Whether she’s coordinating a sports broadcast, juggling classes, or checking in on her two adult children, Vanessa McConnell stays busy.
The 48-year-old journalism student has a determined spirit and is well on her way to a future as a radio pro and educator.
“Failure and giving up is not an option,” she said. “It’s tough. It gets really tough sometimes, but the only thing I know is just to do it.”
That’s why she’s pushed herself to complete her degree this spring while for years balancing the responsibilities of single motherhood. It’s how she earned a role as vice president of programming for the student-run Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies’ radio station The Rebel-HD2. And how she won a new national scholarship meant to uplift the next generation of Black broadcasters.
Striking a new course
McConnell, who is originally from California, moved to town in 1998 after tragedy struck the family. In 1996, her brother was murdered in Las Vegas. The mother of a young son, she relocated to be closer to her mom and other family.
McConnell said she’d always wanted to attend UNLV and began taking classes in communication at the College of Southern Nevada before transferring. But the journey to a degree wasn’t easy.
She took a 10-year break beginning in 2007 to care for her son, who was born with fluid in his brain and has spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine.
During that time, she stayed connected to the media field while raising her son and daughter, working as a freelance writer, and running marketing for a handful of new web-based radio stations.
When she resumed her education in 2017, she took a course with KUNV operations manager Dave Nourse. That’s when McConnell first considered putting her experience and talent to work for The Rebel-HD2.
“I was like, ‘You know what? Let me give it a try. His technique — I think that’s what I want to do,’” she recalled.
She joined the HD2 station, the student radio side of KUNV, as the host of a variety show, where she interviewed celebrities and held discussions on community issues.
Not only did she devote herself to her student radio work, but she thrived, doing news reports and becoming involved in the station’s sports broadcasting.
She brought her son, a big sports fan, to games and asked him for advice and tips. “He’s my rock,” she said. “I would have him do the play-by-play and color (commentary) with me,” she said.
Presiding over programming
In her current role at The Rebel-HD2, McConnell works with support staff and other students to develop the station’s content.
She also coordinates the sports coverage of roughly 20 students, who learn the details of play-by-play commentary, web development, and game coverage while working at real sporting events.
Overall, she focuses on building teams and driving coverage. The goal is to develop students’ sports broadcasting skills while also providing in-depth coverage of UNLV and other teams that the audience can’t get elsewhere.
“Vanessa controls what you hear coming off the radio station on the HD2,” said Ashton Ridley, KUNV Radio and UNLV-TV general manager. “When it’s a sports program, she’s making the connections to get press passes, she’s conducting the trainings to make sure the students know what to do, how to do it.”
Her dedication was acknowledged in the fall by a national organization. In December, the Black Play-by-Play Broadcaster Grant and Scholarship Fund named McConnell as the recipient of one of its spring 2021 awards.
“Vanessa has been amazing in her role as vice president of programming and just to be able to receive the scholarship speaks volumes to the work she’s done,” Ridley said.
The Black Play-by-Play scholarship launched last June in an effort to increase representation of Black Americans in sports radio broadcasting.
“I’m just very appreciative that they even considered me,” McConnell said. “That was a huge help. I hope that they continue to do this.”
She said she’s always been aware of the dearth of Black reporters when out in the field. As a writer, she’d covered events like boxing matches and red carpets, and it was a rarity to see another reporter who looked like her.
“Even today, I see them here and there, but it’s not consistent, and it’s really hard to get credentialed,” she said. “I never understood that. I just never understood why I wasn’t embraced like everyone else.”
Ridley, who built his radio career at local station KCEP-FM and spent five years as manager of multicultural affairs at the College of Southern Nevada, said local radio has improved in encouraging diversity among its ranks. But increasing diversity in media is about more than recruitment, Ridley said.
For students to become professionally successful, they must have opportunities to shine in roles for which they have a passion. Capable role models in leadership positions and the right mix of educational and practical backgrounds also can have an impact.
“It just comes down to them being comfortable and knowing the craft that they’re in,” Ridley said.
The Rebel-HD2 is unique in that it operates in two spheres: the academic and the professional, he added. The station offers any UNLV student willing to work toward success an opportunity to get on air, doing real-time broadcasts of sports or other topics of interest to them.
In that way, it’s a conduit into broadcasting media for all students, including those who may have found other avenues closed to them.
“It’s truly that real-world experience that you can’t get anywhere else in the valley unless you’re working at a radio station,” Ridley said. “It’s more than just a lab.”
McConnell’s success is proof that dedicated students not only can refine their skills at UNLV, but they also can take on managerial roles that add to their resumes and could one day inspire other students to follow.
“That’s just an example that we can show others that you can do it, too,” Ridley said.
To McConnell, who has worked hard to develop the skills and knowledge she has today, one of the most important things is to encourage the next generation of radio students.
She’s even thought about launching a nonprofit organization to work with universities, teaching students about writing and radio.
Ultimately, she hopes to continue to work in media, build teams, and open doors for others interested in writing and radio.
“My ultimate goal — I would love to be an educator and just teach others to do what I do.”