Tracy Acord Oliver, creative services director at WTAE in Pittsburgh, Pa., shares her thoughts on working from home while continuing to serve her station's community during a pandemic, the skills required to work in creative services, why local stations forge an unbreakable bond of trust and reliability with their audiences and the future of broadcast television.
Edited and Paraphrased for Print
Tracy Oliver, thank you so much for joining voices from the field. It's great to have you here. Let's dive right in. Tell us about how you became interested in broadcasting.
I was blessed at a very, very young age. And I don't take this for granted, because I know people struggle sometimes. I've had friends that have gone through high school, even up into college and said, "I don't know what I want to do," and they've changed majors. I knew early in elementary school. It was radio at first. I think it came from my mother always listening to talk radio. There was something so exciting about this thing that grabbed her attention and kept her attention. It was the essence of communicating that I found fascinating. But I was small at the time, so I didn't get all that in my brain. But something that kept my mother's attention was fascinating to me. I think it was fourth grade, when I decided I want to be in radio broadcasting. And then it changed. I think that change came from watching sports: NFL films. I loved watching the behind the scenes, the the stories in the Olympics of behind the scenes of the people and the athletes and what they went through. And and that's what I wanted to do. And I knew and I was very focused on it. High school, college, and my senior year of college. My last semester, I got a production internship on a local talk show here in town. And I absolutely fell in love. And I went, "Wait a second. You mean, I get to be behind the scenes, and I get to have an idea. And I get to watch and put it together and see the end product?" And I said, "'"Okay, I this is what I want to do."
Beyond the anchor and reporter roles, there are many other ways to tell stories in broadcasting that are equally important, right?
Yes! They are equally important. Nowadays we try very hard to pull back that curtain at times and you are aware that there are people working in the background but before you only saw Walter Cronkite you never saw the people behind the screen. But now, I think we we broke that barrier and now you're seeing these anchors in their houses and their kids running around behind them. So they're very much real people now.
Tell us what a day in the life of your work as the creative services director at WTAE looks like.
So a day in the life right now. It's hard because I have an almost nine-year-old son, so I am a part time third grade teacher, along with being a creative service director. We have been out of the building for over a year now. So that's hard. Because at WTAE we are very lockstep with the news and the news director and the news department. I think to be a really great promotions department, creative service department, you have to be arm-in-arm with the news department. And we are. If I'm in there, it's three, four or five times a day we are talking and we're down there in the newsroom. A lot of people are saying there'll be people that can work from home now. But I don't think creative services will, because I wouldn't want to. When I see the buzz of a newsroom start, and it's a different buzz when breaking news is happening. I know I gotta get down there. I know something's going on. When I see more than two people standing at the assignment desk, something's going on. I don't get that from home. Theres a delay right now. And that delay drives me insane. So it's a lot about more checking in. But there is an electricity that's missing that we thrive off of in the news business. I mean, we're Let's face it, we're all adrenaline junkies. We like that feeling of whatever's happening, we're going to get it done. We like very much collaboration in the news business and in the television business. That's hard when I'm working from my laundry room.
In the last year with the pandemic, there's been so much breaking news - for good or bad. While working remotely, how did your station do it? How did you balance that challenge of not being able to be in the same space with your team and still cover stories, especially stories like the election and news that was breaking all the time?
Microsoft Teams and Zooms helped. We wouldn't have been able to do it without it. We were able to log in remotely. We were be able to talk to each other and see each other and have that connection with people, see what people are going through or seeing what they needed. During the election, we were election central. My phone was stuck to my ear at that point. So, you know, I think there was constant checking and constant asking, "how's everybody doing? What do you need help with?" And the same with news, I was in constant contact with my team. It really is about communication. In breaking news, we were camped out in the newsroom. Now, we camped out over Teams. We were lucky enough that we were able to set up where I could see feeds coming in, especially with the riots or protests. So I was able to look in on our editors and our team was able to look at feeds coming in. That was very helpful. And I reminded my team that, "Hey, guys, as frustrating as it is, can you believe what we've done? We've done the impossible. We are literally sitting in our houses, and we are putting television on the air. If I would have told you last February that everything we're doing in the newsroom, we're going to do from home for a year, you would have said, "Forget it. There's no way. Are you crazy? We've done the impossible. So nothing is impossible now."
How large is the team that you manage, and what are their skill sets? How does somebody get into create services for a television station?
Our team has five people. In creative services, it's a production background, mostly, or in writing. I have two writer-producers, I have a senior editor and I have a commercial production person. A strong production background is usually where it starts, or a strong writing background. So how do people get into it? It's interesting. There aren't specific creative services jobs in journalism school, but a lot of students are already doing creative production work - they just don't realize it.
You've worked in markets all across the country. What are the common threads that bind all those communities together as a broadcaster?
The universal story we're telling is the community story. We're telling stories that are important to the community, because we are the people that are living and working in their community. A cable news network can't replicate that. Local broadcasters are boots on the ground. They're the ones going to the same schools and the same fairs and even in the good times and the bad - even when something is great, the big fair or festival that everybody loves to go to and enjoy the traditions that happen in that community that makes that community unique. Those anchors understand that they understand that. They understand the shorthand of that community. Each community has that. If I'm covering Casper, Wyoming, I understand what rodeos are about. I get it. I understand that tradition. And what makes people so proud of going to a Steeler game. I get it. I get why that's important to people in Pittsburgh. So that's the common thread that I've seen everywhere. That love of community and why it's so important. Why getting it right is important. From the breaking news stories to the corruption stories to the good news stories. This is the place I live. And this is the place I love. And I want you to tell me what's going on here. And the anchors want to get it right, because I live here. I care about what's going on here. My kids are going to the same school your kids are going to. And that's the commonality.
What are some of the most rewarding things that you've done in your career that you're most proud of?
I'm always proud of the golden moment. And what I mean by that is, when you come up with an idea and it's in your head, you're just mulling it and mulling it and it might go through brainstorming with your your team with the news with whoever. And then you see it come to fruition. That golden moment of success. I still love that moment. So that's my foundation. Then it always goes back to those moments of community project hunger during the pandemic, when my station saw the food bank open up, and there were our chopper getting footage of miles of cars of people that needed food. And within a couple days, we put together a telethon. It was our highest one in history - we raised over a million dollars in less than 24 hours. That's something where I'm proud one a broadcaster. That we are able to serve our community in a time when it needed it most. In a time when people were saying, "I didn't know where I was going to feed my children."" Those are moments you can't imagine how proud you are of saying, "Yeah, and we're doing this from our basements. From our kitchen tables.
Then there are the incredible moments like the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in my city. The city that I love, and the city that my coworkers love. We would stay up for days on end and create a promo that touched people's hearts and tried to bring comfort to them. That's a moment where you honor the people's lives that were lost. The decisions that you make where you're sitting there in the newsroom. Things like, "What will this shot feel like to people? Is it too much? Are we honoring this person? Are we going too far here? Should we do this? Should we not do it?" Because we're trying to get it right. We feel that responsibility. And then down to the fun moments where we'll grab a camera and we run overto do a Mother's Day video at a local school and grab kids and said, "What makes your mom's special?" And having the kids laughing and giggling. Those are fun days. It runs the gamut.
Creative blocks are common when you're constantly designing and coming up with new concepts. What do you do to get past a creative block?
It actually happened to me recently. I kept trying, and I kept trying, and the more you chase something further, it goes away from you. I am usually one that has to do something physically or rhythmically. So washing dishes, something where your mind can think but your hands are doing something. I had situation about a month ago. I said to the team, "Alright. You're not gonna be able to get a hold of me. I'll have my phone outside, but I have to go pound ice. I've got to break up the ice on the driveway." And I just pounded and pounded because I was stuck in a writer's block for three days. And I came out of there and I was like, "I got it."" And that's what it was. Just me I have to do a physical activity is what it comes down to. That's usually what does it - a lot of times it's collaboration, too. If I'm stuck on something or something doesn't sound right, I'll read this to my team. Sometimes I call other CSDs at Hearst. They have been my rock. Our group of CSDs are unbelievable. And we have leaned on each other in this pandemic. They have been one of my greatest joys that have come out of it. As a team that was close already, we have gotten even more close.
How have you seen the role of women in the creative services space change in in the time that you became a broadcaster to today?
When I started, there were women in my position, but not many. Creative services seemed to me to be the first crack where women could grow in that position. Now, as my career has grown, general managers can now be females. I'm happy to say we've gone from CSDs to GMs, to now, vice presidents and board members. And that's great. That's where it needs to be. I'm happy and and very grateful and blessed that I am in this company, that is a champion of women and champions of diversity, and taking a very strong stance in it making this equitable for all, as it should be and realizes that it should have been that way all along, and making those steps to make it right.
Starting out, there were a lot of men everywhere. My whole career have been with men - I've been the one female in the group, which I'm very comfortable with. But it has not been a female oriented profession in that sense. And I think that has to do with the technology side. We didn't have a lot of women going to the technology side. I will never call myself an editor. I can edit. But to me, the label of an editor is a completely other level than what I do. So I think that was a lot of it at the beginning when I started. It was a technical side of the field. Now, of course, people edit on their phones. It's very comfortable to females. So I'm glad I see that not being a barrier anymore. And cameras sizes are very small.
Where do you see broadcasting in the next five to 10 years?
In one word: thriving. I see local broadcasting thriving, and that comes from living through the pandemic, I think the pandemic proves just how important the need for local broadcasting is. The research shows where people go when they want to know what is happening in their community. They need that information. Now more than ever, the first place they went, it showed and it was more than just digital. It was they wanted that human connection with people they knew and people they trusted, again, that can't be replicated, that can't be replicated with something that is not that human I know or trust, that person that's not in my community. So I see local broadcasting thriving. It's those moments of severe weather pandemic type. That's something where nobody can do what local broadcasting does.
Tracy Acord Oliver is an experienced creative services director with a demonstrated history of working in the broadcast media industry. Her vast experience in television broadcasting includes storytelling, hands-on video editing, and providing strategic guidance to her team. Tracy graduated with a bachelor of arts (BA) degree with a focus on broadcast journalism from Duquesne University.
Her favorite quotes: "When someone asks, 'what do you do?' Answer: 'whatever it takes!'"
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