Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Former KTRK 13 reporter Carlos Aguilar debuts new TV show

Veteran television journalist Carlos Aguilar was a reporter for KTRK 13 in Houston and the network level. One of the many things you might remember about Aguilar is how he tackled a suspect and held him for the police while covering a story.

Now he is the supervisor for the Houston Independent School District Media Services Television department.

His latest project is hosting a new interview show about HISD related topics. Aguilar talked to me over email about the show "Let's Talk About It" and some of the wild times in his television news career.

Mike McGuff: What kind of topics do you plan to cover on "Let's Talk About It?"
Carlos Aguilar: Anything that's topical in HISD - what's being discussed, considered, feared, celebrated. So far, we've done broadcasts on health care issues facing the district, teacher appreciation with Dr. Terry Grier talking about his most memorable teacher and the importance of great teaching; HISD's efforts to put effective teachers in classrooms; and what measures HISD is taking to guarantee the integrity of its e-rate compliance. The broadcasts range from 15 minutes to an hour in length.

MM: How did this show come about?
CA: Most people don't know that after I left TV news, I became a teacher and spent eight years in the classroom. Yet I still have a lot of "reporter" left in me, and I think the best way for me to do my job in HISD's communications effort is by staying current on what the administration and board are doing and thinking. Since board workshops and meetings are right here in the building where I work, I try to attend as many as possible.

While our weekday HISD News Today does a great job of covering breaking stories and special events in the district and on campuses, I was hearing a lot of discussion and some really interesting consultants and staff reports at these meetings that I thought deserved wider attention and time on our HISD cable channel. "Let's Talk About It" is really a simple dialog between me and one or more guests. I like to think of it as a way to make HISD more open and inclusive. On the effective teachers broadcast, for instance, two excellent consultants whom the district is using were in town for a board workshop. I was able to pull them into the studio for a conversation that we aired right away. Anyone who has an interest in the topic of hiring, developing and retaining excellent teachers would be interested in what they have to say.

Not to criticize print and broadcast media outlets, but they have limitations of space and time - and increasingly, staff resources. HISD has all kinds of means now - TV, a website, e-newsletter, for instance, a phone alert system - to get our own information out, and I think we have a responsibility to help produce informed teachers, staff, administrators, parents and students. We have state of the art facilities here, and we are getting better and better about using our technology to inform the hundreds of thousands of people who have an interest in the success of HISD.

MM: How is working for the district different than working as a TV reporter?
CA: I was a generalist as a reporter, and it's different to focus on one interest, and in my case, passion: public education. Even when I was a reporter, I usually spent at least three mornings or evenings each week in the schools working with at-risk youngsters and helping with parent engagement. I'm a great believer in young people, their families, and in public education, that it's our best hope for the future. I was raised by a single mother, dropped out of high school, earned a GED and after serving in the Army, put myself through community college and Trinity University while raising a family and eventually wound up as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University for a year.

A lot of people can relate to me and take hope from my story - and on most HISD campuses, when I talk to students and parents, I feel like I'm looking in the mirror. I'm by nature a positive person, and of course, as a journalist, you have to view everything with a jaundiced eye. You're always on the outside looking in. It's rewarding, being part of something important and using my experience to advance communications at HISD. There are hundreds of uplifting programs, individuals and accomplishments in this district that are good "stories" that deserve attention.  There are also very serious issues that don't attract enough attention and discussion.

I enjoyed the transition from TV news into the classroom (I taught at George I. Sanchez High School, a charter school, and HISD's Jefferson Davis High School). This job really combines both my careers, which is a blessing. And it's nice to be with two former colleagues who are also enjoying life-after-TV-news here at HISD - Norm Uhl, who's the district's spokesman; and Thom Dickerson, longtime reporter and outdoor editor for KTRK, who is a reporter/producer for HISD News Today.

MM: You made quite a mark on Houston TV journalism during your time at KTRK. What are some of your fondest memories of that time?
CA: That's kind of you to say. I haven't been on the air for KTRK for 15 years, and it's amazing how many people still recognize me and comment that they used to watch me. I have adults with children come up and tell me they remember me on Eyewitness News and speaking at their schools. The one thing that gets mentioned the most often happened 23 years ago, when I tackled and captured a hit-and-run suspect who had escaped from detention at a hospital. My cameraman was rolling as I grabbed him and we both tumbled into a bayou where I held him until police arrived. Channel 13 ran that over and over again and did promos on it, so it got imprinted on viewers' memories. I guess those were the Good Old Days of TV news.

When I first got here in 1987, we routinely covered every big story in this region, and I went to Mexico and Central America to cover stories about drugs and immigration several times, covered Pope John Paul, hurricanes, the Baby Jessica-down-the-well story, prison rioting in Louisiana, you name it. I had just come from being a correspondent for CBS News' national broadcasts, based in Dallas, and from my standpoint, it was nice to still be covering the "big" stories on occasion, but with a lot more airtime and feedback from viewers. What I remember the most, though, wasn't necessarily individual stories but the memory that being on the air at 13 in those days and being allowed to develop our own stories frequently brought attention to individuals and causes - and got them help - that they ordinarily wouldn't have received. There was also a tremendous camaraderie with some very talented people that will stay with me always.

MM: In your opinion, why has the television news business changed so much since you left?
CA: Most of it, I suppose, is economic considerations. After three contracts at KTRK, I was in that first wave of "older" reporters who, honestly, were making very good money, and whom the station replaced.  Houston has gone from being a place known for its stability with reporters 20 years ago to a revolving door market, just like most others. There are still familiar faces on the set every night, so the stations have been able to do this with their reporting staffs. There's a lot more competition for audiences, and people who want to be informed have many more options than they used to, so that's changed the economics of newsgathering and played a big part in changing TV news.

CBS News, where I worked, and ABC News, where my wife worked, have almost dismantled their newsgathering outside the New York-Washington, D.C. axis. And newsgathering has come full circle. I started out as a film cameraman in San Antonio TV news, then became a one-man band, shooting, reporting and editing pieces. That changed when I went to the network and worked at big stations like 13 and KDFW in Dallas. You had a cameraperson, you had an editor, sometimes a sound technician and a field producer. Now, increasingly, it's back to being one-person bands again. I've had to stay up with the technology - we all have, in order to survive. I'm shooting again - nice manageable digital cameras - and editing on Final Cut Pro, as well as still being on the air. And to promote my broadcast, I'm using social networking on Facebook and Twitter. You'd better know how to do it all.

MM: Anything else you want to add?
CA: Just that no one should despair for long when their careers change or fade. That seems to be the nature of contemporary society, with rapidly developing technology and a fluctuating economy. Don't ever let life get you down. Take every opportunity to learn new skills and stay open to change. There is nothing more important right now than improving public education, advocating for our students, and I'm proud to have a role in that by using the knowledge and skills I've accumulated in my 63 years of life. This isn't the direction I first took, but I'm proud of the journey and this destination.

Finally, I'd love to encourage people to sign up for our Facebook page for the broadcast, Let's Talk About It - HISD, and to follow us on Twitter at @letstalkHISD. Because of our broadcast scheduling - and because we're turning around these broadcasts quickly - it's the best way to know our topics, guests and airdates for anyone who's interested. And everyone should care about our schools.

To see the show, tune in to Comcast Channel 18 or ATandT U-Verse Channel 99/Houston Community TV/HISD.

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