Wild Nights in New Orleans

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By Katie Cleary, Wild Nights Associate Producer

Mireya Mayor’s new series Wild Nights Premieres Monday August 9 at 9P et/pt.

You could say that to make an hour of TV, it takes a village. In this case, the village was New Orleans.

Nothing sums this up better than our last shoot for the series. By this point our crew was dead, dead, dead tired. And our host, Mireya Mayor, had been injured by, – of all things – the jagged roof of a tarpon’s mouth.  (Sometimes I catch myself rubbing my tongue on the top of my mouth and wondering just how the roof of a tarpon’s mouth managed to scrape the skin off of Mireya’s hand? I still have no answer—but check out our Miami episode for more details). Anyway, this last shoot was one we all wanted to get behind us, but one we definitely couldn’t rush through.

We were headed to WRBH, believed to be the only radio station for blind people in the country, to climb their nearly 90-foot transmission tower and we had to do that safely. At this point you’re probably wondering 1) why the blind have a radio station; and 2) why we were climbing up it? I’ll answer #1 first.  Blind people don’t have the access to newspapers and daily print publications that the seeing world does. So WRBH in New Orleans has a group of volunteers who come in and read news and magazine stories to their listeners.  Cool, huh? And now for #2: the staff at WRBH believes that the heat generated from their radio transmission attracted a colony of green monk parakeets.  We were climbing the tower to get closer to the parakeets, nesting at the top.

Now, given that Mireya’s hand was in tatters, we had to make sure the tower was rigged for the worst-case scenario: her falling and us having to belay her down the entire way. I had brought a couple of harnesses, some carabineers and some webbing to New Orleans, but only about five hours before we were supposed to start the climb did we realize we didn’t have nearly enough rope to make it really safe. In a lot of other towns you could just head to REI and get what you needed, but New Orleans is as flat as a concave pancake and the nearest climbing store is miles, and miles away. Luckily, Mireya remembered having a conversation with Benny Griffin, one of the characters we worked with doing nutria control.  The multi-talented Benny – S.W.A.T. team sniper and former army sergeant– is also, as luck would have it, a rappel master. And he was kind enough to come when we called, arriving at our hotel at 1 am the night before our climb to lend us enough rope to safely rig the tower. Thank you, Benny.

When we arrived at the tower, we decided the best way to rig it would be for our cameraman, Andy Mitchell, to slowly climb up, clipping in with smaller strips of webbing as he ascended, further and further up the tower until he was as high enough to set the main, top-rope anchor for Mireya. Nothing about this was dangerous (in case my production manager is reading this) but it was something you wanted to do slowly and methodically. Which is what Andy was prepared to do, until the woman who runs the radio station, Natalia, came outside and told us each person going up the tower only had ten minutes to make it up and back because of “the signal.” Now, it was unclear if the signal was something that was going to give us permanent eye twitches, or just something they didn’t want our bodies interfering with, but either way we didn’t want to find out. Luckily, Andy Mitchell is part monkey. He scurried up the tower, set the anchor, ran the top-rope, and was back down in no time. The tower was all rigged for Mireya, but it still wasn’t easy to climb, especially with a bum hand and a slew of camera equipment. But our host rose to the occasion and did a great job getting up the tower, getting out the cameras, and getting footage of the parakeets. In all the drama to get the tower rigged it was easy to lose site of how impressive the parakeet colony was. It had to be over six feet long and the diameter of a large garbage can—and home to what looked like hundreds of birds. The radio station had the nest dismantled once before, but the parakeets rebuilt their home within a few days. To get a better idea what it looks like, you’ll have to watch the show.

Mireya came down without incident and the shoot was wrapped. Well, except that we still had to strip the rigging down. Now it was my turn to go up the tower. As any film crew anywhere can tell you, the good stuff always happens the second you put the cameras away. This shoot was no different. About fifty feet up the tower, I found what I believe to be the rarest species we encountered on our entire assignment in New Orleans: a weathered, yellow, red and black snake, wrapped around the tower’s lattice. Talk about urban adaptations and never-seen-before footage! We’d found the world’s only radio tower snake, suspended 50 feet above the ground. It was an incredible specimen, and holding quite still–so I was sure we’d be able to film it. When I called down to my crew to send up a camera they yelled back that the gear was all in the car and that I needed to come down so we could head to the airport. So I did, reluctantly, knowing we’d just turned our backs on some mind-blowing natural history footage. But alas, we were wrapped, and sometimes you have to know when to walk away. Oh, and did I mention it was a rubber snake?

Watch a video preview of tonight’s premiere Wild Nights: New Orleans.