A journey from Hebrew School to CNN to Chrysler-
For years, press days at the North American International Auto Show were for the privileged few. If you had credentials, you could attend the glitzy new product introductions of all of the world’s leading automakers.
But things have changed. Now any auto buff can watch product unveilings live online — and even participate in Web chats with execs and designers.
At the center of that change is Ed Garsten, head of digital media for Chrysler. He’s genuinely excited about the new direction.
“We’re taking the public behind the curtain that was previously impervious,” Garsten says. “Press week always was super-exclusive, and the public got its news from whatever the press doled out. Now you can see the action as the press sees it in its full context.”
This year, preview days are Jan. 13-14. Expect a major new product introduction from Chrysler.
“Detroit’s the place to do it,” Garsten says. “It’s the biggest show of the year, so it’s the time to shine. About 6,000 media members will be there.”
Chrysler is hoping to build on its momentum of nine straight profitable quarters and 45 months of sales gains. The company will be introducing a few “buzz” models at the show as well as expanding its Mopar display.
The schedule of live online events and web chats is available at blog.ChryslerGroupLLC.com.
New technology and the acquisition of a live streaming channel have been key enablers for Garsten and his team.
“We have a piece of equipment called the HD500. It’s about the size of a small computer desktop tower, and it’s literally a TV station in a box,” he says. “We can plug in five cameras, roll in video and graphics and go live from virtually anywhere you have power and an Internet connection.”
Where It All Began
Garsten, 61, of West Bloomfield, is in his ninth year with Chrysler. He’s also a 20-year veteran of CNN. Growing up in Queens, he never anticipated a career as a communications executive.
“But I’ve always had a thing for writing,” he says. “When Stanley Perlman moved away in second grade, I wrote him a song that we played on these little flutes called tonettes. The whole class played the ‘Goodbye, Stanley’ song. It was the first song I ever wrote.”
Another early sign of a future life in the media: “My brother and I bought song sheets and acted out radio shows in our room, but I never thought of it as a career.
“I thought I wanted to be a phys ed teacher. My father asked why, and I said I noticed they drink a lot of coffee and seem pretty happy.”
He went to State University of New York at Oswego to play soccer. “But I got involved in the campus radio station and never kicked the ball once,” he says.
Shortly after joining the station, Garsten became its news director. “Once I changed my course, I went full bore at it,” he says. “It was a great station. Al Roker worked there. I was his program director during my last year.”
Garsten also worked as a disc jockey, but became fascinated with the news. “My idols were Hughes Rudd and Bruce Morton from the CBS Morning News. They were brilliant writers, and I decided I’ve just got to do this.”
That led to a move to Tucson, where Ed and his wife, Susan, pursued master’s degrees at the University of Arizona. He worked at a couple of radio stations there as a DJ and at the local ABC-TV affiliate, first as the weekend weatherman, then as a full-time reporter. “Then the pro- ducer quit, and the boss said, ‘I’ll give you a $6,000 raise if you start producing.’ My first day as producer, Ronald Reagan got shot.”
After two years in Arizona, Garsten headed to Atlanta to work for CNN. He was one of 10 producers hired to launch Headline News. “It was November 1981,” Garsten recalls. “I had an old Datsun wagon with no heat, and it was a cold drive across Texas. We showed up a few days before Thanksgiving and launched on New Year’s Day in 1982, so we had five weeks to figure it out.”
Garsten has the distinction of producing the first live show on CNN Headline News. “I was scheduled to produce the second show, but the first show crashed, and they had to roll a rehearsal tape, so I did the next show. It was all live, and it went fine.”
After two years with Headline News, Garsten transferred to the main network. Eventually, he became a full-time correspondent in CNN’s Southeast bureau. “I covered some interesting stories, like the Jim Bakker PTL scandal,” he recalls. “I got to go to a Davy Crockett family reunion in Tennessee. And, of course, hurricanes.”
Garsten also anchored News Night Update, a prime-time show for West Coast viewers. In 1989, he became CNN’s Detroit bureau chief and cor- respondent.
“I had been to Detroit once. In 1974, on a driving vacation, we cut through Michigan to get back to New York,” he says. “My entire experience was I-94 and seeing the big tire, which I recog- nized as the old Ferris wheel from the 1964 World’s Fair, which I had been to 100 times.
“I knew what people said about Detroit, but there were a few people in Atlanta who worked at Detroit TV stations, and they all said, ‘Don’t listen to what people say; anyone who has lived there will tell you it’s an awesome place to live. You will never want to leave.’ They were right. My family loves it. It’s our home. I can’t believe we’ve been here so long. We thought it would be another stop on the road.”
After 20 years with CNN, including 12 as Detroit bureau chief, Garsten was a victim of downsizing. For a few months, he freelanced for the Automotive News. That led to a position as an auto writer with the Associated Press.
The Detroit News then recruited Garsten as a beat writer covering General Motors. “I had never worked for a newspaper before. They said, ‘You just write great stories, and we’ll figure out how it gets into the paper.’”
Three years later, he made an even bigger career change — moving to the corporate world as a blog writer for Chrysler. “I was ready for something new. It was 2005, and this seemed intriguing and cutting-edge at the time.”
To many in the business, switching from news to public relations is viewed as “jumping to the dark side,” Garsten says. “There’s a fear that you’re giving up something or that you would be asked to doing something unethical. I’ve found just the opposite. I haven’t had to give up anything except bad hours and having to stand in a hurricane. I’ve found the transition easy because in the end, we’re all storytellers; you just transfer your skills into a different context. I still have to tell the story accurately and in an engaging way.”
Today, Garsten leads a digital media team of nine communicators. “We do a corporate blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest and all the usual social media outlets, in addi- tion to videos on YouTube. We have a unique setup. Our multimedia editors are, in effect, reporters. They develop sources within the company, come up with stories, then turn the stories into social media posts, videos or web chats.”
Married for 40 years, the Garstens have a son, Gregory, 29, and a daughter, Laura, 25. Their family life has been one of multiple traditions.
“I went to Hebrew school, and I was bar mitzvahed. I never expected to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish, but it happens. We got married in a banquet hall in Webster, N.Y. The judge met us 15 minutes before the wedding. He said afterward if he had known I was Jewish, he would’ve had a glass for me to break.
“My wife’s Episcopalian. Her brother is a Lutheran minister, and he took part in the wedding, too. We had a big buffet. It was the Mason-Dixon Line between New York Jews and the upstate Protestants. They all got to know each other and became good friends.
“Through the years, we’ve kept the faith in our own way. My wife sets up the Chanukah candles and makes sure the holidays are perfect. She makes the best matzah balls. When my mother was alive, she would ask Susan how she did it. She would tell her she just read the instructions on the box. Our kids are very aware and respectful of the religion and faith. Our daughter just went to Israel through the Birthright program and came back really inspired.”
Ed’s hobbies are hockey, kayaking, and playing drums and guitar.
Allan Nahajewski | Contributing Writer