Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Giving Voice to a Panhandler's Story

Everybody's got a story. You just gotta stop and ask them. That's what Columbus (OH) Dispatch videojournalist Doral Chenoweth III discovered when he asked to hear the "God-given gift of voice" that a panhandling homeless man advertised on a cardboard sign off a freeway ramp: "I'm an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times."

In a short video, we learn that the man's name is Ted Williams, and he confesses that his career was derailed by alcohol and drugs. But he says he's been clean and sober for two years and is now looking for a comeback. And, yes, his deep announcer-like voice is sufficiently remarkably (and incongruous with his appearance) to have garnered 4.5 million views on YouTube.

Williams is reportedly getting lucrative job offers from radio stations and even TV networks, thanks to the viral video. Read his story here.

UPDATE (1/5 9:30 a.m.): In an appearance on the local "Dave and Jimmy" talk radio show, Ted Williams reveals he is awash in offers from national broadcast media -- even overwhelmed by the sudden courtship. ESPN reports he has been offered an announcer job by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: If a videojournalist had set out to do a roundup piece on "Hidden Talents of the Homeless," would it have been as effective, and had as much impact? On the one hand, there's the old journalism canard: "One is an example, two is a coincidence, three is a trend." On the other hand, as crusading New York Times videojournalist Nick Kristof often warns, viewers actively care about the plight of one person with a hard-luck story, and will go out of their way to help (with donations, petition-signing, etc.). But introduce their equally beleaguered family or community -- or even a single sibling -- and paradoxically the situation suddenly seems hopeless and our empathy shrinks to zero. Contemplating massacres or plagues, psychic numbing and compassion fatigue takes over. The lesson? Big numbers don't move us, but individual stories do. What do you think?

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