“Ask the Professionals”: Cherry Hill West Alumni/ NBC Universal, Director of Technology and Operations Jamie Simmons & NBC 10 Meteorologist, Michelle Grossman
May 18, 2016 • 1,692 views
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For this month’s “Ask the Professionals,” I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cherry Hill West High School Alumni (Class of 1988 ), Mr. Jamie Simmons. He is the NBC Universal, Director of Technology and Operations. In addition, I also had the pleasure of speaking to NBC 10 Meteorologist, Ms. Michelle Grossman. NBC is the connection that not only brought Jamie and Michelle together as colleagues and best friends, but eventually as a happily married couple!
When asked about his background, Mr. Simmons “proudly” told me that he attended Cherry Hill West. From there, he went to Camden County Community College. At that time, he did not know what he wanted to major in, until he walked into the radio station on campus. His continued interest and inspiration resulted in him transferring to Glassboro State College (now Rowan University), where he declared his major in Radio and Television.
Ms. Michelle Grossman is from Bucks County Pennsylvania, where she attended high school at Bucks County East. She then attended Penn State University where she graduated with a liberal arts degree. After completing that program, Ms. Grossman went back to school for a meteorology degree. She explained that since the age of five, she was obsessed with weather watching! She watched and looked up to a local weatherman (Channel 6), Jim O’ Brien. Aside from his knowledge of science, he endeared himself to so many viewers, fans, and community members. He was just “larger than life” and a “character”. He had a positive personality and certain charisma. Ms. Grossman can even remember the day he passed away. It was such a loss because he had touched people’s lives in a way she does not think anyone else in this type of business ever had.
Ms. Grossman shared that she worked in the business world before starting her meteorology career. Originally, she shied away from meteorology thinking, “Who is really going to be a meteorologist?” and “How can you be on air?” She feels that was mostly just her own insecurities. She did not go the meteorology route while attending Penn State. However, she never lost her interest and passion for weather. She later went back to school while working in her first career. She never really thought she would do anything in the meteorology field, but she still wanted to fulfill her goals and dreams. She took courses thinking it was going to be a snap, a check mark that she did it. In the last year of her coursework, there was a non paid internship available. She decided to go for it and, at age 28, quit her job which provided financial security. The internship worked out well.
Mr. Simmons and Mrs. Grossman are married and have two children. They met while working at NBC 10 in the area of the building that is called the “cold room” of NBC 10’s weather center. Mrs. Grossman feels that her husband is the “brains” behind the business. She explained that NBC 10’s weather center got new equipment and graphics and he provided the support and intellect.
I asked Mr. Simmons if he had any advice for college students, to get experience in production while in school. He said get your hands on as much equipment as you can and experience it. He feels it is so much easier to do now because technology is more advanced. While he was in college, the students were very dependent on the tools that were provided by the university and it was expensive. It was also extremely difficult to get your hands on video cameras (other than your parent’s) or to get your hands on production type cameras and access to editing systems. It was only a few years after he graduated that the equipment became easier to afford. He also advised continuing to the next level by doing a production piece where it gets a little more complicated, getting experience in a control room with the switcher, where computers do all of that now. It is not as easy to put your hands on as it is the other pre-production stuff.
Ms. Grossman added that you need to “be a nudge” since you do not have access to a lot of that stuff. She said she would call people in the business and ask if she could come in during a broadcast to observe the work they did. She remembers in high school she would call Channel 17. The meteorologist at the time explained that the only good time to come observe was Thanksgiving Day. So, she left her family on Thanksgiving and sat with him to observe for six hours. She also went to watch another Channel 17 meteorologist named Tracy. Ms. Grossman went there every Saturday and just sat there not saying a word. Sometimes while Tracy was busy, she just observed the productions and outcomes. Ms. Grossman stressed that students need to get a mentor as early as possible. Mentors are important because they have been in the business, have met a lot of people (networked), have been around, and will teach you about the business and give you pointers. You are only going to learn if you are in the studio and share in the experiences. It takes a lot of time and it is also a precursor to what it will be like working in this industry. You will be required to work holidays, weekends, 2 a.m., and more unusual times. So the sooner you see that and are ok with it, the better. It is not always a glamorous life! You are by yourself most of the time, in a building with no windows, and often late hours or early in the morning (ie. 2/3 a.m.). You really have to be passionate about this type of career and lifestyle.
I next was interested in finding out how both Mrs. Grossman and Mr. Simmons ended up at NBC 10. Mrs. Grossman started out by saying when she took the non paid internship. She was living in Doylestown Pennsylvania, The internship was housed in the MSNBC building in Secaucas, New Jersey and it was NBC weather plus a 24 hour weather station. It was 78 miles from her house and she would go there every day. She ended up doing on air work for them. Their station was routed to every NBC owned station across the U.S. It was almost an audition every day. Eventually, she received a phone call from NBC 10 because they liked what they saw. She did an audition tape for them, a dream come true, and ended up working there. Mr. Simmons said his road was a little bit longer. When he first got out of college with his degree, he had a job for three months as a production assistant at a radio station, until they got new management and they got rid of everyone. He then took the easy way out and went to work for his father for a year. He eventually decided to dedicate 100% of his time to finding a job in the business he trained for. He wanted to work in a TV station, not necessarily news, but something in TV or cable. Mr. Simmons secured his first job with Comcast Cable through a contact from Rowan. He worked on a production of 5 minute news segments standing behind a preset camera that did not move, not doing anything. One day, the prompter person called out. They asked Mr. Simmons if he could do prompt and if he ever did it before, he said yes (even though he never had). It worked out and the next time he went, she said he was really good at it and asked if he would rather do that than the camera. This opened up opportunities to other things, but it was still a part time job. Mr. Simmons then got a job working at NBC 40 in Atlantic City where you could do everything. He would go out on a story with a reporter, film it, edit the piece, and then direct the news cast all in one day. There is nothing like getting that kind of experience under your belt. Michelle shared that when her internship ended, she kept going back. The station said “Michelle you can’t come back,” “you can’t be here” because legally if a light fell on you we would be responsible. At the end of the day they came back to her and said we can give you a part time job producing for pretty much nothing. She tracked hurricanes through the whole hurricane season. Then since she came everyday and did a good job, they offered her a full time producing job, making graphics for the meteorologists. Eventually they asked her to make an audition tape. It worked out and she was finally on air. You have to start really small, enjoy it, and take everything you can from it to get to the next spot. It makes you want it more too, she thinks. Most people want to get right to that higher spot. You should not rush it. It makes will make you earn it and want it more. Mr. Simmons then continued his story. He was at NBC 40 when people told him he was good at editing. He started looking for editing jobs and found one part time at Channel 17 in Philadelphia. At that point, he was working three jobs for 3 months working 7 hours a week, just so he could get the experience. Someone he worked with at NBC 40 applied for a photographer position at NBC 10 and said they were looking for someone for an editing job. Mr. Simmons called, began a prepared speech, and the guy stopped him and said “How soon can you be here?” Mr. Simmons went in, took an editing test, and was asked if he could start the next day.
In my research, I found that Mr. Simmons played a vital role in the integration of the digital newsroom and also a large part in HD automation control upgrade at NBC 10. I asked him what it was like to participate in this process. He said not long after he started at NBC 10, everything was still tape based. He always had a knack for computers and technology. So when the first computer editing system arrived, he just adapted to it to the point where he was training everyone how to edit. Through that he started establishing contacts with vendors in the business that would say show me more advanced technology, and they went from editing in one tape room to doing all the video editing on separate computers. That was the start of converting to a digital computer. People were still not on the digital standard training yet, so trying to explain to them that this would be better in HD was challenging for him, but he felt he really had the skills to bring that across and make it a successful transition. Through his efforts, Mr. Simmons eventually got NBC 10 to an all digital news room. In 2008, they went from digital to high definition. Mr. Simmons’s skills helped make it a successful transition.
I was interested in knowing from Ms. Grossman, with all the latest technology, if it is easier to predict the weather more accurately. She said yes, the new technology definitely makes it easier to work with many different models. You can bookmark tabs and go in and pull them up and see all the latest run on the models that you need for weather.
I asked Mr. Simmons if it was ever difficult to work with some of the reporters at NBC 10. He said he would not name names, but yes, there are often creative differences. He is not the type of person who was just a button pusher who you could tell what to do and he just executed. He wanted to have his stamp of approval or flavor in a story. There were some very long days and nights working with reporters who had one vision if he had another. Ms. Grossman added that it could also be reversed (from a reporter’s side). Different visions could make it very difficult. You sometimes spend 10 hours a day in a truck with someone, so you really have to get along. If you don’t, it will be a very long and stressful day. Mr. Simmons said it has to be a team effort. If you are not on the same page, it makes it difficult. However, it is not always like that.
Ms. Grossman shared what it is like at the station when a severe weather system is moving through the viewing area. She said it is stressful and exciting. Most of the time they say weather often wins ratings. There is a lot of importance placed on weather reporting, which makes it more stressful (especially when there is a severe weather event). Then all eyes go to you! You want to be the first on air with the correct information and you want to do the best you can to inform people. She said that it feels good to help people, but it is stressful to gather all your thoughts, get on air, and get it out to the public. There are a lot of people involved and sometimes you only have 3 seconds notice to prepare. Ms. Grossman was working the day of the earthquake three years ago. It was unusual because the meteorologists are not geologists. However, the station often views them as the expert because their job falls under a similar umbrella. Ms. Grossman was working that day and normally if there is going to be a severe weather event (i.e. snow storm), the meteorologists know in advance and come in a little bit earlier to prepare. On that particular day, it was beautiful. There were blue skies and light winds. You felt like taking a little longer to get into work and not have to go in early. When the earthquake hit it was eye opening. They did not even have time to change and were on air immediately. They had to get the information out quickly. It was very scary. You felt the earthquake, the whole building shook and then they had to get on air. I asked if everyone is kept at the studio when it snows until it passes. She said yes, and Mr. Simmons added that if you can’t make it to the studio they will send someone to come and pick you up. Ms. Grossman said that is another part of the job you do not really get to experience until you actually do the weather and reporting. Unless you are reporting out in it, you don’t get the real experience. When there are big snowstorms or hurricanes, you could be at the station or at least in a hotel sleeping for a week straight. You are on air for as long as they need you. Mr. Simmons said if you want to work in news, you are dedicated to the news, whether it is breaking news or weather. You have to know, that if these things happen you are going to dig your heels in and be there for a while. Ms. Grossman added that whether you have family or not, you have to be there.
I was interested in knowing their most memorable stories at NBC 10. For Mr. Simmons, it was the Olympic games. He attended for the station. It is the hardest assignment you will receive working in local news. However, it is the most rewarding to be a part of that entire worldwide event and know you are bringing the best local coverage to your viewers. Ms. Grossman said her most memorable story was at NBC Weather Plus when she covered a tornado and 90% of the town was wiped out. That was her first experience ever handling a devastation that weather could cause and at Ch.10, the earthquake was her other memorable story. I asked Mr. Simmons since his promotion, if he has to travel out of state a lot with his new job. He said he does and that NBC owns 28 local news stations that they manage at the corporate level all over the U.S. Going to them is a fun part of the job, but you spend a lot of time away from home, although now he has 9-5 hours and weekends off.
Ms. Grossman has a daughter named Ella from her first marriage. I wanted to know if Ella gets excited to see her mom on TV. Mrs. Grossman said it depends on the day. She likes it, but when she took a leave from Ch. 10 to be home with the kids, Jamie asked Ella, “Are you going to watch mommy on air?” Ella said no that she liked mommy being at home. Ms. Grossman said that Ella does feel like a celebrity at times because she hears her teachers talk about it. But, she doesn’t think she looks at her like that.
I asked both Mr. Simmons and Ms. Grossman if they think their children will want to pursue their careers in the future. Mrs. Grossman said she asked her daughter this same question and Ella said she just wanted to be a princess. She thinks maybe their three year old son Jeremy might. If he does, they both would support him. However, Mr. Simmons said he hopes he does not pick this career. I asked the both of them what the best part of their jobs are and what the worst parts are. Ms. Grossman thinks the best part of her job is helping people prepare for their day and hopefully keeping them out of harm’s way. The worst part is losing sleep and having to wake up at 1:45 a.m.to go to work, sometimes being there 24 hours, and missing your family. Mr. Simmons said he had two best and worst, one from his current job and the other at Ch. 10. At his current job, the best part is working with the technology because it benefits more people. The worst part of his current job is trying to get all people he works with onboard with a project they have to complete. At his old job, the worst part was the 24/7 constantly being on call. The best part was it was the place where he got to meet his wife!!
I wanted to know if Mr. Simmons ever has anything go wrong with the technology he is in charge of. He said constantly. With technology comes complexity and technology comes at increased demand. If there are too many things that go wrong when you are implementing complex technology, yes it fails, and you have to have an action plan in place to correct it. It is something they learn to live with. Ms. Grossman added weather too runs into problems. Instead of pieces stuck on a felt board, now they use graphics and they constantly freeze in the middle of the weather segment, so you have to go with the flow. Aside from working at NBC 10, Ms. Grossman works for QVC occasionally. She said she freelances for them. I asked her if it is difficult to speak about a product for a long period of time. She said she thinks it gets easier. You are just thinking about something whether it is a weather event, jacket, or a coffee maker. I wanted to know from Ms. Grossman what she does about people who write weird things to her on social media. She said she tries not to read it. One of her favorite stories is about this lady who wrote to tell her she was fat and ended it, P.S. this is from a thin woman. She remembers thinking how she could never write that to someone else. It hurts at first, but then you get to a point where you have to let it roll off your shoulders/cope with it, or avoid it.
I asked both of them where they saw themselves in five years. Mr. Simmons said probably something similar to what he is doing right now because he enjoys it, but higher up on the corporate level. Ms. Grossman said she does not see herself doing weather in five years because as a mom it is hard to balance both. She wants to be with her family more.
Ms. Grossman’s final message to students is that if this is something you think you want to do, get a mentor, call stations, ask if you can sit next to them, just observe what someone does, ask questions, and really find out if this is what you want to do. Be aware that you are going to be giving up a big part of your life in terms of family life to do this job, so you need to see it firsthand. Mr. Simmons said if you want to get into the TV news business, do it all (all facets of the job), regardless if you want to do production or you want to be an on air journalist. Do as much as you can so that way you will know the process from end to end. Learn how to write, edit, operate the camera, and report. You may find you like something else just by watching the process. I thanked Mr. Simmons and Ms. Grossman for their time and wished them the best of luck with their careers.