Friday, April 25, 2008

The old beat...

Switching markets is as common as getting a new suit in the field I work in. Quite frankly, that's one of my least favorite parts of being a journalist, and I think most reporters would agree. But if one ever wants to make enough to support a family, they're faced with the options of marrying someone with money, turning to the dark side and working for public relations or getting bumped up the market ladder several times. I would be perfectly content to work in Madison for the rest of my life, but by then, inflation will likely have outpaced my annual raises by so much, I'll be a ward of the state. We'll see, I guess.

But it's not all about money. Before I worked in Madison, I was a newspaper reporter for the Portage Daily Register for two years. I was lucky enough to slide into a broadcast job that overlapped this market, so I still still have a number of good connections -- good friends -- in the area.

The thing is, the longer you stay in a market, the higher the likelihood that the person trapped in that burning car, pinned under the flattened house or mauled by a ravenous pack of rabid racoons is going to be someone you know and care about.

In today's case, it was almost the house scenario, and it was a close call. Columbia County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Oelke was always among my favorites to encounter when responding to a call. He's middle-aged, unapologetically a country boy at heart, and he's got a contagious grin that I'd wager has helped hundreds of accident victims pull through a difficult situation.

Scott tells me he was hanging around, monitoring the radio calls about this evening's tornado warnings, when he heard a rumbling to the south of his home, which is south of Wyocena. He jogged out into his backyard just in time to watch a tornado drop from the clouds at the edge of his treeline. He only had seconds to act, but he grabbed his two boys and their friend, who were rocking the game cube at the time, and pelted down to the basement, where he used his body to shield to the two youngest boys. His son told me that.

Fortunately, it was a heroic, but moot, gesture. The tornado levelled two barns within thirty feet of his house, but did nothing more than blow the windows out of the dwelling itself. And in the midst of all this, lightning struck the house and started a small fire that smoldered out within a few if the tornado wasn't enough. Scott and the boys were unharmed, though his squad car was flattened by the barn as it blew apart.

When I talked to him, he was all grins. "I've been after the sheriff to get me a new car," he laughed. "That one had 125,000 miles on it."

And I enjoyed seeing him, as I enjoyed bumping into Chief Deputy Mike Babcock, Sheriff Dennis Richards and Daily Register reporters Matt Call and Shannon Green on the scene. It was a stunted homecoming to a place I only ever commuted to, but came to think of as a home anyway. But it was also a sobering reminder that the people in the headlines I read every day have friends and loved ones, too.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mifflin... another year already?

I have a new goal in life, one that should make my parents proud. I hereby vow never to miss a Mifflin Street Block Party so long as I live.

I know it seems like a bold vow, but I was speaking with Madison City Council veteran Mike Verveer this evening, and he told me that he has been to every single block party since he was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. Now, not that Verveer's a dinosaur or anything -- he's consistently stood up for student rights and lobbied for a student agenda, and the UW community reveres him for it -- but that's a damn impressive streak. I figure as long as I'm living in Madison, I don't really have any excuse NOT to go.

So I have four Mifflins in a row under my belt, and I'm well on my way to a streak every bit as impressive as Verveer's... that is, if the Madison Police don't find a way to put the party out of commission, which I'm beginning to suspect they're intent on doing.

In the course of my duties today, I spoke with Lt. Joe Balles at the Madison Police Department. It seems they're going to be putting up more cameras at this year's block party. Before I go on with the post, I must directly address the kindly webwriters at WKOW. First of all, gentle writer, YOU DON'T NEED FREAKIN' APOSTROPHES IN THE PLURAL FORM OF "cameras." YOU MAKE THAT MISTAKE THREE TIMES. I WORK IN RADIO, AND I CAN GET IT RIGHT! SO IF YOU CAN'T LEARN TO USE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE CORRECTLY, PICK UP A FIFTH GRADE ENGLISH TEXTBOOK AND GET BACK TO BASICS BEFORE YOU GO AROUND POLLUTING MY INTERNET.

And on a less rant-inducing note, the Mifflin Street Block Party is NOT "notorious for getting out of hand." Since the riot that occurred in 1996, contrary to the way this story is written, the block party has been a bastion of goodwill between police and students. People show up at eight, they get drunk, a few get out of hand and are promptly, deservedly carted away by the cops, and after twelve hours of drinking, the need for a nap sets in and everybody goes home with a smile and some sunburn. As a student, in fact, the block party was the only time I wouldn't drop what I was holding or run the other way when I saw the UW or City Blues arrive on the scene. Poor reporting by the folks at 27.

But back to the cameras. I didn't know that there had previously been video surveillance, but Balles tells me they've had a single camera up on top of a tall apartment building in the area for years. Fine. Great. But now, they're adding two cameras to be mounted twenty feet above the ground at the busiest points on the street. According to Balles, these will be wired live into the police "Command Center," and they'll dispatch police to trouble hot spots via radio.

This begs the question, why do they need these new eyes? And what will they use them to do? It's well known, for instance, that the block party was a generally acceptable place for people so-inclined to "pass around a joint," so long as it wasn't blatantly in view of the police. But everything is blatantly in view of cameras mounted twenty feet from the ground.

Another thing that Balles the Buzzkill told me: "More people are starting to post their property down there for no trespassing, and we will be enforcing trespassing. So if (revelers) see pink trespassing signs, and if they're trespassing on private property, they can expect to be arrested." And he sounded like he meant it too, which makes me sad. It sounds like Balles, at least, wants nothing more than to swing a nightclub into a couple undergrad skulls come the first weekend in May. Maybe he's just mad because no one asked him to play Flip-Cup last year.

I just hope these new developments don't mean the police are out to kill the block party, now that they've neutered Halloween on State (I refuse to ever call it "Freak Fest"). And if they are, they're armed with a few more reasons to drag kids off in plastic wrist-ties.

There's a meeting, led by Mike Verveer, slated for next Tuesday night to tell students exactly what the changes mean for the beloved block party. I'll be on assignment there, and then of course, I've volunteered myself for "on-the-street coverage" of the event itself. Whatever happens, I'll be there, notepad in pocket, microphone in one hand and a beer in the other. I even got Verveer to half-promise a "City vs. Media Showdown" over the beer pong table, so it promises to be epic.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Daily... DFWW

I got a call from my hometown newspaper today. I submitted my posting from Monday, and they want to run it as a letter to the editor. That makes me happy, as it's been a while since I've been published in print. Ask anyone who's ever written for a paper. You get that ink in your blood and it never really disappears. And quite honestly, if the opportunity arose to write professionally again, I would be torn. I think my ideal job is one where I could gracefully straddle the chasm between broadcast and print, but until I find that job, I'm happy as a radio reproter who occasionally writes... Or a newspaper writer who occasionally moonlights in radio.

Screw it, I'm just happy to be working.

Monday, April 21, 2008


My father, Chris Weis, is an amazingly talented man.

I guess it’s something I’ve known all along. I credit him for both my love of the dramatic arts and my relationship with the Monroe Theater Guild, among a great many other things. But up until recently, it’s nothing I’ve been able to appreciate as clearly as I did this past weekend.

I went to see Dad in the local theater guild’s production of The Drawer Boy. I had never heard of the show before, nor did I have much of an idea what it entailed. Dad had told me he played a mentally-challenged Canadian farmer with no short-term memory, and I wasn’t wrong in assuming the comedic potential of the character was ripe. But I certainly didn’t walk into the Monroe Arts Center expecting to be moved nearly to tears.

I’ve seen him in a number of dramatic productions before, but The Drawer Boy was different. Certainly it helps that I’ve reached adulthood, and my vision is no longer limited by the blinders of childhood egocentrism. I know Dad as a person now, not just as an authority figure, and so it was all the more striking to watch the transformation that took place on stage Friday night.

But it wasn’t just because I’ve stopped turning to Dad for praise and discipline that I was able to comprehend the depth of his skill as an actor. Quite the opposite, if I had stopped to think that it was my father on stage, I think the feelings his performance evoked in me would have been somewhat dulled.

Instead, I was fully immersed in the story that unfolded, alternately overcome with pity for the aged, well-intentioned yet dangerously aloof farmer, and fist-clenching anger at the men who mistreated him, albeit with the best of intentions. Dad later told me this was the most difficult role he’s ever undertaken, and with more productions than I could count in an evening under his belt, that’s saying something. But he made it look effortless. Every breath he drew was taken in character, every step he took was executed with the ginger care of a man in his sixties (Dad’s fifty), and he carried himself with the unblinking good nature of the simple man he was portraying.

I wasn’t watching my father on stage. I was watching "Angus," a person with broken dreams and all the accompanying baggage just beyond his shattered mind’s feeble grasp, trundle about his kitchen in the midst of his day-to-day affairs. And when he cried out in anguish, I wanted nothing more than to comfort him. Instead, the rest of the audience and I sat uncomfortably in the dark, gawking like outsiders at the spectacle of one mind’s tragic self-destruction.

It was, simply put, an inspired performance by the entire cast and crew. But Friday night, I realized for the first time not only that I’m proud of my Dad, but that I always have been.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Special thanks to the mysterious "John Adams" over at for his mention this week. For those of you who aren't familiar with his plight, no, he's not the reanimated zombie of one of our founding fathers. Rather, he's a fiercely independent Libertarian blogger from Whitewater who became the subject of a Draconian, bogus police investigation. In the course of blogging annonymously on the city's goings-on, it seems he rubbed a few officials the wrong way. The police launched an investigation into his identity, branding him a 'suspect,' running license plates to try to unmask him and even involving two police detectives and city staff in the effort. Chief Coan even accosted an innocent citizen in his home, accusing him of being the blogger.

All of this, of course, violates Mr Adams's first amendment right to anonymous free speech. What's worse, it's a prime example of the Us vs. Them, Good 'Ol Boy mentality you see in a lot of small town cop shops. Mr. Adams wasn't looking to be in the spotlight. He blogged to make his opinions known, to better his community as he saw it. City leaders overreacted, but State Journal reporter Dee Hall got wind of the story, and suddenly, Mr. Adams was an overnight celebrity. In making arrangements to have him on Sly's program on WTDY, he even admitted to me he had never done a radio interview before, and had to consult with a few websites to figure out how to adequately disguise his voice.

It's unfortunate the leaders in Whitewater were so threatened by Mr. Adams's ideas they felt the need to lash out instead of opening a dialogue with him. Chief Roan's assertion that he wanted to discover Adams's identity in order to open a dialogue is a complete lie. I emailed Mr. Adams and had a reply within 12 hours, overnight.

By the way, Chief, he's an early riser. MY email was time-stamped 5:15 in the AM.

The tendency to resort to fear and intimidation in this country rather than opening a dialogue is all too evident in cases like these. I'm surprised these neanderthals in Whitewater even knew what a "blog" or an "internet" was. Our society would be bettered if there were a John Adams in every little community.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Update... Management Mop-up

Well, I couldn't stay away for long. This little jewel came down the pipe in regards to my post from last Friday. This is the full statement from Russ Endres, president of Wisconsin Management Company:

"Wisconsin Management Company, Inc. extends its deepest condolences to both the Zimmerman and Gonnering families. We regret how our statement on Friday was characterized. Wisconsin Management Company, Inc. takes pride in our service and commitment to our residents. We felt it inappropriate, one week after the incident, to discuss the particulars of the lease situation until we had spoken to the families. We have since had the opportunity to speak with Jordan's parents. After discussing what the family wanted, we have decided to release all parties from any lease obligations. Once the property is released by the police, we will do any cleaning or repairs that are necessary. We will also offer housing to Mr. Gonnering, which he will consider. Now that this situation is resolved, we hope people can focus on the actual tragedy and work towards healing and justice."

A couple of notes. First of all, THEY MISPELLED THE DEAD GIRL'S LAST NAME! I know making sure that extra N is attached to the end of Zimmermann is tough for busy property-management types, but this is supposed to be a note of condolence, right? I'm no letter etiquette expert, but I would assume it's good practice to spell the bereaved's loved one's name correctly.

And secondly, "we regret how our statement was characterized"? There's no characteriztion about it. Endres was asked, straight up, if his company would let Jordan Gonnering out of the 16 months remaining on his $790 a month lease. And if you watch the video, he finds every way imaginable to talk around the question.

When it comes to a tragedy of this magnitude... or any human tragedy, for that matter... there is ONLY one acceptable answer to the question, "Is that something you're prepared to do?" It's not "I want to talk to him face to face," not "let me check with my superior on this," not "do ya think we can move him to a different apartment we own so we can keep taking his money?" It's "we'll do whatever we can do to help." Russ Endres should be ashamed, and if he thinks this half-assed attempt at a P.R. mop-up job is going to gain him back any of the human decency he forfeited, he's a monster AND a fool.

Daily... waylaid bellyup...

The weather's finally taken a turn for the decidedly spring-like, but last week's digression has got my ass kicked for the time being. I'm calling in my first sick day at the radio station.

Now you might think this means I have more time to post... Well, you're wrong... It means I'm going back to sleep, because my head and my chest each feel about five pounds heavier.

It's funny though, because at the newspaper, calling in sick was something you did only in the direst of circumstances, and with great trepidation. If you weren't a few breaths from death or one of your appendages wasn't hanging by a few ligaments, you generally tried to tough it out. However, the job at the station is the first I've ever had where I've actually been encouraged to use my sick days. There's no policy whereby you can go an entire year without using a sick day and get an extra vacation day or anything like that, and I actually had a supervisor tell me it was better to err on the side of caution and use my sick days judiciously.

Of course, at a radio station, a cold or flu can move like wildfire through the on-air population by virtue of the little knobs we all manipulate and the airtight, soundproof booths we inhabit together and the communal microphones we all take turns spitting on. So from management's perspective, shelling out for one person's day off is better than not having anyone to go on-air, period.

It sounds like I'm on a public hearing AND a county board meeting all in one night tomorrow, so my triumphant return will have to be done gear down, full speed. So it's time to rest. Hard.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Daily... more shady vibes in murder story

Any day where I get to start my work schedule at the Memorial Union is by default a good one, so I have no real complaints. I interviewed a few UW students, all of whom agreed that the Police Chief's decision to hold back information on how the killer entered Brittany Zimmermann's apartment was a poor one.

I do have a couple more tidbits with regards to that story... Something to mull over going into a weekend sort-of off. The first comes courtesy of the Isthmus, and I don't find it all that surprising. Joel Marino's parents are saying they've lost confidence in the police department's ability to handle THAT particular murder investigation. And two months after his death, with no leads and with what they say in this story, can you blame them?

The second is a good deal more infuriating. I've rented in downtown Madison for three years, I've dealt with *A* bad management company and I've heard dozens of horror stories, but this is by far one of the most sickening things I've ever heard.

If this is true, THESE PEOPLE should have their right to own/manage property taken away permanently. They should be stripped of all their possessions to pay for a house and a college education for this young man, and then shipped off forever to China, where
THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS MORE about human decency than these "property managers." You can call the management company tell them what you think on their dime at 1.800.480.2080. Or, you can email the owner, Mr. Carl Van Rooy, and say really nice things.

I'll be up early tomorrow to take the early morning news mic at 6:00 am sharp. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

CSI Madison ?!?

The state journal reported today that Brittany Zimmermann's killer forced entry into her apartment on Doty Street before killing her. This upset me a bit, and not just because they beat us to the story. In fact, they beat everybody to the story, including their spokesman Joel Despain. As I understand it, he was just as surprised as everyone when Madison Police Chief Noble Wray decided to come forward with the information.

What alarms me is that, as members of the media and an informed public, we operated under the assumption that Zimmermann's killer walked through an unlocked front door and assailed her. As a downtown resident myself, one who could fire a waterballoon launcher and hit the alley where authorities found Joel Marino's body, I took heed to the warnings of friends and family. They cautioned me, "Lock your doors, even in the middle of the day."

If our original assumptions were correct, and if police are correct in assuming Zimmermann's slaying was indeed a random act, and if they are correct in saying her killer is still at large in the downtown community, locking the door would have been enough to keep anyone safe...Except now, Chief Wray adds, almost as if it were an afterthought, that the killer broke into her house. And it seems like, if my friends and family really wanted to give me good advice, "You ought to consider reinforcing your front door with quarter-inch steel rebar and plating the windows" would have been more appropriate.

I understand the need to keep certain details of an investigation shielded from the public view. As a reporter, I deal with it, I accept it like a brick wall, every day. In Joel Despain's written statement to State Journal reporter Sandy Cullen, he makes note of it as well:

"When you have a homicide where there is the distinct possibility that a true stranger/strangers might be the perpetrator/perpetrators things like method of entry, and cause of death are often withheld. The reason for this is that detectives must rely heavily on interviews wih potential witnesses/suspects wherein only they and the killer/killers or witness/witnesses possess the details of the crime. It is not unusual that some contacted during an investigation -- who because of things like mental illness, or alcohol/drug abuse -- will proide bogus confessions of information. They may purport to know things they do not, and the only way to determine their veracity is by holding back key details. Police Chief Wray, as you know, is also keenly aware of the question regarding public safety as it may relate to the mode of entry in the Zimmermann case. He took time deliberating whether revealing this detail would outweigh investigators desire to withhold the information while they search for a killer. It has proven to be a difficult decision. However, Chief Wray has decided -- after conducting this balancing test -- that the right thing to do was to confirm to you that there was forced entry on a door to the building in which Zimmermann resided..."

You're DAMN SKIPPY the right thing to do is to confirm the damn detail! A DETAIL?!? A measily, worthless little DETAIL?!? We're talking about the public safety of forty-two thousand University of Wisconsin students and maybe twenty-five thousand more downtown residents. Telling us the door was forced open is simply a START. How about telling us HOW it was forced open, and what WE can DO to keep it from happening to US?

Chief Wray certainly "took time deliberating" over the release of this information...eight days, in fact, during which it could have happened again. I won't insinuate there's a connection between Zimmermann's murder last week and Marino's murder in February, but I wouldn't be the first to do so. The similarities are striking and apparent to anyone who can read. I will, however, drag the other THREE unsolved murders in the past year out onto the table.

Authorities have remained ever-so-tight-lipped about the details surrounding each, but it doesn't seem to have helped them catch the killers. To this day, we don't know how UW-Whitewater student Kelly Nolan was killed after she disappeared from State Street, and police have yet to release any details other than where she was found.

I have a sticker on my computer monitor that reads, "Knowledge is power. Arm yourself." Under this standard, the Madison Police Department has left every single Madison resident vulnerable and defenseless.

Now I know that we're talking about Madison, a metropolitan area of only half a million. Furthermore, I know there are cities that would, pun intended, kill for a murder rate as low as ours. That's what's appealing to so many Madisonians.

Policing is an occupation that puts glory in danger and duty, and Madison ain't New York City. But if Chief Wray and his detectives are occluding details that are in the public's best interest to know so they can have a macho "CSI moment," we have more than a murder problem in Madison. Detective Sipowicz might wear a tie with short sleeves, but even he isn't foolish enough to endanger the public by squelching information. It makes you wonder if they don't just clamp down on details as some kind of demonstration of their authority as police.

It makes you wonder what mistakes and ineptitudes might be exposed if the investigations were more visible to the public. Not that I have any reason to suspect the police have handled the murder investigations in anything but a competent and professional manner. But they have utterly failed in their obligation to keep the public abreast of the crucial knowledge they may have in these murders that affect, endanger and frighten us all.

As a reporter, it becomes easy to fall into the habit of accepting it at face value when a member of law enforcement tells you they've given all the information they can give. It's the authorities' responsibility to keep the public informed and safe, and it's the media's responsibility to do the same. But beyond that, it falls to the media to out the authorities when they're not holding up their end of the bargain.