Monday, April 15, 2013

#KickassKleveland - Chris Van Vliet

An Emmy award winning journalist, a Cosmopolitan Magazine Bachelor of the Year, a WWE enthusiast, and a bass fisherman walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Hi Chris.”

And now you know why I’ll stick to writing instead of stand-up comedy. But seriously folks, we’re talking Chris Van Vliet. As the entertainment reporter for WOIO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio, Chris brings his unique take on the day’s entertainment news and movie reviews  every weekday during The Buzz on 19 Action News. He can also be heard on the radio as a DJ on WDOK, Cleveland’s New 102. However, that only reveals some of what Chris does, not who he is. When he won Cosmo’s Bachelor of the Year award in 2011, he donated ALL of the prize money to the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland.

Van Vliet was kind enough to invite me to the Channel 19 studios where we sat and talked about Cleveland, American Pie, and fishing. An engaging and charismatic young man, Chris is genuine as well. When I had finished asking all of my questions, instead of leaving to go live on the air that night, Chris began asking me questions right up until he had to run downstairs to the set. I found myself in a fascinating conversation with a superb human and I’m grateful for getting that opportunity.

Please allow me to introduce you to Chris Van Vliet.

J: Where did you grow up?

C: I guess not everyone will know this but I’m from Canada. I grew up in Pickering, Ontario, which is about 20 miles, or, 35 kilometers east of Toronto, a town of about 90,000 people. I lived my entire life there, in the same house, with an older sister. It’s a city kind of like any of the suburbs here in Cleveland. You’re on the outskirts of the big city and you go downtown to Toronto for the big events. There would be Leaf games, Blue Jay games, Raptors games or going to the theater. So it’s kind of that dichotomy of living in a smallish town but having this mega-city which was very driveable, half an hour away, and you could go to it anytime. Toronto is the largest city in Canada, fourth largest in North America. It’s this huge influence. It was a great time and I love the fact that now I live in Cleveland. It’s a five hour drive to go back home and I do it all the time. It’s great to be that close to home.

J: When you worked for MuchMusic you covered the Canadian entertainment industry. How is the celebrity culture different in Canada than it is in the United States?

C: I think there’s more of it in the United States. Certainly the culture here is more inundated with celebrities. When I started covering entertainment news, Paris Hilton was just starting to get famous and Kim Kardashian came out of the woodwork. You have these people that are made famous for being famous and you don’t have that so much in Canada. The interesting thing about covering entertainment news and music news in Canada is there’s so much focus on the homegrown Canadian talent. So if someone has just a couple lines in a movie, all of a sudden they’re a big star in Canada. Or if someone has a couple songs on the radio they’re a huge star there. They have this thing in Canada on the radio called Canadian content, CanCon, where they have to play 30% of Canadian music on the radio each hour. It generates these big stars and, of course, there are very famous Canadians like Drake, Justin Bieber, etc. There’s certainly not as much of in it Canada as there is here. So when you do find a big star in Canada, we love to call them their own. Even if they live in the U.S. now, we love to say, “Drake, he’s ours. Bieber, he’s ours. Ryan Gosling, he’s ours. Ryan Reynolds, he’s ours too.”

J: Are you responsible for getting Rush into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

C: I’d like to say yes. I’d like to say that I am.

J: Did you use your Canadian connections?

C: I called up the Prime Minister and I said, “Let’s make this happen here.” [laughing] I’m so happy that they’re in. I think there’s a ton of Rush fans that are very, very happy they’re finally in. I wish that the induction was here this year. Although, last year’s class was fantastic. We’re talking now at the station about maybe going out to L.A. to cover that. Fingers crossed, fingers crossed.

J: What movie best represents Pine Ridge Secondary School in 1997?

C: I went to high school during the time of American Pie, and I remember seeing American Pie when I was 16 years old and saying, “That’s us! That’s who we are as teenagers! I can’t believe I’m seeing a movie where everyone I know in high school is somehow represented in a movie.” I just saw it again last week, just to refresh my memory. I think American Pie would be a great representation of not just my school, not just Pine Ridge, but any high school in the late 90s.

J: You won Cosmopolitan’s Bachelor of the Year Award in 2011. The prize money could have bought you many nights in a stretch limo but you turned around and gave that money to charity. Can you elaborate on that?

C: I said from day one that if I won I was going to donate the $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland. At first, it sounds like a nice gesture, but it was a long shot. There were 51 people in it total, 50 other guys. The week before the announcement of the winner we held an event downtown at the Barley House and we raised several thousand dollars that we gave to the Boys and Girls Club even if I didn’t win. They are such a great organization, we work very closely with them here at Channel 19. I know they could use $10,000 a lot more than I could use $10,000. Honestly, when I won it didn’t feel like a win for me. I held that check over my head and I took a bunch of photos and I did a bunch of interviews and it didn’t feel like a win for me. It felt like a win for Cleveland. It felt like a win for Ohio and it certainly felt like a win for those boys and girls. When I went to the Boys and Girls Club the next week I donated the check to them live on the air. Just to see the smile on their faces, I just knew in that moment that this is the absolute best possible thing to be doing with this money. I’ve worked with them since and we have a great working relationship. If I had to do this again, if I had to do this again a hundred times over, unquestionably, I would do that same thing.

J: What is your approach to the interview?

C: I try to treat every interview like it’s a conversation. I’m not a huge fan of the question and answer television interview. It should be a fluid conversation. I think to myself, “If I ran into this person at a party what would be the things that would come to my mind? What would I want to ask them?” I do my best to try and ask questions, like you, that they haven’t been asked before or to try to find a way to ask something in a way that they’ve never been asked. I think that they certainly respect that, especially when you do these press junkets in L.A. and New York and you’re one of sixty journalists interviewing them that day. You try to bring something different to the table. In doing that, you do a lot of research and you just to try to pull a different sound bite out of them, or maybe something they’ve never said before, and that’s kind of when you go, “Alright. That’s a good one.”

J: Why Cleveland?

C: Well I graduated from university eight years ago and since graduating I’ve moved around a lot. This is the fourth market that I’ve worked in and Cleveland is the place I’ve been able to call home for the longest since college. In fact, in a couple more months, this will be the longest I’ve lived in one place since I was 18. That in and of itself, is something that has endeared me to this city. This is certainly a place that I can call home and I have felt so welcome ever since day one. I love being here and I love living here, and I love that there’s always something to do.

J: What was it like interviewing one of our hometown heroes, Drew Carey?

C: We had a great chat. We talked for 15 or 20 minutes on camera. He was open to talking about absolutely everything and anything. He wishes he could spend more time here. He says he only comes back about four times a year. That guy is so amazing and he’s accomplished so much too. Really, really, great guy. This is the thing you find out about most celebrities; they’re so down to earth and so willing to talk. The great thing about that particular situation was that he wasn’t really promoting anything in particular. He was in town doing something at Playhouse Square. A lot of times when you get interviews with celebrities they’re trying to push a new movie or a new album, book, or whatever. This was just Drew being Drew, having a conversation with us out of the kindness of his heart. What a great guy! It was really good.

J: Is there something that you’d like readers not in the Cleveland area to know about you?

C: I think that one of the things is that I love this industry so much. I feel so fortunate to do it every single day. I wake up every morning with the attitude of, “You’re gonna allow me to do this today and you’re gonna pay me?” Recently I started working in radio. I’m working for CBS radio now. I have a show on WDOK. As I sit here talking to you right now, I’ve been up since four this morning. I was filling in on the radio show this morning and I’m gonna be here working at the station until midnight tonight and no part of this is bad at all. A lot of people would think a workday that starts at four and ends at midnight is a pretty rough day, but I just love it. I’m so fortunate every single day to be able to keep doing this, and hopefully that will continue. That’s the plan anyway.

J: If you could get a second crack at an interview you’ve done in your career, who would it be and why?

C: I’m a huge WWE fan and I always wanted to interview The Rock. He’s a childhood hero of mine. I was fortunate last march that WWE was in town at the Q and The Rock was doing interviews there. I got to interview him. The interview was fine and we got some great answers out of him, but I’d love to do it again. I felt like I was 16 years old meeting my childhood idol. I’m usually pretty calm and cool, but I had this grin on my face that I couldn’t get rid of. I thought I was going to be interviewing The Rock. I thought I was going to be interviewing the guy I’d been watching on TV for years and in walks Dwayne. He was cool, super nice, and great, but I think I was expecting The Rock himself to come in and call me a jabroni or tell me to “know my role”. We had a great conversation but I’d love to do it again now that I got the first one out of the way, fingers crossed, I will get that opportunity hopefully. Maybe we can have another great conversation, maybe take it up a notch.

As a writer, do you find times in the day that you have to write?

J: Every day. It’s like if you get up in the morning for a workout routine. I have a writing routine. If I don’t write I feel off the whole day.

C: Really? How long do you write for?

J: Usually 60 to 90 minutes.

C: Wow! And are you working toward a greater goal every time, like a novel?

J: I try to hit a daily word count, usually 3,000 words. The standard paperback is anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000, so if you do 3,000 a day, every day, you have a first draft knocked out in a couple months. It’s taking a little chunk at a time, otherwise it seems overwhelming.

C: That would take incredible discipline. I know you’re obviously passionate about it and you love it, but I can think of days you’d get there and start writing and it just wouldn’t come to you.

J: You have to fight through that. I think it’s similar to what you mentioned about getting off the air at midnight and then being up at four, but you’re so enthused about what you’re doing you just don’t even think of it as a chore. For some people, writing 3,000 words a day or getting three hours of sleep would be tough.

C: Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy sleep a lot. I interviewed James Patterson recently because he did Alex Cross and obviously it was shot here in Cleveland. So I was getting an interview with him and Tyler Perry. James said it didn’t matter what day it was, didn’t matter what he was doing, he had to write. I thought that was fascinating. Here’s a guy who has millions and millions of dollars. He said it doesn’t matter if he’s doing press or on vacation, he needs to write. I’m just fascinated by that.

J: Stephen King has that approach too. I think he once said that there are only two days a year he doesn’t write; Christmas day and his birthday. That’s it. He writes every other day of the year. I’m not THAT disciplined, but that’s the mindset you need to be successful. Advice from guys like Patterson and King about writing is like learning how to slam dunk from Michael Jordan. When the best talk, folks listen.

C: What novel are you working on right now?

J: I’m working on a sequel to one of my horror novels (Preta’s Realm).

C: Cool! So you’ve got the characters developed already. That must make it a little bit easier?

J: Easier in some ways, but you have a longer story arc that you have to remember. Readers, probably like viewers, are quick to point out where you make a mistake, have an inaccuracy, have something in the plot that doesn’t make sense. I have a couple of great editors that help me with that.

C: They can kind of keep you on track or keep you on point?

J: Right. They’ll say, “Hey! This person wasn’t in the scene and all of the sudden they’re over here. How did that happen?” And you say, “Um. Right.” It’s like that in the movies too. Someone is a wearing a digital watch and it’s set in 17th century France.

C: I love those inaccuracies, like the ones on moviemistakes.com. I could spend hours on that. I could spend days on that.

J: Was it Charlton Heston that was wearing a watch in Spartacus?

C: There’s some really bad ones like a guy in a t-shirt and jeans in The Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s standing on the boat and he clearly doesn’t belong.

[more laughing]

You know, one thing I really miss about Canada and my busy schedule is bass fishing. I love bass fishing and before moving here I was in like 10 or 15 bass tournaments a year. It was every weekend. I work a lot on weekends now. In fact this is the first weekend I’ve been here in a while. I’ve spent the last four of six weekends in L.A.

J: Did you travel to do the bass fishing or do you have a favorite spot?

C: When I lived in Toronto I was within about an hour or two from of all these bass fisheries. One place, Lake Simcoe, is about an hour north of Toronto and it’s a world-class bass fishery. So you’re close enough that you don’t have to stay all night. You can drive up first thing in the morning, fish the tournament, head back home, and do another tournament the next day. So that’s one thing I really miss.

J: Is it different than fly fishing?

C: It’s different. Bait casting gear, spinning gear... [laughing] This is going to sound so nerdy and technical. I won’t get into too much about that. When you ask if there is something about you that people don’t know, I certainly don’t think anyone’s going to turn on Channel 19 and assume that I’m a bass fisherman.

J: True. You’re not going to be on the air giving tips on casting.

C: I could. [laughing] I could be giving tips on how to throw spinner baits, flip jigs or work a dropshot. But no one’s going to understand. You had no idea what I was talking about or what I was saying.

J: No. I went fly fishing on vacation one time.

C: You did? Where?

J: Colorado.

C: Was it trout?

J: I have no idea. [laughing] It was one of those deals where the guy takes you out for a day and they teach you the basics.

C: Did you catch some?

J: I caught one.

C: Nice!

J: I was so proud I was able to cast. I didn’t realize the amount of skill that it took. Reading the water, knowing where to throw, how soft a touch to put on it; there’s a whole lot more to fishing than people realize.

C: Sounds like you already know.

J: I know what I don’t know. [laughing]

C: The hardest part about fly fishing is you’ve got all this line sitting around your legs and a fish bites and you don’t know what to do. I’ve only gone fly fishing a handful of times.

J: How is fly fishing different than bass fishing?

C: Fly fishing is more of an art form. There’s the art of flicking your wrist and getting the bait out there which is a very light bait that you wouldn’t be able to cast with any other equipment. A lot of bass fishing, while there are some finesse techniques, is about making as many casts as possible in the shortest amount of time; they call it power fishing. We should talk about something more interesting. [laughing]

J: This is interesting. These are the kinds of nuggets though you unearth when talking to someone that are unexpected and I find that really interesting.

C: When I worked for MuchMusic, it was obviously a very different dynamic from how a news station would function. Here, we’re trying to disseminate a news story and get a message out. When I was on that station, I did a celebrity interview that lasted 15-20 minutes. At Channel 19, we would have to cut that interview down to a minute and a half. At that station, we were given the liberties of going three or four minutes and because we were a MTV style of station, it didn’t need to always be about the album they were talking about or the movie they were trying to promote. If you got a nugget like bass fishing, you ran with it. Or if they really liked a TV show and talked about how they watched it on their tour bus, you ran with it and you made it part of the interview. The fans would eat that stuff up. So now, if I get those nuggets in an interview on Channel 19, I have to say, “We’ve posted the whole interview on our Facebook page. Go check it out.” So, that’s kind of cool. You kind of get both elements that way.

J: I’m relatively new to the interviewing process and so I like to study guys like you who are really crisp with it.

C: I feel like I’m learning every single day. I think that the most important thing you can take out of the art of interviewing is; if you’re not asking questions you find interesting, they’re not going to be interesting to that person. Another really big thing I was taught when I first got into the industry is if you don’t know how you’d answer the question yourself or if you don’t know the answer you should expect, you probably should give it some more thought before you ask the question. Like if you’re gonna ask someone what movie represents their high school, if you don’t know yourself how you’d answer that, you probably shouldn’t ask it. How would you answer that question?

J: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I’m probably a little older than you, though.

C: What did you think I was going to say?

J: I wasn’t sure. I thought possibly American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High because those are two classic teen movies that resonate with people. They tend to recognize their friends in those movies, but never themselves.

C: So who would you be?

J: I was probably more like Mr. Hand. I was probably more of a rule-follower. [laughing]

C: Yeah, you can watch those movies and go, “Oh yeah, I know that guy.” Everyone knows a Stifler. Everyone knows a Jim. I think everyone even knows a Finch.

J: Did you find yourself more in the spotlight after winning the Cosmo contest?

C: When that Cosmo thing happened, interviews came out of nowhere. I had just fished a tournament with B.A.S.S. which is The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. They called me up out of nowhere and were like, “Congratulations! You just won and placed fourth in our tournament last month. Can we do an interview?” I said, “Yeah, of course. I love to talk about fishing.”

J: That’s a pretty interesting collision of worlds, Cosmo and bass fishing. That’s probably two things people don’t mention together very often.

C: The fact that they ran me on the front page of their website (B.A.S.S.) was mind blowing because I’d been subscribing to their magazine since I was a kid and then one day I’m in it. It was really cool.

J: That’s fantastic. Thanks for talking with me.

C: Thank you so much.

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