Carl Agnelly started planning to leave broadcasting last August, while making (and reporting on) the 300-mile Wisconsin AIDS Ride.
"You spend four days on a bicycle and you have lots of time to think," says Agnelly, who started at WKOW 27 in September 2004 as a general-assignment reporter and was moving up the ranks, including a weekend anchor gig. "I was thinking: If I'm laid off, what would I do with a communications degree?"
Agnelly didn't have an answer, so he devised a backup plan, applying for work at Epic Systems, the Verona-based medical software giant. He got word he was hired last Nov. 9, his 29th birthday, and immediately told WKOW 27 he would be leaving when his contract expired at year's end.
"It was amazing," says Agnelly of his last two months on the job. "I had no stress whatsoever. There was light at the end of the tunnel."
Up until then, there was plenty of stress. WKOW 27, says Agnelly, never told him one way or another whether it planned to renew his contract. And growing workloads due to multiple daily newscasts and expanded web demands were taking their toll.
"It's almost like you have a deadline every five minutes," he says. "You don't have time to breathe." He also wanted a job where he could attend night classes to get an MBA, as he now intends to do.
Agnelly's departure continues a spate of turnovers in Madison's broadcast news business. A couple years back, WISC 3 alone lost Joel DeSpain (now spokesperson for the Madison police department), Katy Sai and Jay Olsen (now running a video production company, StoryBridge.tv), and Toni Morrissey (now a spokesperson at UW Health). The four of them together had logged 80 years at the station.
Last week two more veteran broadcast reporters moved on. Linda Eggert left WISC 3 after nearly 23 years to become a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections. (Her WISC 3 colleagues feted her with a cake depicting a cell door and the words, "Have a riot at your new job.") And Kim Sveum left WKOW 27 after more than nine years to become a spokesperson at Dean Health.
"I'm not leaving because I'm unhappy," insists Sveum. "It was just a really good opportunity." But Sveum says she and husband Eric Franke, an anchor at WISC 3, were mindful of industry trends: "In some ways it made sense for one of us to be out of the media business."
And while Eggert just wanted to try something different, she concedes that industry changes and staffing cutbacks "have whittled long-format reporting down to almost nothing. It's hard to be an investigative reporter when you don't have time to investigate."
Besides being harder, broadcast jobs are less secure. Channel 3 news anchor Teri Barr got the ax last July, and word is that WKOW 27 has decided not to renew the contract of morning anchor Roland Beres. Barr, now a freelance writer and WIBA radio contributor, is glad to still be doing news in Madison but often feels "sad, regretful" about what happened at WISC 3. Beres did not return phone messages.
"This is a sign of the times. These jobs will not be back," sighs Tim Morrissey, a former prominent radio guy who was himself let go in late 2008, along with WTDY colleague Glen Gardner. "It's not a good time to be in the biz."
The exodus is costing the stations much of their institutional memory and expertise. "It makes it more challenging," says Rob Crane, the former news director at WMTV 15 who left in 2007 for a communications job at Alliant. "A lot of what makes a good newsroom is the relationships that are built up over time."
Al Zobel, the former news director at WKOW 27, agrees that industry changes are "taking some of the romance out of the business." But he says Madison has always been a market with lots of opportunity for "lateral" career moves, for people who want to stay both employed and in town.
Besides, says Zobel, "If you want job security, you don't go into broadcasting in the first place."
Edgewater a lobby lollapalooza
During the last six months of 2009, a group pushing the Edgewater Hotel expansion spent $96,314 lobbying city officials, about the same amount spent during this period by all other city-registered lobby groups combined.
According to filings with the Madison city clerk, Landmark X was represented in contacts with city officials by 17 different individuals, including project head Robert Dunn, company spokesperson Sarah Carpenter and paid lobbyists including Hank Gempeler, Mike Christopher and Ron Trachtenberg.
In all, the city has 186 registered lobbyists representing more than 200 interests. For the last six months of 2009, 25 interests submitted reports disclosing their lobbying totals, which is required when at least $1,000 is spent.
The 24 interests besides Landmark X, according to an Isthmus tally, spent a total of $97,700 on lobbying.
In all, Landmark X has reportedly spent $208,374 on lobbying since August 2008, including $182,452 last year. That's four times as much as the second-highest spender, the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute.
Landmark X initially made no filing for 2008 and claimed it spent less than $1,000 in the first half of 2009. It later filed amended reports saying it spent $25,920 in 2008 and $86,140 in the first half of 2009.
The group's most recent report, for the latter half of 2009, itemizes more than 200 contacts with Madison city officials and staff. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was on hand for 13 of these, and 31 involved Edgewater district Ald. Bridget Maniaci.
While critical approvals are pending, the Common Council has already authorized a $16 million city subsidy to the project. That's about $77 in subsidy for every $1 spent on lobbying, in case anyone wants to know.
Hulsey handles it
Want an example of a classy response to a scurrilous attack? Check out Dane County Supv. Brett Hulsey's reply to mean-spirited comments made by Jim Brigham, vice president of the Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association.
"Brett doesn't like cops," claimed Brigham in an email to Capital Times reporter Steven Elbow, who posted it online. "In other words, he's got a grudge." (Actually the grudge holder here was clearly Brigham, upset that Hulsey helped broker a deal that included a pay cut for deputies.)
Hulsey wrote a remarkably temperate response letter (PDF) to deputies, saying this attack "seems unnecessarily personal" as well as inaccurate. He noted that alcoholic members of his family have in the past been busted for driving under the influence, adding, "I cannot thank the arresting law enforcement officers enough for forcing them to deal with their disease and get help."