Soggy Race Provides Fertile Learning Environment for Ball State Student

By Carolyn Braff

The pouring rain at last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race did nothing to dampen the spirits of Michael Stevens, a junior at Ball State University. Through the support of Sennheiser and Fox Sports, he spent the weekend learning his way around the truck compound, with Fox Sports Audio Consultant/Senior Mixer Fred Aldous as his guide.

“The problem with the rain is that we were still on the air doing rain fill and, even after the network on Sunday chose to go to alternate programming, we still did updates every 10-15 minutes,” Aldous explains. “There wasn’t a lot of time to go deep into a lot of things just because we had our obligations to do on-air updates. But the good thing for Michael is that he got to see us in full operating mode, which is total and controlled chaos.”

Having worked with the Ball State Sports Network as a utility, camera operator, and technical director, Stevens had a solid understanding of how a remote broadcast is put together, which turned out to be a boon for Aldous — especially given the wrinkle presented by the weather.

“Even though we originally wanted someone focused on audio, it was a benefit that he knew so much about so many different areas, because he got the big picture,” Aldous explains. “I put him in the room with the producers and directors so he could get a better perspective on the interaction that they have. He sat with my effects mixer, the radio mixer; he saw how our graphics interact. It was to our benefit that he had a good basic understanding of television production.”

The weather delays were also to Stevens’s benefit, because he got to see first-hand the differences between working in the controlled environment of a recording studio or television station and being out at a remote, at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“The race content itself is self-contained, but, in a rain fill, we have to create content, and sometimes it gets a little goofy,” Aldous explains. “He saw us in down time and up time. It was really a great experience for him to see both aspects of that.”

Last weekend was not Stevens’s first experience in a truck compound, but it was his first taste of the sheer size of a NASCAR production, where three networks share a compound and Fox alone travels four mobile units to the site.

“It surprised me how much actually goes into that broadcast,” Stevens says. “I had the idea that there was a main TV and a sub switch for video replays, but it’s so much more than that. It was really cool to see how the compound interacts between units. You have four trucks, and one is not more important than any other.”

Having a single student on-site for two days gave Aldous a chance to introduce Stevens to the different aspects of the production in a manner beyond a superficial question-and-answer session. Having the student make his own way to the compound — on Sennheiser’s tab — was also an important part of the learning experience.

“It was important to not just have somebody take him by the hand and lead him around,” Aldous says. “He had to fly by himself, take a taxi, try to remember to get a receipt, check into the hotel; it was an overall experience. I think it was a tremendous experience for someone that has an interest in sports broadcasting.”

Sennheiser, which paid for Stevens’s trip to Charlotte, NC, was equally pleased with the first run-through of the partnership program.

“We felt it went very well, so now it’s a matter of setting up a more concrete way of approaching it and then a budget for it to see how many times we can do it in a year,” says David Missal, Sennheiser director of market development for the Eastern region. “We will go forward with it; it’s now just a method of honing it to the best approach that we can.”

The next edition of the program could have a Sennheiser representative on-site as well, to answer any questions Aldous cannot or to take charge of the student once Aldous’s on-air responsibilities pull him away. Still, any minor changes made to the program will not change the unique opportunities it affords participants.

“What Sennheiser is doing with Fox is a blessing to people like me who want to get into this business,” Stevens says. “This really put into perspective for me what it takes to do a big show for a huge network like Fox. Without actually seeing it first-hand, you don’t know what to expect. If Sennheiser can keep doing this for students, there’s going to be a lot of people like me sold on the fact that they want to do live sports broadcasting.”