OF THE TWO MAJOR Boston sports radio stations, only WEEI features a woman in a regularly scheduled timeslot. That same woman is also a co-host on one of two primetime sports programs on NBC Sports Boston
It has been long road to Boston for Trenni Kusnierek, now a prominent face, and voice, in the highly-competitive sports media landscape. In a field dominated by male voices, Kusnierek has not let her gender hinder her ability to reach the top of the media ranks.
But it has not come without obstacles many women face in attempting to work in sports.
Kusnierek had early aspirations of being a network news anchor growing up in Milwaukee, namely Jane Pauley, one of the few prominent women broadcasters in the 1980s. But there weren't a whole lot of Jane Pauley's to look up to.
“I always loved sports. I grew up going to baseball games with my dad and watching football games with my mom and my dad on Sundays, but there were no females for me to look up to,” she said. “We didn’t have cable growing up, my dad wouldn’t allow it. Even in high school, I didn’t have ESPN.”
She attended Marquette University as a broadcast and electronic communications major, and worked for the university’s television station behind the scenes. While at school, Kusnierek was watching her hometown Green Bay Packers with a classmate when she began complaining about something taking place on the field. Her friend, a male, was impressed with her knowledge of the game.
“He said, ‘You should be a sports reporter. They let girls do that now,’ and I was like, ‘You’re right. Maybe I’ll look into a sports internship,’” Kusnierek said.
She's since held eight full-time positions as a sports reporter, anchor and radio host, from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee and now Boston as the co-host of Early Edition on NBC Sports Boston and as a featured weekly co-host on Boston’s highest-rated morning radio show Kirk and Callahan on WEEI. She is also the co-host of her own weekend show on Saturday afternoons with WEEI.com writer John Tomase, Trenni and Tomase.
But after spending two years at MLB Network from 2008-2010, Kusnierek was unsure if she wanted to continue broadcasting at all.
MLB NETWORK WAS KUSNIEREK'S sixth full-time position in 12 years. After two years, she took a break from reporting all together, and spent a month teaching English in India. Part of it was because of an ongoing personal battle with chronic depression and anxiety – something she detailed at length to The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul DuPont this past spring. Another part was because of her overall disenchantment with the broadcast industry.
“I didn’t know where the industry was going. Did I have a place in it? I didn’t want to be a sideline reporter for the rest of my life and I didn’t want to sex it up, to be quite honest,” Kusnierek said. “I saw that that’s where a lot of the industry was going.
“Is that what I’m going to have to be? If that’s the case, what’s my longevity? At a certain age, you no longer look cool sexing it up – you look like the sad old person trying to sex it up. I struggled with what I wanted to do.”
Part of the disenchantment was because of sexual harassment experienced as a woman reporter. Early on in her career as an intern reporting from inside clubhouses and locker rooms, players would occasionally drop their towels or make inappropriate comments toward her and other women. Those sorts of things are rarer compared to when Kusnierek was starting out in the late-90s, and would certainly be handled differently.
“Now, not only would I say something, but public relations would step in and say, ‘No, no, no. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.’ I think that other men that I work with now wouldn’t tolerate it. They wouldn’t tolerate any woman being treated disrespectfully in a locker room,” she said. “I’m sure they still make inappropriate comments when we’re not in the room, but they’re very careful about how they treat us and how they talk to us.”
"At a certain age, you no longer look cool sexing it up – you look like the sad old person trying to sex it up."
While covering the Pirates for Fox Sports Pittsburgh, Kusnierek experienced the moment where she was most offended covering sports. Pittsburgh was in Cleveland for a series against the Indians during the Cleveland Marathon, and she caught a ride with some pitchers to the stadium who offered to help beat the traffic.
She didn’t think twice about it until the Pittsburgh pitching coach complained to the Pirates’ public relations guy, claiming she was a distracting presence. He didn’t want a woman riding with his players.
“That was offensive because he’s assuming I’m a slut. It was definitely about my gender,” Kusnierek said on Kirk and Callahan last month recounting the incident.
The hitting on and flirting with women reporters is something that remains prevalent, though, causing many like Kusnierek to be very cautious when dealing with players and coaches, worried about intentions. At 40 years old, she’s no longer worried about players asking her out, rather the perception from the public and other reporters.
“You have to really mind your Ps and Qs all the time,” Kusnierek said. “If I give this guy my phone number, is he going to text me late at night? Is he going to think that’s an invitation to act inappropriately? I’m careful around managers and coaches across all sports, not just baseball. I never want to lead them in any direction where they have any question about what my intention is.”
That part of the industry is quite different for a woman than a male reporter. As Kusnierek mentioned, WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford can go places and do things with the players he covers in terms of relationships that most times women and Kusnierek cannot.
“It puts up a wall,” she said.
And that’s just in-person interaction. No one in the media is immune to the over-the-top scrutiny online.
KUSNIEREK DETAILED SOME OF what she's dealt with online last summer to HBO Real Sports' Bryant Gumbel.
“I’ve been called a cunt. I’ve been called a whore. I’ve been called a dumb bitch,” she said. “I’ve been told that if I don’t shut up, someone will stick a dick in my mouth and shut me up for me.”
Kusnierek won’t see those tweets anymore, though. She has tailored her Twitter feed to only see tweets from people she follows, and has quality filters on to prohibit certain words from appearing in her timeline feed, adding that as long as her co-workers and employers think she's doing a good job and her checks are cashing, that's really all that matters.
“The dissenting voices are always going to be the loudest online,” she said. “In real life, the positive voices are great … At the end of the day, I was hired for a reason, and I was hired because I have strong opinions.”
Tomase notes how she’s handled the sporadic negative reaction in the spontaneous world of talk radio.
“She gives it as good as she gets. She’s smarter than every single person who calls into our show,” he said. “She’ll get this kind of sexist reaction. They’ll call her dear or sweetheart or something like that and when she gets those calls, she can spike the sexism right back in their face.”
But that’s not to say that women also aren’t occasionally beneficiaries because of their gender in the world of sports. Often times, women are sought out to be sideline reporters if deemed attractive and smart enough. Kusnierek, who says she had been referred to as a young Melissa Stark early on in her career, believes she’s advanced in the industry in part because she’s a woman.
“I know that if I my name was Trent instead of Trenni, I might not be where I am today, and I’m acutely aware of that,” she said. “It’s a reality of the industry.”
AFTER RETURNING FROM INDIA and pondering working for a non-profit organization, Kusnierek returned home and spent 18 months in Milwaukee as a radio and pre-and post-game host for her hometown Packers, before receiving a call from Comcast SportsNet New England to come work in Boston.
"I know that if my name was trent instead of trenni, i might not be where I am today, AND I'M ACUTELY AWARE OF THAT."
Driving back to her hotel from her audition at CSNNE through the heart of downtown Boston in 2012, she had a feeling, although hokey, she says, that Boston felt like the right place at the right time for the then-34-year-old.
“If you work in sports, what other town would you want to be in? With all due respect to Chicago and LA and right now Houston, and New York, maybe Philadelphia is the closest second because they’re such rabid fans, but Boston is special,” Kusnierek said. “It has a ton of history with their sports teams. People love their sports teams, and let’s be honest, they’re good. They’re really good.”
She has since spent just over five years in Boston as an anchor and reporter with NBC Sports Boston (previously CSNNE) in one of the biggest media markets in the country, and is now as the co-host of the station’s primetime opinion program.
It’s a show she would not have expected to be working on back when she was aspiring to be a news anchor. Early Edition is a loose opinion show with light-hearted debate on a variety of sports topics – something that seemed unattainable for a woman when Kusnierek was growing up.
“You’re always working with someone who knows what they’re doing, who knows what’s going on,” NBCSB co-host Gary Tanguay said. “She definitely can think on the fly. It’s a lot of fun to work with her because you can go in different directions and you don’t have to worry about her not running with you. We rarely script anything. The best moments in the show are always adlib.
"She’s pretty much on TV the way that she acts in real life, and that makes her very relatable."
Kusnierek was hired at WEEI part-time last fall. Morning show co-host Gerry Callahan often says he enjoys having Kusnierek on because, as he puts it, “She has the biggest balls at Comcast," maybe more of a tongue-in-cheek jab at Tanguay and others than an endorsement of Kusnierek. That’s why WEEI program director Joe Zarbano sought to bring her into the mix last September.
“She's tough and stands up for herself in a male-dominated atmosphere,” Zarbano said. “She's well read and always prepared to take on her co-hosts who disagree with her.”
Kirk and Callahan is a much different show than Early Edition. WEEI's morning show with Callahan and Kirk Minihane features stronger debate amongst the hosts on not just sports, but politics and other issues of substance. It helps that Kusnierek is ideologically opposed to Callahan's conservatism.
It's often a self-deprecating show, with Minihane often imitating Kusnierek on the air and calling in as her when she's not on, poking fun at her "relationship" with Tanguay. But it's clear throughout both formats that she knows her sports and can engage in discussion on a variety of topics.
“A lot of people on TV and radio are good at sounding informed without actually saying anything of substance and she’s not like that. She’s got the chops to back it up, which matters, especially at EEI,” Tomase added. "If she were a phony or she were faking it, especially on Kirk and Callahan, she would be exposed, and that hasn’t happened for a reason."
"She has the biggest balls at COMCast." - WEEI morning show co-host Gerry Callahan
Kusnierek is the only woman that makes regular on-air appearances in the Boston sports radio market. A feat she is certainly proud of, but hopes will eventually change as other things have in the world of sports media.
“Part of it is, I’m glad I’m able to show that I can handle it and that I’ve hopefully been a role model to other young women getting into the business or even younger women that are still in middle school or grade school or high school or college who have always thought, ‘If I’m a woman, I have to either be an anchor reading a teleprompter or I have to be a sideline reporter.’ To me, maybe the fact that I’m an example of something different, that’s pretty cool,” she said. “Those to me are things that mean the most. When I see a young girl who comes up to me and says, ‘I want to do what you want to do,’ that’s cool. But I would like it so that I’m not the only one. It would be nice if there were a few more that I could huddle with.”
Kyle DaLuz is a producer at WEEI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Kyle_DaLuz.