Media Musings: From wrestling to WRAL, meet the Triangle’s newest sports anchor

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Lea held a variety of jobs on his way to becoming WRAL’s lead sports anchor

It’s an understatement to say that Chris Lea will bring a unique variety of experience to WRAL next month.

The most relevant, of course, is his seven years at Triad NBC affiliate WXII, including more than four years in sports, as Lea makes the jump from the country’s No. 49 television market to the No. 27 market.

Chris Lea is ready to anchor sports in the Triangle

He took an uncommon route to WRAL, partly because Lea wanted to try different jobs.

“I’ve always had this thing where I wanted to throw everything at the wall and do everything that I’ve ever dreamed of doing and whatever happens to stick, I’m going to go with that,” said Lea, who leaves WXII next week and will be WRAL’s first black sports anchor when he starts March 4. (When Dwayne Ballen was a sports anchor on WRAZ in the early 2000s, some of his work appeared on WRAL.) 

Lea’s varied experience, in addition to TV sportscaster and TV traffic reporter, includes newspaper sports writer, rap album artist (he recorded one album with a friend), radio producer, hip-hop radio disc jockey, radio talk-show host, MTV host and pro wrestler.

More about the last one later.

None of those jobs is bigger than taking over as the lead sports anchor at WRAL. It comes with natural challenges because he is replacing a popular veteran anchor in Jeff Gravley, who left in December to become the director of content strategy for N.C. State athletics.

Lea turns 34 in April. That’s roughly the age of retired WRAL legend Tom Suiter when he became the station’s lead sports anchor. 

It will be the first full-time work outside of the Triad for Lea, a High Point native and Southwest Guilford High School alum who graduated from UNC Greensboro in Communication Studies in 2009.

The decision to leave the Triad wasn’t hard.

“No, it was time. I pretty much have done everything that I could do there besides being a main news anchor,” Lea said of WXII. “I didn’t necessarily stay there by design. There were a lot of times where I was trying to move on and go to other places. But the best options career-wise always seemed to be at home. And then this time, this comes up. It’s not often you get a shot to go there and become the lead sports anchor at WRAL.”

Lea’s wife, Karissa, who is from Bermuda, shown in their engagement photo below, plans to work in health care and dancing in Raleigh. They have a 2-year-old daughter.

Lea jumped for joy when his now wife Karissa sad “yes”

“I’m excited to connect with the community and, hopefully, get involved with some charitable organizations. I like talking to kids and doing reading programs and things like that, so hopefully, I get a chance to do some of that stuff in Raleigh,” said Lea, who likes vegan food.


A busy few months at WXII

While WRAL sportscasters Jared Fialko and Mary Dunleavy have been busy because they’ve been the station’s only sportscasters since Gravley left, Lea can top that. 

From the time sports director Brian Formica left WXII on Oct. 11 until Lauren Walsh started at the station Jan. 31, he was its only sports anchor after anchoring at least three times a week beforehand. Lea covered Wake Forest at the Pinstripe Bowl by himself, although he had another staffer with him for many assignments.

What did he do during that time? What didn’t he do?

“Pretty much the entire sports department, I’m doing everything. My job already kind of entailed doing a lot of shooting and editing along with reporting and anchoring. It’s pretty much just been the same just without somebody else there,” said Lea, who added that it hasn’t been as challenging since Walsh arrived.

During the last football season, Lea developed and hosted a Facebook Live digital program called “The Wake Zone” about Wake Forest.

“I pretty much did that from top to bottom by myself. It’s been a lot. But I’ve learned a lot and done a lot of good things there,” Lea said.

Lea had been talking with WRAL for a while but talks ramped up after WXII offered him a promotion — anchoring weekdays as lead sports anchor. That’s exactly what he’ll do at WRAL. Rick Gall, the station’s news director, said that Lea will anchor the sportscast Monday through Friday for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. WRAL newscasts and the 10 p.m. newscast on WRAZ.

“Chris’ varied background, including his radio experience, made him a strong candidate,” Gall said via email.

WRAL hasn’t had a sports director since the 1980s. WRAL’s sports staff reports to Leesa Moore, the station’s director of news operations, sports and special projects.

He grew up knowing the ACC

Lea doesn’t need to learn the ACC basketball culture. He grew up around it and was raised in a family of Duke fans. But he’s quick to say that he will report impartially and right down the middle.

Lea remembers Thursdays during the ACC Tournament when he was in elementary school and teachers would stop class so that they could watch games.

“It’s pretty much been a huge part of my life since then and, of course, since the tournament used to be in Greensboro all the time,” Lea said. “I remember Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter stopping by my elementary school when I was younger. You always were around sports and everything. I’ve always wanted to be in the mix of talking about Tobacco Road rivalries and different things like that. It’s always been a huge part of who I am.”

Growing up, he remembers enjoying the work of the late Mike Hogewood on Triad station WFMY.

“He was the break from everything else that was going on,” Lea said. “He could talk about the fun stuff that was happening either on the baseball field or the basketball court or the football field and could have fun with more stories. And I think that’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to do and kind of represent in some way — whether it was through wrestling, through television, through print, through radio, whatever. I want it to be that fun break from the tough things that are going on in life. I think sports guys have pretty much always been that. There are slight differences in how we get the job done.”

Lea said he doesn’t pattern his style after any particular sportscaster.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really latched on to other folks and said, ‘oh, this is my guy,’  just because I think I’ve always appreciated what everybody has done. I’ve always wanted to get in and just kind of add my flavor to it,” Lea said. “I just want to be myself. I think I’ve done that at WXII pretty well. I don’t want to be the all-knowing sports guy. I want to be the guy who you can sit down and watch a game with and talk to about sports issues and we can have a great conversation about it. I think sometimes some people can come off as unapproachable. And I never want it to be like that.”

While still a traffic reporter at WXII, he got a taste of being a sports anchor by filling in when then-sports director Kenny Beck (at the time the only sports reporter) was out of town or sick. Once Beck switched to news, the station added a second sports position and Lea switched from traffic reporting to sports reporting.

“I’ve done a lot of different things and it’s all kind of flowed together,” Lea said. “But initially, my first job was actually in print. And initially, that was going to be my trajectory.”

First journalism experience at a newspaper

His journalism career started as an editorial assistant and writer for the sports department at the News & Record of Greensboro for 2.5 years. That came about after attending a minority journalism workshop at the newspaper for a couple of summers while in high school. The summer before his freshman year at UNCG, he was hired to put together the scoreboard page and covering Carolina Dynamo and UNCG soccer as well as high school sports.

“I knew I wanted to go to television. But I kind of thought that maybe I’d take the Stephen A. Smith route to television and kind of move up in the world of print, then go later,” Lea said of the Winston-Salem State alum who was a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer but now makes big money at ESPN.

Lea got other TV experience in 2007 as host for a show on MTV’s college outlet MTVU while still at UNCG and was a correspondent for the Woodie Awards, MTVU’s version of the MTV awards.

At WJMH (102 JAMZ), the Triad’s hip-hop station, he went from intern to working part time to being hired full time as a morning-show producer. In addition to producing and being a DJ there, he was the host of the public affairs talk show “Straight Talk,” which focused on issues important to the black community.

Although the station laid him off in 2012, he continued part time there until last October, when the demands of being a one-man sports department became significant.

“Just something I needed to make my life a little bit easier. So that was just kind of a perfect time to stop that,” Lea said.

The only other person Lea can think of with similar diverse experience is ESPN’s Elle Duncan, who worked in hip-hop radio and started in TV as a traffic reporter in Atlanta at WXIA before shifting to sports. She’s the SportsCenter anchor who inspired the #GirlDad hashtag after Kobe Bryant’s death.

“I’ve met her once and actually talked to her about that,” Lea said of their similar paths. “It was kind of cool that we share that. I think all my experiences have kind of led me to this moment. I think that’s why I kind of have a unique voice and how I approach things because it’s not just coming from a news perspective. I’ve been able to present things in different ways, whether it’s through print, whether it’s through audio in radio and then also visually. I think I have a good mixture of background to lead me to this point.”

Lea at work in his old gig

Pinning down a different career opportunity

It was about the time WJMH laid him off that he decided to grapple with a pro wrestling career.

Performing at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Lea was a pro wrestler for shows, mostly in North Carolina, from 2012 until he became a WXII sportscaster in 2016. His general manager was fine with it when he was a traffic reporter the first three years at the station, but Lea said she told him, “This is when I’m paying you not to wrestle, so stop wrestling.”

He was fine with that. 

He wrestled under his real name, doing shows for a few organizations, including Alamance County-based CWF Mid-Atlantic, Charlotte-based PWX and Winston-Salem-based AML Wrestling.

“I had two matches in my entire career when I was a bad guy,” Lea said. “But, mostly, I was a good guy. Naturally, that’s where I kind of land with the type of person I am. One of those fan favorites. One of the folks that people love to get behind. A guy that didn’t cheat, that wanted to do everything the right way. The guy that would do the cool moves off the top rope, that type of thing.”

Although he never got a physical script for a fight, the outcomes were, of course, predetermined.

“The promoter lets you know what he wants the ending to be. But, a lot of times, what’s happening out there is kind of freelance. You’re out there kind of calling it on the fly and seeing what you can do. Kind of freestyling off the top of your head, and so a lot of the good wrestlers can go out there and do that and you never would know the difference. I’ve been able to luckily be in the ring with some good people and have some good matches. I’ve never been physically handed a script telling me anything to say or do anything like that.” 

In the above 2015 bout in Gibsonville that he won against Darius Lockhart, there is a reference to Lea having a broken hand. Lea said he only had broken a finger but they got some mileage out of the hand story for theatrical purposes after the finger had healed.

He did get actual injuries during his wrestling career in addition to the broken finger, including a torn meniscus, a stress fracture in a foot, a dislocated jaw and two concussions.

Working at a TV station isn’t nearly as hazardous, but live TV can provide embarrassing moments. That happened in 2014 when he split his pants while trying to do a toe touch on the air. That video went viral and made Perez Hilton’s blog.   

“The funny part about that is I had to finish another hour of television was split pants,” Lea said. “The draft was crazy.”

It’s interesting that a former pro wrestler would become a sportscaster at WRAL, considering that “Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling” aired on the station Saturdays from 1959 until 1981 and was recorded at the station’s studio A on Wednesdays. The program featured announcers such as Ray Reeve, Nick Pond, Bob Caudle and Bob Debardelaben and wrestlers such as Wahoo McDaniel, Black Jack Mulligan and Ric Flair.

“I decided to start putting pro wrestling on my résumé,” Lea said. “Every station that talked to me after that, that was the first thing they brought up. And when I went to go in for my interview, that was one of the first things we talked about was the wrestling that used to go on at WRAL.”

He never tried to move up to the national level where he could have made big money because he was working at WXII during the week, then wrestling and doing radio on the weekend. He wrestled with some who did make the jump, such as Durham native Levis Valenzuela Jr., who wrestles for WWE with a ring name of No Way Jose.

“Me and him had a nice little feud going on back at CWF,” Lea said.

He wrestled on school teams from seventh to 10th grade before getting injured at a camp at Appalachian State. He stopped wrestling after that and did theater instead. 

Now, though, it’s all sportscasting as Lea gets ready to make the big move to WRAL.

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More of sad news for the newspaper industry

Even as many journalists continue to do terrific work (see APSE awards list later in this notebook, for example), two of the largest newspaper chains delivered difficult news this month.

The McClatchy Company, which owns The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun of Durham and The Charlotte Observer, filed for bankruptcy in a move that had long been anticipated. In addition to challenges all newspaper chains face, McClatchy has never been able to overcome the debt added when it acquired Knight-Ridder newspapers in 2006.

Even as Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of the Raleigh and Durham papers, assures readers that nothing is changing, the future is frightening for anybody who either works for a McClatchy newspaper or read one of its newspapers.

The prospect that a hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management, would have control of the chain (which is part of the bankruptcy plan) isn’t reassuring considering such funds have been known for decimating newspapers

After the hedge fund Alden Global Media took control of the Denver Post, it cut about 70 percent of the staff. Hedge funds generally cut expenses, trim the workforce and don’t improve the product. At least Chatham has a better reputation than Alden.

Last month, the McClatchy Publishing Center, based in Charlotte, cut eight positions. Since then, designers who generally laid out two newspapers per day are now generally laying out three.

The N&O and H-S lost many talented journalists with early-retirement McClatchy buyouts last February and it was the Tribune Company’s turn this month to offer buyouts.

Much like how The N&O and H-S merged newsrooms, the Tribune’s Daily Press of Newport News, Va., and The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va. did the same in 2018. Sports was hit hard by buyouts this month, including sports writers Ed Miller and Dave Johnson and legendary sports columnist David Teel, a former Fayetteville Observer sports writer. Former sports editor Andi Petrini also took a buyout.

Johnson has already started a job writing for William and Mary athletics and Teel will write for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for the remainder of the basketball season as a special correspondent. His first story for that paper is a behind-the-scenes look at what a game night is like at the ACC command center in Greensboro.

DeCock, Marks, Wiseman win multiple APSE awards

Luke DeCock, Brenden Marks and Steve Wiseman each won two 2019 Associated Press Sports Editors awards after judging earlier this week in St. Petersburg, Fla. 

The Charlotte Observer won Top 10 Sunday section and top 10 website honors in Category B; the News & Record won Top 5 Sunday section in Category C; the Fayetteville Observer won Top 5 special section in Category C; Inside Carolina won Top 10 website in Category C; The Herald-Sun won Top 5 Sunday section in Category D; the Times-News of Burlington won website honorable mention in Category C; and The N&O won a Sunday section honorable mention in Category B.

APSE divides all member outlets into four categories, with equal number of outlets in each category. The largest are in Category A and the smallest in Category D.

Entered with The N&O in Category B, DeCock won for breaking news for a story on Nike

executives coming to Duke after Zion Williamson’s shoe issue and for explanatory story for a story on the future of football and how N.C. high schools protect players

Marks, who joined The Athletic in November, entering with The Charlotte Observer in Category B, won for explanatory story for a story wondering if Cam Newton’s vegan diet affects his play or his recovery and feature story for a story on NASCAR driver Kyle Busch and his wife dealing with a miscarriage.

Wiseman, entered with The Herald-Sun in Category D, won for breaking news for a story on Duke clearing Williamson and for beat writing (five stories submitted).  

Photographers winning two awards were Andrew Dye of the Winston-Salem Journal and Woody Marshall of the News & Record, both in Category C. Dye won for an action photo from the Wake Forest-N.C. State football game and a feature photo for portrait a shot of Parkland track and field athletes. Marshall won for an action photo from a Northwest Guilford-Smith football game and a feature photo of a celebration shot at The Basketball Tournament.

Other N.C. winners in Category B were:
From The N&O: Jonathan Alexander, feature story (for story on how UNC receiver Toe Groves escaped the projects despite his dad being in prison); Andrew Carter, feature story (for story on how football provides focus for players in the poorest counties); and Dan Kane, projects (for five stories focused on academic fraud).

From The Charlotte Observer: Scott Fowler, feature story (on how dementia stole Carl Scheer’s memories but not his basketball legacy); and Jeff Siner, feature photo (for shot of Panthers QB Kyle Allen walking off a snowy Lambeau Field).

Other N.C. winners in Category C were:
From the Winston-Salem Journal: Ethan Joyce, explanatory (on how assistant coaches in college football find job security amid the coaching carousel); Joyce and John O’Neal, multimedia (same story on assistant coaches); and John Dell, Patrick Ferlise and Jay Spivey, projects (for a series of stories on Atkins High School’s state basketball title 50 years ago.)
From the News & Record: Ed Hardin, columns (4 submitted); and Jeff Mills, columns (4 submitted)

From the Fayetteville Observer: Sammy Batten, explanatory (for story on high school athletes increasingly getting Tommy John surgery); and staff, multimedia (for prep football preview).


Also winning in Category D, entered through The Herald-Sun, was Jonas Pope IV for video for “Riding with Recruits,” which was featured last year in this column

Out-of-state winners with state ties were Dan Wiederer (former Fayetteville Observer writer, Chicago Tribune, feature story, Category A, for story on prep football star whose life changed after a car crash); Brooke Pryor (UNC alum, former Herald-Sun, North State Journal writer now with ESPN, Kansas City Star, projects, Category A for a series of Chiefs stories); Mike Waters (UNC alum, The Post-Standard of Syracuse, explanatory, for story on Syracuse’s Howard Washington revealing he had a stroke; beat writing, and a video award along with Dennis Nett and Lauren Long, video for video of Washington, all in Category C.

Raycom, Fox Sports South win Regional Emmys

Raycom Sports’ last ACC basketball broadcast — at last March’s ACC Tournament — was an award-winning one. It won a Midsouth Regional Emmy Award at the ceremony in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday for a sports event or game. Listed on the award are Jordan Smith, Robert Reichley, Alex Farmartino, Stone Hill, Lonnie Dale, Billy McCoy and Maxwell Brooke.

Also winning in that category was the Fox Sports South’s Game 3 broadcast in the Carolina Hurricanes-Washington Capitals series. Listed on the award are Jim Mallia, Paul Hemming, Dean Meglio, Tracy Cook, John Forslund, Tripp Tracy, Mike Maniscalco, Jamie Shapiro, Todd Minhinnett and Adam Holzman. Hemming was the main subject of this column last year.

Raycom Sports also won a sports promo spot award for a UNC-Duke basketball commercial. Listed on the award are Jordan Smith, Maxwell Brooke, Christopher Ponder and Richard Brooke.

Fox Sports South also garnered awards for best sports feature (Hornets 30th anniversary vignette, Alonzo Mourning’s shot vs. Boston in the 1993 playoffs; Lauren Gordon Dills and  Kevin Allison) and a director/short form award (Hornets talent ride along from opening night; Allison).

StoryDriven won a technology award for a story on former UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. Listed on the award were Nathan Clendenin and Maria Luisa Frasson-Nori.

ACC Network hires former UNC outfielder Greenberg

The ACC Network has hired former UNC outfielder Adam Greenberg, the 2000 ACC freshman of the year, and three other ACC alums to be analysts for its baseball coverage. 

Also added are former Miami first baseman Gaby Sanchez, former Virginia pitcher Javier Lopez and former Florida State first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. 

ACCN’s first baseball broadcast was Wednesday’s Wright State at Louisville game. The first ACCN games for Triangle teams will be UNC’s March 3 home game with UNCG, followed by N.C. State’s March 8 game at Virginia. The entire UNC at Duke series March 13-15 will air on ACCN.

Maven UNC site has new publisher

On Sunday, freelance writer Quierra Luck took over as publisher for AllTarHeels, which was known as Heels Maven when Brant Wilkerson-New vacated that position in early January.

Hancock leaves Dunn newspaper

After nearly a year and half at The Daily Record of Dunn, 2018 UNC grad Jacob Hancock left his position as sports editor in January to become an editorial intern at The Sporting News in Charlotte. 

Wingert off Atlanta Braves TV broadcasts

Kelsey Wingert, familiar to ACC football fans for her work as a sideline reporter for Fox RSN broadcasts, won’t be back this season as a sideline reporter for Atlanta Braves telecasts. Filling that slot will be Kelly Crull, who was a sideline reporter on Chicago Cubs broadcasts.

Wingert was apparently popular among some fans, however, as they have started a petition to keep her on the Braves broadcast.

North Carolina-related sports stories of note

In the News & Record, Hardin reflected on a crazy week at Daytona that featured uncommon sights and a near-tragic Monday night crash. 

In The N&O and H-S, Carter looked at the behavior of the Cameron Crazies over the years, including their greeting of Maryland star Herman Veal, and how Duke administrators and Mike Krzyzewski have tried to admonish them when they’ve gone too far.

Coach Roy Williams’ comment on his radio show this year’s team was his “least gifted” at UNC, drew lots of attention. In The Athletic, David Glenn wrote that the facts back up the comment. 

In the Carolina Alumni Review magazine, Beth McNichol wrote about why Courtney Banghart came to UNC to coach its women’s basketball team, the holistic approach she’s taking, her path to coaching stardom and her plans to make Carolina her last coaching stop.

In The Athletic, Brian Hamilton wrote about UNCG coach Wes Miller’s drive to succeed. He’s gone from the youngest Division I coach at 29 to the longest-tenured coach in the Southern Conference. His success has come after thinking he’d be fired after his second season. He has a desire to continue to grow and a goal to win a championship with the mantra of “be different.”

In The N&O/H-S, Pope wrote about Shaw safety Jaleel Scoggins who recovered after being shot by intruders at his home in January 2019 in an incident that could have very easily ended his life to earn All-CIAA honors last season.

In The Athletic, Josh Robbins wrote about the amazing story of Darrell Armstrong, who grew up in Gastonia and kicked for Fayetteville State’s football team. Even though he didn’t play basketball competitively until his senior year in high school, he somehow fashioned a decent NBA career.