In this series, youth poised to be Chicago’s future leaders (UCAN program participants and recent alumni) interview current Chicago leaders in their fields of interest.
For our second episode, Briana Owens, an aspiring broadcaster and currently a student at Ithaca College, interviews Brandis Griffith-Friedman, a correspondent and segment host for Chicago Tonight, on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station.
Other Episodes can be found here.
Briana Owens: TV and radio broadcasting is a very big field. Could you tell us how you got into it and a little bit about what you do now?
Brandis Friedman: I studied mass communications in undergrad and got a masters in journalism after that. Then my first television job was in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is small market northwest of Dallas, Texas. And at the time there were maybe 210 television markets in the country, and this one was 141 or 142 – which is how a lot of us start, in a smaller market and then work our way up.
I moved up to Little Rock…got out of the business temporarily…then Kansas City… Washington, DC. When we moved here, to be closer to family, I first worked at WBBM News Radio as a freelance anchor. Now I’m a correspondent at Chicago Tonight on WTTW, the PBS affiliate here.
In my current job I cover education mostly, but we’re a small staff so I end up covering other things as well. I also get to host segment interviews, so I’m responsible for knowing what’s going on in education, as well as some other fields. I come up with story ideas and work with my boss on figuring out how to tell a story.
BO: What are some of the skills you need in broadcasting?
BF: You have to be a really good listener – in any journalism field, not necessarily just broadcasting. I will say, as broadcaster we do have to be able to do multiple things at once. A lot of times, when you’re doing an interview, you have to be listening to what the person is saying, but also thinking about what your next question is. “Do I want ask that next question that I’ve got on this list, or do I want to follow up on something that they’re currently saying?”
And just because we’re on TV doesn’t mean we don’t have to write. Being able to write clearly and concisely and accurately is very important. And these days in our business, having a strong understanding of ethics is very important. Also, I think you need a natural curiosity about everything, in order to want to ask questions and tell stories.
BO: What would you say are some qualities that hiring managers look for when people are trying to get into broadcasting?
BF: They look for the ability to do a lot of things – which is kind of unfortunate, just because that means you’ve got to know how to do a lot, maybe even more than what I needed to know how to do when I started.
In my first market we did what you call “one-man banding,” where we had to shoot our own stories and edit them. So you have to be fairly familiar with the technology – and with social media, especially.
You probably know that if you’re applying for a job they want to see what your social media accounts are like – are you responsible with social media, but also, are you engaging in people through social media? What are you sharing? How and why are you sharing it? You have to know a whole lot more and be able to do a lot more than when I was starting out.
BO: What would you say has been the toughest part about your job.
BF: I love my job, thankfully. But there can be some very hard parts.
When I was in Little Rock, it was around the time of the second Iraq war, when a lot of states were sending National Guardsmen to Iraq. Arkansas had sent about 3,000 National Guardsmen, and many from Little Rock.
In one weekend five Guardsmen died. That’s a lot. I was working weekends at the time and so that means I had to find the families of these Guardsmen and ask them, “Would you mind sharing a photo? Would you mind doing an interview so that we can remember and honor your loved one?” That took a toll – I sat in the car and cried a bit, because I’ve got no reason to cry in front of these people. My loved ones are alive and they just lost someone. But it was very hard, emotionally.
And that difficulty still exists today, when we cover violence – we have to do it with respect and honor and with a lot of care and thought. But it’s a hard part of the job.
BO: What you’re saying is a really good segue into my next question, which is, why do you think broadcasting is so important today, in the world we live in?
BF: Some people would tell you broadcasting isn’t very important today. I disagree with them.
It is important because there are times when a broadcast can convey something that no other medium can. For example, the stories that we saw yesterday – the very sad and deadly weekend that Chicago had. They used a lot of video. People who were very emotionally distraught outside of hospitals where the injured were taken.
Sometimes you look at that and wonder if reporters are exploiting these people’s grief. But then sometimes you look at it and think, “This is driving home the point that really needs to be made here – that this violence has an effect and it hurts people.” You can write the words down, and some people, obviously, are very talented writers, but I think it’s different when you see and hear it on a TV station or a radio station.
[At the point, Brandis turns the tables and asks a question of her interviewer, Briana.]
BO: So you’re a Chicagoan – why do you think broadcasting is important for the future of Chicago?
BO: I think it’s so important because outside of Chicago people have ideas about what Chicago is. There are narratives… We hear “Chi-raq,” and other different things – that Chicago is just gangs.
People don’t see anything besides the stories that are picked up by national news, so for local reporters like you to be telling different stories, giving positivity, but also reflecting on what is happening here allows us to see Chicago as another city that has problems, but we also have solutions. And people are working tirelessly to make Chicago a better place. So I think it’s super important that we have broadcasters from here – and even not from here – who are trying to make an impact on the city.
BF: I agree. Nobody can tell Chicago’s story better than the city itself.
BO: What would be your advice to someone like me who’s trying to pursue this career?
BF: My advice would be to learn all you can, early on. And if you want to pursue television news then obviously following the news is very important. Know what’s going on. Read different newspapers. Watch different news stations and networks. I think keeping a natural curiosity about the world is important.
And don’t give up. Sometimes this business can be frustrating and it can tell you “No,” when you don’t think you deserved to hear “No.” So keep going. Keep at it. Don’t give up. That would be my best advice.
BO: Thank you – very much.