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Q&A with John Burns, Technical Director

Portland Trail Blazers

An Inside Look at becoming a Sports TV Technical Director

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After 3 decades working in Television Production, Technical Director John Burns still gets a thrill from live TV.

“Over the years I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with so many fascinating and wonderful people, with a front row seat to so many major events” remarks Burns, “From major news like the Mt .St. Helens eruption, the Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh story in Oregon, the 100 year flood in Portland, to riding the wave of NBA playoffs with the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s all been amazing and humbling to be a part of.”

Where did you go to school and did it help you get your first Television Production job?

After interning and working for an AM & FM radio station in Bellingham, Washington I moved to the Seattle area and attended Clover Park Vocational in Tacoma in 1978. At the time, Clover Park Vocational was head to head with Bates, another technical school offering a television broadcasting course. In 1979, KCPQ was a licensed PBS station with the studio and Master Control located on campus. It was a great chance to get hands on as well as class room time to learn the technical stuff – which really prepared me for a career in television production.

John Burns’s Sports TV “Stats”

john burns technical director trailblazersEducation: Clover Park Vocational

Production Jobs held: Master Control Operator, Cameraman, Video Editor, Technical Director, Director

Stations: KVEW-TV (Pasco, WA) KREM-TV (Spokane, WA) KATU – TV (Portland, OR), Portland Trailblazers, ESPN, AOB (Athens Olympic Broadcasting) NBC, Fox Sports Net, Pacific Coast Camera & Crewing and more

Most memorable moment working in Sports TV: The Summer Olympics in 2004, over the course of the three weeks in Athens we covered an entire NBA season’s worth of games.

Best piece of advice:. Any experience you get is “all good”. Even the smallest production job has some lesson to learn and it adds up.

Where did you land your first Television Production job?

My first television production job was for the ABC affiliate KVEW located in Pasco, Washington. Culture shock for me, but I took my former teacher’s advise – he said to take the small market route and get experience that would help me in the long run. This was a great time to learn the business, since you did almost every job: Master Control operator, ENG for news, production editing, even a weekly trip to the transmitter for routine maintenance.

How did your career in Television Production grow from there?

To keep to the plan of moving upward I landed a job in Spokane at KREM television. Moving to a larger market size gave me more opportunity and experience.

john burns technical director portland trailblazersNext stop was KATU in Portland Oregon in spring of 1980, the sister station of KOMO in Seattle. Yet another step up in market size and much more opportunity. I like to call it the “roaring eighties” since those years in local television were so active. Over 6 hours of live locally produced programming per day not counting breaking news and commercial production. Of course crazy times during the Mount St. Helens eruption (there’s too much to tell!). I worked at KATU for 19 years working my way up through almost every operations job. I mixed sound for several years (AM Northwest, News etc). That led to my primary job of Technical Directing with some Director back-up and combo TD/Directing news casts.

When did you make the transition to Sports TV?

A few years before I left KATU I began testing the waters with freelance Sports TV broadcasting on weekends as a Technical Director (TD). In 1999 I landed a job with the Portland Trail Blazers as Technical Director and Video Editor – a fantastic opportunity to work with some of the best in the business. The Trail Blazers are a company willing to push the envelope when it comes to broadcasting live Sports TV.

In 2001 I moved to full-time Freelance. I continued to work the full NBA season for the Trail Blazers but in addition began working for ESPN/ABC on NBA playoffs, the WNBA season, Indy Car racing, etc. Over time, I have adjusted my calendar to be more diverse and include other major network events, a variety of different sports and corporate clients.

You’ve done every Production job there is – do you have a favorite?

I have to say my favorite production job, when I have the chance, is Directing, yet Technical Directing is my main stay and I do enjoy it. That said, it really matters who you work with and how personalities blend – having a great team of professional people makes all the difference.

Finally, live television is a must for me. I enjoy editing and special effects creation but the live tempo is for me. I would go stir crazy in an edit bay after a month or so!

What advice would you give to someone looking to get started in Sports TV?

A couple of comments: Any experience you get is “all good”. Even the smallest job has some lesson to learn and it adds up. Find a good company that is willing to take an intern. It will give you a chance to sample real world employment.

The path I took may not be the best for this generation of broadcasters as the business has changed a great deal. I looked to my teachers for advice and that worked for me.

Think through the personal challenges if you choose to enter the Freelance world. If you’re working for yourself you will need to manage your finances for the up and down cycles. Travel is very common and can take its toll on you and your family over time.

john burns athens olympics technical directorDo you have a favorite memory from your experiences in Sports TV?

The most interesting event I covered was the summer Olympics of 2004 in Athens, Greece. Just two months before the Olympics were to begin I received a call to Technical Direct (TD) the world feed. The world feed covers every game and was a three week commitment – of course I jumped at the chance!

I was already scheduled to work in N.Y.C. at Radio City Music Hall for the WNBA’s All Star Game and the Olympics send off for the Women’s Basketball team. I scheduled my round trip flight to Athens from New York. Over the course of the three weeks in Athens we covered an entire NBA seasons worth of games.

The interesting part was our crew was integrated with the Greek television crews. This gave us time to get to know each other and become friends, they were fantastic hosts. Our monitor wall in the production truck had many Greek names like, (Danos, Apostolos, Petros, Takis, Spyros, Christos, etc..).
For us Americans, one Greek crew member took our names and translated them into Greek, my name is TZON. I still stay in contact with a fellow Greek crew member from time to time. Of course we rotated our crews and all had time to see many amazing sites in Athens. I would love to go back! To date, the summer of 2004 remains my most memorable sports TV moment.

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