Conversations with the great RBG

The air was heavier than usual the very moment I walked out of Terminal 3.

Slowly I make my way to my truck parked there towards the end of the lot for the last 5 days and start up the engine. It's a bit more difficult this time around because I'm heading straight to the funeral of someone I hold in the highest of regards.

Ray Butch Gamboa had passed. He was 76.

To a very select group of peers that have been with him from the start, he was Elvis. To many of us, he was Sir Butch, Daddy Butch, or RBG. To me, he was Ninong Butch.

The Passing of a Titan: Ray Butch Gamboa image

He joins his wife, Baby, who passed away a few years ago. Not long after that, he too suffered a stroke that left him in a wheelchair. Still, ever the professional, Ray Butch Gamboa got back on the microphone to conduct interviews, and I even got the honor of joining him on his first one since his stroke. He would not let it keep him down and out.

RBG was the trailblazer of motoring media in the Philippines. He did start the show Motoring Today in 1987. Imagine starting an automotive show at a point in time when many automakers had left following the sharp decline of the economy during that tumultuous era. But he did it and resumed his broadcast career which was cut short in September 1972. He packed up the carpet cleaning business he established during the Martial Law era and got to work building his company: Sunshine Television.

Many of my memories with RBG are with many of my peers: talking with, eating with, drinking with, playing poker with, and traveling with him during the many launches, trips, and drives we did. Butch was the undeniable titan of our beat. When I was new, he was well and truly the king. He would always be seated next to the company president at any event. His words and presence commanded respect. And he would be the first to stand to shake the hand of the boss as he returned after the customary opening remarks.

The Passing of a Titan: Ray Butch Gamboa image

Where my experience differs is in the many afternoons I spent talking with him at his office at the Valle Verde Country Club around 10 years ago; this wasn’t over a bottle of Macallan (his favorite), but often over the soupy corned beef that always seemed to hit the spot. I had worked for him at one point many years ago, writing voice-over scripts for his show Auto Focus as a side gig from my regular job.

Many of the conversations revolved around the goings on in the industry; he would share how it was back in the day, while I would share about the emergence of online media. Often we’d talk about our shared interest in firearms and sport shooting. He would always say he was more of a gun guy than a car guy, and so am I.

Writing for Butch didn’t pay that much, but that wasn’t why I did it. I wanted to learn from the man many of us watched on TV growing up, and I made up my mind early on that this was what I wanted to do. And the king was more than glad to share wisdom acquired over decades.

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Reputation is the key

Butch made it clear that your reputation is key, and you must show that you are credible, trustworthy, and reliable.

He exemplified this. RBG was always well-dressed, often in a blazer or a leather jacket, impeccably polished shoes, and his signature shades. He didn’t speak loudly or try to overpower conversations; if anything, he listened more. More importantly, he emphasized that you must never show your weaknesses, be it on the poker table or in official functions.

He brought it up because he knew that my weakness when I was a new kid on the motoring block was having a drink (or drinks) too many. What did you expect when you put a young 20-something in front of a bar at a car launch or party and told him everything was free? Of course he is going to drink, and that was the case with my generation entering the beat at the time.

“You don’t want that reputation, hijo,” he told me. And it stuck. You can drink socially and have a laugh, but never get hammered when you’re with people who aren’t your close friends. Quite simply: How you carry yourself matters a lot.

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The layman

Perhaps the best lesson I learned from RBG was when I submitted a script I had written for him.  He flipped through it for about a minute with a blank expression, and I was just sitting there in front of his desk trying to figure out if I got it right.

He looks up at me and says: “Vince, this is good pare but remember: always write with the layman in mind.”

Cars are very technical things, and many of us -me in particular- are essentially car nerds. We like the intricacies of how valve timing works, suspension engineering, or explaining the latest technology in detail, and often we use very technical terms. That was a no-no, especially in TV.

Butch challenged me to avoid the technical jargon and instead find ways to explain without the big words. Don’t speak or write as if your audience or reader is as knowledgeable about cars as you. Speak to the wider audience that wants to know, but may not have the time to dedicate to learn about every fancy word. We are in the business of communication, and it’s our job to digest and present information in a fair and easy-to-understand manner for everyone, especially for those who aren’t as familiar.

That’s a lesson I still impart to my team today and something I try to do with every video I host. The challenge is how to make the information relevant and easy. I don’t use liters for cargo space as listed on a brochure. I use a tape measure. To show how a 3-cylinder engine vibrates more, I put a clear cup with water on top of the valve cover. Simple, but effective.

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No envelopes

I love it when Butch would talk about the old days of motoring media. He was a pioneer, and he -together with a few peers- would effectively shape how car manufacturers would interact with motoring journalists here.

He would tell us that back in the ‘80s, it was considered normal for companies to take the press out for a night of entertainment; and by that, we mean the kind that isn’t to be published. He said those things would always make him uncomfortable for the obvious reasons. And most of the time, it was normal to be given a sum of cash to help “prioritize” the story or coverage.

“Envelopmental journalism”, joked RBG.

To an extent, this still exists in other specific segments of the media, but not so in automotive. RBG recounted how they started to refuse such methods early on and sought to professionalize this little industry we’re in. The problem with accepting envelopes for no valid reason at an event is that it is effectively grease money to encourage (or discourage, depending on the situation) the publishing of a story.

If carmakers want to support a media outlet, then strike up a partnership, an ad contract, or a creative execution and make it professional. Butch was one of the pioneers that worked to make it proper.

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As I arrive at the funeral chapel straight from the airport, I greet the family, his team, colleagues, and senior industry personalities. I pay my last respects to the man and thank him for taking the time to talk with me those years ago. There are many more stories and snippets of wisdom from the days I visited Ray Butch Gamboa at his office. Many of those are just personal conversations that I will remember and lessons that I still put to use.

I never thought I would have been able to meet -much less have one-on-one conversations with- Ray Butch Gamboa. I’m very fortunate that I did.