Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
After playing in front of small crowds of volleyball fans for most of her life, Brandi Akemi Higa is now growing accustomed to being watched by a much larger audience.
The 28-year-old Higa made the successful transition from athlete to weekend sports anchor/reporter at ABC affiliate KITV — her “dream job,” as she describes it. If Higa’s enthusiastic delivery style, communicated mainly through her infectious on-camera smile, makes it look like she’s having fun, it’s because she really is, despite the stresses of deadlines, she says.
“When there’s a story that gets me excited, I let it go,” she says. “I don’t try to hold it back; I’m all smiles.”
Higa doesn’t consider interviewing players and coaches, or reviewing game tape, or even script-writing as “chores.” Quite the contrary. To Higa, those tasks are all part of the process of improving her skills in a field in which she had little prior experience. “I learned that I had an interest in sports, but didn’t have a knowledge of all sports,” she explains. “I had to learn about sports like tennis and golf. When you don’t know it very well, you’re not very confident.”
KITV sports director Robert Kekaula said Higa first impressed him in the studio as an intern and news producer. In his 20-year tenure with KITV, he
has seen countless individuals hired for both on- and off-camera positions. But, to Kekaula, Higa seemed to have the qualities that would enable her to make a successful transition from off-camera to on-camera.
“Brandi and I were in the newsroom ‘shooting the breeze,’ Kekaula recalls. “I was impressed with her competitive spirit. I like that competitive spirit in college athletes, and she was also good-looking. I thought to myself, ‘Whatever it is, she has it.’”
During a casual conversation on the subject of careers in journalism, Kekaula recalls telling Higa that sports reporting isn’t easy . . . it’s time-consuming and involves a lot of research and long hours. It wouldn’t be a 9-to-5 job; it’s a “live the life” kind of job that never ends. But, a career in sports broadcasting has enabled many former athletes to remain in a field they love. Then, much to Higa’s surprise, he asked her if she wanted to continue working behind the scenes as a news producer and, with his mentoring, also train for a possible future on-camera sports reporting career.
Higa had only one answer to his question. Yes! She saw it as a no-lose proposition that would give her the security of a full-time job, while also gaining valuable sports reporting experience, tuition-free, in her spare time.
“Robert said the first thing I needed was to put together a package, or story, on tape,” she recalls. “We would do it on UH football. He had me look up some individual records that past players had set as background information for my television ‘report.’”
Higa readily admits that she wasn’t an overnight success in her first on-field training session under Kekaula. Far from it, she laughed, recalling her first make-believe live interview at the University of Hawai‘i’s football practice field. Higa anticipated first observing the practice sessions and digesting the finer points that the assistant coaches stressed to their respective position players. Then, after the final overall drill session and some final advice from Kekaula, she would deliver her sports “report” on the day’s practice highlights in front of his videographer.
After arriving at UH’s lower campus, Higa quickly experienced the heat a quarterback feels in the face of a blitz.
“Robert and his assistant immediately put the camera on me and he told me to just say the information I researched. I did, and after we reviewed the tape, I thought it was terrible. He told me to just keep practicing and made me do things over and over again.”
Kekaula said he realized that as a budding sports reporter, Higa was a “project.” But he also saw a drive in her that he knew would eventually pay off.
“I saw the fight in her to get better,” Kekaula remembers. “I saw the competitiveness in her. I loved it. It was a struggle, but it never crossed her mind to quit. She often got mad, and this forced her to get better. Not everyone’s like that. I wish more people would have this work ethic. This really scored some brownie points with me.”
In the ensuing months, Higa worked tirelessly — training, like an athlete, with Kekaula after finishing her day job as a news producer. It wasn’t all work for the pair — they often shared laughs in the studio when scripts were misread or while reviewing tape. For Kekaula, mentoring Higa was a lot like giving parental advice to his oldest child, who is about the same age as Higa.
In addition to Kekaula, Higa also got tips on working both sides of the camera from Rob DeMello, a former KITV sports reporter who is now sports director at competitor KHON. DeMello had covered Higa when she was a high school volleyball standout.
When a position opened up as a sports reporter/weekend sports anchor in 2012, Kekaula urged Higa to apply for the position. She had been apprenticing for about two years and had improved substantially. Jahmai Webster, an applicant from the Mainland, was ultimately hired for the position. Although disappointed, Higa continued working as a news producer. And Kekaula did not cut her loose — he encouraged her to keep practicing her sports delivery.
KITV executives’ selection of Webster over Higa didn’t mean that they were ignoring Higa. They recognized her versatility by naming her the third member of the station’s new three-person team covering high school sports on weekends. Higa joined Kekaula and Webster in traveling to various campuses, reporting on as many sports events as possible for their sportscast. They called this special segment “Da Blitz” and dressed it up with funky music and graphics and giving the fans and cheerleading squads from the various schools a few minutes of exposure. Viewers waited eagerly for the segments.
Visiting the various school fields and directing candid shots of the schools’ cheerleaders and fans, in addition to game action, gave Higa her first local television exposure. When she and her “Blitz-mates” narrated their video segments on KITV’s 10 p.m. newscast with rapid-fire speed in “blitz-like” fashion, viewers got their first glimpse of a new local girl reporting sports.
The trio was also appealing for their racial diversity — Kekaula, a native Hawaiian, was born and raised here; Webster, an African American, had made a seemingly easy transition from the Mainland to island culture; and Higa, the young, local-as-you-can-get Japanese American, who was educated in both Hawai‘i and the northeastern United States. Already familiar with Kekaula and Webster, KITV viewers were intrigued by Higa, a fresh newcomer, who brought her enthusiasm and a beaming smile to the team.
“We branded ourselves as the local station that covered more local high school sports,” Higa says with obvious pride. “Going out to do Da Blitz was fun. It’s something you don’t get in news. The high school kids have so much energy. We just have to ask them once what to say and do and they’ll do it. We never have to ask them twice. People will do anything to get in front of the cameras and start to do crazy things on their own. They might not even get home in time to watch the show so we tell them they can see it on the website later.”
Higa recalled a blitz segment that the public did not see — it was one of her most embarrassing on-camera moments, she says. The studio camera was on Kekaula, with Webster and Higa sharing a second camera. In order to lessen the height difference between herself and Webster, the 5-foot-5 Higa stood on a box. As the segment end, she stepped backwards and fell off the box. Luckily, time had run out and the backward misstep, although recorded on tape, did not make it on the air. Physically unhurt, but with her pride at stake, the quick-thinking Higa deleted that portion of the tape so that it wouldn’t end up on a funny reel to be shown sometime in the future.
On a typical Friday or Saturday night during the high school sports year, Higa explained that KITV’s sport coverage will take Da Blitz viewers to several events if their playing sites are in close proximity to each other, such as Aloha Stadium and Pearl City and Aiea high schools. If a key game is played at Kahuku High School, geography and drive time will only allow the crew to cover that one game. However, the station also receives home videos emailed by the enthusiastic fans, thus providing even more prep coverage.
Higa was confident that her years of preparation and exposure from Da Blitz would eventually pay off for her when a sports position opened up in the future. When Webster left KITV in September 2014 to pursue a broadcasting opportunity in Denver, Higa got her big break and was named interim sports reporter/weekend anchor at the station.
Although the appointment wasn’t a permanent one, Higa saw it as an opportunity to audition for a job she had spent years training for — much like the athletes she interviewed.
“I could work 15-hour days and anchor for months and this job still couldn’t be mine,” Higa says, noting that during the interim period, she still had to fulfill her news producer responsibilities before switching to her sports duties. “It was basically a tryout. If I did well, it would be better for me when they made a decision after all the job applicants were reviewed.”
For four months, Higa pulled marathon stints as news producer, sports reporter and weekend sports anchor, without complaint.
As sports director, Kekaula had access to all of the job applications that had come in from Hawai‘i and the Mainland. For reasons of privacy, however, he kept his observations to himself.
Meanwhile, Higa had no hint of how station executives were grading her during her audition. The only encouragement KITV news director Chuck Parker offered her was to keep working hard.
In late February of this year, Parker called Higa into his office. Sensing that a hiring decision had been made, Higa braced herself for the worse. She had faced a similar verdict when Webster was hired two years ago.
The news this time was different.
“Chuck said, ‘Congratulations! We’re drafting a contract now,’” Higa remembers. “You can choose to sign it or not.”
“After working for that long a time, I didn’t have to think about accepting it,” Higa says.
KITV announced Higa’s appointment in a press release in which then-president and general manager Andrew Jackson said of Higa: “She’s such a hard worker and, as a former athlete herself, truly lives and breathes the games she’s covering. Having a local girl fill our weekend sports anchor chair is a real bonus.”
Kekaula was more forward thinking in his reflections of Higa’s hiring. “There were over 70 applicants and, personally, I watched every single demo tape,” he recalls. “I knew it would be hard for corporate to hire Brandi since she had no real experience. I thought to myself that we were not hiring for now; we were hiring for the future. To be honest, there were more polished applicants, but they wouldn’t be able to pronounce local names like ‘Malepeai’ and wouldn’t be a good fit like Brandi.”
It wasn’t that many years ago that Higa had made headlines of her own as a player. She started playing youth volleyball in grade school and attended instructional camps at UH with her teammates.
“Everyone was doing it at that time,” Higa recalls. “The Rainbow Wahine were really popular, and at one of their camps, I got one-on-one coaching from one of the Wahine coaches. It wasn’t because I was good, but [rather] because I wasn’t catching on as fast as the others. He kept encouraging me until I improved.”
That coach was current UH men’s volleyball head coach Charlie Wade. “He still remembers me,” she says. “Now when I see him for an interview, he says, ‘Hey, Higa!’” Two of her youth teammates, Jayme Lee and Rayna Kitaguchi, later played for the Rainbow Wahine.
Higa improved her game and the 2005 Hawaii Baptist Academy graduate led her girls’ Division I volleyball team to a runner-up finish in her senior year. She was subsequently an Interscholastic League of Honolulu first team all-league selection as a defensive specialist.
Higa considered continuing her volleyball playing days by walking on at Hawai‘i or Baylor University, but instead accepted a volleyball scholarship to Fairfield University in Connecticut, where she earned Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Week honors as a setter in her freshman campaign. The Stags returned Higa to her more familiar defensive specialist position during the next three seasons, and she responded by finishing her career with 1,334 digs, the sixth highest total in school history.
Higa graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in English and contemplated a career in public relations or grant writing. In the summer following her junior year at Fairfield, Higa had interned at KITV. Although her internship was cut short to return to the Northeast for mandatory volleyball practice, she made an impression on her supervisors.
“Just before graduation, I got a call from [newsroom assignment editor] Wanda Wehr telling me of a part-time associate producer opening,” Higa says. “The year 2009 was a hard time to find a job. The markets had just crashed. Jobs were few and far between. I took the offer right away.”
Higa devoted her spare time after work to coaching ‘Iolani School’s junior varsity and her Ka Ulukoa club’s volleyball teams. Two years later, she was elevated to full-time producer at KITV and intensified her training sessions with Kekaula until being hired as sports reporter/weekend anchor.
Since her appointment in March, Higa has observed that, “As a female in this industry, at times, you don’t seem to get the respect immediately, like guy reporters and anchors do. It just might be because they’ve done it a little longer, so they have a certain rapport with coaches that we don’t necessarily have right off the bat. We still have to do the research and homework for every single interview
. . . you can’t just ‘wing it’ because you’ve seen a team play week in and week out.”
Higa now focuses her attention strictly on sports, although, oftentimes, the hours she spends on the job, handling weekend sports, are just as long as her previous double-duty stints at the station. When the University of Hawai‘i Rainbow Warriors played road games during their recently completed season, Higa was at the station at 10:30 in the morning, preparing to tape the game, and others, while also gathering other sports news, such as high school results and how Michelle Wie fared that day. During the games, she is compiling statistics and writing her script so that everything will be ready for Saturday’s first newscast at 5 p.m.
“You don’t have time to do other sports after the UH game,” Higa explains. “You have to get as much done before you go on air and later update items for the 10 o’clock show. I get off air at 10:30 p.m., file everything for the archives and set up the taping for the next day’s pro games. I’ll leave about 11:30 p.m. to midnight and in a couple of hours, it starts all over again.”
Higa has no regrets about the long hours.
“This is my dream job, by far,” she says. Her appreciation and passion are evident in her smile and in her voice. “The more Robert told me I could do this if I kept trying, the more being a sports anchor became a dream . . . before, it wasn’t even on my radar.”
Steve Lum is a freelance writer and former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer, who specialized in sports and business.