The Leff Exchange podcast: A conversation with Emmy-winning producer Dave Lubbers

A common challenge for any mode of storytelling is how to distill weeks and sometimes months of work into a narrative that does justice to a given topic. Deciding what to leave out—murdering your darlings—can be a gut-wrenching process, but doing it well separates the stories that truly connect with an audience from the ones that get lost in the shuffle.

Dave Lubbers has made his reputation and picked up a few Emmys and Peabody awards by finding those indelible moments in stories. As a producer for ESPN for more than 20 years, he’s covered the athletes, events, and sometimes overlooked angles to give viewers a deeper understanding of sports and society. In this episode of the Leff Exchange, Dave sheds light on his approach to storytelling, addresses working within the constraints posed by the pandemic, and educates us on a forgotten sports tragedy.

Scott: Maybe we could start at the beginning. Describe what you do in your role as a producer on stories for ESPN.

Dave: There’s a lot of different types of producers. Some are complete-show producers, and some are coordinating producers that coordinate entire shows and maybe multiple shows or multiple stories.

I am essentially a story producer, and to a lesser extent, a segment producer. I function also as a journalist. I’m not a reporter, per se, but I can report stories. I am expected to research and find stories or report out stories that I’m given.

As a producer, I’m assigned a story. And once that story is assigned, then I’m essentially the boss of that story, for lack of a better term. I work with the reporter, the producer, the editor usually, and various camera people—and whomever else has to come into the realm of the story while it’s being done. I’m essentially responsible for the final content of that story in an overall sense.

I’m also responsible for hiring camera crews. A lot of the time, I’ll do interviews on my own—or I’ll always sit in on interviews or listen in on interviews with the reporter and be ready for follow-up questions. A lot of my job, once all the content is in, is being able to work with the reporter, and the editor, and my superiors who, in this case, are either editors or “coordinating producers,” as they’re called. They head up the creation of the piece: how it’s going to look; how it’s going to sound.

We have to make sure everything is correct, and a lot of times, our stories will go through legal just to make sure that they’re OK, and so there is some responsibility in that sense, too.

In this job, you have to check your ego at the door a lot of times, in the sense that you might have a great idea. You might think it’s the greatest idea ever. It might be the greatest way in the world to start a piece or to end a piece. And you might be in an interview, and you might hear something that you’re thinking: “That’s in the piece. That’s the greatest thing I’ve heard.” And then it gets down the line, and you’re disabused of that notion.

You have to pick your battles, where to fight, because if you fight all the time, a) you’re not going to be a good person to get along with and to work with, and b) you’re going to drive yourself crazy. So you have to—I’m assuming like in your organization—you have to understand that the other people that are working with you are extremely talented and know what they’re doing, and so you need to have that ego check and be able to take in all these other opinions. I would say 95 percent of the time, that’s how a good piece is made.

Scott: On a previous episode of this podcast, we talked with a film producer, Mark Mitten, who described a similar process in collaborating with a wide range of creative people—stakeholders—to get something across the line. How would you characterize your approach to giving people space to do their best work, but then also ensuring that there’s some direction and guidelines?

Dave: I’ve always been sort of hands-off. In other words, I trust people to do their jobs. I give them an overview of what I want. I have a reputation, as far as how I work, as being a real team player. If you go into something and have a weird attitude, you’re going to just create tension and bad feelings.

And I found, at least at the level that I’m working with, if you really get it across to them right away—this could be on an overall project level, or you’re just going to shoot some B-roll—you give them an overall level of what you want, and explain it, and let them do their thing. Don’t get in their way, you know?

Sometimes you do have a vision. You really do want something to look like you want it to, and that’s where you go out on a limb, and you tell them exactly what you want. That’s another way to do it.

I’ve just found it’s a lot easier to give experienced, knowledgeable, professional people their room to be experienced, knowledgeable, and professional. And a lot of times I will—at the very beginning, if I’m working with a crew, even though I’ve worked with them a lot—I will say, “Look, this is a two-way street. If you have a good idea, if you see a good shot, I’m always looking for things like that, you know? Or if you hear a good sound bite, let me know.”

In the edit room, my editor will be like, “What about we do this? Why don’t we switch this over here and put this here?” It’s going to be in your favor to trust really good people to make suggestions—because I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve had my heart set or my mind set on one thing, and after somebody says, “What about this?” your immediate reaction is, “No, no, no, no, no, that’s not the way I want it.” But then they say, “Let me just put this in there.” And you’re like, “Oh, yeah, wow—that is better.”

That’s how the sausage is made, right? And nobody really cares how the sausage is made if they’re a viewer at home. And so a lot of the pieces that I’ve done—my ideas maybe didn’t make it, or they got changed around at the end, and that’s OK because if the piece is better, they’re not going to say, “Ha, ha, Dave, you didn’t get that little part in that you liked.” They don’t even know. They just think it’s a great piece.

Scott: When it comes to stories, then, how do you find the ones that really speak to you, that you decide you want to invest your time in? I know sometimes that you’re assigned stories, but when you get a chance to pitch a story, what are the contours or elements of that story?

Dave: As a producer, I am encouraged and required to pitch stories. At ESPN, you can imagine how many people are pitching stories. Everybody from the lowest content associate is pitching stories. I have done quite a few of my own stories, but the vast majority of the stories I do are the ones that are assigned to me. As a journalist, I gravitate toward juicy journalism stories: Why did this thing happen? Why did it really happen? They say this, but it was really this.

I think where my heart usually lies is maybe forgotten or quirky things that have happened, or personal profiles that are really compelling. Not just a “he’s good” or “she’s good” story. Those pieces don’t interest me. I’m looking for things that are a little deeper; when that happens—when that comes together, it’s a good feeling.

The Wichita State piece, which was the last piece I did, was a complete surprise, completely out of left field. It’s actually one of my favorite pieces, and it wasn’t necessarily the hardest piece. It wasn’t expected, but the feedback I’ve had on it has been tremendous.

Scott: Maybe we could go a little bit deeper into that story because I was fascinated by it. And I was also amazed that I’d never heard the story before. So maybe you could talk about how it came to you, how you started to dig into it, and then how it ended up in its final state.

Dave: I had never heard of it before. It’s just the classic, “That was a tragedy, but the real tragedy happened like a month and a half later when the Marshall plane went down in 1970 and killed the entire team.”

This story came at me from the side, in a way. Chris Connelly, who’s a terrific reporter, a veteran reporter at ESPN—he was already deep into researching the story about the plane crash that happened to the Wichita State football team in 1970. The team was traveling to Logan, Utah, for a game against Utah State. And they took two planes; they took a black plane and a gold plane, which were the school colors. The gold plane had all the starters, the coach, the athletic director, and some people that had won a contest to go to the game.

They flew from Wichita to Denver and then were going to fly to Logan, and the black plane made it to Logan just fine. The gold plane—the pilot decided he wanted to show the people on the plane the Continental Divide and the mountains. And the plane was overloaded, and the pilot flew into a box canyon and couldn’t get out. It was just a ridiculous tragedy, and I’d never heard of it.

Chris Connelly had researched it, an amazing story—and I won’t go into it; it’s a very layered story about a player who was on that gold plane who passed away, who about a day earlier had found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. And so Chris, who’s an amazing storyteller—this is a print story, a text story on—he told an amazing story about what happened to that girlfriend and the baby, and then on to the present day and some of the crazy, interesting things that have happened.

My coordinating producer, Tim, got ahold of me, and we got on a conference call with Chris. At first, we were trying to figure out—how can we do literally the story that Chris is doing? How can we do that for TV? It’s a wonderful story, but it was too layered; it had too many different people we would need to interview. And especially now that we’re not really traveling that much, it needed a lot of video and set-up things that we weren’t able to do. We decided that, and we were bummed out.

Then we thought—you know what? There’s got to be something else we can do. How can we make something about this piece? And so we had another call, and Chris mentioned, “You know, this is a forgotten tragedy,” and there’s like a forgotten addendum to the forgotten tragedy: after the crash, they decided to play the rest of the season.

So they went to Arkansas, who, at the time, was number nine in the country and a huge powerhouse; that was their first game after the crash. They were completely outmanned, almost ridiculously so. And Chris was telling us about that game and how unusual it was. We thought we might be able to do that. We might be able to do that if we can find some video. So we decided that was the route we were going to take.

Scott: When you’re pulling all of these different pieces together, you have hours and hours of research, video interviews, and B-roll, and you’re faced with whittling it down to a ten-minute piece. What is the hook or the guiding principle that you follow to do that?

Dave: Man, that is the question—how you get so much video down to, in this case, an eight-minute and two-second piece, which is actually quite long nowadays. In this piece, the task wasn’t so daunting. We had three 45-minute Zoom interviews. We had about three hours of archival footage, a ton of pictures, and then documents that the people we interviewed sent us.

Once you get an idea of what your story is, you start narrowing it down. The hardest, usually, is the interviews. We had three 45-minute interviews, which is a little over two hours. One of the guys was on screen for maybe 25 seconds, which just seemed like a huge waste, but it’s just the process. You have to do that. The hardest thing is how to choose the right words from the people you interview to really have an impact.

I think the second-hardest thing is what we call tracks, themselves. Like when Chris Connelly, the reporter, tracks. This isn’t a magazine piece. You can’t go on and on. You have to make your tracks quick; twenty seconds is a long time. I think there’s one or two tracks in here that are that long. And if you have a track that long, then you’d better have enough video and be able to put some music with it and make it go.

Next is all the archival footage. If you have a good story, that tends to work itself out. The challenge comes when you don’t have that video. We got very fortunate in this piece—I mean, just ridiculously fortunate that the ABC video archives, with the help of some people there, found just some unbelievable video. And I didn’t find everything I wanted, but I found stuff that I didn’t know that I wanted.

I think one of the biggest things for creativity is to make sure that you don’t do all the creativity before the piece starts, you know? In other words, you’ve got to have your mind open—because I saw some video that I didn’t even dream would exist, right? It wasn’t even on my list of wants. And that video was some video of these players getting on the plane in the early-morning darkness the day before the Arkansas game to fly to Fayetteville.

And I just was watching that one late night, and I was dumbfounded at what I was seeing. I realized that maybe the two guys that we talked to were on this plane 50 years earlier. I sent them little video clips. And it was just amazing. One of the guys was just like, “Wow, where did you get that? That was my second plane ride ever. I can’t believe I’m looking at that.”

Then in some of the other video, I found when the guys were coming down onto the field. I identified them by their numbers. And so I thought, let me see if I can write a little track that fits in between that first guy going down and the second guy going down.

Just little things like that I thought really brought it home. It really put those guys—it’s hard to explain, but it was like—you were looking at that, and these players are talking about it. It’s always good, even till the last edit, to not have your mind closed. You have to make sure that you’re still thinking about ways to either make it better or have your mind open to something that might come in late, and how do you work that in there.

Scott: How often, when you’re doing interviews, do you recognize, “That’s the moment; that may be the core of the story”? And then how often do you find it only when you’re sifting through all the pieces in the editing room?

Dave: I would say you think you find these moments a lot of times when listening to interviews. Emotional interviews are always easier. Once somebody gets emotional, then you’re like—that’s obviously something that may make the piece. If somebody starts to tear up or the speech starts to halt, that’s something you have to really consider getting into the piece if it works.

In this case, it was kind of amazing. We did the two interviews of the Arkansas players three or four days apart. I’m listening in, and Chris asked the same question to the guys, and both the men got emotional on the exact same question, which was, “What was it like when you came out onto the field that night at Arkansas?” When the second guy teared up at that exact same spot, I’m just like—that is the heart of the story. It was rare to realize that you have to build toward that moment. So that was a great example of it happening in a really clear way.

Sometimes our interviews are really long—an hour and sometimes more. And then you have four or five of those, and you’re looking at literally hundreds of pages of transcripts. Especially if it’s a more journalistic-type story, sometimes things go by you, and then you read them again and you realize—wait a minute, OK; so that happened then, and this happened, and then you cross check with somebody else.

The more complicated the piece is, the more that second example comes in. When it goes by in real time for two hours, there’s just no way you can truly recall everything. A lot of times you dive into the transcripts, and you find things that you heard. You start to figure out what the piece is going to be about and what’s important. Then those little snippets all of a sudden become more important.

Scott: You mentioned having to do Zoom interviews for the Wichita State piece. That’s just the nature of where we are in the pandemic. Have there been any benefits or upsides to that approach in how you tell a story, or has it all been having to work within unfortunate constraints?

Dave: More the latter. As a television producer, Zoom interviews are nails on a chalkboard. I want to go there with an amazing camera crew and prime lenses and just make this beautiful shot. That’s one of the things I like to do; you strive for those great shots.

In April, we did a story, and it was jarring and weird. I asked one of the subjects to shoot some video on his phone. I’m used to just beautiful video, and this guy did a great job, but the video was horrific looking, and jumpy, and all over the place. I had this moment like, “Oh my God, this is just a disaster.” And then we put it together, and it worked. People are so used to it that it just rolls by.

At first, I couldn’t stand it, and now it’s just par for the course. I hope we get back to the other way soon, but emotion is still emotion. It might not be as beautifully shot, and the lighting might not be perfect, and it might be jittery, but when, you know, a 70-year-old man starts to choke up thinking about something 50 years ago, it works just as well on Zoom as it does with an amazing shot that you paid a crew $5,000 to come with you to get.

Scott: Our director and producer absolutely hate having to try to do video in this environment. The people that watch have lowered their expectations, and they are fine with Zoom video. But I’d imagine for someone in the profession, it’s like trying to mount an art installation with a bunch of children’s scribblings. You can somehow do it, and maybe there’s some art to it, but it’s so much less than what it could be.

Dave: It is. There’s solace in the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it. Right now, we’re all in the same boat, so you just sigh and go forward. There have been stories that we just haven’t been able to do because they couldn’t be told the right way, visually.

Scott: One of the things that we work with our clients on is—if everybody is writing about a topic, what angle or perspective can you lend that stands out and that advances the conversation a little bit? I’d imagine it’s similar in your line of work. How do you come up with a new or different angle to cover that’s going to shine a new light on a topic, inform people, and give them a different understanding?

Dave: It’s tough, especially when you’re thinking about the day-to-day coverage. There’s an example I have. I was a Chicago bureau producer back in the mid ‘90s for Sports Center. During that time, the Bulls were on their run.

Think about it. You had every outlet covering everything. Everybody was looking for any angle. I came up with something that was pretty basic, but it ended being cool. I just noticed that Scottie Pippen was a master at bank shots, which are a lost art.

If you look at an NBA game, how many people really deliberately are shooting bank shots from different angles? It was just a quick piece, but what was amazing is that sometimes, if you do come up with an interesting angle, the person you’re doing it on is willing to try it, too, as long as it’s beneficial to them.

So, I pitched it to Scottie, and he was looking at me like, “Well, yeah—I mean, you’re right. Nobody does that.” He agreed to give us ten minutes in the Berto Center after a practice one day, and he shot bank shots and talked about them and did a quick interview. It aired the next day on Sports Center and then went into the ether like all the other stuff does. It was still a memorable thing, and my reporter and I still talk about it—how it was just weird that during the height of the craziness, we got Scottie Pippen to take an extra ten minutes to tell us about his bank shots.

There was another I did with a reporter, Mark Schwarz, who’s a great NBA reporter. It was during the finals, and we did a story about the strength of Michael Jordan’s hands. Mark was actually laughed at by John Stockton and Karl Malone, who were being interviewed during the finals. They actually thought it was a stupid question.

But the funny thing is, Michael took it seriously, and his coaches took it seriously, and it was just such a different angle. And then, lo and behold, in that series, the game-winning shot was Michael clearing out with his hand to make space for that jump shot. It was very subtle, and it was vindication.

Scott: To switch gears a little bit—in your free time, you’re a musician: a harmonica player. How has music informed your approach to storytelling?

Dave: It actually has. You can edit it with a little bit of a rhythm and in a way that keeps things moving. I think the more musically inclined you are, the more you feel this internal rhythm on everything. When I’m actually editing, sometimes I’ll look at something, and I’ll say, “You know what? Let’s cut that right there. It just feels right. It just makes sense, and then we’ll go on.”

Some of the great songwriters—it’s incredible how they can use so few words but tell such a big story. That’s a big, big thing when you’re writing for television because you don’t have a lot of time. You will be pressed for time, and you’ll be in situations where you really only have about eight or nine seconds for a track, and that track has to say a lot. And so, you will work on that track and work on that track, and you will argue with your reporter about what word do you use and why we should do this and that.

Off the top of my head, Tom Petty: an unbelievable songwriter. What he can portray in two stanzas is just amazing. John Prine was a tremendous song writer. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” That one line just opens up an entire world in your brain—like what in the hell is going on?

I love the blues, and there’s an old, old blues guy, Sonny Boy Williamson, who was a harmonica player. He could put together couplets that told much more than the total of their words. Then, of course, Johnny Cash, and then Chuck Berry—probably the best.

If you’re musical and you add music to the piece, you can tell this sounds right with this particular place in the story and everything. I love music, and I love playing harmonica, and it really does help.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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