April Ryan has done a little bit of everything.
Before becoming the White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, Ryan started her journalism career at her alma mater, Morgan State University, where she worked for the school’s radio station. Ryan hosts The White House Report, the first and only daily national radio show to broadcast directly from the White House and runs a blog, Fabric of America, which intersects race and politics
In Ryan’s 27-year career, she’s served as president of the White House Correspondents Association – only the third African-American to serve on the board – and has guested on This Week with George Stephanopoulus discussing President Barack Obama’s policies.
Now she’s compiled her experiences into a book, The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America, chronicling her time covering the White House and the way race intersects politics in Capitol Hill’s history. Ryan spoke with All Digitiocracy about her book and experiences in Washington, D.C.
All Digitocracy: How did you get started in journalism?
April Ryan: I am so hyper (laughs)! I knew that in high school I was not going to be able to sit for eight hours at a desk all day. There’s nothing wrong with those who do it. I really wish that I could do it, but I am just not willing to sit at a desk all day. When I knew that, I said I am in trouble. I like to run my mouth and I like to move around and be in the middle of stuff. I got the bug when I was in high school and a friend of mine was a gospel DJ at my college radio station. I realized what he was doing and thought I was going to be a DJ. I moved away from being a DJ into being a producer for a morning talk show. I liked that but I wanted more. Then I went into news, anchoring and researching and writing. And I loved it. I was talking to everyone on all sides of the story. So, that’s how I got into news. Just knowing who I was as a person. I needed to be involved in something.
AD: How did you start covering the White House?
AR: As I was doing news locally in Baltimore and then Frederick, MD and then Chattanooga, TN and then back in Baltimore, and then in DC, I would always string or freelance for some networks. American Urban Radio Networks liked what they saw in me and they offered me a position in Washington, D.C. — little did I know — covering the White House. But to tell you what, if they had told me it was covering the White House, because I never really thought about it until this book came out and people kept asking me about it, I don’t think I would have taken the position because I was like wait minute, I don’t think I’m ready for that. It’s a very intimidating position, especially when you’re not a part of that Washington politics, you’re not part of Washington press corps and you have to cover the White House and Capitol Hill. I really was an outsider coming in on the inside and it was crazy. The network really liked the stories I did on Ben Chavis [former president of the NACCP]; that really made them look at me.
AD: When did you begin working on this book and what made you want to tell about your experiences in the White House?
AR: I have a friend named Roman Hall, who works at the Associated Press in Washington. I actually met him while we were working at the NAACP on that Ben Chavis story. And one day he brought his kids to the White House and then he said to me: “You can’t be here and report on what you’re reporting on and not write a book about it.” He said you need to journal and from there I really got serious on journaling and writing down dates and events and times. It worked. Over 17 years I was pulling together all my old journals and writing and re-writing [the book]. The book has gone through three versions. It all stems from my compiling of notes and my journals.
AD: What was one of the biggest hardships or difficulties you faced covering the White House?
AR: That’s a tough one. Washington is tough. You have to go in there and know what’s going on. There are so many different things I had to be grandfathered into. I didn’t know a lot of things; I missed the morning press gaggles early on. I just didn’t know all of the dynamics of the minutia. I was beating my head up against the wall; I remember everyday, the first two weeks, I told my mother I am leaving. She said, “No you will not.” She said “you have got to stay there at least two years because people will think you got fired if you don’t.” It is tough; I didn’t know a lot of the basics of how the White House works. There are a lot of little pieces where, if you don’t know [them], you could be lost. I also replaced [the late Bob Ellison, former president of the White House Correspondents Association], who they loved dearly and they weren’t ready to have me that fast. It was pretty rough for the first couple of weeks, but I got to some people.
AD: How did this change your reporting style?
AR: I just brought my set of sources; it’s always about the who, what, when, where and whys and the totality of the story — not just two sides, every side of the story. So, I never changed anything.
AD: In your book, you stated that you were the only black reporter with a permanent press pass whose audience was urban American. How do you make your White House coverage relevant to them?
AR: I focus in on minorities. When other people are looking at the whole pie, I’m looking at that sliver that just focuses right on African-Americans, or urban America or on Hispanics. That’s where I’m different; that’s where we’re different and American Urban Radio Network is different.
AD: Being one of the few black reporters that chronicled race in the White House, how did you navigate working in a white, male-dominated industry?
AR: I had no choice but to navigate. It’s a job and of course you have people rolling their eyes going “here she goes again,” but so what? People will try to intimidate you, there are intimidation factors, but guess what? Number one, it’s my job and number two, what makes them think that they’re right and I’m wrong? So, my issue is the fact that the [press] room is a room with a lot of people in it, and many of those people don’t get a chance to ask a question. If they did it wouldn’t necessarily be the same question from the front two rows. I think there’s room in there for all of us; race isn’t always on the radar for major mainstream media, but at the White House – and in [my] book Bill Clinton told me – it is on the radar and it is considered with policy and initiatives, always. We never hear about that, so, President Clinton just reinforced what I already knew and why I would ask my questions.
AD: You’ve covered Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. What stood out to you about them?
AR: When you ask that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is George W. Bush and the fact that he was this Republican president who, if he would have put more effort in the black community in the very beginning, I don’t think he would’ve been viewed so harshly [when it comes to] race. That White House looked at the black community and the black vote as a loss because the black people really didn’t vote for him. So, that’s why [some] don’t count that he was the president who did the most on Africa than any other president. But when Katrina hit, it hit and it hit hard. It was devastating for that administration; it’s a legacy piece that they can never shake.
President Clinton had a heart for African Americans. Yes, he was called the first black president, but I think his heart is really what led him in the second term with the race initiative because he understood that this was a nation that was browning. It was time for the American people to come together on an issue that has been one of the most divisive issues over time.
What stands out the most for [President Obama] to me is the fact that this first black president talked about hope and change, hope and change and African Americans were so happy. The nation was on a high. The vast majority of people felt like we changed the dynamics of this terrible history. But when he became president, that first time, was a lot of title and soft bones. And he had to keep going along those lines so he could navigate the waters strategically and successfully so he could get to that second term. Now this Barack Obama, second term, fourth quarter, is totally different than that first term Barack Obama on race. He is now able to speak his mind.
AD: You mentioned in the book that you were surprised by politicians’ outlook on diversity and racial equality. What specifically shocked you the most and how does it shape your coverage of the White House?
AR: Going to Washington, you know that everyone has a different stance, but generally speaking, you think that (politicians) are understanding and that they understand the plight of people. But it is just different dynamics as to reasons why things couldn’t get done. The partisanship, the politics, the game of politics — everyone has their own agenda here. And it’s not saying it’s a bad agenda, but everybody has different things that they want to promote. If it’s not apart of their agenda, people are not going to push your agenda forward. I’ve found Washington to be an animal; it’s a tough place to really survive. In order for your agenda items to go through, you have to find the right balance of having support and give-and-take to be able to make it work. When it comes to African American issues, that right balance and that give-and-take hasn’t come into play yet because there are still so many disparities out there when it comes to African-Americans.
AD: Every journalist has a dream interview. What was your ‘big get’ and how did you get it?
AR: You always fight for presidential interviews. Those are the big gets. If you’ve interviewed President Clinton, you have to interview President Obama and you have to interview President Bush, too. So with each administration, that’s a big get. I wanted Bill Clinton and that was my first [presidential] interview. I ran into him in the hallway of the West Wing and introduced myself and told him to call on me; he didn’t the first time, but he did the second. That was big for me because I was a newbie then and I learned how to work it so I could get it. You have to keep forging and trying to get your questions answered. You’re known for your last story. So, everyday I look at it as a big get. I don’t rest on my lulls, on the last interview, on my last story. I’m always trying to get an interview, trying to get face time with the president. So, each day is the big get.
AD: You’re covering the White House and for some journalists that’s the career pinnacle. You also have your book out. What’s next for you?
AR: Honest to goodness, I don’t know. I’m still working at AURN, I just don’t know. It’s been 18 years and at some point the company may be tired, I may get tired. I don’t know. They haven’t let me know that they’re tired. I think that they’re in it to win it, just like I am. But you never know what’s going to be on the horizon. I never knew that this book was going to be on the horizon and be as well received as it has been. I used to say I wanted to be the first black Helen Thomas, but you never know. Who knows what life has in store. But the completion of this book is one of my bucket list items that’s now checked off.
AD: In reading your book, what do you want readers to gain from it?
AR: I want people to take away that the issues of race are very important, that race is talked about at that White House on a continuous basis, and it’s not just because we have the first black president. My book details that race has played a part in almost every presidency at that White House. Everything comes through the White House from war to peace and everything in between, race is that in between. The Presidency in Black and White definitely brings you into those conversations on race and how it has factored in on the policy table. That’s what I want people to take away and understand; race is not just about Barack Obama. It’s more than that, much more than that.
AD: What advice do you have for upcoming journalists of color looking to cover politics?
AR: Honestly, I’d tell’em, don’t do it. This business has changed so much. It’s a tough business. What I learned and the way I learned is totally different now. When I was attending Morgan State University, we would concentrate on either radio or TV or a different discipline, now you have to know a little bit about everything in every medium. You have to do a little bit of blogging, you have to do a little bit of video, you have to do a little bit of photography, you have to do a little bit of radio, you have to do some anchoring. I mean you’re just doing everything. It’s different; social media has really put its footprint on broadcast in a lot of ways. I would advise a young person, if they really want to get into this, do not major in it like I did. Major in something else, but work at journalism, and to really use what’s accessible. That’s really what got me to where I am, using what’s accessible.