The last time Anthony Sullivan watched a roomful of aspiring salesmen and inventors compete for a spot on his Discovery Channel show Pitchmen, he waded through more than 600 people in Las Vegas to find only a handful of possibles.
But producers at the MJ Morning Show on WFLZ-FM (93.3 FLZ) hope to do better on Wednesday, teaming with Sullivan to hold auditions for Pitchmen at the Ritz Theater in Ybor City in an event dubbed MJ Inventorquest 2009. The group has registered about 200 people for the daylong event, which begins at 9 a.m. and includes auditioning for producers from the morning show and Sullivan Productions. Auditions are now closed; fans cannot walk up to the Ritz to participate.
About 40 lucky inventors who make it past the producer auditions will pitch in person to Sullivan and host Todd "MJ" Schnitt later that day; those who stand out most get to pitch again Friday on Schnitt's morning show.
The biggest prize: the opportunity to impress Sullivan enough that he might agree to create a direct marketing TV commercial for the product or include it in the second season of Pitchmen.
"We're not looking for somebody to go over the top," said Schnitt's producer, Dominic "Uncle Fester" Siciliano, referencing Sullivan's recently deceased partner, legendary pitchman Billy Mays. "Just convince us to buy your product."
• • •
If you saw retired reporter Rod Challenger popping up in stories on WFLA-Ch. 8, last week, it's not a rerun. Like a few other folks who left the NBC affiliate this year, Challenger has agreed to return on a freelance basis to help the channel get through a period of short staffing.
Challenger, 66, said he's working four days each week at WFLA through November, filling a general assignment role that sees him preparing a story on St. Petersburg mayoral race one moment and a hearing connected to the Walker Middle School rape case the next.
Years ago, when a reporter or anchor left a TV station, he was usually gone for good. But the current tough economic times have left several experienced broadcasters available when already thin news staffs can be stretched to the limit by vacations, unexpected illnesses or news emergencies.
Before Challenger, laid-off sports anchor Dave Reynolds briefly returned to WFLA and former WTVT anchor Bill Murphy appears as an anchor on Bay News 9, after joining the cable news channel part time to do profiles on local industry hot spots.
Challenger voluntarily retired in February, capping 30 years at the station and 47 years in journalism, ready to spend more time with his wife and hobbies. Now he's back rising with the dawn and chasing stories the same way he was eight months ago.
"They say I'm the Brett Favre of Ch. 8," said Challenger, who had to turn down a request to work three months. "It's been nice to see everyone again."