Next Generation Sports Broadcasters

On a recent Saturday afternoon, viewers of the Charleston, IL PBS member station WEIU tuned in to see the Eastern Illinois University (EIU) Panthers football team defeat the Eastern Kentucky Colonels by a score of 53-22 in an important Ohio Valley Conference contest. With professional announcers, slick animated graphics, and five-camera coverage of the action, it looked like a professional broadcast, it sounded like a professional broadcast, and it may as well have been. There was little evidence that the game was shot by a crew comprised almost entirely of EIU students.

Over the past four years, WEIU has partnered with EIU to run a hands-on program that allows students to produce and broadcast live coverage of Panthers’ home football and basketball games. This innovative collaboration got started about four years ago, when the station decided to make use of an old Barth truck it had acquired from WTTW in Chicago. The station had funds available to invest in the truck, which had been just sitting in a soccer field on campus, and a team of WEIU engineers, led by Kevin Armstrong, completely stripped the truck and rebuilt it.

They outfitted the truck with a Ross Synergy 100 switcher, a dual channel Chyron Duet LE, two JVC Digital-S decks, two Leitch Whiplash slow motion units and a Mackie 32 channel audio board. Either a microwave truck or a demod at the stadium sites can be used to get the signal back to the station while covering EIU athletic events.

“We put the truck together all SDI, pretty much state of the art, and worked with the athletic department here to put together a deal to cover all of the home football and basketball games for air,” explains WEIU’s Sports Executive Producer/Director Rodd Boyken, who also heads up the program with the EIU students.

The station, which serves twelve counties in eastern central Illinois, and the university agreed that this deal provided a prime opportunity to give EUI students invaluable field experience. During the first year, Boyken worked with several WEIU staffers and engineers, along with a few students, to get the broadcasts off the ground and to work out any kinks in the system. In the two years since then he has employed students to handle virtually all of the positions from director and technical director to camera operator.

“I’m basically there as an executive producer to make sure that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart,” says Boyken. “But the students really do it all: they run the five-camera broadcasts with the replays and the graphics and all that.”

The Panther action is captured by five Ikegami HL45 cameras running on triax cable and edited on Avid Xpress Pro 4.3.5 NLEs. WEIU offers its broadcasts to the opposing school for the cost of the uplink, or on tapes for tape delay—an offer that has been accepted and appreciated by many schools.

Boyken recruits his team from a variety of EIU departments ranging from the expected Journalism and Communications Studies students to English and History majors. He’s even been known to employ a few local high school students who are involved in their school’s journalism program. The students are paid a small wage for their efforts, but the experience they gain on the job is invaluable.

“For a lot of students, this is really what they want to do. A lot of the guys want to do sports but I have a surprising number of girls on the crew who really like doing it. They’ll slug the big tripods and cameras up to where they need to go, and we just have a lot of fun doing it,” says Boyken, who clearly enjoys working with the students.

WEIU’s Panthers coverage has been extremely well received, both in the local community and by visiting team viewers. “We try to make it as realistic as possible and I guess if I had to rank it up there with things I wouldn’t say it was an ESPN Game of the Week, but it’s definitely an ESPN regional—it’s a decent broadcast,” Boyken tells Television Broadcast. “People really seem to enjoy it and can’t really tell the difference between us and anybody else.”

While the program has only been in existence for a few years, the hands-on experience has paid off for its initial graduates. Boyken has seen a few of his students go on to become photogs, and knows of one student who has landed a few freelance events. As the program continues to mature, he has high expectations for future graduates. “There’s nothing like trying to direct a live five-camera event, and if you can handle that you can direct anything,” he says.