By Kalyn Kahler
Ngozi Ekeledo is just 24 years old and already working in the nation’s 25th-ranked television market. How did she rise so quickly?
With the help of two ACL injuries.
Ekeledo’s story begins with a couple of high school knee injuries that led her to discover her passion for sports journalism. While growing up, Ekeledo (BSJ ‘12) spent all her time doing two things — playing sports or writing. If she wasn’t hitting doubles with her softball team, shooting hoops on the basketball court or running track, she was reading books or writing her own stories.
When she suffered her second ACL injury at age 16, Ekeledo realized that she couldn’t continue to play sports past high school. The time spent sitting on the bench and recovering from her injury prompted her to think beyond high school sports. Ekeledo joined her high school newspaper and starting writing about sports.
“That was definitely an important moment for me,” Ekeledo said. “I was able to put more time into the newspaper at school and I was able to realize that interviewing people and talking to them, you learn a lot more from them. It’s interesting to tell their stories and see what happens when people react to stories you uncover.”
She followed her passion for sports and journalism to Medill, where she immediately began contributing to Sports Night, Northwestern News Network’s weekly sports show. “I really loved the visual aspect of storytelling and telling a sports story that way,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to do something that involved writing and sports, so it was the perfect way to combine the two of them.”
While at Northwestern, Ekeledo landed her dream internship as a digital media intern at ESPN. While at ESPN, she had the chance to shadow reporters and anchors like Rachel Nichols (now at CNN/Turner Sports), Jemele Hill and Jay Harris.
Following graduation from Northwestern in 2012, Ekeledo went west to Twin Falls, Idaho, to work as a weekend sports anchor for KMVT/Fox 14. She worked as a one-man-band reporter, shooting, editing and anchoring her own packages.
This past June she moved to North Carolina to begin her current position as a sports multimedia journalist for ABC 11 Eyewitness News, where her reporting is viewed by an audience of 1.1 million viewers in the 25th-ranked Raleigh-Durham market.
Although Ekeledo’s journey is still in it’s early stages, she has a unique experience of working as an African-American female sports reporter. Ekeledo discussed the current challenges she faces and how she has sought to change the perception of female sports reporters.
When you first tried out sports journalism with Sports Night as a freshman, did you feel encouraged as a female interested in sports journalism?
I didn’t really think about it that way. It was sort of a running joke that I would be one of the only females doing things, but it was more like these are just a bunch of guys that I am hanging out with, rather than, ‘Oh I’m the only girl here.’
What did you learn from your experience working with the female sports reporters at ESPN?
That experience was one of the best in my life. Seeing the producers work and seeing what goes into these shows, sitting on SportsCenter sets with anchors and talking to them in commercial breaks, working with Cassidy Hubbarth, a Northwestern alum who did Sports Night, too.
I talked to Sara Walsh a lot. She told me her experience in the industry. It didn’t really come to the point where she said, ‘I am a female in sports,’ because she’s at ESPN. (It felt like if) you know what you are doing, people don’t care if you are a guy or a girl. You are just somebody who is really good at doing this job.
What’s one piece of advice from a female sports journalist that you apply in your career today?
The advice that sticks in my mind came from when I got a chance to shadow ESPN.com columnist Jemele Hill. There are a lot of women in sports journalism these days, but there aren’t that many black women doing it. So for me, that is the battle. Being a female, and being a black female, is like having double the problems to deal with. (Jemele) told me that you just have to be prepared and know more than anyone else, because people are always going to question you and question how you got there.
What did you learn from your experience at your first job in Twin Falls, Idaho?
It was definitely the job where I paid my dues. It’s where I really learned and made my mistakes. It was a place to grow, and it wasn’t just a 30-minute show that I did in college. It was four shows a day. Weekends spent anchoring by myself. One-man-band stuff was a lot more intense because I was shooting for a whole show and putting it together that night. So there was a lot of learning how to be an anchor and learning how to work on tight deadlines.
It was an interesting experience because I had never been to that part of the country. It was really beautiful there and the people were really friendly. But I had that worry, ‘Are they going to like me?’ I was the only minority there, so I wondered what it was going to be like, but it was very welcoming.
This story of Ngozi’s won the Idaho State Broadcasters Association “Best News Story” award. It is the favorite story she’s ever done.
It was a very small town, so I covered a lot of high school rodeo and high school football and stock car racing, events I never imagined myself covering. But I am better from that because I covered these sports that most people don’t care about, but these people care about them so much. You can’t assume that every viewer wants to watch football or college basketball. There are viewers who really care about these sports, and that’s where I got good stories.
I was the only female sport reporter there, but being a female part didn’t really come up. Being a minority was a stronger presence for me. But I earned the respect from viewers. They could see that I knew my stuff and I earned their trust.
Have you ever had an experience that was challenging because of being a female sports journalist?
I think every female sports reporter has a moment with an athlete where it seems like it may be getting a little out of bounds. If you are working on a story and you are on Twitter and asking an athlete for an interview, you can get a direct message that they’ve taken your tweet the wrong way.
Guys can pretty much say whatever they want to male athletes. They can have buddy-buddy relationships, but the minute women have that type of relationship, it’s deemed inappropriate.
Then you have to deal with people asking, how did you get here? There was an instance the other day where I was talking to a photographer from another station, and he was saying a sports reporter for a certain network wasn’t good, and he didn’t know how she got hired and she must have a sugar daddy. I thought, no, she worked just as hard as you. It’s stuff like that you have to deal with.
I was talking to a coach the other day and he said, ‘Oh, let me help you with your stuff,’ and I was like, ‘No, don’t worry, I can get my stuff, I can carry my tripod.’ He helped carry my stuff to my car and then he said, ‘Oh, well if you ever want to hang out … .’ You have to say things like, ‘Oh me and my boyfriend are really busy.’ You have to do awkward things like that.
There are still issues that are really frustrating that you only have to deal with because you are a girl. But at a certain point, you have to set your standard and decide what you want to be remembered for.
How is your current job at ABC 11 Eyewitness News in Raleigh, N.C. different than your time in Idaho?
This one is just a lot more people watching. I moved from a town of 46,000 to a viewing area of 1.1 million. It’s a lot more eyeballs, so that is a little nerve-wracking. Everything has to be in place and you can’t mess up at all. This isn’t the starter market anymore.
It’s a large-scale operation. I am learning a lot, going live a lot more, more in-depth reporting. A lot more is expected out of the reporters. It is kind of like being on call, and it’s really exciting.
You are part of a visually-based broadcast industry that prioritizes youth and good looks for female talent. How do you manage that reality?
It’s hard. We’re told that women can’t afford to get old in this industry, whereas you see some examples of older guys who are almost drooling on set and still work. Me and a lot of my reporter friends talk about it. You want to be valued for what you do rather than how you look. But it is a visual industry. News directors will say things like, ‘You should change your hair.’ My agent told me I should probably change my hair and get a hairstyle. But when you are a reporter and you are a one-man band, you are running around everywhere and you are honestly lucky if your makeup is still on. That’s one thing I am struggling with. I barely have time to put on lip gloss, but people judge me to a high standard.
Women who are just as knowledgeable are taken out for these younger girls because networks are like, ‘We don’t want old, women can’t get old, we want young and new and perky.’ I just wonder if people are thinking that of me. I am 24 years old and I am in the 25th-ranked market in the country.
I realize that there are probably some people that are skeptical, but I got here because of hard work. I didn’t get here because I’m young. I’m here because I am innovative and I work hard.
Did you ever have a moment where you doubted yourself and rethought your career path?
In my first market, I was extremely poor and extremely overworked and I thought, ‘Why is this worth it? I am working every holiday, I’m working every weekend. Why am I doing this?’ I could go work a job like my friends in PR who go to bars after work on a Friday, at the time that I am just coming in to work.
There were definitely times where I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but the biggest thing I have learned in the past couple of years is just patience. We all want everything instantaneously, but you get to where you are because of hard work, and you have to grow along the way.
This is the path I am meant to be on.
This is what feels right for me.
This is what I want to do.
What’s your advice for girls today who want to pursue sports journalism?
Don’t let people tell you that you got here because you are a girl. I got here because I am prepared and this is what I love to do. I want us to get to the point where we think, so what she’s a female sports reporter? Did you see the story she did?
What is your ultimate career goal?
I would love to work for E:60 or a long-form sports show, like HBO Real Sports or Outside The Lines. I want to do harder sports stories, or documentaries. I would love to be a Rachel Nichols, Lisa Salters type. If I could be a combination of those two reporters, I would be pretty happy at the end of the day.
Kalyn Kahler is a senior journalism major at Medill, and is originally from Madison, Wisc. Her reporting has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated. She works in Northwestern athletic communications and is a varsity cheerleader, so yeah, she might just be the biggest Wildcat sports fan ever. Find Kalyn on Twitter @kalynkahler.