Work for free? Sure…

So today’s post was originally about my favorite wines. Now instead I’m going to talk about something way more boring, but hopefully way more helpful.

Today ESPN’s business reporter Darren Rovell started a twitter firestorm with this:

“Giving something away for free, working for free at some point as you try to make it in the industry, is some of the strongest advice I got.”

“It’s hard enough to get paid to work in sports. You have to prove value more than ever. Foot in the door often comes by working for free.”

There were a lot of people who disagreed with this advice, saying it’s exploiting young people. Those people don’t work in tv or sports.

I don’t know anyone in my business that didn’t start out doing something for free just to get an opportunity. In college I worked every Friday night at the local tv station shooting high school football. This was not part of any class. I did not get any course credit for it, and I certainly wasn’t getting paid. But I was learning the skills I would need to get my first paid job. So while all my friends were out drinking at Harpos, I was driving an hour away to Mexico, MO shooting football.

It also got me recognition. Those who were willing to give up their Friday nights usually got the first opportunities to anchor. It also showed my teachers- Chris Gervino, Eric Blumberg, Stacey Woelfel, Randy Reeves, my strong work ethic. That goes a LONG way when a potential boss calls them for a reference.

Anchoring team from my first job in Charlottesville

Trust me, I’ve had people call me and ask for references on interns and production assistants. The ones that don’t work hard or go above and beyond don’t get a very high recommendation from me.

Listen, it’s not ideal. You think I wanted to make $17,000 out of college? You think I wanted to work every holiday? I spent my first Christmas away from home with Dave Strumpf at a Chinese buffet in Charlottesville. I missed almost all my friends weddings because sports happen on the weekends. (PS- I can’t be your friend if you think it’s ok to get married during football season). It was easier for me to be a maid of honor in a wedding at 39 weeks pregnant and halfway across the country than it would have been to ask for a football weekend off. No joke.
Oh, my own wedding you ask? I got four days off. The day after the wedding, I left on a road trip for work and didn’t see my new husband for two months.

oh boy, look at all that hairspray!

Willing to do somethings for free at the beginning doesn’t mean you’re setting yourself up to never get paid. Employers understand value, and they’ll pay that when you prove you’re worth that value. But as Darren said, sometimes the company may miss a chance to see your value if you don’t offer it up for free at first.

It’s not just tv. My husband worked several years as a volunteer assistant before he got an opportunity to be a full-time paid coach. Nick Saban started as a GA at Kent State working 60 hours a week while attending classes. The average GA makes about $1200 a month. No clue what they paid back then.

The skills and people you meet just by getting your foot in the door is invaluable. People will take notice. I promise. In 2012, I got the chance to cover the London Olympics. I shot, edited, and wrote four packages a day. But I also got to do one live shot a day for our morning show. The sports director at NBC in New York happened to be doing his live shots at the same location. A few days later, he was behind me in line for pizza. He said he’d noticed my work, and thought I was great. He handed me a card with his agent’s number on it and said “You need my agent. I’ll tell her you’re going to call.” He didn’t know me. He just happened to see a few of my live shots and thought he’d help a young reporter out. That agent, Aimee Leone, helped me land my jobs at FOX and ESPN. So thank you Bruce Beck.

Packing day in London. This is how my work space looked.

I know, It doesn’t sound so glamorous when you’re in the thick of it, working endless hours, making peanuts, eating Ramen, and begging for a $1K annual raise. But if you stay focused and work hard, eventually you’ll find your success. It’s hard to see it when you’re drowning in debt, but you’ll get there. It takes a little risk and a lot of passion.

My one last piece of advice (I have many but I don’t want to bore you), don’t be afraid to knock on doors. I wanted a job at WBIR in Knoxville in 2007. I sent in my tape, but never heard back. I figured they just didn’t like my resume. At the urging of my dad, I hopped in the car and drove 6 hours to the front doors at WBIR. I asked to see the news director Bill Shory. I told him I was in town visiting a friend. (nope! Just a starving journalist!) He offered up a few minutes of his time to watch my tape. It turns out, he’d never seen it. It got lost in the hundreds of other VHS tapes sent his way. I was hired on the spot.

Ask anyone you admire in the business if they ever did stuff for free at the start. Did they write for a school newspaper? Announce high school baseball games? Start a website or a blog without pay? Do an internship with no pay or credit? Tag along a photographer on their day off to shoot their stand ups? Their answers will surprise you.

And I promise, my next blog will be about wine

87 thoughts on “Work for free? Sure…

    1. Thanks for reading Ben. According to my replies and Darren’s replies, those were the ones. He had a bunch, but picked the few that had the most responses

  1. Kris-

    I am in Grad School for Broadcasting and I just wanted to let you know how inspiring your blog post was to me. Your blog inspired me to write something similar for my blog for a class that I am taking this semester (You actually commented on it a few weeks ago after I wrote it, ha ha!). I also work for free occasionally to gain experience in certain fields so I can definitely relate.

    I hope you will write more sports broadcasting related blogs like this in the future!


  2. Thank you for sharing! I am a senior in college this year and am always looking for blogs to read about the sports industry and reporting. Your experience and knowledge is so valuable and I appreciate you taking the time to write about it.


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