by Erica Rae Sanchez
photography by Veronyca Norcia
Rick Montanez and his photographer Troy McLaurin wait in their brightly marked NBC truck on Navarro Avenue for my photographer Veronyca Norcia and me to join them. We had made plans a few days earlier to shadow them Nov. 2, 2019, on their daily news journey. As we entered Pasadena on the 210 Freeway, we received a text that the two news men were called to Hatteras Street and Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys for a breaking news shooting. My photographer and I reset our Google maps to join them. Halfway to Van Nuys, we received another text that the story did not materialize, and they were returning to Pasadena, but first they were picking up dinner at a food truck. We turned my gray Hyundai around and returned to Pasadena. We were now sitting at the original meeting location, waiting for Rick and Troy, when we received an apologetic text from Rick: They were now heading to the Santa Anita Racetrack. The text included the words, “Sorry, this is the life of a reporter.”
Our meeting up with Rick and Troy began with our sitting in their truck waiting for the 11 p.m. news to start. The two were going to go live at 11 p.m. with the “intro” and “outro” on a horse that was euthanized during the Breeders Cup races.
Rick was digging in his makeup bag minutes before going live. “I don’t wear much and don’t know how to apply it very well,” he remarks. Still, the job demands he give it his best effort. He dabs the concealer under his eyes and puts powder foundation on as he explains how the job is never stagnant. He says he could be sitting and waiting for a story to appear and, once it does, he is on his way clear across Southern California to cover it. This, he says, is why he loves his job, because there is not a “typical” day as a reporter. He jokes about how his day can be “mundane to chaotic in a matter of seconds,” and that the reporters are forever on stand-by. “The world never stops so we can’t. The world is coming to an end, let’s go,” he jokes.
Meet Rick Montanez, KNBC-4 reporter who graduated from the University of La Verne Communications Department as a broadcast major. Rick has just reached his fourth anniversary of working with KNBC, and he says that for the first two years he would be on his way to work in disbelief that he was on the Channel 4 news. “It still felt surreal when I interviewed at Channel 4, like I am here on an actual job interview; they’re considering me to work here,” he says. “It’s fun. It’s challenging because we cover all of Southern California, and I think I probably have my toughest assignments here in LA, but I love it.”
How Rick got to where he is today took hard work, persistence, determination and passion. At a young age, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, and that vision never altered even after many years. Rick’s story is not a typical one. “As a kid, I always wanted to do this. Part of me on some level was like, ‘I don’t know how I am ever going to do this; these people are on TV; these are prestigious jobs. How could I achieve this?’”
Rick attended Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, California, where he discovered broadcast news. After attending his high school’s college fair, he knew the University of La Verne was the right college for him. The campus was small, which he found as an advantage because he knew he would get the chance to be seen and heard within the classroom. “I feel like a lot of my colleagues now are like, ‘I didn‘t know until later that I wanted to do this,’ but I am like ‘no’; I was a kid, and I knew I wanted to do this, and I wrote for the paper at school and did all of this stuff to follow this path.”
He was quick to find a job after graduation. He finished his University of La Verne education in December 2006, and by Jan. 15, he was working as a television reporter with KIDK in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “I was interning at Channel 7 here in LA., and one of the other interns that I had made friends with had left a month or two before to go start a job at this station. She called me one day and was like, ‘We have an opening. I didn’t know about it until yesterday, and my boss said that he was close to hiring someone, but I told him, ‘No, I have a friend that you need to look at,’ and this is back when we were still doing stuff on tape,” says Rick. He immediately went to FedEx to ship his broadcast reel tapes overnight. The next day, he got the job. “I grew to like Idaho, and then I fell in love with the place. It was a culture shock, living in LA., and then I moved to the middle of nowhere. When you think about the size of Los Angeles itself and then compare it to the entire state of Idaho, it was hard to get used to, but then I did enjoy it after a while.”
Although Rick has never been fired or let go, there were times where he had to knock down important barriers to get where he is today. “There have been opportunities where I thought, ‘Oh, If I can get this job and make this move to this city; that’ll be amazing, perfect and wonderful. And those moves were right about to happen, but then they didn’t; this is where I take that as a setback because I couldn’t get the job.”
While enjoying his KIDK CBS affiliation experience, Rick longed to return closer home to be with his family. He had left Los Angeles to work in Idaho, Colorado, Sacramento and Fresno, so his time away from home had been well served but he desired to be home in LA. The search took a couple years. He went on many LA area job interviews. “I remember one of them was like, ‘You’re good, but you don’t stand out to me as much. You’re solid, but there’s nothing that separates you from anyone else,’” he recalls. For a while, Rick was stumped by that comment because he was unsure how to put it into practice. This feedback led him to look for jobs outside of this job industry. He remembers calling Mike Laponis, University of La Verne professor of communications to serve as a reference for public relations related jobs. His former professor told him that he did not believe that was the right career move because of how well he did in broadcast journalism. Mike helped him with reference letters but encouraged him not to leave the industry that he said fit Rick so well. Rick took the advice to heart and won a job at KNBC.
The one memorable story that stays with him is the Thomas wildfire that burned through Santa Paula, Ventura and Santa Barbara, starting on Dec. 4, 2017. “It was a really windy day, like really, really windy, and I remember joking with my coworker saying, ‘I forgot to bring a jacket, that sucks,’ and when we were pulling up to this fire, it felt different. It looked different.”
His reporting began and would stop 12 hours later. “About midnight, we found out that the fire had already reached Ventura, and they had initially said, ‘The fire is expected to get to Ventura by 1 a.m.’ And then, here we are, and the fire had gotten there earlier,” he says. Rick and his camera person knew that they were dealing with a fire so unique and violent in its nature that its coverage was going to be significant.
Indeed, the fire was chaotic. It was burning at an exceptional rate, and too many houses were being eaten by the fire’s rage. “By this point at night, they had called the morning news reporters in early who usually start at 3 a.m., and all of the reporters and photographers; everybody was at this fire. I had started my shift at 3 p.m. and stayed on the air through the 4, 5, 6 a.m. news. The crew was constantly following this fire, and they had stumbled upon a street that was burning.” The street was up in flames, and an important rule in journalism is to always be safe and make that a priority before anything else. “At one point, I was standing in front of this huge apartment complex that burnt down, and while we were on air, the front part of the building had collapsed. It was just so bizarre to see all of this stuff. It just didn’t stop.” The most difficult challenge about reporting fire stories is that one has to understand that the houses burning are homes. “People have lived their lives there, and in one second they are completely gone. It is about dealing with those emotions and knowing what to do with them,” he says.
With every job there come duties that are not always outlined in the job description. The emotional connection to the stories and the sources are what caught Rick by surprise. “There have been a lot of stories that have a really strong impact on me emotionally or have been life changing moments.” He momentarily struggles to put his thoughts together because he is lost in the question, remembering especially traumatic moments. Emotion washes over him as he collects his thoughts. Rick is sent to cover the stories that have a huge emotional impact on the community. He has covered the San Bernardino terrorist threat, the theater shooting in Colorado and many other painstaking human events. Rick says that he warns his interns that the job will get heavy, and the reporter has to be prepared for those days.
The Colorado Aurora theater shooting was the first national tragedy that Rick reported. “I wake up and the first thing in the morning I get a call from my boss who says, ‘We are putting you on a plane to Colorado,’ and in my head I am thinking ‘Damn, another mass shooting; this is crazy.’” When he arrived, he saw that people had stuck around the theater because they were checking up on their friends and family. “It was so chaotic; they didn’t know what was going on still,” says Rick. One of his best friends told him his younger brother had a friend who had been killed in the theater, which caused the story to be somewhat personal. “When I came home from that assignment, I was upset for a couple of days. I couldn’t understand what was going on at first, but then I realized that I was processing the trauma that I experienced; it obviously wasn’t as traumatizing as the people who were in that event, but being around it takes time to process too,” says Rick.
Another story that brought immediate tears to his eyes was a story about a Pasadena boy in who went missing. “I was assigned to the story every so often in the time that he was gone. I met his family and had personal contact with relatives,” says Rick. “The story ended up being that the dad killed him and took his body up to Santa Barbara County.” The aunt had called Rick in hysterics to tell him personally that the body was found, and the father had killed him. “I get off of the phone, and I just broke down in tears because I had been covering it.” He pauses as tears start to form in his eyes, and his voice gets a bit shaky. He composes himself and continues, “So, you get attached to a lot of them.” He explains that not all stories have a profound emotional effect on the reporter, but it does happen. “Every so often there are the stories that really stick with you, and that I wasn’t prepared for, but it is also a part of the job that I do appreciate,” says Rick.
He strives to remain relatable to the public. “When I write my stories or am on breaking news, and I am explaining it, I always think, ‘OK, someone is turning on their TV. They want to know what is happening, so as best as I can, being myself, let me just explain in a way that is understandable and relatable. I am not trying to sound super smart, I am not an expert on most things, but I try to explain to you the best way that I understand what is happening.’” Opening a comfortable line of communication is important when interviewing people who have just experienced a tragic event. Rick says he does not want to make his audience feel as if he were feeding them the news; he wants to relay current events in a way that feels like a natural conversation because that is the best way for people to understand what is happening in the world.
Walking into someone’s life when they have just experienced a tragedy is not easy and not for everyone. Rick is hyper aware of the “badge” he puts on in the morning. He has empathy for those who do not wish to share with him at a time when their lives have been greatly affected. “There are times when it is tough, and I don’t want to talk to someone about their personal tragedy, or you feel bad that you have to walk into their lives at the worst moment,” says Rick. His voice changes to his reporter’s voice as he mocks the way that at times of crisis in people’s lives he has to go in and say, “Hi, I am the news. Let me put you on TV.” He says the heaviness of this type of reporting comes with taking care of yourself after the lights and the camera are turned off. One way, he says, is to return from a tragedy and to release those emotions by being able to talk about the emotional stress with coworkers. His other coping mechanism is shutting out the world. “There are times where you need to turn off your phone, your television, not read any headlines and just breathe,” he says.
To be successful in this industry is quite difficult because it is so competitive. Rick shares some advice: “You have to bring a certain energy and personality to your on-air persona, to your stories, your writing.” The feedback that he constantly hears is that he comes off as very comfortable on the screen, but this was something that he had to work toward.
Rick quietly admits that on his days off he does not usually want to talk to strangers. He reflects how he has seen himself become less sociable. He quickly remarks that this does not mean that he does not like meeting new people. “You go into the most random neighborhoods from all walks of life, and you meet some really great people, and you can tell that they’re caring and humane. I think that is why I like the job so much, and it does come from always having been talkative and wanting to meet new people.”
And while this job industry can be straining and difficult to manage, Rick says he is able to maintain his work life, family life and his alone time very well. He is the father of two young girls, and he says he receives much help from the community around him. His family, he notes, is understanding about the demand that comes from working for a news outlet. Having this support makes his life a bit less stressful. “The cool thing that I like about KNBC-4 is that my bosses understand family life, and when I need time off for my family because something comes up, they allow for that.”
With everything that KNBC-4 covers—wildfires, rainstorms, earthquakes and other tragedies— the job can become hectic, but the news outlet consistently tells it reporters to make sure that their family is safe first and foremost, and then to come into work, he explains with gratitude toward his employer. Rick notes how self-care is one of his major priorities. “You have to have a work life balance to stay sane because we do see so much. You need to be able to decompress and to be able to have time for yourself, have a personal life, have fun, laugh and do all that other stuff.” He understands that taking time for yourself is necessary to remain life balanced.
His five tips for success are hard work, networking, preparedness, integrity and having fun. “Nothing is going to fall in your lap; you will get opportunities, but you have to work for them. You have to work to create those doors that will open for you. You can work as hard as you want, and you can have as many friends as you want, but if you’re not prepared for whatever job it is that you are doing, you are not going to do well.” He has seen many people fall down because they are not prepared, or they are doing it for the wrong reasons. He says integrity is key in life but especially in journalism because people allow you into their lives with very personal stories, and, as a reporter, your intentions need to be pure. “If you don’t have integrity, you’re not going to do well,” he says. Having fun is an essential part of life because, “If you’re all work and no play, it will get boring.”
The reporter life may not be for everyone. But Rick and Troy have found a working bond. Their workplace chemistry is inviting, informal and casual. My photographer and I felt welcomed and invited into their broadcast world.
Troy explains that he has worked with Rick since he started at KNBC. The two tease one another as they recall stories they have covered together. Perhaps this is how one survives in the tense, demanding and ever changing news environment.
“It’s really cool to be like, ‘I have achieved this goal that I have had for a long, long, long time,’” says Rick. “But sometimes it does feels weird because it was such a big dream for so long, and then when it becomes real, it is like, ‘Wow, this is happening.’ I do not know if this career is long-term, but it is definitely where I fit in this world right now.”
As soon as Rick signs off from his live broadcast, Troy turns off of the camera, rolls up the cords and otherwise begins to pack up. All this excitement of chasing stories down the freeways road resulted in Rick going live on KNBC for a minute and a half. Rick and Troy laugh as they finish packing up. Then they all breathe a quiet sigh of relief. Their work assignment is over for the night.