"Monday Night Football" will open its 43rd season at M&T Bank Stadium with several new wrinkles. There will be a two-man instead of three-man booth with Mike Tirico doing play-by-play and Jon Gruden on analysis.
One of the biggest changes will be on the sidelines where Lisa Salters will debut as the new sideline reporter for the storied franchise.
Salters, a Penn State graduate, talked about her new job, her goals in that role, her hard-news values and the way she was socialized to journalism at Baltimore's WBAL-TV and ABC News in the Peter Jennings era.
Q. Sideline reporter for Monday Night Football is one of the highest visibility jobs in the business. Congratulations on it. Tell me when and how did you hear that ESPN wanted you in that role? And what was your reaction?
A. It was late March or early April when they called. And, you know, when your boss calls directly, it's sometimes not a good thing. So, when the secretary called and said, 'Can you hold on for Vince [Doria, senior VP],' I was like, 'Oh, gosh, what have I done?' So, while I'm waiting for him to come on the phone, I'm imagining the worse. But I couldn't think what I'd done wrong.
So, when he came on and said, 'We'd like you to be the sideline reporter for Monday Night Football, would you be interested?' I'm like, 'Would I be interested? Of course.' I was just blown away. I mean, your initial reaction is to be humbled that they think that much of you. This is the network's biggest property, a $1 billion property, and they want you to be a part of it.
And then, you think about who has done it before you -- my colleagues who I have such respect for and have always gone to for advice on my other gigs doing the NBA or college football sideline. I'd call Suzy Kolber, you know, and say, 'What should I do in this situation?' Or, 'How would you do this?' So, to know the people that have gone before you, taht's important. And to also know the people that haven't gone before you. To know that I'm the first African-American woman to do it, which is something that wasn't lost on me either. It just felt like a real honor to even be considered. I didn't know they were looking for someone to be the new sideline reporter, so it wasn't something that I pitched myself for or lobbied for. So, the call came out of the blue.
Q. Being the first anything matters in my opinion. But here you are in a role of such cultural prominence performing before an audience measured in the millions -- more than 10 million most weeks -- every Monday. So, in terms fo respresentation and identity, this is a special job, isn't it?
A. Absolutely. And I see that on Twitter and my Facebook page. I get that from women in general and black women saying, 'We're so proud.' So, it does mean something to people.
Q. Now, you started your professional career at Baltimore's WBAL TV station (1988-'95) after graduating from Penn State, and I see from another interview that you credit investigative reporter Jayne Miller for socializing you to the tenets of hard news reporting and responsible journalism. Can you talk a little about that?
A. Everything I know about journalism I learned first from Jayne. I feel very proud about my journalistic integrity and background. She was one of my first real working mentors. Jayne went to Penn State, and I went to Penn State. And I met Jayne at a career day. I was one of hundreds of graduating seniors who were thinking I was never going to get a job, and I sat down with Jayne, and what impressed her most was that I had played on the woman's basketball team. And to her, that meant, 'Wow, you were able to play a varsity sport and have a 3.5 grade point average?'
So, she came back to WBAL, and they brought me in for an interview. I was thinking, 'Oh, they think I can be a good reporter.' But they didn't think I was ready to be on TV, for sure. But they thought I had the raw ability... They were thinking the tools are there, we have something to work with. They didn't have a reporter training program at the time, but they kind of started a minority training program. So, I made absolutely no money, very little money, but I was just happy to be in the newsroom.
And as most things go, it was a baptism by fire. One night, I'm on the desk and it's like 10:30 and everybody else is tied up doing whatever their pieces were doing, and they threw me out there to do a live shot of a fire on Charles. I still have that live shot tape. It's on a format I can't watch any more, but I still have that tape. It was just awful. I think I called Charles Street Charles Avenue. It was awful. But that was my very first live shot, and that was the beginning. And now, people always ask me, 'Are you nervous when you're going on live?' And I'm like, 'No, not at all.' But that very first time, boy, was I nervous.
Q. Did you work at the famous Penn State student paper?
A. No, I wasn't able to, but in the summers, I worked a local station up there in the sports department doing radio.
Q. What are your goals as sideline reporter for Monday Night Football. This Monday as you guys are packing up and they are turning the lights off at M&T, what will you be measuring your performance against?
A. For me it will be if Mike and Jon come to me after the game and say, 'You gave us everything we needed.' I see myself as an extension of them. Whatever they can't see, I am down there on the field and I can see. If there's an observation that Jon makes that he needs for me to go and check out. Like, 'Are they working on such and such on the side?' It's a big field, so I can't see everything. But there are certainly things I see that they wouldn't have a hope of seeing. I just hope I can be the eyes and ears for them in giving them observations they can get into the game either through me or I give them the information and they get it one the air.
I am in a unique position. I am where everyone at home wants to be. I am standing right there on the sidelines. Not even our announcers are on the sidelines. But I'm right there on the sidelines as it's all happening. For any sideline reporter and courtside reporter, you're doing the job if you're giving the viewer things that they can't see at home, but you do.
Q. So during all your years at WBAL, you were a news reporter. And then, you went to ABC News and were a West Coast correspondent covering stories out of L.A., right?
A. Yes, news all the way when I was at ABC News. I covered O.J. [Simpson], O.J. one and two.
Q. Do you think that news background gives you an edge that people who have only been in sports their whole career don't have.
A. Absolutely. First and foremost, I'm a journalist. My background is in journalism. You know, all the do's and dont's and rules of good journalism -- that's what my foundation is. So, whether I'm covering hard news or sports or politics or economics or entertainment, it doesn't matter. The rules are the same for good journalism. I do feel I bring something extra to the table as far as my reporting skills go. Maybe that's just me thinking that, but I believe I know how to be thorough, I know how to be fair, and always, always, always accurate.
Q. I mean this in a good way, you sound old school as a journalist.
A. Oh, I am old school. I'm very old school...
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun