When I entered that sprawling Phelps County Ag Center in Holdrege late Monday afternoon, it was empty except for a thicket of people, wires, and tech equipment at the north end. In less than two hours, they would go live for the NTV News gubernatorial debate. I’d agreed to be a panelist.
NTV initially invited Lori Potter to sit on the panel, but since she retired from the Kearney Hub a year ago, she suggested that I take her place.
During my 20 years as a Cleveland newspaper editor, I became a veteran of political debates. Those affairs were held in plush-seated auditoriums or high-ceilinged, high-tech TV studios.
Last week, the setting was the Phelps County fairgrounds, and instead of business casual, the attendees wore boots and cowboy hats. I’m a city girl who didn’t know a pivot from a grain bin until I landed in the Great Plains 10 years ago, but I quickly realized that debates are debates, no matter how rural or regal the setting.
Preparation for the debate began five days before. During two one-hour Zoom calls with NTV News Director Matt Weesner, we panelists — Sara Kirkley, NTV morning co-anchor, Dave Schroeder, news director of Lexington’s KRVN radio station and I — finalized concise questions for the three (of nine) GOP primary candidates: Brett Lindstrom, Theresa Thibodeaux and Charles Herbster. Jim Pillen declined the invitation.
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Like any live event, the real work takes place off camera. The technical crew had arrived at 9 am Monday. Debate moderator Dave Griek and on-air live host Colleen Williams were there at 4:30 pm We panelists were told to report by 5:30. I arrived at 5:40, delayed by roadwork on Highway 34.
I was professionally attired in a tailored beige sweater, red top and pretty necklace, but I felt like a frump next to those TV women in their snazzy on-air dresses and high heels. Griek wore a classy red tie; And, even trendier, he wasn’t wearing socks.
No high heels for me. I wore comfy flats. Viewers couldn’t see our feet anyway.
I had feared that sitting there for 90 minutes before the 7 pm debate might be boring, but it was fun. We panelists chatted. I watched the production crews set up equipment. Weesner checked our microphones. By 6 pm, the public and the candidates began to drift in.
I studied and re-studied my assigned questions. I’d highlighted them on the script, but Kirkley had printed out each of hers in large type on separate pieces of paper. I wished I’d thought of that.
As I watched Williams and Griek give two live on-air promos during NTV’s 6 pm newscast, I grew nostalgic. My father was the dean of radio news directors back in Cleveland. He did some TV, too. Suddenly I was spun back into the broadcast world. I had forgotten how deeply I missed it.
As 7 pm crept closer, my nerves tightened. What if I flubbed a question? What if I sneezed? What if a speck of dust flew into my eye and clouded a contact lens?
Meanwhile, ag center workers set up more chairs. Schroeder and I scanned the crowd and saw Nebraska Examiner reporter Aaron Sanderford, the one who recently wrote about Herbster’s alleged cozying up to women.
At 6:58 pm Williams stood up. She stared into the camera, waiting. Suddenly she was on, live. Griek laid out the ground rules, and we were off and running. Each candidate had one minute to respond to our questions. As they spoke, Weesner held up big cards saying that they had 30 seconds left, then 15, then 10. If they went over 60 seconds, Griek politely cut them off.
There wasn’t time to ask all our questions, and that’s OK. Early on, Griek leaped ahead in the script and asked each candidate one question written especially for him or her. That wasn’t planned until late in the debate, but those were critical questions. Had he not done that, we might’ve run out of time.
That hour raced by. Suddenly, it was over. Cameras were turned off. People stood up, chatted, looking hands. As I drove home past parched, empty cornfields, I smiled. The debate was a blast.