It’s a Thursday in late August and in Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama football players and coaches prepare for the coming season with grueling, repetitious days of practices and meetings.
Meanwhile, in a large, two-story brick building in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter, editors and producers at TV production company JM Associates sift through hours and hours of footage from those practices and meetings, along with interviews, crafting them into hourlong episodes for the weekly, four-part series Training Days: Rolling With the Tide.
Both places seem to be pretty stress-filled in their own ways, though the TV editors don’t have to decide on defending national champion Alabama’s starting quarterback. Also, Alabama Coach Nick Saban isn’t screaming at them if they miss a block.
“We’ll start sending raw segments to ESPN Monday afternoon,” says Mike McKinnis, vice president of media content at JM Associates, which is producing the show along with Northwest Arkansas-based Sport & Story.
Those rough segments will be revised Tuesday, the revisions are then polished Wednesday morning and, after a final mix down, it all gets digitally shipped to ESPN that afternoon and airs that evening.
“We have a great machine here,” McKinnis, 55, says. “We’ve been doing this a long time.”
It’s true. JM Associates is no stranger to producing ESPN programming. The company has provided content for the sports network since the 1980s, and it all started with a fishing show.
NOT JUST FISHIN’
St. Louis native and avid fisherman Jerry McKinnis, Mike’s dad, ran Jolly Roger’s Marina on Lake Maumelle near Little Rock and started doing a weekly five-minute, televised fishing report from there in the 1960s.
McKinnis and business partner Jim Manion developed the show into a half-hour syndicated program that was picked up by ESPN in 1980. The Fishin’ Hole, which aired until 2007 with Jerry McKinnis as its host, was ESPN’s second longest-running show behind its flagship SportsCenter broadcast.
“He just said, ‘This is cool. I’m going to learn how to do it,’” Mike says of his father’s early approach to making the show.
Later, the elder McKinnis “got to a place where he was taking Bobby Knight and Gordy Howe — all these celebrities — fishing. But it wasn’t about celebrities, it was just him telling stories about what’s out there around the world.”
JM Associates was soon packaging outdoors programming for ESPN Outdoors that included four-hour blocks of shows aired on weekend mornings.
“A four-hour block was eight half-hour shows,” Mike McKinnis says. JM Associates would edit the segments, add its own features and video of host Tommy Sanders and send it all to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
Outdoors programming opened the door to producing the Stihl Timbersports Series lumberjack competitions, which the company has been doing for more than 30 years, McKinnis says.
One ESPN executive referred to JM as “ESPN South” in 2004.
“We had great producers at ESPN that worked with us cultivating ideas and different projects,” McKinnis says. “[The Timbersports Series] was one that came out of that and is still going strong today. We do three hours on ABC Sports and multiple hours on ESPN3 and ESPN2 with the lumberjack series.”
JM was also instrumental in building ESPNoutdoors.com into an online behemoth and has done the same with bassmaster.com.
The company produced the FLW competitive fishing tour for ESPN in the ’90s. In 2001, ESPN bought BASS LLC, an organization with the largest membership of bass anglers in the United States and which also had a popular magazine and a competitive fishing series, which JM produced for broadcast on ESPN.
HOOKS AND SAWS
It’s carved right into the building, high above the front door: Fish Factory.
Inside, some of Jerry McKinnis’ old fishing lures are on display at the reception desk. Hanging in a hallway are photos and memorabilia from shows like The Fishin’ Hole and from Bassmaster TV and Stihl lumberjack competitions. Jerseys worn by anglers Davy Hite, Takahiro Omori and others hang behind glass, and there is one of Jerry McKinnis’ early cameras and the editing machine he used to put his fishing segments together.
Jerry, who is 80, still consults with the firm, his son says, but spends most of his time at his home on the White River in north Arkansas.
There’s a special spot at the JM facility memorializing Jose Wejebe, Cuban-born host of the saltwater fishing show Spanish Fly who died in a plane crash in 2012.
“He was a tremendous guy and a charismatic person,” Mike McKinnis says. “Spanish Fly was a wonderful show we did for 17 years. I produced that for many years. We went to Australia twice, South America four or five times.
JM started in a Queen Anne-style house not far from here, spent some time at the Clear Channel Metroplex Events Center in Little Rock then moved into this custom-built, 15,500-square-foot facility in 2004.
Jerry McKinnis, who had bought out Manion years earlier, sold JM to an Atlanta-based group in 2007. In 2010, he and partners Don Logan, former president and CEO of Time Inc., and former Deloitte & Touche CEO Jim Copeland, who died earlier this year, bought BASS LLC from ESPN. Shortly afterward, they bought JM back from the Atlanta owners.
Then in 2014, Birmingham, Ala.-based Anderson Media Corp. joined JM and in 2017 bought a majority share of the company.
Mike McKinnis, who played bass in Little Rock band Fifth Cliff, started with his dad’s company in 1990. His main jobs were emptying trash cans and dubbing VHS tapes for clients. That was long ago. Mike is married and has two children attending college in California.
Giving a tour of the JM building, he enters a large TV studio.
“We do 230 hours of Bassmaster coverage live annually out of here,” he says.
On-air host Sanders is at his desk, preparing for what will be three days of live coverage from a tournament on the St. Lawrence River at Waddington, N.Y., where a crew of cameramen and reporters is ready to relay the event back to a production truck parked in a huge garage at JM. The reports will then stream at bassmaster.com and air on various ESPN channels.
There was a time not that long ago when fishing fans had to wait a week or longer to see an event on TV.
“Streaming changed our sport,” McKinnis says. “It lets us cover our sport live. We’re getting incredible numbers of people watching Bassmaster Live. …
“There is a huge audience of fishing fans that want to see how to do it. And then they go do it.”
MAKING THE SHOW
The years of experience putting together Bassmaster shows for a later broadcast inform what JM, which has 24 employees in Little Rock, has done with the Alabama series.
“Back in the day before we started doing ‘live,’ we would do an event and it would be 100 hours of content, six, eight cameras on the water all day. They would come back here, go through every tape, see what happened and put it into a one-hour show,” McKinnis says.
The same thing still happens with Training Days: Rolling With the Tide, which ESPN originally aired Aug. 9, 15, 22 and 29 and has rebroadcast across its family of networks.
Radio host, TV veteran and Sport & Story co-owner Bo Mattingly spent about a month in Tuscaloosa with a camera crew and sound operator, interviewing players, coaches and others close to the team. He’s in constant contact with producers and editors at JM in Little Rock and shares notes with them each day.
Mattingly and JM first collaborated in 2016 on Being Brett Bielema, a behind-the-scenes, four-episode series about the then-head football coach at Arkansas. It aired on ESPN. They followed it last year with Being P.J. Fleck, featuring the Minnesota head coach.
“With my college football background, it was a good marriage with all of the great television experience and production values JM brings to the table,” Mattingly says. “There are so many creative people there. Mike is a guy that knows how a show should come together and also how to deal with networks.”
The close-knit JM crew is deep into production mode, and 12-hour days are common now.
“When you’re here at 10 at night and you’re kinda delirious, you’d better like each other,” McKinnis says.
In a darkened office at the Fish Factory, producer/editor Tim Schick goes through footage from an Alabama practice on his computer screen and sorts through nine pages of notes made by Mattingly, with the day’s highlights in bullet points.
Schick is one of four producers/editors, including McKinnis, working on the Training Days series.
“It’s a constant flow of information and footage coming in and out. It all gets ingested and each of us spends hours and hours going through it,” says Schick, who has worked at JM for 20 years and produced Spanish Fly, the ESPN Outdoors block and many other programs. “I just got off the phone with Bo. He’s interviewing Saban this afternoon and was wondering about the questions he should ask. We’ll get that footage tomorrow and plug it into what we’re editing today.”
Editor David Lipke is parsing 98 minutes of raw footage down to eight minutes.
“Now I’m working on practice,” he says from his desk. “I’m going through and finding all the best soundbites from Nick Saban and intertwining it with a referee named Eddie that I’m trying to work into the mix.”
Sorting through so much footage has given him insight into Saban.
“He’s just a normal dude,” Lipke says. “During a game he looks like a bulldog, an uptight, grumpy old man. After going through days of footage, you see the behind-the-scenes stuff of him joking with players, smiling, laughing. Your view of him shifts to more of he’s just a normal guy like everybody else.”
BASS AND BEYOND
Chronicling the preseason gridiron grind was a change of pace for a company whose bread and butter has been Bassmaster and lumberjacks. But earlier this month, JM was filming the 55th National Championship Air Races from Reno, Nev., where pilots race airplanes over an aerial course and which will be aired on NBC Sports in early 2019.
“They have these pylons 50 feet high that they race around,” McKinnis says. “It’s a five-day event and, again, it’s another project outside of bass fishing and lets us sort of stretch ourselves a little bit.”
Not bad for an outfit that began with a rod and reel.
“Absolutely this whole thing started from fishing, and it’s grown into all these other things we’re doing now.”