THE PRODUCER AND THE PANDEMIC by Tia Swanson
How a CBS Sports producer tells stories when he can’t travel
“That’s my son,’’ Blake Berson says by way of introduction, as a sweet, high-pitched voice says “hello” into the phone a few seconds before Berson himself manages it. With a new baby occupying his wife, Alison, and his 3-year-old son, Hunter, home from preschool for the day, Berson is on childcare duty for this phone interview.
Welcome to the new working life of a television producer.
In the old days, Berson was a man on the move, the kind of guy who graduated a few months early so he could take his first job in January rather than June, a young father who was out of the house before Hunter left for school and back for a late dinner. A longtime producer with CBS Sports, who specializes in making features that run from two minutes to an hour, he typically traveled at least twice a month to interview sports stars past, present and future.
And then the pandemic came and that old life ended. A man who worked for a sports network woke up in a world without sports; a man who traveled the country in search of interesting people and stories was suddenly stuck at home, unable to interact with any of the folks who would ordinarily populate his films.
But, of course, the world needed those stories more than ever. And so Berson and his co-workers and his station found a way to keep going, to keep creating.
“What we did in those first few months...that’s some of the best stuff we ever did,” Berson says now, remembering back to those dark days last spring when – on the fly – the station relearned its business, switching to Zoom interviews, editing across the internet, finding and telling stories that did not depend on the previous night’s games or the previous week’s stars. “Our group and our company really galvanized over the situation.”
Berson has been on exactly one plane ride in the last year; he hasn’t been in the same room with one of his subjects since last February. He hasn’t shared office space with his colleagues either. A man who was once on the road for a month producing short bits for the station’s March Madness programming did all that work over Zoom this year.
None of us is living the life we did a year ago, but the changes seem especially dramatic for someone like Berson, who made his living connecting with strangers as the cameras rolled and who typically traveled all over the country to do it.
An athlete and sport-lover with a passion for storytelling – he grew up doing fake interviews with his brother and sister – Berson has spent years recording stories most of us either never knew or have forgotten. Some of his most notable work has been done as part of the station’s celebration of Black History Month. In the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem, he dug up and retold the story of the 14 Black football players at the University of Wyoming, who were kicked off their team because they dared to protest racism in the Mormon church by wearing black arm bands when they played Brigham Young University. He also did a piece about Nate Northington, who was recruited to play football at the University of Kentucky in 1967, becoming the first Black athlete in the Southeastern Conference.
Berson was recording when Northington came to speak to the current team, many of whom had no idea who he was.
“It’s cool to see history unravel in front of you and be recording it,” he says.
Things went differently for this year’s feature on Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, the longtime New York Knick who as a college student led Winston-Salem State to the first NCAA title won by an HBCU (historically Black college or university), and brought all in the still segregated college town along for the thrilling, historic ride. Although the interviews were completed before the lockdown, all the editing, mixing and color correction were accomplished remotely. The final editing was done with a colleague who was in the Berkshires. “We edited over Zoom,” Berson says. Zoom made those longs days a bit easier. “Especially when you’re getting to crunch time and you’re working until 1 or 2 in the morning, to be able to walk downstairs and go to sleep”’ is a lifesaver, Berson says.
Still, Berson misses the office camaraderie. He misses being in the same room with his subject, and he reckons the distance cuts into the emotional connection he tries to build with those interviews. He sometimes must do gut-wrenching interviews with grieving parents or coaches, and he can’t imagine asking those questions over Zoom.
There have been pluses. One is his son, Hunter. “My wife and I say it all the time..how sad this year has been but has also brought us some joy in watching our son.”
And there are so many hours and days in Hunter’s life Berson simply would have missed, including the two’s daily walks to the park this summer to sit and watch the ducks, the long afternoons playing in the back yard, or the morning preschool drop-offs.
The couple welcomed their second child, a daughter, Callie, on Christmas Eve, so in addition to living and working through the pandemic, they also experienced quarantine pregnancy. Unlike the first time around, Berson had to skip all the doctor’s appointments; he wasn’t allowed to be there, though at the time of the birth, he could be in the delivery room. Still, the extra precautions they have taken to ensure a safe delivery means they haven’t been able to explore the delights of Maplewood and South Orange – their home of three years – as much as they might with their newfound time at home.
Nevertheless, though Berson and his wife have yet to establish a favorite restaurant or coffee shop, they are out regularly with Hunter walking or playing in the front yard, and Berson has found these serendipitous interactions with passing neighbors on “a Tuesday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon” a happy way to pass the time and meet the block. “You get into more conversations than you ever would have,” he explains.
The other plus is that his company has become more aware of – and receptive to – the lives that are lived outside of the professional one. Berson says it is not an issue when he holds a sleeping Callie on his shoulder as he conducts a Zoom meeting, just as it is not unusual for other employees to make accommodations for their lives as caregivers, even as they carry on their work. “We’re all trying to survive,” says Berson.
Recording restrictions have loosened a little. “For the longest time we were doing interviews over Zoom,’’ he says. Now, with rigorous protocols in place, cameramen can shoot on location, while Berson typically speaks through a laptop set up off camera. He hopes that things will return to normal, even if it’s a new normal, in the not-too-distant future.
But he remains awed and amazed by the company’s willingness and ability to keep going. “I never imagined this,” he says. “My job was being on the road and I loved meeting people. It stings that you don’t get to do that...but we’re still getting to tell stories, and the fact that I’m still working is amazing.”
And that, too, is a silver lining not only for him, but for all who have found solace in the work he does.
Tia Swanson can vaguely remember watching and rooting for Earl “The Pearl” Monroe when he wore a Knicks uniform, but she never knew he led an HBCU to its first NCAA crown.