Mary Ann Childers is a media consultant specializing in strategic communications, crisis consulting, video and web content production, and honing on-camera and presentation skills for Chicago’s top business executives, authors, physicians, and others in the public eye. She works through her own firm, Mary Ann Childers Inc., and as a consultant to the Chicago-based Res Publica Group public affairs firm. Previously she spent nearly 20 years as a television news reporter and anchorwoman in Chicago, where she was the first woman to anchor a top-rated 10 p.m. local newscast. Childers was the first Chicago TV journalist to report from the Mideast during the first Persian Gulf War. Her reports on breast cancer, aids, heart disease, mental health, and women’s health have won dozens of awards and national recognition, including five Emmys and a prestigious national Emmy for anchoring coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II. Childers is married to CBS2/WBBM-TV Chief Correspondent Jay Levine.
You started in television very young. Was it your ambition from early on?
No, not at all. I was an accidental news anchor, as it turned out. I was pre-law at Northwestern University. I fully intended to go to law school but I took a lot of heavy semesters and I finished almost a year early. Except for one credit. To earn that last credit I applied for and got an internship at WGN-TV in Chicago.
I wasn’t studying radio-television, but they never asked. I’d done some television work in Kentucky when I was in high school and I thought it would be fun. I worked in the programming department there. Coincidentally, Phil Donahue was moving his talk show from Dayton, Ohio, to WGN at the that time. And having completed my internship and earned my one credit, I took a job with Phil as one of his producers, thinking it would be a good thing to do while studying for the LSATs.
You hadn’t given up your intention of attending law school, then?
No, no. But after working for Phil for just under two years I thought, “You know, I like this.” I moved back to Louisville and took a job on a morning TV program there. It was a bit like going from a castle to a hovel because I was on the broadcast and also producing it. That was a big change from “Donahue” where you had a lot of resources to work with.
I did morning talk for a time and then someone needed a person to do interviews on the noontime show so I slipped over and did that. And eventually they said, “Why don’t you come over and read some news and, oh, by the way, produce the newscast.” That was my entry into news.
When you look back on those beginnings, where you were both on-air and producing simultaneously, do you think “Boy I learned a lot” or “That was nuts!”?
Well, I learned a lot. I sort of came in the back door to news because my background was all on the production side. It would have been nice, when coming to a market like Chicago, to have had a traditional background in journalism. But you sink or swim.
When you were establishing your career, it was a time of transition in broadcast media, wasn’t it? There weren’t many women on news desks.
There weren’t many at all. I think Barbara Walters was it on the network level. In Chicago there were two women who had programs at that time: Jorie Luloff and Lee Phillips. There were women reporters, certainly, but not that many. And then things began to turn a bit. So I was there at a very exciting time.
Did you feel you were pioneering?
I think I felt I was part of a movement, but there were a lot of others who went ahead of me and broke new ground. So I was very lucky.
Did you as a women sense resentment from the old guard in the broadcast news business?
From guys at the station? No. Really never.
Did you feel at all that women news anchors received criticism or extra scrutiny because they were female?
I know it was very rough for Jane Pauley when she became an anchor in Chicago. But she was the first. Rightly or wrongly, she received a lot of attention, and a lot of it was negative attention, at the time. I think it was probably tough on her. It was a different time when I was doing it so I really didn’t feel that [negativity].
Did you have mentors in your career?
Yes, and they all happened to be male. There just were many women in those jobs. They were very, very important people in my life.
What did you gain from them?
First they believed in me, which was major. Second, they told me the truth. It’s dangerous when you start believing your own press releases, so I’m grateful to those people.
Why do you think the profession connected with you so deeply that you stayed? What did you enjoy most?
Access. To everything. You’ve probably heard the term “news junkie”? You have to really, deeply want to know what’s going on. And there’s the adrenalin rush of constant deadlines, the speed, the pace. And of course working with truly fabulous people. Editors, photographers, producers; so many talented people. It’s just a fast-paced business, and the pace appealed to me.
I work now in a strategic-communications role, and I remember early on someone saying to me, “We’ve got to get this done fast,” and I was thinking, “Fine, I’m ready to start writing.” And then they said, “We probably only have four or five weeks.” Four or five weeks? I thought, “I can build an airplane in four or five weeks!” So my body clock was a little different. But I loved the pace.
Do you find your current role satisfying even with its slower pace?
Oh absolutely. I’m still telling stories. I work with clients to make sure their story’s told in the manner that is good for them.
In some ways, you’re pioneering in a different way now, aren’t you, because the ways and channels through which stories are told and news is disseminated are changing? Do you feel that?
Oh yes. We’re in a huge transition period. Television news really has to redefine itself. I remember years ago when people were asking, “What impact will cable have?” Well, cable is nothing. What impact does the Internet have on newspapers? I think the days are numbered when we open our front doors and find a headline looking back at us. Our news is going to be delivered in other ways, by laptops or tablets or phones. That’s where it’s all heading.
It’s going to have to evolve, and I’m not sure what form it will take finally but news will still be there, just in a different form. That’s why it’s important more than ever before that anyone entering the news broadcast business master technology.
You didn’t feel that need for your generation?
I worked in the business at a time when it was very specialized. Especially in major-market television, if you were an editor, you edited. If you were a photographer, you shot, either on film or video. Writers wrote. It was compartmentalized and specialized. I worked with phenomenally talented people. Now you can do more yourself. You can do all those functions on your phone. It’s a difficult adjustment for many people, but you really do need to master technology.
I learned as much as I could because it helped me do my job better. I can edit, but I never really learned it.
Is this new media world taking shape less prone to gender inequality than before? Are the opportunities for women in broadcast media now greater?
Definitely. The first jobs women got in broadcast were visible jobs. They were placed in anchor and reporting jobs so people could say, “See. We have them, too.” At the same time, women were also moving into technical areas and now there are probably as many women as men. In Chicago, though, there probably are not as many female camera operators.
The last level to see women was upper-level management. But of the Chicago TV stations, half of them at one point were run by women and news directors are women.
In addition to mastering technology, what other advice would you share with young people coming into broadcast, or just business in general?
I think you have to do something that you really love. Certainly in broadcast you do because there’s nothing 9-to-5 about it. You’re 24/7/365 and you have to accept that. You have to be nimble and adaptable. If you want a stable job, go work in a bank! You have to love it and want it and accept that every day’s going to be different. But that was one of the reasons I loved it.
You have to be persistent. I know a lot of people who got the job because they just kept showing up.
Are you encouraged by the young people you see coming into the business?
It’s hard to judge that. There are so many outlets out there, which is a little bit scary. The rules seem to be different on the Internet. And sometimes there seem to be no rules.
Rules on verification and about what can be said?
You could start your own blog on nuclear physics and write whatever you wanted. Are you a nuclear physicist? Well, maybe not, but you have opinions. Wikipedia has become as much a source for people today as encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s a different animal. There are many wonderful people making contributions to it, and then there are people who just want to write things.
But I’ll tell you another piece of advice I give. For anyone in business, I say network, network, network. It’s very important.
How did it benefit you?
I think every job I got, I got because I knew someone. That gets you in the door. Then you have to sell yourself, of course.
And with people coming into the broadcast business, you really need to learn about that business. I was always on the talent side. In talent you’re just the tip of the iceberg, really. You get to shape a lot of things and it’s creative, but at the same time there are a lot of other people involved in the making of television and there are many powerful jobs that have much more influence than the people you see delivering the news. You need to know more about it, all about the business.
One of the never-ending struggles of the workplace is balancing work life and home life. Do you have any advice on that topic?
In all honesty, for me that wasn’t a challenge. For one thing I grew up with my father being an obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice. So all my young life, a baby would be coming and he’d be taking off. High school graduation? He’s outta there. The time we spent with him was wonderful and we never felt we didn’t have his attention or his love and support, but we knew we had to be flexible.
I worked for many years as a journalist and I’m married to a journalist. We almost had to postpone our wedding because of martial law in Poland. In fact last night, I had a beautiful piece of salmon ready to go for dinner and Jay called and said, “I think I have to go to Washington on the 8:20.” I said, “Uh, OK” because you have to be flexible.
The fact of the matter is that you must set priorities in your life. You have to set boundaries. And you decide what’s really important for you. Then you always find time for the important things.
But, you know, I’ve never found time to iron. Never have, never will.