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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

The Olbermann Factor   

Broadcast journalism programs are filled with young men who want to be TV sportscasters. It will take more than arch oneliners to get them there.

By Chris Tuohey
Chris Tuohey, a former TV executive producer, teaches broadcast journalism at Syracuse University.     

MOST PEOPLE WANT TO BE the best at something. So you might think being named "best school if you dream of becoming a sportcaster" by Sports Illustrated would be reason to celebrate at Syracuse University.
But if you mention that April 1997 accolade to the broadcast journalism faculty at Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, you're likely to get a roll of the eyes. It's not that Syracuse doesn't come by the reputation honestly. You can count among the alumni such famous sportscasters as Bob Costas, Marv Albert and Dick Stockton. But, given the strong news background of faculty members, they'd like people to remember that Ted Koppel, Steve Kroft and Bob Dotson went to Syracuse, too. Broadcast Journalism Department Chair Dona Hayes doesn't see the Sports Illustrated endorsement as a negative, but she worries it could send the wrong message to prospective students. "Sportscasting is a fine profession, but we do not have a sportscasting major here. We have a broadcast journalism major," she says. That doesn't keep aspiring sports reporters--particularly men--from applying in lopsidedly high numbers to Syracuse and other universities with top broadcast journalism programs. A recent survey highlighted the students' sports-centric expectations. Between November and January, I surveyed broadcast journalism students at Syracuse, the University of Missouri-Columbia and Ohio University, receiving valid responses from 269 of them. I asked them what they most want to do in their careers, giving them a choice of jobs generally found in local or network radio and television newsrooms. Thirty-two percent of the male broadcast students chose radio or TV sports play-by-play as their first choice, while 19 percent made TV sports anchor or reporter their top pick. (None of the women was interested in play-by-play, while about 8 percent chose sports anchor or reporter.) Added together, more than half of all male broadcast journalism students surveyed at the three schools said they hope to get an on-air sports job. Compare that to the combined 27 percent of men who made the on-air TV and radio news options their top pick. Local TV news directors say the numbers are cause for concern: They say a good man is already hard to find when it comes to hiring for on-air news jobs. Loren Tobia, vice chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation Board of Trustees and news director at WTVH-TV in Syracuse, New York, says he sees gender disparities when he posts openings for news anchor or reporter jobs. "I get an onslaught of tapes, the majority of which are women...60-40 at least," he says. News Director Tony Ballew, of Cleveland's WOIO/WUAB-TV, says he finds an even greater gap in the ratio of on-air news applicants: 3-to-1 in favor of women. In a profession once dominated by men, women now hold the majority of on-air positions in TV news, according to a 1996 RTNDF/Ball State survey of 679 U.S. television stations. The survey results show women holding 54 percent of the TV news anchor jobs and 51 percent of the TV news reporter positions. (Women held only 3 percent of the sports anchor positions.) Compare that with a TV newsroom survey conducted in 1972 by Vernon Stone, professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism. He found women made up only 10 percent of the anchors and 11 percent of the reporters. Odds are, the percentage of women newscasters will continue to grow. Right now, at Missouri and Ohio, women in the broadcast journalism programs outnumber men at least 60-40. (Syracuse is unusual among broadcast journalism programs with close to a 50-50 mix of male and female students.) To hear the news directors talk, all-women news teams in the future might not be that far-fetched. The survey findings didn't come as a surprise to faculty at the three journalism schools. "It supports my gut reaction that most of the males come to Ohio University to be about sports," says Eddith Dashiell, associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism there. But the male students' sports-career fixation is not the educators' only concern. Some also worry that those who do end up in sports jobs won't be properly prepared: They're spending too much time honing their stand-up routines, and not enough time concentrating on interviewing skills. "They think that in order to be a good sports announcer, they have to be funny," Dashiell says. But, she adds, "A lot of the humor that they use [in class newscasts] ends up sounding like they're either racist or sexist or just plain silly."

WHY SO MUCH INTEREST in sports broadcasting? When students who made that career choice on the survey were asked why, virtually all responded that they loved sports. Another part of the answer can be spelled with four letters: E-S-P-N. When students were asked where they would like to be working five to 10 years after graduation, the all-sports channel got the most mentions by far among the sports hopefuls. Few cited money as a motivator, beyond mentioning the obvious appeal of being paid to do something they really enjoy. A few said they wanted to report on sports because they found news boring, depressing or both. Brad Heller, a Syracuse junior, and Michael Hayslip, a Missouri senior, were among those who responded that they want lives in sports broadcasting. Both picked sports play-by-play as their No. 1 career choice, followed by sports anchoring and reporting. What drew them to the field? Having grown up outside New York City, Heller says at age 10 he began doing his own play-by-play from his seat at Knicks and Rangers games, "much to the dismay" of those sitting around him. Hayslip grew up in Ohio listening to Marty Brennaman call the Cincinnati Reds games on the radio and was in awe of how well the spoken word could paint a picture of the action. Both students admit to being more than just a little scared of the competition for jobs. And they have every reason to be. "Let's say there's an opening in Billings, Montana, for a weekend sportscaster that pays $11,000 a year," suggests famed TV talent headhunter Don Fitzpatrick. "That news director is probably going to get anywhere between 150 and 400 tapes applying for that one job." That isn't to suggest that a student's only options at graduation are on the air or out of work. For those who decide that simply being involved in sports will suffice, there are other opportunities. The proliferation of cable sports networks has created numerous behind-the-scenes producing jobs. Plus, sports marketing and public relations offer other options. In the survey results, a handful of students said they were interested in behind-the-scenes sports careers, but clearly most want to be out in front of the camera or behind the microphone. And for many, a microphone with an ESPN logo on it is the holy grail. Dashiell says she can see the ESPN influence in her students' approach to sportscasting at Ohio U. She says most try to mimic--often unsuccessfully--the highlight-and-funny-remark format made famous by Keith Olbermann when he was teamed with Dan Patrick on ESPN's "SportsCenter." (Olbermann, whose biting, witty style earned him a national reputation and a CableAce Award in 1995 for Best Sportscaster, made a brief foray into news and is now back in the sports anchor chair on cable's Fox Sports News.) NBC's Costas has also seen the Olbermann wannabes. "I love Keith Olbermann. I don't necessarily love a lot of the other people who try to use a sports setting as an excuse to get off their second-rate stand-up act," he says. Costas likens Olbermann's influence on sports broadcasting to that of Muhammad Ali on a generation of boxers. "One guy does it and does it very well, and it's terrific. Other people copy it, and they're not able to do it, and it isn't that they're half as good; it's not good at all." For his part, Olbermann says the phenomenon makes him feel like another historical figure: "There are times when I feel like Robert Oppenheimer, brought back to life and being advised that the Pakistanis have nuclear weapons that I helped design." Olbermann says for him, the sports knowledge came first and the humor second. He thinks imitators have that turned around. "You're not just supposed to throw these bombs around," he says. "You have to operate from a premise." Fitzpatrick says finding a strong sports anchor or reporter is one of the most frustrating tasks a local TV news department faces. The news directors show up at his office to look at tapes knowing they're going to see a string of sameness. The imitators all come across as "wiseacres," says Fitzpatrick. "And quite honestly, when they do focus groups, the focus groups say, `We don't like wiseacres.' " "The worst thing you can do in television is try to be funny" and not be, says Tom Burke, news director at WPGH-TV in Pittsburgh. "It's a hundred times worse than if you just had done it kind of straight or in a more traditional way." Burke points out that all local sportscasters have the same highlights and scores to pick from; he looks for someone who brings that "extra element" to the sportscast. "If it can't be humor or a unique creativity, then what you are looking for is raw competence...and sincerity and warmth." But Burke says in his experience, even that is in short supply, despite the large number of job applicants. For sportscaster jobs, Burke looks at sports résumé tapes with four or five qualities in mind: warmth, voice, writing and producing ability, and comfortable body language. "On most of the tapes, most of the candidates barely [have] one or two," he says. Burke wants what Fitzpatrick says most news directors want from their sportscasters: someone who can hold the interest of the 80 percent of viewers who aren't really sports fans. That means presenting local human interest sports stories with the same storytelling skills used in effective news features. Fitzpatrick says that's not what he finds on sports résumé tapes. Instead, the tapes are filled with NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball highlights. "When you look at a lot of small-market tapes, these guys are trying to show you that they are big-time because they're talking about Michael Jordan and they're talking about Mark Mc-Gwire, but they're kind of missing the point of what they are supposed to be doing in that town," Fitzpatrick says. Many broadcast journalism professors also stress the importance of local sports stories. Sometimes, Dashiell says, her male students dismiss her comments, figuring they know more about sports than she does. Her response? "My basic philosophy is: I've never killed anyone, but that doesn't mean I couldn't cover a murder if I wanted to." She confesses to getting a great deal of satisfaction when students come back after graduation and admit to leading their sportscasts with local football.

A NUMBER OF EDUCATORS say it is time to take a look at how broadcast journalism curricula are serving students. And if students want to be sportscasters, "as educators, let's serve them," says Michael Cremedas, associate professor of broadcast journalism at Syracuse. "It's time to recognize that they're not interested in news and never will be." Missouri, Ohio, Syracuse and Northwestern University--which also has a highly regarded broadcast program--all teach the basics of broadcast news writing, reporting, producing and ethics. For those students who are interested, Missouri and Syracuse each offer a class on sports reporting taught by professional TV sportscasters. Ohio has a sports reporting class that is generally print-oriented, and Northwestern's lone sports reporting class is only offered to graduate students. Students such as Hayslip and Heller say they wish their programs offered a more formal emphasis on sports. Often, they find, the most effective way to get a sports fix as students is through experiences outside the classroom. Heller's internship with WNBC-TV last summer took him inside the New York Yankees' locker room to cover the eventual world champs. Assistant Professor Ava Greenwell of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism agrees with Cremedas that coursework should be designed to turn sports fans into better sports journalists. But she says this doesn't necessarily mean loading up students with more sports classes. Greenwell points out that when it comes to covering the dealings of major league sports franchises, a reporter needs to understand business and politics. "If you teach students how to put all that in a sports context, you've given them more to work with when you send them out into the work world," she says. Some journalism schools, such as Syracuse's, strongly advise students to take political science, economics and history as electives; others, such as Ohio University's, specifically require these classes. Missouri and Northwestern also require coursework in the social sciences. Longtime Cleveland sports anchor Jim Donovan says that whether a student eventually wants to cover the White House or the White Sox, he or she needs to learn the same reporting skills. He has frequently led newscasts with sports stories, such as the Indians' two recent World Series appearances. But he has also found himself at the top of the WKYC newscast covering a spring training boating accident that killed two Indians pitchers. And Cleveland's loss of its NFL franchise in 1995 and subsequent efforts to bring a new Browns team to town was as much a news story as a sports one. Donovan says such stories take him back to the basics of news reporting. "You're not dealing with your opinion on why this guy should be traded, you're dealing with some really hard facts...and you have to make sure you have it right." He also warns ESPN hopefuls that when they walk into a locker room, interviewing skills are more important than knowledge of sports trivia. "You have to deal with athletes who have won, athletes who have lost, athletes who want to talk, athletes who will never talk.... If you don't have the reporting skills, I think you'll really fail pretty miserably." In addition, Olbermann says, sports reporters need to understand journalistic ethics: "what you can say and what you cannot say, how to develop sources. You have to have the same equipment that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings have. When you have mastered these things, then you can go work on the jokes." MAKING SURE SPORTS REPORTERS think like news journalists may make for better sports coverage, but that doesn't address the apparent shortage of top-notch male news reporters. So the question remains: Should these journalism programs try to limit the number of sports hopefuls while trying to recruit more men interested in news? Roger Gafke, the broadcast journalism chairman at Missouri, says his faculty has debated this issue and has come to the conclusion that an interest in sports should not disqualify a student from entering the school's broadcast news program. Gafke says what Missouri has done in recent years is make it easier for any student who decides he or she doesn't like news to leave the broadcast news sequence and choose another major in the journalism school or elsewhere. Hayes agrees that she wouldn't want students at Syracuse to be locked into or out of any career path when they begin college. Some professors deal with the issue one-on-one, by trying to steer sports students into news. "Love sports but be a news reporter, and you'll probably be happier career-wise in the long run," advises University of Missouri School of Journalism instructor Stacey Woelfel, also news director at the university-owned KOMU-TV. Syracuse professor Robert Lissit has given similar advice to many students, including 1994 grad Mike TeSelle. "Harping on me day after day" is how TeSelle describes Lissit's not-so- subtle career counseling. TeSelle says he showed up at Syracuse obsessed with sports and determined to make a living at his passion on ESPN. But he says he had something of an epiphany near the beginning of his senior year. He began to realize that sports reporting seldom affects anyone's life. "I mean, when Magic Johnson is HIV positive, that could possibly impact someone's life, or [by reporting] what HIV is and that kind of thing. But very rarely does the outcome of the Red Sox-Yankees game make a difference" in a life. As graduation drew near, TeSelle applied for news and sports jobs and quickly found there were many more news opportunities available. He first landed a job at KFBB-TV in Great Falls, Montana, where he not only reported the news but shot his own video. He hasn't strayed from news since. After a year and a half in Montana, TeSelle moved to WNDU-TV in South Bend, Indiana, as a bureau reporter. Now, just five years out of college, he is reporting news from California's capital, at KCRA-TV in Sacramento. "I'm doing something different every day," he says. "Some days, what I'm doing is going to dramatically impact somebody's life. I'm much more satisfied and fulfilled with what I do each day than if I would have just gone in and rehashed the 49ers game from Sunday." But Heller and Hayslip haven't been bitten by the news bug. "At what point do I do news?" asks Hayslip, repeating a question. "I probably do news when I am flat broke [from unemployment] and the government says, `Pay back your loans right now, or we come collect every possession you have.' " Perhaps the best piece of advice any student can heed is to keep his or her options open. Fitzpatrick calls it "having a contingency plan." Costas says "a realistic depiction of the job possibilities should be part of the educational process." Whatever path a student decides to take, Olbermann says he or she should strive to be an original. "Learn how to play the piano," he says, "and then invent your own style of jazz."