If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. ~English nursery rhyme
When I was a booking producer at CNN, I was one of the very few in our unit who did not aspire to someday have an on-air position. Some of my colleagues made it to the top, including Kate Snow who is now a national correspondent at NBC, and Laurie Dhue, the only person to have anchored on all three major cable networks (CNN, Fox and MSNBC). But many who try don’t make it. So I thought I’d ask a couple of highly-respected TV news veterans, who happen to be great friends of mine, to share some insights on their own journeys to the top.
Bobbie Battista was one of the first news anchors hired by CNN in 1981. She recently signed on to host “On the Story,” a new Georgia Public Broadcasting show that starts this month.
What was your first job in television and how did you get it?
My first job in television was as secretary to the president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., which owned WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. I was 22 years old, freshly graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Radio, TV and film production and had been knocking on the door of WRAL for months trying to get a job. I was finally offered the job of secretary, which thoroughly surprised me because I didn’t feel very qualified for that; I didn’t know stenography and my typing was mediocre at best. But these were the kinds of jobs women were offered back in the day. I jumped at the job just to get my foot through the door and eventually went on to become the first female news anchor at the station.
Did you always want to be on air?
I did not want to be on air initially, although having dabbled in theater it wasn’t a foreign thought. I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore! That show about a female producer in a newsroom was my guiding light. I loved the nuts and bolts of putting a television news program together. I eventually moved from the secretarial pool to the newsroom because I asked my boss if I could, and he was young and progressive enough to say “go for it!”
What was the hardest part of breaking in, and what was your ‘big break’?
My big break came when I asked my boss if I could move from the secretarial pool to the newsroom. It was as simple as telling him I had a degree that was going to waste. My first job was as Producer of an early morning show – similar to GMA but in included farm reports! It was hosted by one of the station’s news reporters and a woman from the Farm department (I kid you not!). After a couple of months, the General Manager asked me if I had ever thought about going on air, and would I be interested in hosting the show as well as producing it. Well, who was I to say no to that! So that was my big break – one thing led to another and I was co-anchoring the 6 and 11 newscasts within a few months. The hardest part of breaking in was just getting in the door. Persistence paid off. After that, it was all about hard work and opportunity.
What are some of the things people may not know about what it takes to succeed as a reporter, anchor or show host?
I think the key to success is what I said above – hard work and making your own opportunities. It’s also about being willing to serve time in the trenches. You need to be a news and information junkie as well. You need to know a lot about a lot of things. Although the emphasis for women in network/cable broadcast news today is heavily on looks, most of those women are also smart. It’s not enough to just be pretty (although you now need to be exceptionally attractive), you still need to be smart and well-informed. On the local level, you need to be a jack of all trades. Local reporters and anchors are expected to shoot, edit and produce their own stories and write for multiple platforms while tweeting and Facebooking at the same time. I still believe you need a strong sense of curiosity, integrity and oversight to stand out, although those traits are harder and harder to find in some of today’s on-air talent. And it pains me to say it, but it seems you need the ability to shout and opine these days. One can only hope that’s an annoying trend that plays out at some point.
What advice do you have for young people pursuing an on-camera career in TV?
I’d say the same thing that I talked about in my last answer. I would probably add persistence, good networking skills and knowing when to grab an opportunity, even if it doesn’t jive with your immediate goals. You never know where life will take you.
Watch for our next post where we’ll share more expert advice from former CNN Anchor Donna Kelley!