Sign up for the latest Boston Marathon updates
👟 Everything you need to know about Marathon Monday, delivered to your inbox.
Just after 2 o’clock on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Margaret Cronan, WCVB’s news director, told her colleagues it was time to look at the countdown.
Conversations immediately settled among the 18 people gathered around the long conference table as the presentation on a screen at one end of the room changed to read: “2023 Boston Marathon, 13 days to go!”
“It’s really, really exciting,” Cronan said with the number’s appearance.
With that, work got underway as she guided the group, both in the Needham television station and those calling in from ESPN and the Boston Athletic Association via Zoom, through a list of “what’s done and needs to get done.” At a steady pace, the discussion progressed through everything from the broadcast schedule for the weekend leading up to Marathon Monday to checking in on the status of organizing shuttles to transport staff on race day.
It is the first time in years that WCVB will be the local broadcaster of the storied race. The BAA announced last summer that Channel 5 would be the exclusive year-round local television partner for the 2023 marathon, with ESPN serving as the exclusive national broadcast and streaming partner.
The change marks a return of hosting coverage of the Boston Marathon to both WCVB, which provided wire-to-wire coverage of the race from the early ’80s through 2006, and ESPN, which also aired the race in the early ’80s and then again between 1997 and 2004.
Kyle Grimes, WCVB’s president and general manager, told Boston.com having the station be the local home for the Boston Marathon is “wonderful.”
“The folks who founded WCVB, founded it on the principle that this station would cover and serve the community like no other broadcaster did,” he said. “And for me, having an event like the marathon on Channel 5, just makes all the sense for all the right reasons.”
When the partnership with the BAA and ESPN was decided upon, Cronan said everyone in the building knew taking it on would be a heavy lift.
But it has been “absolutely exhilarating,” she said.
“I can say, and others in the news department would tell you, it is the most exciting heavy lift of our careers,” Cronan said. “It’s a rare opportunity that you get to not only produce a major event, and one that’s so iconic, [and] one that will not only air here on our wonderful station with all the many devoted viewers but also nationally.”
Cronan and Grimes said the station is focused on community with its coverage, which began months ago, since the partnership with the BAA is year-round.
The marathon is different from other professional sporting events, just because the professional race itself is “a very small slice” of what the event means to Boston, Grimes said.
“The marathon connects all of our communities in a very different way,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for someone who is a normal runner to have the experience of competing on the same field with people who are best in class. So it really levels the playing field in a way that other sports don’t have the ability to do.”
During early brainstorms about how to approach coverage, Cronan said she and her managers landed on building content — from the station’s EyeOpener newscast to covering the professional race to the reporting on the thousands of charity runners — around the theme of “community like no other.”
“People from all over the world aspire to do this marathon — that’s a community like no other,” she said. “Our city, our region, as a community like no other, and all the towns along the route, who just embrace this, are communities like no other. So [to] have that in our heads, it’s helped us really map out our path. Both leading up to the marathon with a lot of different content that we’ve been producing specifically oriented toward the marathon and then the day-of itself.”
Marathon stories that the station is focused on also draw on the BAA’s mission around fitness through running and walking, she said. That intention resulted in a segment produced by WCVB called “Better By the Mile,” some of which are tied to the 10-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, which falls just days before the race.
WCVB producing the national coverage with support from ESPN will allow the station to bring its coverage to a national audience, Grimes and Cronan emphasized. Live coverage of the marathon will begin on WCVB at 4 a.m. and continue through 8 p.m., broadcast regionally on WCVB Channel 5’s Hearst Television-owned sister-stations WMUR, WMTW, and WPTZ. ESPN will carry the broadcast nationally outside the Boston/Manchester market from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on its main channel. It will also have coverage of the race within SportsCenter before and after the live race broadcast.
“If you’re anywhere else in the country, in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and you turn on ESPN, you’re going to see the WCVB broadcast of the marathon that morning, which for us was kind of a neat thing to be able to bring our community to the broader country,” Grimes said.
WCVB anchors Ed Harding and Maria Stephanos will host the race from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with SportsCenter 5 reporters Josh Brogadir and Naoko Funayama providing exclusive coverage from the course following the pro races.
The show is being built to appeal to the Boston viewer, but also the national audience, Cronan said.
“What we’re really excited about is the roles that Ed [Harding] and Maria [Stephanos] will play,” she said. “Because they’re playing the host of the 9 to 1, so when, for example, the pros are running through Scream Tunnel, [ESPN’s John Anderson is] gonna throw that to Maria to talk about … what is that about. … They’re gonna bring those kinds of really interesting hometown stuff that a national viewer will care about.”
On Marathon Monday, the “whole team” is going to be out there, according to Cronan.
It will be a long day, with the station broadcasting pretty much from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“I think people are really psyched,” Cronan said.
Work on coverage related to the race and planning for Marathon Monday kicked in at the station in September. And while weekly production meetings in concert with the BAA and ESPN began in January, Cronan said smaller groups also gather daily within the station.
From the start, she said it has felt that everyone involved — including from the BAA and ESPN — feels like they’re “in it to win it,” which she said makes it feel like there aren’t as many obstacles standing in the way.
“I love the weekly meetings,” she said. “You get to see everybody; it feels like we’re family at this point.”
Working with ESPN, Grimes said there has been an ongoing effort to pair WCVB staff with people who have experience working marathons and other sporting events for a living to get “cross training in real time” and set the team, and broadcast, up for success.
“We have lots of different kinds of big production experience; we also recognize there are people in this industry who do this week-in and week-out,” he said.
As part of prep for Boston, ESPN in November invited Cronan to the New York City Marathon, which it broadcasted along with WABC.
“We were there in the trucks on dress-rehearsal day and live day,” she said. “And that’s when I was able to come back and say, ‘OK, I think we need to do this.’ And I think that was definitely time well spent that will benefit us and set us up for success.”
The biggest challenge in taking on hosting the marathon broadcast has been the time commitment and balancing the demands of race planning with the ongoing day-to-day news operation, Cronan and Grimes said.
“I think Margaret and her team have just done extraordinary work, being able to balance those two things,” Grimes said.
Not including staff from the BAA, ESPN, and SportsCenter 5, 165 station employees on Marathon Monday will be working on the race in some way, they said.
Of that number, 40 are on-air staff.
“That shows the magnitude of the race, right? When you’re trying to figure out how are you going to cover it from Hopkinton all the way to the finish, from the ground, from the air,” Grimes said. “Now we’re not just talking about a linear broadcast feed, but you also have digital to satisfy and our streaming platform to satisfy. So there were all these different layers that a few years ago wouldn’t have existed.”
(Separately, five employees are also running the race, including morning reporter Matt Reed.)
With so many people involved, as race day gets closer, the logistics of ensuring everyone has what they need to succeed has moved more and more to the forefront, Grimes and Cronan said.
That means ensuring everything from the shuttle buses to get people where they need to be to the “care and feeding” of everyone involved.
“Making sure that the team, whether you are the field producer out there with Duke and Sage or the producer in the truck, or Ed and Maria or John Anderson or Antoinette and Doug on the EyeOpener — all of those folks need different things throughout the day to succeed ,” Cronan said. “And mapping out and just making sure that you put in front of them exactly what they need to succeed is a challenge. It’s an exciting one. And it comes down to just being a caring individual, like, ‘How am I going to make you feel great about this day?’”
Most staff are going to be working at least 12-hour shifts on Marathon Monday. But the station will be going on all-cylinders before then, with programming and setup underway on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with a dress rehearsal on Sunday.
Grimes said for the station, hosting media coverage of Marathon Monday is WCVB’s own 26.2-mile race.
Every day, people from every corner of the building bring their expertise to the table for the station’s coverage. But working on a special project like the marathon has brought it out on a whole other level, he said.
“It’s the community builder, both here in the building and then out into the broader community,” Grimes said. “This team feels like we’re on Mile 24 of the marathon right now. Like, we know, we’ve got a couple more to go. But that, to me, has been the most gratifying piece — to watch all of our departments, who day in, day out have such a machine in place for how we broadcast local news. But when we get into these extraordinary projects, that’s where you really see peoples’ skills come to life.”
👟 Everything you need to know about Marathon Monday, delivered to your inbox.
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.