That was the inside joke that rang regularly through the WCBS-TV sports office.
The room looked like nothing I have seen since in local television news. It was a traditional edit bay surrounded by multiple TVs showing different events, but it also included three rows of stadium seating so that nearly a dozen staffers could watch at once.
We interns were relegated to the middle row. On a given night, we would monitor the major New York sporting events — which, during the summer, typically meant Yankees and Mets games — and log the highlights. We would then report back to that night’s anchor about which ones he should use during the 11 pm sportscast.
Occasionally that anchor was a New York broadcasting legend: Warner Wolf.
By 2001 Wolf had worked in broadcasting for 40 years. He had developed a renowned catch phrase: “Let’s go to the videotape!” As an intern, I marveled at his ability to go off-script for highlights; Wolf stiff-armed the TelePrompter and simply wrote a few words on a piece of paper to guide him through the show.
Wolf had also, by this stage, become one of the few remaining examples of a full-blown New Yorker on local New York news. He neither looked nor spoke like a modern assembly-line anchor; he wore a thick accent and a brash yet kind-hearted demeanor. This showed up behind the scenes, too; Wolf did not say much but, when he did, always commanded the room. Every now and then, Wolf would ask one of us interns to run down to the cafeteria and get him a sandwich; he would always give us enough money for our meals, as well.
And he would always ask for the same thing:
“I want a tomato sandwich … with a slice of cheese … and a bag of Lay’s potato chips … CLASSIC.”
His voice would then rise comically:
“That’s CLASSIC. None of that sow-uh cream s*** … none of that baw-be-cue s*** … CLASSIC!”
Wolf would then leave the room, and the inside joke would begin.
A few weeks ago I posted about giving advice for interns who spend their summers in my current newsroom, WXIA-TV in Atlanta. I talked about how, when they ask for words of wisdom as they begin their careers, I struggle to provide a simple answer:
I want to inspire our interns, to offer the same veteran encouragement that helped buoy my own spirits years ago … But I also feel the need to provide a realistic, unglamorous vision of a business that saps wide-eyed youngsters of their precious enthusiasm. The fact is, this is a very, very difficult field, where opportunities are few and success is not guaranteed.
When I was in college, I heard the warnings. I knew the challenges awaiting me as a professional. And I did not care. I was hungry, confident, and excited to test my skills as a journalist and broadcaster in the real world.
In short, I wanted to see if I could “make it”.
But I rarely thought about what I would want once I did.
The summer at WCBS was a microcosm of that. I was willing to log baseball games, order sandwiches, and spend most of my time in an enlarged edit bay; in fact, I pledged to make the most of it. I crafted the baseball highlights way too seriously, likely for no other reason than to show my gratitude. I studied the anchors and producers and tried to learn whatever I could in my limited role.
But I only did so in a professional sense. I never considered their personal lives: Were they married? If so, how often did they see their spouses? What about their children? How did they spend their time outside of work? Did they feel like they had enough balance between their jobs and the rest of their lives?
I failed to investigate these things because I mostly did not worry about them. Marriage? Kids? Money to travel? Those all seemed far in the distance. But my career? That seemed tangible, visible, and immediate.
By the end of the summer, the people in charge must have noticed my efforts … because, on a Tuesday in late July, I got the call.
I would be sent, on my own, to interview Roger Clemens.
Interns rarely left the building; when they did, they simply shadowed professional reporters. But for some reason — staffing issue, time constraint, whatever — the producer decided to send me to Yankee Stadium to talk with Clemens during batting practice. The pitcher had, the previous night, passed Tom Seaver to move into fourth place in career strikeouts. My assignment? Get a sound bite from Clemens to use on the 6 pm news.
This was huge. I had rooted for the Yankees since kindergarten, loved the team and the sport, and admired Clemens as a player.
Now I would be in their locker room, on their field, in their dugout … and I would even get to talk with a player!
“I’ll do it,” I said. I did not inform the producers of the butterflies already pounding away at my stomach.
I met up with a photographer who drove us to Yankee Stadium. We checked in with the media relations rep and made our request for Clemens. The rep could not say yes or no — that was up to Clemens, he said — but told us we could try to grab the future Hall of Famer as he exited the dugout for batting practice.
We stood in the dugout, my butterflies now doing somersaults, as Yankee after Yankee passed by en route to the field. I remember one specific moment from this sequence: Derek Jeter was the only player to acknowledge us, calmly saying, “How’s it going, fellas?” as he walked past.
I felt like Mean Joe Greene had just thrown me his jersey.
Then Clemens came out. He did not offer a greeting, so I had to initiate. I asked him for an interview, and while he did not seem thrilled with the idea, he said he would do it … after batting practice.
When would that be? I had no clue, but I knew we would not be able to wait long. The newscast was now less than three hours away, and we would need to navigate New York City rush hour traffic on our return to the station.
I waited … and waited … and waited some more. I watched Clemens jog around the outfield, do a workout routine, and generally stay as far away from me as possible. But I kept my eye on him the whole time; I did not want to miss the moment when he finally gave us the go-ahead.
Then it happened. He looked my way, still seeming quite annoyed by my presence, and nodded for us to come over.
To this day I cannot remember what I asked him. I imagine I offered some version of, “How does it feel?”, but I do not know. I simply remember putting forth three questions, dutifully listening to his answers, thanking him, and saying farewell. It all lasted maybe two minutes.
And it was the highlight of my summer.
I could tell an intern today that story, and perhaps the youngster would be inspired. But I cannot tell myself that story without remembering everything that followed.
- Less than two months later, on September 11, 2001, New York City was hit by the worst terrorist attack in its history. Hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers, which crumbled to the ground. I had lived a tragedy-free life until that day; like so many nationwide, I was irrevocably affected. My summer highlight immediately seemed like a relic of a world I would never again inhabit.
- I began my professional career, but after four years of covering sports, including the NFL and NHL in Buffalo, I began to gravitate towards the news side. I felt limited as a sports reporter, largely because of the banality of the very type of interview I had once conducted with Clemens. I preferred to sit down with people for longer than three questions, and I desired more genuine answers than athletes typically provide. I eventually became a full-time news reporter, leaving sports behind.
- I watched another dream fade away: my hope to live in New York City. While I still love the Big Apple, I have grown far fonder of the high quality of life and low cost of living in Atlanta, a metropolis in its own right with plenty to keep me satisfied.
- Clemens himself has since become a tarnished figure, dealing with accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs — perhaps even during the very season when I interviewed him. The cache of interviewing Roger Clemens has dropped considerably.
More than anything, my outlook changed. As my 20s moved along, I began to think far more about what I desired for my life outside of work. Quite simply, I grew up, and I no longer thought of my job as my sole cornerstone; I wanted a balance I had rarely considered during college. Don’t get me wrong: I had always wanted to get married, raise a family, and explore the world. I had just never seriously discussed how those goals would coexist with my work goals. I had just assumed everything would work out.
But when you “make it” in your career, something critical happens:
You have to live what you have made.
The process of “making it” encompasses much of one’s 20s and early 30s; one then must spend the bulk of one’s adult life “keeping it”. The initial challenge evaporates, and the day-to-day job remains.
I stumbled upon this thought during my latest car ride with an intern. He was asking for advice about whether he should pursue journalism as a career. As we talked, I thought about the Clemens story and realized I had never really articulated the advice I was about to give.
“Here’s what you should do,” I said, in one form or another. “Take some time and just watch newscasts. Watch as many as you can. Watch them here in Atlanta; watch them in smaller markets. Heck, go online and watch a live-stream of some random newscast in some place you have never visited. While you watch, see what they do. See what types of stories the reporters cover. Combine that with what you have experienced this summer watching the reporters and journalists here. Understand that this is the type of work you most likely will end up doing.
“And when you make your decision about a career in journalism, think about that. Don’t think about whether you can handle living in a small market. Most likely, you can. Don’t worry about whether you will ultimately ‘make it’ to a big market. Because once you do all those things, you will still have the rest of your adult life ahead of you, and you will need to be happy doing the job you have.
“So don’t think about the short term. Think about the long term. Think about your life, and think about whether you are willing to commit so much of it to this line of work.”
It is a lesson so many of us fail to truly grasp until much later.
On the way back from the Clemens interview, as expected, we hit traffic. The minutes seemed to tick away at double speed, and I fretted the whole time about whether I would fulfill my assignment and get the Clemens sound bite on the air for 6 pm. But we got back by 5:15, which gave the editor plenty of time to cut a sound bite for the show.
About 30 minutes before air, Warner Wolf called me over.
“Matt, how do you say and spell your last name?”
As I answered, he wrote it in his customary giant handwriting on a piece of paper. I did not ask why, but I knew: he was going to say my name on the air.
I snuck away quickly and called my parents to alert them of this historic moment; then I returned to the office and stayed calm and composed. The butterflies in my stomach, by this point, were executing Olympic-level gymnastic routines.
“My name,” I thought to myself, “is going to be said on New York news. Unbelievable.”
Except I forgot one thing.
Interns were not supposed to conduct interviews. They were not supposed to hold microphones. They were not supposed to do anything in the field but stand and watch. If Wolf mentioned me on the air, he would probably get a lot of people in trouble — myself included.
Not wanting the ignominy of being a rule-breaker, I asked one of the sports reporters if this would be a problem. He brought this to Wolf’s attention, and Wolf — who did not realize it could be an issue — called a producer to check. Sure enough, minutes before the sportscast, Wolf learned he needed to steer clear from giving me an on-air shout-out.
Wolf took out his paper, picked up a pencil, and crossed out my name. Then he apologized, turned my way, and gave me one more great lesson/quote for my troubles.
“Well, Matt, now you know,” he said. “When in doubt … DON’T ASK!”
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.