Popes, presidents and rollergirls:
Ledford brings unique perspective to classroom 2010 By Demi Bryant & Jill Cook (Scroll over the pictures to read the cutlines)
The news industry is often criticized for concentrating its efforts on the hard news. Murders, fires and accidents clog most of each evening’s news broadcast. But SIUE Mass Communications Instructor Brian Ledford tries instilling a different way of thinking in his students.
“My goal is to try to break the stereotype that television news can’t be creative and smart,” he said.
Creative and smart is really what Ledford is himself. When not teaching at SIUE, he’s working at his other job as a photographer and editor at KPLR (Channel 11) in St. Louis. And if he’s not working, he’s at one of his many sports announcer gigs, like when he becomes his alter ego, Grand Poobah—the announcer for the Arch Rival Roller Girls, the women’s flat track roller derby league in St. Louis.
Ledford’s belief in news fits in well with the SIUE Mass Communications Department as a whole, according to Mass Communications Department Chairman Dr. Gary Hicks.
“No matter the platform, good journalism boils down to telling a good story,” Hicks said. “A student can have all the skills in media convergence, but still must know how to tell the story to be successful. And no one is better qualified at teaching students this than Brian Ledford.”
Ledford is so qualified because he brings real-world experience into the classroom.
“It’s a neat field to get into because you’re experiencing things firsthand that others only talk about,” Ledford said.
Throughout his 19-year career, he has covered two World Series in which the St. Louis Cardinals played, as well as presidential campaigns and local presidential activities of President Barack Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He has interviewed many famous figures including Will Smith, Sheryl Crow, Alice Cooper, Nelly and Murphy Lee.
But Ledford said his most memorable assignment was covering the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999.
KPLR was assigned to cover the pope mobile, and I was the photographer in charge of up-close shots,” Ledford said.
His station had built a “photo-float” for photographers and cameramen that drove just in front of the pope’s vehicle. The week before the visit, KPLR staff and the Secret Service completed a practice run, operating the vehicle at the recommended 15-20 mph.
“During the visit, we were clocked going 37-38 mph, and we hit every single pot hole out there,” Ledford said. “The float had no seat belts for the photographers. One good pot hole and I would have fallen off and been run over by the pope.”
Ledford started his mass communications career his sophomore year in high school.
“I started in radio,” Ledford said. “I worked for a country radio station—it was better than working for Denny’s.”
But when Ledford started attending SIUE, he transferred into the print medium and worked for the Alestle. He graduated from SIUE in 1991, and that same year got his first taste of television when he started working for Channel 11.
Even though he has covered famous people and prominent figures in his career, he truly enjoys covering stories about common people. One story that turned into a pet project was the Arch Rival Roller Girls.
The Arch Rival Roller Girls’ bouts have become a popular St. Louis event that includes women on roller skates wearing funky outfits and using made-up names. ARRG is part of the national Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Ledford was assigned to cover the revived sport four years ago.
“I was really a disenfranchised sports fan then,” Ledford said.
He immediately became a fan and began regularly attending the bouts.
“This was a different form of athleticism,” Ledford said. “And you get to know the ladies and make friendships.”
In December 2009, Ledford made the transition from fan to announcer with his buddy from Channel 11, Kurt Labelle. But this was not his first time announcing a sports event. From 1994 to 2004, Ledford also announced a professional wrestling show in St. Louis. He earned the nickname “Grand Poobah” back then, and the roller derby ladies re-crowned him.
“You would think a person like me wouldn’t have a problem getting up in front of a crowd like that,” Ledford said. “But there’s a big difference between 100 people and 1,000 people. It can be a little overwhelming.”
Crowd appreciation might be what Ledford wins at the roller derby bouts, but Ledford has also won numerous awards including the Telly Awards. In 2007, he won a Mid-America Regional Emmy for his creative and outstanding reenactment of the NCAA basketball tournament.
“Our NCAA Basketball Final” was a stop-motion animated piece in which characters were created by utilizing his children’s action figures and toys. He created the audience by using colorful, hardboiled eggs. Ultimately the project took five hours—three hours to shoot, two hours to edit.
“It was the most rewarding because it was a true family project, and I enjoyed the opportunity to incorporate my family in my work,” Ledford said.
Ledford merges all of these experiences into his teaching philosophy in hopes of instilling his belief that there is more to news than tragedy—to find the story.