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Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Mike Capps: From KPRC to WFAA, ABC and CNN

Mike Capps is the play by play voice for the Round Rock Express, but you should hear about his reporter life before baseball working for KPRC 2, WFAA 8, ABC News and CNN

We are celebrating 15 year of the blog this week if you can believe that.  

So to honor this anniversary,  we talk to legendary journalist Mike Capps who worked his way up from KPRC 2 in the 70s, to WFAA 8 in Dallas - Fort Worth, ABC News and CNN.

All the Round Rock Express fans who now listen to Capps's play by play work, might not realize his deep history in broadcast journalism.

Mike McGuff: Take us back to the early days of your time at KPRC (please include dates when you were there).  From your memory, how did the three stations rate back then? 

Mike Capps:  Hi Mike, thanks for the invitation and for spending time with me. I feel honored you thought of me. Ray Miller hired me out of the CBS affiliate in Beaumont, Texas to become the night police reporter in August of 1974.  I spent the next six years at Channel 2, mostly under the tutelage of Miller, then Larry Weidman before a fellow named Mike Casserly took over and purged the place. I was asked to leave by Casserly almost 6 years to the day from when Miller hired me.  

As much as I hated to leave, it turned out to be for the best career-wise, but the beautiful thing about all that is...we still have those friendships and camaraderie from those days at Channel 2.  As a result, Lyn Salerno a former staffer, heads up Channel 2 Reunions in January of each year and we really, I am afraid to say, behave a lot like we did when we were kids.  Joyous reunions they are.  And so many great stories, most of which are true, always fly back and forth amongst us.

  Look, Mike, in those days when you're 23 years old, and a young reporter in Texas, everyone like me already knew what a kick-ass legend Ray Miller was in that great town, at that great station...AND ANYBODY WITH ANY SPARK OR SALT WANTED TO WORK FOR HIM.  When he hired me, the hiring ranks in the top three biggest thrills I had in my 22 year news career. I mean died and gone to heaven thrilled! 

Legendary begins the tale of Miller.  Consummate, demanding, relentless, tireless, hot tempered, fearless, but as competitive as they come, and always looking for ways to improve himself and all of us.  In those days, we found ourselves in a nose to nose battle with KTRK, Channel 13 and Marvin Zindler.  Back and forth and back and forth in the ratings, and talk about pressure.  Wow!  Every single time we beat them on a story meant bragging rights for us and vice versa.  Big time rivals, BIG time!   But so much fun.  

Remember these years featured the Joe Campos Torres death at the hands of the police, riots at Moody Park where our Jack Cato and Phil Archer were stabbed covering violence during Cinco de Mayo, police officers and some police brass in trouble for various and sundry things.  Police chases, mass murders, I ran at least two dozen drug raids with Houston Police and Harris County Sheriff's officers, discussions, sometimes heated with one of the best human beings I ever met, former Houston Police Chief Harry Caldwell, Skylab's return to earth, and a thousand other stories I was so fortunate to cover.  

Great people to work around, besides Ray and Larry Weidman, like Archer, like Cato, Napoleon Johnson, Alan Parcell, Ted Shaw, Doug Johnson, Fred Edison, Paul Flannagan, the late Bob Brandon, Charley Scott, John Treadgold, Ron Stone, Larry Rasco, Bill Worrell...what a great group of top flight professionals for a young kid like me to work around.  Hard to hang with the likes of those folks at first, but being with them made so much of a difference in the way my career played out, and the competition with KTRK was a huge part of the fun of being there in those days.

What was it like working for the Hobby family?  

I had the good fortune to work for two of THE greatest families in the history of Texas television; the Hobby family at Channel 2, and the Dealey family that for years ran WFAA in Dallas.  I thought Olveta Culp Hobby was such a dear, wonderful and supremely accomplished woman, who supremely valued journalism as witnessed by the Hobby ownership of both the Houston Post and KPRC.  

There's a great story about one of my ALL TIME greatest screw ups and unfortunately...or fortunately it involves Mrs. Hobby.  Early, early one summer morning a fire broke out in downtown Houston at a chemical warehouse, where Toyota Center now stands.  Fire went to four alarms quickly, then got completely out of control.  I was using a film camera in the days right before Channel 2 went all video cameras, and when help arrived, I raced down the Southwest Freeway to drop off film for processing for the morning newscasts.  I pulled into the breezeway housing the huge trucks used for football games at the dome, parked my news car and ran inside.  Was not in the station for more than ten minutes and as I came back out, someone in a big black Lincoln Continental (I believe) had hemmed me into the garage and I couldn't escape.  I was probably 25 years old, with a spring loaded case of the red ass and a temper to match and at that point of the morning was adrenaline charged because of the fire, and needed to get back down to the action.  I threw open the door of the station screaming something like, "Who is the______hell was so stupid they parked their_____, _____vehicle behind ME???"   Mrs. Hobby stuck her head out from behind the door to the newsroom and said, "My, my Michael, are we a little upset this morning?  "Well, excuse me, but it was me," she said,  "and I will have the car removed so you can get on with your business."  No sarcasm, not upset, not riled at me and my fit, and the next time we saw each other she laughed as she talked about it.  But boy, I tell ya.  When I left the place that morning and headed back to the fire, I just knew she'd get me fired..but no sir, she didn't. WHEW!   No one like Mrs. Hobby.  Ever.

When you worked at WFAA, it was one of the top stations in the country.  Based on your website resume, it looked like you travelled to wherever the stories were (even if not in DFW that day).  You also appeared to supervise a large staff.  Talk about the legacy, resources and news ratings that station had.  

Mike, WFAA went through years of news doldrums in the 60s and 70s because the CBS affiliate in Dallas at that time, KRLD-TV had a terrific staff led by a fellow named Eddie Barker who was a dear friend of my dad's, and along with Bill Mercer who was a reporter there, and later the original voice of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys...those two guys were great newsmen and great people and even greater friends with my dad. Their news shop was first rate, and they hired the first female anchor in Texas, I believe it was in 1967, a lady named Judy Jordan who is no longer with us, but a great reporter and news reader and a ratings hit.

  BUT...WFAA's fate changed in 1973 when they hired a fellow from CBS in New York, a news manager and University of Missouri grad named Marty Haag.  Haag went to work recruiting the best news people he could find, gave them beat reporting assignments just like newspapers in those days.  He also, insisted to management that not only would his people cover Dallas - Ft. Worth news like a blanket, but because of WFAA's cable penetration all over Texas, into Oklahoma, Arkansas, parts of New Mexico and Louisiana, they'd compete all over the southwest and chase stories that involved people from the southwest all over the world.  And that's what happened.  

Haag first brought in a group of people from the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City who had investigative reporting experience, and he hired anchors both male and female that were really first rate, and they all went to work building what turned out to be a juggernaut.  George Foster Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards out the wazoo...and by the time I got there (my first day was the day Reagan was shot in DC), in early 1981, they were rolling.  We'd send crews to stories all over the U.S. in Learjets, just like the networks and often beat the networks on stories we were covering alongside them.

As intense as Ray Miller was, Haag was just as intense if not more so.  Reporters were required to generate their own stories from their beats.  Haag created competitive tension in that shop and while some folks didn't like it, I thought it was a huge motivating tool and apparently it worked.  Some pretty well known names from that shop, 22 of us in all, went to networks from WFAA.  And gosh, the reputation just built from that. 

After you were the first affiliate reporter to lead ABC World News Tonight on both coasts for your WFAA Hurricane Alicia coverage, how much did this play into your hiring at ABC as the Deputy Bureau Chief/Assignments Manager of its Midwest Bureau in the mid 80s?  

After that Hurricane Alicia coverage, I received a phone call from Peter Jennings who was extremely laudatory about those pieces from Houston I did. And then two days after I got back, a dear fellow and then ABC VP for News, George Watson, flew to Dallas and took me to dinner.  And we came close to a correspondent's deal, but for one reason or another, it never worked out.  

That said, I think the real key to me going to CNN had to do with Marty Haag's relationship with a fellow named Ed Turner (no relation to Ted) who ran CNN's day to day operation at that time.  Ed, had seen my work, the ABC piece on World News Tonight, and because WFAA was also carrying an affiliation with CNN then, saw me on some of the stuff I did at WFAA.   

When I went to Atlanta to sign my deal with CNN, Ed mentioned the Hurricane Alicia story and wanted to tell me some details about it...but I have to be completely honest here:  Had I not worked at KPRC, Channel 2 for those years as a cop beat reporter, and had I not known the streets of Houston and Galveston like the back of my hand, that report that played on ABC might never have happened.  The ABC charge producer happened to see my piece being fed up to Dallas from Houston, took me aside, had me record a "Mike Capps, for ABC News, Houston," tag line and that was that.  I don't think it was great reporting that sent that piece to air on ABC as much as it was the luck of having worked at Channel 2 and knowing my way around.  Lucky more than good.  Wow.  That's the REAL story.

As far as the ratings went...television news in those days was so different from what we have now.  Essentially in markets like Houston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. had three network affiliate news departments competing for ratings superiority.  More importantly, our viewership wasn't watered down by 200 cable or internet channels running dozens and dozens of different types of programming 24 hours a day.  Local news in those days carried a huge amount of import in cities across the country than it does now. People watched and talked about it...called in to complain.  If people had a gripe about something, we heard about it, and sometimes while having dinner at local restaurants.    I just have the feeling that local anchors especially were bigger celebrities in our day than now.  Both local newspapers in Dallas-Ft. Worth had TV and radio critics and they covered all of us like a blanket and fired salvos at us whenever they disagreed with anything they saw on the air.

Here's the other thing...the ratings battle in Dallas- Fort Worth in those days was essentially WFAA leading, but early in my years there (I was in Dallas-Ft. Worth, at WFAA, off and on for 10 years), the race involved us and KDFW, formerly KRLD-TV, the CBS affiliate then (now it's FOX). They had Chip Moody as their main anchor, and folks remember him fondly from his days first at KXAS, the NBC affiliate at DFW...then with us and then to Houston.  We had Tracy Rowlett, Iola Johnson and John Criswell as the main anchors...and the ratings were always close...the audience percentages were high....sometimes we'd have a 40 share and win it by two points....sometimes they'd win...and sorta like in the Houston days with channel 2 and 13...always extremely competitive.  But the audience percentages were huge then given what they are now...toward the end of my run...right before I left for CNN...KXAS really became more competitive and that fact really tightened the race.

CNN was growing fast when you worked there.  What was that explosive growth like as a reporter working there?  

Mike, it was exciting.  When CNN first got started a lot of folks in the industry used pejoratives, calling it "Chicken Noodle News," etc...but I will tell you this, I knew it was special when Ed Turner told me their mission statement on the day he hired me, and once we hit the road (first story was a tanker explosion off Galveston...another great, 'Capps lucks out deal,' because I knew all the folks in Galveston who could lead us to the right spots, to the right people, and the story became better because of it).

 And then, that same year, going to Wichita, Kansas and Baton Rouge for the abortion-anti abortion battles on the capital steps in both cities...was a huge eye opener when dozens of people would come up to me the next day making comments (some printable, some not) about "CNN's coverage."  

But one more exciting factor that told me CNN was there with the big boys, came on my first junket overseas covering the runup to the Gulf War.  At the airport in London...CNN on all the terminal television sets.  In Saudi Arabia--CNN.. Amsterdam, Paris...people coming up to me asking if I was going into or out of the war zone.  

Hey, I never got in the news business for the self aggrandizement, but these people knew who I was...which told me two things.  1). They knew who I was because they were watching CNN ALL the time, and 2) That meant CNN was on people's minds all over the world.

CNN really became a big news player during the first Gulf War, talk about your experiences covering this.

   Mike, I went to Saudi Arabia in November of 90 during the runup to the war called Desert Shield.  We travelled all over Saudi doing stories on U.S., Saudi, and Egyptian military preparations for the war, spent nights in the desert with shave-talk Marines, some 19 years old, scared to death.  

We had a run-in with the Saudi social police who tried to harass the female producer and the female photographer who was working with me.  We somehow avoided an international incident after I had grabbed a social policeman, when he tried to push one of the females to the ground.  He went to the ground.  Flat....but I guess the Ministers of Information who accompanied us, decided we were not going to put up with such, and I never saw another one of those guys again.  We covered stories about Saudi families preparing for war, small, quaint little towns getting ready, kids in schools.  

Then I was mustered out in January, missed the 44 hours of the war itself, but was sent back less than two weeks after I came back to the states, to the mountains of northern Iraq, covering the plight of the Kurdish refugees who had been forced out of their homes by the Republican Guard, and onto those mountains.  It was cold up there...a lot of older people and babies died...and we did stories on all of that with Medicines San Frontiers. 

And then there were numerous pieces on the Kurdish Militia, the Peshmerga.  These young Kurdish men, trained by the British Royal Marines, took on Republican Guard in firefights...wild and wooly.  In conversations with these kids the Pesh, they'd tell us how much they valued helping freedom come back to their mountains, how they loved Americans and wanted to become Americans...some of them died, unfortunately, but all extremely brave.  Then on the last day in theatre, several of us from different news organizations showed up at a northern Iraq town that supposedly had been liberated, but when we arrived on the outskirts of the town, we were stopped and turned around by Republican Guard.  

Probably twenty of and two others from CNN, NPR, BBC, Sky News, CBS, CBC and others...we all met up on the main road, and within minutes, two truck loads of Republican Guard, with bayoneted AKs, surrounded us, and I thought for all the world we'd be killed or taken captive.  Over one of the hills came two WartHog, tank fighter jets, scared those guys away...we got in the car and hauled ass to Ankara and headed home. End of the story of the Gulf War for me....and lucky to still be alive.

(Capps also just contributed to my Branch Davidian standoff remembered by Texas TV journalists who were there in Waco post.  He was working for CNN at the time. You can click the headline link to read his memories from that Texas tragedy.)

Please talk about your broadcasting career for The Round Rock Express.  What was it like moving from hard news to sports calling?  

Mike, I suffered some extremely serious stress issues as a result of seeing people blown apart for years and it finally caught up to me. 

 I woke up in the middle of the night, with the bed post in my hand, and had busted my head wide open.  I had suffered from stress, anger issues, etc., and needed help.  If you think there's not a God in Heaven--the therapist who helped dig me out of the mental morass was a 4 tour-Vietnam side gunner on a helicopter, and licensed Presbyterian Lay Minister.  We had to break it down to basics, mentally, and start all over.   

In another life, I played baseball in junior college and the game never really left me.  I worked as a part time scout for Red Murff, the man who discovered and signed Nolan.  I helped him with tryout camps, and took assignments looking at players, when he needed me and I had time off from news.  I repeatedly told him that one day I was going to shut it down in the news business and write a book with him.

After I got into therapy, I left CNN, wrote the book, The Scout: Searching for the Best in Baseball, with Red, and away we went.  Promoting the book in Spring Training '96 in Arizona, we had Red on the air with Bob Starr, the late Angels broadcaster and Bob did a magnificent job working Red's interview in and out of the play by play and I swear I kept hearing a voice in my head..."you can do this, you can do this."  In between innings I asked Mr. Starr, I said, "I love your work, I'm 45 years old, and I too old to get started?"  His response, "you are a puppy at 45, no you are not too old."

Two phone calls later I got a job broadcasting Independent ball in Tyler, the next year I was in AAA in Nashville, the next year, 1998, I started doing fill in MLB work on ESPN and I worked in Sioux Falls, SD, '99 Independent ball again in Atlantic City, and started in Round Rock in 2000 and have been there since. 

The work fits me perfectly. I dearly love the game, the players, coaches, managers and fans...and have developed tons of friends throughout the years...Have done fill in work for both the Rangers and Astros and still at my advanced age (70 on December 19, 2020) dream of that full time MLB chance.  

But you know what...I still have the greatest baseball life ever.  My wife Karen, 3 daughters, 1 step son, 7 grandchildren between the ages of 17-4 all love the game, love Cappy's role in the game, and along with spending time with them, taking care of two dogs, Archie and Molly and two cats, Penny and Lylah...and supporting Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Austin Sheltie Rescue, Austin Pets Alive, Austin Humane Society and RBI Austin, is what we do.

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