When our childhood interests serve as fodder for our careers as adults, we no longer take the time to enjoy activities that helped determine our life's path. As an editor, I don't do a lot of leisure reading; the chefs I know don't really like to eat; local television talk show host, Ben Sumner, doesn't watch television...except Frasier.
A curious child, the young Sumner watched the News On 6 while his peers watched cartoons. He paid close attention to anchors Clayton Vaughn and Beth Rengel as they relayed current events to viewers like him. Their congenial personas and strong public presences planted the seed for his lifelong dream.
From a startlingly early age, Sumner knew that he would someday be behind a news desk, though he never expected to be a talk show host. His original desire gave way to his current position as the host of his own local talk show, Up Late with Ben Sumner, which airs Saturday nights at 11pm on CW 12-19.
Sumner's journey began in early adolescence during afternoons spent with his cousin Philip, who had a video-editing suite. His fascination with the editing process consumed him entirely; and when he discovered the need for video production at Bixby Middle School, he seized the opportunity, taking his first steps toward manifesting his passion. Aware that he needed practical mentors, he sought an internship working for KOTV at the age of 13.
Through connections with a teacher, Sumner arranged a tour with Scott Higgins, sports director for KOTV at the time. He then convinced Higgins to put him to work. "I sat down afterwards and I said, 'Look, I have got to work here; I don't care what I have to do. You know, my parents can drop me off,' because obviously, I wasn't driving. And after that he looked right in my eyes and he says, 'You can come up here whenever you want, as many times as you want.' I was up there probably three to four days a week," said Sumner.
The 24-year-old harbors an enduring affinity for KOTV; his parents frequently watched Channel 6, hence the early exposure. "I grew up watching Jim Giles; I grew up watching Clayton Vaughn...Just seeing them do their job, their passion for it, and the hard news, and what they were doing for Tulsa. At the time they were the spirit of Oklahoma. And as a young person, I just really wanted to be involved with a TV station that was a making a difference in the community; and so by doing that, my eyes were set- and when my eyes are focused on something, that's what I go for."
Sumner's commitment to the endeavor fueled him to effectively juggle the rigors of academia and what was, essentially, a full-time job. Leaving school at 3pm put him in the studio by 4:15pm. Allowed to stay as long as he wanted, Sumner would stick around through the 10pm news. Blessed with a supportive family, Sumner had his parents and grandparents drive him from work to home and back.
The internship lasted for three years.
Meanwhile, as a ninth grader, Sumner started a school news program called the Spartan Bulletin. It was a weekly show taped on a set he built himself, similar to the one seen on Up Late.
Impressed by Sumner's tenacity at work and school, KOTV offered him his first job when he was 16. "Doing that and being persistent is what really showed them that I really wanted a job. So when one became available in production, in the production department running camera, they asked me if I wanted it. And I said, 'Absolutely.'"
Sumner never thought twice about accepting such a hectic schedule.
"There for a little bit, I was doing two shifts. I was actually doing the late night shifts. So, I would go to school...from 8:30-3pm then I would work from 4-11pm after the 10 o'clock news. I would sometimes sleep at the studio. I don't know if my boss or Regina (then the General Manager at KOTV) knows this, sleep on the couch, get back up at 4:30am, do the 5 o'clock news. At six in the morning I'd run prompter, and my teacher would let me be late to school and I would show up at nine. I did that for about a year."
A full plate never deterred Sumner; he continued, "Television and being around it, it was more important than anything else in my life, and it still is."
Kicked into High Gear
Nearing his senior year, Sumner wanted to attend a high school that would allow him to focus on video production before he graduated, and therefore transferred to Edison. He decided that contributing to an established program, thus working with other students was a necessary first step before heading to college. Sumner threw himself into Eagle T.V. with no idea that the studio space they used at the time would eventually be the same space he now uses for Up Late.
Upon graduation, Sumner decided to audition for Channel One News, a brief, syndicated high school news program broadcast in more than 8,000 public and private institutions nationwide. Coworkers helped him compile a video resume, only to learn (at the very last minute) that the audition was cancelled due to complications associated with 9-11. He let the mishap go for the time being, thinking his chance to work for Channel One had passed.
However, shortly thereafter, Sumner accompanied his father on a trip to Los Angeles, which also happened to be Channel One's headquarters until 2007. He called marketing coordinator Melissa Wright ahead of time to arrange, of course, a tour of the studio. After he had a look around, he addressed Ms. Wright in the same manner he had addressed Scott Higgins not long before.
"I told her that I would be willing to pick up everything and move there if she would give me a job. I didn't care what it was. So she said, 'Are you serious?' and I said, 'Absolutely serious.' She said, 'You've got two weeks to get here; quit your job, come here.' And that's what I did." Fresh out of high school, Sumner was just 19 years old. KOTV, showing unbridled support for the move, bid him farewell.
Working for a high school-oriented program around his peers ameliorated Sumner's radical transition to the West coast, even though he loved the culture shock. He took this job knowing that his place would be solely behind the camera and sought only to gain valuable hands-on experience. Behind the scenes, Sumner learned the ins and outs of producing a nationally aired television show. He spent three months working for Channel One until Sharon Osbourne's talk show offered him a job.
Though exciting, the new job gave Sumner his first taste of cutthroat, real world production. "Everybody's job is on the line every single day, you're in cubicles," he recalled, pointing out that all employees were disposable.
However, Sumner bore the high turnover rate gracefully until he felt he had learned all he could. His experience working for Sharon Osbourne ultimately steered him away from the newsroom, at least for the time being. The live band and an audience especially appealed to him; and he hoped to one day bring that kind of energy to Tulsa.
"When people watch TV, they want to hear good stuff. They want to know the good stuff that's going on in the community. That's what the show focuses on; that's what I'm all about."
After working intensively for a couple of months performing menial tasks, Sumner began to recognize the need for an entertainment-based talk show in Tulsa. Although living in the ideal place for a showbiz career, Sumner took the 'big fish in a small pond' route and immediately returned home to bring his idea into fruition.
"I wanted to build more of a name for myself, and doing that here gives you more flexibility to be creative. There, you're one of a million people that want to do the same thing. So I figured, why not come back [to Tulsa] and be maybe one in a thousand that has an idea that can actually put it to work and make it happen," he said.
Upon his return in 2005, Sumner sought to re-establish himself professionally, and, ruling out another job at KOTV, he sought jobs with other stations. He worked for about a year as a production assistant for Fox 23, living at home to save money to buy equipment. Next, he took a job as promotional producer, also for Fox 23. With each subsequent gig, Sumner absorbed the know-how produce his own talk show.
About to turn 22 years old, Sumner set himself a yearlong deadline working for Fox, honing his skills and reaping all he could from the experience. After that, he planned to start his show. His time there yielded a comprehensive, real-world educational experience, to which higher education sometimes pales in comparison. In this business, there are few substitutes.
All Grown Up
Sumner had saved enough money and had rounded up the necessary equipment to broadcast his first episode of Up Late, on November 4, 2006. Via paid programming, Sumner bought airtime from Fox 23, when viewers could truly catch the young host "up late" at 12:30am on a Saturday night. Shortly after celebrating the show's one-year anniversary, Sumner used the ice storm of 2007 as the time needed to transfer to his present situation- a partnership with none other than KOTV Channel 6, specifically CW 12-19.
But it was KOTV's coverage of local goings-on that compelled Sumner to reunite with his former ally. Regina Moon, current Vice President and Chief Operating Officer had observed Sumner since joining the station as General Manager. She affirmed the solidarity of the partnership: "We're a locally owned company; we're focused on what's going on in this part of Oklahoma and we like to have programming that reflects that hyper-local sensibility... Up Late with Ben Sumner is just the perfect complement to our staple local programming. I hope everyone realizes what a gem his show is." Moon estimated that the show attracts between 5,000-10,000 viewers every episode.
2007 proved to be a successful year for Up Late, and Sumner's career as a viable talk show host continued to spiral upward, when he met and befriended his right-hand woman, Miranda Enzor.
Schooled in print media, she had no prior experience in film production. "I honestly knew nothing about television the first time I met Ben, so interviewing him for an article was really an opportunity for me to learn how it all works. In high school when I was really focused on journalism, I had one TV show in particular that I loved the writing style and I thought, 'Maybe someday I'll write for TV..." It was really a thought I laughed off because I pictured myself doing it at age 35 or 40 at the time," Enzor recalled.
"Initially, Ben asked me to do some freelance projects for him, like write-ups for his Web site, and eventually testing me out with writing actual show content. I was definitely excited to write for him because it was a chance to learn more. More than anything, I was shocked he was willing to give me a chance when I only had a background in print. But Ben knows what he likes and has always said he likes my writing style and the creativity I bring to it."
As the executive producer, Enzor's full-time responsibilities include booking content for the show, producing and writing. Sumner concentrates much of his time and energy to market the show, also producing commercials for Up Late's advertisers. When the time comes to edit the raw footage, the duo works together.
Said Enzor of the pair, "We balance each other out well- if one is coming up with crazy ideas, the other is there to be the voice of reason. When I came on full-time, Ben basically handed me everything and said 'Here, make the show happen and have fun' so he could focus his attention on other areas of his company. It was a bit daunting to be given that much control, but it also made me realize I'm considered an equal which I really appreciate- most 24-year-olds don't have that."
Her presence at Lights On has allowed Sumner to enhance his marketing strategies, helping Up Late evolve in such a short time to what it is today. Its success indicates that Tulsa wanted a show like this. Sumner pointed out, though, that he wouldn't have put forth the effort if he didn't believe that Up Late would catch on. Still though, "It's amazing how the community has come and supported the show," he said beaming.
Here's to You, Tulsa
Indeed, Up Late with Ben Sumner is community-oriented, featuring different artists, musicians, restaurateurs, community activists and other various public figures every week. In the two years it has run, the show has never seen a re-run. "A lot of people don't realize how much community involvement there really is out there. That's my favorite part of the show...it's all about bringing strangers together so you get to know everyone," he said.
One of Sumner's favorite guests thus far was also one of his first- Mayor Kathy Taylor. The show was relatively unknown at the time, and she jumped right in despite being unsure how the taping might transpire. "She was the first one to take the risk and say, 'Let's do it, let's see what this guy's gonna do when he puts me up there,' because I could have said anything. It's late night, so you can almost say anything," said Sumner, who has managed to behave himself. Mayor Taylor has since returned to the show about 10 times. "He's a great interviewer," she said, "You can see his enthusiasm for the city."
Likewise, Sumner's palpable desire to expand and improve upon the show has recently yielded an exciting development: the live audience, an important fixture in any talk show. Future plans also include more air times and covering a larger area (OKC events). He hopes to break ground for the new studio in January 2009 and move into the new site by 2010. The lot is located downtown at Denver and Edison, site of the Abbott Mansion that burned down in 2004.
Sumner designed the studio with floor to ceiling windows overlooking downtown Tulsa, which will make Up Late with Ben Sumner the "only late night talk show that has the real view of downtown skyline as a backdrop," he said.
Sumner intends to air Up Late as long as it continues to please viewers and bolster the local entertainment scene. The feedback he receives from Tulsans will determine the fate of the show. "If they don't want it, then I'm not here. This show is not about me, even though it is Up Late with Ben Sumner, it is about Tulsa...The way I like to look at it: I am the host, I provide the stage, Tulsa provides the talent."
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