Saying thanks

Ten days after I graduated from the University of North Texas, it was time to head to my first ever big boy job interview.

It took a ninth semester of college for me to accumulate the credits I needed to graduate. That final semester included a class I expected to be an add-on at best, and a throwaway at worst: News Producing.

Four years of scattered radio, film, and television classes had left me somewhat aimless. I had come to realize I wasn’t going to be the next Voice of the Texas Rangers. The only other useful skill I’d picked up was DJing for UNT’s radio station, and I knew spinning jazz records wasn’t going to be a serious career option for me.

With time running out to pick a path, I had little idea of what I wanted to do… other than the fact that I knew I did not want to work in local news.

On day one of producing class, that changed.

Maybe it was desperation setting in. Maybe it was the professor’s assurance to us that learning to produce would guarantee us a job one way or another. But probably, it was the realization that news producing required skills and attributes that were tailor-made for me. I was hooked.

So when my teacher, Phyllis Slocum, told my class of 12 one morning that she had a job opportunity for anyone interested, I jumped. She told me a former student was running the news department at a station in Abilene, Texas, and had a producer opening.

After a quick Google search to figure out where in the hell Abilene was, I weighed the idea, talked to friends, talked to my parents. They encouraged me to go for it – on the condition that I wear a suit to my interview. When I explained that probably wouldn’t be necessary – and that I didn’t have one that fit – they made me go to Men’s Wearhouse and buy one.

A couple of emails and an overnighted DVD of my resume reel (yes, a physical copy even though YouTube existed at the time) connected me with Austin Kellerman. Our initial contact gave me no indication of who he was, so when I arrived at KTAB/KRBC on a chilly December morning, just days before Christmas 2008, I was a little surprised to see a 27-year-old bald man wearing a stylish tan leather jacket come to greet me in the lobby.

I was overdressed, but not intimidated.

Over the next few hours, Austin proceeded to sell me on Abilene, Texas with Mexican food, Starbucks, and a car ride around town. He hired me before the day was over, and I got to hold my head up high the entire four hour drive home.

Within a month, I’d start my professional life, with no idea of where it would take me.

The first place it took me was the 10:00 newscast on KTAB, Abilene’s top rated station. I learned to write, edit video, build graphics, and construct my own rundown.

It was a mess. And without the guidance I got, it may very well have stayed a mess.

Austin was hands on, and with his producing experience, he knew exactly what to tell a young and inexperienced producer that would create a foundation for success.

Within nine months, Austin was shaking up our duopoly. Gone were veteran anchors and producers. In their place, came younger on-air talent, and a 24-year-old me that Austin felt was ready to be promoted to Executive Producer of KRBC, KTAB’s poorly-rated sister station.

If my early KTAB shows were a mess, my first weeks on KRBC were a nuclear dumpster fire. We were all trying new things we weren’t quite ready for, and it showed: on the air, and behind the scenes. They were some of the worst newscasts I’ve produced, and God willing, they’ll stay that way.

That’s where Austin’s guiding hand – and his patience – brought us through. He had grand visions for turning KRBC into a winner. I didn’t agree with everything he wanted us to do. In fact, I hated some of it. I grumbled to myself, and I’m certain he heard me more than once. But within a few months, we had rebuilt KRBC from a stodgy, stale news station, to one with the most hip and progressive newscasts we could create with the resources afforded a market #165 station.

While KRBC was rocking and rolling, our parent company Nexstar had eyes on bigger things in our region. Between October 2010 and June 2011, the DFW Metroplex hosted the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the NBA Finals. For each event, the company pieced together a team from its stations in the surrounding area to provide regional coverage. With Austin’s recommendation, Nexstar sent me to all three.

Simply put: The thrill I got covering each is something I’ll never be able to replicate.

I was in a satellite truck outside Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, a place I’ve been dozens of times as an adoring fan, in an Official Media Capacity when my beloved Texas Rangers won their first ever World Series game. I was criss-crossing back and forth between Dallas and Arlington during an historic Texas ice storm as the Packers and Steelers faced off in Super Bowl XLV. And I was in the locker room at American Airlines Center, helping gather postgame interviews of sweaty seven foot men I idolized as the Dallas Mavericks were reversing their fortunes and winning the 2011 NBA Championship.

It became more and more difficult to return to the day-to-day grind of line producing after each of those experiences. It was even more difficult when Austin told our stations in early 2012 that he was departing for the greener pastures of Little Rock, Arkansas.

When he left Abilene, I wondered if I’d see him again, but I felt sure I wouldn’t follow him to Arkansas – even after he told me he’d find a spot for me there if I was interested.

No, my aim was higher: I’d already had a taste of field producing in Dallas, and was sure that was where I wanted to be. After all, it was my home market, and featured the high quality, big market newscasts I’d grown up with.

Less than three months after Austin left Abilene, I took the first job I could get with a Dallas station. I went from the Executive Producer in market #165… to a virtually anonymous writer in market #5.

Had I stayed in Dallas, I’m sure I could have built my career back up in time. But the lack of responsibility at FOX 4 left me bored, something I never felt at my first job. So when Austin Kellerman came calling again with the offer of an EP spot in Little Rock, I was ready to ditch Dallas, just ten weeks after I’d started there, and return to a spot that felt familiar and important.

In hindsight, it almost feels like the first three years working for Austin lasted longer than the most recent six. The Little Rock experiences blur by in my mind. Producing the station’s flagship newscast. Taking on the responsibility of the Sunday morning political talk show. High school football. Dallas Cowboys specials. Countless breaking news events. Special projects. A better understanding of digital media.

My first Emmy.

Austin’s departure from Little Rock and transition into a corporate position is the end of a chapter in his career and life, of course. But it’s the end a chapter in mine, too.

I’ve had the unique experience of spending nearly the entire first decade of my career working for just one person. I’ll never know what my career and life would have been like had I worked somewhere else, for some other boss.

I’ve seen my expectations and assumptions turned upside down. I’ve gone from that 23-year-old college graduate in a brand new suit, to an experienced and confident TV news producer with years of management experience.

And while I have a lot of people to thank, no one has had more of a hand in that than Austin Kellerman.

Thank you, Austin.

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