Today’s guest colum is from former CSNNE anchor and reporter Jackie Pepper.
L.A. To Boston And Everything In Between: A Sports Reporter’s Tale
By Jackie Pepper
Nearly every television broadcaster travels the same course:
You start in a small market, living and working in a tiny town nobody has ever heard of. While you dreamed of a luxurious life on camera, you soon realize that being on air is often the last thing you think of in your first job as a “one-man-band.” Shooting, editing, producing, and writing all of your own stories comes first while powdering your face and stepping in front of the camera as “the talent” is a mere afterthought.
After a few years of life as a big fish in a small pond, you get a new job in a mid-size market and repeat the aforementioned steps. You travel the country going from job to job as you work your way up the career ladder until you reach the top; “The top” being the perfect combination of status, location, money and overall happiness; an occupational unicorn of sorts.
Born and raised in Santa Monica, California, I moved back home after graduating from the University of Arizona and continued to work as a freelance production runner for ABC Sports and ESPN, a gig that I landed by chance in the fall of my senior year of college. I traveled the country working on location at various sporting events from college football to NBA games to the X Games and sports awards shows. I went on Starbucks runs, picked up lunch for the crew, made copies, drove on air talent and executives to and from the airport, wrote thousands of shipping labels, mopped floors, stapled papers, packed equipment, took out the trash, cleaned TV trucks, and performed every other random task you can imagine. Being immersed in a business I craved made it all worth it.
At the same time, I was taking classes at a local junior college to give me any possible edge once I decided to pursue my dream of being an on air sports reporter. I took Sports Broadcasting, Football Coaching and Sports Marketing, just to name a few. After two years of classes and working freelance for the holy grail of sports television, I landed a staff position at NFL Network as a production assistant at the Culver City studio. For nearly two years, I learned the ins and outs of television production, working with editors inside dark edit bays, cutting game highlights and writing scripts (aka shot sheets), sitting alongside producers in the newsroom, building graphics in the control room, typing the ticker content that scrolls on the bottom of your screen and watching professional on air talent doing my dream job every single day.
Although I loved my coworkers and the perks that came along with working for the NFL (like watching a good looking man’s eyes light up after telling him the name of my employer, which never got old), I finally got my act together and made a demo tape of myself doing fake sports reports, an anchor segment, highlights, etc. After a few months of sending my DVD to small towns across the country, one news director took the bait and hired me.
My first on air job was as the weekday sports reporter and weekend anchor at KIDK, the CBS affiliate in Pocatello, Idaho. And to think while in college, I considered Tucson a small town! Tucson was like Vegas compared to Southeastern Idaho. I could write a book about the 14 months I spent in Pocatello (I actually plan on doing so eventually), but to get to the point, it was an utter culture shock. I had never spent time in a true small town where everybody really does know everybody. Each person I met seemed to be connected to my job. The mailman served as an assistant coach of a high school team, or a local business owner was a former Idaho State player, etc.
To give you an idea of where I lived, one of the schools I covered was Preston High School, where the movie Napoleon Dynamite was filmed. One school I covered in a farming community moved its daily afternoon football practices to 10p.m. for an entire month each winter so its players could assist their families in harvesting potatoes in the daylight hours after school. Southeastern Idaho borders Utah and is primarily Mormon, which is vastly different from multi-cultural life in Los Angeles.
Going from good weather year-round and the glitz and glam of L.A. to driving long distances in blizzards, scraping ice off my car and seeing snow in June, all for the first time, felt like an impossible adjustment at times. Tears were shed and home was sorely missed, but it was all part of the journey. A journey which, thankfully, I wasn’t alone in taking.
Almost all of the other reporters and anchors in my area were also in their early to mid 20’s, many of whom were California natives. It was like a do-over of college, moving to a strange place, knowing not a soul. The social destitution of the situation bonded all of us transplants, forming a TV news fraternity of sorts. Members were not only co-workers at my station, but those at the two other local affiliates as well. We were one big team and while we competed against each other in the ratings books, we were friends who often times helped each other professionally.
If one person’s camera malfunctioned (which happened all the time since most of us used ancient equipment) you could always count on a reporter from another station to secretly share their footage with you. In fact, even managers and executives of competing stations would call each other for favors once in a while. There was an unspoken, yet palpable camaraderie between us all.
That was small town life. Hard working, friendly and simple.
The only professional sports team I covered in person was the Utah Jazz. Once a month or so, I would make the three hour drive (each way) to Salt Lake City in the news car, work the game, get back in the car and arrive home in Pocatello around 2 a.m. Sometimes I would carpool with the sports reporters from the other stations which always made the trip more fun, and walking into an NBA locker room less intimidating.
Once I got to know the players and staff, working the Jazz locker room before and after games felt natural, and me and my fellow small market pals were often the only television cameras around. Yes, I was that girl holding my camera with one hand, the microphone in the other, and praying that the mic was close enough to get the sound while the camera was far enough away to get all of the player’s head in the shot, all while looking him in the eye as he answered my questions instead of looking through the lens. Many times, I would return to media work room, roll the tape back, and see I had cut off the top of Carlos Boozer’s head. Apparently, that’s an occupational hazard that comes along with being a “one-man-band.”
The lack of sports media in Salt Lake City gave me a chance to get to know guys with the cameras turned off. There was never a fight for 1-on-1 interviews, or the pushing and shoving you experience in bigger markets, so after I asked my questions on camera, I could take the time to know the man behind the basketball player.
I learned that the best way to get your job done was to be trusted, and a stranger only trusts you when you are no longer a stranger in his eyes. Harvesting a relationship based on genuine interest in the person and knowledge of their craft yields the best interviews, quotes, sources, etc. It would have been hard to learn that lesson in a place like L.A. or Boston.
Just when I felt like I had finally figured out my job, I got a new one! I went from Pocatello, market 168 to Boston, market 7.
Aside from then-head coach Jerry Sloan, the most high profile sports figure I interviewed regularly was a high school football player named Taysom Hill, a man-child of an athlete who played quarterback (as well as defensive end, kicker, power forward, long jump and relay) and won the state championship for Highland High School. Hill had accepted a deferred athletic scholarship to Stanford, but while on a religious mission, he bolted for BYU once Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the 49ers. Keep an eye out for Hill as he will be a super star, believe me. Okay, I digress…
I went from high school sports, rodeo and the monster truck show to Bill Belichick, 17 NBA championships, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and No. 4 Bobby Orr.
I was in the midst of yet another culture shock. One day I was a small-town television reporter, the next, I was beamed into four million households. I went from rookie ball to the big leagues in one fell swoop. Within weeks of arriving in Boston, I met Dan Shaughnessy, Jackie MacMullan, Steve Buckley and Bob Ryan, all living legends in the field of sports journalism whom I had long since admired. The journey took me from Hollywood, to potatoes to the Ivy League. Three different parts of the country, three different lifestyles and three different work environments.
I was prepared for the worst as the Boston media is notoriously tough, its intimidating reputation perhaps second only to New York City.
Yes, the Boston media is hypercritical when it comes to sports, and I sure as hell didn’t envy any of the players I interviewed after a loss. But I was surprised to find that much like in L.A. and Idaho, there is a fierce connection between competitors, even in a town as feisty and scrappy as Boston.
The press corps in L.A. is very laid back, warm and welcoming. In Boston, smiles, conversation and recognition must be earned, but once you’re in, you’re in for good. Perhaps the contrast in dispositions is correlated to the weather, who knows. Fans might not want to hear it, but members of each city’s sports media even like each other. Blasphemous, I know.
Even though we started in different places, we all took the same road that got us to where we are today. Despite diverse accents and attitudes, the goal is uniform; do the work, make the deadline and tell your story the best damn way you know how.