By: Tyler Bradfield
Ball State Sports Link
First off, I would like to thank everyone who watched “The Shelby Merder Story – A Rugged Path.” Reading the comments and seeing how well received the story was within the Ball State and Jasper communities was certainly gratifying.
My name is Tyler Bradfield and I led the production on the feature for Ball State Sports Link spanning over three months. With the encouragement from others, I decided to share my perspective, experiences, and a few stories and pictures from behind the scenes in the making of the video. For those with aspirations for a career in sports production, hopefully this will provide a clearer view of the industry at a collegiate level. For those who simply just watched or shared the story, hopefully this will be a unique vantage point from behind the camera and how the story came to be.
Since the feature was released on January 24th, I’ve followed the video’s activity on social media to gauge people’s reaction. I never anticipated it to receive the attention it did. The Sports Link Facebook and YouTube account tracks how many people the video has reached. Combined the video has reached over 15,000 people on social media. However, watching the story from start to finish has been extremely difficult for me. In fact, I have watched it just twice since it has been finished.
I did not expect the story to balloon like it did when we first developed the idea for the feature. I never once expected the Dubois County Herald in Jasper to run a 1500+ word story leading up to the release. Nor did I anticipate the secretary of the IHSAA Commissioner to ask about using the video for their State Finals telecasts. It was certainly flattering, but how quickly the story took flight has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of our work; rather it is a direct testimony to the tight knit community of Jasper.
Entering the story, I didn’t know what to expect. Besides, I’m just a college student, pursing a career in sports broadcasting with dreams of being behind the microphone and on the air. I had never considered producing an in-depth feature story or even put much thought into the production side of the industry entering college three years ago.
The Idea Behind the Story:
Through my involvement with Sports Link and WCRD I have been the student radio play-by-play voice of Ball State Football and Women’s Basketball for the past two years. With the women’s basketball position my analyst and I are fortunate to travel with the team on the road. Through those trips I’ve gained such valuable experience for my career, but more importantly I have built strong friendships within the program. Through the road trips I slowly learned about Shelby’s family story.
Let’s rewind to the start of this school year in September. Our Sports Link Director, Chris Taylor, called me into his office for a scheduled meeting. The meeting was planned to set goals for the forthcoming year, mostly surrounding my on air work. Sports Link takes pride in its ability to tell feature stories on Ball State athletes among many other productions. Due to my involvement with women’s basketball he asked for a few potential feature stories on women’s basketball players Sports Link could produce. I pitched a few ideas off the top of my head, one being Shelby’s story. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of all the details and layers to it, but knew enough to pitch the idea and serve as a middleman between Shelby and whomever Chris assigned to produce the story. I had no intentions of taking the lead on the production; I simply wasn’t confident enough in my editing skills to take on a feature story. I wanted to help in the production and hopefully learn more along the way from a back seat position. My expectations didn’t align with Chris’ plan though.
At the tail end of our meeting he said, “Tyler, I’m going to challenge you, you’re going to take the lead on Shelby’s story. We get very few stories each year that have this type of potential with the amount of layers. This one has the chance to be something special. You’re ready. I want you to spend a lot of time on this and make sure its good.”
That caught me completely off guard. I was not confident in my video editing skills to lead the production on a layered feature story. My focus has always been the on-air side; I knew the basics of editing and enough to produce a light package or highlight reel, but not anywhere close to the advanced level a feature story required. Now I was being asked to lead the production on potentially one of the biggest stories of the year.
From that conversation sprung the assignment. A fellow Sports Link student and close friend, J.C. Obringer, approached me. J.C. is a sophomore and just beginning to get heavily involved on the production side, but had yet to take on a feature story. He is also a member of the women’s basketball male practice squad.
He asked, “Hey, would you mind if I helped you with Shelby’s story? Obviously I have a strong passion for the women’s basketball program with my involvement on the practice squad, and I want to learn how to do a feature story.”
I remember thinking to myself, “I’m not quite sure I know how to do one myself?” Of course I didn’t externally show that doubt and agreed to J.C.’s help. I’m not sure either of us realized what we had committed ourselves to at that point though.
Thus began the pre-production for the story. For my radio broadcasts I make charts on a manila folder for every game. So I started with what I knew. I outlined the story on a manila folder and began to brainstorm different ideas. I wrote out potential interview questions and camera shots. I kept this manila folder until the final export of the video in case an idea spontaneously developed.
We scheduled our first interview for the story on November 10th, the Monday before the season opener against Purdue. This was the initial interview with Shelby. We shot the interview in the visiting team’s locker room of Worthen Arena with lights and four cameras. During the interview J.C. manned the cameras and audio with the help from a few others. I conducted the interview lasting an hour from start to finish. It was lengthy, but we walked away with really good material from Shelby. Most importantly, it gave us a clearer focus on which direction to take the story.
Midway through the interview, we were on the topic of Carly, and I had asked, “Was it ever hard on you with Carly’s medical conditions?”
Shelby responded, “Yeah it was really hard seeing her grow up with it. I don’t know, people ask me why you play, its because she can’t and I think that is like a huge motivator for me.”
At the time that answer didn’t necessarily resonate with me as strongly as it probably should have, but it ended up driving the entire story.
After the interview we asked when her family would be in town next and if they would be willing to be interviewed. Long story short, the whole family was coming up Friday for the season opener against Purdue. So we planned to interview them after the game.
I prepped for those interviews with just about as much attention to detail as I did for the radio broadcast of the season opener that night. Leading up to Friday, I wrote out over 50 questions, carefully crafted the wording of each, had several people review and critique each one, and then borderline memorized them.
My sophomore year, Tom Rinaldi and Ben Houser of ESPN’s E:60 Series came to campus to speak with Sports Link to give seminars on producing feature stories. The night before the interviews with the Merder’s, I reviewed my notes from the seminars on how to interview and formulate questions. I knew from those seminars if I were able to uncover the emotion behind the story, it would elevate the feature. In my notes I stumbled upon this quote jotted down in red ink and underlined, “Stories have themes. Themes have meaning. Meaning has power. There is power in emotion, uncover it…” At the bottom of my questions for the Merder’s I rewrote that quote to serve as a reminder.
Friday eventually rolled around; we rented out a production studio and set up the cameras and lights several hours before tip off. Once I was off the air from the radio we met up with the family and went over to the studio. Out of fear of altering the authenticity or emotion of the answers, we didn’t want the rest of the family to be in the room during the interviews. So we intentionally brought each in one-by-one. From start to finish, the interviews took just under two hours.
Eight minutes into the interview with Riley, the youngest of the three sisters, I asked, “Have you ever found Carly having a seizure?” …
Riley’s response began, “Um, yeah, well one time she was in the bathroom”, and then she paused. She fanned herself with a smile that appeared to be fighting back tears. She eventually started again, “Hold up I’m going to start crying…” If you have seen the feature, this was the quote where the music dips out and Riley starts to cry and explains the bathroom scene.
That was the turning point for the production of the story. As soon as Riley got emotional and began to cry it hit me. That was the heart of the story. We had uncovered the emotion like Rinaldi and Houser had preached. I wasn’t prepared for that moment though. Here was a young girl, who I had not previously met, and within eight minutes she’s crying, wiping away tears, and telling me about her biggest fears in life. It was tough to not get emotional too. Naturally when someone cries, you want to help them. In this setting though we were digging for that emotion. I remember feeling as though I had done something wrong to make her cry. I kept reminding myself: I am just asking questions; show empathy, it is just an emotional topic
At this point we were a full week into the production. Our interview footage was complete. We had roughly three solid hours of interview footage for a 13-minute piece. J.C. and I then started transcribing every interview. We synced up the audio in Adobe Premiere and wrote the interviews out word-for-word. This was an extremely tedious process.
We typed up every interview, printed them off, and cut them into thin strips of paper. We laid each quote out by topic, color-coated with highlighters, and taped them down to two-poster boards. It resembled a poor elementary-school science fair project, but this was our storyboard. Therefore during the editing process if we wanted to know what was said on a certain topic (and by who) we could easily find it. It proved to be very helpful.
J.C. and I reevaluated where we were in the story. We brainstormed ideas for shoots and how we could utilize the cameras, Shelby, family pictures, and visual metaphors. This started a stretch of several creative candid shoots and road trips.
We knew at some point we were going to have to make a trip to Jasper. It was obvious that Shelby’s hometown was an instrumental part of who she is. It worked out that Shelby was able to go with us to film. We spent all day filming at their house in Jasper, driving around the town, at the high school, inside Cabby, and in the locker room. Anything from the city of Jasper in the feature was filmed that day.
When we got back to Muncie, we spent close to a day editing together a short trailer for the story to build some anticipation. When the trailer released on December 4th, the story started to gain a following. The Jasper Online Today placed it in their December edition as their “Video of the Month.” The Dubois County Herald in response ran the feature in the newspaper on January 13th headlined as “Paths contrast but bonds powerful for Merder sisters.” The trailer also played on the video boards at Worthen Arena during Ball State games. Not to mention the thousands of views on social media the trailer received. Anticipation was building and we hadn’t even started editing yet.
I then made two separate trips back down to Southern Indiana. Once to film Carly managing during a Jasper girl’s game at Bloomington North and a second time to film Riley playing in her middle school game against Barr Reeve.
On the drive home from filming Riley’s game on a weeknight I started scanning through radio stations. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, one similar to Jasper, so consequently I love high school basketball. I grew up spending my Friday nights at gyms across the state following my hometown team. I always enjoyed listening to the games on the radio too, which helped inspire my dreams in play-by-play broadcasting. So I tried to find a high school game on a local station to pass the time. Ironically, the Jasper girls were playing that night and I stumbled upon it on WITZ with Walt Ferber.
Jasper was playing Vincennes Lincoln. I picked the game up shortly before tip-off. During the pregame show Walt interviewed the Vincennes head coach. He asked the coach how his Vincennes ball club matched-up against Jasper. The Vincennes coach jokingly answered, “Well I’m just glad there’s no 6’3” Merder in the middle anymore for Jasper. I’m glad she’s up in Muncie at Ball State now. She blocked just about every shot we took inside the lane during her career.”
How ironic? It had been almost two years since Shelby had played for Jasper. Coaches and people down in the Jasper area were still talking about her around the town and on the radio. It made sense, maybe that explains why the feature had garnered so much attention and a following already?
When we were finished capturing all the footage, we had taken the cameras out on 12 different occasions. We shot a combined five games. We also filmed seven different candid shoots including filming pictures in nature, Shelby flipping through the bible, among many other things. In all we had collected over 14 hours of footage. This is where the most daunting part of the whole process began.
It was the start of January. We were about two months into the process, and had a month to edit the feature for its release on the 24th. We had to start crafting the story, but I thought to myself, “Where do we even begin?” We had compiled so much footage, and had to cut 14 hours down to 13 minutes. “How do we do that without leaving out something important?”
We had spent basically two months around Shelby and the Merder family. They had completely opened their door and literally welcomed us in to produce the feature. They had laughed to us in interviews, cried to us, and shared their life story to us. Now they trusted us to tell their story. A family that has not only represented their own family name, but served as an icon for an entire community. So in a sense it felt like we were telling the story of the Jasper community.
That feeling was overwhelming. I remember thinking…. Where do we even start?… What angle do we take?… Are we going to be able to do this story justice?… In all honesty, I was nervous. I feared out our inexperience, we weren’t going to be able to tell the story to the degree it should be. Especially based upon how meaningful the story was, not only to the family, but the Jasper community.
So I wanted to remove myself completely from the finished product. Most features have a reporter who narrates the story; however, I felt as though it would be inappropriate if I narrated it. I’m not a part of their story; it should be about the Merder’s and Shelby, not about me. We were simply just the avenue to tell their story. So the thought crossed my mind what if we had Shelby narrate it? After all, it was Shelby’s story, shouldn’t she be the one telling the viewer? So that is why we decided to have Shelby voice the feature, something Sports Link had never tried before. We felt it made the feature more personable and easier to connect to the family.
Just like any feature, the most time consuming process in the making of the video was the intricate editing effects in the post-production phase, which was my weakness. For the next few weeks we did nothing but edit. It takes two things to tell a good feature, time and energy. There were days where we would work for hours, and maybe only edit a handful of shots, spanning just 20 seconds because of the effects. It was draining. After several late nights, early mornings, and long days, J.C. and I had invested roughly 150 hours into the story. So basically for each minute of the video, it took about 11 hours of work from filming to interviewing to editing. That’s a fairly typical ratio for a feature story.
But as the hours, days, and weeks wore on, the editing became more and more detailed. Most of my editing experience before this included highlight packages; nothing close to what this story demanded. I had to teach myself a majority of it along the way. By trial and error, I taught myself how to superimpose Carly and Shelby together, Riley and Shelby, and the coloring effects on the Jasper and Ball State jerseys. It was draining. We reached a point where I had seen the story countless times I felt desensitized to it. All I could pay attention to was the fine details. It was hard to step back from it and just watch for enjoyment. This is why it has been difficult for me to watch the story.
I can’t seem to just sit back and enjoy the feature without paying attention to the nit-picky details. I watch it as a producer, as opposed to a viewer; which I never thought I would say. Am I happy with how it turned out? Absolutely, I’m extremely happy, but it is still difficult. Since we exported the video I have watched it through just twice. The night before it was released, I uploaded a private YouTube link for the Merder’s. I then watched it on my own time before I started writing. I am waiting to watch it again. At some point I want to enjoy it, and have a similar experience to those who shared their comments.
Over the past week I stumbled upon an interview with Verne Lundquist of CBS. Lundquist called the 1992 Kentucky-Duke NCAA Tournament game ending in the Christian Laettner buzzer beater. He had not rewatched the broadcast until 10 years later in fear his call did not do the game justice. He wanted to wait to hopefully someday sit back and enjoy it. It connected perfectly. The feeling paralleled as I wondered had we done the story justice? Someone asked after the feature was finished was it worth the time and energy? I thought about this question for a while.
Was It Worth It?
In the written story in the Dubois County Herald about the video, it concluded with this…
‘Dwain Merder never really heard Shelby open up about her sister until Shelby started playing at Ball State. Likewise, Carly had never heard an outward expression. But Shelby’s revelations in the feature confirmed a question that her sister thought couldn’t possibly be true: “I was just like, ‘Wow, she really actually did play basketball for me,’” Carly says.
“Stepping out onto the court, I always ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then I see (Carly) and I’m just like, that’s exactly why I’m doing this, it’s because she cannot play,” Shelby says. “Just knowing that she puts a smile on her face every day, even though she’s been through way worse obstacles than I could ever imagine, that’s just inspiration alone to keep working every day and keep giving my best effort at what I’m doing.”’
Reading those paragraphs made the time and energy well worth it. Until now, Shelby had never told her sister she played basketball for her. After all these years of Carly being denied a right to play Shelby couldn’t find the way to say, “Carly I play for you.” Carly had grown up in bleachers watching her older sister and her role model soar to the highest level of collegiate ball; all while fighting back her own urge to play. However, through it all, the motivation of her sister’s career had never been revealed. Shelby finally found the way to explain her motivation; and it was rather simple, it was Carly.
Shelby said it best during an interview with Sports Link Radio about the feature, “Growing up it was all about me and my successes, but now this video shared her side of the story.” I found more gratification in that alone then any compliment about the video. It certainly made all the time and energy worth it. Even if we were a very small part, it was an honor for J.C. and I to tell the Merder’s story.
SL Full Story:
SL Radio Interview: