As part of my blog I’m going to interview people who work behind the scenes of Knox County government, but usually don’t make the paper. Today’s interview is with Michael Grider, on left, the county’s communication manager who works directly out of Mayor Tim Burchett’s office. It was conducted by phone Friday night. I forgot to ask him about a rumor I heard that he once wanted to run for a county commission seat. Oh well. Next time, I supposed.
Me: Hey, man, what’s up?
Grider: Nothing. Just taking care of chores. And by “chores” I mean feeding the dog.
Me: You should make your wife do those chores.
Grider: (Laughing) That wouldn’t fly around here.
Me: OK, OK, let’s start. What’s your title?
Grider: Communications manager
Me: How many people do you manage?
Grider: I manage myself. I have zero staff.
Me: They why are you called a manager?
Grider: Well, actually I manage communications. I don’t manage people. I would say something but we’re on the record. I don’t want it on your blog no matter how fun it’s supposed to be. Actually, I’m a pretty boring individual. You can put that in there.
Me: Uhhh. OK. I think they put “manager” in your title to avoid paying you overtime.
Grider: No, I don’t think so. (Grider then explains that he doesn’t get overtime pay but works about 50 hours a week.)
Me: So, what do you do exactly?
Grider: For the most part I answer media calls. I go to a lot of meetings which is odd. But I’m the guy who helps communicate the message the mayor has to the media who I hope get it out.
Me: Why are you in a bunch of meetings?
Grider: Sometimes we’re talking about different that might be coming down the pike. We’re talking about budgets and things that might be part of the communications process. There’s a lot of different thing going on that are in the media. So we want to know how that might have an effect on our office or what sort of things we need to get out there. When the mayor mentioned the layoffs (last week), for example, a lot of folks in the media started calling. I had to talk to the finance director (John Troyer). I needed to know what the budget was looking like. Did we know how many people were going to be laid off? Things like that. I’m in meetings to answer the same questions reporters have.
Me: That makes sense. You’re in there kind of like a reporter. But not really. Ha ha.
Grider: Yes, the meetings aren’t about me. Sometimes it’s stuff I need to know and other times I just absorb the information but more so as a member of the public. When I was a reporter, I wanted to ask questions – I would try to think like the public. And I would try to ask the questions that the public wanted to know. We also have to anticipate the needs of the media, so we’re not spending 30 minutes on an interview that could take 15.
Me: You said you worked in the media. Can you talk about your background.
Grider: Sure. I spent three years with Channel 8. I did my time there as a news manager but spent a lot of time focusing on the website, and also did a lot of work on broadcast. I wrote a lot of broadcast stuff and helped producers write them. I also helped support a lot of reporters in the field. The day-to-day stuff often fell to me and the folks in the newsroom as opposed to the reporters. Before that, I spent a couple of years as a radio news anchor and as a reporter (with what is now) News Talk 98-7 (but was News Talk 100).
Me: So when you left, the station got weaker?
Grider: I was just a powerful force. No, really they have a lot of good people who work there. (Knox County Commission) Chairman (Mike) Hammond runs it.
Me: No I meant it dropped from 100 to 98.
Grider: The frequency has nothing to do with the radio station. (Grider then proceeds to ramble about wattage or something like that.) That doesn’t have anything to do with the frequency – that’s the location on the dial.
Me: What makes you qualified for this job?
Grider: I spent several years in this market, covering local politics and also covering the community in general, but I have a substantial amount of broadcast experience and managerial experience, and I also understand journalism and have experience in the web. It’s great to have a web presence. It all goes back to restoring the public trust.
Me: What do you like about the job and don’t like?
Grider: I love my job – everything about it. One, I’m a bit of a political junkie – that’s one of the things I liked about working in the new business. I really have always enjoyed seeing how the process of government works and I like being on this side. Let me compare the two, though. I’m the kind of guy that when it storms outside, I like to be inside, listening to the thunder. I love that. But in news, I had to be at work. If there was a car crash I had to be at work, helping to cover it. It was tough being married and trying to meet all those obligations. In this (current) job, if something comes up on the weekend, it doesn’t necessarily have to be taken care of right then. If I’m at my in-laws’ house and I don’t have high-speed Internet then I can probably deal with it when I get home. It’s a lot of work and lot more work than when I was in the news, but I enjoy it more and it doesn’t encroach on my personal time as much which is nice.
Me: Why did you apply for the job?
Grider: I saw the posting online and in the Sunday paper and I thought this would be a good thing for me. My wife and I had been talking for some time. I thought about getting out of the news business when I was in radio but then the opportunity in TV came up and I thought I would give that a shot. But I’d been talking about it for awhile. My wife and I were again talking about it when we found out about the job opening and I thought I’m going to go for it. Then one day I got a call and the mayor (Tim Burchett) and (the administration’s chief of staff) Dean Rice had an interview a week or two later, and then I got a call and they offered me the job. There were a lot of qualified people who applied that could have gotten it, so I feel really fortunate to have gotten it.
Me: I was talking to one of your former TV colleagues and he was complaining that Dean asked him about his political background. Or rather what his politics were. Were you asked? Did it offend you?
Grider: That someone else was asked?
Me: No. Were you asked?
Grider: No, but I’ve never kept it a secret. But, traditionally – honestly I have always been a Democrat and was in the Anderson County Democratic Executive Committee when I was 18 and had just gotten out of high school and going into college. But as time went by I became more of an independent. But I’m definitely conservative when it comes to fiscal (issues) and issues of the Constitution, but not definitely conservative where government encroaches on personal lives. I cannot call myself a Republican (like the mayor or Rice) and I cannot call myself a Democrat. The titles don’t fit me. But I think people say “yeah right” when I tell them that I’m an independent. But it doesn’t matter really. It’s not my job to have a direction on the administration from a political viewpoint. If the mayor has a policy or takes a stance on an issue that I don’t agree with, well, it’s not my job to make that an issue. It’s my job to make it a message. It’s not Michael’s message. But fortunately I haven’t had to do that. The mayor is a really good mayor. He’s someone I respect – even in news – because he was always open and accessible. There’s this story I always tell –
Me: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Grider: I know you’ve heard it. Can I at least include it by reference?
Me: I don’t know.
Grider: (He tells the story anyway. He had to call Burchett about a breaking news event. At the time Burchett was a senator and he took the call from the Senate floor just as he was about to cast a vote. The mayor told him to hold on a second, he cast the vote, then did the interview.) I was really impressed that he would answer. He said “hang tight” and cast his vote. Not a lot of people would do that.
Me: That is a cool story. How about telling me a good embarrassing story about the mayor?
Grider: Oh man, man. The thing about the mayor is that there’s not really anything embarrassing about him. He’s a down-to-Earth kind of guy. What you see is what you get. There’s not an air about him. There’s no pretensions. Really, there’s not anything that would be embarrassing.
Me: Then give me an embarrassing story about Dean.
Grider: I don’t think I have one. Dean is all business. It’s hard to find an embarrassing story about Dean.
Me: What’s it like hanging out in the mayor’s entourage?
Grider: We don’t have an entourage. Sometimes I go with the mayor somewhere, especially if the media is involved but I don’t know if that constitutes an entourage.
Me: Then what’s it like hanging out in Dean’s entourage?
Grider: Dean definitely doesn’t have an entourage.
Me: So you’re saying no one likes Dean?
Grider: No, no. I didn’t say that.
Me: Heh. OK, I’ll leave you alone now. You were the first person interviewed for the blog. What do you think?
Grider: It’s pretty good. I like the blog. It’s right up my alley.
Me: Good answer. Heh.