Without even realizing it former radio news anchor Jeff Howatt helped me through a major on-air news presentation crisis I was going through.

Howatt was the afternoon news anchor at 104.5 CHUM-FM in Toronto, while I was the afternoon news anchor at DC 103.5 in Orangeville, Canada

In my opinion Howatt had the smoothest news presentation on a music radio station with a read that was flawless. He was a pleasure to listen to.

My afternoon newscasts were a disaster. Turning on the microphone turned me into an incredibly anxious person, and I couldn’t make it through a sentence in a news story without tripping over a word or five. Sensing my days were numbered I reached out for help.

An operations manager named Gerald Laing dissected the problems with my on-air sound and got me on the right track. I also began taking private vocal lessons with a vocal coach named Dorothy Leitch. At home my wife Trudy, who is a teacher and reading specialist, worked with me to improve my listening skills and understand what I was reading. Finally on my own I began listening to Jeff Howatt’s newscasts for their instructional value.

The Jeff Howatt Sessions, as I’ll call them, were part of my homework. I admired his work and wanted to listen to what he did in the hope that it would help me improve my news reading skills. In the industry we call this an “aircheck”.

I used to do this when I was a pre-teen. I used to record newscasts and commentaries by another CHUM news anchor, Dick Smyth.

But with Smyth I was a kid playing radio, The Jeff Howatt Sessions helped with the real world problems I was having and may have saved my job.

During my news shift I would record all of Jeff’s newscasts on CHUM-FM, onto cassette and I would listen to them, over and over, on my one hour commute home.

It’s an exercise I did seven days a week for quite some time.

What I listened for

The first thing I listened to was the entire newscast, as I was looking to see if I had the same stories and line up in my newscasts.

Then I would rewind the tape and listen again focusing on the pace of his read, including where he paused from one line to the next in a story, and how long the pauses were between stories. There were also times, and believe me this didn’t happen a lot, that he slightly stumbled over a word. He didn’t focus on the mistake, like I did during my reads, but kept going.

I would rewind again and this time pay attention to the line up of stories and how many there were in the newscast. How long was each story? Why were some longer than others? I also counted the words and sentences in each story and timed the length.

On the fourth listen, I would focus on the writing and how he structured the story. What was the lede line in the story? What was in the body of the story? How did he end the story?

The last time I rewound the cassette was at home where I would transcribe each newscast and read it out loud for practice. I wanted to see for myself what the newscasts he wrote looked like and hear my voice reading what he had written.

I listened to and read enough of his newscasts that I began implementing some of what I had learned in my own newscasts and it turned around what had been a bad on-air situation for me and my listeners.

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Jeff Howatt left and me at an RTDNA event in 2008.

RTDNA

Years later I met Jeff Howat at a Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) gathering in Ottawa, Canada.

I explained to him what I had done and how his on-air work had helped me during those troubling on-air times.

His reaction was humble and he said something like, “What are you thanking me for – you’re an award winner?”

Sure, winning a Murrow was great but Jeff Howatt had more of an impact on my on-air performance.

The combination of receiving regular airchecks along with the Howatt homework was a positive turning point in my career.

Continue reading “Blog: The Jeff Howatt Aircheck Sessions”