Local broadcasters open up about life on and off the set

. May 1, 2017.
News-WTOL-Local-Toledo2

No other media has changed like local television news Not radio, not movies, not daily print or periodicals. “When I first started,” says Toledo broadcast icon Jerry Anderson, co-anchor at WTOL 11, “we had a few cut ins during the morning shows, a half-an-hour at lunch, and two half-hour segments in the evening. Maybe two or two-and-a-half hours of broadcast. Now, we do over nine hours of local news broadcasts, including our FOX affiliate.” The changes in broadcast news are a combination of substance, tone, presentation, even basic writing. “Technology has definitely changed things, even the way we tease a story,” remarks Lee Conklin, co-anchor at WTVG 13. “We used to say things like, ‘Find out how the city council voted tonight.’ That statement has no meaning in today’s broadcast profession. After all, anyone can find that information seconds after the vote occurs. We now say things like ‘Reactions to today’s council vote…’ Everything we do is much more immediate.”

Capitalizing on technology

Perhaps the most dramatic technological advancements in broadcast news have come in the area of the weather report. “When I first started,” says Jay Berschback, chief meteorologist at WTVG 13, “phones had cords attached to a wall and if you were lucky enough to have a mobile phone, it came in a bag.” Berschback, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering in atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences, started his broadcast career in the ’90s. “Now your cell phone is your computer, your phone, your assistant and of course your television. It can also be your meteorologist.”

Diane Larson Nightly Co-Anchor at 13abc

Diane Larson Nightly Co-Anchor at 13abc

Diane Larson, WTVG 13’s long standing co-anchor, agrees with Berschback. “Certainly there is no better place to get information about breaking weather news than our station. If you have a tornado warning in your county you want someone like Jay who lives here. But across the news spectrum we now have the ability to make friends with social media and find ways to deliver instant news via text alerts as news happens. This enables us to immediately inform our viewers and provide more fleshed out and complete stories when it comes time to do an actual broadcast.” WTOL 11 Sports Director Dan Cummins agrees. “Back when I started broadcasting going ‘live’ was still a big deal. Our only way to be live and out of town for a game was to send stuff back via satellite. Now we have internet capability to edit stories in the field then send them back via WIFI.” Cummins, who has been with the station since 1980, took over as Sports Director in 1996 with the retirement of the area’s well-loved sports broadcaster Orris Tabner. “This ability to be right in the middle of things as they happen, from a great local sports game to major stories like the water crisis or election night is not only a change but it is the very reason why local broadcasting is so important.” Kristian Brown, Conklin’s on-air partner at the news desk weekdays at 5:30pm, is no stranger to viewers, having been with the WTVG 13 team since 2002. Her work in reporting previous to the 13abc news team led to an Emmy Award for that station and she’s a member of the Ohio School Board Association Media Hall of Fame for her reports on education. A fan of tech’s influence on news, she says it impacts the way stories are created. “We find insight and are able to contact sources quicker. We can also requests interviews on social media verses making a phone call or knocking on your door. Experts now say more people get their news from social media than ever before.”

Relevant to viewers

WTVG News Anchor Kristian Brown, with daughters Laila and Lauren

WTVG News Anchor Kristian Brown, with daughters Laila and Lauren

Making a story directly and intimately relevant to viewers is Kristi Leigh’s fundamental goal. Leigh joined Anderson at the WTOL anchor desk just this year. “Society continues to be driven by instant gratifications. Everything is at our fingertips. Eating shopping, news…it is all instant and available.” Leigh, who has a degree in broadcast journalism from BGSU and is a 2000 graduate of Maumee High School, is constantly aware of the immediacy of technology. “Clearly, even in my 10 years in the news, digital is queen. I no longer feel like I am broadcasting a story. I feel like I am sharing it with my viewers. And they want to share back. They want to give their opinions and share their reactions with friends, family, and coworkers. I ask at the end of almost every story, ‘What do you think?’ With today’s digital technology, that question isn’t rhetorical.”

Staying in the game

13abc anchor Lee Conklin shoots hoops  in his down time

13abc anchor Lee Conklin shoots hoops in his down time

“There is tremendous pressure,” says Conklin, “to keep our younger viewer. To do this we have to meet our viewers where they are at, not where we would want them to be. This, of course, means the whole menu of social media options. That makes local TV more viable. So many sources of information, from tweets to posts, are sterile. We broadcasters get to put a face on that information.” Conklin laughs a bit at the technological changes. “I am known for wearing my heart on my sleeve. When I am doing a quick update on Facebook Live, there is no place to hide or cover. This gives all of our viewers a chance to ‘go behind the curtain’ of the news.” “When I get a one on one with a national figure,” say Anderson, “I am not going to ask the same questions as a national reporter. Anyone can go to a press pool interview and get the general information of a presidential candidate or large company CEO. What gives local news a competitive edge is that we develop relationships with our viewers. Via social media, we know what is on their mind, not in general but that day. A national network reporter can’t give that take. As long as we stay flexible enough to respond positively to our viewers information appetite and keep up on moment to moment events, we stay relevant.” Larson takes the long view of the industry. “A recent Pew study found that most people still get their local news from television; most people get their information from a screen and so far that screen of choice is the TV. We used to think mobile devices might be our biggest competitors, but it has turned into a collaboration: we report a story, we post in on the web, we link it to Facebook and Twitter which in turn drives consumers back to our website and often to our broadcast.”

The view from off the set

Because they are in our homes daily, it feels like we know them. Still, like any neighbor, they may surprise us. Anderson, for instance, is a State of Ohio licensed auctioneer. “I only do it for charity events,” he remarks, casually. Still, it is quite an undertaking, including two written tests, conducting 12 auctions as an apprentice, about 80 hours of school, and then a demonstration auction in front of a board. Conklin has run five marathons and once made 97 out of 100 free throws. He also confesses to loving nachos. “My favorite place is to have them at home in the living room. I get home after the evening broadcast, everyone is asleep, and sit with a plate of cheese covered chips. Nothing better…” Larson likes to do things herself. “I love home remodeling and renovation. I do a ton of work myself, from flooring, painting, and rehabbing. You can tell by my lack of fingernails and occasionally bruised knees.” On the news, Brown is a huge fan of meeting new people and telling their stories. Off the news, she’s all about her family— though the two worlds occasionally overlap. “People are surprised by my twins and the fact that they are nine. It feels like I was pregnant yesterday. Most people stop me and ask about Laila and Lauren and they are always surprised about how long it’s been.”

WTOL anchor team  Jerry Anderson & Kristi Leigh

WTOL anchor team
Jerry Anderson & Kristi Leigh

Berschback met his wife in kindergarten and dated 10 years and a day before getting married. They have since been together for 19. Cummins is a self proclaimed “geek” about yard work and strives for the perfect lawn. Leigh, this past December, visited friends in New Zealand and traveled the country hiking, camping, backpacking and staying in hostels. “I learned the art of drinking coffee black and whiskey straight.” Even with all of these diverse personalities and hobbies, there is one thing that they all share: gratitude. Spend any time off set with these professionals and it all comes back to how grateful they are to do what they do. “I know it is cliché and I don’t care. I keep saying it because it is true,” says Conklin. “I am very fortunate to work with and for the people I do. I have worked with Diane for over 20 years. It is very rare and special to get to work successfully with someone for that long in broadcasting.” Larson reflects her co-anchor’s sentiments. “I love showing people what happened during the day and hearing from the newsmakers in their own words. And I am grateful that I get to be the storyteller… sharing all the information our wonderful reporters, photojournalists and producers gather throughout the day. I love the collaborative effort. Lee and I might be the conductors, but the train is connected by so many talented professionals.”
Dan Cummins, Sports Director,  WTOL/Channel 11

Dan Cummins, Sports Director,
WTOL/Channel 11

Cummins is grateful for the excitement. “There is nothing like a TV news room… from the early day right through the build up to the newscasts. Sure, there are slow days, but not very many. I love that feeling and am conscious about how important our work is. Local news has never been more vital to our community. It bonds us together.” Berschback has a deep sense of appreciation for the human factor of broadcasting. “Look, sometimes people just want to get their forecast from a person. I am really grateful that they still do. So much of our lives is impersonal, from ATMs to drive-through windows. Add texting and emailing and we live in a sterile world. But people still want to interact with the person predicting their weather. That interaction isn’t always easy through a television screen but we work hard every day to give the viewer a feeling like we are right in their home delivering the weather.” Leigh gets the final word. “I can’t say enough about how blessed I feel to be here. Sure, as a mother I know the schedule is challenging. But I get to work and learn from Jerry Anderson. I grew up watching this station. Now I get to co-anchor the news. I don’t care if it sounds overly dramatic. It is a dream come true.”

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