Inaugural Broadcast Course in Pitt Studios Gives Hands-on Experience to Students

  • Kevin Smith, senior lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program in the Department of English, instructs the inaugural broadcast class at the University of Pittsburgh. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Pittsburgh broadcast television veteran Sally Wiggin (left) joined Smith’s class in March to help students like Prabhav Desai learn how to read news copy at the anchor desk. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Kelly Hammonds, assistant athletic director of broadcast and video production (left) and Elizabeth Martinson, a post-baccalaureate student (right), work together in the studio. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Jason Earle (right), a rising senior and aspiring sports broadcaster, practices interview skills with local news anchor Mike Clark in Pitt Studios. (Kevin Smith)
  • The first-ever broadcast class at the University of Pittsburgh wrapped up in spring 2019, using the new Pitt Studios to train the next generation of storytellers. (Kevin Smith)
  • Top-of-the-line switcher boards and monitors fill Pitt Studios. Pittsburgh-based NEP Group provided resources to help design and equip the space, which will produce live broadcasts for the new ACC Network. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

Kevin Smith was wrapping up a 17-year career in Hollywood writing movie and television screenplays when he decided to move back to Pittsburgh.

“I’m a Pitt guy. I’ve been here for most of my life,” said Smith, who spent the first part of his career working as a reporter, producer and sports anchor in Pittsburgh media outlets.

Upon his homecoming, an opportunity at his alma mater was practically waiting for him: to instruct the University of Pittsburgh’s first-ever broadcast class in the new Pitt Studios — a state-of-the-art facility housed in the Petersen Events Center, thanks to a partnership between Pitt Athletics and the Film and Media Studies Program.

Creating the student experience

Jason Earle, a rising senior studying communications and nonfiction writing in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, was especially excited to enroll in the University’s first broadcast class.

“It’s the class I’ve always wanted here at Pitt,” said Earle.

As an aspiring sports broadcaster, he sought out opportunities throughout college to work with Pitt Athletics as much as he could — from coiling equipment cables on game days to operating the graphics in the control room.

But what was missing was a formal classroom training of the ins and outs of broadcasting.

What helped change that was the creation of the ACC Network, which led to the birth of Pitt Studios. A collaboration with ESPN, the network is set to launch this August. Pitt Studios and facilities at other ACC schools will provide live content for the network.

“We had always been able to give opportunities to a small number of self-motivated student workers and volunteers, but the announcement of the ACC Network was what really gave us a chance to reach out to colleagues on campus to create a unique student experience,” said Paul Barto, associate athletic director for broadcast and video production with Pitt Athletics.

Barto and his team partnered with Randall Halle, the director of the Film and Media Studies Program, who Barto said was an important advocate for getting students involved in the space. And Smith seemed to be the perfect fit to lead the class, which wrapped up its first semester in April 2019 — and already has a waitlist for the fall.

“We’re not focused on how you tell a story about sports. We’re focused on how you tell a story,” said Smith, who has written screenplays including “PRIDE” and “My Brother’s Keeper.”

“The class is drawing students from majors like computer engineering and economics,” he said.

Each Monday morning during the term, the class met in a traditional classroom setting to learn a theoretical element that they could put into practice on Wednesday mornings during their time in Pitt Studios — like anchoring a newscast and working the switcher, changing which feed in a multi-camera setup is providing the images.

And the class came with some perks: Smith often invited some special guests to join in on the class — a major highlight, according to the students.

“Especially to bring in industry professionals like (Pittsburgh) broadcast veterans Ken Rice and Sally Wiggin, it’s just been an incredible experience. Networking and who you know is everything in this industry,” said Earle.

The term culminated in a final exam that required students to put their knowledge to the test. Each student took turns operating key control room positions, including running the graphics that appear on screen and operating the mixer in the audio booth —  essentially producing a mock live sporting event.

Pittsburgh resources

The construction of Pitt Studios began in 2016 in anticipation for the ACC Network’s upcoming launch.

Surrounded by a design of the Pittsburgh skyline — and of course, an abundance of blue and gold — the studio sits behind glass windows in the lobby of the Petersen Events Center. Downstairs, three broadcast control rooms and five editing suites are full of top-of-the-line switcher boards and monitors.

To design and equip the facility, Pitt Athletics partnered with NEP Group, a Pittsburgh-based global production company.

“Our partnership with NEP, who is without question the world’s leader in this space, has allowed us to build a facility that is one of the very best in all of college athletics,” said Barto.

This gives students an opportunity to train and work on nationally-televised network-level productions for ESPN and the ACC Network.

“I feel like what we’ve created can be used as a blueprint for how the corporate community in Pittsburgh can engage with the University in ways that may not be immediately evident,” said Gerald Delon (BUS ’94G), chief financial officer of NEP Group.

From an instructor standpoint, Smith said the sheer design of the facility enables students to learn at the highest capacity.

“It lends itself to a flexibility that never existed. Very few universities, if any, have anything like it,” said Smith. Each bench in the control room has an extra seat to shadow industry professionals, or to observe during a live broadcast. The control rooms even have the capability to allow students to practice producing during a live sportscast — and try to “keep up” as if they were on air.

“I’ve become more well-rounded,” said Earle. “I already had internship experience in a broadcast setting, but the class gave me solid background on other parts of the control room and studio.”

After taking Smith’s class, Earle secured a summer internship with CBS News in New York City. This fall, he’ll head back to Pitt Studios to work as an ACC Network broadcast assistant.