O’Connell leaves comfort zone to join North Dakota stations

New Jersey and North Dakota are as similar as concrete and cornfields. However, when Garden State native Jayson O’Connell had the opportunity to start his sportscasting career in the nation’s upper heartland, he embraced the opportunity. O’Connell is joining KZZJ-AM and KKWZ-FM in Rugby, ND as a play-by-play broadcaster, on-air host and account executive.

He learned of the opportunity in an STAA Job Leads+ email.

“Leaving home was what made the decision such a difficult one for me,” O’Connell admits. “The job always seemed like a great opportunity for me to start my career. But North Dakota isn’t exactly an easy trip from my home in New Jersey. But throughout the interview/hiring process, [station owner Lila Harstad] continued to ask how my family, my girlfriend and I felt about potentially moving 24 hours away and if we all would be able to handle it. She really showed that she cared about my personal life and my relationships at home.”

The community of Rugby also made O’Connell feel welcome when he visited for his final interview. “I met with many residents of the town to get a feel of what it was like outside of the radio station and everyone greeted me with open arms.”

Trepidation about STAA

O’Connell is a 2023 graduate of Penn State University. He joined STAA in April after being referred by his college career advisor. “Bob Martin referred me to STAA. I had a meeting with him at the beginning of the spring semester to discuss my job search and he told me about all of the benefits of STAA.”

Even with Martin’s endorsement, O’Connell had trepidation about joining STAA. “I wasn’t too eager to join because I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it. All the features of a membership seemed helpful. But I was afraid I’d become a member and I’d still be looking for my first job for a while, or I’d be able to find a job without using STAA that much. Clearly, neither was the case and STAA was a big factor in me getting this position [at KZZJ/KKWZ.]”

Late start

O’Connell didn’t start pursuing a sports journalism career until his junior year at Penn State. Therefore, he had to work extra hard to catch up with his fellow upperclassmen in the broadcasting program. “They were starting to perfect their craft while I was starting to learn the basics. I missed out on certain opportunities because I started behind everyone else but I didn’t let that get to me.”

One example of O’Connell’s determination was earning a men’s basketball opportunity after initially not being on the broadcast schedule. “I knew I didn’t have much tenure at the radio station but I felt the work I produced and the effort I put in was enough to be given the opportunity to call a Penn State men’s basketball game. So I worked even harder for the next couple of months. After what I felt was a great call I had for the women’s team, I went to executive producer of men’s basketball and asked to be considered to be added to the schedule if there was an opening to call a game. He said he saw the effort I was putting in and gave me the opportunity to call the game against Rutgers when a commentator spot opened up for the late season game.”

The KZZJ/KKWZ opportunity is exactly what O’Connell had in mind for his first position out of school. “I wanted to start a career in play-by-play and this job will allow me to call a variety of high school sports in every season. I’ll also be getting additional experience in hosting a morning radio show and experience in sales as well. Growing as a play-by-play commentator while obtaining other skills seemed like a great opportunity.”

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