Bruce Beck has been to the Olympic Games – but not as an athlete. For 10 different iterations of the heralded worldwide sporting competition and display of cultural diffusion, Beck has been a reporter bringing viewers local and national stories.
Now in his 26th year as the lead sports anchor at NBC 4 New York (WNBC-TV), he has many stories to tell of those experiences, including watching Michael Phelps win eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, Usain Bolt being victorious in three consecutive 100-meter Olympic dashes, and Sarah Hughes pulling off a shocking gold medal victory in Salt Lake City in 2002. Beck, like these athletes, had a passion for what he was doing and worked hard to refine his talents into an award-winning career in sports media.
“My story’s not a perfect story,” Beck said. “I’m not as talented as many of these guys in the industry, but I guess I’m a survivor.”
Beck’s official workplace is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the acclaimed New York City landmark which headquarters NBCUniversal and the iconic Christmas Tree during the holiday season. Yet Beck often finds himself working remotely, whether that be locally from Citi Field in Queens; Yankee Stadium in the Bronx; or across the Hudson River at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ or at national events such as the Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby.
On a day where he is not scheduled to be on-site – well, that can change at a moment’s notice because of the unique fluidity of the New York marketplace. “The Big Apple” is home to over a dozen professional teams, many hallmark events and famed college and high school athletics programs.
“Once in a while there’s a boring day for the broadcast, but rarely,” Beck said. “Something always happens; something always comes up. One of the hardest jobs for me is prioritizing, ‘What is the story today?’”
Beck grew up near the New York metropolitan area in Livingston, N.J. and was enamored with sports, along with perfecting his impressions of the local broadcasters. At the age of 8, he began imitating Marv Albert; in fact, he can still recite six commercials he did. When he and his family would play basketball in the driveway, Beck would announce the games in the style of Albert, along with other commentators such as Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson and Marty Glickman.
When there were no sports to consume, he would grab a utensil from the kitchen and commentate his mother’s cooking routine, doing anything he could to use his voice and practice the trade.
“She thought maybe I was a little crazy,” Beck said, “but maybe she thought I was on to something because she never criticized me; she just laughed.”
Beck’s first bonafide broadcasting experience was in junior high school when he was responsible for delivering the morning announcements. By the time he was in high school, he was working with the school basketball team, still imitating Albert, and hosting game shows for the team on their bus rides to and from games.
In 1974, Beck matriculated at Ithaca College where he studied accounting and forayed into media-related endeavors on the side. He initially applied undecided though but still found a way on WICB, the school’s radio station, for early morning broadcasts and compiled local reports to air on station programming.
Over his time as an undergraduate student, he anchored Sunday night broadcasts and did play-by-play announcing for sporting events on campus while also working as the television sports director in his senior year. He cemented a legacy at the school by being the first nonmajor to win the National Honor Society AERho Award for Outstanding Broadcaster; however, Ithaca College was not his first choice. Beck had hoped to attend Northwestern University but his request for admission was turned down in a letter that remains preserved at his desk.
“When I was the keynote speaker about eight years ago for St. John’s University Staten Island Campus… I held it up,” Beck said of the letter. “I read from it. I use it as the power of rejection.”
Upon his graduation from the school four years later, Beck did not waste any time entering into the professional world in a job with Suburban Cablevision TV3 in East Orange, N.J. The broadcast outlet gave viewers the ability to watch local athletics programming, taping high school and collegiate sporting events and subsequently airing them, utilizing remote production trucks and commentators.
In addition to live games, the channel broadcast talk shows, one of which was titled Time In that was hosted by Beck and another he co-hosted called Scorecard. Eventually, he was working as the assistant sports director alongside Bob Ley, who was the outlet’s sports director and the person who initially hired Beck.
Ley, however, departed Suburban Cablevision TV3 in 1979 to be one of the first employees for a new all-sports network called ESPN. It turned out to be the place where Ley primarily worked for the majority of his career, hosting national shows such as SportsCenter and Outside the Lines to millions of viewers around the world.
Meanwhile, Beck, who questioned whether or not Ley had made a prudent decision, had been promoted to sports director. For the next three years, he was working to elevate the channel’s sports coverage and manage its team of broadcast professionals as he continued to provide play-by-play commentary for select matchups.
“It built the mechanics and it built kind of the framework for my career today in terms of how much attention to detail I take and how serious I take my preparation,” Beck said. “Bob Ley – can you think of a better mentor? One of ESPN’s greatest ever in terms of integrity, in terms of broadcasting. I was really lucky.”
In his youth, Beck had imagined what it would be like to work with Marv Albert – and those early aspirations turned into a reality when he entered what former New York Knicks public address voice John F. X. Condon referred to as “the magical world of Madison Square Garden.”
Stepping into “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” Beck covered games and worked as an in-studio host for MSG Networks, contributing to events including Golden Gloves boxing, the Millrose Games and the National Horse Show. Additionally, Beck was the primary interviewer for the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, the latter for whom he also hosted television studio coverage.
“I was the youngest guy working on the airwaves in New York,” Beck said. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I still had a high-pitched voice; I was still far from accomplished but I was able to get reps in a tremendously professional environment and I continued to improve throughout the years.”
As a reporter, Beck had the opportunity to interview prominent figures in the world of professional sports including Patrick Ewing, Mark Messier and Bill Russell. Having the ability to elicit thoughtful and cohesive answers from interviewees was always Beck’s focus, and although he thoroughly prepared for each interview, there are instances where it was best to go with the flow of the conversation.
“I did an interview with Dennis Rodman at the Garden and I said to him, ‘Dennis, this is the best offensive start you’ve ever had to a season. Are you happy with your offense?’,” Beck remembered, “and he said: ‘Man, I won’t be happy until I’m 6 feet underground.’ I took all my notes and I just threw them in the air, kind of, and I just said: ‘Why? How come? What made you feel this way?’”
To this day, Beck follows the three principles of interviewing he learned at a young age; these are: (1) – Asking the question everyone wants to know. (2) – Asking the question nobody else will ask. (3) – Deriving a follow-up question based on a previous response.
Effectively interviewing comes from active listening and comprehending answers in the moment to guide the discourse. Similar principles apply when it comes to live game broadcasts in which one duty of the play-by-play announcer is to ensure the color commentator is properly positioned to offer their esoteric knowledge and informed opinions.
No matter the sport – whether it was filling in for Sam Rosen on the boxing broadcast; to calling college football and basketball games; or covering the Yankees in different capacities – Beck was ready for the challenge and to duly perform his role.
“I was always taught that the color man is the star so if you could do a solid job as a professional play-by-play guy and set up the color man,” Beck said. “If he had a good broadcast, you had a good broadcast. We had a who’s who of announcers that was working for MSG, and I was just fortunate to be around them.”
In 1994 at the age of 38, Beck’s contract with MSG Networks was not renewed in what could have been a significant blow to his career without his inherent persistence and drive to succeed. In what some might call a devastating setback, Beck, who was disappointed, tried to remain optimistic that he would find a way to succeed.
“Jerry Eisenberg once said to me, and this kind of tied into how to treat people too, ‘You better remember us on the way up, because you’re sure as hell going to need us on the way down,’” Beck remembered. “He also said, ‘If you’re always on a high note, when you do come down you’re going to have an uncushioned crash.’”
Beck began announcing Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events as one of the promotion company’s first announcers, starting with UFC 4 held at the Expo Square Pavilion in Tulsa, Okla. His previous background commentating combat sports also helped land him a gig as a commentator for Showtime Championship Boxing, contributing during the network’s fight weeks around the country.
In addition to these jobs, Beck also called harness racing for ESPN, college basketball for Prime Network with Al McGuire and Rollie Massimino and college football and basketball for CBS Sports.
He was often on the move, taking a total of 102 flights in 1997 – some of which he boarded as the jetway was moving away from the terminal – and built what he says was a “mini-empire.” Through all the minutiae and spontaneity of his work schedule, Beck focused on embracing new challenges and building relationships in the process.
“I did anything that was asked upon me because it was just a matter of preparing, having great energy and being able to work with your color guy and knowing your material well enough that you could carry a broadcast,” Beck said. “It was fun; it was invigorating.”
At the same time, Beck was the host of Sports Images and Comcast Sportstalk for CN8 with its studios located in Union, N.J. Working other freelance jobs during the day, he found himself having to race to the studios four nights per week for the latter program and would sometimes arrive two minutes before the show was set to hit the air.
“I believed in outworking people,” Beck said. “I certainly wasn’t more talented but I just believed you could build relationships and you could outwork people and you could be up at 2 or 3 in the morning and you could study and you could do any assignment.”
By the fall of 1997, he received an audition with Dennis Swanson, the president and general manager of WNBC-TV New York, for the role of weekend sports anchor with the network. Shortly thereafter, Beck’s “three hard years” ended when he was officially hired by the network. He remains there nearly 26 years later.
“Local reporting [has] changed over the years but the secret sauce really hasn’t changed,” Beck explained. “The trust of your audience; relationships with those people you cover; and good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Being in the trenches; in the locker room; on the ballfields.”
Beck’s approach to local reporting is in identifying the key story and finding unique ways in which to present them, doing so in longform on the Sunday night sports show Sports Final. As an employee of a local news affiliate, he seeks to find aspects of sports bridging news in his reporting as well, telling stories to viewers such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft obtaining and delivering masks to New York City at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stories like that, which were told in the months without live sporting events, helped NBC 4 New York win the prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for its reporting during the early stage of the pandemic and continues to make the local network a trusted voice in the marketplace.
“You’re still covering a multitude of things on a Sunday night,” Beck explained, “but you get two, usually, longform stories with a guest that you’re going to cover – and that’s the way I usually approach it. We’ve had a lot of athletes; a lot of coaches [and] some of the premier guests around. Other times, I’ll get a writer who’s covering the team who might have the better inside scoop. We’re trying to show depth and we’re trying to give [viewers] a behind-the-scenes look.”
Over the years with NBC 4 New York, Beck has covered events both near and far with the mission of accentuating local perspectives and giving viewers unique access. The ability to do this, though, comes through establishing and maintaining mutually-beneficial relationships.
For example, Beck visited the home of former St. John’s University and NBA head coach Lou Carnesecca where he conducted an exclusive interview with him reflecting on his career. They had fostered a relationship when Beck was hosting Carnesecca’s eponymously-titled show on MSG Network.
Although the industry has considerably shifted in terms of the creation and distribution of content, motivated reporters like Beck are resolute in their mission to uncover and present compelling stories – all while being cognizant of their audience.
“You have to be innovative; you have to be creative,” Beck said. “I think you have to reimagine, and that’s what I’ve tried to do and that’s what I’ve encouraged younger people to do. You’ve got to reimagine in today’s day and age, but there’s still a place in my mind for local news although it’s redefined.”
As a reporter, Beck’s use of social media is an imperative aspect of his job, especially in being able to connect with viewers at a moment’s notice. When he is not promoting upcoming broadcasts or breaking news in the field, he uses the platform to break the metaphorical third wall between followers and professional media members. By giving them an inside look as to just where and how he does his job, he communicates and displays the story within the story; a sort of metadrama encompassing the craft.
“Take them to places they can’t go, and tell them things about you that they don’t know,” Beck said. “That’s what people want from me on social media. ‘Where am I? Am I [in] the Yankee locker room? Is this a cool spot at Dodger Stadium? Let me show them something they can’t normally get to.’”
In addition to working with NBC 4 New York, Beck’s versatility has allowed him to take on other roles over the years, including an eight-year stint hosting programming on NBA-TV. He currently works with Rutgers University on its digital athletics programming, along with freelancing as a commentator for Top Rank boxing coverage airing on ESPN+. Beck’s work ethic and ability to adapt helped him in his quest to succeed in the New York marketplace, interacting with players, coaches and other team personnel to create meaningful, impactful connections.
“I never feel like I can cover everything but I love to be in the field; that’s what I’m known for,” he said. “I’m known for outhustling people and being at every possible event I can get to, and yet I know I still don’t do a good enough job because it’s impossible.”
Six years ago, Beck pioneered the Bruce Beck Broadcasting Camp, a place for aspiring sportscasters to learn from industry professionals, gain experience in various different roles, and become inspired by the craft.
For the 15 years prior, Beck held a similar broadcasting camp with sportscaster Ian Eagle with attendees including MLB Network host Scott Braun, ESPN NHL reporter Emily Kaplan and NBC News correspondent Jesse Kirsch.
Some of the guests who have attended the program in recent years include MSG Networks/ESPN basketball commentator Mike Breen, NFL on FOX play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt and YES Network reporter Meredith Marakovits. This year’s program begins on July 17 and takes months of planning and coordinating for Beck, who is assisted by his wife Janet.
Whether it is mentoring students at the camp or on late-night phone calls on his way home from work; or volunteering with different charities to help those less fortunate, Beck recognizes the value and importance in being a source of goodwill. Even if other people see it as being naïve, Beck continues to find a way to exude a sense of optimism while working in “The City That Never Sleeps” for over 40 years.
“You can’t change the world but you can impact lives,” Beck said. “….My father and mother taught me [that] receiving is nice, giving is nicer [and] giving back is nicest of all. My parents, who are the foundation for everything that I’ve ever accomplished; they taught me that and I’ve tried to pass that on to my two kids and my five grandkids.”
In March 2017, Beck was the winner of the Jessica Savitch Award of Distinction for Excellence in Journalism from Ithaca College – his alma-mater. The honor was not only for his career as a multimedia journalist, but also as a source of support and mentorship for aspiring professionals looking to work in sports media. Even though studying in upstate New York was not his first choice, the foundation he built in college and has extended throughout his ongoing professional career is surely deserving of a gold medal.
“It’s easy to get up when there’s a storyline that changes every day in New York and there are these teams that are striving for excellence that [don’t] always achieve it,” Beck said. “That drive; there’s dreams of success and fears of failure for all of us every day, and I think that drives me and it drives the athletes and it drives the coaches and I think it even drives the fans. I haven’t lost it yet; I haven’t lost my desire to generate good news, good stories and cover the people that are worthy of it.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Jonathan Vilma Went To the Super Bowl As a Player, He Wants To Go Back as a Broadcaster
“The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
From training camp to preseason action; then an 18-week regular season followed by a string of pressurized, single-elimination playoff action, the journey to the Super Bowl is long and arduous. That is part of what makes the conclusion of it all exhilarating for the winning team and, conversely, gut wrenching for its opponent. Jonathan Vilma knows firsthand just what this journey entails and now articulates it to football fans on a weekly basis.
Vilma also knows how it feels to be a world champion, starring on the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl championship team’s defensive line as a middle linebacker. As a three-time Pro Bowl selection and defensive captain, he always made sure he was ready to take the field, proved when he made a critical pass deflection that helped secure the Super Bowl victory. Yet he is not satisfied just winning the game, as he aspires to one day call the nation’s largest, most complex sporting event from the broadcast booth.
“This is no different than football for me,” Vilma said. “[I am] very competitive, so I would want to make sure that [in] each performance [and] each game that I do, I prepare and act as if it is a playoff game; a Super Bowl game. It’s the best game that I’m ever going to call.”
Vilma enjoyed a decade-long career in the NFL and was inducted into the New Orleans Saints’ Hall of Fame in 2017 even though he did not play in New Orleans for the first several years of his career. Instead, Vilma’s career started in East Rutherford, N.J. as a member of the New York Jets, an organization to which he was drafted with the 12th overall pick out of the University of Miami. Following his 2004 rookie season, he was recognized as the NFL defensive rookie of the year by the Associated Press and went on to lead the NFL in tackles the next season.
Aside from all of the accolades, suiting up in the New York-metropolitan area meant facing a deluge of media on a regular basis, aggrandized because of his abilities on the field. Vilma always sought to give 110% effort as a player and did the same when giving interviews by being truthful with journalists – no matter the situation.
“I notice that a lot of the beat writers [and] a lot of regional writers appreciate when you’re just very honest about the good and the bad,” Vilma said, “and they appreciate more when you’re the same person during the bad times as you are during the good times. If I lost a game, whether it was with the Jets or the Saints, beat writers come in and you handle it the same way.”
In February 2008, Vilma was traded to the New Orleans Saints and proceeded to sign a five-year contract with the team approximately one year later. After winning the Super Bowl championship in February 2010 just past the midpoint of his career, he began thinking about what he would do next and eventually decided to give sports media a try.
Despite being an active player, Vilma appeared on a local television postgame show to give his thoughts and analysis on the action, affording him early repetitions in the industry. Once his contract expired with the Saints, he joined Bleacher Report as a guest analyst, but then moved back to college football to cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with NBC Sports.
The transition from playing in the NFL to working as a media member in college football on pregame and halftime shows was facile since he remained informed about the NCAA and the various conferences. In his preparation, he examined Notre Dame and its opponent, organically forming cogent opinions conducive to his role and the matchup at hand.
“I was following it prior to when I went to NBC,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of dialing in. When I say dialing in, I just reverted back to what I did when I was playing – and that was watching film [and] getting an understanding of the players, the teams, the coaches [and] the schemes. Once you do that, everything else outside of that is kind of free-flowing because I already know what the players are going to do or the coaches or the teams and how they operate.”
After a year where Vilma exclusively worked on Notre Dame football broadcasts, he began a four-year stint with The Walt Disney Company where he contributed to programming on both ESPN and ABC. With both linear television networks, Vilma was covering college football in its entirety, meaning that he needed to know information about every team. It resulted in a shift in his in-studio preparation for his role on ESPN2’s Saturday studio coverage to ensure he would be ready for any situation presented to him over the course of a broadcast.
“During the week, it would really be about watching [one] half of a team but not watching the whole game or not watching two to three games,” Vilma said. “Then, being very aware of what the media is saying about particular teams to see if it matches up with whatever I believe [about] that team.”
Upon signing a multi-year contract with ESPN in 2018, Vilma was moved to ABC’s Saturday college football studio coverage, working as an analyst during the day and at night on ESPN Saturday Night Football on ABC. Vilma joined the show to replace Booger McFarland, who had been added as a new analyst on ESPN’s presentation of Monday Night Football, collaborating with host Kevin Negandhi and analyst Mack Brown to prepare fans for the weekend primetime matchup.
Over his time with ESPN, Vilma had also been placed into the broadcast booth on occasion, including for its broadcast of the 2018 Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl between the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers and Northern Illinois University Huskies. Through the experience of being on the call for live games, Vilma was eager to explore an opportunity to progress into doing it regularly. It relates to his competitive mindset fostered from his time as a player, and one that he continues to carry with him in sports media.
“It allows me to, for three hours, do what I did mentally when I played – which was [to] break down the opponent; anticipate what they’re going to do; look at their strengths or weaknesses; talk about it and really be able to go in-depth,” Vilma recalls telling his broadcast agent leading into contract negotiations. “….It really lets me feel like I’m a master of this game this week and I really enjoy that.”
The only problem was an opportunity to make the move into a broadcast booth was not available at ESPN in 2020, as the Monday Night Football booth was filled by Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick and its college broadcasters were relatively in place. As a result, Vilma decided to interview for an NFL broadcasting position with FOX Sports, despite initially being hesitant because of the various nuances in the league and having the ability to adopt a parlance applicable for both defensive and offensive analysis.
Recognizing his passion for the game of football and enjoyment of calling games, Vilma chose to join FOX Sports where he was paired with versatile play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert.
The decision by the network to form this particular duo was auspicious for Vilma’s development since Albert had demonstrated experience working with an array of analysts and partially engendering their success. The impact of Albert, who joined the NFL on FOX in 1994, was even more apparent when Vilma had to work his first few NFL games without him since Albert had to complete a mandatory two-week quarantine period upon returning from the NHL Bubble in Toronto.
“Kenny has been in it for so long that he’s a guy [who] doesn’t want the spotlight [or] the limelight – he just wants to make you look good; ‘you’ as in obviously me,” Vilma said. “….I could see the difference in Kenny and how he likes to call games because I had watched about five of his games prior to my first season. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll wait until Kenny comes back and we’ll kind of go from there.’”
Albert and Vilma just completed their third season together in the booth and worked in tandem with sideline reporter Shannon Spake, who provided reports from the field. The congeniality within the broadcast team comes from having an understanding of optimizing each other’s roles and effectively supplementing them.
“I mess with him all the time; I call him a nerd all the time,” Vilma remarked of Albert, “but he’s actually really, really cool so we go to dinner a lot [and] we hang out a lot. Because of that, it shows through our body language [and] through our rapport when we call games.”
As an analyst, Vilma aims to present the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of each play while Albert’s play-by-play responsibilities center around his accurate and concise description of the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where.’ In order to perform their jobs to the highest standard, they take different approaches when it comes to preparation.
While Albert meticulously researches the rosters, creates detailed charts and talks to coaches and team personnel to elucidate storylines and set up his colleagues, much of Vilma’s preparation relies on watching film. Even though he is not taking the field as a player, the methodology corresponds to his participating in as many facets of the team as possible to gather quality film.
In fact, that practice was advised to him as an NFL rookie by Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, Ray Lewis – and it had a part in shaping the trajectory of his career. Instantiating that wisdom into media, Vilma tries to formulate comprehensive and coherent points on which to expand and implement in his analysis of a play – unimpeded by other sources of information.
“I don’t want the media to influence anything I say on Sunday when I’m calling that game,” Vilma said. “I want to make sure that whatever I say is because of what I saw on film and what I watched of those teams, and then what I’m seeing Sunday as a game is going on.”
Vilma officially retired from playing football in 2015, meaning he is not very far removed from the NFL. He remains immersed in the football community as a former player and maintains relationships with players, coaches and personnel in the league. His job as an analyst though is predicated on straightforward objectivity; therefore, it is his obligation and that of other analysts to critique individuals and teams as necessary.
“I’ve always felt that if I’m calling the game based on what I see and there’s no hidden agenda [and] there’s no sugarcoating it, then you’ll be fine,” Vilma said. “Just in the same light that I’ll talk about a player who’s inaccurate or whatever it is, I’ll also speak very glowingly about a person if they’re having a great game.”
Playing professional football generates ethos in terms of commentary and the editorializing thereof whether that be during live game broadcasts, shoulder programming or studio shows. Despite making the ostensibly inscrutable parts of the game understood, it is impractical to carry an expectation of pleasing everyone. With the advent of social media, viewers with minimal credibility can suddenly become boisterous critics and build a legitimate following, lending them exposure and a megaphone to project their voices en masse.
One example of such an instance came following a game between the Atlanta Falcons and Vilma’s former team, the New Orleans Saints. As a Super Bowl champion with the team, some fans of the Saints expected him to be inherently biased throughout the game; however, they were flabbergasted when he lambasted their play amid a substantial defeat.
After the game, Vilma opened his Instagram account on which he received direct messages where afflicted fans expressed disbelief that they ever cheered him on as a player. Those types of excoriating messages can unnerve typical social media users and beget demoralization, but for Vilma, it was the epitome of a successful week in the booth.
“After each game, I want to have the fans from both teams saying I was biased for the other team,” Vilma said. “That means that my passion is coming through; it means that the emotions of the game – I’m expressing it as I call the game.”
Throughout the game, Vilma has chances to infuse his personality within his analysis and display his synergy with Albert. He genuinely enjoys his work and is not afraid to divulge how he feels about certain situations, including replay reviews during which he has a 50-50 chance of getting the ruling correct.
“You can’t be right for three hours,” Vilma said. “Nobody is perfect, and I’m not trying to be perfect. [I just] try to make sure that I talk about what I see, have fun and then let my personality come out when the moment presents itself.”
Similar to studio programming across professional sports, Vilma is looking to find a way to incorporate interactive elements into a live game broadcast so viewers can feel engaged and entertained. He has thought about implementing tweets over the course of the broadcast directed at him and Albert, potentially to guide their commentary or to implore them to hone in on a certain player or situational tendency. They would then sometimes choose to respond to the viewers while on air, akin to a point-to-mass communication system occasionally exhibited by alternate-style broadcasts.
In this manner, the user is able to gain control over what they are watching, a critical element of appealing to consumers in the 21st-century amid advances in streaming technology and an active proliferation of OTT content providers. Overall, broadcasting across the NFL is a means through which to promulgate the sport and attract viewers – and Vilma, as a live game broadcast analyst, is a fundamental part of that process. The challenge for him and other analysts is to resist allowing pundits on social media to regularly sway them in a certain direction, which would actualize capriciousness and render entropy in some of their viewpoints.
“If you try too hard to appeal to everyone that is going to comment negatively or positively about your performance, you can find yourself not knowing who you are when it comes to calling games,” Vilma said. “That’s very important because you have to establish yourself in some regard.”
Vilma aspires to call a Super Bowl at some point in his career; however, the next time FOX Sports will have the broadcast rights to the game is in Feb. 2025, the culmination of what Tom Brady expects to be his debut season in the network’s lead broadcast booth alongside Kevin Burkhardt. With other lead broadcast booths around the league being cemented over the last few years on CBS, ESPN/ABC, NBC, it is unclear how that opportunity may come on linear television, but it remains a future goal he looks to attain.
“It’s very eye-opening for me how much media surrounds the game,” Vilma said. “….With FOX [and] being on this side now, I’m still kind of just amazed at how much time, effort and investment goes into the production of the game. It’s very interesting to see how it’s really two different kinds of industries – the athletics and the media – but very similar in the sense that everyone is locked in to putting out the best product. The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
An effective way to be considered for an opportunity of that magnitude may just come from following Ray Lewis’ advice he received early on as an NFL player of amassing a library of film. In that practice, Vilma demonstrated a persistent, indefatigable effort to continue to grow – and sees the parallels between his time on the field and current endeavors in sports media.
“I did local TV; I did NBC; any interview I could do at that time, I would do,” Vilma said. “It was now to be able to have as much film as possible – at that time, enough good film – that someone could look and say, ‘You know, I can respect him. This guy is really trying to perfect his craft. He’s been on film; he’s got a lot of good tape,’ and then go from there.”
For former athletes, moving up in sports media, aside from notoriety or expertise, often derives from putting one’s ego aside and evoking a sense of humility. It comes from adopting a hard-working attitude while taking chances that others may perceive as being demeaning or beneath them.
In many ways, it is what any entry-level employee usually does early in their career, generating a sense of respect and collaboration through their work ethic and, in turn, making enduring connections. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” and it seemingly holds true across various industries, making relationship-building and versatility integral to experience sustained success.
It all begins with repetitions and focused practice, and Vilma shows no signs of slowing down.
“A lot of the guys don’t want to do the local [or] regional stuff, and that’s the only way to get film,” Vilma expressed. “Unless you’re just going to go off of your name – which few can; most cannot – you’ve got to get on film.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Gabe Kuhn Isn’t Worried About Filling Gary Parrish’s Shoes
“I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out.”
In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character, Crash, says, “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once. Twenty-one greatest days of my life.” That quote popped in my head because of a sports radio host that recently got called up. Gabe Kuhn is now the host of a brand new drive-time afternoon show on 92.9 ESPN in Memphis.
This is a major opportunity for Gabe, and the smart money is on him lasting much, much longer in Memphis than Crash Davis did in the majors.
Gabe is a former offensive lineman at the University of Memphis. He obviously knows the Memphis area well and has risen quickly in the industry. Some say that love is the universal language. I would argue it’s ball, and Gabe definitely knows his stuff when it comes to football.
We chat about finding the balance of talking football on a deeper level but not too deep. Gabe also talks about filling big shoes, St. Louis Cardinal face tats and being motivated by fear. We even sneak in a little Super Bowl talk. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: You basically just got called up to the big leagues. What does it mean to you to get this opportunity?
Gabe Kuhn: It means a whole lot. It means a lot of people have the confidence in me that I can get this job done. It also means that the city of Memphis has embraced me to the point where people believe that I’m worth listening to from 4:00-7:00 PM. But overall, man, I feel like the job itself — the confidence I have in myself in getting it done — it means a bunch. I just want to make sure I can reciprocate the love the city has given me to this point from 4:00-7:00 PM every day.
BN: What were the sports radio gigs you had before this latest opportunity?
GK: Four years ago, I was let go by the Memphis Express of the AAF. Obviously, the AAF ended up folding. But I decided to just move on from there. I really started about as ground floor as you could get. I just hit up a connection I knew from Sports 56 in Eli Savoie. Eli was great. He told me that they didn’t have any spots open there. I basically stayed there in the morning, checked out the afternoon, learned some things for free. I wouldn’t even call myself an intern; I was just sort of looking, watching and trying to figure out the whole radio thing. This was four years ago.
Then about three weeks into it my guy, Johnny Radio – Johnny Hardin, knew the new producer. Right place, right time, hired me. Wasn’t making anything for two and a half years really, but obviously enjoyed it and learned a whole lot. Started producing middays for Eli Savoie and Greg Gaston. Then made the jump about two and a half years in when the station decided to rearrange their show. Dave Woloshin, voice of the Tigers, wanted to take a step back in workload. Brett Norsworthy needed a co-host with him. I ended up getting the 3-6 show Sportstime with Gabe and Stats. It really was interesting. It was from $9 an hour to salary in about two and a half years. Now I’m where I’m at.
BN: What was it about sports radio that got you interested right after your football career, and what was it about sports radio that maintained your interest when you weren’t making any money for a couple of years?
GK: Well, first of all, I love talking ball. I always had the confidence in myself that I would eventually get where I needed to go with it. I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out. I feel like that always shines through. That’s just the confidence I have in myself. And honestly, when it comes down to it, I appreciate the art of it. I know how cliché, corny that may sound, but I appreciate being able to have contrary thoughts and show my personality through. That’s one of the perks of the job that I do appreciate.
BN: You’re from the St. Louis area, right?
GK: Yes, sir.
BN: That’s cool. My dad is originally from Alton, Illinois.
GK: About an hour away. I’m in West County. Wildwood, Chesterfield if you’ve ever heard of that.
BN: Nice. Are you a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
GK: Of course, absolutely. 100%.
BN: There ya go. It almost sounds like you’ve got Cardinals ink. Like, yeah, of course, I’ve got an Ozzie Smith back mural.
GK: I don’t have the full Cardinals face tat yet. But it’s coming soon.
BN: [Laughs] That’s great. Taking over for Gary Parrish, who as you know is big deal in Memphis, pulling huge shares, what’s your approach when it comes to filling big shoes like that?
GK: First of all, I do want to give a shout-out to Gary. Gary was very nice through the process and congratulated me and reached out. I thought that was really cool of him. But as far as filling those shoes, just be as informative, as entertaining as he is. I know that’s simple. I know that’s an easy way of putting it, but Gary was so popular for a reason; he put out good content and people enjoyed it. He had a genuine back and forth with his audience. His audience latched on to what he was putting out. I guess that’s as best as I can put it. That’s what I plan to get done as well. And also, I think that Gary has a love for this city that I have as well. I think that we’re similar in that way.
BN: The cliché of you never want to be the guy who follows the guy. I’ve always thought that’s total BS; I don’t want to be the guy who never gets an opportunity. What is your thought process when you hear someone say you never want to be the guy following the guy, because in your situation, you’re the guy following the guy?
GK: I would say that I don’t think about that in the grand scheme of things. I’m not going to lose sleep over opportunities I get. I know that it’s tough at times to follow a guy who has been so successful in whatever industry it may be. But I tell those people, I’m going to do a fantastic job as well. I guess that’s where I’ll go with it.
BN: What do you want your show to sound like?
GK: First of all, genuine. That’s where you have to start with this thing. I think there’s a lot of people coming up through the ranks that try to find their voice. I feel like that’s something I’ve done a good job of, I’ve found my voice. I have a personality that will absolutely shine through. I don’t want to be overly serious, but I love just talking ball.
But also, as far as the sound day-to-day, I love more so than a lot of people in the city, talking with players, with coaches, people inside the locker rooms, people that are connected still to whatever sport they’re in. I certainly feel like I have some good connections there. I feel like I can break down some barriers in talking with those guys that a lot of people can’t. I feel like that’s something that people will really like as far as my sound is concerned.
BN: You played ball. You know it very, very well. You could get really intricate with it if you wanted to. How do you balance not getting too crazy with the details, but also not being basic to a fault?
GK: I think the biggest equalizer there is if I’m going to dive into some deep ball talk, if I’m talking about the Philadelphia Eagles run game for example, I’ll say what I’m going to say and then I’ll explain it. I’ll try to bring people in there with me. I try not to get carried away when it comes to blocking schemes and who had a down block here, who was pulling there. I try to stay away from stuff like that. But I feel that listeners are a lot more moldable and understanding than some people think.
BN: Who do you like in the Super Bowl, Eagles or Chiefs?
GK: The Chiefs looked very good in the AFC Championship against the Bengals, but when I just sit back for a half second and think about the situation, Patrick Mahomes has a bum ankle. The Eagles pass rush got after Brock Purdy to the point that he got knocked out of that game. They got after Josh Johnson to the point that he got knocked out against the Eagles.
I just feel like the Eagles pass rush mixed with the rest of that defense, they’ve done a good job of building that secondary. They have a MVP-caliber quarterback this year, who will finish in the top five in MVP voting. Their offensive line is great. They’re just so complete. I don’t know if the Chiefs are as complete a team. I feel like the Eagles will be able to get after Patrick Mahomes and bother him in ways that he hasn’t been bothered through the playoffs. But we will have to see. This is definitely going to be an interesting back and forth.
BN: What do you think are the top-3 most popular teams or sports in Memphis?
GK: We have a very, very passionate audience, and certainly I think the Grizzlies audience has grown a lot. It’s catching up and it might be there right now. But we have a very passionate audience when it comes to Memphis Tiger basketball. That’s the truth of the matter. The city loves following recruiting. The city loves the AAU circuit. The city loves everything like that.
Since we’re in the Southeast, since we have a footprint of a lot of different college football teams, and obviously the University of Memphis in town, I’d put college football up there. But really close, as it always is, is the NFL. The NFL is a year-round topic as well just because of how national it is. We don’t really have a defined fan base here. I guess Cowboys, Steelers, maybe a little bit of Titans sprinkled in there. I’d say those are really at the top.
BN: Going back to your playing days at Memphis, what was your experience like playing on the team?
GK: When I came in, there were 29 guys in my recruiting class, I was easily the 29th. Granted I did get a scholarship. Obviously, I had to pay for my first summer. That was a little bit different. I came in and I had to really, really grind for everything. I came in at 260 pounds. I had to get myself up to 310. I had to play different positions. I played left tackle in high school. I had to move myself to center and then eventually guard. It was an uphill grind the entire time. I learned a whole lot and honestly, it gave me the pride in my work and the work ethic in general that I have today. I’m glad for that time, no question.
BN: Who are a couple of the big name players from Memphis that went on to the NFL while you were still there?
GK: Oh, how much time you got? I’m just kidding. Jake Elliott. Bobby McCain. Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor Jr. Tony Pollard. There’s more where that came from. There’s a few more that got through, Wynton McManis spent some time in the NFL. We had some really good talent on those teams, ‘13 to ‘17. That’s why we won as much as we did.
BN: How about Tony Pollard, man? It’s really cool to see how his career keeps growing and growing.
GK: He was a guy — Mike Norvell was my second head coach. We always had some questions, ‘Why is he not getting as many totes?’ Obviously, we had Darrell Henderson Jr. in that backfield, Patrick Taylor Jr. in that backfield, so we had to sort of balance that out. But we always knew what he was capable of. The fact that he can get out there, play in the slot, catch some balls, run outside, get into that sort of zone scheme that the Cowboys can run, get him out on the edge into space. We always saw that. But honestly, it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t have all of those body blows in college, because that tends to help out running backs these days.
BN: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s a random question, but I just have to know, your Twitter background picture where it’s a guy and a girl at a baseball game or something. If you know what I’m talking about, I have to know the backstory of that.
GK: [Laughs] Well, honestly, I find it to be a funny picture, first of all. That’s the background story in general. But I have a lovely fiancée, and I find myself explaining a lot of sports situations to her, discussing my day-to-day life with her. I just feel like that’s me, I guess. I feel like it’s just a funny representation of what I go through with my fiancée day-to-day.
BN: [Laughs] I love it, man. That’s great. Do you have a marriage date?
GK: September 30 is the marriage date. I told her, try to stay away from fall weddings and she came back to me five minutes later and asked if September 30 was okay. It looks like the first battle I’ve lost.
BN: [Laughs] Ahh man, that’s funny. I also need to know the name of the dog in the background of your Twitter picture there.
GK: So I have two dogs now. I have about 185 pounds worth of dog at my house, both Great Pyrenees. One is named Nola. She’s the girl, and then Motley is the boy.
BN: Are you a Mötley Crüe fan? Where does Motley come from?
GK: He’s actually a rescue. He was named previous to us rescuing him.
BN: Oh, gotcha. It might be a weird time to ask about your future when you just got a big opportunity, but when you think about the next five years or so, what do you want it to look like?
GK: As far as the gig I have, 4:00-7:00 PM, that’s just going to be a massive part of my life and obviously going to be my A-priority the next five years. But also within that, I really do think that some opportunities as far as maybe college football games, color analyst, those type of things. Helping out in the community in general away from the studio, that type of thing. But I feel like the professional opportunities will widen a tad bit and I’m looking forward to it.
BN: When you were transitioning from football to sports radio, who were a couple of the sports radio hosts or TV personalities that you enjoyed?
GK: What’s interesting and kind of funny is I know a lot of people will smack him down, but over the years, especially earlier, probably a little bit less now, but I think Colin Cowherd is a guy that I always watched growing up that I had some appreciation for. And yes, he’s wrong. And yes, there’s a lot of people that go after him for various things. But I feel like the engagement that he has is pretty nice. But also in town, let’s be honest, the truth of it is the guy I’m following. When I didn’t have my 3-6 show, I listened to Gary a lot. I thought he did a fantastic job. He was the guy in town that I certainly appreciated and thought the world of as far as the show was concerned.
BN: What are some of the things that get you to listen to a show if you’re driving around, and what gets you to turn away from a show?
GK: That’s tough because I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to sports radio. I generally give people a longer shot. I think when we’re just speaking generally, someone who’s informative and engaging, no matter what content they’re putting out. I know a lot of people will say they like the bits, they like segmented items that bring them back every day. I think there’s something to that as well. But if you’re informative, engaging, I’ll listen to anything you have to put out there.
On the flip side of that, if you hear a bunch of errors. If you hear a bunch of people slipping up. If there’s no point to the conversation being had, if there’s no sort of end goal — and that goes with the engaging part of this whole thing — I feel like that would be the time where you may switch stations. I feel like that’s a pretty long-winded way of saying you stay around if it’s informative, engaging. You don’t if it’s not informative and engaging.
BN: Going back to your football days after college, what was it like in the AAF? Just that year and how the league was shut down, what was that like, man?
GK: It was interesting to say the least. I got cut right after minicamp. That’s the truth of the matter. I got signed to the inaugural team, and then was cut directly after minicamp. I guess I wasn’t big enough, whatever it may be. But it was not a good experience. To be completely frank with you, it was bad for most everybody involved. They didn’t have a practice field all figured out. Everything was pretty spur of the moment. After I got done, they sent me a bill for the physical I took previous to minicamp. It was just a bunch of errors stacked on top of it.
Obviously, I got cut early and moved on and found my role, but there’s a lot of good guys I know that got cut from that league and couldn’t really land on their feet for a while. Didn’t get paid, didn’t have anywhere to go for a moment. Obviously, some of them found their way, some didn’t. I just thought that that operation in general, and I know this is getting serious and a little tough, but that operation in general was very disappointing to see about how ill-prepared they were.
BN: I just thought of Mark Schlereth, a former offensive lineman. He once talked about being scared during his NFL career. He was a guy that wasn’t highly recruited, wasn’t highly drafted and he was just scared that he was going to get replaced or get cut. I think about your football career and how you explained it where at Memphis you’re one of the last guys on scholarship. You go to the AAF, you’re cut. I don’t know if that builds a fear that might be a good thing with what you have now in sports radio, where it’s like, I got to prepare or the next guy is going to take my spot. Do you feel like that at all?
GK: Yes, I do. I think I would relate it to my fiancée is always telling me you never give yourself credit. You never sit back and enjoy and give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. I say I don’t think there’s time for that. If you’re giving yourself credit that means you’re patting yourself on the back for a job well done. I hate to say it like this, but the job’s not finished, right? You have to move forward day to day like the job’s not finished. I would relate it to that. I think there’s absolutely a part of me that feels that way.
The Chiefs & Eagles Have Super Bowl Game Plans, How About You?
“The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either.”
When it comes to preparation, I usually hold off. I’m a procrastinator’s procrastinator. It sounds better if I say; “I’m driven by deadlines,” but the truth is, I just generally put things off until they absolutely have to be checked off the list. If your goal as a producer is to have a great post-Super Bowl show, don’t be me, you best start working now.
There are many things that complicate booking guests for a Super Bowl reaction show. The obvious is that you have no idea who is winning the game. But, beyond that, you have no way of predicting what will be the biggest story coming out of the game. It could be anything from overtime to a blowout, halftime show debacle, officiating blunder, or even a surprise retirement announcement.
With that in mind, there are some strategies for targeting guests. With these, though, working ahead is paramount. Most anyone that is going to have enough insight to improve your show will be slammed in the hours following the end of the game.
Strategy 1: The Game Participant
This is a big risk, big reward strategy. It is also one that is only available to a select group of shows. If your show is nationally syndicated, in a very large market, or home market for one of the teams, you have a shot here. If not, the odds are not in your favor. The team’s media departments are as busy as anyone during a Super Bowl run. They aren’t likely to help a show they’ve never dealt with during that whirlwind of action.
I am reminded of a friend of mine who worked as the media relations director for a mid-major basketball team that sprung a huge round two upset and advanced to the Sweet 16. Needless to say, he was swamped overnight with interview requests for his coach. He told me every station led with “ESPN Radio” then mumbled the part about being in Puyallup, Washington. It never hurts to ask, but understand it is a long shot.
Strategy Two: Local Player Not In The Game
This can be a really solid idea for both previewing the Super Bowl and the Monday after the game. If you are in a local NFL market, or if a local college or high school star is in the NFL, consider him as an analyst. Who better knows what happens in an NFL game than an NFL player? Bonus points if he has been a Super Bowl participant in the past.
Don’t underestimate how many NFL players are thinking about life after football. One of the dozens of roles as NFL analyst at a major network is an excellent retirement plan. You don’t have to have a Hall of Fame jacket for those gigs, but you do need to be good on air. You might be surprised by how many players will agree to an interview with that in mind.
Strategy Three: The Trusted Analyst
Every network has all their biggest voices either In Phoenix or in the studio for the game. These are people that know the interview game and have plenty of experience. This strategy comes with some obvious hurdles; it turns out the networks paying the analysts to be on site keep them rather busy. While they might have been happy to join your show the Monday after Week Three, this is a different animal.
One other factor you should consider in this strategy is the fact that Sky Harbor airport will be one of the busiest in the world Monday morning. Many of the analysts will be scrambling home to start their off season as well. If your analyst is on the move, travel delays can wreck your whole plan.
Strategy Four: The Pop Culture Angle
Oftentimes the biggest talking point coming out of the game is one of the things happening outside the actual play on the field. If you watch Super Bowl Twitter, the biggest traffic moments are people joking about a slow starting Star Spangled Banner “hitting the over” or how bad the halftime show is. Regardless of the act, it has become the default position that the halftime show is awful, even when we all think they are pretty good. 50 Cent hanging upside down will forever be a meme.
Commercials are going to be a massive talking point after a game, especially if the game doesn’t quite deliver. Who is the voice that can talk to your audience about everything from Rihanna to a Taco Bell commercial? There is the inherent risk of alienating the “talk more sports” guy with this type of guest so, as you should with any guest, make certain they are entertaining.
The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either. Communication between hosts and producers is critical. Have a plan, work ahead and be on the same page.
Most of all, try to enjoy the game – and take the Chiefs and the points.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.