On the heels of a new chapter in the STN story, we wanted to revisit an interview with Founder and Managing Director Eric Sperling, originally conducted as part of STN’s Arizona Achievers series.
In the interview, Sperling talks about his journey from high school football player, through a near-death experience that led him to the newsroom and, eventually, the motivation and circumstances that aligned to launch STN in 2011.
“You gotta be committed to the destination, but flexible on the journey on how you get there.”
STN Founder & Managing Director Eric Sperling
A Chat with STN Founder Eric Sperling
This article has been edited from the original interview for content, length and clarity.
STN: I want to go all the way back a little bit and just talk about early days, early childhood, where you grew up, what that environment was like? What’s in the DNA of Eric Sperling?
ES: I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I was born. We lived there in the eighties. Then we moved out west of San Jose, California when I was seven or eight years old. As far as the DNA goes, I think academics was my thing. I just really loved succeeding in school.
And then I think it all changed when I discovered football. For better or worse. I think that set me on a path where I enjoyed playing, competing, and enjoyed going through that journey more than I did devoting myself to my studies. In a way I think that really helped develop my mentorship and team approach.
Being from Pittsburgh, it’s just in your DNA, like that’s what you do: football. I had two very supportive parents who, as much as I got destroyed playing football, were supportive. They stood behind me and let me continue that journey.
STN: And, while you’re going through this journey, you had a pretty bad accident.
ES: Okay. So I’m 18 years old. I’m just out of high school and I’m on a trip with a friend of mine to the mall. I’m a passenger. We lose control of the car on the freeway, crash into the sound wall going 60 miles an hour.
I’m unconscious. She’s unconscious. Car catches fire. Apparently people had stopped but didn’t want to go near the car because it was burning. Nobody wanted to risk their lives to go save two kids out of a burning car. One guy does. He comes up to the car, pulls her out, but can’t get me out. He actually wedges himself between the sound wall and the car moves it about 10 inches. Actually, on YouTube there’s images of the car and images of that night. He pulls me out and the car explodes two seconds after he pulls me out.
I’ve got a broken back and a bunch of physical injuries, but it wasn’t until a few months after the accident that that whole gravity of like, wow, This is overtime for me. You know, life as a whole is overtime.
And I was in a tough, tough place in my life. I was going through post-concussion syndrome from football and didn’t really know where I wanted to go after that.
After that accident, it kind of gave me that second life, that second breath to say, ‘no’, you’ve got another chance at life. What are you gonna do with it? And then immediately wanted to go off to college and try to do something, man, because I was going down a very dangerous path.
STN: Often it’s those moments where we’re forced to face our own mortality that can produce different things in us.
ES: Yeah. You have posttraumatic stress, you have post-traumatic growth and looking at a situation like that, it could be very traumatic. But always looking back at it as something that fuels me in a better way as opposed to going down a dark path.
STN: So, how does that play a part in you going into journalism?
ES: So being a football player in high school, there was one game where after the game a reporter and photographer came over to interview me and I said, ‘Hey, I’m interested in what you guys are doing as well.’
So, my first internship in news was, when I was like 16 years old. I’ve been in local media for almost 30 years now. Sports actually led me to the introduction to seeing how news is made, how news is created. And that actually got me into it to start. And then realizing like that could make a career outta that.
STN: And, that’s how you wound up in Nevada.
ES: I went to the University of Nevada. Good journalism school. This was the late nineties. So everything was still pretty basic. You either had TV, radio or print. The university of Nevada had their own TV station and a great TV program. So it was a natural draw for me to go into.
STN: So, you go through this moment where you realize that there’s some power in this camera being on, you go to journalism school and then you go into news. Why news? Why that route?
ES: I was 21 or 22 at the time. I was living in Reno and there was an ABC affiliate/NBC affiliate that needed a news producer. I couldn’t believe they’re handing me the reins at such a young age. To say, ‘yes, young man, you determine what goes on the air tonight. It’s all on you to decide what stories our community is going to see tonight.’ There were other people in the newsroom at the time, some more seasoned anchors. But when it came down to it, it was all on me. I really started to see, like, okay, wait a minute, it’s my choice. I get to decide what goes on in the air tonight. That’s where I discovered the if-it-bleeds-it-leads philosophy that is so ingrained to local news and local media.
There are so many great people in local media today. But all of us have, at one point or another, been locked into that philosophy. So if a story came across my desk that had some sort of community impact or something that said ‘this is what’s possible in our community’ I would put it as my lead story. But then a shooting, a fire, anything that falls into that philosophy, would take priority and all of our resources would go into that.
So after years of that, it starts to get to you. I’d be in those those conversations we would have after the shows, asking ‘why?’ I can’t believe we devoted all of our resources away from that story and put them into a different one just because we’re trying to fuel a little bit of fear. We were trying to raise awareness and get attention for something that really has no impact.
STN: What was that moment that took you out of news in that traditional sense?
ES: It was more of a confluence of events. In the early- or mid-nineties, we didn’t really have internet. We had our AOL, but it wasn’t really part of the newsroom dynamic. It wasn’t a big thing. So I got to see over the years how the internet, how social media played a role in the evolution of media.
And at the same time, I was just done with the, if-it-bleeds-it-leads philosophy. I was tired of every time I would tell somebody I’m on this channel or I’m on that channel and you would hear it over, oh, ‘I don’t watch the news anymore.’ Then your follow up question is ‘why?’ And, they would say ‘it’s so depressing and it makes me feel bad.’
Again, I’m not talking about putting on rose-colored glasses and making you smile and just putting positive stuff. No. It’s about tackling real issues and having real conversations that you won’t see local news devote resources to.
So knowing 10 years ago how fast media was evolving I thought, okay, I would rather be part of the disruption side of this business than to just kind of stay the way it is and see what happens.
STN: What I think also really differentiates STN from other media platforms, to your point, is we are having tough conversations, but in a solutions oriented way. This is fixable. It doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. It is, ‘how can we come together and be a part of the solution?’
ES: Gloom and doom is the attention economy. You realize like that is how media outlets get paid. If I held a newspaper article up and on one side it said, ‘33 people saved at a Scottsdale hospital’ and the other side said, ‘33 people killed in mass shooting in Scottsdale,’ your brain automatically goes to the mass shooting. Because that survival mechanism kicks in.
And now with social media, it’s like the algorithms are designed to kick that dopamine rush to keep your attention. So traditional media was like, ‘let’s stay in this zone because the more attention, the more eyeballs we get, the more advertisers we get, the more money we make.’
So it’s never really about coming up with solution-focused content. It’s coming up with content that is meant to keep your attention. Click bait.
This is the opposite of that. The alternative to that. We’re trying to create a model around having solution-focused conversations and seeing if we can make it work.
STN: So, you chose to hop out of that traditional news system. What was that conversation like between you and your wife?
ES: It was more of a PowerPoint presentation because the first conversation didn’t go so well.
I felt like I was on the lazy river a little bit. I wasn’t challenging myself. I wasn’t finding a way to find out what I was made of, and then I saw the opportunity.
We had just had our son and we’re starting a family and I have a good job and I say ‘I wanna leave all that because I have an idea.’
So the first time, We were out by the pool. She said, ‘no.’ Then, I kind of presented her with a little bit more of a business plan and, because I had no money, I had to borrow money from her. Because I’m gonna need a camera. I can’t take any of this stuff from the TV station. I’ve got to buy it on my own. And I had to tell her that this thing probably won’t make any money for a while. It’s not just turning the lights on and a camera and you’re going to start making money.
So she knew, too, that she was gonna have to really support it, not just financially, but be that leader and leader of the household to say, ‘I’m supporting this family financially. I’m supporting your dreams. I’m giving up kind of my thing to let you do your thing.’
It was an incredible conversation. It was a journey of a conversation. I would say it was six months before we finally decided it was time for me to leave TV and, and start growing this.
And I remember when we first moved into this studio at our first Christmas party, I made sure that everybody here knew that like we’re all here because she said ‘yes.’
STN: I think what’s important to recognize about that is that success doesn’t happen overnight, and there’s no straight path to it.
ES: I always say you gotta be committed to the destination, but flexible on the journey on how you get there. You have to have certain levels of resiliency to tackle this challenge. We’re going to embrace it. We’re going to figure out how to work through it, get over it, to make what we want happen.
It is this philosophy of taking either one of your biggest fears or highest pain points and just running right into it with the intention of personal growth, not necessarily success. It’s not a philosophy for everybody. But I think if you’re able to put yourself in these high-fear, high-stress, high-pain situations, going into it with the idea that I’m just gonna try to grow out of this, not necessarily succeed, you will succeed and you will be able to push forward.
You have to bet on yourself and you have to have at least a trusted team around you that can go through that pain with you. That you trust each other.
Now we’re sitting here talking about it. We’ve sort of become a magnet for community leaders, change makers who have that same philosophy. We’re trying to create community change.
STN: So, what is your big picture, your big vision or your dream for STN?
ES: I know it’s not even a dream. I know STN will be in multiple markets across the country. The goal of the whole company is to reinvent the role local media plays in society. In order to do that, in the grand scale that we want to do it, there has to be an STN in San Diego, in Las Vegas, in Pittsburgh, in all these cities to really accomplish that impact.
And I think this is the decade we do it. I don’t know what year it will be, but there will be STN in other markets and then we’ve done a lot more than just creating community impact content. I mean, we’re going to be recreating a local media experience for communities that they’ve never had before. And that’s the ultimate goal for STN. To have not only this local impact, but to be connected enough to where we can start having national presence and have national impact.