With a dazzling smile, caring eyes, and a heart for community, Monica Pearson has reigned supreme over Atlanta television news for nearly 40 years.
When Pearson packed her bags and left WHAS-TV in Louisville, Ky., she had no idea that her next steps would earn her a place in Atlanta history as an icon and pioneer.
That August night, in 1975, when Atlantans tuned into WSB-TV for the 6 o’clock newscast they were met with a surprise. Pearson—then known as Monica Kaufman— graced diverse living rooms all over the city, breaking barriers as the first female and the first African American anchoring the evening news, a spot typically reserved for white males.
The University of Louisville graduate received a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and English, intending to teach. It was not until she participated in a summer program, developed by Columbia University and the Ford Foundation to introduce minorities into predominantly white newsrooms, that Pearson’s interest in the industry was sparked. Upon completion of the program she returned to the Louisville Times where she initially worked as a newsroom clerk, but quickly advanced to become a reporter. Pearson even tried her hand in public relations, after being turned down for a broadcast job. However, it was that “no” that propelled her to take a modeling and charm course. She began preparing for a job that she did not yet have, but had faith it would soon come.
Those preparations for a life in front of the camera were soon to pay off. In Louisville, one of her assignments in the charm-school course involved modeling in a restaurant, where she caught the attention of the news director for a rival television station. Pearson interviewed with CBS affiliate WHAS-TV, transitioning from print to her desired job in broadcast news in 1973.
Fast forward to the present: on July 25th, 2012, Pearson delivered her final broadcast after 37 years in the competitive Atlanta market. Looking directly into the camera Pearson addressed her final goodbye to the viewers.
“I am overwhelmed by your kindness,” she said. “It is you I will miss the most. Thank you for allowing me into your home.”
A viewer responded to Pearson’s retirement with these words, “She spoke to my class in the 7th grade, and I will never forget it. I am now 43 and sad to see her go. She is an Atlanta institution and deserves all the fanfare and more. She is a trailblazer and all native Atlantans should salute her. Growing up, if it was time for the news someone would say, “Turn on Monica.”
Currently, Pearson is a graduate student in Telecommunications at the University of Georgia and shows no signs of slowing down post-retirement. In 2012, the 30-time Emmy winner was honored by the National Association of Black Journalists with their “Legacy Award,” for an accomplished journalist who has broken barriers and blazed trails.
Pearson has also launched a Travel Blog, called A Toe in the Water, in addition to her new role as contributing editor at Southern Seasons Magazine with a recurring feature called “Monica Matters.”
Here at BWIB, we were honored to speak with a trailblazer who broke barriers with her excellent reporting skills, and the individual flair she brought to each newscast. Read more on how Pearson began her career, beat out Oprah for a position, and her success tips for other Black Women in Broadcast.
What made you decide to go into broadcast?
My momma says when I was little I would meet people and would ask them too many questions. I didn’t think of it as something I could do because when I looked on television there were not people like me on the air doing news. But I look back at my life and I know I was being prepared for it because I always like to ask questions.
When you first began reporting did you come in with any preconceived notions of any hardships you would possibly face being a black reporter? What encouraged you to keep going?
I started as a newspaper reporter and did not see any problems because there were a number of women and black reporters on staff. When I moved to TV in Louisville, it was the news director who was a problem. When a tornado hit, he made all the female reporters stay in. He was afraid we might get hurt. We complained but still were kept in. A week after the storms and coverage diminished, we met with the news director and told him how he had kept us from doing our jobs by him being a chauvinist. We reminded him we were reporters and were aware of the danger we would have been in but that was and is part of the job.
And remember I grew up in segregated times. I did not go to my first integrated school until I was in the third grade and learned first hand what it was like to deal with prejudice face to face.
When I came to Atlanta, the calls were awful when I went on the air. No one was happy. Some black people felt I needed to have a huge Afro while others thought I needed to have more long flowing hair and white folks just didn’t like a “n” on the air and me being a woman didn’t help either. Luckily I had supportive management and my co-anchor John Pruitt was a jewel. I joined a church and did volunteer work as soon as I got to Atlanta, so my validation came from other sources. I am so glad Twitter, Facebook and blogs didn’t exist, because I may not have made it. People were nasty but the more I spoke at schools, churches, civic groups, the more I was accepted, but it did not happen overnight.
What kept me going was simple: as the first woman and the first black to anchor the evening news daily in Atlanta, I understood if I didn’t do well, it would be a long time before another black or woman would get the chance. Look how long it took to get a woman on network news. After Barbara Walters failed as a nightly anchor, Katie Couric was many, many years after Walters.
How did you connect with your viewers?
I remember [WSB consultant] Dick Mallory talking to me at a coaching session and he made me tell a story, not read it. He taped it and showed it to me. The difference was amazing. When I let myself show through, the story was better. When I wrote the way I spoke, it became communication. He let me see it was all right to be me and to trust myself. It was like my momma said, and the grammar isn’t great, but it makes a great point. “If you is who you ain’t, then you ain’t who you is.” In other words, “To thine own self be true.”
What’s the importance of having mentors and being a mentor to others?
I didn’t have any mentors but when people ask advice, I don’t mind giving it. Why carry what I’ve learned to the grave and not share with someone else? That would be selfish. I believe in nurturing talent and encouraging people along their walk in their career. When [younger people] see things then you say, “Oh I can do that” and I know that’s true because I have had students over 40 years come up to me and say, “I want to do what you do. I wanna be just like and you” and I always say, “You can be better than me.” But they have that role model because in Atlanta every station has a woman, a woman of color, anchoring, but when I was growing up you didn’t have that.
What words of advice would you give to black women deciding to pursue a career in the industry?
Make sure you want to be a reporter, a storyteller. Anchoring may be a wish, but few get to anchor. Be the best researcher, interviewer, writer, producer and presenter you can be. Stay out of office gossip and politics. Be involved in the community by speaking, serving on community boards, volunteering at school or churches, being a part of a community. And it also will be a great source for story ideas as well as sources for stories. [Volunteering] keeps you humble, reminding you that everybody doesn’t have it as well as you do. It is a way of giving back to a community to repay those people who helped you along the way.
[End of Q & A]
Take a Look at Monica’s Final Farewell: