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From CNN to ESPN and Beyond: Fred Hickman Talks about his Sportscasting Career and his Former Co-Host the Late Nick Charles

Exclusive interview by Marc Anthony

“The main thing that I will always remember about Nick Charles is that he may have been the best storyteller that I have ever come across in this business.” – Fred Hickman

Fred Hickman started in 1977 with a radio station by the name of “KLWW,” in Cedar Rapids then moving on to “WFMB Radio” a year later, honing his craft. In 1978, Fred started working for a television company by the name of “WICS-TB” in Springfield; coincidently it the same station that also employed Nick Charles, perhaps destiny to pair the two.

By 1980 Fred started working for Turner Broadcasting, and that’s when he became a sports broadcaster with Nick Charles in a show later to be known as “CNN Sports Tonight.” In 1986, he was co-anchor with Nick Charles for CNN/Sports Illustrated a TBS broadcast. Later, in 2001, Fred Hickman worked for the YES Network as the anchor for hosting pre and post-game coverage for the New York Yankees telecasts. He also hosted pre and post-game coverage for New Jersey Nets Cablecasts, and covered Yankees Magazine.

By 2004 Fred joined ESPN hosting SportsCenter. He also worked for Fox Sports South as a host for the Braves Live pre and post-game show in 2009-10 seasons and had a show called “In My own Words,” which conducted interviews.

RSR is proud to share the many memories from Fred Hickman’s career to our readers.

MA: What inspired you to start Fred Hickman Communications Inc.?

It’s something my wife and I decided to do. I have been involved in the broadcast industry for most of my adult life and I wanted to help others. Athletes, coaches … what have you…moving into broadcast number one but also moving into the arena of public speaking and representing different charities…those kinds of things. I think we have a good skill set as far as helping people to know what to do and obviously we have done it. So, that is the inspiration for that.

I also do a lot of voice over work on my own end, which is a passion of mine; it’s something I enjoy very much.

MA: Why do you feel strongly about training former athletes in the ways of broadcasting?

Having been in the business for so long at CNN, TNT, ESPN, YES Network and FOX Sports, I have seen guys that know how to communicate but freeze up when they get in front of a camera. And that’s kind of a natural thing to do, if you don’t know what you are doing. But I have seen it happen numerous times, so I am just trying to help these guys along to not be nervous. The only way you are nervous about something is if you do not know what you are doing. So, I am trying to get them comfortable by knowing what they are doing and I let them take it from there.

MA: I wanted to get back to your voice over work. Which are the ones that stand out that you liked the most?

Oh geez, there have been a few. Just recently I did one for the Negro Leagues. There were a couple of Negro League players who come to Georgia Tech, I live in Atlanta, and spoke with the Georgia Tech baseball team. So I did something for them with the ACC, the Atlantic Coast Conference. I also do Atlantic Coast Conference wrap up show for the men’s basketball tournament each year.

I have dubbed several political commercials and ads. Not that I was going one way or the other. I was just the voice of them. I also did a special…years ago for Robert Ballard who found the Titanic on TNT and I voiced that over. It was an hour long session for TNT and NatGeo and that was pretty exciting. There have been quite a few.

MA: How do you see the profession of broadcast journalism evolve over the last three decades?

It certainly changed. I am not quite certain that it has changed for the better. There are so many outlets now then there were twenty years ago or when I started in 1980. When I started in 1980, it was CNN, there was ESPN. There was no FOX News Network, there was no MSNBC…none of those things existed. So, everything was pretty much over the air or local. Now, things have become cable driven, satellite driven, radio has become satellite driven, and then you have the social media thing which is a whole different thing. Blogs…nobody heard of blogs ten years ago right?

All of this stuff, there is a big volume of things that are out there. But volume doesn’t make it necessarily better. You don’t have much of a filter now as much as you had a few years ago. While there is more, I am not necessarily sure that there is more quality. There is more quantity…there is not as much quality. That’s the slippery slope that I think we are going down now. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing.

MA: Have you had any special mentors that shaped your career?

Oh sure, Yeah a few. My dad for one, rest his soul. He gave me my work ethic. And my good friend Nick Charles who just passed away, he was a great mentor of mine.

Bernard Shaw, whom I worked with at CNN, one of the great journalists of all time, he was a great mentor. I could give you a really long list (laughter). There are people who touched my life along the way. My dad let me know that I could do anything I set my mind to do. Bernie was arguably the first African-American journalist of worldwide repute and a great professional who had a tremendous ethic, and of course Nick who I sat side by side for about twenty years so I learned a lot from him, he was about ten years older than I am.

MA: What do you remember most working with Nick Charles?

Oh, a million things. He was a consummate professional…a stickler for detail, and I guess the main thing that I will always remember about Nick is that he may have been the best storyteller that I have ever come across in this business, and I like to think that I have come across most of everyone. But he is the best storyteller by far.

He could take you to a point in time. If you weren’t there to see Buster Douglas knockout Mike Tyson in Tokyo, Nick could get you there about as close as you could possibly get without physically being there. Great storyteller, I have pulled from that in my career.

I think it’s incredibly important to tell stories. People don’t do that now. What you find now especially in sports media and in news and political as well, you find people who want to interject their own opinion and there are places for that. It’s the editorial page. But when you try to tell the story the way it is. Then that’s what you need to do and you need to tell the story as best as you can tell it and let the people decide for themselves. Without any kind of bend one way or the other. That’s why our show was so successful for decades. That’s what we did we didn’t have a shtick. We didn’t have any catch phrases or anything like that. If something was funny, it was funny. If it wasn’t, it wasn’t. You told the story the way it was. That’s one of my favorite memories of him.

The other favorite memory is that he was just my friend. He was a good guy. We would sit up and talk and we trusted each other always. Never played one up with each other, we were equals… in every sense of the word by the time we got on the air and before we got on the air. The most fun we had was preparing for the show. The show was secondary (laughter). We had our greatest joy just formulating the show and hashing it out, figure out what we were going to do.

MA: Any special rituals before the show, no chanting?

(Laughter) Oh no, we didn’t have any special hand shake or anything like that (laughter). We just showed up and got ready to go, that was about it.

MA: What has been the most memorable interview?

Man you are asking some tough questions here. There are so many, Muhammad Ali, that was one of my favorites. And probably the most memorable interview that I have ever done… it wasn’t an interview and it never got on the air. It was back in Springfield Illinois, it was my first job, back in 1978 something like that. I went out to a minor league ball game in my home town of Springfield Illinois and I interviewed, well I didn’t interview, I sat down with, one of my greatest heroes I guess you can say…and that was Satchel Paige and he was there with Cool Papa Bell and they are both gentlemen who were getting on in years. We just sat there and we talked for about an hour. Watching the ball game and it was just an amazing conversation. I was like a one man band then, so I had my own film and camera, that’s how long ago that was. And I just didn’t even think to shoot it. I was just sitting there talking to these guys. And now after all these years later that is probably the one regret I have. I kicked myself for not having “rolled” on that. It was just a great conversation and a great learning experience to get those two guys sitting down in a room, watching a ball game, a minor league ball game in Springfield Illinois was just great. That’s my most memorable I think.

MA: Can you recall a time when you had to make a decision that wasn’t popular with the majority?

Probably yesterday (laughter). Yeah, there have been quite a few. I try to make the right decision. If it’s popular, good and if it’s not, okay. I try to use my best judgment on these things. I guess, probably the most glaring one, was and I can’t remember the year but it was the year that I voted for Allen Iverson to be the MVP of the NBA and everybody else voted for Shaquille O’Neil. So, mine apparently was the only dissenting vote, okay. And I got ripped all the way across the country for that. And I still stand by that vote by the way.

It was supposed to be a closed vote. How it got out? I have no idea. And I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. I have never been a big public opinion guy. So I don’t know how it actually got out. It was crazy I got death threats and the whole thing. But, the next year, ironically enough Allen Iverson won the MVP. So people were calling me and asking me if I thought I was vindicated, I said no, I was just right. If you had any stones you would have done the same thing I did. So you know, I am not a public opinion guy, again I could care less with the voting thing. I just try to do the right thing always. If it’s right, its right and if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But even if it was the wrong thing I did it for the right reason.

MA: Changing gears, with the upcoming fight between Klitschko vs. Haye coming up this weekend, any fight prediction?

Not really, and to be honest with you I don’t follow the boxing game as much as I used to. I just don’t. I am a Hearns ,Hagler, Tyson, Ali kind of guy. That was the era that I covered. I don’t really follow it that much anymore. I can’t really give you a good predication on that. Anything that I would give you would not be educated so I prefer not to.

Probably over the last ten years or so, I sort of kind of got away from the boxing. I do more baseball, football and basketball. Boxing was Nick’s passion he loved it. He knew everybody. He would, when he covered a fight, he taught me how to cover fights actually and I did cover them when I was in Detroit a few years I did The Kronk’s boxing fights of the month with Kronk Gym: Manny Steward, Tommy Hearns all those guys. So I was very much into it back then. But to me it just kind of died out. You don’t have that star power. It used to be when you had The Heavyweight Championship of the world, when that fight happened in Vegas, Atlantic City or wherever. That was the biggest thing happening, in the world, everybody in the world paid attention to it. I don’t mean to diminish the sport but I think it has been watered down so much that it’s kind of hard for people to kind of gravitate too.

And you have all the MMA, I could care less. I really could. I know it’s popular and I know it sells and all that stuff but I have absolutely no attraction towards that stuff. It means nothing to me.

Back in the day, the Alis, the Foremans and the Frazier’s and when those guys fight that was a worldwide event. But I could remember days going to Vegas watching the Heavyweight Championship fight or watching a middleweight fight or cruiserweight fighter any of those that were championship bouts. That was it! You were glued to that; everybody in Vegas would see it. If you didn’t come to Vegas to see it then you would watch it on Pay Per View. For example, in Atlanta the Fox theatre would have Pay Per Views and the place would be packed. You would watch it there if you didn’t watch it on TV.

Nick on the other hand, appreciated the science of it. I just did not get into that the way he did. He could tell you, if there was a fight going on, for example the Klitschko fight coming up he would tell you not only about Klitschko he could tell you about every undercard fight. Every one of them! And know everything about every guy. That is how much he loved boxing. That’s why he is in the boxing hall of fame.

MA: What is it like to have had such a successful career and to now be able to give back to the community by sharing your experiences and teaching the up and coming?

With young people for example … it’s ironic that you ask me that question because with Nick’s passing last Saturday I have got in on my Twitter, Facebook and my website. I can’t tell you how many people chimed in and said. We used to work with you we interned with you, we met you, you interviewed us…thousands of people and it’s just amazing to me, soldiers that we reached through Armed Forces Network outlets.

It’s just been amazing. That just kind of emboldens me to go forward, there are other things that I am doing of course, just with my career to build up people and let them know that they can do it. Because I didn’t know that I could do it either (laughter). I didn’t know what I was doing it the first place (laughter).

I knew that I had a passion for communicating with people and when you have that passion and you pass that along and let people know how to talk and how to communicate…that’s a great thing. And I think what we find in the world today, not to get completely worldly politic and all that stuff but its true people don’t communicate with each other. They don’t talk with each other. They talk at each other.

Instead of learning from everybody’s experiences and I think that’s what you need to do. And our job, to me, it’s a dying craft I guess I am not going let it die on my watch, but the whole key is to let people know what other people are experiencing. Let them see it and let them make a judgment for themselves. And they can learn and grow and they could become better people. That’s what I think anyway I may be pie in the sky on this but that’s what I think.

MA: Thank you very much for your time we at RSR appreciate it.

You are very welcome, thank you. It was nice talking to you and I wish you luck in your career.

To find out more about Fred you can visit his website.


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