Sports Broadcasters Talk Their Life’s Game
What in the wild world of sports is going on? From jump shots to slap shots, to shots on goal and shotgun formations, Chattanooga’s sports broadcasters bring you the action. They invest late nights and early mornings to cover high school, college, and professional games across the sports spectrum. Carving out a coveted profession that puts sportscasters 20 feet from the guts and glory of athletic stardom takes guts and heart. But at the end of the game, their number one thrill is connecting with audiences. Like you, they are passionate fans who root for the highlights and comebacks that make sports history. Whether broadcasting from television or radio, they invite a community to relive, catch up, and talk memorable plays.
Here, 6 local sports broadcasters take you behind the scenes of their on-air careers.
By Holly Morse-Ellington | Photography by Rich Smith
The Write Stuff
Rick Nyman (Above) | Sports Director, News 12 Now
During high school in Anniston, Alabama, Rick Nyman shadowed a local TV station for two weeks. Nyman was hooked. “The fact that you could make a living covering sports sounded pretty good,” he says. Nyman began his career at WJSU-TV in Anniston, covering SEC football and NASCAR.
Initially, recording segments in a television studio felt awkward. “When I first started, they would tell me I needed to have more energy,” Nyman says. “You’re talking to an inanimate object in that camera and thinking, how can I be excited about this?”
But Nyman overcame his initial apprehension and honed his skills, taking cues from watching Keith Olbermann on ESPN. “His delivery and way with words is incredible. It inspires you to write because he takes some video and speaks to it so well. It’s like, wow, he really had fun with that.”
In addition to watching others for tips, Nyman explains that aspiring broadcasters can learn from their own playbacks. “You just do it and then watch yourself and tweak something here or there,” he says. “Or you get feedback. I’ve had some consultants over the years who give feedback on the way you should dress or tips for how to improve.”
For Nyman, access to athletes is an exhilarating job perk. He has interviewed pros such as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, Kwame Brown, and Tiger Woods. A press pass has limitations, though, like Nyman’s trip to the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta. “The Super Bowl is not that glamorous because there’s no way they can fit everybody in the press box or on the sidelines.” Instead, more than 200 members of the media piled into a convention hall. “We sat in a room and watched the game on TV just like every other American,” Nyman says.
Yet, Nyman is grateful for every assignment. “As my news director tells me, I have the job everybody wants,” he says. “I think some of the news reporters are a little jealous when you go to a ballgame, and they go to a council meeting.”
Juggling multiple games to make the evening news is hectic, but rewarding. “I’ve always enjoyed busy nights like high school football night when you have several games you’re doing highlights of,” Nyman says. “It’s a big rush.”
Fielding a Call
Wells Guthrie | Program Director, Press Row ESPN The Zone
A torn rotator cuff and shredded shoulder ligaments capped Wells Guthrie’s collegiate baseball career at Virginia Wesleyan, but it also pointed him toward his future career. “There was a void I needed to fill,” he says. “If I couldn’t play the game, I wanted to stay as close to it as I possibly could.”
Guthrie transferred to UTC where he majored in sports administration. Somehow, a Christmas break spent with a former girlfriend in New Jersey strengthened his purpose and paved his path in Chattanooga.
“She’s grilling me on what my career path is,” Guthrie says of a conversation with a friend of his then-girlfriend’s family. “I said, ‘I’m still thinking that over, but I’d like to work in sports.’” That friend-of-a-friend knew the program director of a sports radio station in Chattanooga.
In 2011, Guthrie interned with the local ESPN affiliate owned by Brewer Media Group and managed by Jim Brewer II at the time. “He had great influence on my career,” Guthrie says. “I looked up to him because he was always true to himself and stood up for what he believed in, including me.”
Nine years later, Guthrie now manages the station and produces and co-hosts Press Row, ESPN 105.1 The Zone’s live and local weekday afternoon-drive program.
Over the years, Guthrie has interviewed hundreds of guests, and his list includes some of the biggest names in sports: Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, and ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit. Some of his all-time favorite guests are new Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach and ESPN Major League Baseball guru Tim Kurkjian.
While Guthrie loves his job, parts of it are tougher than others – it’s a job at the end of the day – and things like preparing shows to run the entirety of a weekday drive are more difficult than most realize.
“Talk radio is long form, so trying to fill three hours with informative and entertaining content can sometimes be a challenge,” Guthrie says.
Despite the ins and outs of programming, the result is gratifying.
“There is immense value and satisfaction in being part of people’s daily routine,” he says. “Knowing that somebody is at the office and – we all have rough days – they get into the car and maybe we can make their day just a little bit better during that afternoon commute.”
Like many broadcasters, Guthrie fields emails and voicemails from people seeking to break into the business. “It’s such a competitive line of work because who wouldn’t want to wake up every day and cover sports for a living?” he says. “The advice I always give is – find a way to get your foot in the door, and then find a way to add value to what that station is trying to accomplish.”
In Full Swing
Dave Staley | Sports Director, NewsChannel9
Television broadcasters tend to bounce between stations. That’s the nature of the biz. In fact, Dave Staley covered news and sports in Wyoming and Colorado before taking a position in Chattanooga in 1984. Here ever since, Staley, recipient of three Midsouth Emmys and three Edward R. Murrow Awards for Sports Reporting, is one of Chattanooga’s longest-running sports anchors.
For Staley, broadcasting school established a foundation in techniques. “Don’t get in front of the camera, for example, and feel like you’re speaking to hundreds of people,” he says. “You pick out one person in the world – that’s who you’re talking to when you’re in front of the camera.”
Highlights accumulate when you cover the world of sports five to six nights a week for decades. But if pressed to state a favorite from his storied career, Staley reminisces about attending Game 6 of the 1995 World Series in Atlanta. “When the Braves beat the Indians, we rushed onto the field,” he says. “You know that glob of people on the field after somebody wins the World Series? I was in the middle of it thinking to myself, man I’ve got a great job.”
Not surprisingly, sportscasters are also devoted fans. Nonetheless, they have to maintain composure while interviewing their heroes. “It’s somewhat surreal because you’re doing a job – you have to get your story.”
Staley admits a perk of working in a market like Chattanooga is the ability to do a little bit of everything. “In my life outside of work, I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” he says. “And that’s what I enjoy with the job. I get a chance to shoot photography, cut audio, and anchor live shots.”
Although cable programs and webcasts increase opportunities, launching a career remains tough. “If you are willing to relocate or take lesser pay when you start out, you can find a job and learn your craft,” he says. “It can be exhilarating, but at the same time you’re going to work some weekends and some long days.”
But, Staley says, commitment pays off. “It’s pretty special when you’re at Home Depot buying a light switch and somebody says, ‘I’ve watched you for many years and you do a good job, thank you,’” he says. “I don’t look for it, but when it does come down the pike, that’s pretty cool.”
Off and Running
“Cowboy Joe” Varner | Co-host, SportTalk Radio
One avenue into broadcasting is to major in journalism or communications. But “Cowboy Joe” Varner explored another viable route: on-the-job training. “I think my track was a lot of luck and a lot of knowing people in the right positions,” says Varner, who needed a part-time job when a friend at SportTalk Radio called him.
Varner went to work in 1999, tasked with everything but talking. “I ran infomercials, whatever they needed me to run,” he says. “I was actually kind of shy and didn’t want to mess anything up, so I just sat there pushing buttons for the first year.”
The longer Varner worked beside the primary drivers for SportTalk, Quake and Dr. B, the more integral his voice – and colorful nickname – became. “Cowboy Joe” chimed in as an addition to the cast of SportTalk personalities in 2000. “The show is based on characters, characters meaning callers and obviously the hosts,” he says. “Hosts have to be a character themselves, otherwise they’d be finding another job.”
Even so, hosts balance entertainment with authenticity. “I might make fun of Alabama, but everyone knows it’s just me trying to get underneath people’s skin. It’s all in good fun,” Varner says. “I think in the end, people understand who I am. I’m just being myself.”
The present-day SportTalk duo of “Cowboy Joe” and “Quake” illustrates that broadcasting is a team sport. “When we turn those microphones on – I’m not going to say it’s Harry Potter magic – but it just works,” Varner says. “It’s been a good thing, and it continues to get better.”
Varner cherishes a catalog of on-air memories, but none more significant than the call of duty he felt on the morning of 9/11. “I had my radio on and heard that one of the towers had been hit. I went straight to the station because you knew it was going to be all-hands-on-deck,” he recalls. “I wanted to be there to help out any way I could.”
As Varner explains, community plays an essential role in broadcasting. “When we get to go out and do the show on location, people come up and say, ‘We listen to you every day.’ You realize you are a part of people’s lives,” Varner says. “That’s a blessing I will never take for granted.”
Scott “Quake” McMahen | Co-host, SportTalk Radio
Scott “Quake” McMahen made a seismic announcement when he was a high school freshman – he told his mom he wanted to be the next John Ward, legendary “Voice of the Vols.” As McMahen recalls, “My mom, bless her heart, was going to go to the end of the world to find out how we can learn more about sports broadcasting.”
The result? The young McMahen met “Voice of the Mocs” mentor, Jim Reynolds. “I watched him interview people, and I was mesmerized,” McMahen says. “I was like, people get paid for this? It was every bit as cool as I thought it was going to be.”
During college, McMahen juggled classes with an internship at WGOW radio. He didn’t have a speaking role at first. Instead, he ran the sound boards for SportTalk while absorbing the ways J. David Miller, Gary “Dr. Basketball” Haskew, and Jerre “The Music Man” Haskew, hosts at the time, carried on with callers.
McMahen locked in goals when the Haskew brothers started asking for his opinion on air. They solidified his voice by giving him the nickname “Earthquake” after wrestler John Tenta. “My initial reaction was, can I be Thor or something cool like that?” McMahen says. “But of course, because I didn’t like it, they gave me a hard time about it, and it stuck.”
McMahen says playful banter like that happens every day with hosts and listeners alike. “People call in with a question or because they want to raise Cain with you about something you said. It’s all in jest,” McMahen says. “Some people just want to hear you react on the radio. They think, ‘Oh, I got him, I got him good!’”
When it comes to his favorite sport to cover, high school football has always held a special place in his heart. “To have a bunch of high school-aged kids rally – they don’t even know they’re doing it, they just go to practice every day and show up for the game on Fridays – but they create this atmosphere the community rallies around. It’s so Americana.”
In 2019, McMahen was inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame. “God has gifted me with a whole bunch of luck,” he says. “I was the guy that happened to be standing there when something happened. They turned around, and they’re like, ‘You’re up!’”
Memories in the Making
Paul Shahen | Sports Director, Channel 3 Eyewitness News
Paul Shahen recounts a past game with a keen eye for storytelling – even though he was just four years old when he and his dad stayed up late to watch the Dodgers versus the Oakland A’s in the 1988 World Series. Shahen recalls, “Kirk Gibson hit a home run. I remember Gibson, who had a bum knee, limping around the bases, fist-pumping.” Baseball made an impression. “That’s the first thing I ever remember. I guess I was destined to do this.”
The path to his career in broadcasting had its bumps, though. “I couldn’t say three sentences without fumbling over my own words,” Shahen says of his first broadcast journalism class. And when Shahen was a young weekend anchor in Pocatello, Idaho, he’d scraped up $200 to take a road trip. On his first night in Las Vegas, he received a call that the station was eliminating his job. Shahen phoned his dad. “He said, ‘Listen, they can take your job any day of the week. They can’t take your talent.’”
Idaho’s loss was Chattanooga’s win. Shahen signed on with the local NBC affiliate, WRCB Channel 3, and moved to town. “I hope people realize, and I think they do, how unique of an area Chattanooga is in terms of the fan base,” he says. “On any given week, you’ve got people screaming ‘Tennessee!’, people screaming ‘Alabama!’, ‘Georgia!’” Neighboring rivalries and the volume of games from high school on up can quickly fill sports news segments. “It’s like a coal-burning furnace, and you just have to keep shoveling.”
Throughout his career, Shahen has covered major sporting events such as the Stanley Cup and two Super Bowls. But his wife is the barometer of his accomplishments. “It’s funny. I married someone who is not really into sports,” he says. “If I can keep her entertained or get an ‘LOL’ from her, I know I’m doing well.”
Many segments inspire him, particularly the ones that define character. “There are so many stories where people defy odds, not to win necessarily, but people who overcome something,” Shahen says. “Those stories – where someone has everything stacked against them, but they refuse to quit – those are the best.” CS