Sovern ’84 journeys globe in search of stories

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Whether he’s reporting live via satellite from the base camp of Mount Everest, updating his widely read political blog, traveling to Europe to cover the Tour de France or applying his musical knowledge to the production of a radio segment, journalist Doug Sovern ’84 thrives on the spontaneity of his career.

“I may start my day in the worst slum that there is, interviewing crack addicts, and then that afternoon I may go sit down and do a private interview with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Sovern said. “It’s different every day. You never know what you’re going to get.”

As a reporter for KCBS, the only San Francisco-based all-news radio station and the world’s first-ever broadcasting station, Sovern has won more than 125 broadcast journalism awards, according to the KCBS Web site. In 2004, he became the first journalist to win the Associated Press’ Reporter of the Year Award for California/Nevada on three separate occasions.

Sovern’s passion for journalism took shape during his adolescence, when he was editor of his high school newspaper and he later took a summer job as a “copy boy” at the New York Times during college. For Sovern, journalism has served both as a career and as a vehicle through which he’s explored his myriad interests.

An avid bass player, Sovern said his musical knowledge has important applications in reporting. “Being a musician has really helped me put together interesting stories,” he said. “(Radio) has a lot to do with rhythm and pacing.”

Sovern also said his reporting style is similar to that of reporters for National Public Radio. “I use a lot of natural sounds, a lot of music,” he said.

That passion for music thrived at Brown. “There was a really vibrant music scene when I was at Brown,” he said. “Every weekend there were bands playing all over campus.” Sovern said he was always involved in music – at one point, he was playing in five bands.

Along with his various bands – which included a “new-wave pop group” called the Video Babies, an acoustic bluegrass trio, a nine-piece R&B revue and a blues/rock band called the Magnitos – Sovern performed across campus and around Providence at locales like Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel and the Living Room.

As a member, and eventually head, of the Brown Concert Agency, Sovern helped bring acts like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bonnie Raitt, Dire Straits, the B-52s and U2 to Brown’s campus. Among his most memorable concert experiences was a performance by James Brown.

“We got the name of the school changed for the day to James Brown University,” Sovern said, adding that T-shirts were printed with the words “In soul speramus” instead of the traditional University motto, “In deo speramus.”

Sovern’s love for music prompted him to take a year off from Brown to play in a band and “not go to school for a while.” Though he planned to graduate in 1982, it wasn’t until 1984 that he earned his degree. “I was on the six-year plan,” he said.

After graduation, Sovern moved to Berkeley, Calif., to pursue his music career with his band, Nice Boys From New York – but the band’s dreams of stardom failed to materialize. “Lots of bands we opened up for or that opened up for us became very famous, but not us,” he said.

Putting his musical career on hiatus, Sovern decided to pursue journalism, but recently he’s stepped back onstage. This time he’s had the chance to incorporate knowledge he’s gained from being a reporter. The Eyewitness Blues Band, Sovern’s current musical endeavor, is composed entirely of broadcast journalists. Together they take popular songs and write parodies about politics and current events.

“We have one about the presidential race called ‘I Still Haven’t Found Who I’m Voting For,’ ” he said.

Sovern’s journalism career has allowed him to explore his interest in politics, which consistently plays a role in his reporting. “Right now I’m focusing very much on the presidential election,” he said, adding that it’s his “primary beat” for the next year and a half.

KCBS has even set up a special Web site devoted entirely to election coverage called “Sovern Nation.” The site features podcasts, video reporting, polls, trivia and a blog to which Sovern contributes regularly.

Sovern first became involved in politics at age 7, when he volunteered in a congressional race for a neighborhood activist in his town. He volunteered again when he was 12, this time for the New York City mayor’s race. “I’ve always been really interested in politics,” he said.

Though a history concentrator, Sovern said he took several courses in the political science department while at Brown. He recalled a specific occasion when Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., visited one of his political science classes and spoke with students for hours, staying long after the class ended to answer all of their questions.

Sovern said he interviewed Biden recently as part of his coverage of the 2008 elections and was shocked to discover that Biden remembered the visit quite vividly when Sovern mentioned it after the interview. “He remembered it because it was the only time he’d been to Brown. He remembered that there was a protest going on on the Main Green,” Sovern said.

Though reporting on politics occupies much of Sovern’s time, in his 17 years at KCBS he has also been able to delve deeper into his passion for the outdoors. An avid bicyclist, Sovern has ridden across Tanzania from the Indian Ocean to Mount Kilimanjaro as well as through Alaska.

These adventures have offered compelling journalistic opportunities for Sovern. “Anytime I do something like this, I cover it,” he said. During his Mount Everest expedition in 2000, Sovern did live reports for KCBS via satellite.

Sovern said he’s always loved the outdoors and even recalled that this was the general topic of his admissions essay for Brown. For KCBS, he has covered the Tour de France three times, and future opportunities for this type of reporting abound. “I think I’m going to cover the Olympics in Bejing,” he said.

Sovern said he’s been able to take a more creative approach to content and reporting because KCBS gives him “a lot of leeway.” Even in the early stages of his employment at KCBS, he demonstrated initiative. “I was able to come up with my own things and execute them, and (the station) noticed.”

Those responsible for assigning stories sometimes struggle to think of enough original material, so Sovern said they appreciate ambition. “You want all the input you can get,” he said. “I would say that for about 50 percent of my stories, I come in and say, ‘Hey, why don’t I do something about this?’ ” Because of his willingness to come up with creative story ideas, Sovern said the station has offered him increasing freedom to explore less conventional reporting over the years.

“It’s a cliche to say, ‘think outside the box,’ but that’s what you have to do,” he said. “Take the time to dig a little deeper.”

Sovern said concepts he learned in his courses at Brown have facilitated his ability to be an effective journalist. “It’s really important to have a broad base of knowledge,” he said, citing the significance of history, political science and economics, in particular. Formal training in journalism can be helpful, but that alone is not enough. “It’s good to have the tools, but you need the knowledge to go with it.”

Sovern recently renewed his contract with KCBS, signing on for another three years, but he says he’s “always been a writer” and has considered taking some time off to write a book. Sovern said he is also interested in exploring other media, having already studied filmmaking and written a few screenplays.

But as of now, Sovern said his next major life-change will probably be starting a family with his girlfriend, whom he plans to marry in the near future.