One at bat.
When Fred Cowgill was trying to break into the world of television broadcasting, he remembers praying for one plate appearance, one chance to be on the air, while working a summer job at IBM after graduating from college.
“I still think of that moment when I walk in the studio sometimes,” said Cowgill, 61, who is sports director for WLKY-TV. “I sat down, and everyone had left for lunch. I just started crying. I wasn’t a Christian yet, but I said, ‘I don’t know if You’re listening, but all I’m asking for is an at bat at the plate. I just want three swings. I can live with that if I strike out, but I’m so afraid I won’t get an at bat. I promise if You do that and I’m successful, that I’ll keep a door open.’”
God eventually answered that prayer, and Cowgill has worked in television for the past 39 years.
“One thing’s for sure: I never could have done this alone,” Cowgill added. “I look back. I was some kid out of 300 million Americans. At the time, there were maybe a couple thousand sportscasters in the United States. I had no connections, no background. I wasn’t an ex-athlete. To do what I’ve done—I was the longshot that came in.”
While growing up in New York, Cowgill loved all things sports.
“When I was in high school, I took a journalism course and loved it,” Cowgill said. “That planted the seed, but there were so few jobs in television at the time. Cable was in its infancy.”
Cowgill, who has attended Southeast Christian Church for 25 years, got the bug for radio broadcasting while playing golf at a junior college in New York.
“I walked into the radio station and became a ‘gym rat’ for it,” he said. “I almost got thrown off the golf team and almost flunked out of school because I was living at the radio station. I fell in love with it.”
‘You’re on the air’
After transferring to the University of Tennessee to pursue a communications degree in radio, Cowgill was required to take a TV course his senior year.
“I really came up on the technical side as a director,” Cowgill said. “The main news anchor got sick, so the head of the program asked if I would sit in. I never thought about TV. The dream was too big. So I sat down in the chair and did the newscast. I still have the video of it. When it was over, he said, ‘If you don’t do this for a living, you’re nuts.’ He completely changed the course of my life.”
After graduation, Cowgill went back to New York to work for his dad at IBM and applied to grad schools.
“I always had this dream a long time ago,” Cowgill added. “In it, I’m trying to find the bridge to the other side of the river. I see the other side of the river, which is my first job, but I couldn’t find the bridge ... I realized it all goes back to that room in IBM when I asked for help. I’m imperfect in so many ways, but God has used me, and I’ve asked Him to use me.”
Within a week or two of that prayer, Cowgill was accepted to Boston University’s graduate school in 1980, and soon scored a job with CNN, which was a brand new channel.
After a few months at CNN as a news video journalist and then sports reporter, Cowgill finally got his at bat.
“In September 1980, our anchor got sick,” he said. “They threw me on the air. Here I am, 22 years old, about to go on national TV with zero experience. I’m like, ‘I’m going to die.’ It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but I’ve been on ever since.”
Before parting ways with CNN, a co-worker told Cowgill about the broadcasting market in Louisville.
He decided to head home and anchor for an ABC-affiliate station in Rochester, New York.
“Steve Burgin, who is from Louisville, said, ‘You should check out Louisville sometime. It would be a great market for you,’” Cowgill said. “I used to come up to the horse races when I was at Tennessee. I’m in Rochester four years. Things aren’t working out. I get a phone call one day from WLKY. I walk in for the interview. The first person I see is Steve, who back in 1981 said it would be a cool place to go. Another God-ordained incidence.”
In September 1986, Cowgill accepted the job, moved to Louisville and hasn’t looked back, even passing up offers to work at ESPN and other national TV networks.
“Every single time, it resonated with me like God was saying, ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?’” Cowgill added. “I had a half dozen major chances to go. This was the dream I never knew I had.”
After moving to Louisville, Cowgill met his wife Cindy, had four kids and started going to Southeast in 1994 where he met former Senior Pastor Dave Stone, who was preaching associate at the time.
“I became a Christian at Southeast,” he said. “We went for two years before we joined. Dave had been on me about it. He told me, ‘I was ready to give up on you’ because one day at church I told him, ‘I’m ready.’ In 1996, I got dunked. Cindy got dunked. I baptized all four kids myself.”
Keeping the door open
Cowgill tries to make each of his broadcasts have a personal feel.
“It’s an audience of 1.4 million, but you want to talk to them like it’s an audience of one,” Cowgill said. “I’ve been blessed to be at WLKY for 33 years. I’ll be 62 in November. People are like, ‘How much longer are you going to work?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I promised myself that whatever days I have left, I’m going to help the people around me.”
He has never wanted to use his TV platform to point to himself, but to serve the people around him.
“Dave (Stone) would talk about this in his sermons, ‘Starting with your environment and helping the people around you,’” he said. “I never really looked at this as a platform. I was trying to make everything better around me and leave the job better than I found it.”
Cowgill founded an internship program decades ago, which has helped more than 100 people get into broadcasting.
For the last 27 years, he has hosted charity golf tournaments in Louisville, netting more than $2 million to fight diabetes and cancer.
Cowgill said it’s been a privilege to sit in the same seat for years, but he knows he’s preparing it for the next person.
“I’ve never owned this chair,” he said. “Never will own it. I’ve leased it, and it’s been a long lease. I’m keeping the seat warm for someone else. There will be a time when I hand that chair over, but I’ll miss it when that time comes.”