TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A TV ROOKIE
By David Mitchell
“Here's a microphone, a Nike shirt, a walkie-talkie, and a program. You're our field event announcer. Go to work.”
That's how my experience with the Nike Indoor Nationals (at that time Nike Indoor Classic) began in 1999 at the very first Nike indoor meet. Mike Byrnes, the Co-Founder of the National Scholastic Sports Foundation (NSSF) and now Meet Director Emeritus, had just paged me out of the stands at the meet and then gave me the instructions above. I was at the meet as the coach of a handful of athletes from Pinckney, Michigan. In registering those athletes, I had a phone conversation with Byrnes, whom I had never met. I told him that I'd be one of the announcers of the Michigan Indoor State Meet and offered to introduce him around, should he make it to the meet. He let me know that the inaugural Nike meet might need a field event announcer. He took the names of a couple of references from me and then I never heard from him again…. that is, until he paged me over the PA system at the meet.
The first person on the announcing team that I met was Ian Brooks, the charming Brit who makes each awards presentation memorable for the athletes. He was very accommodating and willing to share his microphone with me. On the very first instance that I did speak, I failed to check with running event announcers, Doug Speck—the man who basically created the style of announcing now used at these high school championship meets, and Mike Kennedy, the high school girls' editor for Track & Field News . I talked right over an announcement by Speck and proceeded to get an earful over my walkie-talkie, giving Brooks a hearty chuckle. Not a good start, but I learned quickly and adapted.
About 15 minutes later, things were going more smoothly. At that point, I met Jim Spier, Co-Founder with Byrnes of the NSSF. Spier said, “ We've already discussed it. We like what you're doing and would like to fly you to our outdoor meet in North Carolina in June.” I accepted and it was the beginning of many unexpected blessings for me.
FAST FORWARD TO 2005
At this point, I've been the chief of the announcing crew for the past 5 NIN meets along with the outdoor championships (now the Nike Outdoor Nationals), and the Great American Cross Country Festival---all NSSF meets. In addition, I've been a part of the announcing team for the groundbreaking Nike Team Nationals, the Simplot Games, the Golden Spike Tour, and the USATF National Junior Olympics all due to NSSF recommendations. I continue to announce a few key high school meets in my home state of Michigan as well as the home meets for the University of Michigan. Now, a new honor/challenge has been placed before me-----being the color commentator on the cable broadcast of the 2005 Nike Indoor Nationals.
Wow! Me, a former English and drivers' ed. teacher, now a Pinckney High School counselor, on TV. CN8, a Comcast cable station out of Philadelphia, PA, would be broadcasting the meet on the full Comcast Network into over 6 million homes along the east coast from Virginia to Maine as well as into countless other homes across the globe on the two planned Internet simulcasts (www.cn8.tv). They would rely on my experience with national high school meets to enhance the broadcast and help the viewers get to know the athletes.
When I first got the call in January from NSSF Director of Development, AJ Holzherr, I accepted the offer to be on TV and was thrilled. I said a prayer, called my wife, Carol, and set out to work on preparing. Only, what did I need to do? Of course, good old human vanity kicked in. What would I look like on TV? My voice had been on TV before at the Golden Spike Tour and from a studio recording for the local cable access show of friends in Iowa, but never my face. We've all heard, “TV puts 10 pounds on you.” So, I knew that I'd want to lose some of the extra pounds that I'd put on over the years (I did lose close to 15 by the meet. About one pound per second that I actually appeared on camera!). Would my glasses be ok on camera? Better try contacts again just in case. Have to make sure I get a haircut before I leave but not too early and not too late, etc. What would I wear? The reality was that none of those things would matter one bit.
What would matter to Mick Moninghoff, the play-by-play man for the meet, and Tony Smith, one of the lead producers, was that I knew the way the meet would flow and that I could provide information about the athletes who were competing. All of the 27 folks who came as a part of the CN8 crew were gracious and professional. They really have a thirst for excellence that I'm sure will show itself in the final product of the broadcast. Rich Gonzalez, the meet director of the Arcadia Invite and one of the most knowledgeable guys in the sport, and I highlighted the favorites in each event for the cameras to follow with Rich leading the way on field event coverage. We attended a production meeting with Moninghoff and Holzherr on Friday evening to set the agenda for the broadcast. Moninghoff was particularly interested in materials to aid in his preparation. I was ready with 3 binders full of athlete biography information, current US lists, and previous meet results from over the past year. We spent an hour that night and a few hours on Saturday going over pronunciations and facts about the top seeds. He rehearsed with me on Saturday the way things would unfold on Sunday. We stood at our spot above the finish line and “called the races” on Saturday without microphones or cameras in operation. It was extremely helpful to me, but we sure drew some inquisitive looks from passersby.
We spent a goodly portion of Saturday afternoon arranging for interviews with athletes and coaches. We got some good action and an interview on tape relating to the Kinetic RC (Saratoga, NY) national record in the girls' 4x 1-mile relay as well as some field event and sprint qualifying tape. It's not an exaggeration to say that multiple people each spent at least one hour per each one minute of Saturday's tape that would be used in the final “show”. The CN8 people were so patient and said that they were used to it. I, on the other hand, wanted to grab any breathing random person out of the stands, interview him and get it over with just to feel like I accomplished something! When we did catch up with athletes and coaches to interview, we asked the questions from off camera for them to answer on camera. Moninghoff would set up the question with a voiceover after the meet was done. The interview area looked like a formal studio on the monitors, but the reality was that interviews were taped in a small non-descript office. The interviewees sat on a padded trainers' table with a backdrop and carefully placed lighting to make it look very elegant.
Once Sunday arrived, the whole CN8 crew was onsite from the wee hours of the morning.
They had all 8 cameras ready to go. 6 were placed strategically around the track and another 2 were mobile handheld E.N.G. units. The sound equipment was set up for our use. I would wear a double earmuff headset all day with my microphone attached. In the headset, I could hear my voice and Moninghoff's voice in both ears. In the right ear only, I would hear instruction or questions from the producer or director, both of whom worked out of the production truck. The director primarily communicated with the cameras, but the producer spoke with us. A second producer coordinated all of the field event shots and interviews. I'd be told to “lay out” when they needed me to stop talking for a transition to be edited in after the fact. I would also be told when a slow motion instant replay was going to come up onto the monitor. I also had a “cough” button that would shut off my microphone entirely and another button that allowed me to communicate with staff, but that would keep my voice from being in the broadcast.
Moninghoff would introduce the competitors in the field and I'd give a bit of background on the people we were featuring. Then he'd call the start and finish of each race with me adding color information in the middle. In a longer race, we'd just carry on a conversation about the action that brought lots of information to the fans. It was my duty as well to describe any action on the instant replay. I loved that part! At the time of taping, I was instructed not to refer back to another event that had just taken place as it might be shown out of order or not at all in the final edit of the broadcast. As it turned out, Sunday's events were kept in order for the final production.
Three parts of the process presented new challenges for me. First, I was not used to hearing my own voice in the headset. I tend to be very enthusiastic when announcing, but I think this made me sound a bit more subdued than usual. Second, I'm so trained to be “quiet for the start” that it was out of my normal habit to talk when the gun was up---even though my voice would not have disrupted anything at the starting line. Finally, I really missed the energy from the interaction with the live crowd at the meet. Getting the crowd into a race and getting them on their feet and cheering is a real adrenalin boost to me. These are all challenges that I'd be better prepared to conquer, if I get another TV opportunity in the future. The whole thing kept my attention so fully that I completely forgot to eat from 8:30 a.m. when I had a bagel, until after the completion of the meet at 6:30 pm.
On the whole, it was a great experience for me and a watershed moment for the Nike Indoor Nationals and the NSSF. I definitely learned that TV broadcasting involves more hard work and less glitz and glamour than most people think. I'm confident that CN8 will come up with a slick, professional looking product that will be among the best to date for a high school track meet. The best thing is that I'm even more confident that each broadcast, like the meet itself, will get better year-by-year. All involved were very serious about getting out a classy show for the viewing public to enjoy. I thank God, the NSSF, Nike, and Comcast CN8 for allowing me to be a part of it. I can't wait to see what the future brings!
Note : You can enjoy the meet on CN8 or at www.cn8.tv during the second broadcast on Saturday 3-26-05 at 3pm EST.