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Q&A with Steve Bunin

Lead Anchor, Comcast SportsNet Houston

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“Nothing is more infuriating than watching Bob Ley work on a daily basis.”

Every one of my journalistic instincts perked up as I read those words. I immediately envisioned a bad TV dream sequence with famed Inside the World of ESPNauthors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales snapping their fingers in poorly acted disgust, for I dug up something their 763 pages of hardcover insight couldn’t, dirt on iconic ESPN personality Bob Ley.

But I should have known better.

The voice attached to those words was Steve Bunin, former ESPN anchor and current lead anchor for CSN Houston, the man Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch called "one of the most underrated talents in sports journalism,” and the first ESPN anchor to win the “Game Ball” award for character. He wasn’t about to give me something juicy on Bob Ley, because apparently there is nothing to give.

Bunin continued, ‘The man is literally a genius, and writes so poetically and epically, he sets the bar impossibly high.  I was always humbled when I saw his work and floored when he would drop a short email ‘nice job’ after a day I hosted.  You cannot have a better daily mentor in journalism than Bob Ley.”

Turns out truth really is better than fiction, even if it’s less juicy. Bunin’s ideas about the right way to report and the realities of the sports media as a business is a Masters class in long term success and essential reading for those pursuing a career in sports broadcasting.

Here’s more with CSN Houston’s Steve Bunin:

STVJ:  You’ve worked in large and small markets – in your experience what is the greatest challenge for a local sportscaster?

Bunin: The greatest challenge for a local sportscaster is often staying employed.  Once you manage that, I’d say the biggest challenge is to find the value in telling local stories.  So many young anchors/reporters I see think their job is to cover the pro team 50-miles away.  It is not.  People in small towns don’t watch you for snarky highlights of the quasi-local pro team.  They watch to see their neighbor’s 11-year-old hit a little league HR or to see their Big Sky schools football practice information. steve bunin former host of espn outside the lines

Getting to a point where you embrace those stories, more than the national/regional stories, is key.  Because what you learn is that a great story supersedes all, and that great stories exist everywhere, not just in major league locker rooms.  Think about all the Tom Rinaldi stories that win Emmys.  They’re never about Eli Manning breaking down the cover-2.  They’re a mediocre college hockey player becoming a 9/11 hero

STVJ: What do you think is the biggest mistake young sportscasters are making nowadays?

Bunin: Trying to be somebody else, or trying to appeal to what you think will be popular.  If you’re a funny guy, be that.  If you’re a serious guy, be that.  Of course, everybody has shades of those in their personality, but be true to yourself, and don’t try to lock down a catchphrase.  Lock down your "kwan", as Jerry Maguire learned, and you’ll be much better off.

STVJ:  Did you have a mentor coming up in the industry and if so, what advice sticks with you today?

Bunin: I was blessed to have many mentors.  The first was Steve Kelley, who just retired after 30 years as the lead sports columnist at the Seattle Times.  He befriended me after I wrote what was probably a slathering fan-mail letter, and although I can’t recall specific advice he gave me, I do remember coming away from our initial meetings encouraged to read more, to write more, to challenge myself more and to always challenge the status quo. 

I see that with a lot of college kids, too – they want to be on TV but don’t want to be a journalist.  In my heart, I consider myself a journalist first, and a TV anchor second.  And I like to think that helped me get to where I did.

STVJ:  You hosted all the biggest shows during your years at ESPN, did you have a favorite that allowed you to be closest to your true personality?

Bunin: OTL definitely fit me like a glove.  Sounds corny, but reading All the President’s Men the summer of ’92 before enrolling at Syracuse really touched me and inspired me.  And I had done a little bit of investigative work in all the small markets I worked at over the years, but OTL really is the pinnacle of investigative sports TV journalism, and to be able to host it so often was such a blessing. 

Deciding what to cover on SportsCenter can often be frustrating, because there is an inevitable tug and pull between what’s "right" and what "rates," and for all the criticism ESPN takes, I think people are unrealistic if they don’t think ratings matter.  They do.  It isn’t PBS.  It has to make money, and while many of us would recoil when being encouraged to do more Tebow or more T.O. or more Chad Johnson or more Yankees or more Favre, people tune in for that.  And it’s only 5% of the audience that watches more than 10-minutes at a time, so you do have to consider that. 

At any rate, one of the great things about OTL was that 99% of the time, you were sheltered from that.  If anyone – a young production assistant to Bob [Ley, pictured right] to the VP overseeing the show – had a story idea, it was treated with respect and investigated, and if it warranted a segment, we did it. 

One of my proudest accomplishments at ESPN was pushing to do a show on the Sonics (getting stolen/relocated to OKC).  I, and a few others (including Bill Simmons), thought the story had been unfairly ignored, and I found some resistance when I suggested we do an entire 30-minute OTL episode on it.  But I pushed, and to their credit, the powers-that-be agreed, and we did a damn good show – fair, showing all sides.  True journalism.  We did it all the time on OTL – doing stories on Native-American nicknames or homophobia or racism – stories that bore many sportscasters and fans, but stories I believe are important to be told.  And I was honored to get the chance to do it as often as I did. 

I must say, nothing is more infuriating than watching Bob Ley work on a daily basis.  The man is literally a genius, and writes so poetically and epically, he sets the bar impossibly high.  I was always humbled when I saw his work and floored when he would drop a short email "nice job" after a day I hosted.  You cannot have a better daily mentor in journalism than Bob Ley.

STVJ: From over-covering Tim Tebow, to refusing to credit sources, to avoiding certain stories based on relationships  – has ESPN lost its way journalistically?

Bunin: I wouldn’t say ESPN has lost its way journalistically – OTL and E:60 provide daily and weekly reminders of that, as does SportsCenter and most other shows there – tell me where you learn more X’s and O’s than watching Merril Hoge break down video on NFL Live, you know?  In the sphere of sports, that IS journalism. 

What I would say is that it’s unrealistic to think that sometimes the tail won’t wag the dog.  So sometimes, we’d lead SportsCenter with the Yankees/A’s just because they were the Yankees, even if the White Sox/Indians game was better, or more meaningful.  But you know what?  Ratings do dictate content sometimes.  Duke/Clemson will out-rate Wake Forest/Maryland, so how can you blame ESPN for leading with that?  For hyping the Duke game up more, and for sending Dicky V there instead of College Park, and for leading SportsCenter with it that night. If more people care about Duke, it reasons to lead with Duke. 

Now sometimes, like with the Tebow Training Camp, you’d just sit in production meetings and wonder, "Has the train flown off the rails for good?"  But day in and day out, that really is the exception to the rule.

Do I believe tennis gets the coverage it deserves, compared with golf, another niche sport?  No. 

Do I think there is an East Coast (or more accurately, Big Team) bias at ESPN?  Absolutely. 

But I also understand that that’s life.  Tebow rates.  The Packers rate.  Duke rates.  They SHOULD get more coverage.  What was neat about being on OTL was, they didn’t ALWAYS get more coverage.  But there’s room for both and I’ve always thought it was cool that, for a few years,  OTL’s pod in the ESPN newsroom was right next to SportsNation’s.  Both shows respected what the other was doing, even though they were at opposite ends of the spectrum.  And both shows have loyal viewers and loyal backers inside the walls of ESPN.  And deservingly so.

STVJ: In 2011 Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated referred to you as “one of the most underrated talents in sports journalism” – is that when you knew, ‘I can really do this’ or was there an earlier moment that gave you confidence?

Bunin: I was blown away when Richard Deitsch gave me that honor.  Completely floored.  I remember walking into work that morning, very early – like 7am, so it’s kind of quiet – and both Kevin Negandhi and Josh Elliott stopping me in the hallway to say, "congrats on the mention" and I had no idea what they were talking about. 

Needless to say, it was extremely gratifying, especially because I felt like I had been doing excellent work, but was sort of going unnoticed by many of the powers-that-be at ESPN.  I wouldn’t say Richard’s column was when I thought, "I know I can do this…" but rather, it was when I felt like – my peers outside ESPN realize I’m earning my keep.  It felt very pure, because I didn’t know Richard at the time, wasn’t even following him on Twitter or anything. 

I had fought very hard to get in the mix on Outside the Lines, back when Jeremy Schaap did all the hosting if Bob Ley was gone. I sort of weaseled my way into being the #3 guy, and when Jeremy moved to E:60 full-time, I never got an official notification that I was the #2, but I started hosting more and more often, and eventually settled into the role as Bob’s chief (albeit unofficial) backup, which, more or less, I held until I left this fall. 

If I was to pinpoint the "I know I can do this…" moment, it was actually that first month of school as a freshman at Syracuse. There was a huge line of people trying out for the UUTV anchor gig (maybe 50 people for 5 spots – one anchor each weekday), and everybody assumed no freshman could ever get a spot.  And, well, I got it, and I remember to this day, thinking, "I can do this."  Of course, I recently looked at some old tape of myself in college and was horrified.  But that was the “a-ha” moment. 

Once I got to ESPN, I had a few of those, too, like Mike Tirico seeking me out around 2005 or so, and complimenting me on my interviewing, I remember feeling truly proud.

STVJ:  Why did you decide to leave ESPN and make the move to CSN Houston?

Bunin: I left ESPN because I got a great offer here at CSN-Houston.  I still had two years left on my contract, and we’d have been happy to stay, but it was a quality of life choice.  I went from often having weeks where literally each day I had a different shift (7a-4p MON, 4p-1a TUE, 3p-12a WED, etc…) to a consistent schedule – I anchor Sun-Thu, 6 & 10p, with almost no exception.  Once we had our daughter, it became tougher (logistically and emotionally) to always say "yes" when you’d get the call the morning of your 3p-11p shift that you were needed from 7a-5p, and could you please come in? 

When you’re trying to make your name for yourself at ESPN, you say yes because you don’t know if that call will come again, especially if it’s for a more high-profile show.  But that takes a toll, especially in a house with both parents working.  Our friends would often laugh because we literally had an excel spread sheet on our refrigerator with my wife’s schedule and mine, so that we always had coverage for the baby. 

As much as I loved being at ESPN, it was an easy decision for me and my family, the kind of jump you hope to make after nine years at ESPN, to a committed network covering big-time sports in a major city that’s closer to home (nearly halfway between my hometown of Seattle and my wife’s hometown of Recife, in northeastern Brazil).  And I must say, after spending most of my adult life in Central Michigan, Northern Arizona, upstate New York and Central Connecticut, I’m looking forward to never waking up 1-hour early to shovel snow out of my driveway and scrape ice off my windshield and pump my brakes on black ice again. 

STVJ:  CSN Houston just launched in October, what have been the biggest challenges so far?

Bunin: Our biggest challenge here so far is simply getting in people’s homes.  Right now, we’re in 40% of Houston homes, and negotiating deals to get that up to 100% as quickly as possible.  The product we put out, numerous specialty shows, 3 nightly newscasts, a daily hour-long talk show, plus pre/post games for every Rockets (and soon Astros & Dynamo) game, is top-notch.  We’ve got a great, young, energetic crew on-the-air and behind-the-scenes with an experienced group of anchors, and I’ve been very proud to play my role in helping get this place off the ground. ESPN is the gold standard – they’ve been doing it for 30 years and have become such a well-oiled machine.  I’m proud to bring my experiences from there to here, and help lead us to where we want to go.

STVJ:  As a local sportscaster you were able to dig deep into stories, but at a national level you have to cover so much territory it becomes difficult to be a true expert – is it energizing to you to be back at a smaller niche and able to really focus in?

Bunin: It’s definitely energizing to be here.  For starters, our studio is literally two blocks from Toyota Center and about six blocks from Minute Maid Park, so I can walk to Rockets or Astros games between shows, which helps tremendously in covering the teams, as well as making a name for myself in the market.  And frankly, being a part of a local community is important to me.  I nearly quit the business in 2001-02, and stuck with it in large part because friends convinced me that being on TV, if I ever got out of small markets, would give me a platform to reach kids, which, outside work & my family, is my true passion in life.

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