Interview With Former ESPN News Anchor And Current 6-ABC Philly Sports Anchor Keith Russell
Covering Sixers games you come across all kinds of Philly luminaries inside and out of sports. Sitting in press row, you might see legendary journalists like David Aldridge or Phil Jasner doing their thing any given night. Since I live in the Philly area, I get a chance to see their local news stations and there’s nothing like Action News. I grew up watching professionals like Vernon Odom, Jim O’Brien (Sportscaster turned comedic weatherman who tragically died in a parachuting accident helping someone parachute to safety) and the beautiful Lisa Thomas-Laury. So one day to my surprise, I saw Keith Russell anchoring sports on 6-ABC. I was shocked being that he was one of my favorite ESPN News anchors because of his quick wit, chemistry with other anchors and funny as hell facial expressions. My sister, Gina, does the best Keith Russell impression…Has me rollin’ just thinking about it. Simply put, Keith is a natural and one of the best. I wanted to do something different (type of journalist) and get the perspective of a sports anchor to give everyone an idea of what it takes to be one of the elite. Keith’s dedication to Philly sports as well as his craft goes unparalleled. Enjoy, but more importantly pass this interview to a talented youngster who has a dream of doing what Keith does so well.
MT: Why did you leave ESPN? I thought you were a good fit there. Why Philly?
KR: Well I’m from Philadelphia. Born and raised in West Oak Lane. Parents still live there. I have a sister who lives in Roxborough. She’s an attorney. Now I can see her dreams come true and she can see mine come true. My wife’s family is from right outside of Delaware.
In the six years I was at ESPN–the best years of my career–I saw the opportunity to take the next step in that company wasn’t exactly coming my way. Working in Philadelphia has always been a dream of mine. This is where my dream to get into this business started. My dream of being a sportscaster started in West Oak Lane. When there was openings at Action News–being from Philadelphia–I knew that was my job. There’s no one better fit for that job than me. The opportunity was presented to me to leave ESPN because it was deemed to be in the same family since Action News and ESPN are both owned by Disney. Once I got the go ahead, I knew I was entering into virtually a perfect situation. As much as I wanted to get to the next level of ESPN, not getting there was a blessing in disguise because if I did, whose to say that I would have had my eyes on Philadelphia. I’m thankful to be here. I’m thankful to be back in the city that I love. There’s no place that I’d rather be. It’s hard in different markets. I’ve worked in Mississippi. I’ve worked in Rhode Island. ESPN obviously is located in Connecticut. After a while I started talking about things I didn’t care about. I’m talking about the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. I knew about it, but that doesn’t mean I cared about it. Tennis tournaments all over the world. I knew about them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I cared about them.
As a sports fan, I enjoy it all regardless of what it is. There’s nothing I’d rather talk about than the Eagles, the Flyers the Phillies, the Sixers or the Big Five. When I came home, I worked every single day for the first two months I was on the job. I’m getting paid to go to a Sixers, Eagles, Flyers or Phillies game? I get to see Villanova. I’m going to the Palestra. I’m going to the Liacouras Center. I’m meeting John Chaney. I got a chance to develop a repoire with Mo Cheeks. I hosted the Donovan McNabb show my first year back.
I take none of that stuff for granted. These are things beyond my wildest dreams growing up. So when I got the job, I knew my six years at ESPN had paid off. Without those six years, I can’t say I’m the best candidate for this job.
MT: Who in the Philly inspired you? Did you grow up emulating Vernon Odom like I did way too many times?
KR: I definitely am a big admirer of Vernon Odom. Also Lisa Thomas-Laury and Rick Williams. My first internship was at Power 99. I learned from those folks. My second internship was at Fox 29 in Philadelphia. I interned at PRISM. That’s before Comcast. That’s what Comcast was. I interned under Ukee Washington. I’ve had plenty of inspirations. All of these people saw something in me that made them want to give me advice, a helping hand, a reference letter, letting me sit in and observe them. Without all of the people–and there’s plenty I haven’t named–I’m not here today. I had a collection of people growing up and when I discovered what I wanted to do, people had no problem giving me a helping hand.
MT: Coming out of Morgan State in ’95 what were your dreams? How did you go about attacking the field?
KR: I knew that Morgan State wasn’t a good communications college, but I got a full scholarship there. With my family already putting my sister through Temple, I didn’t have the option of picking and choosing the best communications college in the country. If it was free, I had to go. I wanted to go. I had to find some kind of way to get into the field. That’s where those internships came through. It’s what a lot of kids don’t know. It’s working for free. Once I figured out that in order for me to get into this field…This is not like any other field. I had buddies who went off to college, got 3.5 GPA, and that automatically qualifies them for a job.
At the same time, when I graduated from Morgan State in ’95, there were 400 communications majors who graduated. Only three had jobs at either a television station, newspaper or in radio. There were a lot of 4.0 graduates who walked across that stage with no job. Those people never got into the business.
I knew early on that I had to get hands on experience. The only way to get it was by going to people who actually do what you want to do. I went on my quest to go to every radio station that I could. If I came home for Christmas break, most of that break was spent at a TV or radio station. I knew that people around me couldn’t see what I was getting out of the process, but I was getting something out of it. I got to watch people do what I wanted to do. I got to learn how they handle certain situations. I got to see how they prepared for a news cast. I had the wool pulled off my eyes to finally realize they didn’t just sit at a desk with a news paper all day.
I went out to Eagles training camp and saw the process of how a story is put together. All those things were invaluable to me. That’s when I got to the point that not only did I want to do this business, I knew I wanted to do this business. Some people go through their college years thinking they want to do something but don’t know what they want to do because they’ve never been exposed to it. They just believe their career path is gonna be a certain way. I knew the first couple of jobs were going to be low paid and in places around the country that I never heard of or wanted to be. All of those things were not a shock to me, but I still wanted to do this.
MT: All about creating soul models here on TSF. Are there any suggestions you might have to get more youth in the field of broadcast journalism?
KR: The first thing I would suggest–and it seems simple–is the first thing I say to kids when I go to speak to them. The first thing you can work on without ever having to be in front of the camera is working on your reading and writing skills. Those skills will take you further than any television class will right off the bat. If you can read and write, you can do anything. Read as many books as you can. Knowledge cannot be taken away. Being knowledgeable is something you don’t need to prepare for. When I’m on the set, I don’t need to prepare for certain things because I know it. If the teleprompter breaks down, I know it. I’m not restricting it to sports. I’m talking about world events. I’m talking about politics or the financial industry. The more you read, the more you know and the greater chance you have to be successful. Writing is the second skill. If you can read it, then you should be able to write it. If you can write? Now you can put those thoughts down on paper and produce them in a way that is presentable and understandable to everyone. We’ve heard this since we are kids, but reading and writing is the starting point.
Also the I need success right now philosophy isn’t cutting it. If you acknowledge that it’s a process and you work hard, you can be anything you want to be. TV is a process and there’s no guarantee of success.
Frankly, I think that discourages a lot of people and not just Black kids. When I was in Mississippi at my first job in 1995, there was no guarantee I was going to end up in Philadelphia in 2008. I knew I had to start somewhere. If I don’t start somewhere, I don’t go anywhere. That is my encouragement. This is not our parents day and age. There are obstacles, but if you work hard, you will overcome them. My parents worked at AT & T and Bell telephone because those are the best opportunities they had. It’s not that day and age anymore.
Nothing is going to be handed to you. How bad do you want it?
MT: Great answer Keith, I appreciate that. I really do.
The night Julius Erving and Clint Richardson were being honored, I had to sit on my hands and practically tape my mouth to prohibit me from cheering. Doc is my favorite athlete of all time. Was he that guy for you growing up here? Who else in Philly did you follow?
KR: Oh yeah Mike. Doc was the guy. Doc and Mo Cheeks, Wilbert Montgomery, Mike Schmidt. Even though I grew up in West Oak Lane, I was a hockey fan too–which a lot of fans in the neighborhood didn’t understand, but I did. I liked Bobby Clarke. All these guys…Philadelphia back in the day? You had a guy that was synonymous with every team. All those guys were larger than life.
To see Doc…and I met him once before, but to have a chance to interview him earlier that day? I was like a kid. I drove into work with more anticipation and excitement than any day or any other time.
MT: Same here. It’s a day I’ll forever cherish. I spoke with Chuck D (both went to the same high school in NY, Roosevelt) before the game and he told me to tell Doc hi, but it just didn’t happen. Just like you said, I was a kid. I was in awe. If we weren’t under the basket pre-game it might have been a different story. Simply special.
KR: I hear exactly what you are saying. There are some people–when you are in their company that you know you are privileged. That was definitely what I was feeling, the night Doc was honored.
MT: What was the best sports story you covered in 2007?
KR: I got a ton, but if I had to say the best one? It would probably be a story I did on an Eagles cheerleader. She defies all the stereotypes we have of cheerleaders of being pretty, bubbly and don’t have any other hobbies or interests.
She is currently a ROTC cadet preparing for the likelihood that one day she will go off to war. To me, that puts life in perspective. She’s this beautiful girl on the sidelines Sunday out there with the guys–the only girl in here squadron–doing all the calisthenics like everyone else and simulating tossing grenades. On Sunday she wakes up in a glamorous world. Years from now, she might be in a world where her life is on the line. That touched a lot of people in the community and a lot of people at the station. It touched readers of every demographic. That could be any one of us.
MT: What are you more comfortable doing? Concept stories or profile stories?
KR: Both. I think that one thing I’ve always tried to do is keep a wide range. Recently I did a story on what happens to the hats when a player scores a hat trick in a hockey game. They have these ice girls that pick up the hats who are very skilled doing so. The hats go to the concourse (in the Wachovia Center). Some people don’t even know what a hat trick is. Those who do have no idea what happens to them. They just know that when the camera comes back in 2 minutes the teams are playing again. That was a lighthearted story, but it answered a big question or curiosity that a lot of people have.
The next day I do a story on a young Black gymnast–a national champion from Camden, NJ–coming home as he prepares for the Olympic trials at the Wachovia Center in June. He was talking about how his parents made financial sacrifices and without them he would not have been able to participate in the sport. He owes it all to them. Then the next day, I’m doing the legend. The legend of all the legends. Coming back here after being part of the last major sports team to win a championship in this town. That’s Dr. J.
I’m proud of all of them. I’m proud that I don’t get categorized as a one trick pony. That’s when you pigeonhole yourself. I can’t see myself getting to where I want to go by only relating to one type of people, one type of story. I do stories in the inner city and I do stories in the suburbs. I do men hardcore sports; I do women and human interest pieces. I like to believe in my two years here that I can do anything. More importantly, I can do anything well.
MT: You have these facial expressions that humanizes your reporting-sometimes in a comedic sense. What’s that all about? What was it like on the set?
KR: It was amazing. It was amazing to be able to work with so many guys I grew up idolizing and watching in this business–people I saw as trend setters. Guys who were in a position and a point in their careers–in a height of their careers–where I aspired to be. For me to be able to work there and learn from all those guys…I mean Linda Cohn is bomb! To learn on the set and behind the scenes, it really upped my game. I know if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be able to perform at a high level here.
In terms of the facial expressions and mannerisms? To be comfortable enough to do what you would do sitting on the couch with your boys watching games? That takes time. Some people get into television and never be comfortable when they are in front of the camera. When you are on the national stage, working around the best and seeing how easy it comes to them, it makes you get to the point where you can have your true personality come out. It could be the words you write down on the script, your delivery, how you change your voice inflection, how you change your cadence, whether you read fast or read slow, whether you are naturally laughing because something comes out that’s really funny in a story or highlight. It has to be natural. I’ve finally reached that point in my career. I owe a lot of it watching those guys at ESPN, because they are not afraid to take chances. A lot of this is taking chances. In order to be good at anything in life, you have to be able to take chances–whether it’s doing what I do or doing what you do in your skill for writing. You know you can’t always just play it safe. That’s one thing I’ve never been afraid to do.
MT: Who has specifically inspired you at ESPN–whether through personal camaraderie or professionally?
KR: Specifically, I can name names and go on for days, but off the top of my head, the first name that comes to mind is Stuart Scott. He’s not just a colleague, he’s a friend. I still can call him to this day. I’ve called him several times since I’ve been in Philadelphia for career advice. If he can’t take the call then, he never hesitates to call me back. He always has something constructive to say. Something encouraging that keeps me going. In all of our jobs, sometimes we don’t see as much progress as we want as fast as we want. He’s one of the people in this industry that I turn to. That’s just the relationship that we have outside of what we do. In terms of what he’s been able to accomplish in his career, he’s definitely a guy that I came into that building anxious to meet. The biggest reason why is that Stu is a guy that has a very unique style. Not everyone can appreciate those who are unique. What I learned from Stu, is that if you can be yourself, look at yourself and say I like what I’m doing because I’m doing a good job–with confidence–the naysayers are rendered irrelevant. For me, he was the biggest example of that in my career. People see the praise that he gets. They see Stuart Scott on magazines. They see him in the papers. They see him on commercials. What they don’t know is how much ridicule he’s taken behind the scenes from people who don’t necessarily appreciate his style. It taught me to be steadfast and believe in what I’m doing. The old phrase, “you can’t please everyone” comes to mind. I just hope at the end of the day–and I’m confident–that more and more people are going to like what I’m doing than not. He was a big inspiration to me when I was there.
MT: Have you spoken to him after his cancer diagnosis discovered after an appendectomy ?
KR: No, but I wished him well. I know he’s going through a trying time. I left him a voice mail and told him I was praying for him and if he needs to talk he can reach out to me–which I’m sure he will when he’s up to it.
At the same time, I’ve had family go through procedures and their time is their own. You let them know you are thinking about them and they’ll respond when they deem necessary.
MT: Could you offer a specific time on the ESPN set that still resonates with you?
KR: I did around seven or eight SportsCenters. Most of my memorable times come from ESPN News. My guy there now is J.W. Stewart. He’s a mainstay on ESPN News, but he was my broadcast partner for the better part of 3-4 years. This past year I was the best man in his wedding in Connecticut. We developed a bond where we could tell what each other was thinking. We could tell what mood each other was in. If I was in a great mood and he wasn’t, I had to carry the load and vice versa. I don’t think I’ll be able to simulate this again, because in local TV it’s a little different than working with a partner every day. But when we were clicking? We would just let it all hang out and say whatever came to mind. It got to the point where they had to reign in. He would call me Russ and I would call him Dub and it became the Russ and Dub show. I had lines and he had lines and when we were on I would say his catch phrase and he would say mine. His catch phrase was “He loves the baseline and it loves him right back”. During a highlight he wouldn’t mind me jumping in and saying his lines. One of my catch phrases was “Swackems!” That’s the sound of the ball makes or the net makes when the ball goes through the net. It’s one of the words I used to say. If I’m in the highlight and the guy was lighting it up, J.W. would chime in: “Keith, that’s what you call swackems!” That was something–to this day–that I miss.
MT: For the readers could you explain the preparation involved before production?
KR: The misconception is that people just jump on the anchor desk and you see them there with a newspaper and they just talk. Well obviously, that would never translate into a good segment or a good sportscast. The responsibility level when I tell it to people, really opens their eyes. When I come into work each day, my job is not just to show up and read what a producer writes. We had producers who were talented but it’s also my job–like it’s theirs–to determine what is important enough to show to the viewers that day. If the Sixers are playing that night, that’s an obvious. Same with the Flyers, Phillies or Eagles.
Now in local TV, whereas at ESPN we had layers and layers of management who determined content, my job is to produce and create content. I’m at home, working the phones. I’m calling to set up stories. Right before you called me, I’m text messaging the Sixers pr guy asking him what time shoot around was for the game in Sacramento and link up with ABC out there to see if they are doing interviews with the Sixers so we can have some semblance of a Sixers preview before they began their west coast road trip. It’s constant phone calls. It’s constant reading. I read every local sports page. I read national sports pages. I read the USA Today every day. It’s reading Sports Illustrated. It’s always being online. More importantly, it’s always working your contacts. In local TV, contacts are really huge. In my two years in Philadelphia, I’m really proud that I’ve established some strong contacts with all the major teams. College, pros, basketball, football, hockey–all of them. It’s being on top of things and saying you know what? Louis Williams had a nasty dunk against Miami recently…
MT: Yes he did!
KR: So, I need to play that up, because you (the viewer) may not have watched the game as a basketball fan, or somebody who doesn’t like basketball. It’s constantly manufacturing things and gathering contact.
On 12/28 I ran a story on an Eagles cheerleader who teaches autistic kids. I went in at 2 pm, shot the story then came back and did the 5 o’clock sports, and the 6 o’clock sports. I edited the cheerleader piece in between. After 6:30 once the news ended, I grabbed a sandwich and at 8 o’clock I was editing that piece and still had to do the 11 o’clock sports. There is no putting your feet up in this job. It’s constantly working your contacts and being creative and coming up with good stories. Your in the process in local sports of manufacturing content. No one is waiting for me to come into work with a bunch of stories waiting on my desk. You have to put something more on the table that just the days the Sixers, Eagles or Flyers play. You have to do your research. It’s a nonstop job. I do it when I’m off. I do it when I’m at work. I do it in the morning. I do it when I’m at work. I’ll routinely get off at 11:30-12 midnight and I’m calling a publicist or an agent on the west coast who represents a player on a team here. I’m driving at the next story. It’s a nonstop grind. One that even people close to me never really appreciated until I came back to town. I started getting invitations for dinner, go to parties, go to birthdays, go out and I would say I can’t, I have to set this up story for tomorrow. I have to make sure the team’s public relations is on board, the agents and publicists are on board. I have to gather facts on the Internet. Then I have to conceptualize how I want this story to look. It’s a nonstop job if you really want to excel. Sure you can get by with reading the newspaper and just being on air with the regularly scheduled games, but I don’t want to do that. I take pride with wanting to put something on that screen that the viewer cannot get out of the newspaper.
MT: Had a great discussion on Bill Cosby recently on TSF, what are your thoughts on his influence in Philly? Our opinion of Bill Cosby is much different than that of the nation.
KR: I love Bill Cosby. I had a chance to meet him a couple of years ago. He cares more about Philadelphia than probably anyone I’ve ever met. He cares more about the inner city. People in the inner city need to take advantage of some opportunities. He speaks very passionately about this. Maybe people misconstrue his comments. They read into his comments in the wrong way.
What I see is Bill grew up here. He grew up knowing about the struggle. He was a great athlete (He’s still a fixture at the Penn Relays). People don’t know that. He rose to a level and established a standard that it’s not where you are from, it’s where you are going in life. I view Bill as a guy who showed that it can be done. Start small and build yourself up. He went from a guy with humble beginnings to a someone with world wide acclaim. It can be done.
I think he sees that potential in every single person because he knows that that was him.
MT: What do you think of Donovan McNabb and do the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl?
KR: I really don’t think they’ll win the Super Bowl. I think they were too concerned with winning those 16 straight games and they’ve taken their eyes off what’s most important. It’s all about that game in Arizona in February. I think they’ve exhausted so much energy piling up numbers, stats and leaving Tom Brady in the game until the end of the game. Throwing on the one yard line when they are already up 35. Their games were very competitive at the end. They haven’t run anyone off the field lately. I just don’t see them winning the Super Bowl.
As far as Donovan McNabb? I hope the Eagles don’t make a big mistake and get rid of him. I really do. People are so focused on what he can’t do or hasn’t done that they have to stop and think of what he has done. If you didn’t see A.J. Feeley’s performance over that two game span…The difference between Feeley and McNabb shouldn’t ever be questioned.
Donovan McNabb–when healthy–is one of the best quarterbacks in football. There are so many people opposed to Donovan, but it has nothing to do with football. There’s no way you couldn’t have watched those last two weeks of the season and not seen the potential that the Eagles have with him here. Everyone has admitted he came back to early.
Players like him do not come through towns that often–especially not the city of Philadelphia. I remember Barkley leaving like it was yesterday. He went right to the Finals the next year–winning MVP. If it hadn’t been for Michael Jordan, he probably would have been an NBA champion.
MT: I think Kevin Johnson should have thrown the lob to him instead of getting his shot smacked at the end of Game 6.
KR: By Horace Grant?
MT: Yes, you remember it well.
KR: I remember that. I remember last year with Iverson and I remember Randall Cunningham leaving town.
I would hope that the Eagles know better.
For those who don’t want Donovan here–if that’s the way it goes–I think they’ll be sorry in the long run.
MT: Are you happy with your career?
KR: Mike, I’m living the dream right now. I’m thankful to everyone who has helped make it possible. I hope that I can inspire others to pursue their wildest dreams. Everyday I go to work and I see where I started–down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Growing up in West Oak Lane, I thought about what I can be every day. I look back and see where I am and I realize just how blessed I am.