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To have and to hold on to news producers

Jun 24, 2002  •  Post A Comment

At any given time, at least one station in each market in the country is likely seeking a good news producer. But finding one is not an easy task. Some news directors are taking a proactive approach by making the news producers they find-or already have-better.
At the Miami Viacom duopoly of CBS station WFOR-TV and UPN affiliate WBFS-TV, News Director Shannon High-Bassalik has devised an informal in-house training program for current and potential news producers.
“I think the trend has been that kids go into college thinking they want to be on air because that’s what they see at home. They don’t see the excitement about being a producer,” Ms. High-Bassalik said. “The reporter wannabes who decide they want to be producers are the ones who want to be in more total control of the product.”
When WFOR and WBFS producers are hired, they are first trained for one to two weeks to become familiar with the computer system and the station’s writing style. The training process is ongoing, with Ms. High-Bassalik leading seminars on production and editing that are given quarterly. News directors are also brought into the production seminar to discuss such topics as how to make things better in a production process. A writing seminar held earlier this year was mandatory for producers, and Ms. High-Bassalik said, “I always see an improvement after we do one of these.”
The producers are also “cross-trained” as Ms. High-Bassalik puts it, which means a 6 p.m. producer may fill in for the 11 p.m. newscast producer if that person is on vacation. The producers also fill in as executive producers.
“By cross-training them in the different newscasts, they grow. So if we have an opening and someone goes to bigger and better things, or when we launched the new 10 p.m. news on UPN, for example, I can promote from within,” Ms. High-Bassalik said. “I am always thinking ahead-who’s the up-and-coming producer?”
She claims her retention rate when it comes to producers is about 90 percent.
“Most producers are at a shop two years and then move on to the next bigger and better job,” she said. “Here, we’ve created a lot of newscasts, a lot of jobs. I created three extra EP positions that we needed. We launched two brand-new newscasts-UPN has a 10 p.m. [weekday] half-hour and a weekend UPN 10 p.m. half-hour news-with two different producers. We expanded our morning newscast. So by having this constant growth at the TV station, we’re constantly promoting people.”
WFOR nightside executive producer Miguel Fernandez is a good example of the station’s practice of promoting producers from within. Three years ago, he was a morning producer-it’s rare to be promoted right from that job to nightside EP.
“It’s a huge promotion,” Ms. High-Bassalik said. “I think the key to keeping producers is keeping them challenged, motivated and giving them opportunities to grow.”
When Mr. Fernandez, 27, graduated from college, he wanted to be an on-air sports reporter. He got an internship with Miami Fox affiliate WSVN-TV.
“Once I interned, I lost that drive to be on camera. I saw the operation behind the scenes,” Mr. Fernandez said. His first official job was as a news tape archivist at WSVN. Later he became a news writer at the station. “Once I started writing, I realized producing was the track I wanted to get into. I just saw the dynamics of it and the control one could have over the newscast and the creative side of it,” Mr. Fernandez said.

In 1997, he came to WFOR as an associate producer, and from there he was trained to fill in as a backup producer on the morning newscast. He said the informal training program was beneficial.
Brent Magid, president of Frank N. Magid Associates, said finding good producers is a big problem, and with the expansion of news outlets in the last couple of years, the problem has gotten worse. He adds that to what he calls the “brain drain,” where highly talented people have left for other industries, reducing the pool of high-caliber producers.
“There are just seemingly not enough good ones to go around,” Mr. Magid said. “With the expansion of product, producers were brought into the business who maybe didn’t have the right experience, credentials or appropriate skills. From our own search division’s viewpoint, it’s exceedingly difficult to find high-caliber producers.”
Mr. Magid said his firm is working with a number of station groups to develop proprietary training programs. “TV station groups are bringing us in to create training courses to develop people into being much better producers and also to the next step-to preparing to be strong news directors.”
The Magid Institute program has always provided different courses that are specific to the development of skills. Training courses last from one to four days. The producer course was developed within the last six months. It began as a training program for young producers within a station group.
“They’re selected and have to apply to be part of the course-it’s an equivalent of sort of giving them a graduate education,” Mr. Magid said. “If they’re selected to excel, they’re seen as up-and-comers. Obviously, the group is investing in them and their skills and their development. There is usually a commitment made on the part of a producer to stay with the company. I think that the larger trend is that people will increasingly see that having better, smarter, more well-trained people is going to be key part of having a successful television station.”
He believes in time that more station groups can offer personnel development to employees to make it more attractive to work there and to stay.
The problem is tougher in mid-size markets such as Tucson, Ariz. Lisa Contreras, news director at market leader KVOA-TV, has had a good retention rate. In the almost three years since she began working there, she has lost three news producers. Many from her station move to nearby Phoenix because it’s a larger market.
It recently took Ms. Contreras five months to fill a producer vacancy. Ultimately, she promoted everyone in the producer ranks up one level and hired a recent college graduate for the entry-level morning associate producer position.
“By choosing to nurture the producing staff we have and in turn reward[ing] them for the work they’ve done for a specific show or schedule, then I had an opening at the entry-level position,” Ms. Contreras said.
Ms. Contreras said she often chooses people who want to work in the market and will stay long term.
“What I tend to do is I not only look for someone who looks for a job in television, I look for someone who is interested in living in this part of the state because it’s attractive for them not just professionally but personally,” she said.
Though young producers move up quickly in this economy and it’s often difficult for them to relate to veteran anchor talent, Ms. Contreras said anchors such as KVOA’s Patty Weiss, who’s been at the station for 28 years, and Martha Vasquez, who’s been there 18 years, share their knowledge with the newcomers.
“The veteran news talent shares a lot of what they’ve learned along the way with the people, who are still like sponges-they want to learn,” Ms. Contreras said. “It’s not just about the differences between veteran talent and the producers, it’s also about the nurturing that goes on between the anchors and producers. I see it every day.”
Matt Hamada, 25, is the 10 p.m. producer at KVOA. He’s graduated from the University of Arizona and right away started working as an associate producer for KVOA’s morning news. He’s been at the station three years now and has already gotten job offers from stations in Phoenix. He is, however, under contract with KVOA.
Mr. Hamada said he doesn’t mind being under contract.
“Our news director puts producers on a contract, and it sounds like people are doing that more, because producers are in such high demand these days that you want to keep your producers for as long as possible,” he said. “Everybody wants to be a reporter, nobody wants to be a producer, so the ones that do, y
ou want to hold on to them.”
While in college Mr. Hamada interned at KVOA, and that’s when he knew he wanted to produce.
“I like creating something, and a producer starts with a blank page every day,” Mr. Hamada said. “I like to make decisions too. I like the idea that I get to decide what our viewers are watching every night.”