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From AJR,   December 1999  issue

Reporters with a Cause   

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

They can't all be like Marvin Zindler. With his white pompadour hairpiece and multiple facelifts, Houston's famous face has been taking up causes for the common man, and woman, for almost 27 years. Whether he's exposing unfair car dealers or blasting dirty restaurants with "sliiiiimmme in the ice machine," Zindler, 78, is a folk hero to millions of Texans who feel they're getting a raw deal.

"I'm not a journalist. I'm in show business," says KTRK's Zindler, who was immortalized on film as the nosy television reporter who had the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel closed in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." "I can't emulate Cronkite or anyone else on television. I have to be me."

The outrageous Zindler may be one of a dying breed--the TV crusader whose personality pulls in viewers as much as his work does. But the consumer reporter has evolved, and the species is flourishing. What's changing, says Larry Rickel, president and CEO of the San Antonio-based Broadcast Image Group, is how the reporters go about their jobs. In some markets, the genre has gone from uncovering scams for individuals to looking for universal solutions to more general problems, he says.

"What's new is they're using it to do more things, broadening it to include consumer testing and things that keep families safe," Rickel says. "It's a great situation when a viewer who doesn't get good service somewhere can say, 'I'm going to call Joe or Sally or Ken.' "

Stations seem to be recognizing that many viewers enjoy having some leverage. Eileen Hemphill, director of public relations and marketing for Call For Action, says there's been an increase in the number of television stations seeking to affiliate themselves with the international nonprofit network of consumer advocates. "It's the age of the consumer again," Hemphill says. "We certainly see more of the networks and newspapers are assigning reporters to the consumer and the business beat."

When Jim Turpin joined Wichita's KAKE as executive news director in August 1997, one of the first things he did was to add a "consumer crusader." Research had shown that the audience wanted someone to take up causes for them, and Turpin had a personal interest in the idea. "Making a difference for people is the whole reason I got into this business," he says. The result is "KAKE on your side," with the ABC affiliate's call letters pronounced like the baked good. Turpin credits the station's improved ratings, in large part, to the daily feature.

Deb Farris, KAKE's consumer investigator, says she was scrambling for stories when she first began. Now, she gets up to 40 calls a day, ranging from the guy who lives next door complaining of a noisy dog to the little old lady who fell for a telemarketer's offer that proved to be too good to be true. Farris tries to help as many callers as she can off-air, only televising the extra-stubborn problems. "I think people are starting to watch because they want to see what we're going to do next," Farris says.

Of course, there's a lot of weeding out to do. At KMTV, a CBS affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska, Deborah Ward once got a call from a woman incensed because the pizza delivery boy had forgotten her breadsticks. That didn't merit a story, but the call from the woman whose curling iron had singed her hair did. Ward investigated and found there's no limit on how hot the irons can get.

"I love it," says Ward, who left the courthouse beat behind six years ago.

Ward does a lot of product testing, pulling in balding teachers to test a product that says it will give the illusion of hair and throwing clothes into the dryer to test a dry-clean-at-home product. Some flop, others get a thumbs-up on the air.

One of the most difficult things, Ward says, is juggling consumers' needs with the station's revenues. Long ago, she learned that car dealerships were off-limits because of the high advertising revenues they bring in to the TV station.

Rickel's television consulting company advises its clients to set ground rules before playing the consumer reporter game, "but for a franchise to be successful, it can't be limited by what's good or bad for the sales department," he says.

Zindler says he's always had the complete support of his station, and he has no plans to quit anytime soon. In the late 1980s, he signed a lifetime contract with KTRK for a reported $1 million a year. "I don't know how long I'm going to last, but I guess I'm going to die on the set," Zindler says. "It'll be kind of an unusual thing."