Al Whitaker

There's no single favorite memory, no defining moment I can draw upon to represent my time at channel 31. But there are a few moments that stand out, like the night Kevin Athow and I launched bottle rockets at another employee from the roof or the station… Another night, he laid some "Snap-n-Pops" on the floor of the restaurant where we'd stopped for dinner. A waitress stepped on one or two and within a few minutes workers were taking the ceiling tiles down looking for the source of the popping noise… The early morning live shots with Rob Ballard, including the morning he had me perched on the railroad crossing sign high over Church Street at the depot. It really pisses off the railroad folks when you do that… Jeremy Woosley's "By the WAAY-side List"… Cactus Gay and the Christmas parties… Flying through the eye of Hurricane Bertha with Gary Dobbs… Learning in the middle of an interview at city hall Athow's wireless mic was on the same frequency as the wireless mic in the Huntsville City Council chambers, it took us several moments to figure out why so many people were running towards us waving their arms…

The night Decatur Police threatened to arrest me for aiming the laser pointer towards city hall (I didn't know it was the magistrate standing outside, she thought someone was pointing a gun at her)… The day Adrian announced it was so clear outside he could see the back of his own head… Friday Night Football and the food cams… And the night the coach stepped into my shot of a running back making a touchdown. That night on the air I tried to say, "Folks, don't adjust your set, that's the coach's shirt." But for weeks after that, several times a day, people would come up to me and say, "Hey Al, don't adjust your shit!" Pierre Kimsey was in the bureau that night, and if you play the tape back and listen carefully you can hear him laughing to the point he was struggling for air.

…The day I renewed my contract and drove back to Florence to cover a tornado strike. Later that evening, Alex Lynch and I would return to Huntsville and spend the night doing live shots along Airport Road, where another tornado had hit. The temperatures plummeted below freezing and after I'd shivered through several miserable hours of live shots, a man walked up with two heavy work coats he'd brought from home saying he had been watching and could tell how cold we were. He'd walked several blocks from where he had to leave his car to find us. We only saw the guy a few seconds, just long enough for it to sink in why he was there and just as abruptly as he arrived he turned and walked away. I have no idea who he was, but every time I think of that horrible night, I see his face, and Alex's as we put those jackets on…

Speaking of Kimsey, he invaded the Decatur Bureau for what seemed like months, searching daily for one of those off-the-wall feature stories… His mind seemed to be elsewhere much of the time. You knew when you had his attention, and there was no point talking to him if you didn't.

He and photographer Tommy Gamble produced a story once that had Pierre trying to deliver a news tape to the bureau for me to feed to Huntsville for the next newscast only an hour or so away. We relocated most of my office from the sixth floor of the AmSouth Bank Building to the third, where there was a balcony.

At about the time I'm on the phone explaining to Mark McGee, "If Pierre doesn't get here within the next few minutes, that story's not going to make it," Pierre is standing outside the locked bank building looking nervously between his wristwatch and up to my office window when he spies the answer to his dilemma: The janitor's cart, complete with two toilet plungers he'll use to scale the outside of the building up to my sixth floor window. It was classic Kimsey and the finished piece was not only hilarious, but the sequence of him scaling the building with those two plungers was absolutely believable! That was key to Kimsey's genius; he would loose himself in these ideas and solve every minute detail long before the camera was turned-on.

To achieve the shot of Kimsey pulling himself up the side of the building, he and Gamble went across the street to Decatur City Hall where the tone and texture of the sidewalks resembled that of the bank building's exterior. Gamble positioned his camera on an upper floor patio of city hall shooting almost straight down upon Pierre, who simply crawled up and down the sidewalk with the two plungers as though he were pulling himself along. When that shot was blended with a static shot of the bank building, it really did look like Pierre was inching his way up using nothing more than those plungers.

Pierre was apparently too caught-up in the details of the shoot to consider talking with the folks in City Hall, including the police, about his plans. So caught-up, that when the man who first saw Pierre crawling along the sidewalk that way asked if he was alright, Pierre barely looked up long enough to mumble part of an explanation he hoped would send this good Samaritan on his way, something about "scaling the building" the man told police. Within moments, Pierre had crawled up on two highly polished pair of black leather shoes. This time he stopped and raised his head, eventually looking up and directly into the faces of two Decatur Police Officers.

"Sir, I know you probably have a logical explanation," one of them started, but Pierre was already speaking to them in incomplete sentences, trying perhaps to draw the officers into the moment in hopes they may appreciate the creativity of the plan, or something like that. And it might have worked except Tommy had stepped back to light a cigarette. So, when Pierre came to that part of the explanation, and there was no photographer up on the patio, he and the plungers were promptly led away.

The next day, as I went from one office to the next to apologize for the disturbance, I was told word of the "maniac on the sidewalk" had spread through the building quicker than fire with one office calling the next, and so on. Even before the police got to Pierre, work on all 12 floors at city hall had stopped as employees pressed against windows on that side of the building for a view. For a few brief moments, they honestly believed he was going to try to scale the outside of their building with nothing but a pair of plungers…

[ Editor's note: mentioning the blooper tape where a reporter does a break-in during Rosie for a fire at the bottom of Monte Sano at a lumber yard, she was put on camera and said, "Oh S@it!" I asked who it was. He's Al's answer and some more prank stuff]

Hi MD... The "Oh sh#t" reporter is Susan Holley. She worked for us for a few years before the family sold the station. I don't remember the story she had been sent to cover... A fire or maybe explosion at the fireworks factory... But they were setting up for the live shot and in the split second before she went on the air, there was a car crash just a few feet away from her. What we saw on the air was her reaction to the crash, and just as quickly as she popped up and exclaimed, "Oh sh#t!", she was gone. It took everyone several minutes to recover to the point they could put her back on the air to explain what was going on. Again, could be mistaken, but I believe Kevin Athow could have been the shooter.

Kevin, by the way, had some wonderful video he had collected over the years. When I worked the evening shift with him, we would often go to one another's home after work for a beer and some conversation to wind down from the day. At his house, he would load a tape in his VCR and wait for the top of the hour... It was while we were doing the top of the hour news cut-ins, 24-hour news. Some of the people who would read those 30-60 second news breaks were rather green and Kevin took great delight in screwing around with them. He'd record the cut-in, and as they went on the air, call the desk they were sitting next to. Of course, it would un-nerve the hell out of the person and they'd stumble through their cut-in. Next hour, he'd call a different desk, always very close to where they were sitting. It got to be quite comical. He had also been rather diligent in collecting and saving some of our bloopers and outtakes. I haven't asked him about the tapes in a while, but the ones I saw back then were absolutely hilarious.

© 2003 Smith Broadcasting, Inc. [update 7-10-2003]