Behind the Scenes
As they get a taste of the high-stress world of broadcast news, students in Kansas are finding out that producing a TV show is harder than it looks.
Outside, the sky is just beginning to lighten as morning commuters slowly drive over the rain-washed streets of this Kansas City suburb. But inside a red-brick building, students from Kansas' Blue Valley school district are wide awake, their moods decidedly businesslike. Every week, they shoot, edit, produce, and anchor a live news show, "Good Morning, Blue Valley," that airs Fridays at 7 a.m. on cable TV.
On this Friday morning in April, it's two minutes before showtime. Senior Brooke Benage talks into her headset to two students manning cameras. Then she glances through a plate-glass window into the television studio, where two female anchors fiddle with their clip-on microphones.
At 6:59 a.m., the five students working at the show's control board focus intently on the television monitors in front of them, their hands on a myriad of dials, switches, and levers. Benage, this week's director, adjusts her headphones.
"Ten seconds," she says calmly to the studio. The two male student sportscasters stop joking and straighten up. One of the show's news anchors looks down at her script, whispering her introduction—a last chance to practice her lines.
Benage glances to her right at another girl. "Ready?"
The student nods, her eyes on the clock, her finger on the "play" button of the tape deck.
"OK, roll tape. Roll sound," Benage orders.
The show's introduction beams on the half-dozen monitors in the control room. Up-tempo music booms over the loudspeakers. On the monitors, pupils bound from a school bus, a clock alarm rings, bread pops from a toaster, and a girl's voice says, "This week on 'Good Morning, Blue Valley' ..."
Meanwhile, Benage darts a look at her camera operators. "Camera three, take three. Get ready with a two-shot."
She pauses. "I need a two-shot on camera three."
Two seconds crawl by. "Quickly, please," she says.
The red lights on the cameras blink on, and the cameras swivel toward the anchors, who smile brightly, expectantly. The teleprompter rolls the first two lines of their script. A camera operator points at the anchors and starts the countdown: "5-4-3-2-1!"
Not so long ago, high school students used clunky videocameras and rudimentary editing programs to produce grainy and often poorly reported television news shows. But now, an increasing number of schools are spending tens of thousands of dollars to buy professional-quality digital videocameras, television editing and production equipment, and teleprompters, as well as to build state-of-the-art news studios.
Of about 1,400 member schools in the National Scholastic Press Association, close to 60 operate broadcast-news shows, compared with almost none 12 years ago, according to Tom E. Rolnicki, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based NSPA. And the number of broadcast delegates at the group's national conventions has also doubled, from 100 to approximately 200 in recent years.
Rolnicki says two main reasons account for this national trend: First, the technology has improved, dropping the cost of high-end digital equipment, which is also now easier to use. The second is that television news has carved out a significant niche in schools, and its presence has made school administrators more aware of the potential value of student broadcast journalism.
The Los Angeles-based Channel One Network, for example, produces a daily, advertiser-supported news show watched by 8 million students in 12,000 schools nationwide. CNN also airs a daily show, "Student News," used by teachers across the country as part of their classroom lessons.
Students can also participate in CNN's news-training program, which teaches them the basics of broadcast journalism. The Atlanta- based cable network offers workshops in television production as well.
Blue Valley's broadcast program—which draws students from the district's four high schools—started three years ago. Since then, district students have won a half- dozen prestigious NSPA-sponsored national awards in news, features, and sports for their weekly live show, as well as for "Blueprints," an hourlong, monthly newsmagazine program. Both shows are broadcast on a local cable channel.
As this school year starts to wane, the members of the 18,000-student district's latest "news team" have become more adept and sure of themselves in creating and producing "Good Morning, Blue Valley."
But as in the real world of broadcast news, problems crop up, last-minute changes need to be made, and there's always one scary moment when everything goes wrong.
Step back to the Monday before the show aired that rainy Friday morning. This is when the show's behind-the-scenes work gets started.
On this early morning, the students already have a good jump on the program. A few have already shot footage for their stories, and several more have interviews lined up. But much more still needs to be done.
At 7:30 a.m., about 15 students gather in a classroom in the red-brick district building. Several television monitors, two digital editing machines, and other equipment take up space on each side of the room. Posters of the movies "Broadcast News" and "Network" adorn the white walls.
At 8:23, broadcast-technology manager Bruce McRoberts, their teacher, glances at his watch and says, "OK, guys, you got to start moving."
Some students crowd into a nearby room, where they start hauling out cameras and other equipment, then head out into the early-morning sunshine. Others work before a slew of television and computer monitors, editing equipment, and audio boards.
Later that morning, sophomore cameraman Chris Pearson drives to Lakewood Elementary School to shoot the school's Earth Day celebration. Senior Megan Connor meets him, and they immediately get to work.
Pearson tapes children as they dig in the school garden, and Connor grabs two others for interviews. She attaches a clip-on microphone to a 5th grader's shirt. But something's wrong. The microphone is dead. She and Pearson check the battery, plug and unplug wires, but nothing works. As a last resort, Connor uses a hand- held microphone.
Back in the studio, McRoberts has a cellphone pressed to one ear and his office phone held to the other. On one, he's talking to a student who's desperately looking for a student golfer he's supposed to tape, but can't find. On the other, McRoberts is scheduling a site visit for a student story.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, senior Quin Kelley is interviewing a deaf student at Prairie Star Middle School. But she can't seem to get more than one- word answers from the boy, who's accompanied by a sign-language interpreter. After learning that he likes to chat online, Kelley asks, "What do you talk about when you're on the Internet?"
"Girls?" Kelley asks.
"Sometimes," he says and smiles enigmatically.
At 3:20 p.m., Kelley rushes to an after-school job. But senior Kevin Bartel, her cameraman, stays and shoots footage of the deaf student at track practice. Bartel crouches on the track with his camera as athletes race by, but he doesn't flinch. He's used to being close to the action.
There was the time a softball whizzed by his ear, missing him by two inches. Another time, Bartel got pegged by a soccer ball. But he didn't drop the videocamera.
"I saw it coming, but I kept filming because it was a good shot," he says, and grins. "I like to get in their faces, in the middle of everything."
Today is about getting as much done as possible to head off a bottleneck of work on Wednesday afternoon. All the students understand this. But a sense of urgency hasn't kicked in yet.
At 7:45 a.m., Connor, this week's producer, starts to write the script and talks to two students about their stories. Junior Brent Coffman sits at an editing machine, figuring out what he still needs for his 2½-minute story on a retiring administrator.
"This is the hardest part, thinking about how to put it all together," he says. Coffman adds that at first, the technology was intimidating. "You come in here," he gestures at the equipment, "and you think, 'whoa.' "
Meanwhile, McRoberts talks to junior Rachel Budd about her story. "We've got two hours until we get there. I want you to think about how to set those shots up," he says.
"Do I get to put it together?" she asks.
"By when?" she says.
He looks at her pointedly. "Today," he says.
Budd laughs nervously. "You're kidding, right?"
"This is your chance to do it like they do in the big time. Shoot it, edit it, have it for the five o'clock news," McRoberts says.
At 12:45 p.m., the reporter/cameraman team of Connor and Bartel shows up at Indian Valley Elementary School for a story about babies and toddlers learning sign language. Inside a bright room, fuzzy-headed babies crawl. Toddlers scurry from one corner to another.
Holding an armload of equipment, Bartel steps gingerly around the children and sets up lights. Connor hands a clip-on microphone to a mother she's interviewing. Again, the microphone doesn't work.
"Is this the same mike we had yesterday?" Connor asks. With a sigh, she uses the hand-held microphone again, placing it close to the woman's face. The interview goes well— the mother talks easily and candidly.
Then her daughter almost topples into the lighting equipment and sideswipes Bartel, who's videotaping the interview. Letting out a relieved whoosh of breath, he steadies the lights.
At another elementary school, student reporter John Morgan stands outside, camera in hand. He's trying to interview two pupils before the final school bell rings and hundreds of children stream through the doors and run right through his shot.
Morgan quickly asks a 5th grade boy and girl questions as cars rumble so noisily at the nearby curb that it's hard to hear the children's answers. As a hot sun beats down, Morgan begins to sweat. He waits several times for parents to pass in front of his camera before continuing.
Afterward, he says: "I have a new respect for the people who do this professionally. It's harder than I thought it would be."
Back in his office, McRoberts has recently returned from accompanying Budd to a school for her story. Shaking his head, the teacher realizes that Budd forgot to do her "stand-up," when a reporter on camera introduces or ends a story. She'll have to go out there again, he says to himself.
McRoberts, who once produced and directed sports and public-affairs programs for a cable company, wants to add a beginning-journalism class as a prerequisite before students work on the show. He wants them to hone their news sense and learn how to better craft a story: how to set it up, shoot it, and know what questions to ask before they go on site. That would help them cut back on wasted footage and production time.
Since the program already requires two classes, though, McRoberts realizes it would be hard to add that prerequisite.
"We're still in the process of building the program, building the curriculum," he says. "My goal is to give these kids a real-life idea of what life would be like at a real broadcasting facility."
Students must take two classes, Broadcast Technology 1 and 2, before working on the television shows. They learn the basics of shooting video, editing, lighting, and doing voice-overs. Then they're handed videocameras and assigned beats just like real reporters (each student covers an elementary or middle school). Then they're let loose.
As his mind jumps back to this week's show, McRoberts shakes his head, a little anxious now. "Things that should take two to three days are taking three to four," he says. "We're not as prepared as we should be."
If the race to get ready for Friday's show started out as a steady jog on Monday, it's now becoming a sprint. Some students still need to shoot scenes, and few have their stories finished.
At 7:30 a.m., the control room buzzes with activity. Students hunker over the editing stations, digitally revising stories, doing voice-overs, adjusting audio levels. Several students wait in line to use the equipment.
"We still have seven stories to do and only five [editing machines]," McRoberts says worriedly.
Bartel is in a nearby classroom, setting up an elaborate system of lights for an interview. On the set, a student moves furniture around, assembling the set for "Good Morning, Blue Valley." A school employee stands on a ladder and replaces a stage light. Before the morning is over, he has to replace two more.
At the same time, senior Kyle Cook is editing his sports footage. But it's slow going. He keeps playing a shot of a soccer player doing a front flip before she throws the ball toward the goal.
"That is so cool," he says, and rewinds it again.
At 8:40 a.m., three of the students are tired of waiting for the editing machines. They're in the graphics room playing computer video games. McRoberts pokes his head in and says to himself, "I guess this is payback for having them in here late last night."
Later, he says he sometimes gets frustrated when his students goof off. Then, he says, he realizes "that these are just kids. They're 17 years old."
As the morning wears on, sign-language teacher Darcy Beaver walks in for her interview on the story about babies learning sign language. Bartel starts videotaping. Then stops abruptly. Connor, who's conducting the interview, looks at Bartel. He had forgotten to insert a tape into the videocamera. After he slips in a tape, they start again. Then stop. Connor forgot to hook Beaver to a microphone.
"Aargh," Connor says and shakes her head. Beaver clips on her microphone, and the rest of the interview goes smoothly.
At 9:39 a.m., senior Kathy McCleery comes out of an editing room looking stricken. "My voice-over froze," she says. McRoberts calmly reboots the computer, which saved the voice-over.
That afternoon, Bartel and Connor start editing the sign-language story, but get sidetracked on how the administration, they say, doesn't let them broadcast any story showing the district in anything but a positive light.
"It's 'Happy Valley' here," says Bartel sarcastically.
A story on the opening of a new Sonic fast-food restaurant, for example, got axed because it showed students who had cut class. Another story, on locker theft, was given less prominent play in "Blueprints," the district program that showcases some of the best student work.
While some other school district broadcast shows focus on controversial subjects such as student drug abuse and eating disorders, McRoberts says he makes it clear from the start that Blue Valley stories focus on "good kids doing good things."
"This is our niche. This is what we do," he says evenly. "We know we're not going to wow our audience with a teen-pregnancy story, so we have to be really good at telling the stories we do have."
Things are starting to come together, but slowly. Four stories, plus the show's introduction, are in the "can." But six more still need tweaking.
McRoberts looks at Kevin Bartel and Brooke Benage as they edit their stories. He tells them in clipped tones that they need to hurry up. After he leaves, Bartel shares some bad news.
"Brooke, you know all the work I just did?"
Benage doesn't take her eyes away from her monitor as she hurries to finish her story. "It's gone? How'd you lose it?"
Bartel drops his head in his hands. "I don't know."
As if the students weren't busy enough, today is also the show's dress rehearsal. At 9:34 a.m., students man the controls, and the anchors stand by on the set. Still, there's a relaxed air in the studio, a feeling among the students that it's not show time yet. When junior Kathy McCleery gives the weather forecast, she's sipping a super-sized soda.
That relaxed atmosphere disappears when the wrong footage rolls on the monitors. Instead of the baby sign-language video, sports footage comes on screen.
"Stop. Stop!" says Benage, the director. The show starts again. It's 9:39 a.m. McRoberts watches silently, one hand on his chin. McCleery does the weather again, this time while munching on Tater Tots.
Co-anchor Jessica Collins introduces the sign- language story again. The audio plays, but the screens remain black. Benage shakes her head and says, "We're going to try that again. Something isn't patched right."
McRoberts steps in and fiddles with the controls. After a pause, the audio comes back on, but instead of matching footage, the video for a nature-center story rolls on the monitors. No one seems surprised at the false starts.
Collins then introduces the sign-language story for a third time. Video and audio match this time. Benage looks relieved. The next story, on the retiring administrator, runs glitch-free. Things are finally falling in place.
Then students in the control room start to grumble. Footage of a story on a basketball player is missing. Thinking quickly, Benage ditches the plan to run that video and orders the camera operators to focus on the two sportscasters. As one of them begins to speak, he leans forward, squinting at the teleprompter, stumbling over his words.
A few students in the control room arch their eyebrows. McRoberts walks to the set and says to the sportscaster, "You wrote the script, so don't tell me you don't know what it says."
After a few more minutes, the rehearsal ends. Students take off their headphones and gather around McRoberts. With a small smile, he says, "OK, that was moderately awful. That's the bad news."
Some of the students look down. Others smile good-naturedly.
McRoberts continues, "The good news is that you got the bad one out of the way, so tomorrow will be better."
On this day, the technical broadcast skills the students have learned begin to shine. The first two minutes of the first show run like clockwork. Under Benage and Connor's leadership, the anchors stay on message, the students play video footage promptly, and McCleery gives a succinct update on the weather.
After the sign-language video ends, Benage says, "OK, camera two, I need a one-shot."
The camera goes live to co-anchor Lindsay Allison. She's slouched in her seat, not paying attention. People in the control room groan.
"Oh, no. What is she doing?" says Benage, who peers through a plate-glass window at the camera operators in the studio. Allison jumps up in her chair when she realizes the camera is live.
Recovering quickly, she introduces the story on the retiring administrator. The students in the control room roll the video and focus on the next story, and McRoberts strides onto the studio set.
"Pay attention," he instructs the anchors. He starts pacing again, nervously. He stops next to Benage, whose brow is furrowed. "Make sure to give them a countdown," he tells her.
Benage nods, then looks at the script. "I need a two-shot on camera three," she says and leans forward. "That looks good. ... Can you fix that camera a little bit? Just make sure you don't cut off their heads."
The next two stories run smoothly, and senior John Morgan delivers his stand-up on Morse Elementary like a pro.
But then the cameras show the sportscasters in an extreme zoom shot, their faces filling the entire screen.
"Whoa! Fix the camera, fix the camera," Benage yells. She cuts to girls' soccer highlights. Footage of female athletes' bare midriffs come on screen, and laughter ripples through the set.
Benage smiles and says, "Ready, camera one." The camera swivels to sportscaster Brett Coberly. The mood in the control room darkens. Brent Coffman, who's manning the teleprompter, sighs loudly and folds his hands behind his head. Other students stare first at each other, then at Coberly.
One asks, "What is he doing?"
Coberly, a senior, is improvising his stand-up, not following the script on the teleprompter. This throws everybody off. Then he introduces the wrong story and finishes sooner than expected. The crew at the control board scrambles to cue the next story.
The cameras swing back to Kyle Cook, the other sportscaster.
"Sorry for that technical mishap there," he says, smiling sheepishly.
As the show's closing synthesized music booms over the speakers, people take off their headphones and rewind the tapes. The students run two half-hour live shows back to back, from 7 to 8 a.m.
The second broadcast runs a little more smoothly. The anchors introduce the stories articulately and in the right order. The stories run with no audio or video problems, and the sports anchors make fewer flubs. McRoberts says, "I think we're all on the same page for sports now."
After the show ends, the lights in the control room brighten, and the ones on the set are extinguished. The students, looking tired, take off their headsets and stretch. They put away the microphones, turn off the cameras, the audio boards, and the television monitors.
"OK, that wasn't bad," McRoberts says, as the students scarf down doughnuts and swig orange juice. Then they start talking about next week, when they'll do it all over again.
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Vol. 21, Issue 36, Pages 30-37