rk Followill, known by many area sports fans as the voice of the Dallas Mavericks, is a longtime TV play-by-play announcer and Metroplex native. He's been calling Mavs action for nearly two decades. In that time he's also built his resume by covering Major League Soccer club FC Dallas, college football and international soccer for FOX Sports and the 2016 Olympics for NBC.
As the largest university in the area and with an award-winning journalism school and robust media arts program, UNT has played a substantial role in training students as broadcasting professionals for DFW, the fifth largest media market in the country.
Alumni find success in the industry as reporters, producers, sportscasters, news anchors and on-air personalities with the help of encouraging mentors and hands-on learning experiences that have paved the way -- even when plans changed.
What his fans may not know is that when Followill came to UNT in 1989, he intended to study music.
After excelling at the trombone with the Northwest High School band in Justin, Followill became the proverbial small fish in a big pond during his first semester at UNT.
"There's no bigger pond than UNT's incredible music program" he says. "The competition level wasn't something I was ready for."
Finding your path is what the college experience is all about, and these realizations can hit you at other times in life, too. In the case of Followill's fellow sportscasters Ben Rogers ('99) and Jeff "Skin" Wade ('01) -- hosts of 105.3 The Fan's "The Ben and Skin Show" -- their paths took multiple twists and turns.
After attending Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively, the childhood friends dropped out of college to pursue careers as hip hop artists. The duo ultimately came up short of making it in the rap game (although they "actually got pretty close, shockingly," according to Rogers) and decided to go back to school in their late 20s at UNT. But even then, they couldn't have predicted they'd wind up having successful careers in radio, as Rogers graduated with a degree in marketing while Wade majored in radio, television and film (now the media arts program), but with a focus on film.
"Looking back on it, I was at UNT just trying to get a marketing degree so I could interview for the jobs I wanted," Rogers says. "I hadn't thought about being in sports radio."
Although a career in broadcasting was always the goal for Liliana Villarreal ('11), becoming an assistant marketing director for iHeartMedia wasn't what she originally had in mind when she chose broadcast journalism as her major. A member of one of the first graduating classes of the then-recently christened Mayborn School of Journalism, Villarreal wanted to be a TV reporter and news anchor.
"When I was in school I really enjoyed my broadcast classes. I was really geared toward TV," Villarreal says. "I kind of fell into radio."
That also was the case for fellow Mayborn graduate Samantha Guzman ('11, '14 M.J.), who is now an associate producer for KERA's midday talk show, Think. After holding a couple of jobs in corporate America post-graduation, Guzman found her way back into the world of journalism through the unexpected avenue of radio.
"I studied photojournalism, not broadcasting," Guzman says, "so I had no radio experience when I came to KERA."
>But Guzman did have a mentor. Before the KERA position was even posted online, photojournalism professor Thorne Anderson, whose freelance work with the station recently won a national Edward R. Murrow Award, alerted her to the job.
"I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for Thorne," Guzman says. "Anytime I need any sort of career advice or guidance on next steps, he is the person I look to."
Followill's path to broadcasting was similarly shaped by an influential professor. After he hung up his trombone, he worked at campus radio station KNTU, where he got in as many reps as he could to hone his talents. And he was greatly influenced by the teachings of legendary broadcaster Bill Mercer, who served as a faculty member for more than 30 years and is the namesake of Apogee Stadium's Bill Mercer Press Club.
"Bill would have us go sit in the stands at UNT games and record tapes of ourselves doing play-by-play and turn it in -- that was a weekly assignment," Followill says. "I learned so much from Bill and got a chance to start putting those things into practice pretty quickly because of the hands-on experience he wanted us to get."
Rogers and Wade credit their time in Denton as turning points in their lives and say they still use the skills they learned in college in their current careers. Rogers says sales and marketing are "the backbone of what we do," while Wade says the way he approaches many of their show's topics is greatly influenced by critical studies skills he learned from film professor Harry Benshoff.
For Villarreal, that turning point came in the form of an internship in the summer of 2010 with what was then Clear Channel Radio, later becoming iHeartMedia.
"I needed an internship to graduate and I got an email from a professor saying Clear Channel Radio was looking for interns," says Villarreal. "So I applied and was luckily given the opportunity. I was able to see everything that goes on behind the scenes in radio. And I fell in love with it."
Through hard work and dedication, Villarreal's internship turned into a part-time job while she finished school; followed by a full-time job; and then by a promotion to assistant marketing director. Seven years later, she's expanded her marketing role into the occasional on-air work, voicing some commercials and doing the midday weather reports for 106.1 KISS FM and 102.9 NOW. But she says her favorite part of the job is working on large events and concerts in Dallas like Jingle Ball and EdgeFest, creating experiences thousands of people get to enjoy.
Rogers and Wade took a slightly more winding road to radio success. Through a couple of stops and stalls along the way, they've built a loyal following of listeners with their afternoon drive show on 105.3, which has developed into something of an Eagle's nest, with multiple UNT alumni calling the station home. "Ben and Skin Show" producer Kevin "KT" Turner ('06), "New School" producer Roy White ('10) and "K&C Masterpiece" co-host Cory Mageors ('10) are all UNT graduates.
Having grown up in Richardson, Rogers and Wade revel in the fact that they now get to cover their hometown teams, but both say the connections they've made along the way have been the most rewarding part.
"To develop the relationships we have over the years with players, coaches, front offices -- it's truly surreal," says Rogers.
Wade specifically cites the friendships he's forged with several Mavericks players -- through his other job as sideline reporter as part of the television broadcast team with Followill -- as some of the most meaningful through his career.
Both Wade and Followill consider the night Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki passed the 30,000 points mark in front of an "electric" home crowd at the American Airlines Center to be a top career highlight as broadcasters. Followill says it's moments like that, his experience calling the 2016 Olympics and his passion for sports overall that make his job so rewarding.
"I've been very, very fortunate to get to broadcast some great things on the local level as well as the national and international levels," Followill says.
And for Guzman, the joy of working in radio comes from getting to learn new things every day through the research she conducts to help produce Think's two shows a day. That work has gained her recognition, as she was recently named a recipient of the Mayborn School of Journalism's Rising Star Award (as was Mageors).
Many of the alumni who have been so deeply impacted by their time at UNT are compelled to give back.
After participating in the nationally recognized Heart of Mexico Project as a graduate student when it launched in 2013, Guzman has traveled south of the border with the project every summer since graduation to volunteer her time as a mentor to current students.
"I started as a student in its first year and for me, the value was getting to work with journalists from The Dallas Morning News like Tom Huang or Alfredo Corchado -- these amazing journalists who are giving you real-world advice," Guzman says. "Now that I'm on the other side of things, it's really important that we help to mold and shape these journalists. I want to provide future UNT students with all the amazing experiences that I got while I was a student."
Wade takes great pride in donating to the university whenever he gets the chance because he knows it has so much to offer young people.
"UNT offers tremendous value in the arts and liberal arts," Wade says. "And because of my passion for music I know the kind of musicians that school is turning out. If both of my kids said, 'I want to go to UNT and get a liberal arts degree,' I'd be ecstatic, because I know not only what the education would be like, but what the environment is and the kind of experiences and people that they'll be around."
And although Followill left UNT short of completing his degree (but says he continues to keep an eye on the university's distance learning offerings that could accommodate his busy schedule), he says the impact of the university on the broadcasting industry is undeniable.
"The proof is in the pudding in terms of members of the media that work in the DFW area and other markets who attended UNT," Followill says.
Knowing that his sports broadcasting classes were a turning point in his life inspires him to pay it forward. That's why he's been coming back to UNT for years to speak to students in deputy athletic director and adjunct instructor Hank Dickenson's sports announcing class.
"It's really nice to be able to go to Hank's class," Followill says, "talk to kids and give back in a small way to people who are sitting in a chair that I sat in many, many years ago."