Lakeland serves as training ground for top sports talent
BEMIDJI - It was the prospect of directing an entire television sports department that led Dave Schwartz to accept a Lakeland News job offer over two others.
"Lakeland gave me the opportunity to anchor every night and report as much as I wanted to," Schwartz said. "It was an amazing opportunity for me."
Schwartz, now a sports anchor/reporter with KARE 11 in the Twin Cities, served as the Lakeland sports director from 2002 to 2003, before moving on to larger stations.
He is among six former Lakeland sports directors now working in top 45 TV news markets.
"I'm not surprised at all," P.J. Ziegler, now an anchor/reporter at FOX 8 in Cleveland, said of the statistic. Ziegler, working now in the 18th largest market, said training and staff development led by news director Dennis Weimann provided the foundations upon which his career has been built.
"Without the job I had in Bemidji, I never would have made it to the point I am at now," he said.
Lakeland Public Television is one of only a handful of PBS stations that offer live, local newscasts.
Lakeland News began in 1998. Weimann, a former sports reporter and anchor himself, was hired then as the news director and has remained in that role for the last 14 years.
He oversees the news and sports staffs, knowing on-air talent will not remain long at Lakeland News. He asks for a one-year commitment from new hires, most of who come to the station right out of college.
Hiring a sports director, he said, involves finding a candidate with the right attitude.
"It's a big job to do," he said.
Most job offers for college graduates involve being a No. 3 reporter on a sports staff, but Lakeland is seeking someone to lead the sports department and plan coverage.
"I need someone who is definitely independent and can work without a lot of prodding," Weimann said.
Sports directors do everything from reporting, compiling packages, producing the show, shooting their own highlights and anchoring the broadcast five nights a week.
"It's a whirlwind of experience right off the bat, right out of college," Weimann said. "Not everybody can handle that. It takes the right person."
Multiple former sports directors said it was Weimann's commitment to working with them that allowed them to succeed.
Schwartz described it as if Weimann was the training wheels to his bike. He works closely with new hires until, little by little, they rely less and less on his help. After a few months, he hands off and lets employees do the job completely on their own.
"You don't get that at other stations," said Schwartz, now working in the 15th largest TV news market. "He was a phenomenal mentor for me and I owe him my career."
Lakeland's on-air talent comes from throughout the United States. Steve Smith, sports director from 1999-2000, came from California. He landed at Bemidji Regional Airport about midnight one day in February. It was his first time experiencing sub-zero temperatures. He looked out the window the next day and wondered what he had gotten himself into.
Smith, whose father had been a sports anchor in San Diego for 30-some years, said he had long been exposed to the industry but learned many technical skills while at Lakeland, including how to shoot and edit film and how to read from a teleprompter.
Even though he knew the basics of how to present the sports - "keep it local" - Weimann helped him transition into the broadcasting workforce, Smith said.
"He's the best news director I've worked for," Smith said.
Smith always wanted to be in sports. But after a year and a half of applying for jobs, he wasn't getting any interest. He finally resigned himself to trying to find a news job just to get his foot in the door. He sent a tape in to Lakeland applying to work as a news reporter. He didn't hear anything so when the job was posted again, he sent in a second tape. The day Weimann got the tape was the same day the previous sports director quit.
Smith accepted the position immediately, he said, noting that first markets are all about accumulating as much experience as possible.
He recalled covering a wintertime event, for which he had to venture out onto a frozen Lake Bemidji. He was cautiously tiptoeing across the ice when a guy called over to him and asked what he was doing. Smith told him that it was his first time out on the ice and he didn't want it to break underfoot. The local resident, obviously amused, pointed out all of the snowmobiles, trucks and vehicles on the ice, telling him he would be just fine.
"It was great. I look back at it now thinking it's the best job I probably could have had," said Smith, now anchoring/reporting in San Diego, the 28th largest market.
In fact, he actually sent a colleague to Bemidji. Smith was mentoring a reporter in California as she was looking to get some on-air experience. At his advice, she sent a tape to Lakeland and was hired. Jenny Day was a Lakeland news reporter for about three years before leaving in March for FOX 44 in Vermont.
Schwartz came to Bemidji after graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. He had three job offers at the time, including one for the No. 3 spot at a station in Syracuse.
The Lakeland News job offered him the chance to lead the sports department, plan coverage and also to be out in the community getting to know people and being the face of the TV sports department, he said.
"That's the kind of thing that they don't really teach you in school," Schwartz said.
He left Bemidji for Shreveport, La., where he served as sports director at KTAL. His experience at Lakeland, he believes, got him the job.
Five years ago, he moved back to Minnesota and joined KARE 11, the same news station he used to tape while living in Bemidji. He would record Randy Shaver's sports broadcasts and compare them to his own, making notes on how he could improve.
"This is the place where I've always wanted to work," he said.
Ziegler worked for Lakeland for nearly two-and-a-half years, covering a variety of local and regional sports, including non-traditional sports such as fishing. His job experience varied from covering college hockey and baseball to high-school gymnastics to human interest stories.
"It's those stories now that everybody is looking for in the sports world," he said.
Ziegler came to Bemidji after graduating from Kent State University in Ohio, admittedly a little intimidating by all the facets of the sports director position. Ziegler said Weimann worked with him as he stepped into the job.
"It was almost like having another year of classes strictly focused on sports broadcasting," he said.
Ziegler left Bemidji to become the sports director for WVVA-TV in Bluefield, W.V. Five years later, he returned to FOX8, where he had interned while he was in college.
Despite his career moves, Ziegler said he has never forgotten the Lakeland News staff.
"They certainly are a part of me, a piece of me," Ziegler said. "Without them ... I wouldn't be in the position I'm in today."