Last month I was fortunate to ring in the beginning of March Madness by attending the IHSA girls’ and boys’ basketball state championship series in Normal, IL and Champaign, IL, respectively. I guess attend is a little skewed, I was afforded the opportunity to work both series. I served as a master control operator sitting in the production truck with the production crew for the girls’ games, and I served as the timeout coordinator with arguably one of the best seats in the house for the boys’ games.
I did both jobs I was assigned well, but I took a lot of mental notes as to what makes a team work. As you can imagine, producing and televising can bring a lot of high stress. You have people from all over the state paying to watch the televised games. You have advertisers who have paid for their commercials or sponsorships. Mistakes can and do happen, but everything is in the moment, so recovery from errors is important.
Before I share my observations, allow me to back up a little bit to give you an idea of how this opportunity even presented itself in the first place. To do so, I’ll address the second part of today’s title: unburned bridges.
My love for media can date back to when I was ten or maybe even before. I grew up with a dad who, in my eyes, was a big time radio personality plus a lead singer of his own band. There is so much I could unpack with that. Maybe another time.
I don’t know how I got my hands on it, but when I was young I somehow got my hands on an old cassette recorder like the one shown below. In the late 80s my dad and his band had traveled to Chicago to record an album that was sold at the Nashville North Opry House where his band served as the house band on the weekends. By the early to mid 90s, any tape that hadn’t sold fell victim to me. I’d take small pieces of scotch tape and put over the top which gave me the power to record over any tape.
Along the way I found a microphone I could plug into it. I’d haul it everywhere I could. Recording interviews of family members or just making my own radio shows. By the late 90s my interest shifted to video as well. My family had an old VHS camcorder that I would use to record my friends and me doing death defying bicycle stunts. Or…something like that. My room always had two VCRs hooked up to an old TV so I could do rudimentary editing.
In high school, we had a multimedia department with our own cable channel. I called play-by-play and did color commentary for football games during my freshman through senior years and even came back for two years after that to help out. While in high school I was co-host of our movie review show and also one of four members of the talk show Sports Talk Roundtable.
Following high school, I secured my first job in television as a videographer for WAND in Decatur, Illinois. When I moved to Minnesota, I began work as an audio and graphics technician at KTTC and KXLT for the 5, 6, 9, and 10 newscasts. It’s there where I also learned about being a master control operator. It was also there where I met Brendan, production manager at that time. He was a great leader and teacher. After moving back to Illinois, I remained in touch with Brendan. The Rochester television stations were actually owned by a company out of Quincy, Illinois. Brendan was also an alumnus of Quincy University where he would later become a trustee, so he had reasons to come to Illinois.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, I reached out to Brendan for advice on how to present only the best video solutions for teaching remotely. He overnighted some initial equipment that got us going until we could order our own setup. Through the fall and winter of 2020/2021, we had the best livestream for sports in arguably the entire state for all the regular season games. We had three cameras, transitions, graphics, wireless feeds from our scoreboard controller; you name it, we had it. Thanks to a passion I developed young and a bridge I never burned.
It was also around this time when Brendan said his company had acquired the contract to broadcast the IHSA basketball playoffs. Remembering this a year and half later, I sent him a text saying if he needed extra help to let me know. He called the next day.
I was quickly reminded why working in television is so much fun. Donning the headset in the production truck provided valuable lessons.
What It Means to Be a Team
Production does not just magically happen. It takes a cohesive team with a singular focus to provide an amazing end product. Which, to be fair, is probably the goal of any team in any profession. Yet, I think fundamentally this is often the most overlooked factor of ultimate success. Especially in education.
I’ve written and Tweeted about it before, but too often in education we see the us versus them mentality. Teachers are convinced their administrators are against them. There are often trust issues between the two groups, or other groups in the district such as office staff or paraprofessionals. Even teachers against teachers is a prevalent problem as some want to explore new ideas and practices while others remain rooted in outdated methods.
I’m sure there is this same problem among television crews as well. But not in the one I witnessed during those two weekends in March. I heard the producer and director apologize for giving late or unclear directives. I heard the same two compliment the graphics team or the replay operators when something looked spectacular. When one of the floor camera operators took a vicious collision with a player on the court (actually for the second time that day), the production team in the truck asked sincerely if he was truly okay.
At the end of the day, when the final, “And we’re clear” was given, the producer could be heard thanking everyone over the cheers and claps in the truck. The cheers were resounding when the final clear was given on Saturday night. The compliments were sincerely given out to everyone who had put in 50 plus hours over the last four days. Work that will never be known or seen by the viewer at home. Work that would be hard to see even for the attendees at the games.
Don’t get me wrong, there are tense moments when mistakes are made. The wrong graphic is aired or the game starts while commercials are still playing. But mistakes will happen. The culture of how that mistake is handled is what makes or breaks the climate of the team at the moment. The culture is also what builds and maintains that cohesiveness well after the production is over.
The final thing I’ll say that stood out to me is in the tear down. When the final clock hits zero and the buzzer sounds, the day is over for most. People leave happy as victors or sulking from a devastating loss. Restaurants are soon crowded as win or lose, laughter is shared over a meal. Except for the production team. There is still another two hours or more before they’ll call it a night.
The worst part is pulling cables. Or more so, wrapping cables. And while the power cables come last, there is no relief in knowing that you are to the power cables. Those are some of the longest and by far the heaviest. I looked up from what I was doing at one point and noticed the director was wrapping one of the longest power cords. Heck, I looked at another one being wrapped and it was Brendan doing that one. That is the defining model of leadership. No task is too menial.
These are a thing. Not just in Hollywood. When the last cable is stowed away in the production truck, that is an official wrap on the event. It is a celebratory moment. We all went out to a local restaurant, ordering two of every appetizer. With a host of tables pushed together, I sat around looking at everyone. People who would soon part ways as they took on their next freelance production job.
I actually Tweeted from the table something about wrap parties and camaraderie. I later took it down as I realized it was more of a blog moment than a Twitter moment. I also had a suspicion that people would read wrap party and get images of what Liza Monroy wrote about in her essay in Sara Botton’s (editor) book Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York City (2013): “Everyone was on something, and we stayed until the sun came up.”
I was not at that kind of wrap party. I was at the one that lasted for maybe an hour, when all the appetizers had been consumed. The conversations that filled the atmosphere were of different experiences, war stories if you will. Or upcoming opportunities. As individuals began leaving, compliments were passed around on each other’s performances. You could tell something about the compliments: they weren’t offhanded; they were sincere, heartfelt, and meaningful.
I feel like education could use more wrap parties. Oh, I know. Sometimes teachers get together on a Friday night before retreating to their homes for the weekend. I also know what goes on there. Complaints. Gripes. Groans. These Friday evening get-togethers are more prevalent in the fall and begin to wane as the year progresses. Because who wants to relax by being miserable?
Educators should have wrap parties. Maybe not weekly as the specialness would wear off. How about at the end of each quarter? Or the final day of the month? Make just one rule: no griping, no complaining, no negativity. Share successes that have happened in the classroom (and no, not the kind of backhanded comment like: “I can celebrate that little Johnny actually did what I asked him, too.” That is called back alley complaining.)
An education wrap party doesn’t even have to discuss education. It is just a time to relax. Talk about a good book you’ve been reading, a hobby you’re taking up, vacation dreams. Anything is fair game as long as certain requirements are met: there is smiling, there is laughter, and everyone there is happy to be in the company of others outside of the work setting.
My two weekends in March were refreshing. It wasn’t just the change of pace or being back to where my roots were initially established. It was being around talented people who genuinely cared for one another. People who celebrated successes and comforted when the inevitable mistake happened. It reminded me of what education—and society for that matter—once was.