BURLINGTON — Darren Perron of WCAX news has been nominated for an Emmy and is in the running for a national Edward R. Murrow award. He has also taken home a number of Associated Press awards, including one for best investigative news coverage.
Many people would get a swollen head from all this attention. But maybe his roots in a gigantic family in the little towns of Barton and Glover in the Northeast Kingdom have helped keep him humble.
Getting ready for a broadcast on a Sunday night recently, Mr. Perron can be overheard joking about the pus balls under his eyes. He flashes his trademark impish grin while explaining his “big secret” for success in the television news business.
The “big secret” is that he’s sitting on two pillows, each a couple of inches thick.
“Well when you’re five foot seven sitting next to a guy who is six seven,” he shrugs with the grin again, as if to say, “Whaddaya gonna do?”
Mr. Perron has a way of using his sense of humor and natural curiosity about people to connect with those he wants to interview.
“I get to say, ‘Meet Mr. Dingaling,’” he said just before the broadcast about the area’s favorite ice cream delivery man. Mr. Dingaling has that name because his truck plays its trademark bell tune wherever it goes. The little song draws kids and adults from all around.
Mr. Perron is clearly at home in front of the camera and likes to joke around, but the awards show the serious side of his career.
Two big series were the award winners in the past year. One was called “Battle Behind Bars” about prison overcrowding. The other was titled “Killer Kids” about children who murder — sometimes their own parents.
Mr. Perron worked with photographer Lance MacKenzie on the series.
“You write to the pictures, and Lance is awesome,” Mr. Perron said.
One shot Mr. MacKenzie thought of was an interview of a prison psychologist talking about what makes these young people tick — as a tape of one of the juvenile murderers is shown with no sound in the background.
Each of these series takes up 15 minutes of air time, five minutes per night for three nights in a row. In order to put these together, Mr. Perron worked for about a month on one series, and two months on the other one.
Mr. Perron is the weekend anchor and producer, and he spends three full days a week reporting. When he is working on a series, he gets to spend all his reporting timeon that. In that time he does research on the subject and finds potential people involved to interview on camera. Sometimes it takes a while to get to know someone, to make a person comfortable enough to agree to be videotaped.
In the case of these particular series, Mr. Perron and Mr. MacKenzie traveled to Kentucky to interview Vermont inmates for both stories.
Among the young prisoners Mr. Perron interviewed was Tashia Beer of West Burke. Ms. Beer was 14 years old when she was charged with the murder of her stepmother in February 2000. She has yet to be tried.
She says in her interview that she wishes that there could be more intensive therapy available for children who have long sentences.
“There’s nothing for us right now,” said Ms. Beer.
Prison officials acknowledge in the series that intensive treatment is reserved for those closer to their release date. That kind of therapy is costly, they say, and not a priority for young people who are basically going to be behind bars for some years to come.
The “Battle Behind Bars” series makes note of the growing number of heroin cases in prison these days, and the growing number of women. In 1993, there were 28 women in prison in Vermont. In 2003 there were 140.
The average cost of incarcerating prisoners in Virginia is only $47.50 a day, whereas in Vermont it’s $77, the series points out. And building a new prison is an extremely expensive undertaking. The prison in Springfield comes with a $27-million price tag. But a new prison brings jobs. In the case of Springfield, 135 new jobs came to town.
Vermont tries to keep costs down and stem overcrowding by allowing as many convicts as possible to serve time in community release programs. Vermont leads the nation in the number of prisoners on furlough with 43 percent. The next closest state is Montana with 24 percent. Virginia has only 2 percent on furlough.
Getting these kind of statistics and interviews takes a lot of work.
Two months is a lot of time to put into one story. And the weeks are not short — Mr. Perron often works more than 40 hours a week. While working on the series, it was often more like 80. And when he gets a day off, he is often still on call. In the month of May, Mr. Perron had about two days off.
But he is not complaining.
“When it’s over and you can see the final product — it’s worth it,” he said.
All the extra effort paid off when Mr. Perron got word that “Battle Behind Bars” got nominated for an Emmy. The National Television Academy chose it as one of the best serious news stories for 2003. The “Killer Kids” series won an Edward R. Murrow award as the best in New England, and the series is in the running for a national award. Both Mr. Perron and Mr. MacKenzie were honored by the Radio and Television News Directors Association for that series.
With or without awards, Mr. Perron clearly loves his job.
“It’s wicked exciting every day. You never know what you’re going to cover,” he said. He said he is a totally different person about five minutes before he goes on the air because of the stress and adrenaline rush of getting ready to broadcast.
On the Sunday of this interview, a reporter who has been out covering an announcement in New York State comes rushing back to do his story in just a few minutes’ time, then realizes he doesn’t have a necktie. Mr. Perron searches around for spares and finds some in a drawer.
Then amazingly quickly, the show is done, and things get back to normal.
On Sundays, the stress increases because national sporting events like golf tend to take over some of the news time. If the golf match keeps going until 6:22 p.m., the rest of the time until 6:30 will be filled by the golf match, and then the local news will get its full half-hour. But if golf ends at 6:21, the local news must be compacted into a nine-minute broadcast of news, weather and sports.
“We’ve done a seven-minute newscast,” Mr. Perron said.
Asked what was his favorite story, Mr. Perron immediately answers that it was the one on the Statue of Liberty that he did for July 4 in 1998. Mr. Perron interviewed some Glover folks about what it would have been like to have the statue in their town, including local historian Wayne Alexander.
“I can’t visualize it, Darren,” said Mr. Alexander.
But another resident, Blanche Perron, could visualize it perfectly. Mrs. Perron, who has since died, was Mr. Perron’s grandmother and lived on the top of Perron Hill. The Statue of Liberty would look great in her front yard, she said.
“I’ll put nice flowers around it,” she said.
Looking out over the green hills Mr. Perron concluded, however, that Glover would be a much different place today if the statue had been put there.
“Maybe Lady Liberty is where she should be and Glover is the way it should be,” he said.
Another favorite broadcast was his chance to ride in an F-16 fighter plane, very very fast, flipping around, and upside down for part of the trip. Mr. Perron was proud that he didn’t get sick. It was a charity benefit, and Mr. Perron clearly had a great time with it.
“I’d never get that opportunity if I hadn’t been a reporter,” he said.
Mr. Perron said he doesn’t know what his hardest story was, but he finds a challenge in all the stories.
“Even a funny story can be challenging,” he said.
“My favorite thing to do is find a character to sort of focus everything around — to sort of capture that person in a minute and a half,” he said.
That’s why when he showed up in Brownington one fine spring day to do a story on mud season and found no mud, he realized all was not lost once he had met the road commissioner. The man was a great character and the interview was a wonderful portrayal.
Mr. Perron said the person he emulates the most is Anson Tebbetts. Mr. Tebbetts grew up on a dairy farm in Cabot and is also known for his sense of humor and portrayal of great Vermont characters.
Mr. Perron studied media at Castleton State College and first did an internship at WCAX in 1994.
He also credits producer Will Mikell for showing him the ropes. Mr. Perron started at WCAX on Saturdays while working full-time during the week at theChronicle as a news reporter. He said the Chronicle experience also taught him a lot and helped instill the love of the work.
Mr. Perron does not have a lot of spare time, but when he does he tends to have a family reunion, wedding, or other family party to attend. He is the son of Donna (Conley) Perron and Edward Perron. His mother was one of six children, and his father was one of 13. He figures he has about 50 first cousins.
“Some of my best sources are my cousins,” he said.
Mr. Perron likes working in Vermont and does not have any immediate plans to step up to a larger market in a larger city any time soon.
“I think that Vermonters have some of the best stories to tell,” he said.