Behind the scenes in Beijing
Alumnus has unique vantage point working for "Today" show
By Jeanna Packard
As the world watched the greatest athletes go for the gold from the comfort of home, Ohio University alum Michael Burns had a backstage pass to the Olympic action. Burns, BSC '05, represented NBC's "Today" show, and all Bobcats, to athletes and locals in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Working behind the scenes, Burns arrived a month before the opening day to research the city and prepare for the arrival of the "Today" anchors. Speaking from Beijing this summer, Burns credited much of his current success to his time at Ohio University and the opportunities he was given here, which started with a "Today" internship as a senior.
Here is an excerpt from our interview with Burns:
How long have you been in Beijing, and what’s your current status?
We've been in Beijing about a month, and things will start to get crazier as we get closer to the opening ceremonies. Even after Torino (Burns covered the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy), it's so fascinating to see how it evolves. It's fun to see all the different venues; plus I'm a process, logistics and organizations nerd.
How have you been preparing for the show to air?
We set up the office and create a global newsroom. We research the city to learn as much about the area as possible: Where (do I) go to buy things? What is the best section of the Great Wall? ... Other tasks are more complex, such as creating the set on the Olympic green, making sure all the sound and audio systems work.
How would you describe your work with "Today"?
We (he and the 26 runners he manages) do less of the creative side of things and more of the logistics. A lot of the work no one sees or thinks about. Our work allows the broadcasters to seamlessly go from the studio in New York to the new set in Beijing. … The producers think of ideas, and we make the ideas happen. If the producers want to show Matt Lauer from the Forbidden City, then it is our job to find ways to make it happen. We learn all about the different venues, learn where we're going to pick up athletes (and) where to take them for interviews. It is timed down to the minute, and we can't be late.
What has been the most memorable experience so far?
(Knowing that) I'm here in Beijing for the Olympics. I'm a part of history. This country that has been so closed (is now) coming out in front of the world. Yesterday (July 30) I went to the water polo venue, and the medal ceremony was being rehearsed. The Chinese have been practicing for weeks. We get to see them practice the parades, costumes and fireworks. You get a whole different feel, an insider's gaze to the mechanics of the Olympics. I've also done other sightseeing, such as the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City.
What is the atmosphere like in Beijing?
The energy around is great. People from around the world are here for the same purpose. It's all very positive and exciting.
How do the Olympics in Beijing compare with Torino?
This time I'm even more excited. The other runners are asking me questions. When I was in Torino, the Italians didn't have the same energy and pride felt in Beijing. Beijing has been a special experience.
What athletes did you meet in Torino?
In Torino, we were responsible for getting (figure skater) Michelle Kwan to and from her car without paparazzi or fans getting her. The snowboarders were fun to talk to. We worked with (speed skater) Chad Hedrick several times in Torino, and we were able to get to know him.
Have you had any cultural shocks?
Beijing is huge. It's impossible to get somewhere quickly. The size is overwhelming and bigger than any city in the U.S. The culture is completely different too. … I can't even pretend to be able to read the language.
How do you get around the city when you don't know the language?
Our Olympic credentials get us on the subways and around the city, and the people are willing to help, especially when we don't have our translators. It's really funny sometimes when we can't figure something out, we call up one of our translators, and it turns out to be something simple.
Is it a demanding job?
Looking back on my experience with the Olympics -- when I was sitting in the airplane leaving Torino and all the adrenaline had faded away -- I don't know how I maintained the fast pace without burning out. During my time working with the Olympics I don't want a day off because I don't want to miss anything. It is go, go, go, and when it is all over, you do crash. But it was worth it.
What kind of souvenirs have you picked up?
Pin trading is a big deal. It acts as a weird currency. Everyone wants to get as many different pins as possible. The "Today" show pin has the Great Wall with Beijing 2008 written on it. We have jackets that only athletes have.
What are your future plans?
After Beijing I'm going to get my Ph.D. at North Dakota. I've fallen into this cycle of schooling and working for the "Today" show. Someday I would like to be a professor, but for now I'm enjoying my work as a freelancer. I am able to work on my own schedule and go to all the big events, which are the places freelancers are needed. If a steadier TV job came up, I wouldn't turn it away automatically.
Any last words about being a Bobcat?
My whole family is alumni of OU. My parents graduated in '75 and '76, my sister in 2002, and my brother is a sophomore.
I wouldn't have this position if it weren't for OU. Spring quarter 2005 I finished my internship with the "Today" show, and I was a communication studies major with no technical background. I needed problem-solving skills, to be able to research angles and think outside of the box. My professors at OU helped me through it. There was never a moment I thought, "I wish I could have learned this in school." Now I get it; everything I learned did come in useful. I actually felt that I had an advantage over the other interns.
What is fellow alumnus Matt Lauer like to work with?
Matt Lauer treated me well, and he recognized me in Torino two years after my internship. He is definitely still a Bobcat.
Jeanna Packard, BSJ '10, is a student writer for University Communications and Marketing.