Retired CNN director looks back on 34 years of history

Three decades of live television and the evolution of Ted Turner’s ‘silly’ idea

On his last day of work, someone told longtime CNN director Roger Strauss a joke about the exit strategy for departing from the company. “There are only three ways to leave CNN: voluntarily, involuntarily, or on a stretcher,” the friend told him. After 34 years with the network, Strauss went with the first, leaving behind only eight of CNN’s original employees from the news network’s inception in 1980.

Strauss joined CNN that year straight out of college after being approached at the University of Georgia by recruiters looking to entice Grady College of Journalism students to join a 24-hour news network. Strauss’ family moved to Atlanta in 1972, and despite the skepticism from his professors that the notion of Ted Turner’s CNN model was “kind of silly,” he decided to accept offer of an entry-level position known as a video journalist because he wanted to stay close to home.

Nine years later Strauss would travel with a production team to Beijing, to direct the network’s landmark coverage of the protest and massacre of civilians in Tiananmen Square. At the time, then-Columbia University professor and former CBS executive Fred Friendly told the New York Times that CNN’s Tiananmen Square coverage changed the way the world viewed the network. “I think the Cable News Network really came of age,” Friendly said in 1989. “It performed a great national and even international service.”

One marriage, six presidents, and almost three decades later, Strauss accepted a voluntary buyout, part of what the current staff refers to internally as “Turner 2020.” Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, announced in October they’d be cutting their workforce by roughly 10 percent through a series of buyouts, layoffs, and other measures. After learning of the cuts from reading the newspaper, Strauss received an emailed buyout offer for employees age 55 and older with 10 years or more of experience. His wife, Eve Kofsky, having retired months earlier from HLN, the other half of “CNN’s First Couple” decided it was also time to hang up his headset. Strauss sat down with Creative Loafing and opened up about his first day on the job, being the Rick Sanchez whisperer, and whether CNN still matters to Atlanta.

Describe your first day of work at CNN in 1980.

It was at 10th and Spring streets. There was an old hotel there, and we all walked in. There were, I don’t know, maybe 150 people there. And they said, “We don’t have anything for you to do today. Most of you have come in from out of town, so go find a place to live.” Some people had come in the night before, and there was certainly no money to put them up anywhere, so we had to find places to live. Then the next day, we came in, and they brought us over to the old building, the old Country Club building, which was a mess. It was in shambles. And they showed us where everything was going to go, and they said, “Tomorrow, wear crummy clothes.” And then, for about a month, we helped them pull cables, and we crawled around in the muck, and it was kind of fun.

You started in an entry-level gig that led to writing, but you chose directing? Why not write?

We were still in rehearsal, so it was probably May of 1980. I remember writing a story and turning it in, and they were reading it in rehearsals, and one of the anchors stood up after reading my story and said, “Who wrote this shit?!” And I was crawling under the desk. That was the last day I ever wrote.

Take me back to Tiananmen Square and what’s going through your mind as you’re directing the live coverage.

So you don’t want to be in the middle of a news story. You want to be covering it from the outside. You don’t want to actually be a part of the story. At that time we were all a part of the story because the Chinese army was trying to take CNN off as, again, we were there, and we were doing the live stuff. There was nobody else at the time doing that, and they knew we were making them look really bad, and they were doing whatever they could to pull the plug, basically.

Did you feel like your life was being threatened?

It was the first time I had ever directed with machine guns a couple rows behind me. That’s for sure. As bad as a producer can yell at you, it’s not a machine gun. You know, there are people that go to war zones all the time, and they’re always putting their lives in danger, but when you’re sitting in a control room, you never think, “Oh, my life’s in danger here.” I never thought they were going to do anything to me. They weren’t going to start shooting live on television because they were on live television. We grabbed a camera and stuck it on them. And we saw them walking in, walking out — the whole thing. So unfortunately, the story kind of went off of Tiananmen Square and went into the control room that day, but it was a good day.

I’ve heard there are many epic stories to be told about Ted Turner, too. Got any you want to share?

I used to see him in his bathrobe in the mornings. When I was on the night shift, he would bring women through, and Ted never traveled alone. He would never come through at night alone. He had at least one blonde, usually two. I think he tried to stay out of our way, and we certainly tried to stay out of his way. At the CNN Center cafeteria, he would come down there and eat lunch a lot, and he would just pull up a chair at somebody’s table, and one day, he pulled up a chair at my table. I was like, “What am I going to talk to him about?” Braves. We talked Braves.

When did you notice that the culture/focus of CNN was changing?

When Ted started CNN, the news was the star. Then, I’d say around 2001, after the AOL merger with Time-Warner, when Ted started to lose his influence on CNN, I think that’s probably when the talent started reading the news. I’m not going to say anything bad about the anchors. That’s just the way it is now because it’s a ratings-driven industry. In the ’80s, until Time-Warner bought Turner Broadcasting, I feel that the ratings maybe weren’t that important. But now we’re talking a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars industry, so the stockholders want returns, and the people in charge have to show them the returns. The return is the ratings. Now you’ve got competition. Now you’ve got corporations that want to make more money from their news operations, and that’s when ratings started coming in as being really important. That’s when the anchors became much more like stars. I think Fox showed Turner how an anchor could become a star. You know, your Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. All we had was Larry King. He was our star. So now you put in the Anderson Coopers and try to build up their credibility, their stardom. They pay them a lot of money. There’s a lot of money riding on these shows. You’ve got to deliver.

So does that mean networks aren’t really concerned with delivering the news anymore?

Somebody once said at CNN that you want to give people what they want to see, but every now and then you have to make them eat the broccoli. So I think they’ve gone a lot towards what the people want and taken away the broccoli.

Of all the anchors you worked with, which one stood out to you as a star, so to speak?

Believe it or not it was Rick Sanchez, who was the anchor in the time slot Brooke Baldwin’s in now. I worked with him for maybe three, four years, and he would do anything. He wanted to get up and do a show on the Steadicam and walk around the newsroom and do stuff like that. He loved to get up and do nutty things. My idea of the perfect news show is to take the anchor, give them some scripts — talk about this, talk about that — and follow them around with the steadicam and wherever he goes, that’s where he goes. If he wants to walk over to a monitor and point something out, let him do that. We did some shows like that with Rick, and they were nutso. He and I really thought the same way. I knew where he was going before he was going there. I was one of the only people there that had kind of figured him out.

The Rick whisperer?

Laughs I was the Rick Whisperer. I thought he was great. It was unfortunate, why he had to leave; we just had this thing going, and we really clicked, and that was a fun show to do.

Do you think the art of anchoring has gotten lost in all of this change?

I think the anchoring is a little different than it was. It’s cheaper to do an interview segment than it is to send a reporter out to do a package. You’ve got to account for the reporter, the camera crew, etc. You can spend five minutes on a package that not everybody would be interested in, or you can do this five-minute interview on the hot thing of the day and it really doesn’t cost you anything to do that. That’s why they have to do a lot more with the anchors. If you watched network newscasts — not FOX, but NBC, CBS, ABC — they would feature a guy who sits there and does a segment. In the early days of CNN we did a lot more of that. But we will seldom run a package unless it’s really good, so the anchor has to carry that entire two hours now; they don’t have a whole lot of help. Sometimes the anchor is interviewing three people at the same time, and sometimes he’s like the ringleader when they’re all yelling at each other. I’m pretty good at multitasking, but what they have to do every day just amazes me. END ONLINE ONLY

You have a strong relationship with anchor Brooke Baldwin, whose show was moved from Atlanta to New York. In light of the news of big-named talent heading north, people have questioned whether CNN carries any cultural significance to the current city of Atlanta. Thoughts?

I saw John Oliver recently, and he made jokes about Delta, and he made a lot of CNN jokes, and when he was done with the CNN jokes he was like, “Oh my God, I’m in the hotbed of CNN.” I’d say yes, it’s still identified. I think ... John Q. Public doesn’t realize how much has shifted to New York, but it’s their prerogative. It started here, and I think it’s going to be here a long time; it’s just not going to be here in the form in which it is now. I think it will evolve as every company should evolve, it’s just going to evolve into something else that none of us are probably aware of yet.

Speaking of change, when did you realize it was your time to move on?

I read about it in the newspaper, and it said that they were going to offer buyouts for people who were over 55 with over 10 years of experience. I said to my wife, “That’s me.” And I think I got an email the next day giving me the offer and, to quote The Godfather, it was ‘an offer’ I couldn’t refuse, which is fine. I’m perfectly fine. I left voluntarily; I leave happily. I mean, who stays at a place for 34 years?! There are many companies that don’t last 34 years. CNN really is the land of opportunity. Phil Griffin’s the president of MSNBC, and he was a VJ video journalist. Jim Walton was president of CNN, and he was a VJ. These people have gone from making the smallest amount of money you can make in the television business to going all the way to the top, and that’s the legacy CNN will be known for always. When you have those three little letters on your resume, it’s usually a good thing. I wish I had a resume laughs.