Sports Anchoring with Len Berman
New York City, New York
Len Berman first experienced sportscasting at Syracuse University when he dropped by the campus radio station, WAER, and instantly was hooked. His love for sports has sustained him for over forty award winning years. He has spent the last nineteen years at NBC 4 New York, as a sports anchor. He recently released a book entitled Spanning the World, named after his famous monthly sports clips reel. The book discusses his career and thoughts on sports. I have been a longtime fan and it was a great pleasure to get an insight in his life.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in sports?
LB: When I was doing sports reports and some games at Syracuse I enjoyed it and said, "Gee this would be kind of cool." I really naively didn't know how far or how long it would last. I really had no idea. So I just decided to try and give it a shot.
CCB: What is it that you enjoy so much about working in this field?
LB: When you do what I do in the context of a newscast you are given a blank canvas to basically do what you wish. I think if you were working as part of a news department or just doing newscasts then the news anchor is kind of not calling the shots of what goes where or what news stories go where although he has input. There are a lot of writers and producers involved in the sports department but for some reason it's our choice. What's going to be the lead story today? Is it going to be the Yankees blowing a game last night? Is it going to be that Carlos Beltran may be playing? Is it going to be a football story? We have total control over it. On top of that we're for some reason permitted to give our opinions. Newscasters don't often comment on the news of the day. In fact they never do. But for some reason sports people are permitted to and that's very appealing.
CCB: Has that always been the case?
LB: Well, it seems that way. Sometimes its labeled commentary, sometimes you just say, “In my opinion,” so fans know. For some reason at least since the days of Howard Cosell sportcasters have been encouraged to voice their opinions. He might have been the first but ever since then the floodgates opened.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job or does this depend on if you are in the studio?
LB: A typical studio day I may physically arrive in the studio at 2:30pm but I’ve spent most of the morning either reading newspapers or on the Internet. Making phone calls, seeing what’s going on. Deciding what kinds of stories we are going to cover and in what way. So my physical presence may show up in the afternoon but my day begins in the morning if not the night before. Before we leave the night before we are saying what do we have for tomorrow?
CCB: The preparation is seeing what is breaking in news?
LB: It’s on going. It’s changing. There could be a story that breaks and then blows up. Like the afternoon two Mets collided in the outfield. That became the lead story on the six o’clock news. It certainly wasn’t planned. It became a lead story on the newscast outside of the sports segment.
CCB: How much of your learning apart from Syracuse and practicing, was just on the fly or as you went along ?
LB: Most work in broadcasting is on the job training. I’m not sure you can learn it in a textbook or from classes. Certainly there are some valuable aspects of classroom work. You can take a writing course or a public speaking course or perhaps learn some of the history of broadcasting. If you are going to be a broadcaster the best thing is to just go do it.
CCB: What qualities do the best sportscasters have? Like you said in your book it’s more than just a voice, you have to be prepared.
LB: I think that’s a subjective question. The ones I enjoy watching are the ones who are natural, who don’t appear to be scripted, don’t use a lot of clichés. They are creative in their approach to stories and thought process. It’s a weird job. A lot of various skills can come in to play. There are writing skills, editing skills, producing skills. There are interviewing skills. There are studio skills involved with reading a teleprompter. There’s a whole wide variety of things that go into being a sportscaster.
CCB: Why do you think that there are so many clichés today? Is it because there are so many outlets and people are trying to make a name for themselves?
LB: I guess. I think that’s why people are trying to come up with something unique or a different way to call... In my estimation a homerun is a homerun. Why spin your wheels trying to call it something else? Go yard. I don’t even know what that means. It’s a homerun. As a viewer I want the basics.
CCB: Once again in your book you say something like, “in announcing as in many things less is often more.”
LB: Less is more. We had a long time director and his theory was the KISS theory. Keep it simple stupid. That goes a long way too. Simplicity is good. People get too wound up in trying to make things more complex than they are. When you think of it you have some audio, some video, and you have some words. How can you simply marry them all?
CCB: Do you have any advice for people who are interested in getting into the industry?
LB: I think the best advice is to start out doing it as early as you can and on whatever level it might be. It may be a college radio station or a high school newspaper. That’s the most valuable thing you can tell someone.
CCB: How did it feel the first time you were live on air?
LB: I think it was nerve-racking. And there are some nerve-racking times now. It’s all tied into preparation. I think when I’m totally prepared and I know where things are going and technically things are going smoothly its relatively easy. When the wheels are coming off and you are not prepared and things are going wrong technically it can be unsettling. The key is to try and keep your cool. The first time on the air it’s a blur.
CCB: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
LB: I think just trying to stay on top, keep your finger on everything. There’s so much information out there. So many different types of things to cover you want to make sure you aren’t missing something.
CCB: What’s been the most rewarding thing?
LB: I guess when people come up to you and say I’m not really a sports fan but you somehow make it interesting. I think that’s very gratifying. I think what happens a lot of times in television news is a lot of people watching the late news or early news may not be sports fans. They may be watching for other reasons like the weather. It puts us in the position of having to deliver sports news to people who may not care that much. So when you can sometimes catch their attention or make it interesting for them, it’s gratifying.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about broadcasting?
LB: It goes without saying that it’s not as glamorous as it seems. It’s a job. You go into our late studio at eleven o’clock and there are four people there, the anchor people and one stage manager. We don’t even have cameramen in the studio, they are robotic cameras. It’s a very sterile atmosphere and there may be two million people watching at home. If they saw how many people go into a sportscast, the number of editors, producers, and writers that are just working on one sportscast they’d be surprised. It’s not all fun and games.
CCB: What surprised you the most?
LB: I guess that not everybody was a sports fan. I guess I just assumed that since I was a sports fan everybody else was.
CCB: Is that because you grew up in New York?
LB: Yeah, well I have two sons who aren’t necessarily sports fans. So, it’s not just a function of where you grow up. I just assumed that everyone loves sports and it’s not true. More than anything that was eye opening.
CCB: You mentioned in your book that you missed a lot of moments because you had to jockey for position for interviews. Was that something that surprised you?
LB: I mean when you go to a baseball game and with your seat you can’t see the field. A press box seat, that’s eye opening. So, what’s the point? You may as well watch it on television. I know reporters are there to try and get some interviews after the game and they can’t accomplish that if they were at home or a thousand miles away. That’s a surprising aspect. And it’s changed over the years. When I first started this you’d go to a World Series and there were a few cameras around. Now you go to a World Series game and there are a thousand cameras.
CCB: Are there any things you wish you knew when you started that you learned over the years as far as how to do your job?
LB: I guess I’ve evolved a little bit. I probably reached for humor a little bit much in the early days like everyone else. I think if I practiced what I preach now at an earlier age it might have held me in better stead.
CCB: When being an announcer is it hard to separate the announcer from the fan especially since you are in New York covering New York teams?
LB: No, not at all. I’ve been a sportscaster, announcer in Ohio and in Boston. In fact I announced Celtics games and Patriots games in Boston even though I grew up in New York. After awhile you realize that it’s not the teams that you really care about it, it’s the individuals and Mickey Mantle doesn’t play for the Yankees anymore. If he did I may still be a Yankee fan, but he doesn’t. (Laughs) It’s very easy to separate that.
CCB: Your book, Spanning the World, just came out. Do you have anything else new in the works?
LB: I have a kid’s book coming out in a couple of weeks called, And Nobody Got Hurt. That’s illustrations and aimed at boys from 8-12 who don’t really like to read that much. It’s wild and crazy sports stories. True sports stories.
(* Since the interview took place And Nobody Got Hurt was released into stores.)
CCB: Do sports feel any different now having reported on them for so many years?
LB: Oh, sure. It’s less and less sports as the years go on. More and more steroids, contracts, holdouts, strikes, and fan unhappiness. What about the game? It used to be a game. That’s how we got involved as kids and there’s less of that.
CCB: Is that all related in large part to it becoming big business?
LB: Absolutely. No question about it. The average fan is shut out of going to games with his family. It’s sad, but true. We say it over and over again, when’s the average guy going to get a break?
CCB: How surreal did it feel meeting Mickey Mantle after admiring him for so many years?
LB: That was a career highlight. I mean there he was in the flesh and he was very nice to me. I know he had a reputation of not being nice to everyone. I guess I got off on the right foot by going up to him and saying that he was my idol and our relationship grew from there. He actually signed a ball for me years later that said, “Thanks a lot.” That meant a lot to me.
CCB: Are there any young broadcasters today that you like the way they call games?
LB: That’s a good question. Ian Eagle does a good job with CBS and the Nets. There’s one. I’m sure there are others out there too. There’s an example of someone who relies on the game and let’s the game do the talking.
CCB: You had certain goals when you were younger. Is there anything else you hope to accomplish before your career is over?
LB: Now my standard line is I live happily ever after. I just enjoy what I’m doing. I will be at the Olympics in Torino and Bei Jing in 2008, so those are events to look forward to. You just look for the next exciting sports story because it’s not exciting every day. You are always curious to see what’s going to pop up around the bend and it always does.