As a reporter at KCAL (Channel 9) from 1990 to 2006, Alan Mendelson produced a popular series of features about where to get stuff cheap in Los Angeles under the title “Best Buys.” Since losing his job as a journalist, he has produced “Best Buys Hosted by Alan Mendelson” – a show he puts together featuring recommendations of advertiser products that airs as paid programming, and he also hosts infomercials. Mendelson was born in New York and grew up in nearby Rockland County. After graduating from Syracuse University, he worked for a local CBS affiliate in Syracuse, then the network’s headquarters in New York, then WTVJ in Miami. He came to Los Angeles in 1987, first for a job at KTTV (Channel 11), then jumping to KCAL. He met with the Business Journal in the living room of his West L.A. townhouse and chatted about growing up as the son of a mob lawyer, his long struggle with diabetes and the double transplant that cured him, his time in Miami covering the cocaine trade and the airlines crisis, and his third wedding – at the craps table of a Las Vegas casino.
Question: How did your childhood inform your career?
Answer: One reason I know so much about business is my dad was a lawyer. He was involved with mobsters, so I saw a lot of underworld stuff.
My mother was the original Jewish-American princess. She was a beautiful woman, a model. Everybody loved Zelda, including one of my father’s clients, who was a Cadillac dealer in northern New Jersey. Everyday he would call up my mother and ask, “Zelda, what color outfit are you wearing today?” And he would send a Cadillac to match her outfit.
She would drive the car for the day. That night someone would come to pick it up. The next day, another car. We found out that this car dealer did this with other people. He would give people these one-day loaners and report the cars as stolen. They were picked up at night, stripped and sold for parts. It was a mob operation.
My father got the dealer into a witness protection program. Many people went to jail. Years later, relatives told me they were worried we would be killed.
My father also represented a corporation that built factories. One of his jobs was to hand out convertible bonds to certain politicians so they would approve zoning changes for factories.
You had health challenges early in your career.
I was an insulin-dependent diabetic for 32 years. Starting when I was a reporter in Syracuse, 24 years old. I had to take insulin shots. When you take shots, you have to eat on time, but you still have insulin reactions. The world has no idea how many times I was on the verge of losing consciousness because I missed a meal to cover a story.
What was the worst incident?
Once at CBS, when I was the weekend assignment editor, I passed out. They had to bring paramedics in to revive me. I think that killed my career at CBS.
Two years ago I had a combination kidney and pancreas transplant.
What does it feel like?
Amazing. I thank God everyday. I thank the family that donated the organs of their loved one who died in a car accident. Unbelievable.
Why did you leave broadcast journalism?
I didn’t want to leave. I was fired, basically. After 16 years at KCAL, they didn’t renew my contract.
How did they break it to you?
They said, “We can replace you with two or three other reporters.” They let go of me and a bunch of other people over the age of 50. No mistake about it. We were replaced by younger people with blond hair and C-cups who made a lot less money. That’s the reality of the business.
How did you react to that?
Fortunately, I went into advertising, which is what I wanted to do for years. I was a newsman for 34 years, starting in radio at age 14. In college, there were 200 graduates in the television and radio program. Three of us found jobs in television – Bob Costas, me and one other. Everyone else found success in advertising or public relations. I wanted to go into advertising, but somehow I found myself in news.
What are you doing now?
My show is “Best Buys Hosted by Alan Mendelson.” Everything on the show is paid advertising. When I go to a furniture store, it’s because they bought a minute or two. But we’re careful to not put anyone on there who’s going to rip off the public because my name is at stake.
So you’re self-employed?
I’m an independent producer working for Axis Media. That’s important because by working for them I retain my union health insurance and pension benefits. That came in handy two years ago when I had the kidney-pancreas transplant.
You’ve switched from newsman to pitchman. Do you feel you’ve abandoned your values?
Did I sell out, is that the question? I changed careers. I would never put anything on TV that is dishonest or that would violate my personal sense of ethics. Because in the back of my mind, there’s always the hope of going back to news. There are a lot of legitimate companies that are entitled to advertise their products, and that’s what I do.
Won’t doing commercials prevent you from going back to news?
Mike Wallace did milk commercials before “60 Minutes.” Bill Curtis was a news anchor, a cable TV host, then a pitchman; now he’s back on the news in Chicago. So it’s possible to make the switch back. It has happened.
What was your first big story?
When I was a reporter in Syracuse, it was the time of the first Arab oil embargo and recession. I discovered how government statistics had all these tricks to hide unemployment: underemployed people, discouraged workers, phantom employment. My other big accomplishment when I was an associate producer at CBS News in New York was that I poked so many holes in the Consumer Price Index that the Bureau of Labor Statistics changed the system.
How did you like working at CBS News?
I was miserable. I wanted to be a reporter and a correspondent. But they wouldn’t let me.
Why did you finally leave CBS News?
When I broke the story that the Hunt family failed to meet their margin call for silver futures. I was the only one in the country who had it. But when I got back to the studio, they told me someone else was doing the story on the air.
How did you interpret that?
That I would never get on the air at CBS. That’s when I decided to leave. I thought, if I can’t get on television with this story, when will I ever?
What happened next?
I went back to my desk and made three phone calls: The CBS affiliate in Miami, the station in Nashville and the station in Philadelphia. They all wanted me, but Ralph Renick in Miami made me an immediate offer over the phone. He told me to fly down the next day and I did.
Was this a move up in terms of money?
No, I’ve taken pay cuts several times in my career. When I left New York to go to Miami I took a 50 percent pay cut. It never bothered me to take a pay cut as long as I was doing what I loved.
Were you married at the time?
I’ve been married three times. But the move to Miami was done in a matter of hours; I didn’t even talk to my wife about it. I said to my wife, “Who the hell wants to keep working in New York? I want to be a reporter.” So we moved.
What was Miami like?
Everything in business revolved around cocaine. The movie “Cocaine Cowboys” features clips of my reporting stories about cocaine banks, fancy cars bought with cocaine money and so forth.
But you got to know Frank Borman covering the airline crisis there.
He was chairman of Eastern Airlines. I worked in Miami during all the crises in the airline industry. During that time, I kept Eastern and Pan Am out of bankruptcy.
I was so close with the unions and management that I became the mediator for contract disputes. News reporters are not supposed to do that, but it was different in Miami. We were all part of the community. The airlines sustained the community, so we were all dependent on each other. It really became necessary to cross the line.
Did Borman encourage this?
Many times Frank Borman would say things to me that he wanted told to the other side, not for television. In the course of doing that, I realized he was such a wonderful man. He really cared about people and their jobs. He could have been president of the United States, and certainly secretary of transportation. But he was robbed of greatness by all the big egos of the union heads. If I could have picked someone to be my father, I would have picked Frank Borman.
Where did the “Best Buys” idea come from?
Ruth Sperling, assistant news director in Miami, came up with the name. She sent me to the clothing district to find out how wholesalers could sell Polo shirts cheap.
What did you find?
I discovered this new economy of discounters, outlets, overstock and discontinued merchandise. Within a few years, people all around the country started opening up these outlets and liquidators.
When you came to Los Angeles did you discover a similar discounter culture?
We didn’t have much in L.A. I got here in 1987. The Citadel in Commerce hadn’t opened yet. I had to explain to Los Angeles what an outlet mall was.
How did you get to L.A.?
I got a phone call from an agent who got me a job at Fox KTTV in Los Angeles. I was supposed to be the business reporter for the new Fox network, but the project was on and off, on and off. Then I heard about Disney starting KCAL, so I talked to my agent and ended up there.
Did you take more pay cuts?
I got a big raise when I left Miami to come to Los Angeles for Fox. But when I went to Channel 9, I took another cut of close to 30 percent.
Why did you pursue the “Best Buys” reports?
It was very popular. I did the first “Best Buys” special on Channel 9 during the news in 1991. We said: If people are interested in getting a list of companies covered, send a self-addressed stamped envelope. We got 100,000 envelopes at the station. It was positive reinforcement.
You’ve been married three times.
My two children come from the first marriage. My second marriage was a short one here in Los Angeles. The third marriage is the best.
What makes it special?
We were married at a craps table at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. With a rabbi.
How did you select the venue?
I play video poker and I play craps, and so does my wife, Shelley. After my second divorce, I didn’t have much money, but we got engaged and I kept telling her, “I’m putting money away for a ring.” One day we were at Caesars and I got a royal flush in video poker. I won a lot of money. I told her, “The ring is funded.”
Did you arrange the rabbi?
Caesars arranged it. They also had a photographer and videographer.
How did the rabbi perform the ceremony in a casino?
It was loud, boisterous and crowded. The Jewish ceremony is long. But as it went on, the casino grew quiet. People realized there was a wedding in progress. At the end of the ceremony, you stomp on the glass. When I stomped on the glass, the entire casino yelled “Mazel tov!”
TITLE: Independent producer of infomercials and paid programming
SHOW: “Best Buys Hosted by Alan Mendelson”
BORN: New York; 1952
EDUCATION: B.S., Syracuse University, television and radio major, economics minor.
CAREER TURNING POINT: Lost job at KCAL in 2006.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSON: Frank Borman, astronaut and chairman of Eastern Airlines.
PERSONAL: Lives with wife in West Los Angeles; son Jason, 30, a classic musician and videotape editor who works on his shows; daughter Marisa, 28, is a TV reporter in Fort Myers, Fla.
HOBBY: Previously collected coins; at one time, owned a rare collection of silver proof Washington quarters. But “prices went too high and I frankly can’t afford it anymore.”
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