Growing up in Youngstown in the 80’s, the six minutes of sports on a Friday night at the end of a newscast seemed like robbery. The talent was always good with people like Denny Liebert and Chuck Galeti to quickly read off some scores and show highlights from one or two games. However, looking back, our generation was heavily cheated.
On a Friday night in 2012, this area has some of the best coverage of high school football, and if it doesn’t start by quarter after, then that network is more concerned about showing a storm developing in Cuba somewhere, or a story about how a lady gave birth to her fourth set of twins in six years. I’ll take the beefed-up football coverage.
Joe Aulisio, Ryan Allison, Chad Krispinsky, and Shawn Jordan are all exceptional examples of folks who multitask and put their heart and soul into what they do. Zach Humphries is a blooming natural, and I am really happy to see DJ Yokley catch some good breaks with ESPN3 this past week. These guys would succeed in any market.
WFMJ has a stable of people who run like crazy every Friday and Saturday night. It starts with Dana Balash, who has seen the six minute sportscasts evolve into twenty plus minutes on a Friday. Mike Ackelson and Rob Decker fortify a kind of magic that is hard to duplicate. You also have hustling videographers like Jeff Holenchick and Bob Meluch who fly from one stadium to the next. When all of the components are combined you get this production every Friday night that goes beyond all standards.
I think Balash deserves credit for all of the above mentioned whether you like him or not. He has been at it for 25 years and has made a lot of friends and contacts. He definitely has the respect of his peers, the coaches and players he deals with daily, and an everyday guy element that enhances his delivery.
Paneech: How has the Friday night stuff evolved into having to get that many highlights on television?
Balash: We started in 1994 with our expanded sports coverage. What I mean by expanded was that we went from six minutes to nine minutes. In 1997, Arby’s came on board to be a sponsor and we were able to do about 17 games and the time slot became 15 minutes. Two years ago, we took another step and expanded to 21 minutes. We have seven crews out there filming enough to show 45 seconds to a minute of each game we can cover.
Paneech: What kind of staff do you need to get all of this done each week?
Balash: Mike [Ackelson] has been there numerous years and Rob [Decker] came on board a few years ago and both have done a good job learning this area. It is not just us three, there are marketing people, engineers, videographers, and many others that you don’t see. The three you do see, Rob, Mike, and myself, we are a small part of that.
Paneech: Can what you have on Friday nights possibly evolve into more at some point, or is it at the maximum now?
Balash: People want to know who won, they want to see the cheerleaders and the band. Some people opt to start coverage with high school football instead of news, which I was against. We get 21 minutes out of 25, if we can go further, I am not sure what that would be except to take the whole show. There is still a part of the viewing audience that wants to see the events of the day, get the weather, and sports are third. That is the way it should be. A couple of weeks ago, the Vice President came to Lordstown on a Friday. That is absolutely more important than football. So where can we go? If we could, I guess my wish would be to cover every local school that plays on Friday night.
Paneech: As far as the actual football goes, is this a down year for high school football in this area?
Balash: Overall, there are a lot of great players. On the other hand, I am not sure we have that many great teams. Do we have a few teams that can make a run? Absolutely. Since 2002, we have had a team play in Week 15 every single year.
Paneech: What sort of criticism have you had to deal with?
Balash: In 1994, some of the soccer people were upset because we expanded coverage of high school football. They wanted us to do that for soccer. That comes down to sponsorships and sales. We also sometimes get criticized for not covering a certain school or missing a story. I’m the first to admit that I do not know everything about sports. I have come to rely heavily on people to call us and let us know prior to something happening. By giving us the opportunity to be there for a players 1,000th point, we can be there. We cannot recreate a milestone, so I wish we had better communication not to miss big events and we can be there.
Paneech: How is the relationship with YSU? The coaches, the administration, and the student-athletes.
Balash: Even at the high school level, if the coaches or administration tip us off, we better know where to be. The sports information department at Youngstown State is one of the best that I have ever dealt with. These guys keep you notified as much as they possibly can. There are some things they can’t tell you, but it is understood. The relationship that I have on and off the court with the coaches at YSU is the best it has ever been. Obviously, there are times when we have to ask the hard questions. Coach Wolford has turned things around. Coach Boldon has the women’s basketball program moving in the right direction. The men’s basketball team is showing how good they can be. Coach Slocum had a couple of tough years but I think he now has the players he needs to be successful. I feel as though I can now call these coaches on my own, not that I do that a lot, but am comfortable when I have to. It has never been better, and winning helps.
Paneech: How much longer can you do this?
Balash: I know I am on the backside of my career. I have been doing this for the 28 years that I have been with the same company. I am home. I have had opportunities to move out of the area. There is no better area to me than here. With high school football, all of the other high school athletics, Youngstown State and other universities, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are both an hour away, and you have Ohio State too, it is a sports mecca. If I can do another twenty years I would be happy. That is a decision that the company will have to make. Because we are locally owned, it is very huge, and the owners know what we do.
So Dana Balash has been at it awhile. He is someone people that have never met feel as though they know. In fact, one woman, who passed away about three years ago in Niles, mentioned Balash in her obituary. The article said that the deceased woman loved watching Dana Balash do his sports. Balash never met the woman, but keeps a copy of the obituary on his desk. When he has a tough day, he can look at that to put things into perspective.