Perhaps one of the most fascinating additions to CBS 2 Chicago's on-air talent is a lovely and multitalented journalist named Tracy Townsend. As co-anchor of the 6 and all-important 10 p.m. newscasts with her colleague David Kerley, Townsend imparts a warmth and presence that belies a diverse career path. Her resume indicates that she has an affinity for the fields of education and politics, and she has most definitely made her mark in both areas.
As former chief education reporter for KCTV, the CBS affiliate in Kansas City, Mo., Townsend spearheaded a focus on the plight of inner-city children with a weekly segment entitled, "Youthnet." The Kansas City Association of Black Journalists responded by presenting Tracy with an Outstanding Journalism Award for her efforts. Not surprisingly, Townsend's commitment to youth extends beyond the realm of journalism. Her humanitarian work is well documented by her affiliation with the Kansas City-based "Children's Place," a treatment center for abused children.
Along the same lines, Tracy has volunteered her talents to women who are the victims of domestic violence. She spent much time working with The Newshouse Women's Shelter, also in Kansas City, a safe haven for both victims of and their children. Townsend admits she considers her work with abused women to contain some of the most valuable life lessons she's learned.
A native of Cincinnati, Townsend started her career at WKRC-TV. In 1988 she served as promotion assistant, in 1988-'89 she served as a field producer. From, 1991-'93, Townsend took microphone in hand and became a general assignment reporter, covering almost every kind of story imaginable. Her employ with KCTV in 1993 put Townsend on the fast track to producing a portfolio of award-winning work that included political convention coverage for both major parties and hard-driving reports on the tragic school shootings at Columbine and Littleton.
A 1988 graduate of Ohio State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism, among the most impressive of Townsend's awards is The Horace Mann "Friend of Education" Award in Journalism from the Missouri Education Association.
DAVID GUARINO: You came to Chicago and WBBM in January. How has the transition been, particularly in light of the fact that you are co-anchor of the critical 10 p.m. daily newscast?
TT: Well you know I've always wanted to work here. It's just ... it's so exciting. First of all, Chicago is a great news town. But the people here are so interesting. I was just telling Keith, you know, living in Kansas City, people are very polite, so you just never quite know what they think. One of the things I like about Chicago is that people pretty much tell you what they think. ( Tracy laughs )
DG: Your background includes work with children. Were you ever a teacher?
TT: No. I'm from a family of educators, but I just don't know that I'd ever be a good teacher. I mean, I always say if I won the Lotto and I didn't want to do this ( which I find hard to imagine ) , I think it might be fun to teach. I have uncles and aunts who are principals and superintendents, but I just got into journalism. I think that education is such good preparation for real life. I mean, either you do the work or you don't.
DG: You are the first woman I've interviewed who has been actively involved with a women's shelter.
TT: Really? Well, I hope to do that here ( in Chicago ) as well. It was just such a fascinating board to be on. It is really very satisfying to be able to go to a shelter and to just do some work around there. Because you get on these boards, but I don't particularly want to sit in on a board meeting for an hour during my lunchtime. ( We both laugh ) I'd rather actually go help plant some trees or do some things around the shelter. And just to work side by side with these women who may see you on TV and think you're just this person on TV. And then, when they actually see you down there digging and working, you just make a really good connection. At that point you realize how fortunate you are but then you also bring an increased sensitivity to their plight. Oh, some of the stories I've heard!
DG: In the 10 p.m. newscast ratings race, Channel 2 has traditionally trailed behind Channels 7 and 5 at least for the last 10-15 years. Yet Channel 2 gets No. 1 ratings with reality shows like Survivor. Do you feel you and David ( Kerley ) have a good crack at making a difference in the makeup of the choices of that viewing audience at 10 p.m.?
TT: I think we do. I think, though, when you look at the history of Channel 2 … I mean it was once this huge powerhouse. And the names that have come through these doors are just unbelievable. I mean, there are people who I've read about in J school, and I'm now working in the same place. I think it's going to take a little bit of time; it didn't happen overnight that we got to the point we are now. But I'm finding I'm running into people who are saying, "You know, I just starting watching you, I came back." And so I think we've really got to capitalize on those viewers and to a certain degree, people who for one reason or another who have turned away and may not be coming back. I think we really have a chance to make the most of the fact that we can give people the news of the day, we can also give them news that helps them be reassured that things are going to be OK. And I think if we can capitalize on that, we can make a difference. I think it will make us stand out from the pack. Because to a certain degree, I think almost everybody here ( in Chicago ) looks alike. So I think the challenge is to make our news product a little bit different. I think that David ( Kerley ) and I both are reporters, that's what our roots are. This is not a time when we can be anchors who just sit on the desk and just read off a prompter. I feel very confident in saying the passion for both of us is being able to go out and do stories; he's got family, I'm married, I just think that we're regular old folks, and I think that people like that.
DG: But you're young folks …
TT: ( Laughing ) OK, I'll take young today. You know, I think there's room for us. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to come here. When I interviewed here, they didn't sugarcoat it. So, there are some days when I'm really thankful for that, and then there are days when I think that maybe just a little bit of sugar would have been nice, but I think it's an uphill climb. I think CBS can help us out more with lead-in programming.
DG: What is one belief that you hold near and dear to your heart?
TT: Hmm. I believe that through any trial or bad thing that happens to you, something good will also happen. You're going to grow from it. And that's been my experience, both work and personal.
DG: Looking at your upwardly mobile career path, Tracy, do you feel things like race, sexual orientation, age, religion are still huge potential problems to advancement in the media, or broadcast journalism in particular?
TT: I think we take two steps forward and then we take one back. And I say that because I have friends who are in news management and they'll say, "Well, we don't find a lot of men," or "We don't find a lot of African American men who are in broadcasting, and so it's really hard to fill those positions." And then they use words like, "Well, we don't find people who are qualified," which sometimes makes my skin crawl because you kind of wonder what it takes to be "qualified," or what do they mean by that? I wonder sometimes if that's coded language. You know, I've been in situations and worked in newsrooms where there was a general feeling that there was some sort of youth movement coming through. My last newsroom just had a wave of people take this early retirement plan. The feeling was, "There's no room for us, cause we're the 'older' folk." I would like to see a day when we could just all work together, because I think there's a lot of value in the experience that people who have been on the streets in a market forever bring that people who a ) just get to the market or b ) are just fresh out of school could not possibly give. ... I think business, be it TV or corporate, is just a microcosm of the real world. On the one hand it's kind of frightening, but it's the truth. I have to laugh when I read articles or I watch stations like Fox News Channel and they talk about how liberal the media is. Sometimes I think, if you only knew…
DG: What about people who have a problem with gay journalists or Black journalists?
TT: It's their problem. The thing to be said for me is that I don't view myself as a "Black" journalist, because I don't just go and do Black stories. The flip side is that people are only people. You never know how people will react to you. I remember what happened when I got my first job in Cincinnati. I'd worked as a producer and I had become great friends with a white girl and we both wanted to be on air. They put me on the air and she swore that it was because they needed a Black person on the air. ... I really don't feel that the powers that be were saying, "We need a Black reporter." Right? And this girl is now employed in occupational therapy, and that's our joke because I don't think she wanted it as badly as she said. It was very hurtful, though, because to me it totally discredited everything I had ever worked for. Never mind I have a degree, you work hard, you write well. You're getting this because you're Black!
DG: What is the biggest lie that was ever told about you?
TT: I think that people have said, or prejudged that I'm some sort of cold, calculating, claw my way to the top type person by virtue of the way things have progressed. People don't know how hard ( I've worked ) and how many dinners of tuna casserole I've eaten along the way.
DG: What's the atmosphere like between David Kerley and you?
TT: I think it's a good match. I had seen David, ( my husband used to work in Arlington Heights before we got married so I was in and out of town quite often ) and he seemed like a nice guy. I mean, I tell him this jokingly, my very first best friend in the whole world was a redheaded guy named David, my next door neighbor. ... I think it's a good pairing; sometimes we jokingly say he's the diplomat and I'm the person who tells it like it is. But I think we're rubbing off on each other, so maybe by next spring I'll be the diplomat, who knows? I think it's a good mix of experience and backgrounds, but not backgrounds that are so vastly different that the two people have nothing in common. We both play golf, though he's a much better golfer than I am. He lives in the burbs and I live in the city.
DG: How would you compare co-anchoring the 10 p.m. news from doing the 5 p.m. or noon newscasts?
TT: I think your viewing audience changes a bit. I think at noon, 4:30, 5, you probably have more stay-at-home moms, more seniors, and people who work at night. You figure that people who tune in to a news program want the news of the day. But at those times you can have a bit more fun, like at noon you could have Bobby Flay on to do some great recipes. But at 10 o'clock you need to give people the news of the day and people like to see some kind of "inside" report, some kind of special. People want to hear the world is going to be OK; they might like to hear about some medical breakthrough.
DG: As a former chief education reporter, what is one of the most pervasive problems in education today?
TT: I think one of the major problems in teaching is the fact that teachers aren't paid very well and now we're facing a massive teacher shortage in this country. Also helping them stay there, because first -year teachers usually stay in the classroom for only one or two years, an ungodly number leave.
DG: Can you share some experiences from Newshouse Women's Shelter?
TT: A woman in my sorority wanted me to emcee an event there and I did so. And then there were some stories because they were going through a capital campaign. It was really like, maybe a duplex and they didn't have nearly enough room for all the folks. And there were these women and their children and I would think, "This is really no way to live." And then I just kind of got interested in what I could do to volunteer. But a committee I was involved with centered on helping these women become empowered. Because a lot of times these women have little or no self-confidence which allowed them to stay in a situation where they were getting abused verbally, physically; and they're living there with their children because they don't see any other way out. ... And at this shelter it was particularly relevant because most of the women were Black or Hispanic. The biggest satisfaction is in seeing somebody do well for themselves and to be able to say, whatever I can do to help you be a bit stronger, well, it's just a great feeling.