Two Tampa Bay Idol contestants survive the intense audition.
Published July 10, 2009|Updated July 10, 2009

In the end, Samantha Leigh's shot at American Idol fame came down to about 15 seconds; the amount of time she got to blast through Aretha Franklin's soulful hit Rock Steady during her audition Thursday before American Idol producers in Orlando.

Leigh, a 22-year-old who sings at Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa, got a prime audition spot after winning Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13's Tampa Bay Idol contest last week. While an estimated 10,000 people showed up as early as 5 a.m. Thursday to wait in line around Amway Arena, Leigh was among several contest winners moved to the head of the line for the audition before casting producers.

The access may have worked; Leigh and second-place Tampa Bay Idol finisher Brad Iturriaga are invited back to audition for the show's executive producers later this month. If that goes well, they'll get to face the show's well-known on-camera judges, including bratty Brit Simon Cowell. (Full disclosure: This critic served on the five-judge panel last week.)

"They tell you ahead of time not to introduce yourself, not to ask for feedback; they just point to you, and you sing," said Leigh, who stood in a group of four and got through about half of her song's first verse before producers stopped her. "It was crazy, nerve-racking ... almost surreal."

Leigh didn't even get to meet Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who was there to film some of the opening sequences for the audition shows. "I did get to stand 20 feet away from him," she said, laughing. "Maybe I'll meet him next time."

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ABC heralds in-depth reporter

Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 has hired award-winning investigative reporter Alan Cohn to spearhead the station's in-depth reporting efforts. Cohn, who comes to Tampa Aug. 3 from WTNH-TV in Connecticut, won the George Foster Peabody Award in 2007 for a look at defective Black Hawk helicopter parts made by a local company.

"His type of investigative work is very high-level. ... He won't be chasing down cars in ambush interviews," said WFTS general manager Rich Pegram, who took months to find a replacement for investigative reporter Matthew Schwartz, let go at the beginning of 2009. "This is a consistent commitment we have ... regardless of how challenging the economy gets."