Shooting for the Heart: The Documentary Odysseys of Ric Mixter

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles, Biography,   From Issue 638   By: Mark Leffler

31st May, 2007     0

Whether he's riding shotgun in an F-16 rocketing thousands of feet in the wild blue yonder or diving twenty thousand leagues under the sea to tell a dead man's tale of another Great Lakes shipwreck, Ric Mixter is driven by a passion for story telling.

That passion was sparked by Star Trek and PBS documentaries that were part of the limited menu available to boob tube obsessed kids born at the tail end of the Baby Boom. While the big markets like Detroit boasted three network channels, a PBS station and a handful of independent channels, rural Michigan viewers like Ric were grateful if they could pick up one clear channel with their rabbit ears. But Ric was even luckier. His town could pick up channel 13's PBS shows, too.

Raised in Sands, Michigan in the shadow of K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base where his father worked, Ric is the oldest of seven children and has fond memories of bicycling to watch Star Trek with his friends. But his life changed when he watched a PBS series, Connections. Produced and hosted by Britain's Carl Sagan, James Burke, Mixter was drawn to Burke's charismatic storytelling. It was a style he would later emulate with his shipwreck documentary series that has been seen by over 12 million viewers worldwide.
But to most people in the Tri-Cities, Mixter is the familiar face from WNEM-TV5 and WJRT-TV12. After years in radio, he jumped to television where his affable personality and passion for telling deeply personal stories blended with a love for adventure and extreme sports. 
Today Mixter is the owner of Airworthy Productions, which produced 26 half-hour episodes of Great Lakes Indepth; featuring underwater videography he shot himself.  His documentary Deep Six is the best selling Great Lakes maritime documentary. A class of school children watching one of those shows might presume that Mixter is a Michigan version of Jacques Cousteau or Steve Irwin. But suiting up like Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt is part of the story of this master of mixed media.

Growing up in the relative quiet rural Marquette area, Mixter got involved with radio, learning his chops at a military-style station and writing song parodies to entertain his friends. By the time he left for Central Michigan University's broadcasting program in 1982, he had as much experience and probably more broadcasting skills than many broadcasting professionals. In addition to several years of radio experience he had also started a DJ business in the side. When not attending school, and sometimes during school, he might have slept. But even then his dreams were of broadcasting. And girls.

While Ric has been with his wife Sheila since those college days, most television and broadcast personalities get into the business becauseŠ. how to put this kindlyŠ.you don't crave a camera or a microphone because you have a small ego and the humility of St. Francis of Assisi. Consider Howard Stern, the Olsen Twins, Charlie Rose or Rosie O'Donnell. And when he was spinning the platters as a DJ and working the nightshift on the FM rock station, he got in a little hot water because of the almost Beatle-like attention he received from some young female listeners.

Mixter recounts the hilarious story of an assistant programming director who "wrote me a scathing letter about how teen girls were calling asking when I'd be on the air. He said it wasn't about meeting girls. I remember thinking 'I make three dollars an hour. Of course it's about meeting girls.'"

While doing some side gigs to pay for school, Ric co-hosted a Muscular Dystrophy telethon on WLUC-TV6 and was soon invited to join the news staff. He had an early sense of the potential of television news stories to make a significant impact in people's lives and in the community. It is a passion that still informs his current work, like the documentary 1 in 5: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness that won him an "Everyday Hero" award from Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority last month.

"I worked there for several months, covering my first drowning and doing mostly feature stories, which I loved. I would put in hundreds of miles, visiting the Keweenaw Peninsula and Mackinaw Area. Back then it was one news team for the entire Upper Peninsula. My first airplane flight was over pictured rocks in Munising. I was hooked!"

The radio industry being what it is, and with the responsibilities and financial obligations of a family, Mixter applied for a videographer position with the ABC affiliate, WJRT TV-12. He was hired in 1985 as a videographer but soon was working as a full time reporter/videographer.
In the era of palm sized digital video camera and Youtube clips captured with a 9th grader's Razorphone, it would be well to remember that video technology was considerably bulkier and heavier in the mid-80's.

It was the era of MTV, Michael Jackson and Miami Vice.  A one man video operation meant the guy had to carry a delicate tube-based camera the size of a suitcase, a video recording deck slightly larger and heavier, an equally bulky professional tri-pod, a light kit and a bag of audio equipment (mics, cables, wind socks, batteries). After lugging all that to the shoot, the reporter then had to set up, shoot the video and then comb his hair and shoot a stand-up piece for a lead in.

But unlike radio, there was a little bit of money and some benefits to go along with the long hours and hard work. And he had an opportunity to cover some of the biggest local stories.

"It was interesting to see when TV5 did its top ten stories during a recent anniversary show. I broke several of those stories including the Freeland train derailment, when I was flying in a helicopter and saw the smoke. I was also on the expedition that found the first crewman on the Edmund Fitzgerald (shipwreck).

I also remembering covering the big flood of 1986 for TV12. I also was lucky to film Ted Nugent when he hunted gators in Florida. It was fun being in a limo with the Damn Yankees. "

"TV5 also let me skydive, bungee jump and fly B-52s and F-16s."

The feature format of longer stories produced for "magazine" style shows like 60 Minutes or Nightline became popular in medium sized markets like the Tri-Cities, and TV5's Take Five program was a perfect fit for the storytelling Mixter was interested in. He longed to produce segments and programs in the vein of Connections, the PBS show that had rocked his world as a boy.
But when Take Five took a turn to shorter news stories, eventually devolving into an earlier version of the six o'clock news, Mixter lost interest and jumped ship to the newly formed Imageworks based in Midland.

"I knew that Take Five was going to morph into a news program rather than a warm and fuzzy good news program. I didn't feel this was a good direction for the station. They had great ratings with Take Five, Our Town and PM Magazine. I got a great offer from Imageworks and took it. It was a chance to learn the business of video production and make full-length documentaries.

He formed Airworthy Productions on, aptly enough, April Fools Day in 2001. Osama bin-Ladin provided the punch line that came a little more than a year later on September 11, 2001.  One of the lesser-known results of that epic tragedy was that the bottom fell out of the market for small independent video production houses like Airworthy Productions. Companies that might have hired him were slashing their promotional budget. Nevermind, as Mixter points out, that during a downturn in the economy advertising often will rebuild a sagging business. The money dried up, driving many small video shops into bankruptcy or worse: weddings and dance recitals.

Airworthy managed to weather that storm by embarking on production of Mixter's first series for PBS and the Outdoor Channel, Great Lakes Indepth. The series featured shipwrecks and the science of the lakes.

"In 2002 I filmed the first music videos on the top of the Mackinaw Bridge for the gospel quartet Master's Touch Quartet. In 2003 I did Safe Ashore, which chronicled the worst storm to hit the Great Lakes.  2005's Final Fun highlighted all the major storms of the past century. 2006 brought Cutter Rescues, which is now airing on PBS stations throughout the state. It will also be featured in the Riverfront Film Festival in Saginaw."

Mixter is often recognized around town by people who might not be able to place his face immediately but recall him from his days as a newsman and local celebrity, as familiar as Brian Wood, Mike Avery or Art Lewis. He's still surprised, though, when he's recognized outside of the Great Lakes State.

"I never really felt the impact of my shipwreck documentaries until I went on a dive charter in Milwaukee. Many of the folks knew me before I even introduced myself, and it was neat to be welcomed so warmly. I think my shows have had some 12 million viewers between nine PBS stations, rebroadcast on Ontario Canadian cable, The Outdoor Channel and the Vision Network. I was also a featured "expert" on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel for my knowledge on the 1913 Storm."

While his growing fame and notoriety is linked to the shipwreck series, he still talks warmly of his early days in radio and his experiences with local television news. He laughs easily recalling the parody song he produced that was played on the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento radio show.  He even laughs about the time he vented some frustrations about the boss to a radio co-worker outside the building, not realizing that an open window in the boss' office allowed him to hear the complaints. He was fired within minutes.

He even chuckles at the memory of the look on Huey Lewis' face when an eager if inexperienced Mixter asked the veteran rocker "why did you call your band Huey Lewis and the News?". Lewis shot him a withering look and Mixter realized that he must have been the ten thousandth reporter to ask such an obvious question.

And he never discounts the value of the years he spent lugging around heavy equipment and producing segments he wrote, shot, edited and narrated.  Video production is a job made much easier by digital video cameras and a high-powered Mac loaded with Final Cut Pro editing software. Mixter works from a post-production facility that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars fifteen years ago. Today he operates out of his Saginaw Township home at a fraction of the cost.  Still, his TV news experience gives him a critical edge.

"I do have to say that my business is certainly successful because of my news experience. It not only gave me great exposure, but also taught me to work fast and efficiently. I have yet to meet a client who says, "Take your time and charge me as much as you need." So working under a news deadline was great experience to get things done."
                                                                            

To order any programs produced by Airworthy Productions, or to contact Ric, visit his website at www.airworthy.tv.

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