The first thing people notice about KNX “Business Hour” anchor Frank Mottek is his voice. It’s got a deep resonance that he’s been cultivating since the age of 16, when he got his broadcasting start with an FM station in Miami. Only two years later he was promoted to news director there. By the time he was 23, Mottek was covering space shuttle launches for CBS’ all-news station in Miami. In 1986, he reported the Challenger disaster live from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mottek discovered his passion for business reporting in 1989 when he began substituting for stock market anchor Paul Kangas on PBS television’s nationally broadcast “Nightly Business Report.” In 1992, Mottek moved to Los Angeles, reporting for radio and TV; he has anchored “Business Hour” 1 p.m. weekdays for the past five years, and also provides twice-hourly business updates throughout the day. Mottek sat down with the Business Journal at CBS Radio’s Wilshire Boulevard studios to discuss his coverage of the Challenger explosion, why his colleagues used to call him “Un-Funky Frank” and how Katie Couric trained him in TV news by taking him out to cover a peacock that had landed in some woman’s backyard.
Question: Did you listen to a lot of radio when you were growing up?
Answer: Very much so. I was always very interested in the news and current events.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a house on a lake in Florida and it was fun – lots of boating, biking, model rockets, chess, cool friends and I enjoyed school.
Did you always know that you wanted to go into journalism?
No, I was the president of the future doctors in high school. Because of that, I worked in a hospital emergency room for three years and took advanced science classes. Journalism started as a fun thing for me. I’d never even visited a radio station. But when I did, I liked it. And I had the chance to work there.
How did that happen?
My speech class teacher suggested I apply to become the school announcer. I ended up leading the Pledge of Allegiance every morning for the full four years I was in high school. Because of my position as the school announcer, I was told that a radio station in Miami was looking for interns. About a month after I started, I was on a telethon and said a few words. The program director heard me and asked if I had ever thought of doing the news.
What was it like to be the youngest person at the station?
It was great fun. We used to have dance contests around town. Celebrities like the Bee Gees used to hang out at the station. There was a lot of partying going on in those days, but I took my job very seriously and didn’t get involved in all of that. In fact, there was a DJ also named Frank at the station who went by the air name “Funky Frank.” At the station, among the staff, I was known as “Un-Funky Frank.”
What made them willing to take a chance and promote an 18-year-old to news director?
The reason cited for my promotion in the memo that came out was that I was the only guy at the station who had a solid blue business suit.
That was a joke, right?
I guess so. I think they saw that I loved what I was doing and was committed to it.
What did you study in college?
Liberal studies: economics, sociology, literature, history, any kind of liberal arts.
You didn’t study journalism?
I had learned through experience doing journalism so I felt it was important to study other things.
Was it a challenge to work and go to school at the same time?
It was, especially when you consider the fact that already I was getting some tremendous opportunities professionally. I remember when I was getting my A.A. degree, for example, I had been invited to fly to the White House for a briefing on the day Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Union. And then the very next day I was jogging in an open field to get a P.E. credit to get my A.A.
Tell me about the day Challenger blew up.
It was shocking. When you’re staring the news in the face like that, it’s a completely different experience. As the primary correspondent Christopher Glenn (former anchor of CBS’ “News Nightwatch”) gave the definitive description of the tragedy, I supported the telecast by leaving the booth and doing interviews. It was the biggest thing both of us had ever experienced.
What did the experience mean to you?
No decent human being would ever want to gain from such a horrible tragedy. But having reported on tragedy, I have since felt like I could handle any experience. Shortly after that I got a call from the CBS TV station in Miami and they asked me to do some reporting. No audition, no nothing, just based on the knowledge that I had that experience.
You’ve been on both radio and TV. Was it hard to make the transition?
No, not at all. It was after the Challenger that I first did some work for the TV station in Miami. I worked at the station with Katie Couric. I joked with her years later about my first day in the office. We went out on a story together – a peacock that had landed in a lady’s backyard. That’s how it all started.
What is a normal day like for you?
When I did Channel 5 in Los Angeles in the morning, I did that for 10 years, it required an early start. But now it’s amazingly normal, like 8:30 to 5:30 or so. I do the business updates twice an hour and the “Business Hour” at 1 p.m. That’s where we do all the interviews and wrap up the business news for the day. I love the business news. I think it’s real news and I get very excited about it.
What do you mean by “real news”?
It’s the most relevant news of the day as far as I’m concerned. With the stock market as volatile as it is, I think people want to hear about it, talk about it.
What’s one of the most interesting business stories you’ve covered?
I covered this year’s May 6 “Flash Crash,” when the market plunged 1,000 points in a matter of minutes. I basically ended up doing a play-by-play of the market as it was falling. That was a fascinating experience. It was real time news and we were in it minute by minute.
How do you cover breaking news like that?
Just go with your observations and report the facts as they unfold.
How did you come to teach at USC?
I did some guest lecturing at USC on the space shuttle coverage. They approached me and asked me if I had thought about doing some teaching. They asked me to create and propose a class. There was no radio class at USC at the time so they wanted to create one.
What do you like about teaching?
From a technology standpoint, it really helps you stay current on what’s going on. And it helps you stay connected to the younger generation. I feel very strongly about giving back because people were generous to me with their time. So that’s a big part of it for me, being able to share my experience with upcoming students.
What advice did you give your students?
To find your own path was one of my big things. To start early was another important thing. Don’t wait. Get an early start and get as much experience as you can.
What was the best advice you got when you were first starting out?
When I first started doing the space shuttle launches at 23, the special events director told me: “Be thinking about what you’re going to say if something goes wrong.” That was certainly a good piece of advice.
What are the biggest changes in the business since you started?
Analog to digital. We had cassette tapes where we had to physically slice a tape with a razor blade. Now everything is electronically edited. The USC class started with cassettes, then digital editing came up. The students – after one orientation on how to use the editing system – took to it like it was nothing. That really impressed me because others would take a long time to learn it.
Was it hard for you to learn?
Not really, no. You just really focus on what you have to do and get the job done.
Tell me about your move to Los Angeles.
It was right after Hurricane Andrew in Miami in 1992 that CBS called me and said they wanted me out here. I’ve been with CBS since then.
Was it difficult to cover Hurricane Andrew?
At the time it hit in 1992, it was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Before the storm hit, I described the evacuation of South Florida in a helicopter for the TV station. Then I went to the radio station where we hunkered down and I was on the air as the storm hit. We had no idea what we were going to find once the storm passed and we were able to leave the station. Fortunately my place was OK, but there was no power and devastation all around.
Then you moved to Los Angeles and covered the Malibu fire in 1993 and the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
My first earthquake was the Northridge Earthquake. I was in bed and suddenly the entire apartment building started shaking and I could hear every car alarm in the neighborhood go off. The phones and power in the building went dead, but I ran to a nearby payphone and was able to get through to the station to describe what it felt like in the Miracle Mile.
Is radio the best medium for disaster coverage?
Nothing beats radio for breaking news and for real news as far as I’m concerned. Nothing’s more satisfying, from a broadcast journalist standpoint, of doing radio.
How did you like the move to Los Angeles?
I was very excited to come here. I’d visited Los Angeles numerous times and fell in love with it. When I first got here, I was given a company vehicle to cover stories and got to know the area very quickly.
What’s your favorite area?
I have a Beverly Hills orientation. I love it. In fact, I was just at a car show in Beverly Hills. There’s always stuff going on there. I emcee a big event for the Concern Foundation for Cancer Research there every year.
How did you get involved in that?
When I first moved here, a very good friend of mine was involved with the group. They asked me to do something with them and I did. For the last 17 years I’ve been emceeing this show.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like to travel. I’ve traveled extensively, personally and professionally. I had the chance to travel to Europe in March with a delegation of journalists from around the world to get briefings on the economic crisis from the European perspective.
Did you notice any differences in the way the international journalists do their job?
If anything, it was more similarities. The issues we’re talking about are the same thing there.
What’s one of your most memorable trips?
I took a roundtrip on the supersonic Concorde from Miami to London going twice the speed of sound over the Atlantic. I love the European capitals: Paris, Berlin, London.
Where haven’t you been that you’d like to go?
I’ve not been to Hawaii. I guess I’m saving the best for last.
What was your career turning point?
A huge turning point was when Paul Kangas called me and asked me to substitute for him on the “Nightly Business Report.” That really caused me to take business news seriously. Paul was a very big influence; he was a great mentor to me. So was my father.
How did your father influence you?
He was in the furniture business. For a while he was a stockbroker, until he got an ulcer doing it and he went back to what he was originally doing. He followed the market closely on radio and I would see his reactions. So I’ve always had an interest in business, money news and the stock market largely because of my father.
COMPANY: CBS Radio news station KNX-AM (1070)
BORN: Irvington, N.J.; 1962
EDUCATION: Associate’s degree, Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, Barry University in Miami.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: His father, Peter; Paul Kangas, former co-anchor of “Nightly Business Report” on PBS.
CAREER TURNING POINT: When Kangas asked him to substitute on the “Nightly Business Report” in 1989.
PERSONAL: Single; lives on Miracle Mile.
HOBBIES: Traveling, emceeing charity events for the Concern Foundation for Cancer Research.
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