Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles office, during which he won an Emmy for feature production. Then CBS Sports hired him to produce feature segments and studio shows for the French Olympics in 1990. During the hiatus between Olympics, he convinced his superiors to let him work on Bradley's Street Stories.

"I had helped design the coverage of boxing on ESPN, so I had great boxing contacts and I knew Tyson," Hamlin said. "I convinced him and his lawyer to let us to a full hour on Street Stories."

Street Stories ended shortly thereafter and Hamlin returned to the sports division. With 18 months still to go before Olympics work geared back up, he produced packages for NFL Today, which won him another Emmy.

When he discovered Bradley had an opening on his 60 Minutes staff, Hamlin applied. Certain he would not be hired, he rehearsed his gracious thanks for even being considered. Instead, Bradley called and asked him when he could start. He was working a week later.

"Clearly, the jumps from here to ESPN to CBS Sports to 60 Minutes are huge jumps, and luck and timing played a part," Hamlin said. "Luck and timing might get you the job, but won't keep you the job."

BEHIND THE SCENES

Because Hamlin was hired halfway through the production season, Bradley told him to start working on shows for the following year. Many producers will set up profiles of movie stars to have stories "in the can" whenever the stars release a new movie or come back into the news.

Unlike a movie producer, whose job is to secure funding for the production, a news producer acts as a reporter. He or she makes the contacts, does the research, writes the questions and works in the post-production phase. Bradley's job in the equation is to ask the questions on-air, rewrite some of the narration and questions, and use his charisma to capture the audience.

"The hardest part of the job is coming up with stories," Hamlin said. "That's why I hated being an assignment manager. They say you're only as good as your last story, but I think you're only as good as your next one."

Hamlin said the staff members of 60 Minutes are highly competitive with one another, but also very supportive. That doesn't mean they cover for each other, though.

"There's not much baby-sitting with new people. They didn't become the top show on television by hand-holding. There's a level of quality that's required, and a lot of self-inflicted pressure," Hamlin said. "I don't think anyone denies we all want the show to succeed, and that means being proud of the work other people do. But make no mistake, everyone wants to get the great stories."

Despite the current glut of news-magazine shows on TV, Hamlin said 60 Minutes remains the legend of the genre.

"There's no secret why it's the Number One show on TV. These people are master storytellers," Hamlin said. "The strength of what we do is in the writing and the storytelling, not fancy special effects."

For now, Hamlin and his wife, the former Angela Wiggins of Panama City, are enjoying a few days of relaxation. Hamlin said one of his favorite things to do when in town is, "sitting on the back deck at Schooners drinking a beer. Does it get any better than that? It reminds me why I keep coming back here."

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