Bucking the system

January 16, 2006 in Personalities & Profiles | Comments (0)


You can call her an expert, enthusiast or journalist, but the one word that unquestionably applies to Becky Worley is technology.

Becky and I worked together at TechTV in the late 90s. I was heading up the guest booking and talent departments; Becky was producing a shows. During the years we worked together, I watched Becky go from behind-the-scenes producer to one of TechTV’s top on-air talent – an unorthodox path by general TV standards.

Recently chosen as the technology correspondent for the ABC program Good Morning America, Becky is anything but a conventional on-air person. I was pleased when she agreed to sit down over a cup of coffee to talk about how she has gotten to where she is today.
My old audio section died with a rebuild of the blog so until I have a better FTP solution to post the audio, this transcript will have to suffice:

Becky Worley: I started out wanting to be a sports journalist. Originally I wanted my own fishing show. So from fishing show to tech journalism, I’m not quite sure … Um, I guess what happened is that I started doing television, producing in news and then producing on a daily show, up in Seattle, and I found myself setting up email accounts for people – this was in ’94 – trying to help the IT guy figure out how to build a network in the building, trying to figure out how to build a web site for the stations and I was far more intrigued with those jobs than with the actual producing jobs that I was supposed to be doing. And I realized … you know I think at some point in your life you should pursue the things that switch you on and you should also pursue the things you’re good at. And I love technology. It doesn’t intimidate me, and it intimidates alot of people, so I figured, I should do this.
Cathy Brooks: Now, the path that you took, however, from producer to … I hate the word “talent” …
Becky Worley: (laughs) I remember you used to call us the “on-air posse” at TechTV not the talent (laughs).
Cathy Brooks: Well, you know, it’s like, talent – especially since there are so many people in the business who aren’t – as you and I both know … other people call them talking heads but for …

Becky Worley:
(interrupting) I prefer “meat puppet”. It’s one of the things I’ve had a producer tell me before, “I just need a meat puppet, I don’t need you to produce.” … Okay … See ya!
Cathy Brooks: Don’t think, just talk. Just read the little printed words … but the path that you have taken from being behind the camera is not a usual path, and if you ask most people in the business, they’d say it doesn’t happen.

Becky Worley:
Right. Most people say, go to a small market, start reporting, cut your teeth on small stories in small markets and you’ll get used to being in front of the camera. And I … I wasn’t ready for that when I started in TV, and I had just started producing, and I’ve always been a content person. I’ve always been a writer, and it really helped me to develop, um, more substantive part of the television business (by being behind the camera) and of my own skill set. And I realized after a while that I was writing words for talent and they couldn’t do it, not because (the words) were so esoteric or over the top … You know I wanted to say things in my own voice and I got really frustrated listening to other people screwing them up.
One story is that I was producing this talk show segment about soap operas. My job was to watch all three soap operas and write a synopsis for each show and give it to the talent who would read it. Well, here I am, an American Literature major who graduated from a school back east and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m doing talk shows.’ And suddenly one day on One Life to Live there was a reference to the Cask of the Amontiado by Edgar Allen Poe. And I thought ‘Oh this is great! I can bring my worlds together, American Literature, soap operas, I’ll write a little thing and make it pithy and fun for the soap opera talent and she can (talk) about Edgar Allen Poe.’
So I write my bit and the woman goes on air and she says, ‘Well, today on OLTL – One Life to Live – there was an interesting reference to a writer, an Edger Allen Poo … ‘ (laughs). And I just cringed. And then it got worse. (She continues to relate what the on air talent said), ‘Yes, he wrote a story called the Cask of the Amantadadidado …’ (Becky laughs again) I just wanted to crawl under the table. And my executive producer came over and hit me on the back and said, ‘If you ever try to make Cindy sound smart again, I’ll fire you!’ That was a real … realization for me that what I thought was smart and funny and respected the audience, some people didn’t think that, and I couldn’t always be guaranteed that the talent I was working with could pull it off. And that was the point where I said, ‘I gotta get on the other side of this.’
Cathy Brooks: What was your first step?
Becky Worley: I used to go in (to the station) and record myself on betacams, little recorders that were sort of portable recorders that I could manage by myself and I would record myself over and over and over again. That was when I was at KOMO in Seattle. And then when I got to TechTV I would go into the Flashcam, which is that camera that is in the newsroom, you can operate it yourself you can run your own prompter and I would just read the entire newscast. And then I’d watch it. Then I’d read it again. Then I’d watch it. And I’d just keep trying to improve my delivery and my technique and more than anything just try and get used to the sound of my own voice and seeing myself on camera. Prior to starting this process, I couldn’t even listen to myself on an answering machine. It just drove me crazy. And in, sort of, desensitizing myself to myself (laughs) that’s when I got comfortable on TV.

Cathy Brooks:
Now … so this is how you did the process for yourself, kind of getting yourself psychologically in place, for giving yourself the skills, but that doesn’t explain how you bucked the system.

Becky Worley:
Yeah. Um, you have to find a need, and weasel your way in. And that’s television. I mean, I’ve always said that in TV, in TV it’s not the best (people) who succeed, it’s the hungriest. I think that’s true of many industries. And if you can do all of that while maintaining your sense of fun and your respect for your co-workers and your respect for yourself I think that you can weasel in and figure out where there’s a need and how you can fit it. And just keep parlaying one set of skills into another set of skills until eventually you have a huge set of skills.
Cathy Brooks: Who are your role models?
Archie: WOOF WOOF.
Yes you read that correctly. Right about this moment is when my trusty canine companion, Archie the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier (whose photos are in the images section of this site), decided he had had enough of our doing all the talking. Actually, Becky and I were sitting at an outdoor café enjoying what was the last stitch sunshine before the California deluge of 2005, and Archie was saying hello to a dog across the street.
Becky Worley: Oh, Archie, he’s barking in the background. (Laughs) All dogs. (Laughs, then gets serious.) Um, my mom, you know she’s a real working woman and she’s always done a good job of just creating opportunities for me to be independent and for herself to be independent. Um, you know she said things to me like, at one point she was working in the publishing industry and she said, ‘I don’t care what you call me, just pay me double,’ when someone asked, you know, if she was a feminist. And I thought that was a great reply. Um, and she’s always used humor to diffuse confrontation and solve problems. Um, you know, I think interestingly enough, Robin Roberts has always been a role model for me. When she first started on ESPEN, she and Linda Cohn were there, um, and they were the first women to really hit the sports scene in a big way. They really knew what they were talking about. They could run with the boys. They could spew the facts and the figures and I was always impressed by their integrity.
Um, you know, I think, really right now I love a guy named Mike Rowe. He hosts a show called Dirty Jobs, and he has so much fun and such a great personality, and he teases people but he has an underlying respect for people where you can tell that he’s got a lot of compassion and it comes through on TV.
I think, there’s this category of tough old broads I really like, like Lauren Bacall. I mean, she’s someone who I always look at as having been through it all, done it all and still keeps working and has a great sense of humor. I was lucky enough to interview her back when I was working in Seattle. She was amazing. I’ve always been a Hemingway buff so I got to talk with her about her interactions with Hemingway, and the stories that I heard, and just the grit that woman has, I love it!
Yeah, I could go on. I think there’s just a lot of people for whom you can pick pieces of their grit and their determination and be inspired by them.

Cathy Brooks:
You mentioned the word integrity. A word that is highly underutilized and highly underpracticed in today’s world. What does integrity mean to you?

Becky Worley:
Well, you have to remind yourself it’s only television. I mean, especially as we’ve gone into a 500-channel world. Not only is it only television, it’s only television that a small number of people are probably watching (laughs), get over yourself.
I think that, for me, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve never had an agent. Every job I’ve gotten has either been because a previous boss or a previous co-worker has recommended me, and I feel like if I can maintain relationships to that level that I’m doing something right. You know as I’ve climbed the ranks I’ve seen a lot of people who claw, who claw their way up and they’ll do anything to get ahead. And when you first start in this business you think, ‘Oh man, those people who claw and gouge and do anything, they’re the ones who are going to get to the top.’ And you just keep doing your thing, taking a step here and a step there and trying to be patient, and suddenly when you get closer to the top … It’s been interesting for me working at ABC and working in LA on some projects what you actually realize is that you didn’t notice but those clawers and those gougers, they blew up and they fell out of the picture. The people who are at the top are the slow movers who walked slowly and got there with all their wits, all their integrity and all their friendships.
And the people who are at the top are really good team players, and they build good teams and that’s why they’re there. Now, that’s not always true, but I’ve been amazed at how often it’s true.
Cathy Brooks: When you think about the word “power” … Good Morning America reaches millions of people every single day. The platform you have is a pretty vast one and comes with … power … what does that mean to you?
Becky Worley: I’ve never even thought about it. I really come to technology from a user-centric approach. Meaning, I try and think about what I’m saying in terms of how an average consumer, an average user can digest the information. And if they can take away three things from a minute thirty or two-minute piece I do, that they can actually utilize in their life, then I’ve done a good job. And, I’m not there to sell things. I’m not there to promote a lifestyle. I’m there to help the user. And if I do that right, then the power I exert is bringing about change in a person’s life in a positive way. I’ve never even thought about it in terms of wielding power to change people’s perceptions.

Cathy Brooks:
So now that I’ve planted it in your head (laughter). Let’s get hypothetical for a minute. I mean, if you had an opportunity … you know … and again, the .. you have a specific role with Good Morning America, and with the different projects you have there’s a specific role, but if there were a … a cause … or is there something that you have such a deep passion about that given the opportunity you would use your platform and … use your powers for good?
Becky Worley: Powers for good and not for evil (smiling). Yeah, I think what I was just talking about in terms of being user-centric and using your platform to speak to large group of people, they’re pretty much the same thing. My goal is for people, specifically women, to understand how powerful technology is and how much it can help them to organize, consolidate and enrich their lives. You know, I think about the things prior to technology that women really struggled with. They lost touch with friends. Cell phones, email, newsgroups, sharing photos on-line, web sites, blogs, that’s just another way to stay in touch with people while you’re in your own home and can still keep an eye on your kids.
Cathy Brooks: Or in your corner executive office running your corporation but still wanting to keep a human face on yourself.
Becky Worley: Each of those scenarios are equally isolating from the people who remind you of who you are on an every day basis. I think that one of the pushes that I would like to see … I’d like to see more soccer moms with Blackberry’s, because I think that those communications tools are just as important for those who are scheduling corporate events as those who are scheduling play dates. Um, I’d like to see women not be intimidated by technology so that they can take a greater role in the boardroom and don’t feel that they need to defer to men in IT situations or engineering situations, because really … nobody knows it all … and I’m so sick of hearing people say, ‘Oh, I’m a tech idiot … I’m tech illiterate.’
Well, I know some programmers who spend their entire lifetime coding at a deep deep level in Perl or Java or C and they have no idea how Photoshop (by Adobe) works. They have no idea how to create a web site. Everyone has skills. Technology is a huge umbrella. And I’ve heard people, especially women, say, ‘Oh, I’m a tech illiterate you know I really can’t figure out how to get my site to do an RSS feed.’ (Breaks into laughter) … I mean are you kidding me?! What drugs are you on? Who has put this in your mind? What do you think you have to know to be technologically proficient? And I always go back to – and this is a standard industry analogy – you don’t have to know how to change your oil filter to be a good driver, and I would hate to see people not get behind the wheel because they didn’t know how to change their oil filter.
Cathy Brooks: So what’s next for you?

Becky Worley:
Well, I’m hoping to … one of the projects I’m trying to nail down right now is working with Yahoo! And they are really excited about creating a technology hub for the everyman and they’re calling it ‘technology for the rest of us.’ And you know that’s project I’d like to get involved with and whether it’s Yahoo! or someone else the goal is to take the boys club out of technology. And I hate to be so gender specific and I’m really not trying to be a man basher it’s just that technology, engineering, mathematics have so traditionally been the domain of men. And … you know, as far as I’m concerned keep your math, I don’t want it (laughs) but that’s just me (still laughing). But when it comes to tech I’d just love to see it be a little more accessible to third-agers (people over 55 or 60), to women, to minorities, to really people of socio-economic classes that are struggling. And so, bridging the digital divide … That’s a little bit trite but I’d like to see individuals of every flavor, every age and every gender grab a hold of some piece of gear that makes their life better.
Cathy Brooks: What are your thoughts about the social implications of how technology is changing the way we fundamentally interact with each other and fundamentally behave as a species … or sub-species I suppose in some cases.

Becky Worley:
(laughs) Well, it’s interesting. You have to wonder if it makes it a more horizontal world in that email allows you to break the chain of command … which is dangerous as all get out … (sighs) God, haven’t we all learned that the hard way! But it does allow you to make inroads in ways you might not have in the past. So, it does flatten an organization and it flattens social circles as well. I think that our communication styles have become much more casual which is actually more … You know, you would think it would benefit people of all social skills but in truth it still benefits those who are the most precise and, um, able with their social skills because it feels like you have friendships with people because you’re communicating on such a regular basis via email or cell phone. It feels like you have more of a friendship with your co-workers than a straight professional relationship. So, I think again it creates more social complexity in the workplace.
I think that, you know, going back to some of the principles of the late 90s I think that this concept of organizations and customers and their relationship being, the word in the past was disintermediated, meaning that there was real direct contact – in good organizations – between the customer and the organization and that could be done via technological means, traditionally through email or web sites. And I think that’s been very powerful for some groups and for some people. And if you know how to work the web, and when I say ‘work it’ I don’t mean just go to Google and find a site, I mean knowing how to go to the “about” page and drill down into the corporate investor or the press room and dig up an actual, live human being’s number, you can really permeate certain organizations and get into them.
Um, I think that social networking has certainly broadened people’s spheres, but in some senses it makes them much smaller because you’re ultimately still sitting in your living room sitting and typing and you’re alone. So it’s just that, that kind of dichotomy is really interesting. That it has created more ways to communicate and in some ways that’s distanced us from the real immediacy of what communication used to be. It used to be these really direct, really intense experiences and now communication is sort of haphazard and as you go. So in terms of one thing that’s changed in terms of our social world, our communication … more communication, less understanding.

Cathy Brooks:
Now that’s kjind of bleak (chuckle turning to laughter).
Becky Worley: (laughs) Right. Right. Well you know, it’s hard, I mean, I have to say that I’m just a huge technology fan. I mean, I think that it can really change our world for the better if we can get it into the hands of the people who can really do something with it. By that I mean, somebody from every caste and every color and every gender … You have to really applaud organizations like MIT who are trying to create $100 laptops to put in the hands of schools in third-world countries. Yahoo!’s got a project called Good Geeks where they send teams out to do whatever needs to be done technologically for non-profits or people in need. You have to look at what happened during (Hurricane) Katrina where people were hooked up with their family members who’d been lost through the Internet and Craigslist. There are as many opportunities for good as there is for misuse of technology and I really do believe that as we move forward those opportunities for good will expand.
The analogy I always use is when the Xerox machine first came into the office how many people sat on it with their pants down and photocopied their ass? (grins) Well, people don’t do that anymore, we’re over it, we’re over that technology, we’re using that for good now (said laughing).

Cathy Brooks:
What’s today’s equivalent of photocopying one’s ass?
Becky Worley: Well you know, I actually did a story about this because it was when people put cameras in cell phones and they would go into the bathroom and take photos. And in Japan their solution was ‘Oh, you have to put a noise of (camera) shutter on cell phone camera.’ … So it’s law in Japan. So that if a picture’s being taken it goes ‘click click’ which is a little MP3 or .WAV file playing in the background obviously there’s no shutter noise. But it just cracks me up. There’s something for everyone here in terms of how to misuse technology … gimme a break.
Cathy Brooks: (laughs) On that note, I’m going to let you move off to your day, swill down the last of your latte … Becky, thank you. I appreciate your talking today.

Becky Worley:
My pleasure.


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