Carole Simpson, Pioneering TV Broadcaster

In 1988, Carole Simpson became the first woman of color to regularly host a national network news broadcast. But home viewers who saw her on ABC's World News Tonight had no way of knowing just how far she'd come. She tells NPR's Tony Cox how preparation, endurance, and determination helped her along the way.

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TONY COX, host:

From an anchor on the football field, we now turn to a pioneering anchor in the broadcast booth.

In 1988, Carole Simpson became the first woman of color to regularly host a national network news broadcast. But home viewers who saw her on ABC's "World News Tonight" had no way of knowing just how far she'd come. Carole joins us now to share the story of that journey.

Carole, nice to talk with you.

Ms. CAROLE SIMPSON (News Anchor): Nice to talk to you, Tony.

COX: You know, people don't often know how difficult it is to get into broadcasting, particularly in television, particularly in front of the camera, particularly at the network level, and you did all of those things. How difficult was it for you?

Ms. SIMPSON: Oh, my God. How much time do we have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: Do we have 80 hours to talk about it? I'm in the process of writing a book about it now, because as I go back over my life and the difficulties that were placed in my path, it just amazes me that I was able to overcome a lot of those obstacles.

COX: Do something standout in your mind that you really remember?

Ms. SIMPSON: Well, yes. I remember everyone telling me no, I couldn't do it. My parents said I couldn't do it. Northwestern University, where I wanted to go to journalism school, said that I could never get a job. I ended up going to the University of Michigan and having not found a job while all of my white classmates had found jobs. And the story I got from everywhere was that I was -had three strikes against me. I was a woman, I was a Negro and I was inexperienced. And it was true, I was all three of those things, and there was nothing I can do about it until somebody gave me some experience. So it was very tough finally getting a job.

And then when I got a job, the first job I got was at WCFL radio in Chicago, which was a very big 100,000-watt station. And it was the '60s, mid-60s after Watts. And the biggest story in America was the civil rights struggle. And reporters - white reporters were not being able to cover the story. A lot of black people would not talk to them about what was happening. So you had news editors and news directors going literally off the street, pulling people off the street saying, can you be a reporter…

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SIMPSON: …so you can help us cover this huge story? So I give great thanks to those people that were a part of the civil rights movement who said, you cannot send to your press conferences any white reporters anymore, any white cameramen, any white sound people. And that opened up the trade unions in Chicago, and it opened up lot of the opportunities for us.

But as I said, they were taking people off the streets, and a lot of them could not do the job, did not have the experience. And I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right qualifications to be able to succeed at being a reporter.

COX: Tell people how you were intimidated or how people attempted to intimidate you both in your radio days and then as you got into television.

Ms. SIMPSON: Absolutely. Radio, as I told you, was a big station and I was the first female to broadcast news in Chicago. So it was unusual. It was a big deal because people weren't used to hearing women deliver news. There were some lady shows in the afternoon on some of the radio programs, some of the radio stations. But nobody was doing any hard news. But I had a newscast. I was hired because I had the qualifications and the degrees in journalism. And I was given a newscast and it was at 9:00 in the morning. And after I did my five-minute newscast, I would go out on the street and cover other news stories in the city of Chicago.

During that 9:00 newscast, you're in the studio by yourself, and you're reading the news. And I would have my white male colleagues play little tricks on me. They thought they were little tricks. They would open the door to the control room where I was working and would take their pants down and show me their big, white butts while I was on the air. Or they would, one time, they threw a big, black, rubber tarantula on the desk while I was trying to do the news.

They would get behind me, come in to the studio, and stand behind me and take papers out of my hand and set fire to them. And, you know, everything they could do to make me mess up on the air, but what they ended up doing was actually making me stronger. I was able to, you know, completely ignore that, think only about that microphone and my job to do the news. And it made me much stronger.

COX: Let me interrupt you to ask you this, because our time is running short. And I want people to know, and let me just say this on aside that that happened to me as well in terms of being mooned while you're on the air live. I know what that feeling is.

Ms. SIMPSON: No, you don't. When it's a male butt in front.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well, a butt is a butt, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: It's more frightening to a woman.

COX: A white butt is a white butt, looking at you when you're trying to talk to people on the air. But that aside, Marlin Briscoe told us just a moment ago about how important it was for him to overcome. And that there was a certain intestinal fortitude that he had to rely on to be successful. What did you rely on, Carole Simpson, personally to see you through the travails that you've had to encounter?

Ms. SIMPSON: The same things he did. Except, I guess, mine was an anger, I'm sorry to say, but it was an anger that motivated me because so many people said I couldn't do it. And I tell young people today that I used those nos as vitamin pills to give me energy to go on and fight the battle.

So - but it was the determination to show them that I could do it. That you can't tell me after I have, you know, gone to school, gotten this experience, prepared myself that I am not capable and that I should be denied this job based on my color and my skin.

I had, unlike Mr. Briscoe, the double whammy, people who didn't like me because I was female and people who didn't like me because I was black. So I think it's tougher for black women than it is for black men. And I'd look - you look around, there are no black women who have replaced me on any of the major networks. And that hurts me. I've been off the air for almost five years now. And there are still no one who is replacing me. You see lots Hispanic women, but I'm very concerned about what's happening to African-American…

COX: Women on the air.

Ms. SIMPSON: …women and men on the air.

COX: Yes. Well, you certainly have contributed to it. Our time is up, unfortunately and we can't go on any further.

Ms. SIMPSON: What a shame.

COX: But your contribution is without question. And we thank you for coming on our program today.

Ms. SIMPSON: Thank you so much, Tony.

COX: That's our show for today. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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