Tara's Take: The News Biz: Getting Your Foot in the Door

By: Tara Wheeler
By: Tara Wheeler

The other day I was out at a live shot and a little girl said " I want to be just like you when I grow up" . Recently, a UVA student shadowed me wanting to know more about my career... So, I figured I'd write a blog about how I got here. My journey may surprise you!

The other day I was out at a live shot and a little girl said " I want to be just like you when I grow up" . Recently, a UVA student shadowed me wanting to know more about my career... So, I figured I'd write a blog about how I got here. My journey may surprise you!

To get the full gist, you'll need some background:

When I was in college at Penn State, I was an Air Force ROTC Cadet. I studied journalism, but the Air Force had a different job for me that I was excited and honored to be chosen to do. I was picked to be a Space and Missiles Officer. On my summer off, I didn't do an internship at a TV station, I went to officer boot camp at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. Unexpectedly, right before my senior year of college, I suffered a back injury playing ice hockey that would keep me from commissioning into active duty in the Air Force. As stressful as it was to no longer have a solid job lined up, the Air Force had paid for $27,000 of my education and given me the best leadership training out there. Between the military and the work ethic instilled in me by my parents; I had goals and I was going to reach them.

18 year old me in AFROTC

My parents are hard workers. My mom worked over a decade to get her college degree. She started out as one of the top hair stylists in Louisville, KY while my dad was a mascot for the Truck and Tractor Pull. When my parents had my brother and I, they knew they needed more reliable work. My dad enlisted in the Army and my mom worked odd jobs all around the country as my dad's career moved our family from military base to military base. My mom worked every odd job you can think of... from grocery store cashier, temp secretary , and teacher's aide as she attended classes at community colleges and finally Mary Washington College to earn her bachelor's degree. Then, in 2006 she earned her masters degree. Talk about persistence! From working as a teacher's aide, she now teaches the top high school students in Prince William County. My father did the same. From an enlisted paratrooper to the head of his government division, he earned his education and worked his way to his goal. My parents have never had patience for complacency or laziness, and I wasn't about to let my goal of becoming a journalist fall by the wayside because i didn't have an internship "in" like most other reporters.

I graduated college, made dozens of copies of my resume tape and begin looking for jobs... but no one was interested. I had no experience other than what I gained on Penn State Network News, and no connections. Around the same time, I also entered the Miss Virginia Pageant. The Miss America program is the largest provider of scholarships to women in the world... and not only could they help pay off my student loans, if I won Miss VA, it could also help get my foot in the door at the various news stations that would want to interview me. I was working as a counselor at the Youth for Tomorrow  group home when I was crowned Miss Virginia 2008.

I earned 24 thousand dollars in scholarships! Student loans: paid. I was the "hockey playing Miss Virginia who shaved her head for charity" so everyone from Good Morning America to Comcast SportsNet DC wanted me on their shows. Whenever I appeared on a program I would ask to see the news director:  "This is what I want to do... if they have just two minutes to talk to me, I'd be so grateful". Sometimes they would talk, sometimes not... But you never know if you don't ask and sometimes asking really paid off!

Robyn Roberts of Good Morning America spent more than necessary of her valuable time to give me advice. Tony Burke, the news director of Comcast SportsNet in Washington, DC, did the same. Washington, DC is one of the top 10 markets in the US, so what Tony said, I did. He set me up with my agent, Dana Adams... and the month after I crowned the new Miss Virginia,  he called and said he'd created a position for me. I was the fan reporter for the Redskins Kickoff show and would freelance when they had opportunities for me. It wasn't much, but it was enough to create a demo tape that could get me a full time job and for that I was unbelievably grateful.

The thing about working as a freelance reporter is: 1. You don't make much... and 2. You have to be flexible. So I looked around for flexible odd jobs I could pick up to make ends meet (mind you, this is the summer of 2010... my how my life has changed). I started bar-tending at an exclusive place called "George" in Washington, DC, then picked up another bar-tending gig at the place where I had shaved my head for St. Baldricks, called the "Crystal City Sports Pub".  I also picked up a nannying job working with a 2 year old genius named Brayden, and picked up another gig as a karaoke DJ some nights while I bar-tended at the same time at CCSP. I went from being Miss Virginia; having people ask for my autograph and being the belle of the ball.... to changing diapers, strapping on a gigantic vacuum backpack to clean the bar at 3am, and counting tips until 5am. When that still didn't pay the bills, I added another job as a contract public speaker for the "Making it Count" organization who flew me around the country to give speeches to high school students.

"Slinging" at George

Nannying my favorite little man!

All the while, I kept in mind my parent's no-excuses attitude. They helped out where I needed it... giving me money for food and gas... but I was expected to work my tail off... Out of the 5 jobs I held, only one required a college education. The rest, I learned what I needed to know on the fly. There were jobs out there for me if I was willing to work hard enough to get them and there were opportunities for me, if I was willing to sacrifice to make them mine. It wasn't easy... at all. I'm not kidding when I tell you, sometimes I worked nearly 24 hours a day.

Here's a real example:

Wednesday: 6am flight out of Dulles International Airport to give an 11am, 12pm, and 1pm presentation at a high school in Buffalo, NY. Fly back the same day. Home in Arlington, VA by 9pm.

Thursday: Nanny 8am-4pm
                Karaoke DJ 6pm-10pm at Crystal City Sports Pub
                Bar-tend 10pm- 2am at Crystal City Sports Pub
                Clean and Close out: 2am-3am at Crystal City Sports Pub

Sleep 4am-7am

Friday: Nanny 8am-5pm
            Bar-tend 8pm-3am George                                                                                                                       Close out and clean at George: 3am-5am

Saturday: Sing the National Anthem as a former Miss VA to kick off a Wounded Warrior bike ride: 6:30am-7:30am
          Bar-tend 10am-4pm Crystal City Sports Pub
          Bar-tend 8pm-3am George

          Close out and clean at George 3am-5am
          get to Comcast SportsNet studios in Bethesda, MD to leave for Redskins Kickoff: 8am.
          Leave the redskins game: 5pm

Sleep until 8am Monday.

A walking zombie after singing

Speaking for MIC


This is just a small glimpse of the schedule I kept up, which is a huge glimpse into why I have no tolerance for excuses. If you want it, make it happen.

Around this time, my agent set me up with a promising interview with a TV station in Birmingham, AL. It would be a great start, and give me a solid, single job with benefits that I desperately needed. After multiple phone interviews, I was flown out for a trial. Then, after several more phone conversations over the course of nerve-wrecking weeks, I found out that out of over a hundred candidates... I came in 2nd. That night I picked up the gigantic vacuum backpack to clean up the bar with tears welling in my eyes knowing that the difference between the exhausted life I lived and the life I desperately wanted was just one person.

But I didn't  give up.

Joe  Beninati and Lisa Hillary (if you're Caps fans, you know the names) were my best friends in the news biz and they always believed in me. They gave me tons of great advice and kept me motivated saying my big chance would come.

And it did....

I was karaoke DJ-ing/bar-tending at CCSP when my agent called about a job opportunity in Charlottesville

I drove down for the interview that week and Jim Hanchett hired me at the end of the day. I don't think he knows what a life-changing decision he and our GM Brad Ramsey made for me. I cried the whole way home, so happy that I never gave up, so happy for the never-ending support of my family and the character they instilled in me, the scholarships from the USAF and the MAO and the foot in the door being Miss Virginia gave me, the advice of all the news directors I met along the way, especially Tony Burke of CSN, the encouragement from my fellow broadcasters like Joe and Lisa, and the flexibility and belief in me from all the folks at CCSP, George, nannying, and MIC. Thank you for giving me a way to make ends meet while I went after my dream.

Life starting out in the news business isn't exactly glamorous. Some think anchors waltz in 30 minutes before the show, get their hair and makeup done by professionals, and read the headlines. At the Newsplex, we do our own shooting, editing, writing, and makeup, but we're better for it. I'm so honored to be a part of the VAB's "Most Oustanding Newscast" in all of Virginia and lucky to have made such wonderful friends here in Charlottesville. I'm so proud and grateful every day for this job and I'm happy to help anyone else get a foot in the door like so many did for me.

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