By: Bram Weinstein/@RealBramW
Working with former ESPN Talent executive Gerry Matalon last weekend at our Inside Network Sports Broadcasting Workshop in New York City reminded me of an important lesson to share with all aspiring broadcasters: Figure out what you want to do and communicate that effectively. Otherwise, you’ll be used as the company sees fit.
When I was first approached by my agent at the time about an opportunity to interview with ESPN I remember clearly asking him what it is they were interested in hiring me to do. At that point in my career, I’d made a name for myself locally in Washington DC, my hometown. I had become a well respected voice of the Washington Redskins, covering them as a beat reporter and working as the pregame host and sideline reporter for the official team broadcast of their games. This was my 8th year covering the team and having become synonymous with them, I was often asked to be a guest on many regional and national programs to discuss the team when news warranted. This is how I got on ESPN’s radar. I was a frequent guest of programs like First Take (Before it became a debate show), ESPN News shows and radio programs hosted by Colin Cowherd and Doug Gottlieb.
So I assumed ESPN would be interested in me as an NFL reporter or maybe a radio host as in conjunction with my duties as the Redskins reporter, I hosted a daily radio program for what would become ESPN 980 in Washington. But my agent said they were looking at me to be a TV anchor. This was a job I hadn’t performed in more then a decade. I’d been a frequent TV guest on ESPN’s air as well as numerous local and regional shows so I had no issue with being comfortable and communicating on TV, but this was not a job I had any level of comfort with. I was asked the questions. The anchor’s job is not even comparable. So I assumed after I’d interview, they would pass because I didn’t have what I believed was the requisite experience to fill the role they were talking to me about.
I was wrong. They hired me. And at no point in time did I ever think for a second that this would be one of the reasons I would ultimately leave ESPN. I love professional football. I love being at those games, being part of those pregame shows. I also love college basketball. I’d covered the Maryland Terrapins the year they won their only mens basketball national championship. I was on the floor in Atlanta when they were cutting down the nets. I had no idea whether I would love being a studio anchor of a TV show.
Now I wouldn’t change a thing. What ESPN did in hiring me to do a job they couldn’t even be certain I’d be proficient at was give me the greatest television education anyone could ask for. It’s like learning how to trade stocks directly from Warren Buffet. So I watched and learned and became a great Sportscenter anchor. And everything was perfect right? Wrong.
Whenever the conversation came up internally about what my career desires were, it never included doing 5 Sportscenter programs a week. No, I still wanted to cover professional football. I hoped to be a play by play voice of college and NBA basketball. I love horse racing, can I cover the Kentucky Derby sometime? What about the World Series of Poker, is there room for me to be part of that coverage? ESPN rarely let me do the things I wanted to do. But this isn’t their fault and I don’t blame them. They told me what my job was going to be. I happily took it, became so proficient at it that I was placed in a high profile position on Sportscenter (I was in a number of those iconic “This is Sportscenter” ads) and they wanted me to be happy doing a job I was good at. But I knew this wasn’t how I envisioned my career in sports journalism. I like variety. I like meeting people, going to games and creating new and interesting content. I loved being part of Sportscenter but felt unfulfilled having it be my only job with little hope of change.
So I left to pursue variety and new forms of creativity. If you want to know more about my departure, you can listen to the podcast I did on the topic, here.
The point I’m trying to make is, it was easy for me at that initial juncture of my career to say: I want to be at ESPN and not think about what I want to do when I got there and how I’d feel if the things I was doing were not what I truly needed to feel creatively fulfilled. So as you start this journey into the field of media, ask yourself an extremely important question: “What do I want to do?” And the answer cannot be as simple as: “Get to —— place and do whatever they tell me to do.”
Do you want to be a studio anchor?
Great- place all of your energies into learning the craft of being a studio anchor.
Want to call games?
Great. Call games. Don’t take a position at the station where you watch people call games with no hope of you calling those games.
Want to be a reporter?
Great. Get out in the field. Don’t settle for a producer position that doesn’t include being out of the studio. This does not mean you can’t change your mind as your career grows but directing your energy toward what you truly desire to be rather then a vague hope of just “getting to that place” will set you on the path you truly desire. The problem with saying “I want to work at ESPN” and not adding the caveat of “and call Big Ten basketball games,” is that you might very well get to ESPN and never call Big Ten Basketball games.
This is where Gerry came in. Gerry was one of the talent executives whose job in part was to help producers find the right talent for their shows and help the talent endear themselves with the right people to make those actual desires happen. In my case, I knew early I wanted to do other things then ESPN had me assigned to do, but I felt the education was worth putting my desires aside. This was not a mistake, it just meant that my path was never going to find it’s completion at ESPN because I never directed my energies toward getting the assignments I truly wanted. When I did communicate my desires, my position was already determined. I was successful at it and moving me out of that position was a risk for them. Would my replacement be as proficient in my spot on Sportscenter? Would I be able to be as good at the jobs I was vying for? The answer to both is too murky for talent executives to risk.
So, what do you want to do?
If the answer is “be on TV.” You might be on TV, doing a show you actually don’t like. There is truth in the old saying, just get on air when you are young and new to the professional field. But do yourself a favor and always be cognizant of the roles you truly desire to be in. Look at the people in those roles? Are they experienced professionals or are there avenues to get into similar positions at a younger age and experience level? What are the key traits that make these people great at their jobs. Calling a game is very different then being a studio anchor. Being a radio host is nothing like either of those jobs. NOTHING. Think about what it is you want to be, and practice those skills. When you achieve your specific goals, you’ll be empowered to believe you can direct your career in any direction you want by simply chasing those exact thoughts. But if you aren’t specific, you’ll never get specificity. And you might be OK with that. In the case of this proud ESPN alum, I wasn’t. So I decided to take my career back and redirect my energies into the direction I want to go from here. It’s exciting and liberating and I can’t thank ESPN enough for giving me the opportunities they did. I’m grateful and know that the experience of working for that amazing company will help me achieve these new dreams and refocus me on the roles I truly desire.
It’s possible I’ll be in Los Angeles to host another 1-Day Sports Broadcasting March 13th. If this is something that interests you, send me an email at Bram@reel-reporting.com and we can reserve your spot. You can also shoot me a line for speaking engagements at your school or station.