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Bob Hesskamp

Master of CNN's tech effort 4/11/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Bob Hesskamp, a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do with his life when he started at the University of Missouri in the early 1980s. He wanted to become a sportscaster like the late Jack Buck, the legendary announcer for the Cardinals.

But Hesskamp, 47, caught a bug decidedly different from the sports-nut variety when he stepped into a control room at Mizzou. He also figured he didn't have the face to be taken seriously as an on-air sportscaster, at least not at the time.

“I realized that I looked like I was 15 when I was in college,” says Hesskamp, now senior VP of CNN broadcast engineering and systems technology, and the recipient of a Technology Leadership Award. “I also loved being in control rooms—the technology, the equipment, and the excitement and the immediacy of it. That's what attracted me to the other side.”

The control room at college, no surprise, paled by comparison to what he saw at the nascent news network CNN when he landed his first job there in 1983. “It was in college that I first got my hands on equipment,” he says. “The University of Missouri was a great opportunity—it had its own television station. But when I got to CNN, I was blown away by the immediacy of 24-hour news. It's an exciting place to work and start your career and have a career—I never left.”

HIGH-DEFINITION CHALLENGE

His first position at CNN was video journalist, sort of a springboard position at CNN for aspiring journalists, tech people and executives. CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton, for instance, started out as a video journalist.

Hesskamp has stayed with CNN all these years, taking on positions in operations and on the tech side. But it has been in the past few years that he's had the greatest impact on the network. In 2004, he landed his current position and got busy reorganizing the engineering department, focusing on creating an entrepreneurial environment not unlike the one found at the scrappy CNN when he first joined the company.

His main goal quickly became establishing CNN as a high-definition operation that included all its networks and production units around the world. That began with the Time Warner Center, where CNN set up its New York operations in 2004.

“Ever since we built our facility in New York, we knew that HD was coming,” he says. “We built that facility so that it was ready. We bought as much equipment as we could. We made the facility HD-capable with cables, routers and infrastructure.”

CNN became the first major cable news network to move to HD. But it's an ongoing and extremely complicated process. CNN's Los Angeles office will migrate to HD this May, and other offices, including CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, are in the works.

FROM PRODUCERS TO MAKEUP ARTISTS

But switching to HD for CNN goes far beyond infrastructure. The switchover will touch virtually every employee, including producers, journalists and most everyone else, says Jack Womack, senior VP of domestic news operations and administration.

“All the people internally had to learn what HD means,” Womack says. “One example is that the application of makeup to on-air anchors in HD is a whole different process, so the team has to be briefed. The lighting has to change and the photographers, obviously, have to know what's going on.”

Besides setting up the HD equipment and infrastructure, Hesskamp and his team handled much of the training and explaining when it came to working in HD and establishing CNN HD, which debuted Sept. 1.

“We train all the end users, whether it's technical operations in the control room, the photojournalists in the field, the editors on the news-editing technology or our journalists in the newsroom,” Hesskamp says.

The move to HD has been going remarkably well, according to Dan Darling, chief information officer for CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting. “Bob has been involved every step of the way in every part of the project to where it was just so well orchestrated with his engineering staff and the client base,” Darling says. “And he came in under budget and on time.”

NEXT: FILE-BASED WORKFLOW

Hesskamp will continue overseeing CNN's move to HD. But he's also got his team working on another tech project that will make it dramatically easier for CNN journalists around the world to access and edit footage.

Hesskamp's file-based workflow, where journalists will tap into digitized footage across multiple media types, will allow every journalist to instantly get access to the best footage available for a specific story, no matter where they are or in which medium they're working.

“He's compassionate and he has a lot of integrity and great vision—all the standards of a great leader,” Darling says. “I critique leaders not only on all those characteristics, but on how well they create an environment for their people to come up with solutions. That's what Bob does.”

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