How sports anchor Chris Lea forged his path through news, radio, and MTV

Posted on August 12, 2022

Chris Lea interviews Duke Women's Basketball forward/guard Azurá Stevens.

This summer, Chris Lea ’09 and his wife went on a date night while his mother babysat. She sent them a video she had taken of their daughter playing.

“My daughter was ‘hosting’ her own show. She was saying, ‘Hey guys, how are you doing? Today we’re going to talk about cookies.'”

His daughter now talks of starting her own YouTube channel. The dream she’s set on at such a young age is similar to the one that Lea cultivated with UNC Greensboro’s Communication Studies.

“I came to the conclusion that I would be in front of the camera, and I would never be in the news business. I wanted to do entertainment television, MTV, or radio.”

Since reaching that conclusion, Lea has worked in radio and for MTV. But one of the things that drew him to his current job as lead sports anchor at WRAL in Raleigh was a better work-life balance for himself and his family.

“I’ve always looked ahead, and I’ve made certain moves based off of what I thought would give me the best quality of life,” he says. “There was a time when I worked at WXII Monday to Friday, then Friday night and Saturday I was wrestling, then I woke up at four o’clock in the morning to do a radio show at 102 JAMZ, maybe more wrestling. But that was before kids. As far as career moves, I’ve always made it with balance in mind.”

Where personal drive meets opportunity

Lea appreciates the flexibility he had as a student at UNCG, where his self-motivation was complemented by lots of room to dabble in various career paths. “I didn’t become so specialized that I didn’t know how to navigate. It was an open book in a way. I was allowed to explore. I just had to have the initiative to do so.”

His initiative has been apparent for years. He took the Greensboro News and Record’s minority journalism workshop in high school. Through that project, he met journalists such as WFMY anchor Sandra Hughes. He helped restart Southwest Guilford High School’s defunct newspaper.

The News and Record hired him as sports editorial assistant in 2004.

UNCG alum Chris Lea interviews musicians at MTVU Woodie Awards

“The sports editor Joseph Sirera asked me to cover the Carolina Dynamo. I knew nothing about soccer at the time, but it was the early days of search engines, so I took in as much as I could. I did a good enough job that summer that they had me start covering UNCG soccer.”

UNCG appealed to Lea since he would be close to his family, and he felt that the campus community provided him with a better representation of people compared to other Universities. “I felt like I was getting a mix of everything from around the world and from different walks of life,” he says. “I felt like I could learn about people better at UNCG, just based off who was there.”

During his junior year, he auditioned for MTV’s closed-circuit college channel MTVU. His classmates helped him shoot and cut his audition video.

MTV brought him to New York to be their backstage student correspondent for the 2007 MTVU Woodie Music Awards. “I interviewed Lupe Fiasco after he got offstage. I interviewed Kenan Thompson and Travie McCoy with the Gym Class Heroes, other notable celebrities for that time.”

Meeting athletic giants and rising stars

Lea has gotten to talk to some of sports’ biggest stars: LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Cam Newton. The first athlete he ever interviewed was a Spartan – Kyle Hines, whose record-setting performance with UNCG would propel his international basketball career with the Italian team Olimpia Milano.

UNCG alum Chris Lea working in radio

“When we had the communications department graduation, Kyle and I were next to each other in line,” says Lea. “I’m 5’9” and he’s 6’6”. He towered over me.”

2007 NBA All-Star Josh Howard is another favorite. Lea saw him in high school while shadowing a sports reporter, then went to Dallas to watch him play for the Mavericks while he worked for 102 JAMZ. They’ve since become friends and talk regularly.

Lea was at the Greensboro Coliseum in March 2020 to cover the ACC Tournament when everyone got the news – the tournament had just become one of the first events canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Lea saw the shock and disappointment hit the players.

“I had covered John Newman, a Clemson player from Greensboro. They were supposed to play Florida State at Noon. John was distraught when they gave Florida State the trophy without playing the game.”

Although Lea did not suffer the sting of a lost championship, it was a missed opportunity for him as well. He was only a week into his job at WRAL. He became confined to the studio. Traditional interviews were no longer an option as athletic teams isolated themselves to prevent the virus from spreading.

Lea leaned on his connections in Greensboro to find stories. He called up rising college students he had interviewed when he worked at WXII. He talked to coaches who were in the middle of the Olympic push – even though they no longer knew if the Olympics would happen.

“I could reach into the Rolodex and come up with cool stories and interviews,” says Lea. “I took my connections from the Triad and give them a nice spin over in the Triangle, and I was able to contribute instead of not knowing where to start.”

Giving back to the community

UNCG alum Chris Lea interviews little girl at farm in front of news camera

One of Lea’s fondest memories involves WFMY anchor Sandra Hughes. He was hosting a public affairs radio show called “Straight Talk” at the time.

“In 2016 or 2017, I met with one young lady. Her mother was blind. She was doing great things for the community, and she’d always wanted to meet Sandra Hughes. I hadn’t talked to her since high school, so I reached out and said, ‘Do you remember me? I would love for you to surprise this woman on air.'”

He remembers how the woman’s face lit up the moment she heard Sandra Hughes’ voice.

“I wish I had it on camera. Those types of broadcasting legends around this area have been so nice and open to me. That showed me what the industry is really about.”

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Chris Lea

2 students with cameras in studio

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