Interview With Mike Straka
Mike Strakaís career in TV news started at CBS in New York where he worked
as a page with 60 Minutes, Geraldo, Evening News With Dan Rather, and The
Joan Rivers Show. Straka joined FOX News Channel just before the network
launched in 1996. Check out Andrew Hardís interview with Mr. Straka himself. Heís full of advice and wisdom.
MS: - Mike Straka | WTW: - When Teens Write
WTW: Where did you grow up?
MS: I grew up in Barnegat, NJ, which is on the mainland just outside of Long Beach Island, a popular shore resort.
WTW: Do you remember what you thought you wanted to be after growing up when you were a kid? If not, then when did you first realize that you wanted to be a journalist?
MS: I have never been afraid of work, which I believe 100% is the key to success. Iíve seen others get ahead by doing very little work, but I canít speak for those parasites. One thing I always tell young people who are in TV News or who want to be, is "never say no to a job." If they need you to log a tape, do it. If they need you to run tape or scripts, do it. If they need you to answer phones, do it. If they need you make a coffee run, do it.
I made so many coffee runs during my tenure as a page and a production assistant thatís itís actually on my resume; service with a smile. Learn as much as you can from as many people as you can because when you get older and youíre bogged down with bills and responsibility, itíll be all you can do to keep the job you have, never mind bettering yourself and your career.
I started working when I was eleven years old. Iíve been a paperboy, bike mechanic, gas pumper, tow truck driver, tire and oil changer, electricianís helper, cutlery salesman, pizza maker, clam digger, disc jockey, martial arts instructor, actor, desk assistant, writer, producer, reporter, tape operator, web administrator, Internet project manager, and a barman (not necessarily in that order).
Growing up, I never really thought "what do I want to be?" If I did, I may have said I wanted to be a cop or even own my own pizza restaurant. My career in broadcast journalism was an accident. I moved to New York City to become an actor, and since I was working at CBS as a page, the logical progression if I wanted to stay was working in the newsroom. So I looked at news as my "waiting on tables" job while I pursued my acting career. To do so, I worked the overnight shift at CBS News, and acted in plays and commercials during the day. I've done several commercials, from Healthy Choice Pasta Sauce to The Power Puff Girls, and acted on soaps and comedy shows, like Conan O'Brien.
The jobs were fun, but I definitely sensed that while acting, something was missing -- like the electricity of being in a newsroom during a breaking news event. And though I didn't realize it at the time, I was working with some of the best broadcast journalists in the business ... Mike Wallace, Bill Whitney, Larry McCoy, the late Charles Kuralt, Mark Knoller and so many more people behind the scenes. I fell in love with the atmosphere, and being a competitive person, I wanted to make my mark, forcing me to work harder and longer than anybody else.
That work ethic has stayed with me even as I gain more and more ground in the field.
WTW: What is your assessment of the quality of present-day television journalism?
MS: Television journalism today suffers from being over-saturated, and the sheer competition between the cable channels and the network news divisions sometimes clouds otherwise good news judgment. But overall, I think TV journalism is in excellent condition. TV news goes through cycles, but when the big events happen, like JFK's assassination, the Oklahoma City Bombing and then September 11th, there is no question that TV stepped up to the plate and provided excellent coverage. It's in those times, and not in the slow cycles where shark attacks lead, that TV journalism proves invaluable.
WTW: What, if any, factors do you think may be holding present-day TV journalism back from reaching its full potential?
MS: It's just the over-saturation. The competition to be first, or to get the big interview causes the journalism to suffer. That's why long form shows like 20/20, 60 Minutes and even FOX Magazine tend to tell better stories than the day to day news programs that have deadlines and time constraints to contend with. That being said, there is room for even more news channels. It's up to the viewer to decide which one suits them the best.
WTW: Where did you go to high school/college?
MS: I went to Monsignor Donovan High School in Toms River, NJ and then Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. I majored in English, but leaned toward drama and eventually took off for my job at CBS after four years there.
WTW: What obstacles did you encounter to get where you are today?
MS: REJECTION! I've heard "no" probably more than anybody. Perhaps that's because I try harder, but the sheer amount of rejection in this business can be overwhelming. I have stacks of rejection letters that I've saved over the years. But I keep plugging away. One thing I always tell people is, no matter how many no's you hear, you only need one yes to make a career.
WTW: What obstacles do you encounter on the job that prevent you or delay you in reaching your day-to-day goals? What obstacles exist to your long-term goals?
MS: In my day to day work life, I encounter a lot of obstacles. Because I not only report and produce my television pieces but I also write a column AND run the web operations, a lot of what I plan is interrupted by either Internet problems that need my attention, or business development that I need to execute. Also, my on-air contributions tend to lean toward the features and entertainment side of things, so at an all news channel, I frequently lose my cameraman to a breaking news event... try telling Tom Cruise's press secretary that you can't get a shooter for the scheduled interview... it'll be the last time you book him. But that happens.
Long-term, I think that being as stretched as I am on the job prohibits me from getting as good on the air as I think I can be. It's happening, but it's just taking longer. Of course, I've turned down jobs to be on television every day in smaller markets, but that's because so much of local news is so boring and painful to watch, I'd rather take the long road home.
WTW: What inspires you to keep going?
MS: I like to read biographies of people whom I respect, and thus inspire me. I just finished Roone Arlegde's "Memoir," and before that I read Clinton's "Living History," Rudy's "Leadership," Jack Welch's "From The Gut," "Seabiscuit" and Bob Schieffer's "This Just In." But I read bios of famous actors, directors, writers, dancers, artists, singers, you name it. I think striving to achieve that kind of success or wanting more than they achieved inspires me, but it is also research. Reading biographies can be a wealth of information not just about the person you're reading about, but about the time in which they lived. I also read a lot of trade papers, like Variety and Hollywood Reporter.
WTW: Where do you see yourself in five years?
MS: I'd like to have my own show that I not only host but also executive produce, under my own production company. But that's not the final goal. I'd like to parlay whatever success achieved from my company into a movie acting career, giving me the freedom to pursue my ultimate goal, which is to be president of a television network. One thing I've learned climbing ladders... dream jobs eventually become next steps in one's career, and by the time the rung is in front of you, you'll have your eye a rung much higher... so you may not even realize that you've so-called "made it," because you're constantly seeking to do more. At least I am.
WTW: How do you seek to effect people through your craft?
MS: I am very interested in entertaining people with interesting programming. I'm not one of those guys who will do anything for a laugh, which is sort of what's happening with much of television programming these days, if the analogy makes any sense. As an actor, I have learned to leave myself out of my character, if that character has different traits and habits than I do. In journalism, it's important to take yourself out of the story (excluding opinionated columns). So to be honest, there is a lot in common between acting and journalism. That being said, I don't see myself in front of the White House talking politics. I see myself on the red carpet at the Oscars, either reporting or walking in.
WTW: What methods do you use to offer viewers content to the stories you cover, when you have only a small amount of time offered by the network to present the content in?
MS: I start my pieces off with compelling video, and I'll cut in a fast montage so that viewers are sort of caught off guard and say "whoa, what was that?" This way I can grab their attention right off the bat and then let the story unfold. I've been fortunate to have 1:20 to tell a story, and sometime 9:00 to tell a story. So I've tried several different methods.
If you watch Steve Hartman at CBS News, he has that "Everybody Has a Story" segment where he throws a dart over his head at a map... he has a very formulaic way of telling a story, but it works. He establishes the principle, but then throws in a dramatic storyline, which is usually sad, sometimes with happy endings, but other times sad endings. Anyway, his method is his. It works well, but it doesn't really work for me. I don't have the cadence he has, and if I tried to duplicate it, it wouldn't be as good. Every broadcaster needs to have his or her own style of telling a story. Since I happen to be my own producer, I use all of the tools available to me. I ask my shooter for snap zooms and dutch angles, and then I ask my editor for quick cuts, dips to black, and oftentimes I throw music in my piece. My favorite way to judge a piece... if it seems too short, it's usually very good.
WTW: Name three journalists who have influenced you.
MS: Roone Arledge, Larry McCoy, Michael Lewis.
WTW: What is the best piece of TV journalism you've seen in the last year?
MS: Rick Leventhal embedded with the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.
WTW: Who do you think is the best journalist on-air today?
MS: Peter Jennings.
WTW: If you could be any person throughout history, besides yourself, who would you be?
MS: Bruce Lee.
WTW: Any plans besides journalism that you want to pursue?
MS: I would love to be a movie star.
WTW: What advice would you offer to aspiring or young journalists reading this?
MS: Never say no to a job. No matter what your goals are, getting "in the building" is the most important step. I've seen administrative assistants become producers, and I went from production assistant to on-air, knowing that my experience and work ethic would set me apart from my peers. Look, you will not get compensated for your overtime. You might have to work for free on your days off. If you don't make enough money, you may need to take on a second job (when I worked at CBS as a page I made 6 bucks an hour. I worked at Le Bar Bat on W57th Street as a barback so I could eat).
Don't ever complain about being overworked or underpaid, and never bad mouth anybody you work with. Remember that the operation is and will always be bigger than you. Don't have the "if I quit, they'll be screwed" attitude, because they won't be.
Finally, you only have to prove to yourself that you can do. If you believe with all your energy that you can do something, everybody around you will have no choice but to believe in you too. Good luck.
Questions by Andrew Hard
Screen Actors Guild, Actor's Equity Association, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Writer's Guild of America, US Tae Kwon Do Union.
Broadcasting: IF Management 212-265-7711
Commercials: Don Buchwald and Associates 212-867-1070
Mike Straka can be seen as a feature news and entertainment correspondent on FOX News Channel's FOX Magazine and online as a writer and columnist for FOXnews.com.
Assignments include covering events such as the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, The US Open, The Big Smoke, The Essence Awards, Movie Premieres, The Grammyís, Academy Awards and many more. Michael also filed stories from Ground Zero and others related to the World Trade Center attack.
In addition, he is senior project manager for FOX News Web Operations, overseeing the development, design, functionality and roll-out of FOXnews.com, FOXnewsedge.com and FOXWire, as well as future web development.
Prior to FOX he worked as the entertainment editor and senior producer for WorldStories.com, a website for news, entertainment, and contest oriented programming.
Before joining WorldStories.com, Straka worked as a producer and writer at FOX News Channel in New York City, where he produced, wrote and hosted the Take 2 Movie Review, a pilot slated for use on the FOX News Edge affiliate news service. Straka also produced, wrote, and copy-edited breaking news events, including the Columbine school shooting, the crisis in Kosovo, the impeachment of President Clinton, and served as a feeds producer at FOX News Edge.
Straka began his career in broadcasting as a page at CBS, working with Evening News with Dan Rather and 60 Minutes. He also worked the overnights as a desk assistant at CBS News Radio.
AS AN ACTOR, Straka can be seen in the blockbuster movie Analyze This, starring Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal, where he played the role of young Dom Minetta. He also had a long run in the Off-Broadway hit Tony n' Tina's Wedding, and has made numerous appearances on NBC's Late Nite with Conan O'Brien. Straka did a three-year stint as the Carlino's waiter on NBC's Another World, and can be seen nationwide in a series of promos for the Cartoon Network, and in commercials for Coors, Healthy Choice Pasta Sauce, Target, Adidas, The U.S. Mint, The Olive Garden and Papa Gino's Pizza.
Straka also wrote, produced, and starred in the Off-Broadway one man show Mat Rat, which ran at the Triad Theater in New York City, and was directed by the late William Woodman.
Michael Straka attended Rutgers University, where he studied English and drama, and was a member of the varsity wrestling team. He also holds a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and has won numerous national and state fighting championships.
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