Prim Siripipat was made for television. A former Duke University tennis star, the ESPN sports broadcaster’s poise and voice translate well across this particular medium. The strength of her voice, however, holds its own alone. Siripipat also hosts an ESPN radio show, Spain and Prim, with colleague Sarah Spain and has a regular podcast, Inside Out, which focuses on the psychological aspects of sports.
During our telephone conversation she was gracious enough to entertain my questions with genuine candor. Her friendliness and passion are infectious, inspiring in the most literal sense of the word. I skipped away from our interview with a renewed clarity in my own goals, and the high you get only from chatting with someone you’ve truly enjoyed.
E: You were a tennis champion growing up – tell me about your tennis background.
P: I was born in Mexico, Missouri, a really small town. My entire family played tennis, so I picked it up at a younger age. By the time I was ten years old I had beaten my first tennis coach and then all the high school girls as well. So then my dad [said] okay, maybe we’re on to something here. He started looking at tennis school academies, and then off I went to Tampa, Florida at twelve to attend Saddlebrook [Preparatory School’s] Tennis Academy.
The opportunity was fantastic – it was just such a diverse school and [there were] kids from all over the country – the best of the best. It was a fantastic experience and helped me go from a junior with no ranking to top ten in the country. I rode off the coattails of my tennis career, and that got me into a lot of schools including Duke University. I was very thankful for that.
E: When you were playing tennis as a child, had sports broadcasting ever occurred to you as a possible career path?
P: Never – I was so focused on tennis. Growing up in an Asian household, there’s a huge focus on academics, and also [on] being very well rounded. I was very competitive in ballet as well, and then decided to choose tennis when I was twelve years old. I also played a lot of instruments (piano, clarinet, saxophone), got straight A’s. There were many expectations, but I’m also wired that way as well.
It wasn’t until I was a junior or a sophomore in college when I was really trying to figure out what I wanted to do. My junior year I ended up having three surgeries in three consecutive months. At that point I was out the rest of the year. I [thought], tennis isn’t going to last forever. So I started exploring. I knew I wanted to stay in sports somehow, because that’s just my DNA. One of my professors named Dr. Frank Bassett (he has since passed, but he’s inducted into the Duke Sports Hall of Fame and [was] a renowned orthopedic surgeon) was the one that suggested to me, hey maybe you should try television. He said, you have a good personality for it, a good look.
I checked it out and flew myself up to ESPN [during] spring break of 2002. I shadowed Linda Cohn, who was still here, and I absolutely loved it. Television brings a lot of the pressure, competition, and performance that I really enjoy from tennis, and I get to be around athletes and cover sports, so I thought it might be a good fit. Three months later [I] got my foot in the door at WRAL in Raleigh-Durham, started off as an intern making $8 an hour, and then worked my way up from there.
E: That’s awesome – and you had a job at CBS for a while before you got the big job at ESPN, right?
P: I did. I worked out of North Carolina for about five years, and then I landed a job at CBS in Miami as a reporter. But then I was laid off on March 17, 2010. I was out of a job for about a year. I immediately went back to coaching tennis, ended up doing some sports radio, dabbling in the entertainment business, doing all sorts of stuff, just trying to explore every opportunity that I could. I wasn’t really sure where I would end up, or if I would even end up back in the TV business. It took a couple interviews and nearly a year to get back in the business. I was laid off March 17 2010, and then March 7, 2011 was my first day at ESPN.
E: What went through your mind when you found out you had that dream job at ESPN?
P: It was a long process. After getting laid off I realized how volatile the industry can be. So I was excited, but I didn’t want to get too excited. I needed to protect myself and make sure I was covering my bases. I wanted to have a plan B, C and D.
But when I finally got hired, I was just ecstatic. [In] 2004 I did the ESPN dream job, which was kind of like an American Idol for sportscasters – I ended up making it all the way to the final thirty people in the country, [but] I never made it on that show. I thought at that time – that was it, that was my last chance to get to ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports. But, lo and behold, a number of years later I’m back at ESPN. It was very surreal.
E: So what’s your favorite part of the job, now that you’ve been doing this for a couple of years?
P: The people. ESPN [is] by far the best company I’ve ever worked for. There are over 5,000 people, and that’s just here on the Bristol [CT] campus.
To see how this machine works – it’s so impressive. We only see the people who are in front of the camera, but it’s also fascinating to see how they put the product on. Behind the scenes are the people that don’t really get any credit, but there are some of the best journalistic minds, sports minds, [and] business minds behind the scenes here at ESPN. The best part about it is really getting to work with some of the best of the best in this industry, because they push me as well.
E: Tell me about the new radio show you started with colleague Sarah Spain at ESPN.
P: We just launched that in January! It’s always actually been a dream of mine to have my own radio show, and it’s surreal. I just have to pinch myself every single day. It’s a fun process, because right now I believe it is the only all-female show on the airways.
E: Any memorable reactions to the show?
P: I would say the support from the company has been absolutely tremendous. To see some of the bigwigs here at ESPN cheering us on, saying how proud they were of us – and also some of the other leading sportscasters out there, like Michelle Beadles, Rachel Nichols and Jemele Hill – to have their support was so cool and really an awesome experience.
In fact, I thought that the backlash was going to be a lot bigger than it was. Watching two females, the reaction is different. Everybody is more content – especially the male audience – with looking at a beautiful woman, [because] at least they can look at her. But two strong, female sports voices on the radio is a little different, and I still think that there are people out there that aren’t comfortable with that, so I was expecting the backlash to be pretty tremendous.
E: You’ve said before that you want to be known as a knowledgeable commentator – have you found that challenging, with the perceptions of women as sports broadcasters?
P: Yeah, it always is. I think that for a lot of the female sportscasters, they think that they have to work that much harder because they’re under more scrutiny and a larger spotlight than their male cohorts. As a female, [you’re] under a microscope, and [with] any little mistake, I feel as though the audience could be like “Oh! Well, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about”. So I do have to work that much harder to make sure that I’m over-preparing, I’m researching, and I’m cross the T’s and dotting the I’s and making sure that everything that I say on air is with accuracy. Otherwise, my credibility will certainly be challenged.
E: Were there any women in media that particularly inspired you growing up?
P: Linda Cohn was definitely the one that inspired me, not only watching her on ESPN and move up the ranks, but also [because] I got to meet her. She was able to just spend a whole day with me, and she let me shadow her and let me ask a ton of questions. She was very patient and very giving and supportive, so she was definitely one of the people that I really looked up to.
On a larger scale, I will say, Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres, two powerful trailblazers in their own right. They’ve really paved the way for so many different people, whether it’s journalism or comedy or talk show. They’ve had to deal with a lot of challenges, not only being a female in their industry but also as minorities, whether it’s part of the LGBT community or [as] an African American, so I really do look up to those two as well.
E: I saw the name Prim Siripipat come up on IMDB for a short called Cold: Choices – any chance that’s you?
P: It is! The director and producer knew me as a sportscaster, and he asked me to be in his Cold: Choices short film. We actually just found out a couple days ago that it got accepted to the Cannes Film Festival in France. That’s probably where my acting career is going to start and finish! [laughing]
E: What advice would you give offer a young woman, particularly a young Asian American woman, who’s looking to get into broadcasting?
P: Follow your heart and your passion. If journalism is something that you definitely want to do, one hundred percent go after it. I think there is some pressure, and also some stereotypes and judgments, among Asians to pursue certain fields, whether it’s computer science or math or becoming a doctor. So that’s my first tip: if this is something that you really want to do, then pursue it, regardless if it does or does not make your family happy. At the end of the day, this is your life and you’re going to live it.
And number two: to not feel a sense of entitlement. I feel as though there’s a lot of people – a part of the younger generation – that feels a sense of entitlement, and the work ethic is changing a little bit. Although there are more opportunities in our business today, there’s a lot of people I notice that don’t want to pick up a twenty five pound camera or don’t want to make the sacrifice to fight for their career. Understand that there is no job that you should not take, and there is no location where you should not go, because those are the sacrifices that are not only going to take you to where you want to go, but that make you a better journalist [and] person – having to go through all those little experiences.
(editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported where Prim was born).