“Educate, Inspire, Inform”- Shadowing the Birds of Prey Ski Race

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“Educate, inspire, and inform.” This is the self-proclaimed purpose for Peter Graves, iconic Sports Announcer, as he worked during the Birds of Prey World Cup skiing race in Beaver Creek, Colorado.  Earlier this month, I had the unique opportunity to shadow Peter and his broadcast partner, Olympian Doug Lewis, as they prepared for and broadcasted the Men’s Super-G race on national and international media. During the day, Peter, Doug and all of their co-workers all helped me learn about the hard work and teamwork that is required for just one day of this event.

Race day started early, as it had snowed overnight and was still snowing hard just prior race time. While skiing in fresh powder might be fun for non-racers, ski racers are almost “allergic” to powder. The whole idea of ski racing is to go as fast as possible without crashing, and powder only slows racers down and causes them to lose momentum. Even though the race organizers plan for this event months in advance, they also know that anything can change at any time — such as these dynamic weather conditions. I spent the day in the “timing shack,” which is where the event is both timed and produced as it happens.  In the timing shack, I met the video programmer, the audio programmer, the weather tracker/producer, the DJ, and of course the announcers, Peter and Doug. The race was scheduled to start at 11 am, but the time got pushed back several times to 12 pm because the Jury (a team of international ski racing authorities) had to make the decision about whether the race would actually take place due to the weather. Thankfully, Beaver Creek is home to the “Talon Crew”, a large group of highly skilled volunteers who prepare the course for the race, clearing the excess snow and keeping the course safe. “They have about 40 snowblowers on the course right now,” said TJ, the main producer. Each crew member braved the elements and course conditions to make the race happen. Luckily, the Jury ultimately made the decision that the race would indeed take place, causing everyone to make their final race preparations.

As I watched Peter and Doug get ready to start commentating on the race, I observed their preparation strategies: Peter used flashcards and sticky-notes containing racer information and facts, while Doug used online files to keep track of that same information. Before the race started, I noticed they were both logging on to the website for FIS, the International Ski Federation responsible for setting international competition rules in sports such as Alpine Skiing, Snowboarding, and more. Both Peter and Doug used the FIS website to update information about each racer, and they also reviewed the past day’s newspapers for more recent updates. This preparation was also used to keep listeners engaged during ad breaks with interesting ski racing facts, news and trivia. Before the race began, Doug had also prepared a list of questions for Peter to ask him about the race and the racers. It helped them prepare to ask and answer questions so it was easier to talk about important information as the race occurred. The production team, including Peter and Doug, had to communicate well and work together to ensure that the timing would be right. For example, there were many signs that said what each person should do during the broadcast. There were two live hosts in the crowd and racer areas named “Uncle E” and Chris Anthony. As they spoke, Peter and Doug used special signs to direct the action, such as  “toss to E” “toss to Chris”, or if there was a commercial break, “toss to commercial.” Peter and Doug also pre-gamed their day by talking about what interviews and other featurettes they were going to include in their program. They incorporated details like whether they would use the webcam, or if they would use the theme screen with their sponsor’s logos on it. They also had a sheet of sponsors containing prewritten advertisements the sponsors wanted them to announce during the race, in between racers and before the race even started. While I saw this all occur behind the scenes, what the audience saw was a well-orchestrated conversation between two experienced professionals.

After a long morning of preparation, the race finally began around 12 pm, with snowflakes chasing racers down the course.  As soon as the first racer left the start gate, the room in the timing shack became silent, and everyone focused on their specific jobs. The video producers played the live clips of each of the racers skiing the course, Doug and Peter commented on each racer’s performance, DJ Naka played upbeat background music, and the audio producer balanced between the commentating and music. This was the part of the day when each member of the team worked best together. My experiences that day helped me to fully understand the amount of hard work, planning and dedication behind every minute of the race.