Dear CBS/NCIS...


This is the email I sent to Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i, Executive Vice President, Diversity, Inclusion and Communications, CBS Entertainment

Hi, Tiffany,

I'm Gary Pearce. I produce a video podcast/youtube show called HamRadioNow. I'm also a (mostly retired) career television professional, having been a video editor and audio engineer since 1973 (mostly boutique post houses in Chicago doing commercials, but one brief stint at NBC editing a magazine show, promos, and Phil Donohue segments for Today).

I'm writing to see if I can get a comment, and perhaps a guest for my show, regarding the depiction of Amateur Radio operators on a recent episode of NCIS titled Trapped. I believe that this depiction has done real damage to the reputation of Amateur Radio as a service, and to individual Amateur Radio operators in their interaction with their families, friends and the community.

Amateur Radio is an element in the plot. NCIS agents McGee and Torres discover an Amateur Radio station in the home of a murder victim. That leads them to another Amateur Radio operator who may have information about the crime, but that person proves to be secretive and difficult to locate. 

In the course of the show, McGee reveals that he's had some history with Amateur Radio, and lists some of the hobby/service's positive accomplishments, especially with regard to emergency communications following 9/11 and hurricane Katrina. However, McGee and others also refer to some of ham radio's more stereotypical public perceptions - dorky, introverted. McGee and agent Sloan, a personality profiler, take this to a next level, reviewing how the murder victim - Miller - is highly introverted in public, but an extrovert on ham radio and in his answering machine message.

We hams are pretty used to this. I sometimes wonder how a 'communications' hobby can be populated by technical introverts. I joke about how you can tell the extrovert at the ham radio club's holiday party: he's the one looking at everyone else's shoes. And then there's me. I'm a less extreme version of Miller: a seeming extrovert on my HamRadioNow show, and the miserable guy trying to make small talk at a party. 

And if that's where it stopped, well, hams would complain about the personalities and the inaccurate depiction of our operation. Mostly they'd complain on our own message boards and on Facebook (and they are), and maybe a couple would go as far as complaining to CBS. But as I said, we're used to it. I did a two-hour interview with John Amodeo, one of the Executive Producers of ABC's Last Man Standing (HRN 288: Amodeo Unplugged - That program had an ongoing ham radio background element, and two episodes featuring Amateur Radio in the B plot. John, a ham operator himself, and I spoke extensively about writers vs reality and what it takes to incorporate unusual and highly technical activities in a general audience television program. So I get it.

This episode of NCIS, though, takes it farther. The character of Rick O. Shay (ham radio handle "Ricochet" - and by the way, we don't do phony "Handles" - that's CB radio, Twitter and internet chat rooms), is a highly unstable, extreme version of an introvert, afraid of practically everything (and especially the government), with, as agent McGee describes him to agent Sloan, " driver's license, no home phone, no cell phone, no reportable income since 2007, so I think this guy is going to be exactly who you picture when you think of ham radio weirdo." 

As a pseudo-journalist, I try not to over-react, not to think of things only in extremes, but to appreciate nuance, and to appreciate good television. I'm a fan of NCIS and I've followed it since Episode 1 (and JAG before that). So here's what I see as the potential damage from this episode:

- The community. We deal with legal issues every day, primarily over putting up antennas. Governments and homeowners associations see antennas (ham, cell, broadcast) as 'eyesores' and restrict or prohibit them. We also have spectrum issues before the FCC where other services would like to take some of our frequencies (that might feel familiar to CBS). We make some progress against this, emphasizing community service, especially in emergencies, but also assisting with charity events like BikeMS (MS Society), Tour de Cure (Diabetes Association), and many more. That gains us some ground, but it's lost when those in positions of authority see an extreme depiction of our already stereotypical image.

- Our friends, family, co-workers. Mr. Shay may not have had "reportable income" for 10 years, but most of us have jobs. Many of us have technical jobs, and some of them pay very well. But think a minute. You work at CBS. Probably not to far away, there are some hams working in a tech job for CBS... maybe someone like me, a video editor. If one of them wanted to change careers into something non-technical, maybe in PR or HR, would their technical stereotype count against them? Would they need to have an extra edge to overcome that? Suppose that application arrived on your desk the day after you watched this episode of NCIS?

Hams have similar difficulties with family. Any person who loses themselves in a hobby, or work, to the detriment of relationships has a problem, and that includes us. It's part of the stereotype, and sometimes a joke. But not always. 

Here's something else I get: ham radio operators are in very large part older, white males, and mostly middle class or above - a privileged community to be sure. It's hard to cry foul from that position, though I'm guessing you hear plenty anyway. But if this is a First World Problem, it's the world we live in, and the world CBS broadcasts to. And some of us would very much like Amateur Radio to become more diverse - younger, with more women and people of color. We pride ourselves on worldwide communication among all the people and cultures of the globe, but we don't reflect that much in America. If we are seen as paranoid techno-freaks, a hard job gets harder.

So what can we... you... do?  

Without researching your job any further than reading your title, I think I can tell what you try to do. I think I know what you're up against (again, Amodeo Unplugged). So just reading all of this is more than half of what I was looking for. You add us to the list of people you advocate for, and we understand that we're not the only ones with problems, and other's are worse.

Getting someone to come on HamRadioNow to talk about this as a guest is good for me, maybe good for hams, and maybe good for you. Of course if it's just going to be PR blah blah, we can skip it, but if you've got someone who can talk candidly about how CBS thinks about depicting generally good people in a dim light, point them my way.


Gary Pearce