Tech Focus: Education — State Colleges Lag For-Profits in Broadcast Sports

Budget constraints, local politics, and other issues keep broadcast a low priority

Broadcast-audio–education programs at for-profit schools have slowly but steadily recognized the value of careers in sports on television, as have such initiatives as the online-learning modules established by the DTV Audio Group. And manufacturers have been stepping up their education game, albeit as part of larger marketing efforts, such as Lawo’s how-to videos on its YouTube training site and Calrec’s video tutorials on its new Summa console. But, at the largest providers of higher education — state universities and colleges — broadcast audio often remains mired in the college television station.

The Realities of Curriculum Development
State schools may include media arts as part of journalism and/or mass-communication programs, in the form of ENG, but getting hands-on with broadcast sports very often is the outcome of ad hoc collaborations between athletics departments and campus radio/TV stations and are often considered extracurricular activities rather than integral to the educational agenda. Max Uster, who has taught broadcasting for 40 years, currently at the University of Kansas, considers that collateral to the way state colleges develop their curricula, a process that often has take into account such realities as budgets, local politics, tenure, and availability of resources.

Often, it’s Midsize schools that offer students the most extensive a hands-on experience in broadcast audio.

Often, it’s midsize schools that offer students the most extensive a hands-on experience in broadcast audio.

“Each college wants to do its own thing. If you look at the curriculums of a dozen different schools, you’d see a dozen different ways they approach this,” says Uster, who is also the Chair of the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) Sports Division, which derives some of its funding from the NAB and which has been profiled by SVG. “The very nature of curriculum development tends to be very parochial.”

What state schools tend to have in common, he says, is an emphasis on content over technology in broadcast. That’s a situation at least encouraged by the fact that most students arrive at school already reasonably fluent in several basic audio- and video-capture and -editing programs, often those found on their smartphones and tablets, such as Garage Band and Audacity.

Troy Comeau, associate professor/director of broadcasting, Pittsburg (Kansas) State University, and Vice Chair of the BEA Sports Division, agrees with Uster’s assessment that the ability to combine a school’s broadcast infrastructure and its sports teams varies from institution to institution. A lot, he says, has to do with the teams’ place in the college-sports hierarchy — top schools are brought to television by major networks — and also with the amount of influence the athletics department can exert on the administration and the broadcast department.

For instance, Comeau says, Pittsburg State’s sports department was initially reluctant to let students operate the 40- x 70-ft. Daktronics video display installed seven years ago at the 8,300-seat Carnie Smith Stadium, where the Division II Gorillas play. He cites “legitimate” concerns about how an operational mistake could affect the team’s reputation and, by extension, the school’s prestige.

However, he adds, he successfully lobbied the administration to allow them to run the videoboard. “[The administration wants] to protect the product,” he says of the team brand, “and we get that. But we may have more leeway in making that happen as a Division II school. It would be harder if the teams were [regularly] on ESPN and NBC.”

A Different Model
One state school was able to reverse that dynamic. Middle Tennessee State University secured $1.6 million in funding five years ago for its own 40-ft. expando remote-production truck, in part by responding to requests from the school’s athletic department after it switched from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA, losing a connection to ESPN, whose ESPN3 channel had carried the school’s home football and basketball games.

But that, says Dr. Dennis Oneal, a professor in the Electronic Media Department, who this year retired from leading the broadcast department, was still easier than how the school secured its first OB van, in 1991. “We included it as part of a new building,” he laughs. “It was a control room; it just happened to have wheels.”

Oneal says the broadcast program’s success comes in large part because the field production is run like a business. EMC Productions hires students, usually from the school’s Recording Industry undergraduate and MFA programs, which include majors in audio production.

“[Applicants] have to submit résumés — we hire based on that — and they get paid for the work. Not a lot, but they do get paid,” he explains. “We wanted to give them a professional orientation from the beginning.”

The approach has worked well, apparently. Oneal says several of his student-employees have gone on to careers in remote broadcast production, and the program has won several awards, including Collegiate Athletics Outstanding Live Game And Event Production at the Sports Video Group College Sports Summit this year, its third win in a row.

In the Middle
“There are three levels of college sports broadcasting, as I see it,” says Oneal. “There’s the really basic, amateurish level at small schools, where they just go out with a camera and more or less have fun. And there are the top-level schools that don’t have to worry about it because the networks and the conferences are there to cover it. It’s the schools in the middle, like us, that will give the students the most realistic experiences, because they have to get their message out and they have to do it themselves.”

Uster also points out that, while many colleges have world-class sports teams and programs tantalizingly close, student access to them is limited by contractual barriers that give preference to networks and conference broadcasters. His school, he says, negotiates two courtside seats per game at men’s and women’s basketball and sideline seats at football games for students to do play-by-play.

He is proud of what his school has been able to accomplish, including a robust sports-marketing academic program and graduates who have gone on to make names for themselves in sports broadcasting, such as Brian Sieman, who calls the Los Angeles Clippers games.

But he acknowledges the limitations that state schools face when it comes to addressing sports broadcasting academically: “They can be their own little world sometimes.”