Instead of getting up at 2 a.m. to go work alongside Kim Insley at the KARE 11’s “Sunrise” anchor desk, now Tim McNiff gets up at 4:30 a.m. to exercise.
He said he’s in the best shape of his life and professionally very happy as the executive director at Media Minefield, based in Minnetonka. “We operate in a specific area of PR called ‘earned media.’ It’s an interaction with a professional journalist with the sole intent of informing the public with expert analysis about a timely topic or issue. If something happens overnight with the Supreme Court, we find an expert to appear on [channels] 4,5, 9 and 11, FOX and CNN to talk about the Supreme Court. We create opportunities for our clients to appear in the media. For our clients, it’s brand enhancement. We can do it in the Twin Cities and any market across the United States; we have this network that’s built all across the country. Last year we worked in 143 markets across the United States.”
They also provide crisis management to clients.
Because McNiff has always put his wife, Amy, and their daughters Bridget and Haley first, there have never been any real crises to manage at home. There was, however, unhappiness with the demanding schedule of TV sports reporting and anchoring, which he did for 10 years at KARE and spent his final 11 years working early morning hours, which required an early bedtime that caused him to miss a lot of family togetherness.
The career shift came when Bridget, our “oldest daughter, decided to pursue the college of her dreams, which was the college of my financial nightmares. ‘I can’t [volunteer] coach football anymore. I’ve got to get another job,’ ” McNiff told his wife. “I’m done every day at 10:30 -11 in the morning. I could go work a second job, and if I work from 11 to 6 p.m. I can help Bridget offset the cost of what we were expecting her college to cost us.”
Then a KARE 11 photographer told McNiff he needed to meet Media Minefield founder Kristi Piehl.
“The reason news in this town isn’t what it was is because most of the rock star producers work here now,” Piehl said with a smile. “McNiff is here, good producers are here doing great work, and I’m happy to have them. But I’m sorry for the viewers.”
While McNiff will gladly share his producing expertise, he’s mainly in charge of expanding business through sales.
McNiff said Piehl offered him the same salary he made at KARE with the opportunity to make more than anybody else at his former TV home of 21 years, if he succeeds.
He’s all in, but a little sad that now that he has regular work hours, his kids don’t live at home. Bridget is at NYU studying acting, and Haley is a UW Madison freshman.
McNiff’s boyish gushing over Amy, who helps at-risk students in the Wayzata School District, makes it sound as if they are making the most of being empty nesters. I’m happy for them, but Kim Insley still doesn’t look quite right at the “Sunrise” desk without McNiff. And I miss those cute commercials KARE 11 did making the most of their rhyming first names.
Q: Do you miss the broadcast thing?
A: At all? There are times when certain things happen and I say, “Oh, I wish I was involved in that.” But no, not in the sense of when it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or all those nights and weekends. I worked nights and weekends for 10 years and then that morning schedule for 11. I don’t miss that schedule. You miss some of the people and the action from time to time, but I’m in a great place right now.
Q: Has any station been in touch with you about returning to local TV?
A: Umm. I’m really focused on just going forward at this point. This is all about making this thing fly. It’s going that way, so that’s where my attention is now.
Q: That was a yes or a no question.
A: [Laughter] There were a couple conversations. Nothing ever reached that serious nature, but it was flattering.
Q: Why are a lot of TV people so much work?
A: The late Brad Woodard said to me basically, “Let’s face it, There’s something wrong with all of us. We’re in TV.” And I kind of [thought], Yeah, you’re probably right.
Q: Have you fielded phone calls from local TV personalities who might want to come here?
A: It’s interesting. When I made the switch, I was not aware of how many PR firms there are out there. I think when I did what I did it must have drawn some kind of attention, so I’ve been contacted by some people asking for advice. The one thing I always say is my situation was unique. I ran into a great opportunity. I wasn’t looking to leave. I feel lucky. One thing I always say is, “Be careful. The grass isn’t always greener, and you can’t be looking to escape. You’ve got to be going to something.”
Q: Let’s pretend you are on a two-seat raft. You’re going to be in one of those seats. There’s a photographer you can save or an anchor, which one would you choose?
A: [Laughs] Both of them, and I’d give up my seat and try to hang on to the raft. Seriously, if you ask my wife and kids, [they’d tell you, I’d say] “You guys take this, I’ll make it.”
Q: Yeah, based on the tire-changing story I know about you, you don’t have a very good sense of self-preservation.
A: [Laughs] Actually that turned out well for me. That changed my fortune. If you do the right thing for the right reason, good comes of that. It may not be self-evident immediately.
Q: What is one way you can improve the work environments at all television newsrooms?
A: When 2008 happened across the country, every industry was hit, but TV stations were hit very hard. I haven’t been at KARE in a year and a half, so I can’t speak to what the atmosphere is there now. But I think there needs to be a recognition that a lot of people paid a heck of a price. There has to be an acknowledgment that these people are really struggling to find their way. From a management perspective, to say, “We can make it better, and we’re all in this together.” I can’t speak to whether they have or haven’t done that. Just to say, “We know it’s a struggle out there. Hang in there.” A lot of people left. Some were forced out, and some chose to stay, but they made a sacrifice. The industry changed, and you know that.
Q: Did you notice any professional jealousy as a result of the popularity of Sven?
A: I love Sven. I just think that meteorologists hold a special place in this market. When I was an intern, it was Paul Douglas. Then it was Ken Barlow and they were super popular; then it was Belinda and Sven. They’ve always gotten their share of fans. I am happy to say I think I enjoyed a good relationship with all of them, and Sven is unique. The problem with Sven to me was I was Ed McMahon to his Johnny Carson. He knew he could make me laugh without going out of his way, and he went out of his way to make me laugh. He was entertaining.
Q: Tell me about the last time you lost your temper — remembering that I saw you the day you were furious because your access to Gen. Colin Powell was curtailed.
A: I remember that time. [Laughter.] Oh, I’ve got my Irish temper there’s no doubt about that. I’m as emotional as they come, so I need to keep it under wraps. Being a quote-unquote “public figure” taught me a lot about that. There are things that would happen within the car or the grocery store and you just can’t do anything about that, and now that I’ve become a private citizen, I think, “But I’m still in Minnesota.” That day was beautiful. If they had just told me, I wouldn’t have gone [to the Minneapolis Convention Center to interview Powell].
Q: What is going on with public relations people right now, that they feel we should just be thrilled to be in the same room with a celebrity, so they invite us over to see them but not even have a two-minute interview? LeVar Burton and John Cleese were both recently due in town for a no-media access appearances. Is that stupid and shortsighted on the part of the people hosting those guys?
A: It is. That is probably a disconnect from the people putting on the event and the people who manage the personality. So many people are trying now to be their own media, and that’s a dangerous thing. It’s not as easy as it seems. That’s why the name of this company is Media Minefield. That’s a minefield, and we want to help clients to avoid stepping on the mines. Look at a lot of PR firms and they say they are crisis communications experts and I look at … what have they done. They have never worked in any news station. What crisis experience do they have? I think we are uniquely qualified to talk to businesses and individuals about that: “If you find yourself in that situation, this is what you need to do.” You have to be careful, because nowadays everybody has a cellphone and that means everybody is a reporter and if you are any person at all — C.J., you are a brand. You have to protect your brand at all times.
Q: What do you do to release the valve?
A: I’m up at 4:30 every day, and I work out. I’m in better shape now having gotten off that schedule. I had to get my physical health back. There’s an enormous toll that comes with getting up at 2 in the morning because you are breaking your natural sleep cycle. There are times when my wife will be telling a story and I’ll say, “Keep going,” because I don’t remember anything about what she’s talking about and I was there.
Q: Half -heimers? Alzheimers
A: I’m scared about that because my Mother, bless her, has dementia. I worry about the effects of having done that job as long as I did. I’m bound and determined. I have a wonderful book for you. It’s called “Younger Next Year.” It was recommended to me by a client. It’s all about taking charge of your health and doing what you can. I’m real happy.
Q: And your family?
A: I got home, and the girls are out of the house. We’re empty nesters. It was funny. I would hear about a lot of these conflicts and have to play Bad Cop, even though I was never there at the time. The girls made it easy on me. I miss them every day. This normal schedule has made that transition to being empty nesters much better. I always worked the nontraditional schedule and my wife was always the good trouper about that, and for us it has been a restart. It’s wonderful.
Q: What’s something you do around your house that would surprise people?
A: My friends all know how I’m not handy. I like to do programs around the house and I have to clear them with my wife first. “I want to do this? Can I do this much of it?” ’Cause she knows the professional has to come in at a certain point. I’m not allowed to finish things. I don’t generally attempt electricity, but with my brother-in-law’s guidance over the phone I was able to put a dimmer switch in right before Christmas. I’ll walk over and say, “Look at this,” then put the dimmer switch on a number of times. I did that!
Q: How would you repair “Breaking the News?”
A: I wouldn’t agree it needs to be repaired. I think every show needs an amount of time to find its legs to define its audience. I applaud KARE and Tegna the parent company for trying to do something different to shake up this market, and I think we need a new way of acknowledging that people have a different way of acquiring their news. I think it’s been interesting to watch. I’m a huge Rena Sarigianopoulos fan and it’s been interesting watching Jana’s [Shortal] personality come out of this whole thing. Chris Hrapsky got hired just before I left, so I barely knew him, but I’ve enjoyed the work he’s done. It’s a welcome addition to the news scheme. I don’t know if what we are looking at now is what it’s going to be in six months or a year. I’m interested to see where it goes.
Q: When stations have tag lines like “The Most Watched,” do they really mean anything?
A: Hmmm. It always meant something to me in that it would bother me because I’m the most competitive person you’ve ever met and I looked at those ratings every day. Oh God. My whole background is sports so, “Am I winning or am I losing?” When I first went to mornings — we were running second of third at 6 a.m. — and somebody said to me, We’ll never win the 5 a.m. hour and I said, “Why?” and they said, “We don’t. People don’t get up that early.” And I said, “Well, we will now.” And during that 10 or 11 years we won consistently. That’s the way it was weekends with sports. I’m driven to compete. It’s gamesmanship. It bothered me watching a Vikings game, three hours of some other station saying, We’re Number 1, and I would say, “NO YOU’RE NOT. NO YOU’RE NOT!” It would ruin my whole day.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch “The Jason Show” on FOX 9.