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Fly By Night

After-Hours News Gatherers--the Videorazzi--Huddle by Police Scanners in Hopes of a Tip, Then Blast Down the Freeway Looking for Scintillating Footage

September 28, 1997|D. JAMES ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's one of those evenings when crazy things happen. At 10 p.m. the heat still seems to steam off the blacktop streets, and you can hear ghetto life en espan~ol emanating from the old rooming houses and walk-ups nearby. Police helicopters raze the thick air and emergency frequencies buzz in your ears.

But forget the police, the fire department, the paramedics. These here are the guys you don't want showing up at your doorstep: Wearing tattered tennies and funky T-shirts and sweating profusely, this group of a few dozen videographers--all male--gathers every evening at the L.A. Convention Center parking lot off 11th Street.

It's their freeway-close staging ground for another adventurous night shift. They make a living covering the news of the after hours--and that often means the news of the negative, even macabre.

When the well-paid television news crews go home, this motley crew of freelancers--videorazzi, if you will--takes over. They can make $30,000 a year if they hustle. They wait and listen to radios and scanners and then blast off down the freeway in hopes that they'll get something they'll be able to sell. They drive like cabbies, racking up DMV points faster than 15-year-olds and, yes, sometimes getting into wrecks. They eat worse than police and even are shot at in their search for stories.

Fires are good, especially if the flames are still showing. Murders are OK, but only if they're in places where murders don't often occur, like Beverly Hills. Traffic accidents can be a sell, but they'd better be major.

"We just got our first fire of the night," says Louie Gallardo, a 35-year-old ex-tow truck driver and ex-repo man. "It was pretty good. Flames were shooting through the roof."

Tonight, Gallardo is elder statesman of the lot, sitting in his geared-up '89 Chevy Astro van with the air-conditioning blowing and the radios and scanners blaring. He keeps business cards, police press badges and photographers' association membership cards at the ready. Police are an everyday obstacle.

Shamalar Fields, 20, is parked nearby in a Chevy Blazer. He's known as a pedal-to-the-metal driver with a penchant for chasing accidents and police-involved shootings. He wants to be a cop.

"We go to the scene," says the slim, handsome young man they call "Sham." "Whatever's there, we shoot it: shootings, pursuits, fires. Anything that's newsworthy. But most of it is violence and fires."

Print photographer Marcel Melanson is here too. At 21, he's been doing this as a hobby for five years. His specialty is fires ("Very exciting," he says). He'll be closer to the action as a newly inducted member of the Compton Fire Department. And judging by the congratulatory way the crew here greets him, he's a star on his way out of the parking lot.

Gallardo, short and round with a small mustache, changes from his sweaty KNBC Channel 4 T-shirt into a fresh polo and waits for the scanners to bring him bread. During lulls like this, the guys talk story, complaining about particularly evil competitors who block their shots or let air out of their tires.

Local stations pay a standard fee for freelance footage--about $135. And now freelancers are peddling clips to a growing number of national true crime shows and tabloid television programs, as well as national news broadcasts, all of which pay significantly more than the local broadcasters.

Many guys, such as Gallardo, work on their own, buying their own vans, cameras and dubbing equipment. Fields works for Newsreel Video, one of the few video news-peddling agencies that provide equipment and a steady paycheck to freelancers regardless of what happens on a given night.

About 11 p.m., Ray the Radio Man rolls up in a Ford Bronco II, custom fitted with half a dozen radios and scanners that yell out emergency dispatches in six-speaker sound. Some of the guys step up to pay respects. Ray is a restaurant manager by day who comes out and sometimes programs the videographers' radios so they can receive police and fire frequencies they're not supposed to. He's a tipster too.

Ray hears something interesting and whispers to Gallardo, who tears off toward the freeway on-ramp.

Bomb scare in Burbank.

*

In the wake of Princess Diana's death, many people are wary of the visual press. (An angry crowd, incited in part by the death of the princess, attacked a newspaper photographer earlier this month in Connellsville, Pa. The photographer was trying to snap pictures of a doctor accused of sexual molestation.)

The parking lot crew is on the front line of a television news market that critics say is crime-obsessed. One of the biggest complaints about this growing breed of freelancers is that they shoot titillating raw footage without doing much reporting or interpretation.

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