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Newly retired KTLA newsman Stan Chambers. Photo: KTLA

Breaking News: A Q&A with Stan Chambers

Posted November 30, 2010


In Los Angeles, Stan Chambers is a household name to thousands of Angelenos who have grown up watching him report from the field for KTLA Channel 5. And while that “legendary” status may not necessarily boil over to the rest of the United States, Chambers’ contribution to TV journalism is historical. In 1949, Chambers covered the unsuccessful rescue of a girl named Kathy Fiscus, who fell into an abandoned well in San Marino, Calif. His marathon 27-hour live coverage of the Fiscus tragedy has been recognized as the first live television coverage of a breaking news story.

This past summer, Chambers, 88, a member of AFTRA since 1951, retired from KTLA, the only news station he worked for in his remarkable 60-plus-year career in television. Chambers leaves behind a legacy at KTLA, including his grandson, Jaime Chambers (also an AFTRA member), who is following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a news reporter at the station.

Chambers took some time to talk with AFTRA’s National Communications Manager Leslie Simmons for AFTRA Magazine to reflect on his retirement, the business and the Fiscus event and its impact on television reporting.

AFTRA: We hear that even though you’re “retired,” you actually are still going over to KTLA almost on a daily basis. What are you working on?

STAN CHAMBERS: I’m finishing a book, so that fills my time nicely. It’s a personal history of 63 years of live television.

AFTRA: Do you miss being out there?

CHAMBERS: Oh yes. I think I always will, because it’s there, and I’m here. It’s been a privilege that I have been able to be at that station for such a long period of time and I was able to see where we were and where we’re going and where we are now.

AFTRA: Your big break was covering the Kathy Fiscus tragedy. Tell us your memories of that day.

CHAMBERS: It really was the first time that anything like that had ever been done. Very few people had television sets at the time. This was so unique, so emotional and so powerful. Neighbors told neighbors. People went over to the homes of their neighbors homes who had TV sets to watch it. They slept in their living rooms that night, waiting for information. It made such a big impact on the community. Everybody was emotionally bound to this rescue attempt. It triggered the start of television.

AFTRA: And in 1949, there were more radios than TVs in the living room, correct?

CHAMBERS: Yes. Most people didn’t own television sets. There were maybe 500 or 1,000 televisions in the city. So, when people watched this at the neighbor’s house and slept on the floor, they felt the emotional impact and suffering throughout this ordeal. And the end line was that they all bought television sets. Sales of television sets went up rapidly after that.

AFTRA:  I imagine, at that time, you also had unprecedented access to information, the scene of the event, things that reporters have difficulty getting access to today.

CHAMBERS: I think that’s very true. The cameras were a respected distance away. But we were able to talk to everybody. We made the decision not to talk to the Fiscus family because of the emotional issue. We never did during the entire time. But it was a universally shared emotion of hope, and then despair. And it happened over the weekend, so people weren’t going to work and I think there were some people who actually watched it for the entire 27 hours.

AFTRA:  Where did the idea that you could report this whole ordeal live come from?

CHAMBERS: Our station was operated by Klaus Landsberg, a brilliant TV engineer. It was his decision to go out there and get the equipment out there, because he was a very good television engineer. All the stations and newspapers in town were covering it in their way, but not by bringing people – from their homes – out there to watch a live situation as they tried to rescue this girl.

I was giving a speech downtown and my editor called and asked me to go to the Fiscus house. So, I got a ride out there, because I didn’t have a car in those days. I met up with Bill Welsh, who was a great sports reporter, and he and I were the two reporters from KTLA. When we got there, they had already gone on the air from the scene and rescue attempt. Bill and I were told to do the live coverage. It was limitless.

AFTRA:  Was live 24-hour coverage something that was already done on radio?

CHAMBERS: I don’t truthfully know how much live (on the scene) radio they did in those days. I don’t think very much, because radio still had very complicated equipment to transmit for broadcast. They couldn’t easily go over to a scene. So, this was all so new and people had never experienced something like this before – spending the entire weekend watching it and the tragedy. People really realized that the electronic media – radio and television – was a great source for news and that changed the whole thing.

AFTRA: Recently, as the world watched the drama unfold with the trapped Chilean miners, you were able to reflect on the Fiscus tragedy. What were your thoughts as you watched it unfold?

CHAMBERS: We were watching the Chilean miners all night and I got a call from the BBC. They wanted me to talk about the Kathy Fiscus rescue attempt and the first live media effort to cover something like that.

It’s interesting how things tie together. That is the beauty of broadcast. You are at the scene. Unfortunately, there are a lot of stations at the scene, too. But viewers have a chance to see many approaches and many reporters and be part of a story taking place. The equipment is down to such a beautiful science you can go just about any place and do just about anything.

AFTRA: You’ve seen it all, but is there a story you wish you had covered, but didn’t?

CHAMBERS: No. To this day, when we go to the live scene of a news story, you don’t know what’s going to happen until you get there. It’s that emotional surge about what’s happening and what can we do? Where’s our equipment? Can we get out there? Can we call in more people? It’s an attempt to do the impossible. You’re out there and able to show what’s happening at that moment. The thing we didn’t have back then, and we have now, is videotape and the ability to record and edit and get it on national networks.

AFTRA: Your grandson, Jaime Chambers, is also a broadcaster at KTLA – and an AFTRA member. When he decided to join the broadcast industry, what was your biggest piece of advice to him?

CHAMBERS: Listen … and watch and keep your emotions under control. You are able to be there, and know what’s happening and show what’s happening, but don’t get overwhelmed by that. Some people don’t handle situations so well because they are literally overwhelmed. If you go to the scene and sit back and watch the news cameras go to work and record, you have all the elements you need and plenty to edit and put on the air.

AFTRA: How did you learn to control your emotions?

CHAMBERS: It’s an ongoing situation. You’re out there and experiencing things. Something happens and it brings tears to your eyes and you bite your tongue. There are close calls, when a person is saved because an emergency crew got there in time. It adds that emotional impact on each viewer who sits and watches.

AFTRA: The news broadcast industry has changed so much over the years since you started. What do you think were some of the most significant changes?

CHAMBERS: The big thing that happened was the development of the cameras and the equipment that allows you to stay on the air for 24 hours.

With the Fiscus tragedy, you had the technical ability to bring people to the scene of the rescue attempt. But you also had all kinds of challenges. If you have a mountain blocking the transmission off Mount Wilson, you learned to send another crew to that mountain peak to relay the signal. You don’t have to do that today. All the early years of live news broadcasts, you learned so much and helped develop technical equipment that’s needed to tell the story right.

AFTRA: What about significant changes in reporting style?

CHAMBERS:  I think reporters are pretty well trained these days. They didn’t have such a thing as a news course in the universities when I started out. It evolved and professors realized that it was something important.

AFTRA: How do you feel about the so-called “One Man Band” trend?

CHAMBERS: It’s a tough job to do when it’s just one person. I think a full crew has a more objective style to get better news coverage. If you are the crew, then you’ve got to be an engineer, and you can’t be the engineer and be on the air, so you have to have a tech crew. You have to have people who know how to use the equipment and make the most of it.

AFTRA: So, it sounds like you feel there is a loss of quality when you have one person doing everything.

CHAMBERS: All you need is a camera and someone to record, and a person to report. And that’s the basics. The whole element that transmits the reality of the story is the camera at the scene, and the reporter is really, in effect, adding to the coverage that the TV camera is getting at the scene. In many respects, the camera is everything. That is what tells the story. The reporter is next because they’re able to get the people involved in the story - their attitude and outlook. And then the TV audience becomes part of the story when it’s on the air and live from the scene and they experience the news event as it takes place. Of course, we’re all used to it, so TV doesn’t have the powerful drama it used to have, except when there are big emotional situations.

AFTRA: You joined AFTRA in 1951. Looking back as a member, did you ever have an “AFTRA moment” where your union came through for you or where you realized the benefit of being a union member and having union protection?

CHAMBERS: Oh yes. And the continual thing is the ability to help the people, the members. On the medical side, it’s always been there and it’s probably the best in whole world. I can’t believe what AFTRA has done for individual members through its health and retirement benefits. We’re just very fortunate to get such real help when we need it, and such real assistance in specific and serious things. We’re doing quite well and I’m very impressed with the coverage AFTRA gives us. I have 11 children and over the years, we have had many levels of help through AFTRA.

We are in the entertainment business, and AFTRA’s developed a maturity and efficiency. I would say we probably have one of the finest unions in the world.

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