Friday morning at 7 a.m., Bob Berkowitz, the new Washington correspondent for Ted Turner's fledgling Cable News Network -- set to debut nationally on June 1 -- called George Watson, the new CNN Washington bureau chief, at home and announced that he was off to the Pentagon to cover the latest developments in the Iranian rescue mission crisis.
With him would be David Browde -- another new Washington correspondent. Meanwhile, Kandy Stroud, once of Women's Wear Daily and now CNN's State Department correspondent, was off to the State Department.
"Wait a minute!" cried Watson. "We don't have any crews!"
Actually, they did have a few -- and those were dispatched for what was in effect a serious dry run.
The hectic pace is nothing new for Cable News Network. Ted Turner, the man who started all this, has put together a national network team in a year, hiring this first employe -- controversial former Cbs correspondent Daniel Schorr -- only 15 minutes before Turner announced the formation of CNN to the world last May in Las Vegas.
Since then, Turner and his outfit have engineered a recruiting blitz unrivaled in intensity since ABC went after the cream of CBS and NBC three years ago.
Some are calling it a raid; others say it's business as usual in the dog-eat-dog world of network competition. And one network has already begun what CNN says could be counter-raiding -- competitive offers made to a couple of people CNN had already "shaken hands" with.
"We're all big boys and we play a pretty rough game," said one CNN official philosophically.
"You have to understand," said one major network correspondent, "the market for braodcast journalists has temporarily gone berserk. CNN has somethig to do with that. So does ABC's 11:30 news program."
Turner's hiring hunt has so far netted 260 employes -- 150 in the past three months alone -- out of the 300 needed to run the seven bureaus in Turner's 24-hour news operation. But officials at ABC, CBS and NBC say they are not really suffering even through Turner has taken about two dozen key personnel from the networks and their local affiliates.
"Of course, he's raiding," said William Leonard, president of CBS News. "He's going to the only place he can go for professionals. But I've had better networks than his fishing around for people, and we're still putting out news everyday."
"You're always concerned," said Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, from which Turner took about a dozen staffers. "If you're competitive, yo don't want to wake up one morning and find out someone you really like has left for another station."
But, says Arledge, "He didn't get anybody we really wanted to keep. That doesn't mean they're not good people.If we had seriously wanted to keep them at ABC, we would have kept them. You fight to keep people."
CNN is looking for people "with journalistic credibility and on-the-air reading ability," according to Reese Schonfeld, president of CNN. Indeed, that's what they need. They will have 25 anchor positions, including news, sports and financial anchors -- many more than the three major commercial networks. And to get them, CNN -- which is not a union shop -- will pay, according to Schonfeld, "comparable salary plus 10 percent. We want people to come for the excitement and the challenge."
And for some potential employes, there are offers of stock-purchase plans in Turner Broadcasting System Inc. Two new recruits are getting low-interest loans to buy houses. "We gave some people chances to buy stock," said one CNN official, "because we figured that would be the only way their network couldn't match the offer."
George Watson, former Washington bureau chief for ABC and now holding that job for CNN, says he never consciously sought out ABC people. "I certainly didn't intend to be a pied piper leading an exodus out of ABC."
From the Washinton bureau of ABC-TV, Turner has hired correspondents Bill Zimmerman, Bernard Shaw and Don Farmer. From local WJLA-TV, he hired Farmer's wife, Chris Curle.She and Farmer have gone to Atlanta as a team. From all-news radio station WTOP, CNN got sportscaster Nick Charles (also formerly of WRC-TV).
In addition, they have talked to the likes of David Frost, Geraldo Rivera, and former British ambasador to the U.S. Peter Jay. All of the above gave a certain plum on-the-air job at CNN more than just a thought.
As soon as the formation of CNN was announced and management hired, they went after big-name commentators, scooping up William Simon, Bella Abzug, Phyllis Schlafly and Dr. Joyce Brothers.
CNN officials maintain that their code of ethics forbids recruiting people with existing contracts. (There have been exceptions. One was CBS noon anchor Doug Edwards. According to CNN, CBS refused to let him out of his contract).
The proces begins with discreet inquiries. "It's a small industry, and word gets around," said Schonfeld.
"Don Farmer was among the first hired. We had a pipeline into ABC right away. We were able to learn who was unhappy or dissatisfied."
The interest spreads. Once one person -- from a local tape editor to a network correspondent -- is tapped, he will begin getting inquiries from friends who call up or approach him in the hallway.
"There are a lot of jokes about it," said one local TV reporter. People ask each other, 'Well, have you sent in your resume yet?"
For some, the answer is yes. Says former WJLA assignment editor Lynne Adrine, one of CNN's new hires, "At least seven to nine people from the whole news operation have sent resumes or tapes."
Schonfeld said CNN has received about 5,000 applications.
Part of the attraction is the aura surrounding Ted Turner -- multimillionaire, champion yachtsman, owner of the Atlanta Braves and his Atlanta-based TV superstation. At 41, he is often pictured with his head cocked back, a cigar clenched in his smiling mouth. Actually, he has been fairly removed from hiring, except in special cases.
The main lure seems more the promise of getting in "on the ground floor," and the promise of more air time, especially as an anchor, in a field that is very tough to break into and advance in.Adding to the appeal are the salaries and the credibility lent to the organization by established network people who went to CNN early in the game.
Some examples of CNN's tactics:
ABC correspondent Bill Zimmerman had been on general assignment since 1977, inconveniently traveling around the country. One evening in early April, he sat talking over drinks with a friend and former ABC Washington producer, David Newman, who was going to CNN. Newman asked Zimmerman whether he would be interested.
"At that point, I'd consider anything, I told him," Zimmerman recalls. A couple of weeks later, on Easter Sunday, Watson called Zimmerman went to Atlanta, looked around, and talked to CNN officials. He was offered a job on the spot -- as an anchor out of Atlanta for the nightly 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. newscast.
Zimmerman got over $20,000 more than what he was making at ABC, he said. But CNN officials say Zimmerman would have gotten a raise had he stayed at ABC. (His contract was under negotiation.) The going rate for network correspondents in Washington (with the exception of the big stars) is $50,000 to $60,000.
CNN offered Bernard Shaw a plum he wanted at ABC but couldn't have -- an anchor job. The former ABC Latin America correspondent had been a correspondent for the ABC bureau in Washinton since late last year. "All the anchor spots [at ABC] were spoken for," he said. "There were people standing in line for them, and I wasn't one of them."
He said he became aware of the CNN job after phone calls from people in Atlanta. "I haven't required much proselytizing," said Shaw, who will earn more money at CNN. "I just had to sit down and look over the contract."
"I don't view going to cable as a step down," said Shaw. "Someone told me, 'More people will see you on World News Tonight than anchoring on cable.' That's not the purpose. [CNN] is pure news -- not just once or twice a day. The least of my problems is that is has a small audience."
(CNN's Watson says the network hopes to reach a viewing audience of 4 million -- very small by commercial network standards.)
Sportscaster Nick Charles had been working quite happily at WTOP radio for $400 A WEEK SINCE HE LEFT WRC-TV. The TV station had reportedly let his contract run out because they felt his image was too stiff for TV.
When Cable News called and invited him down to Atlanta, Charles first said no to anchoring a late-night sports show, reluctant to be "a studio guy" again. After some coaxing and more phone calls, he said yes. Sources say he has an $80,000-a-year salary and a guaranteed two-year contract.
CNN's hiring blitz has also had its disappointments.
Amont those CNN tried to get for its planned prime-time talk show were:
Peter Jay, who once did a weekend show in London. He couldn't do it.
David Frost, who reportedly was "very interested. The prospect of working in Atlanta didn't bother him," said one source. "He was quite accustomed to working in the provinces of England. He figured Atlanta was about the same as that."
Geraldo Rivera, now a correspondent with ABC's "20/20." According to Reese Schonfeld, "We offered him an incredible deal -- compensation based on ratings points. At the top end he could have gotten more money than Dan Rathers." At the low end, he would have gotten in the low six figures. He also would have been producer of the show.
Rivera flew to Atlanta for talks, but eventually declined the CNN offer.
Phil Donahue -- "I asked what his contractual agreement was," related Schonfeld. "We never got close to talking about hiring."
"We're flattered that CNN wants our people," said Carl Bernstein, ABC Washington bureau chief. "In some cases they're willng to pay more than we are."
But the networks are fighting back. Joe Benton, Washington correspondent for the Post-Newsweek stations, had been looking for other jobs and talking to CNN for several weeks. Last Tuesday afternoon, he shook hands with CNN's Watson on a job covering the House of Representatives. The next morning ABC made him a better offer. Benton said yesterday that he will probably take the ABC job as a general assignment correspondent.
David Ensor, former National Public Radio White House correspondent, was not even looking for a job when he was called by both CNN's Watson and ABC's Bernstein within 48 hours of each other last month. When CNN made an offer, Ensor called Bernstein to inform him. Ensor told them CNN wanted a decision in four days. Within three days, Bernstein called back and made Ensor an offer that included "a substantial chunk more" money, according to Ensor. He is now the No.3 White House correspondent for ABC.
"There is raid and there is being raided," said Watson simply.