GoHeels producer leads from backstage

Massey Award winner Ken Cleary is a constant innovator, a broadcasting mentor and a manager who trusts others’ expertise.

A person standing in front of various screens.
“Any success that I've had professionally is 100% due to the leadership in the department, its direction and the people that I've had the luck and joy to work with over the past years,” Ken Cleary said. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The phrase “It’s in our DNA” can sound trite. Ken Cleary ’91 is convinced it’s true — genetic code provided his abilities to solve problems and shape ideas into reality. Credit his father, an engineer. Like engineers, Cleary is a producer. A TV producer.

The associate athletic director for GoHeels Productions in Carolina’s athletics department, he turns out high-quality video and multimedia that tell the stories of Tar Heel athletic teams, players and coaches. During his nearly two decades at Carolina, Cleary has constantly innovated in a competitive media industry that expects newness and excitement.

Cleary supervises a 12-person production team that fills video boards at eight venues with interesting content for fans and produces live television broadcasts and streaming productions of 28 varsity teams. Annually, his team mounts 300 video productions, 200 of which are live. He oversees the production of special events such as the blue-carpet soiree known as “The Rammy Awards” that he created in 2013 and season-opening “Live Action” basketball celebrations. Under Cleary’s direction, Carolina became the first NCAA university to broadcast a football game on an ESPN channel and an NCAA championship game — field hockey in 2021 — from its own production facility. He also heads a mentoring program that prepares students for sports TV jobs.

On the academic side, he’s directed live streams of Carolina’s Winter and Spring Commencement ceremonies since 2003.

From closet to state-of-the-art media center

Colleagues who nominated Cleary for a Massey Award described him as a “devoted teammate,” “inspiring leader” and “creative innovator.” Those attributes were nascent when, as a Carolina student, Cleary had a realization. A native of Hendersonville, North Carolina, he was interested in studying sports medicine after being an athletic trainer in high school.

“I quickly realized I liked the sports side more than the actual medicine side,” he said. He switched majors to journalism and mass communication.

After jobs as a roadie and in sports radio and retail soccer, he joined Carolina Athletics as a contractor in 2002 to work on marketing and sales projects. In 2007, the department named him the full-time director of new media. His workspace for several years was an abandoned closet in the old Kenan Stadium field house with plumbing pipes overhead. Such situations are where Cleary’s unassuming persona complements his work ethic and focus on excellence.

“Who really cares where you sit, where your desk is?” he said. “What’s important is being able to build facilities and processes that help us tell the story of Carolina athletics and our athletes and our coaches.”

After that humble start, Cleary and a growing staff bounced around the Dean E. Smith Center — supply room, kitchen, vacant office, pressroom. In 2019, the operation moved into the state-of-art Woody Durham Media Communication Center, which Cleary helped design.

Meanwhile, the increasing importance of Cleary’s work paralleled the department’s growing emphasis on telling its stories and the launch of the ACC Network. The heightened exposure gave Cleary more projects to refine and more ways to lead. As one nominator wrote, his “eagerness to accept and overcome the challenges presented to him is only surpassed by his ability to get others committed to the same goals and objectives.”

“All of our successful events are a testament to the department, our student-athletes and coaches,” Cleary said. “If I’ve had a small part in those, it’s really to say, ‘OK, well, this was cool. How do we make it better?’”

Storytelling requires sifting through many ideas. “In our world, particularly for creative elements or external marketing, there are lots of ideas,” Cleary said. “This position has to be able to synthesize those ideas into something you can actually do. I’ve learned and maybe helped the department to realize that we must move from idea phase to execution phase at some point.”

That mindset, Cleary thinks, was instilled in him at a young age by his father. “It’s saying, ‘This is what we want to do. How do we get there?’ Any idea unexecuted is nothing but an idea, so how do we make something happen from this idea? That’s basically how I operate.”

‘Extraordinarily present’

Another part of Cleary’s role is dear to his heart — preparing students to work in media careers. Nominators credit him with establishing a student mentoring program and making it his staff’s primary focus. The staff trains about 40 students each year through group and one-on-one sessions. Students then take on increasingly higher levels of responsibility as they learn the ins and outs of TV production. “We have a handful of students graduating this May who are already finalists for jobs at ESPN and other national broadcasters, which is a testament to what Ken has built,” a nominator wrote. Cleary flips the script, saying that he and the staff are lucky to have helped students launch their careers. “All the credit for this goes to our staff,” he said.

In some ways, Cleary’s college experience inspired the training program. Three decades ago, he said, “I came to Carolina, thinking, ‘I like sports, but I don’t know what I want to do or how to get involved.’”

Nominators lauded Cleary’s leadership style. One wrote: “He holds himself and his teammates to a very high standard and does so in an encouraging and educational way. He is willing to take bold risks.” Despite his boldness, he leads from backstage. One nominator described him as Carolina’s most behind-the-scenes employee. That’s ironic, given that millions of people see his handiwork.

“Ken is extraordinarily present … nights, weekends, early mornings. … Whenever leadership, creativity and effort are needed, Ken is there,” a nominator wrote. “In a field where some people are recognizable, Ken is not … and he doesn’t care. His goal is simply to advance the mission of Carolina, the athletic department, the individual sport programs and Tar Heel student-athletes.”

To accomplish that mission, he hires talented people and trusts them. “I’m relying on other people’s expertise to guide the way when I’m not the expert. A lot of the times, being a manager is setting a direction, but then a lot of the times, it’s just finding the right people, empowering them, supporting them and getting the heck out of the way.”

This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Look for new recipient profiles to come or find others you may have missed.