The voice may have been a reasonable facsimile of H. Ross Perot's or even David Brinkley's, but the phone message is from Jack Womack. He also claims to do a dead-on Tom Johnson, his former boss at CNN.
The amateur impressionist and professional newsman has come a long way from covering news in then DMA No. 211 Helena, Mont., as a college intern in the early '80s. Today, he oversees CNN's coverage of the world for its radio, airport and entertainment news feeds and its CNN Newsource service.
Newsource has nearly 700 clients, and Womack faces daily the job of providing them with regional, national and international news. "We have to treat every affiliate like they're the most important. We need to do that more than the traditional networks: We don't have owned or operated stations. We have to be faster and better. We need to make the service pretty indispensable."
As executive vice president of the CNN News Group, he is responsible for the CNN Radio Network, CNN Newsource, CNN Newsbeam, CNN Airport Network and the Daily News From Entertainment Weekly. But about 70% of his time, he estimates, is spent with CNN Newsource.
Newsource has gone well beyond the initial vision of an affiliate in every market and, in major markets, might have three or more affiliates.
An even bigger change than the growth in affiliated stations, he points out, "is the enormous demand. There's a big morning daypart now. They want material at 5 a.m. They want live news on the East Coast and on the West Coast. And the weekends present a huge demand."
Pressed by the broadcast networks' news services and their Network News Service collective effort, Newsource has to retool constantly. "NNS made us better faster," Womack says. "It forced us to be a better service. We're doing a tremendous amount of live reports. The stations really want more customized stuff out of D.C., more consumer stuff."
To help in that effort, Womack and staff are gearing up to use Pathfire's Digital Media Gateway for content delivery to affiliates later this year, which will bring news from CNN and the hundreds of affiliated stations more conveniently to the newsroom desktop.
While CNN covers the world, it's Womack's job to bring the news to the locals. "I'm a local broadcast guy working for a cable network," he says. There's a lot of broadcast news feeds for stations to choose from, he adds, even with the recent withdrawal of CONUS, the Minneapolis-based service.
And he must keep a balance within markets. "We've got to maintain a level playing field, no matter what size the market is and whether the station hasn't sent us any video for a year," he notes. "If we tend to use one station over the others in a particular market, they make us aware of that. So we call on all our stations. When there's breaking news, you go with the best pictures." All images being equal, he says, when all the local stations covering a major story are providing essentially the same shot, "we remind our people to switch" among them.
Founder Ted Turner's idea, says Womack, "was to make the service available to anyone who wanted it. That made some stations nervous: Would we be able to protect stations' material?" Stations' rights and responsibilities, he notes, are difficult to enforce when you're trying to keep good relations with each affiliate. The Pathfire system will enable Newsource to code and block feeds better.
He's surprised that there hasn't been more unauthorized use of feeds, given the ease technology provides. "There's more honor among stations than you'd think."
A station's bug in the corner doesn't help, though, when the same reporter appears on more than one station in a market. "Some people are bothered by it," Womack acknowledges. "But most people are not watching TV with seven monitors on the way I do.'"