ATLANTA–The HBCU Gameday broadcast studio has been operational for less than a year and from the very beginning it has never stayed on script. This wood and metal backdrop peppered with lights and paraphernalia has mostly put aside sports to focus on the conversation that is gripping our country. COVID-19. It’s doing it in places that it was never intended to be.
For the past two weeks, part of the live coverage for WSB-TV 2 in Atlanta has originated from our studio. My wife, Nicole Carr, is an investigative reporter for the news channel. Despite the constant mobility of a television reporter, she’s been ordered to work from home like everyone else. That’s quite an adjustment for someone who’s accustomed to covering events and interviewing people in person all over the Atlanta Metro.
She’s fortunate that the HBCU Gameday studio was built in our garage last summer. That’s something I’ve mainly kept from the public because we wanted the grand perception that our studio was nestled somewhere in “The A.” But now that Jimmy Kimmel and every other major broadcaster is coming to you from their living rooms, it’s a great time to say that we were ahead of the curve all along.
Kid free zone
Our initial thought was to let her work from the studio so she could have some peace and quiet from the children. The quarantine had forced us into homeschooling our nine and six-year-old children. It would be quite the spectacle to be on a Zoom interview with the MARTA CEO with your children interrupting to ask about trapezoids and parallelograms. Then there’s the five-month-old who is willing to burst out into a cacophony of tears and wailing on demand. She needed a quiet zone to adjust to her new virtual interviewing process and the studio was the only option.
When the studio is not in production with HBCU Gameday content it serves as my workspace. I edit videos, make phone calls, podcast, write and kick back to enjoy some television every single day. But now that I was a teacher, cafeteria worker, et al, it wasn’t hard to share the space. I was too busy otherwise. Outside of about three interviews per week for HBCU Gameday content, this space was becoming Nicole’s.
From workspace to broadcast space
After a few days with this setup, WSB-TV was preparing to launch a new show devoted to COVID-19 in Georgia. Nicole was ready to break a huge story about homeless people sleeping overnight in the nearly deserted Atlanta airport. Instead of getting together with a coworker to go perform a “traditional” live shot, breaking social distancing measures along the way, it made sense to just utilize our space. So the fun began.
I was already assisting Nicole during the day with her stories. Some interviews required me to literally shoot video of the person she was talking to via something like Facetime. Our modest studio had the resources required to make it look professional so I went to work. I mounted the phone on light stands, placed it against black backdrops, set up delicate lighting for Nicole’s cutaways and made sure the sound was sharp. Brownie points for a veteran husband for sure but that wasn’t the motivation. I’ll squander those away before the day is over. I needed to ensure that the best looking and most professional “at home reporter” was Nicole Carr. That’s just how we roll.
But going live was a different set of circumstances. There are no do-overs or opportunities to run it back. Your heart beats just a little bit faster when your production is live. One mistake in one moment can throw away an entire day’s worth of work. It’s nerve-wracking and exhilarating, all at the same time. The HBCU Gameday Studio was never designed to have the infrastructure of a live broadcast facility, so this was going to be a first. This was on-brand for our studio, it was after all, never supposed to be here at all.
An offer of a lifetime
About three years previously I got an email from a Florida A&M graduate who was a fan of HBCU Gameday’s work. Harlan Penn was a set designer and school teacher working in New York City. He made the incredible offer that one day he would build a set for us at cost because he was a fan of what we were doing. He was formerly a member of the Marching 100 and he felt this was his way of giving back to the culture. While I loved the idea at the time it wasn’t feasible for our company. One hundred percent of our production was done on location and we didn’t have the financial resources to invest in a physical location. So the gesture was a feel-good moment that would marinate in our inbox for the next two years.
Last winter HBCU Gameday was coming off of a disastrous fall business plan to broadcast HBCU football games on Facebook. The idea wasn’t disastrous, just the outcome. We had all of the stars lined up to make it happen but changes in leadership at the conference level nixed our plans at the eleventh hour. An entire summer of work and planning was all for naught. For about half a day, I was ready to quit the entire idea of covering HBCU sports. Every dollar you chased seemed to be snatched away from you like that old guy with the fishing rod on those television commercials. It wasn’t worth the headache. But Nicole was there to tell me to get myself together and carry on.
So my team literally fumbled the ball forward and parlayed that setback into a television deal with Aspire TV. Aspire needed content to help supplement its CIAA football games and we just needed our creative energy to manifest into another evolution of our brand. It would be another year before all came to fruition but the seeds were firmly planted.
New place New space
Over the span of this year, things had changed for our family. We purchased our first home in Atlanta after a few years of renting and we were on the move. Like most transactions in our marriage, I tell Nicole to get whatever she wants and I’ll be happy. I’m no fool. The only two things I really wanted were a basement and a garage that had two doors and not one big door. It makes parking so much easier. She fell in love with a house that didn’t have a basement but it had the two-door garage. My side of the garage was filled with boxes after we moved in and for months the easiest thing to do was to walk right past them.
Cashing in the chips
As springtime settled in I received a follow-up call from Aspire TV and things fell into motion for HBCU Gameday to produce programming for the fall. Oh crap, we need a television studio, we can’t premiere on National TV looking like a Facebook post. Somewhere in my email box, there’s a message from a guy who maybe can help me. And if I move these boxes out of my garage, I think I have the space to make it happen.
I literally hung up the phone from Aspire and emailed Harlan. I told him we had a television deal in the works and if he was still willing to build that set I was ready to take him up on the offer. His energy hadn’t changed and we were quickly exchanging emails back and forth. I sent him photos of the garage, boxes still in place, showing the measurements of the space. I worked in television news for seven years previously so I understand the perception of space.
You literally just need a corner of a room to make some magic happen and Harlan being a professional builder knew this as well. My only rule at this point was that Nicole’s car still had to fit in the garage, so I had one stall to work with.
It wasn’t long before Harlan developed a rendered sketch of his set design and I was blown away. I couldn’t imagine that HBCU Gameday was about to debut on television with a fully designed set. When I ran into Steven Gaither just a few years back, HBCU Gameday was, in essence, a Twitter account. Harlan’s plan was to travel from NYC to visit a friend in Georgia, crash at his place and have the set built in a weekend. We just needed to cover the costs of materials and it was a done deal.
Easy Street has moved
Coach Bill Hayes has a lot of sayings but one that he shared always sticks with me, “Every time they tell me I’ve moved to Easy Street, when I get there they say it’s actually one block over.” After musing over the rendering for a few weeks and sharing it with friends, I received an email from Harlan. He got a really big job promotion and was going to work on the new show “Blacklist” He needed time to prepare for the new job, which was huge for him, and he wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Georgia after all. I was happy for him and not really disappointed because the whole thing had felt too good to be true all along honestly. Not because Harlan wasn’t pure in his intentions, it was just that whole thing about Easy Street in the back of my mind.
Harlan allowed us to use the concept and even provided detailed construction plans if we could find anyone who could build it. I tried cousins, the local theater, Facebook friends and anyone I could think of to help. No dice. We were solidly into summer now and we were going to debut a show one way or another. I took off walking down the street one day determined to come back home with an answer from on high.
I noticed one of my neighbors, who I had never spoken to before, in the driveway working with his electric saw. I’ve heard the humming of his saws drifting down the street for months, but I paid it the same amount of attention as birds and crickets. Just the background noise of life.
So I made a beeline into the driveway of P.J. the neighbor. P.J. is a big burly white gentleman who drives a pickup truck to and fro each day. I’ve seen him playing with his kids in the yard and cutting wood, that’s all I knew of him. He and his wife were talking and they paused as I approached. We exchanged pleasantries and I cut to the chase with my intentions. His wife walked away to let the boys talk and I found my new set designer.
P.J. is actually a youth pastor at his church and ironically he builds the sets that they use on stage. I shared with him the renderings but I wanted him to add his own twist to the concept. It would be foolhardy to employ him to follow someone else’s instructions. I wanted him to feel like an artist as well. He would have more emotional investment that way. For the next few weekends, he would walk the thirty yards that separate our houses and build what has become the HBCU Gameday studio.
Too hot for TV
After producing a full season for three different shows for Aspire TV, it was now time to christen our space with its first-ever live broadcast. (Not counting social media because anyone can do that) It took me just an hour to re-purpose the lighting and remove a few pennants that might show up in the shot. Sorry about that Howard and Spelman, you’ll be back soon.
We were able to run that shot through Nicole’s iPhone, her station uses the LiveU application for its live shots. We got the shot up, put a graphic in the monitor and got everything cleared on the mic check before the show. Everything seemed to be perfect, but from my experience, I know that there is a Gremlin waiting around every corner for you to put your guard down. While we were in standby it hit.
The LiveU application is very processor-intensive and it forced Nicole’s phone to overheat. Imagine leaving your iPhone on your dashboard on a sunny day and the message that you receive. No one panicked and Nicole grabbed the phone from the tripod mount and put it into the refrigerator. It takes ten steps to get from the studio to our kitchen. It was enough to cool the phone down and the app resumed where it left off.
No big deal because the show hadn’t really started yet. Until the phone overheated again. This time it was while her story was airing and we were very close to her coming back on television. If we weren’t able to recover this would have been a failure. By our standards at least.
With no idea of if we were one minute away or ten seconds away this time I made my move. I ran into the kitchen and dropped the phone in the fridge. After thirty seconds it was still in overheat mode so I dropped it in the freezer. The doomsday clock was ticking as I ran back into the studio with a functional phone in my hand. I couldn’t risk mounting the phone back in the tripod with my fingers fumbling over the device when we came back on the air. So I held the phone in my hands for the duration of the shot, mimicking a human tripod.
The human body wasn’t meant to be absolutely still and alive at the same time. Every breath I took caused the phone to jitter, even my thoughts seemed to cause movement. But I used my instincts and experience to give my inevitable movement a rhythm. My hope was that it would appear to have some premeditated artistry. After two talkback questions from the anchor, that felt like ten, we were cleared. The text messages started coming in before I could even put the phone down. Great job! Great set! We loved it!
The set of the future
The next night went off without a hitch, which was a relief but not nearly as much fun. We were now prepared to do what most people can’t. Broadcast from home and not look as if you are in your home. Something that it is a clear asset during quarantine but something I was a little embarrassed about a year ago. Times do change quickly.
For the time being the set will continue to bring you HBCU Conversations and whatever news Nicole is able to uncover here in Atlanta.
The HBCU Gameday studio has found a new life. After seemingly having no life at all. We’ll see you tonight at 11.