By Brad Walker, Rivers Director June 30, 2016
Admit it, if you’ve ever seen it you’ve thought about being on The Daily Show. So have I. So on December 1, 2015, when I received an email from a person claiming to be from the show saying they wanted to do a field piece about questionable projects undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers, alarms immediately went off in my cynical brain and I wondered who was scamming me. After a bit of investigation, we were leaning towards this inquiry being legitimate.
I then responded to the message and soon had the first of a series of calls with two Daily Show producers, Jon and David, in which we discussed several river projects that I work on, primarily the New Madrid Floodway and the project to expand Upper Mississippi River locks, typically called the Navigation & Ecosystem Sustainability Program or NESP.
The experience revealed several things about how a TV segment comes together. It’s complicated and fluid; there are lots of factors that impact the schedule and even the story. It was not until May 9, 2016 when I finally met one of the show’s producers, a Daily Show correspondent, and their crew at Melvin Price Locks & Dam for the first of two days of shooting. Up until that point in time there was a part of me that still did not believe it was actually going to happen.
This was a two day period that was both unforgettable and surreal. It was also scheduled right between the packing and the loading up of my household belongings after having sold my house just two weeks before; so there was a bit of stress and fatigue flowing through me as well.
Melvin Price Locks & Dam
I met David, the producer, and the crew of four at Melvin Price Locks & Dam parking lot around noon on May 9th. I had sent David location instructions, but told him that when he got close he couldn’t miss the dam. Once they arrived they confessed that it was definitely impossible to miss. Also to join us was the correspondent Roy Wood Jr. He was a bit late because he had been traveling and had to get a new suit for the shooting.
The Corps had not been notified of the visit by The Daily Show until late the previous week and it was obvious that the local representatives were excited, at least at first.
After we congregated inside the museum at the facility the Corps staff advised that we could go up to the top of the dam. I had never been up there so I was even more energized, which helped with the next bit of information e received. They told us that the elevator was not working. David decided to take advantage of the elevator malfunction so they shot Roy and me making our way up the several flights of stairs to the top, with Roy nearly crawling up the last flight, and me coaxing him along. Apparently my subpar acting skills precluded this from being included in the piece.
Once we got to the top they planned how they were going to shoot a short exchange between us looking downstream at the locks while a towboat finished locking out. After that was shot David and the crew went back down to ground level and shot Roy and me walking along the top of the dam.
During this time the Corps staff realized that The Daily Show visit wasn’t a site seeing experience but that they were investigating and critiquing the benefit of river barge navigation. They still had their photos taken with Roy Woods Jr. before he left.
We spent the rest of the rainy afternoon shooting an interview under a nearby public shelter located near the river. The lighting was difficult and the crew worked for nearly an hour setting up chairs for the interview in a dry area, which also had to have the dam in the background. It was exposure to the long down times that the field correspondents have to deal with.
The interview was a bit excruciating for me. I have endured lengthy and intense depositions and cross examinations during my engineering career, but this was different. Roy was working off of a series of questions that I believe David prepared, which I had not seen. Under other circumstance they would require rather lengthy responses to be accurate and complete, but I had to respond in sound bites – something that is antithesis to the way I think. Being a straight man was OK but also eliminated my one comedic tool – hardcore sarcasm – that I probably resort to too often. We did numerous takes of many of the questions. I did my best, but am not sure I ever improved. I trusted that they would somehow make me appear passable and maybe not too obtuse.
For information on the Upper Mississippi River barge system read River Barge Industry Vies for Subsidy Leadership with Space Travel.
By 4:00 PM or so we were through for the day and made plans to meet in the morning near a fast food restaurant south of St. Louis for the trip to New Madrid. They headed to their hotel in downtown St. Louis and I headed to my plastic wrapped furniture and boxed up home.
New Madrid Floodway
By about 8:00 AM I met up with David and Roy and we headed south to meet the crew at a café in New Madrid. The day was looking rainy again. We talked some about the history and the use of the NMF, as well as the St. Johns Bayou and NMF project that the Corps was pursuing with the local farmers. David and Roy also talked Daily Show business, primarily about other field pieces that were being proposed or planned.
We arrived at the café around 10:30; though it was actually a convenience store that sold sandwiches. The crew had been following us down and two other fellows from St. Louis also met us there. The new guys were going to use a drone to take video of us and the section of the floodway where we were going to be shooting from the ground. I told them we would be driving about a mile to a paved county road on the levee that runs along the interior side of the floodway. There we could view where the proposed closure levee would be constructed by the Corps within the floodway. When we arrived there we walked down to a graveled area to park and stage for the shoot and flying the drone. Pretty much everywhere else where we walked there was a mud bog.
Rain and wind were a problem for the drone so we first shot an interview between Roy and me, which was similar to the interview yesterday. When the rain cleared for about 10 to 15 minutes the drone was sent up and took both long and close-up shots, including of the floodway area. The drone’s range and speed were impressive and we were all justifiably awed, after all we were all guys.
Near the end of the interview, Dave gave Roy some props, which were headshots of several people, including General Bostick, some politicians, and Leonardo DiCaprio. He put the pictures in front of his face and asked me leading questions about the project. This was not much fun for me though it was typical Daily Show absurdity. I tried to go along with it as best I could, but expect I looked rather ridiculous. Thankfully, this was not included in the piece as well.
For information on the New Madrid Floodway Project read: When is a Floodway, Not a Floodway?
By about 1:30 or so we were headed back to St. Louis. My temporary time as part of the “talent” was over. David and Roy were headed to Florida in the morning to interview Michael Grunwald, the writer, for the segment; who according to David had been the person to lead him to me. Michael Grunwald, General Bostick, and I were all characters in this interesting piece.
It’s a Wrap
I had no idea how the piece would turn out and I had mixed emotions about participating in it. Things like this are pretty much eternal and accessible from anywhere in the world that there is an Internet connection. But I also hoped that this unique opportunity would help us (and by that I mean all of us who work on these issues) to spread the word to the general public about these bad river projects and begin to turn the tide on the biased information provided to Congress.
The day the piece aired we were not told until 4:00 PM and had to scramble to spread the word. Although I was a “bit” nervous the rest of the day, I have to admit, I was really happy with the finished product.
I thank and commend The Daily Show for taking on an issue that is both complicated and extremely political. They are filling a major information void that our compliant, if not complicit, corporate-owned media outlets have purposely created. And they have done it with humor. For that I will gladly embarrass myself a bit.
This link will take you to The Daily Show site: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/9ougwy/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-the-army-corps-of-engineers–iron-triangle