Television news anchor and reporter Brad Hicks has UC Davis to thank for his first on-camera job.
Hicks had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography from UC Davis in 1986 and ‘88, respectively, and was coming off a stint at Texas A&M University as a Ph.D. student when he applied for a job at WGAL-TV in Pennsylvania anchoring the local farm report.
A native of Palo Alto, Calif., Hicks had little knowledge of agriculture. But, no matter.
“I explain to them, ‘I went to UC Davis, the premier agricultural and farming school in California, and I’d been at Texas A&M, the premier agriculture school in Texas. Clearly, I am the right person for this job,’” Hicks said. “And they offered me the job, even though I didn’t know if a heifer was a type of pig or chicken or what. The agricultural tradition and reputation of UC Davis was a home run for me.”
Thus began Hicks’ career as a television news reporter, which by now has come to include three TV stations in three states and 13 Emmy awards — five of which he won this past winter. He is currently a weeknight news anchor and special projects reporter at WITI-TV in Milwaukee.
A self-described “National Geographic kid,” Hicks’ interest in journalism began with an appreciation of television’s ability to allow viewers to see the world in their living rooms, he said. While working toward a Ph.D. in geography at Texas A&M University, he took a few journalism classes and hosted a radio program called “Asia Weekly Review.”
“That’s when I started realizing this is what I really want to do,” Hicks said.
After a earning a fellowship that placed him at CNN in Atlanta writing and producing for the science correspondent, Hicks joined the news team at WGAL-TV. Though the farm report was cancelled after a year, within five years Hicks became the Monday through Friday evening news anchor.
The writing and on-camera speaking and reading skills necessary for TV news anchoring came easily to him — which is as it should be, Hicks said.
“It really is a matter of not trying. It’s probably not unlike a musician or athlete, where you have a certain base knowledge that you’re executing with the skill base you have, but you’re not thinking that hard about it,” Hicks said. “One of the biggest challenges people face when they get into this business is just being themselves, instead of being what they think they’re supposed to be.”
Dan O’Donnell, news director at WGAL-TV, began working with Hicks when he arrived at the station in 1990. He described Hicks as an intense journalist, skilled at finding angles on stories that others often don’t.
“There was a story he worked on about people drowning in low-head vans. Brad had the idea to work with river rescue to find a way to send a camera over [the river],” O’Donnell said. “That was the kind of thing he was always doing.”
In 2000, Hicks moved back to the Bay Area to anchor the KNTV broadcast in San Jose, during which time he covered the September 11 attacks. Since 2004, he has anchored and reported at WITI-TV in Milwaukee.
When working on a story, Hicks says the first thing he does is listen to his “reporter instincts” about whether a story is worth pursuing. Then, the process becomes one of fleshing out all the information he can possibly get. Ultimately, the goal is to tell the story with the viewers in mind, drawing them in from the very beginning, he said.
Though his recent Emmy wins for achievement as a news anchor, writer and features reporter, as well as for his hard news features “Freed to Kill,” about a woman killed in a car accident caused by a man mistakenly released from jail, and his entertainment reporting on “Above a Tall World,” about dwarf pianist Chris Errera, will allow him to add five more trophies to his already extensive collection, Hicks is driven more by reporting the news than gathering awards.
One of his most affecting stories, a feature about the spread of heroin to teenagers in the suburbs, continued to draw responses from viewers years after it aired.
“A couple of years ago I was emceeing an event and a man came up to me and thanked me for saving his son’s life with that story. It made him aware of the things he was seeing with his son, and as a result his son ended up getting help,” Hicks said. “That’s pretty cool — being able to actually make a difference, in some way, shape or form.”
Still, Hicks’ former roommate Daniel Gray, who graduated from UC Davis in 1985 with degrees in computer science and math, said that Hicks’ success as a reporter and anchor didn’t surprise him.
“On TV he comes off very professional, but in real life he’s not at all like that. He has a great sense of humor,” Gray said. “I remember he liked the Ronn Owens radio show, and he used to emulate him all the time.”
Though he said it still surprises and flatters him when viewers recognize him “off-camera,” Hicks cautioned those interested in following in his footsteps that a passion and background in reporting is absolutely necessary.
“Through my 21 years in this business I’ve met just a couple of people where the novelty of being on TV did not wear off. They are the most unhappy people in the business. They’re driven entirely by ego. And the reality is, big whoop,” Hicks said. “I can look at the window of this edit booth where I am right now, and there’s people running around and we’re executing a project, getting the job done and getting the news on the air. That’s what we do every day.”
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.