Thursday, December 15, 2011

So You Want To Be A Television Sportscaster? Part Two

"...dream big, go to a top college broadcasting program, make connections, network like crazy and work your guts out.."

This was the short answer I blurted out off the top of my head when asked for any advice I might have about getting into the sportscasting 'biz' by someone in my twitter timeline. It's certainly not the first time I've fielded this question.

My very first stop after graduating from BYU in 1982 with my degree in Broadcast Journalism was KIFI-TV in Idaho Falls. Even as a green rookie in the business, I was invited several times to speak to journalism classes just up I-15 at Ricks College. 

Back then, I shared what little bit of insight I had about becoming a broadcast journalist.

Twenty-nine years, eight stations and a handful of job titles ranging from sports director to senior sports producer to general assignment news reporter later, I feel much better qualified to offer some advice.

There were things I did well and learned from. There were also things I didn't do so well, and would change if I could go back now for a do-over with the benefit of hindsight.

As I rose in the business, I had the chance to teach and train young people under my charge, college interns and graduated kids just entering the business. Apparently, I was able to pass along some useful information - many of them are still working in the industry and several have risen far further than I ever did.

Although roughly 90% of my career was in sports, there is the 10% which was news writing and general assignment/feature reporting, and the tips and advice I will lay-out here are universal and will hopefully be helpful whether you plan to cast your lot with the sports guys, the newsies or even the weather department.

(I actually had to do weekend weather in Idaho Falls for a couple of years in order to be the weekend sports anchor, but those are stories - and some major laughs - for another day)

Step 1 - Dream BIG

I preach this to the broadcast journalism students I mentor at BYU from the first day of orientation until the final day of the semester when I say goodbye to the graduating seniors.

I'll use what I'll call the 'Jimmer metaphor.'

Start with a big dream regardless of who you are, where you come from or what natural gifts and strengths you may or may not have been blessed with. To your big dreams add a deep burning passion and a commitment to yourself to do whatever it takes - however hard it is, however long the path or how steep the price - and then proceed with bulldog-like tenacity that you will overcome ANY obstacle placed in front of you.

To that I would add, be realistic and honest with yourself. If you are 5'6, I can almost guarantee you will never be the starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers, but if your passion is basketball you can adapt your dream and be a point-guard, a coach, a trainer or even - wait for it - an official.

Step 2 - It's NEVER too early (or late) to get started

Nick Garner will be reading this blog.

Nick is a Southern California schoolboy and already has HIS dream. If you peek at his website - - you'll notice he's already 'living the dream,' talking with people like USC Head Football Coach Lane Kiffin and Dodgers living legend, Tommy Lasorda.

On the other hand, if you are a disenchanted 30-something retail manager or accountant who hates going to work and sneaks a peek at the internet every chance you get to see what's up in the sports (or news) world and talk about it with someone, anyone, who will listen to you, I say "c'mon down..."

The information age, technology explosion and social media revolution have combined to create a perfect storm of opportunity, a nearly insatiable worldwide appetite for information, opinion and exchange of ideas. That's not going away anytime soon, people.

Step 3 - Grab the tools of the trade and learn how to use them

Whether you are currently in grade school, high school, college or the school of hard knocks there are specialized tools of this trade - job skills. You need to get ahold of them, master them and then continually refine them over the entire span of your career.

This is called tradecraft - a word straight out of a Robert Ludlam or Daniel Silva spy novel - but I love it's application to journalism. Okay, what are the tools?

  • knowledge - you need this in spades, by the bucket. Grab as much as you can and then reach for more. You need to be SMART. Not Einstein smart, but well-read and educated so you can speak confidently, comfortably and with credibility about the news, or sports news of the day.

Especially in the visual medium of television, people can spot a phony a mile away. What do I mean by a phony? An anchor or reporter who is just a pretty face or talking head who is being spoon-fed everything they say by a producer who has the actual knowledge.

The 1987 film 'Broadcast News' is the PERFECT example of what I'm talking about. William Hurt's pretty-boy anchorman, Holly Hunter's brilliant producer and Albert Brooks' tortured, under-appreciated reporter are wonderful characters and nail the essence of what I am preaching here.

As a television sportscaster, you absolutely NEED to be watching SportsCenter and have dozens of sports news websites bookmarked for daily reading. You should be watching live sports all the time. This isn't busy work - it's what you LOVE and LIVE for. It's either in your blood or it isn't. No shortcuts.

  • writing - this is your core job skill. Since I can't over-state how absolutely critical this is to your success, I'll repeat it - WRITING IS YOUR CORE SKILL. It will make or break you in this business. The best writers get the best jobs. Cold, hard truth.

Writing for the ear, for broadcasting, is similar, but different from writing for print. But just as algebra comes before geometry, you need to learn basic newswriting - Journalism 101 - as your foundation before you then learn and master broadcast writing.

Now we take that a step further. 

Writing for sports is different than writing news. The concept here is spelled F-U-N. Sports is supposed to be FUN. It's not death, taxes or natural disasters.

After the news anchors and the weatherman have thoroughly depressed the audience, the sportscaster goes to bat with the diversions, the 'time-outs' from life's hardships, challenges and realities. It's the very same reason the athletes play the games and fans go watch them. It's always been that way and probably always will be.

((okay, caveat here. Recent current events in the sports world are forcing sportscasters and reporters to borrow a page from the news people and be serious on occasion. It's sad, but it is what it is. Thankfully, sports will always, hopefully be pre-dominantly fun))

NEVER stop self-critiquing, and working on your writing. Tradecraft.

  • speaking - your voice is HUGE if you go into radio, and only slightly-less important on TV, where you can dress snappy, comb your hair and plaster on a 10,000 mega-watt smile. ((I am always reminding my BYU sportscasting students to SMILE))

Let's face it - not everyone can be a John Facenda (NFL Films) and be blessed with the 'Voice of God.' And yes, people with high-pitched, squeeky voices or nasal twangs can and do succeed in the industry, but hedge your bets. Work on your voice - your delivery. Insider trick: when you go into an audio booth to record a narration track, if you smile and move around - literally be animated - that will translate into your voice like magic and your audio will be much improved.

Just as with your writing, constantly self-critique your voice and delivery. Always make sure someone in the newsroom is running an air check - a recording of the newscast. (oops, there's my age showing. Having a DVR at home will obviate the need for an air-check) The best sportscasters always linger at least 5-10 minutes before heading-out the back door to go watch the air check and see what worked and what needs to be worked on.

If I could go back and start over, knowing what I now know about the business, I would have invested in some individual, specialized voice coaching to maximize my potential success and raise my ceiling. 

Once again with the T-word: tradecraft.

  • appearance - you've probably heard the time-honored industry jokes about someone having a 'face for radio' or a 'voice for newspaper.' NEWSFLASH: stereotypes aside, there is some truth here. Actually, a lot. And this is not a knock on the radio and print guys. Just another cold, hard fact.

No matter how you cut it, television is a visual medium. How you look is important. Not everyone working on TV needs to be a supermodel (see: Ken & Barbie syndrome) but you absolutely have to be well pulled together and always concerned with appearance.

There is a right and a wrong way to dress for TV work. Hair styles matter, and I couldn't be any more serious. The further up the ladder you climb in the business, the news directors who answer to the general managers and have the highly paid image consultants whispering in their ear will actually have the attorneys build into your contract what you may and may not do with your hair.

I almost always had gym memberships included as perks in my contracts and in one contract re-negotiation I was told point-blank: lose some weight - now.

Looks are important. When the sports media gather at news conferences and games, you can almost always spot the TV guys and girls from their contemporaries in the other mediums. As I mentioned, this is not a knock. Again, it simply is what it is.

Now that we've talked about dreams and tools, we'll call it good for today.


In the third and final installment, we will discuss college, internships, networking....and of course, more tradecraft. Greg Wrubell's name is probably going to come-up in the conversation.

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