U.S. Army Capt. Frank Razzano Jr. is spending a year as an intern in the news department of Raycom’s Savannah, Ga., CBS affiliate. He’s following a reporter and a photographer as they pursue stories, sits in on news meetings and studies the station’s marketing and promotion efforts. It’s all to learn techniques and skills that will help him do his Army job of convincing foreign populations to support the work of U.S. forces in their countries.
A year ago, U.S. Army Capt. Frank Razzano Jr. was stationed in Afghanistan, working as an assistant operations officer of a unit charged with communicating “selected, truthful information” to Afghans, an undertaking commonly referred to as psychological operations (PSYOPS).
But last fall, Razzano — still active and on a career officer’s track — stashed his uniform in the closet and left Fort Bragg, N.C., where his Military Information Support unit is based, for an apartment in suburban Savannah, Ga., (DMA 92) to spend a year with the news team at WTOC, Raycom’s CBS affiliate there.
“It’s certainly been a culture shock going to work in a shirt and tie,” says Razzano, 32, who has multiple deployments behind him and has not worked as a civilian since joining the Army ROTC at age 18.
Razzano, who first learned of the WTOC position while in Afghanistan, sees the job, which primarily involves observing what goes into producing local TV newscasts, as a chance to further his career in Army communications.
“Being able to observe the day-to-day operations of a television station is invaluable for what I do in the military,” Razzano says.
He says his goal is to take away from the experience “best practices of a television news station” that will help him and fellow PSYOPS soldiers more effectively do their job — spreading the American message to convince foreign populations to support the work of U.S. forces in their countries.
What Razzano will do with that knowledge once his year at WTOC is over remains to be seen — although, whatever it is, Razzano says it will be with the Army. He has no aspirations for a reporter’s gig or an anchor’s chair.
Razzano expects to return to Fort Bragg “for an unidentified assignment that would be commiserate with my rank.” He also hopes that a promotion to major is in his near future.
Trying to get the word out to remote and illiterate people in places like Afghanistan is a far more complex challenge than getting the local news out in a place like Savannah.
Yet, the efforts have more in common than you would think, says Razzano, whose time at WTOC is funded through the Army’s Training with Industry program.
Creating a news story involves techniques the Army can use to craft messages, he says. And targeting stories to select demographics, such as Hilton Head Island’s senior citizens, is not that far off from the military’s goal of reaching discreet populations.
Razzano says he and station marketing and research teams share challenges as well. “It’s always a struggle to know if your message is received and how you can prove it is effective.”
Much like a conventional intern — say, a college student or teacher — Razzano spends five days a week at WTOC, two of which involve following a reporter and a photographer as they pursue stories on Hilton Head Island.
He sits in on daily news meetings, chiming in only when asked whether a local military-related story is worth covering, and soaks up how the station’s marketing and promotional arms work.
Razzano also has regular sit-downs with GM Bill Cathcart, who championed the station’s work with the information support unit. In April, Razzano will travel to Raycom stations in Charlotte, N.C. (DMA 25), Myrtle Beach, S.C. (DMA 103), and Montgomery, Ala. (DMA 119), where the company is based.
Razzano is the fourth Fort Bragg soldier-intern WTOC has had in as many years, Cathcart says. And the station may now be alone in training soldiers.
WRAL, Capitol Broadcasting’s flagship CBS affiliate in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. (DMA 24), used to host PSYOPS soldiers, but has not done so since 2007.
TV journalism experts contacted for this story are unaware of other military internships.
And so are station executives in military-heavy markets such as San Diego and Oklahoma City, where, a year ago, KFOR branded itself Freedom 43 to appeal to the market’s immense population of active and retired military.
In the 1990s, CNN also hosted PSYOPS soldiers from Fort Bragg under the Training with Industry program and was criticized for having “propagandists” in the newsroom.
At that time, the partnership raised questions about CNN’s relationship with the military and whether having the soldiers in-house influenced coverage of events, particularly the war in Kosovo.
Dow Smith, a visiting journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, says military internships at TV stations also blur the line between news staffers and the people and institutions they cover.
“In the media, we have a totally different mission, like telling the truth,” he says.
Razzano says that perception of his internship and his role is just wrong. “People hear psychological warfare and they think we’re out doing voodoo and lying to people and that’s not true,” he says.
Razzano says he is not interested in shaping WTOC’s coverage in any way. All he wants to do is learn, he says.
Jim Boyer, KFOR general manager, concurs. “I don’t see it as largely different from having a teacher spend a summer with a station,” he says. “If you’re transferring knowledge with the aim of having a greater understanding then I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Carthcat balks at the idea that having Army officers in house is a breach of newsroom ethics. “It’s just the opportunity for us to try to share with the military how we operate in the real world,” he says. “We get nothing out of it other than the honor of spending a year with them.”
Razzano is determined to make the most of his time at WTOC. In addition to absorbing as much as he can, Razzano says he wants to help improve the program so future soldier-interns can benefit as well.
“This is an investment on the Army’s behalf and you certainly want to make the most of it.”
He also is relishing the simple, often overlooked, pleasures of civilian life, like working a 9 to 5 job and actually getting to enjoy those 30 days of leave that are hard to use when stationed at Fort Bragg.
“The plus of this is that I get to spend time with my family,” he says.
Read other Air Check columns here.