Summer 1997

3's the Charm
TV-3 Alumni Recall Their Big Break,
Bloopers and All

Chrys Peterson ('87) remembers that her voice used to sound like a Smurf's. Steve Buckhantz ('77) recalls the night he reported that a bunch of teachers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. And it's unlikely that Steve Leeolou ('78) will ever forget the cow that wandered into the studio one morning.

But the most overriding memory of these JMU alumni is how Harrisonburg's ABC affiliate, WHSV TV-3, gave them their first shot at breaking into the world of TV journalism.

"Everything; it just meant everything," says Tracey Neale ('89), reporter and co-anchor of the 10 O'clock News at WTTG, Washington, D.C.'s FOX Channel 5. Her first story, or "package" in the lingo of TV journalism, was a fall festival in West Virginia. "It wasn't hard news. But it was a chance to work as a reporter so it didn't matter," Neale says.

Chrys Peterson ('87)

Announcing the weather was the opening that gave Toledo's CBS-affiliate WTOL news anchor Chrys Peterson ('87) her first opportunity to exercise some on-air composure.

On the first night of Peterson's career at TV-3, she turned to the monitor where she expected to see herself in front of the weather map. Instead, Peterson found herself standing before a J.C. Penney commercial pitching men's suits. That's also what viewers saw. Dumbfounded for a moment, she looked back at the camera. "I just said, 'Well, that's really nice.' It can be trial by fire," she says, "but it is a really good lesson."

Perhaps the all-time bizarre blooper belongs to Steve Leeolou ('78). One of his early jobs was to do the local news cut-in during Good Morning America. At the time WHSV had poor air conditioning, so a large patio door was often left open to keep the studio and camera equipment cool. Early one morning, just as Leeolou was going on the air, a black-and-white cow lumbered in and parked itself between Leeolou and the camera.

Steve Buckhantz ('77) and Tracey Neale ('89)

Photo by Tammy Hoffer

"I was too young to try to ad-lib something," he says now from his office in Greensboro, N.C., where he is president, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vanguard Cellular Systems, one of the largest independent nonwireline cellular phone companies in the United States. "I was just mortified."

Leeolou ignored the cow and completed the broadcast straight-faced. Once off the air, "I almost collapsed," he says. It was "real calamity television."

"Steve Leeolou and I were the first [TV-3] interns ever from Madison College," says Steve Buckhantz ('77), who for the last nine years has been the top sports personality for WTTG FOX Channel 5 in Washington, D.C. "Leeolou did the 11 o'clock news, and I did the 11 o'clock sports and weather."

So the two shared the horror one night, when, Buckhantz admits, "I made the largest gaffe of my career." Buckhantz had rushed into the station and pulled a piece of wire copy announcing that Kareem Abdul Jabbar would play the remainder of his career in Los Angeles. "I was in a rush. I told the director, 'This is one of my stories.'" He went on the air and began reading the story. Today Buckhantz quotes the wire copy from memory: "'The Lakers, who were beaten by the LFT teachers and officials of a parent organization ...' I realized that wasn't right and looked over at Leeolou, who had the most horrific look on his face. I just kept going and it kept getting worse. Finally I realized [the Associated Press] had changed stories in midsentence. I was in a different story.

"And when I got home," he says, "there were my roommates. 'Boy those teachers are really tough,' they said. That was the worst ... That's where I learned you always read your copy all the way through."

All of these experiences are lessons that have helped pave the way to success for JMU's TV-3 alumni.

Today Buckhantz' high-profile success at WTTG includes hosting the weekly Sports Extra and, during football season, co-hosting the weekly pre-game Redskins Playbook with former 'skin Jeff Bostic and the live post-game Redskins Playbook. He announces a radio show in the morning on DC101 and AM1260, is the official play-by-play voice of the U.S. Naval Academy football team and continues extensive free-lance play-by-play assignments for professional and college teams, including an occasional JMU game, on HTS.

The now-confident and poised Peterson has won a local news Emmy for her stories on breast cancer for the Toledo CBS affiliate, where, she says, "there has been a big push for civic journalism." She's involved in many local events like the Toledo Race for the Cure, does a monthly breast cancer story and started a Buddy for Life program through which women pair up to remind each other to do breast self-exams. Peterson also gets to have some fun. Her Chrys Back Stage series, playing off the CBS initials, took her behind the scenes with Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News, CBS This Morning, Late Night with David Letterman and a soap opera in which she made a brief appearance.

Leeolou, who left broadcasting in 1983 after his third news anchor position to take the entrepreneurial plunge with Vanguard, says the lessons in composure and thinking on his feet still pay off. Today he's also chairman of the board and CEO of Inter€Act Systems, a member of the board of directors of International Wireless Communications Inc., charter director of North Carolina Electronics & Information Technologies Association and serves on the boards of several civic organizations.

Since leaving JMU and TV-3, where he worked with Buckhantz and Leeolou, filmmaker Steve James ('78) won an Oscar nomination and national acclaim for his documentary, Hoop Dreams, and has gone on to produce Prefontaine, a documentary about the legendary track star Steve Prefontaine.

Chief WDBJ meteorologist Robin J. Reed ('78), meanwhile, has gone on to become what many southwest Virginia viewers regard as "the Willard Scott of the Roanoke area."

The successes of JMU's TV-3 alumni add up to ready-made motivation for today's broadcast journalism students, who join - or hope to join - the station's production, marketing and news staffs as interns from the School of Media Arts and Design.

"I'd say over the last 18 years, half of the station's staff has come from JMU," says Bob Starr, head of JMU's Media Production Center.

"I have been overwhelmed with the quality of the people who have come here," says WHSV General Manager Tracey Jones. "[JMU] provide[s] us with some great talent."

Starr and alumni alike agree that TV-3 offers a chance to learn all facets of what goes into making a TV news broadcast.

The career of former intern Pam Branner ('90) is a case in point. TV-3 sports anchor "J.J. Davis taught me everything I know about shooting," she says. "He's definitely the man who provided me with the right direction."

That direction took her to a production job with Sunbelt Video, working on its Inside Winston Cup Racing show for the Nashville Network.

"They hired me to be a production assistant but when they found out I could shoot they sent me to a race," she says. In 1996, she got a job as a producer with ESPN-2's RPM 2night, a daily show covering NASCAR. Today she flies around the country from race to race and in 1996 won the Miller Lite Motorsports Journalism Award of Excellence for a story that explored the philosophy needed to win on the track and the "zone" champion drivers achieve.

"No doubt about it," she says. "If I had to start over, I'd do the same thing. You could do everything at Channel 3."

Having hands-on experience in all facets of broadcasting is a big plus, says WTTG's Neale. "You learn to shoot, write and edit, and how to do it quickly," she says. "When you've been a shooter, even if you weren't a good shooter, you have a better understanding of what goes into it."

The nice thing about a small station and a relatively small community is that viewers are more forgiving, Peterson says. "People know you are young and are trying hard," she says. "I'm really grateful for the community there." She still cringes when she hears her early 20s voice, the one Channel 3 viewers heard. "I have so much better control now," she says. "I just sounded like a Smurf."

Pam Stevens ('84)

Photo by Tammy Hoffer

Even though Pam Stevens ('84) now works for Larry King, who tirelessly puts on his nightly CNN interview show, she still marvels at the people she worked with as an intern at TV-3.

"I saw people work really hard under a lot of pressure but they were always gracious," she says.

The ethic she saw at TV-3 has served her well. As the producer who books guests as disparate as Newt Gingrich and Dennis Rodman for King's show, Stevens knows something about pressure. One night at 6 p.m., her guest backed out three hours before the broadcast, but Stevens managed to put together a show featuring Chastity Bono and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Current TV-3 reporters and anchors Channa Brooks ('96) and Brian North ('92) voice sentiments similar to those of their colleagues who have moved on to higher-profile assignments.

"It has meant a lot working here because it is so hard to get a job, especially in sports," says North, who has worked at TV-3 nearly five years. "It is a great opportunity to still be learning on the air and covering big-time sports."

Brooks says she's already seen a vast improvement in her work. Yet she acknowledges she has a long way to go and plans to make the most of the opportunity TV-3 has given her. She's still looking for her on-air voice and style.

"I want to be as real a person as I can be," she says. "I want to come across as I really am." She can take Buckhantz' success and words as encouragement.

"In that kind of market you can make . . . mistakes," he says. "I take pride ... that Steve [Leeolou] and I were the first interns ever to go over there and that we helped pave the way for Madison interns and aspiring journalists.

"I still have a picture on my desk of me sitting at the news set, and I look at it often to remind myself of where I started," Buckhantz says.

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