By Terry Dean
Sitting behind OPRF's Newscene anchor desk for the first time, all Michael Stevens could do, beyond sweating profusely, was mimic the style his favorite TV anchors, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric of Today Show fame.
It apparently worked, impressing his teacher John Condne, who gave the eager sophomore a quick impromptu audition.
Stevens fondly remembers that experience nearly a decade later. He's much more comfortable in front of the camera now as an anchor and reporter for NBC's Madison, Wisconsin affiliate station.
A 2007 Oak Park and River Forest High School grad, Stevens started at NBC-15 Madison in 2011. His last name is actually Wojtowicz, but he adapted his middle name, Steven, for use on-air. Stevens is a morning and weekend anchor, as well as a reporter. As a kid growing up in Oak Park, television news, locally and nationally, always interested him, he says.
"The Today Show was always on. It was Katie and Matt every morning," said Stevens, 25, by phone from his NBC-15 newsroom.
He attended Whittier Elementary School and Emerson Jr. High, now Brooks Middle School, before going to OPRF. Despite Stevens' interest in news, becoming a journalist was not "first on my mind," he says. His study hall, however, was a few doors down from the Newscene broadcast classroom, which he walked past daily.
"That's when the curiosity started, looking in and seeing the cameras and lights. That's what kind of started the draw."
Stevens started asking senior class leaders about who taught the class and how to sign up. He ended up taking radio but one day asked Condne about joining Newscene, OPRF's TV class, which produces the weekly, short-segment news program of the same name.
Impressed with his curiosity and enthusiasm, Condne gave him a shot, even though the class was for upperclassmen.
"It was in the last minutes of class and everyone started gathering around, kind of like 'OK, let's see what he can do,'" Stevens recalled. "He threw on the lights and said, 'OK, go ahead and sit behind the desk.' He turned on the camera and I just started reading. I was sweating and so nervous. I had no idea what I was doing. All I could do is remember what I saw Matt and Katie do on The Today Show that week. I was just reading but I couldn't really see [the teleprompter] because of the lights. It was only two or three minutes but it seemed like forever.
"But when it was over, the lights came on and everyone clapped," Stevens said. "I don't think they did it just to be nice. I think it was an acknowledgment that I did a good job."
Condne recalled, "Michael was easily one of the best anchors I have ever had. When I put him on the spot to try him out, he knocked it out if the park. There are very few students who are naturals in front of the camera. Michael Stevens is one if them."
While studying journalism at DePaul University, Stevens pursued radio, interning at KISS FM in Milwaukee, working an overnight shift as an on-air host. But Stevens says he knew radio wasn't for him — television was it.
After graduating from DePaul in June 2011 with a bachelor's degree in journalism, Stevens was hired at NBC-15 that November. He started as a producer before going on-air. But being in front of the camera was not his main draw, he says; it was interacting with everyday people.
"It's not as glamorous as some think, but there are definitely payoffs. Meeting people, getting them to trust you and telling their stories — that's where my passion is," Stevens said.
Stevens' parents still live in Oak Park and his older brother is a DJ with Chicago's B96 radio. While he currently calls Madison home, his ties to Oak Park remain. He returns home a lot and, in fact, is here visiting this week.
His advice to aspiring journalists, including some of those who'll be sweating it out at Newscene when school resumes this fall: "Be innovative and creative and dream big and go with your curiosity or your gut. I didn't know what was in that class, but I knew I was interested in it, and it turned into my passion."