Behind the scenes at the GOP debate

From Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The primary debates for President are about a lot more than just the two hours of the debate, not only for the candidates and the organizers of the event, but for the reporters as well. So, let’s pull back the curtain a little to see what the day is like when you cover one of these political gatherings.

All times are Eastern, even though I’m in Milwaukee – Rule #1 for this reporter is don’t change your watch, because it just makes it more difficult to figure out what time you are supposed to go on the air, or go to the airport. (Trust me, I’ve made both of those mistakes.)

6:35 am – The live shots on my radio stations begin from my hotel room, where it is 5:35 am local time. Fortunately, no one bangs on my door to complain about me talking in a loud radio voice.

6:45 am – The wired internet doesn’t work in my hotel. The hotel wi-fi works for my laptop, but not for the important piece of equipment that gets me on the radio. Luckily, my wireless card bails me out. Again.

7:15 am – In between live shots, I try to figure out which members of the Boston Celtics were in my elevator last night. One guy I recognized was a former NBA player, Marques Johnson, who played at UCLA and then for the Milwaukee Bucks.

8:45 am – My ten live shots for the morning are done, and it’s time to venture down the street in downtown Milwaukee for some breakfast.

9:30 am – Outside my hotel, one kid is waiting. “Do you think the Celtics bus will pull up here?” he asks me. The guy didn’t ask me about Jeb Bush, who evidently was also staying at the same hotel.

9:35 am – Before walking to the arena where the press filing center is located for the debate, I have to take a photo of the Christmas tree being decorated in front of the Starbucks. It gets a few re-tweets.

9:45 am – My brand new roller bag for my equipment is a big winner right now as I head down Kilbourn toward the debate site. Yes, headquarters, it will be on my expense report.

9:55 am – It might not have been as much fun as walking down the Strip in Las Vegas, but my 7 minute walk past the Pere Marquette park brings me to the line for credentials at the UWM Panther arena.

10:00 am – Why am I here 11 hours before the main debate begins? It is all about being organized and making sure everything works. There is no room for error at these high profile events.

10:05 am – I have my credentials and get to seat number 472. I have no wired internet, so I start flagging down people to get that fixed.

10:10 am – Every debate has been different. We got free ethernet drops in Cleveland. It was $360 at the Reagan Library. $180 in Las Vegas. Free in Colorado. This time it’s $250. I try to rationalize to the budget side of myself that it was free two weeks ago, and that I took the bus from the airport the night before for $2.25.

10:15 am – Where is the audio feed? CNBC refused to make audio available for radio reporters at the last debate in Colorado; this time, there is a “mult box” but it is several hundred feet away. We talk nicely to some of the technical guys, who plant a new box 75 feet away. Luckily, I carry 100 feet of XLR cable just for this purpose.

10:30 am – While I wait for my Ethernet, I test out the Wi-Fi. It looks like the GOP wants to make the liberal news media deal with something that some might find offensive. “Snicker, snicker,” says one reporter in a mocking voice, rolling his eyes at the password.

10:40 am – My wired internet arrives. My laptop doesn’t seem to like it for some reason.

10:45 am – Another very helpful tech arrives. His laptop shows a nice connection with my wired internet. I re-start my computer.

10:50 am – I race to set up my broadcast connection for my next live shot at 11:06 am. It works one minute and then does not work the next. I re-start it in hopes of a fix.

11:06 am – It was down to the wire, but everything goes fine in my live shot with Herman Cain. Sometimes, it is sort of like the scene from the movie “Broadcast News” where they run the video tape and jam it in the player just in the nick of time. This time I had five minutes to spare.

11:30 am – My colleague Bob Constantini, the DC correspondent for Westwood One Radio, goes over to a Ben Carson event – but Carson does not show up.

12:15 pm – After another radio live shot, I turn my computer setup around, so I can do my Skype TV shots. The lights of the giant screen TV don’t look good in the background, but I successfully fiddle with everything. And the high speed internet seems to be working.

12:20 pm – As I get done doing a debate report for my TV station in Tulsa, a voice pipes in from the control room. “Are you in Washington?” Obviously, the answer is no.

12:25 pm – I’m waiting to do a Skype TV shot for my Orlando TV station (WFTV) when I see the Republican National Party chairman Reince Priebus come into the room. Why does this always happen when I’m on the air?

12:31 pm – I finish with my live shot and dash over to join the scrum with Priebus. “It’s a long process, and I don’t think it’s something takes place overnight,” he says when asked about how the GOP field has shrunk since the first debate.

12:50 pm – One more TV live shot with my station WSB in Atlanta. They have been cutting my on-air time this last week to just 30 seconds or so. “Two questions,” I say firmly to the anchors. “I’m on the road – ask me two questions.” I win my quest for extra time.

1:05 pm – I check in exactly 24 hours before my flight home on Southwest and get B10. Better than the B44 on the way to Milwaukee.

1:10 pm – The Reince Priebus interview audio works just right to give me a few preview stories for the debate. Still not sure why the local colleges haven’t sent some of their political experts to the debate sites to do interviews and get some PR for their school.

1:20 pm – A cameraman from a local Milwaukee TV station asks if he can take some video of me while I’m busy working. I guess I never would have noticed if he had just turned the camera on me while I was tapping away at the keyboard.

1:30 pm – I am informed there is free food out in the hallway. Like any good reporter, I have to get some of that. Pizza, cookies, chips and candy. Don’t tell my wife.

1:55 pm – Reporter walking on his cell phone telling a colleague proudly: “I am on the floor of the arena where Lew Alcindor played.”

2:15 pm – NBC’s Steve Handelsman stops for a quick second. “Is it me, or is it really cold in here?” It is cold. I put on my scarf, just like I had to in the last debate filing center in Colorado.

2:16 pm – The cold isn’t bothering another one of our colleagues, whose Midwestern roots are delighted with the drink offerings. “I forgot about all the extra sugar they put in RC Cola. It’s triple strength,” he says with a smile.

2:20 pm – Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) shows up in the news media filing center – he backs Marco Rubio – and says Jeb Bush needs to do well tonight. “If he doesn’t, I think his money dries up and we could see not too far in the future that he’s out of the race.”

2:30 pm – My colleague Gerry Bodlander of AP Radio is still waiting for his internet to be installed. He was here before me today, but has a bit more of a bureaucratic infrastructure to deal with when it comes to approving that last minute purchase. It finally gets the okay a few minutes later.

2:40 pm – The reporters for ABC Radio (Aaron Katerksy) and CBS Radio (Steven Portnoy) show up to a chorus of heckling courtesy of my radio colleagues, as we detail how we moved the mult box and got their wired internet ready. “Anything else we can do for you?” asks Bodlander with a big smile.

2:50 pm – The NPR reporter asks us to quiet down while he records an interview with headquarters. “I always wanted to be on NPR,” said one of the other network radio guys with a laugh.

2:55 pm – For some reason, I am seated a few rows behind the rest of my network radio colleagues. I guess they put me back with the local radio affiliates.

3:05 pm – Suddenly I’m sort of skittish. It takes me a minute to realize that those two cans of RC Cola have now kicked in.

3:10 pm – A rather large cameraman for one of the networks walks by with four pieces of pizza. Nothing like free food for the media to load up on.

3:25 pm – A late arriving local radio reporter wonders where the mult box is. “Over there by the trash can,” I say. He has no idea it is there because I got here six hours ago and made sure it was there. Rookie.

3:30 pm – This is like sitting on a plane hoping that no one sits in the middle seat, as nobody has shown up in seat 471 or 473 on either side of me. But there is too much time left for those seats to stay empty.

3:40 pm – One reporter down the row greets some friends. “I’ve got a Mountain Dew and my sour gummy worms; I’m ready to roll.”

3:50 pm – Cold air is flowing in here like we are having the debate outside in Milwaukee. Steve Handelsman walks by in a winter coat. I pull my scarf down around my neck and wish I had brought my hockey headband.

4:00 pm – As I get ready to do my live shot on Sean Hannity’s radio show, I am literally shivering. I don’t know why it has to be so cold in these events. Why didn’t I wear wool socks?

4:25 pm – Not every radio reporter is created equal. Some have very complicated setups, some very clean. This is how Steven Portnoy of CBS has prepared his audio and laptop connections at the GOP debate:

4:30 pm – Still no one sitting next to me in seats 471 and 473. Oh, please. Let me keep this 6 feet of table space to myself.

4:45 pm – On Fox Business, Carly Fiorina is being interviewed next to a giant brewing vat. I find myself not listening to her, but thinking about going next door to Major Goolsby’s for an adult beverage.

4:55 pm – The old style men’s bathroom here in the Panther Arena deserves a photograph on my blog – just the tile work was impressive:

5:30 pm – The work pace starts to speed up during what we call ‘afternoon drive.’ More local radio reporters filling the spots around me, and more media bigwigs now in the filing center as well. 90 minutes until the pre-debate debate begins.

5:50 pm – Before things get real busy, we take a Team Radio photo.

Left to right: Aaron Katersky (ABC Radio), Steven Portnoy (CBS Radio), Don Gonyea (NPR), Jared Halpern (Fox News Radio), Gerry Bodlander (AP Radio) and Jamie Dupree (Cox Radio).

6:30 pm – Not so sure why there are so many empty seats here in the filing center, but it’s fine with me.

6:40 pm – A reporter from Chicago behind me tells someone on the phone, “I’m getting ready to go meet Ben Carson.”

6:45 pm – Sources telling reporters that dinner will be ready in one hour. Caesar salad, pasta, some kind of meat and bread. “I’ll be there,” one reporter says of the free food.

6:50 pm – One reporter returns from a trip outside the arena. “It’s crazy out there, you should see the Trump protesters. It’s nuts.”

7:00 pm – The pre-debate debate begins, but for some reason, I have no audio on my tape recorder. Are you kidding me? I run over to the mult box and switch outputs for my line. I miss the first minute or so of the debate while scrambling around to fix it. So much for all of my work hours earlier to get things ready for the debate.

7:06 pm – Now that my audio is fixed, I can start a two hour pre-debate radio show on my stations.

7:10 pm – Fair or not, this debate among Jindal, Santorum, Christie and Huckabee won’t get as much attention as what happens on the main stage later on.

7:20 pm – Cheers in the debate hall for Chris Christie, as he says that Hillary Clinton is the real adversary for Republicans in 2016

7:50 pm – During one of my broadcast breaks, I run out to get some food. Pasta and bread. I leave the salad for those who like it.

8:05 pm – Time is flying as I’m on the air with a pre-debate show and also keeping one ear on the under card debate.

8:15 pm – The pre-debate gathering is over. We can argue all we want about who won, but most of this will be forgotten once the main debate gets going in another 45 minutes.

8:30 pm – Odd moment in the debate filing center as a Lindsey Graham commercial runs on the Jumbotron. He sure would like to be here.

8:35 pm – During the lull between the debates, some are busy trying to do their sidebar stories. This reporter doing a stand-up that features the wi-fi password for the press filing center.

8:50 pm – I run into the bathroom for one final pit stop before the big debate begins. Suddenly I realize that I’m next to Montel Williams. I decide that a moment at the urinal is not the time to introduce myself.

8:53 pm – I’ve made it all the way without anyone sitting next to me.

8:55 pm – The eight Republicans walk into the debate hall on the main stage. We are almost ready for action.

8:57 pm – The national anthem plays. Will it be the subject of conservative bloggers watching to see which reporters stand in the press filing center?

9:03 pm – The introductions begin. Carson gets bigger cheer than Trump. Rubio gets an even bigger cheer. Fiorina very positive as well.

9:05 pm – Toe meets leather. The main stage debate is now underway. First question is on raising the minimum wage.

9:07 pm – Carson’s microphone seems really sensitive. The observation of a radio reporter who listens to a lot of audio.

9:23 pm – Why do I always feel the need to write “Rand Paul” when I take notes in the debates? Why not just Paul or Rand? Just not sure.

9:25 pm – Very, very quiet in the press filing center as we get the first break in this debate. That tells me reporters think this has been not produced much in the way of news.

9:29 pm – Starting the second segment, Neal Cavuto really surprises me by throwing a very easy softball question to Ben Carson about how the news media has treated him, and Carson hits it out of the park.

9:31 pm – Another open-ended softball question, this time for Trump. “What would you do about illegal immigration?”

9:33 pm – Suddenly, a real debate breaks out on immigration, as Kasich butts in to confront Trump, and then Bush sides with Kasich against the idea of deporting 11 million people who are here illegally.

9:35 pm – Cruz jabs at the media as part of his immigration answer. He knows it works with the base, and he knows journalists will feel the need to mention it in their stories.

10:16 pm – My father emails his view of the debate. “Without any ‘gotcha’ questions, it gets pretty boring,” he writes.

10:37 pm – One reporter hands a five dollar bill to another after betting on whether Carson would be asked directly about his recent battles with the news media.

11:18 pm – The main debate finally ends. Got to finish my blog before running to the Spin Room.

11:25 pm – The Spin Room is an absolute mess. Carson, Trump and Kasich are there when I arrive, and there is a massive scrum around each of them. It’s impossible for me to get in there.

11:35 pm – Trying to get a soundbite from Kasich, I get into a verbal scrape with a still photographer who doesn’t like my microphone being in his way of his award-winning photo. I need my sound bite. I get it. “I think we’re doing just fine,” Kasich says.

11:40 pm – I finally get close enough to Trump to take a picture. But I can’t get close enough to get any post game sound with him.

11:45 pm – I give up and come back to the press filing center. “Are you done for the night?” one security guy asks. “Not even close,” I say.

11:50 pm – Time to start my real work, writing my stories for Wednesday morning drive time on the radio. Two 60 second stories, two that are 30 seconds. Two spots on Jeb for my Florida stations, two on Kasich for my Ohio station.

11:58 pm – I’m starting by writing my stories on Kasich. At the same time, he shows up on the Jumbotron, being interviewed on Fox Business.

12:35 am – While I’m writing my morning stories, I do a little late night live radio with Erick Erickson to run down the post game report on the debate. I just imagine myself speaking to people driving down the road, trying to stay awake on the interstate.

12:50 am – “I’m ready to get out of here,” said one gleeful TV reporter. Those of us on Radio Row just keep typing.

1:00 am – It’s always fun to listen to my fellow radio reporters record their stories. It’s a reminder of how everyone covers the same story and can write it in such a different manner.

1:10 am – A woman booking guests for one of the network TV morning shows is walking around having an animated conversation. “I don’t understand why you are canceling, and I don’t understand why you aren’t giving us someone else.”

1:30 am – TV tech in the back of the room: “We are ready to record the 4 am look live.”

1:35 am – The reporter from Swedish Radio is doing a live shot down from me.

1:45 am – There are about two dozen reporters left. Radio Row is still busy.

1:50 am – The national radio reporters are now taking turns recording their stories, as it is library quiet in the press filing center. The ABC reporter goes. Then AP Radio. Then me. We wait until each person is finished before starting our next report.

1:58 am – Aaron Katersky of ABC Radio leaves. “I always learn a lot listening to you,” Katersky tells me, echoing my exact sentiments about listening to him record his stories as well.

2:00 am – One local radio reporter asking the network guys about how they balance their time when it comes to covering the debate, the Spin Room and more. “You have to go by the seat of your pants,” says Bodlander of AP Radio.

2:05 am – “It really is the saddest thing,” says Steven Portnoy of CBS Radio, of how the radio reporters are the last to leave after the debate. “We also have to get up the earliest.”

2:09 am – Portnoy calls it a night. He’s now going to drive from Milwaukee to Des Moines for the Democratic debate on Saturday.

2:10 am – Don Gonyea of NPR has finally finished his script, and his voice now fills the almost empty press file room. At just under three minutes, he tells his editors that his story is on the right track. “Goodnight, guys.”

2:15 am – Don is recording his story, so I wait to track my last piece for the morning. I start packing my equipment instead.

2:28 am – “Jamie – what’s your time frame?” asks Bodlander.

2:30 am – “You’re literally not going to sleep at all,” says the last remaining TV producer to her reporter, talking about how soon they have to start doing live shots in the morning.

2:35 am – Gerry Bodlander is recording his last story, while I pack. Other than us, there is only one reporter left in the press filing center.

2:51 am – Gerry and I are the last reporters to leave the press filing center. We arrived here 16 hours ago. For those wondering, this is a normal schedule for radio news.

3:07 am – Back in my hotel room, I now have to unpack my gear in order to set up for my morning radio live shots.

3:20 am – My blog is now updated now with video from all eight of the Republicans in the main debate, along with some YouTube additions about the pre-debate.

3:26 am – My Facebook page gets updated next. And my post-debate post gets a “like” right away, reminding me that people are awake at all hours.

3:30 am – I sure hope the people on both sides of me are sound asleep, because I need to record a few more things for the morning from the hotel.

3:50 am – I write down all my live shots for the morning to make sure I check them off, one by one. I have 24 on the schedule.

3:55 am – My phone sends me an ominous message: “Your alarm has been set for 2 hours and 1 minute from now.”

6:10 am – I am wide awake and ready for my first live shot of the morning. Unfortunately, it crashes and burns because of technical issues at one of my radio stations. Luckily, it was not an omen for the rest of the morning.

So, there you have it. The 24 hours of GOP debate coverage from Milwaukee.

It was another lengthy work day, but very much worth it. The world of political reporting is a little different when you pull back the curtain.

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