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Gateway to Charlotte: Parks and rec major finds his calling in TV news

Before Wingate intervened, Brian Stephenson ’95 wouldn’t have dreamt of the career he’s had.

In the small town of Knightdale, just east of Raleigh, Stephenson worked summers for the city parks and recreation department while a teenager. “I essentially created my own job as activities director,” he says. “Instead of just being a counselor, I got to plan the activities.”

He enjoyed the work so much that he thought his future consisted of recruiting rec-league coaches, running facilities and keeping equipment purchases under budget. But Wingate set him on a different path. Pals with a couple of communication majors, Stephenson found himself filling in for a friend on a radio broadcast of a basketball game one day during his sophomore year.

Turns out he was good at it. He had a self-assured, everyman voice, and he liked to talk. Pretty soon he was filling in more often, doing sideline reporting, even attending the South Atlantic Conference media day for a local radio station. That led him to an appearance on Bulldog Sports, a weekly show on the University’s student-run TV station, and Stephenson’s real career, his destiny, revealed itself.

“I came on and did the segment on the SAC, and they were like, ‘You did a really good job with that,’” Stephenson says. “A couple of weeks later, they came to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in hosting next year?’ I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Brian Stephenson posing in front of the Charlotte skyline

He was getting into a career, whether he knew it or not. Bitten hard by the broadcasting bug, Stephenson honed his craft at Wingate, and today he’s an acclaimed producer for Charlotte’s longtime CBS affiliate, WBTV, doing segment producing for the lifestyle show QC Morning and even creating his own franchise segments.

During his nearly 22 years at WBTV, Stephenson has reported on accidents, snowstorms and shootings. He’s traveled the country producing longer pieces on politics, the opioid epidemic and local basketball hero Steph Curry. He’s produced segments on illegal border crossings in Arizona and on Rae Carruth, the former Panther who hired someone to murder his girlfriend.

But Stephenson is happiest when making others happy. At heart he is, unashamedly, a purveyor of feel-good stories. His Instagram handle is “@luv2telgoodnews,” and he does indeed tell good news, with a flourish.

His current gig is tailor-made for him. The overall show producer decides the order of segments and books guests, but Stephenson edits all the video segments for QC Morning and makes sure the visual feel of the set suits each segment. He has also started producing segments of his own, including the franchises “Made in the Carolinas” and “Carolina Q.” QC Morning, which airs at 9 a.m. weekdays, concentrates on food and drink, entertainment, and practical tips and tricks. Being on the bright and breezy show is an easy choice for guests.

“I always tell people, ‘This is a lifestyle show, not 60 Minutes. We’re walking in your door giving you four to six minutes of free television,’” Stephenson says. “It’s not a bad day when we show up.”

One of his favorite days was spent following former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton around, alongside a police escort, as “Santa Cam” brightened people’s day by delivering gifts at Christmastime. “That was a blast,” he says.

Stephenson has interviewed his childhood sports heroes, famous actors and more musical performers than he can count. He was especially saddened earlier this year to learn of the passing of the comedian and TV star Bob Saget.

“I’ve never met a more professional, genuinely nice guy than Bob Saget,” Stephenson says. “We had something goofy we wanted him to do the first time he came. We wanted him to interrupt our morning meeting when we discuss what’s on the show. I walked through it with him, he asked me who the hosts were, he wanted to know everybody’s name. He was like, ‘Mic me up. I’m in.’ He walked in and we just let the cameras roll. It was amazing.

“The experiences I’ve had and places I’ve gotten to go and people I’ve gotten to meet, it still blows my mind that I started out shooting videos at Wingate.”

Eager to learn

Stephenson wound up at Wingate after one of his best friends, Katie Upton Wood ’94, raved about the school. But he admits that trouble getting through math and foreign-language classes in high school made his acceptance into college a dicey proposition. The rest of his grades were solid, but Stephenson lacked some core classes, so he entered Wingate as a provisional student.

“They took a chance on me,” he says. “You had a semester. If you did well, you were fully admitted, and I did. As they say, the rest is history.”

Last year Stephenson ran into former math professor Gladys Kerr, who oversaw the provisional program. “I will never forget Wingate, but you, specifically, took such good care of me,” he told her. “Everything I have today is because of people like you.”

Stephenson graduated with a degree in parks and recreation, but by his junior year he knew where his future lay. After earning his degree in December of 1995, he was hired by the University to broadcast Wingate sports on WMAP in Monroe. In the first half of 1996, he broadcast more than 50 Bulldog events.

Brian Stephenson with two former Panthers players

He also read local-news headlines and produced his own stories for a daily five-minute segment that aired in Union County on CNN Headline News. Under the tutelage of John Coleman, former communication professor who was overseeing the Wingate broadcasting studio, Stephenson learned the news business.

“I would run and chase every fire and wreck in the middle of the night,” Stephenson says.

He also started selling stories to WBTV. “One day we had a pretty significant story, and apparently I got a hold of the right guy, Jim Newman, and it ended up being their lead story that day,” Stephenson says.

Newman, at the time the assistant news director at WBTV, encouraged Stephenson to bring in more stories, and he did. For three years he monitored the police scanner, working as a “stringer” before being hired full-time at WBTV. Eager to learn, he asked questions, watched the pros and soaked up everything he could about the news business.

“I would write scripts and they would clean them up,” Stephenson says. “The producer would print out both copies so I could see what they had improved on. I had editors who helped me learn to edit.

“All I had to do was drop off a video and get paid, but I started doing things that would let me get in the door more. I kept learning and writing, and, this is not a dig at them, but most of my coworkers who were doing my job, their goal was to be a photographer. My goal was to eventually report and learn to write. I started writing what they call ‘anchor packs.’ If they had something they didn’t have a reporter assigned to, they would have me go out and shoot it and write it and hand it to an anchor, who would massage the script a little bit. They’d voice it and I’d edit it and put it together.”

He learned how to frame an interesting shot, pace his edits to keep the viewer interested, and phrase his questions in such a way that he would receive clip-ready responses.

Stephenson’s well-honed ability to create interesting visuals for TV has paid off for QC Morning, which he’ll go to any lengths to make visually appealing. To create a winter-like set for a performance by the pianist Jim Brickman, Stephenson unearthed some saplings from his neighbor’s property and painted them white. Like Saget did, Brickman returns to the show anytime he’s in town.

“We’ve had a history of having good artists in, and that’s one area I really enjoy producing well, making sure the set looks good, making sure the audio is good,” Stephenson says. “If they have a good experience, then you can parlay that into other artists.”

“Brian excels at creating exciting, visual, live television,” says QC Morning co-host Kristen Miranda, who has worked closely with Stephenson for a dozen years. “For someone who started as a stringer, to see where he is now, how far he has come, is incredible. The visuals he brings to QC Morning make the show what it is.”

Recently, Stephenson has received accolades that have attested to his proficiency as a producer. For 2020, he was named Special Projects Producer of the Year by the Radio and Television News Directors of the Carolinas. And last year he received an award from the same organization for Entertainment Story of the Year for a piece he did on Ludwig Drums in Monroe.

That segment was for his “Made in the Carolinas” series, which Miranda thinks showcases Stephenson at his best (his other franchise, “Carolina Q,” focuses on barbecue joints). “He finds so many gems all across both states and does the most beautiful stories to highlight the wonderful things we have here,” she says. “He’s great at finding and interviewing the most interesting characters, and the visuals he matches with them are second to none.”

It helps that Stephenson finds the work so rewarding, whether he’s interviewing Darius Rucker or Madison Bumgarner or sampling a new ice-cream shop’s rocky road.

“Honestly, I get to do all the fun stuff,” he says. “It’s busy, and you work really hard, but it’s so much fun.”