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Students focus on broadcasting

Program trains people for behind-the-scenes jobs in TV and radio

October 20, 2008|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

In a small classroom inside an industrial park in Torrance, veteran TV engineer Jaime Hernandez is dispensing some practical advice to his eager students.

Look at the subject. Frame the shot. Check the focus. Above all, be consistent.

"I had a student who was always going after the spectacular shot," Hernandez said. "I told him, 'Just give me something I can use. Just give me a base hit, not a home run every time.' "

With that in mind, a dozen students fanned out to film segments on topics such as high gas prices and fishing at the Redondo Beach Pier before returning to the classroom two hours later, when their work would be dissected.

The learning-by-doing approach is core to the mission of the Center for Education in TV and Radio, nicknamed Centro, which is Spanish for "center" and a rough acronym of the business' name. This minority-owned business offers a seven-month vocational training program to students pursuing careers in television and radio broadcasting.

The students don't fit the profile of those at established college programs. Many come from inner-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles and couldn't afford to attend a four-year college.

"We need to diversify our industry at all levels, and that's what we're helping to do," said Rolando Nichols, the school's co-founder and morning news anchor at Univision Communications Inc.'s KMEX-TV Channel 34. "We're giving opportunities to kids who otherwise might have done menial work for the rest of their lives."

Launched this year by Nichols and other Latino journalists, the center is a small player in the field. Centro has just 25 students and six instructors. And the center is not yet accredited, a process that takes two years.

Already, however, the program has garnered a strong reputation among major networks such as Fox Sports and ESPN by tapping into a growing demand for technicians, especially those who are bilingual. ESPN International, which owns in full or in part 45 international TV networks, recently hired one of the graduates to work as an assistant producer.

"They have state-of-the-art equipment in their facility, and they're teaching students how to operate it in a very practical way," said Charita Johnson, vice president of production performance and development for ESPN.

"We're very impressed," said Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman for Fox Sports West and Fox Sports Prime Ticket. Fox Sports has hired three of the graduates.

"Their graduates have fit well into our production crews," she said.

That's what Nichols had in mind when he hatched the business concept two years ago while teaching a journalism class at UCLA. He realized that many of the students lacked something he couldn't teach in a classroom: experience in the field and familiarity with the latest digital equipment.

"You can have a four-year college degree but if you don't know how to use the digital cameras or editing stations, you're not going to get a job," Nichols said, adding that he keeps his anchor duties "completely separate" from the school, which is managed by former KWHY-TV Channel 22 anchor Ofelia De La Torre.

Education runs deep for Nichols, 33, whose relatives own several schools and a university in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, where he grew up before moving to Arizona to attend high school.

He drew up a business plan for a training program run by experienced professionals that would simulate the conditions of an actual TV studio. He recruited a team of like-minded investors, including De La Torre.

"I immediately saw the potential, that we could make the students marketable and ready to work as soon as they leave here," De La Torre said.

The curriculum would stress learning all facets of the business, including operating cameras and lighting equipment, directing shots and using editing stations.

"We wanted to train them for a life in media, so if they can't find a job in one area, they can find it in another," De La Torre said.

The biggest hurdle was obtaining financing. "I went to almost every major bank," Nichols said. "They all thought I was crazy."

After months of trying, Nichols secured an $885,000 loan backed by the Small Business Administration through Promerica Bank, which caters to Latino-owned businesses.

"They knew what they were going for and had the experience in the field," said Jose Juan Vega, the bank's senior vice president.

Tapping his contacts in the industry, Nichols asked Fox Sports Network and other networks what equipment they used, then approached Panasonic, Avid and other manufacturers to negotiate discounts on cameras, editing stations and other tools of the trade.

Centro also partnered with National Mobile Television, a Torrance-based firm that sells and leases TV trucks that serve as mobile studios. Viewing the school as a potential training ground for new recruits, National Mobile Television agreed to house the school in its facility and make its equipment available for training.

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