Double Lives: Tim Kochenderfer

It’s Monday, May 9, and Channel 7 Action News at 11 p.m. rolls with anchors Carolyn Clifford and Stephen Clark flashing from the abandonment of a baby girl in Highland Park to GM’s $2 billion investment at 17 plants in eight states to the worst flooding on the Mississippi River in 80 years. And guiding the show is producer Tim Kochenderfer.

Might it also pique you to know that Kochenderfer sets the stage, so to speak, for theaters around the world. A playwright with 17 published titles to his name, Kochenderfer works on his plays in the afternoons and then heads to the WXYZ studio to do the blow-by-blow of the nightly news.

“Just being able to visually tell a story, I think, is what compels me about TV news,” says Kochenderfer.

Kochenderfer, 34, graduated from Michigan State University in 2000 with a degree in telecommunications and an emphasis in media art, honed by his work for the college radio station and a stint as humor columnist for the MSU paper, The State News. He then went to work as a writer for Channel 50 (which had a news show at the time), turning stories into 20-second scripts, and started producing. In 2002 he was hired to produce the morning show at WXYZ, the ABC affiliate in Detroit. He moved on to weekends, then the 6 p.m. show, and now helms the high-profile 11:00 p.m. newscast on weeknights.

Arriving at the station about 3:45 p.m. with only eight hours to put that night’s show together, he seeks out stories from sources including intel picked up on police scanners and tip-offs from the public. He designs screen graphics, edits footage, and parcels the stories out to reporters, then figures out the order in which they’ll appear and air time given to each – anywhere from 10 seconds to seven minutes.

“A lot of times I’ll get reporters calling me at night and begging for extra time,” he says, adding, “I’ve had a phone on both ears before the show and during the show.”

“We have a situation here.”

Mid-show changes are routine. “There’ll be breaking news and it’s a half hour before the show, sometimes even less than that, and you’ve got to scramble to completely rearrange your show and get it on the air…” Kochenderfer says of the control room scene.

As is true on Monday, May 9, when anchor Stephen Clark makes this just-in announcement: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are splitting up.

The countdown to going live is organized chaos, with many working parts coming together to make the whole.

“I think there’s a little bit of a rush to it, a little adrenaline that builds up to every newscast,” says Kochendorfer. “I always felt if I did something else it’d be weird not to have that adrenaline at the end of the day.”

Kochenderfer notes, “It’s been great too, because I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of legendary people in the market like Diana Lewis and Eric Smith and now I’m producing for Carolyn Clifford and Steven Clark…Channel 7’s just got so much history…”

The professional admiration goes both ways.

Channel 7 anchor Diana Lewis recalls a segment Kochenderfer produced about her cameo appearance on All My Children and her interview with Regis Philbin, host of Live With Regis and Kelly. Philbin had worked with Lewis at KABC in California in the ’70s and had not seen Lewis’ daughter, Glenda, since she was age three.

“It meant so much to me to be able to, not just give me a minute-thirty and tell the story of me being there with Regis…but for Tim to go in and pull out the story of what this really meant to me. …He brought the heart of that story out. I’ve gotten more responses and reaction from that show and the way it was produced, touching the hearts of people, than anything I’ve ever done.”

“It was also Tim Kochenderfer who was the producer of the show when I interviewed Mrs. Katie Mattic, the mother of Margaret Mattic, who was killed in 2001, 9/11. The family is from Detroit and…over the years, I’ve been following their exclusive. Mrs. Mattic, at age 89, passed [on March 28], just weeks before we were able to get Osama bin Laden,” Lewis says.

“…he was able to sit and talk to me and hear what my union with this family meant to me. …It’s that special humane touch that Tim has.”

Kochenderfer’s colleague, Channel 7 reporter Dave LewAllen, says, “His approach is just different, and I’ve worked with a lot of producers over the years, and he’s the most creative in the television end that I’ve ever worked with…In so many ways it seems like our newscast is kind of a formula, the stories fit and it’s very much a formula. Well, he doesn’t accept that premise. He’s looking to come up with new ideas and creative ideas, both in terms of visually and also in storytelling.”

This innovation has been recognized at the Emmy Awards. Kochenderfer has five trophies going back to 2006. Three were for best newscast, one for breaking news, and another for weather coverage. The first was for an episode about the Tigers’ winning of the American League championship, followed by the Kwame Kilpatrick text-massaging scandal, a tanker explosion, and tornado damage. The most recent honor was for coverage of the presidential rejection of the Detroit auto industry turnaround plan.

This year he’s up for three more.

In the fast-on-your-feet firestorm of TV news, the only certainty is, at 11:35 p.m., the screen goes blank. “The nice thing is, it’s a different day each day and when it’s over, it’s pretty much over,” he says.

But what if he has to miss a beat? What if he gets sick?

“We do re-runs,” he deadpans.

Well, actually, another producer steps up. But Kochenderfer admits to having real-life doubles.

The play’s the thing

“I’m a character in three of my plays.” In one, The Search for Cindy, Tim gets his girlfriend’s name, Cindy, tattooed on his back, but before he can tell her of his valiance she cuts him loose. “So he’s doomed to date girls with only that name,” Kochenderfer explains.

Philip Neace, theater director at Perry County Central High School in Hazard, Kentucky, took The Search For Cindy to the East Kentucky Dramatic Arts Society festival in spring 2009, where the Commodore Players student theater troupe won first place.

The play wasn’t just a good night’s guffaw; Neace feels it raised the profile of the arts in a small-town, coal mining mountain region of Kentucky. Unlike sports, arts don’t get much of a budget, he explains. “We reported [the win] in the newspaper. We had a bump in our parent donations and contributions in the community from sponsors. And of course the school board noticed us a little bit more, and therefore we got a little better budget from them too the next year. So we thank Tim for that.”

During the days leading up to showtime, he noted Kochenderfer’s prompt responses to queries and overall helpfulness. “I’ve never met him personally, but just from that he’s an extremely friendly guy, a very intelligent writer. And really helpful for high school theater to work with, I’ll tell you, because he likes the fact that people do his plays.”

Kochenderfer broke into theater with Canned Hamlet, a spoof of Hamlet, as an assignment for a class at MSU in 1997. He held onto it, wrote some other comedies and short stories, outlasted a wave of rejections, and finally in 2002 took a liking to Canned Hamlet. The New York publisher has since picked up 17 of his works. And two more will be released this fall with Brooklyn Publishing – a collection of 10 comedy skits geared at teens called Sketch Nights, and Tracking Santa, set in a news station on Christmas Eve.

His works fall into the lines of comedies and parodies drawn from pop culture and classics like Dracula and Frankenstein – and there’s no denying the influence of The Bard. “I always liked Shakespeare a lot,” he says. His style pops in the titles alone: Old MacBeth Had a Farm, a Shakespearian-nursery rhyme-fast food mishmash about the murderous ramblings of an employee at Colonel Duncan’s Chicken Shack.

One of his comedy favorites is Pirates of the Great Lakes, about a gang of hapless buccaneers that get lost on the Great Lakes and mistake Michigan for an island. That one was performed in Alpena recently. But his work also crosses the oceans. Schools in Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Iceland, Germany, South Africa, and Australia have put on his plays.

“At first I didn’t realize schools were the huge market they are, but over the years I’ve tried to gear my work more and more towards schools.”

Ultimately, it’s the news that pays the bills for this Waterford resident. At this point, Kochenderfer’s earnings from theater are “nothing I could sustain myself off of, unfortunately.”

“Behold, there is a [playwright] in our midst…”

Kochenderfer says many of his colleagues were unaware of his other creative half…until The Alpena News ran a front-page story on the Pirates of the Great Lakes production.

His playbook came as a jolt to LewAllen. “It’s like, ‘You what?!’ It was the first that I’d heard about it. And not only that he’d written them, but that they’re being performed!” he says incredulously. “There are productions of these plays. I was surprised by that, because I didn’t know it, but on the other, I’m not surprised because he is such a talented guy.”

Kochenderfer’s wry humor in “Notes on the First Draft of Casino Royale” made the pages of Cracked magazine – and has landed him in front of the news cameras, for once, at WXYZ for winning his first Hallmark card contest in 2007. And in 2008 another of his entries was a winner; this one featured Kochenderfer himself showing Abe Lincoln his visage on the $5 bill.

“We had some fun with that, too, and of course he was encouraging all of us to vote for him. And we did, and we did, and we did, and we did!” LewAllen laughs. “Over and over again.”

Kochenderfer scribbles at coffee shops, writing just about every day before work. Some plays have taken only one month to compose, some several, and a couple have been shelved and then revisited a year later.

The most stressful thing about writing is, actually, being in-between acts. “I always feel much better when I’m back on a project,” he says.

Kochenderfer aspires, eventually, to get into news management or TV writing. Or, why not both at once? He’s already pulling down a double shift.

“He’s got great news judgment and makes good decisions under pressure…and that’s very, very important in our business – to be first, but to be right, is most important,” LewAllen says.

“And then to be able to tell a compelling story, which he’s able to do through his broadcast. But he’s capable of so much more than he’s doing right now, as his work as a playwright shows. And it’s just going to be fascinating, it’s going to be fun, to watch where he goes from here.”

Tanya Muzumdar is the assistant editor of Metromode and Concentrate, and a freelance writer. Her previous article was “Double Lives: Jim Miller”.

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All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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This story previously appeared in Metromode.