Soundbites You Can Really Chew On

The soundbite news format is a brutal reality in today's media. Given the onslaught of information, and the decreasing attention span of most viewers, news media executives and personnel are confronted with a stark predicament. If they don't present the news in short, easily digestible bits of information, they risk loosing their audience. At the same time, news stories require more depth than a mere 30 seconds can provide.Resolving this issue has become increasingly complex. Some programming has emerged, PBS and CNN, for example, that can spend allot time with certain news stories. However, the major network nightly news continues to struggle with this soundbite phenomenon.One television news station, WTOY, in Danville, Ohio, has taken a revolutionary step. While acknowledging the short-attention span audience, they have nevertheless, to their mind, deepened the understanding in their audience. Their secret?They hired haiku poet David Ho-Tang.Station manager Ted Pabst explains how he arrived at the idea of contacting Ho-Tang. "I took at literature course in college," he says, "you know, part of the liberal arts requirement. It was a haiku poetry course. It always stuck with me, how, with just a few words, you could communicate a whole bunch of stuff."Pabst recalls everyone at WTOY was concerned with the brevity of their screen time as well as the amount of information they were required to squeeze in. They felt their newscasts, given these restrictions, were a disservice to their audience."Dale, our weatherman, Sue, our news anchor, even Ned Bell, our sportsman -- everybody was complaining about the state of broadcast news."Then, he says, "it hit me all of a sudden: haiku news."Haiku is traditional Japanese verse that's written in three lines; the first line contains five syllables, the second seven syllables, and the third line contains five syllables.Though the news team was initially reluctant, Pabst persisted, researching potential candidates using a copy of Who's Who in Haiku, published in 1992 by Palchemy Press. He began calling the haiku poets listed in the reference book, one by one, searching for one willing to act as consultant to his news broadcast."No one took me seriously," laments Pabst, "until Mr. Ho-Tang."Ho-Tang was born in Boston, but attended college in Tokyo, where he learned the art of haiku from one of Japan's most legendary haiku masters, the now-deceased We Matsung. Ho-Tang, 48, now lives in San Francisco, where he teaches poetry and metalcraft a local community college.He says while he at first thought Pabst "was a prankster," he nevertheless agreed to come to Danville to help with the news."Basically," Ho-Tang says, "my approach was non-invasive. I just sat in the studio and listened the first couple nights. Then I got the newscopy beforehand, and transcribed it into haiku."The first haiku news broadcast contained, according to Pabst, 86 haiku -- 42 in news, 20 in sports, 18 in weather and 6 in entertainment. For example, the lead news story that night was about a Danville area train accident. Sue Duncan, news anchor, read the following haiku:a train derailment clanking like a thousand spoons injured three peopleDuncan says that "I was absolutely terrified I would screw up, you know, the rhythm and sanctity of the poetry form. I was overwhelmed with the thought that the audience was out there, laughing hysterically."The opposite, however, proved to be true."We were getting calls within five minutes of the start of the broadcast," remarks Pabst. "People thought it was great -- they said it was an improvement."Ho-Tang was not surprised by the reaction. "If constructed correctly, a haiku can communicate layers and layers of meaning. So it was possible to do a better job of broadcasting the news with less actual words."Some haiku, that first broadcast, were more successful than others. Ho-Tang remarks that he wishes he had the following haiku back, read by weatherman Dale Maddox:icy conditions will persist throughout the night making driving bad"Haiku takes its inspiration from nature," laments Ho-Tang. "I dropped the ball on that one bigtime."More to his liking was one Maddox delivered two night later, following a six inch snowfall.high winds will blow snow momentary tornadoes dancing in moonlight"Well," Ho-Tang shrugs, "you can't be on every night."What surprised Pabst and his WTOY crew most of all was the response to their sports broadcast.Sportsman Ned Bell recalls that "We figured they'd go, you know, bonkers on us. Every time we try and change the sports format we get tons of calls. Sports fans don't like change."Nevertheless, over the course of the first week of Haiku News, Pabst says that he received over two hundred calls I -- "specifically from sports enthusiasts, complimenting us on the new approach."Bell is especially fond of the following haiku, delivered that first night:driving for a dunk Tiger Center Johnson fell and broke his left arm "It's weird," muses Pabst. "We're actually able to fit more stories in each night in this haiku format. I guess the fact that we're using the haiku form means were getting more meaning from less words."Does Ho-Tang continue to write the haiku?"Are you kidding?" Pabst laughs. "Haiku consultants are big bucks. No, we write our own now. It's not that hard, really, once you get into the swing of it."He cites as an example the recent spate of cloning stories and the haiku he personally penned for that news story:embryologists cloned an offspring from a sheep science of the lambs "If you don't mind me tooting our horn," Pabst says, smiling, "I think we do a pretty good job with haiku."

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