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Tech maven LaShonna Dorsey pushes past stereotypes

January 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Tech maven pushes past stereotypes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

LaShonna Dorsey, 38, busts stereotypes. Start with this sunny disruptor launching and selling a successful technology organization in her hometown.

As an African-American entrepreneur, she bridged the digital divide with Interface Web School. Though now part of the AIM Institute, she still heads the coding school that’s won her and its work much recognition. Her AIM title is Vice President, Tech Education.

She’s bypassed the Omaha ceiling for young black professionals that finds many leaving for better advancement opportunities elsewhere.

She’s defied expectations by going public, rather than remain silent, about an assault she endured.

For this superstar doer who serves on multiple boards, AIM’s acquisition of Interface was strategic.

“Interface had really reached a point of capacity,” said Dorsey. “We were growing, which was great, but I just knew I couldn’t take on more classes without having more infrastructure and all that. AIM has the infrastructure, they’ve got the space, they’ve got human resources, accounting, marketing departments.”

AIM Interface solidifies and expands partnerships.

“We had really good relationships with the Nebraska Department of Labor and Heartland Workforce Solutions and still maintain those, but it’s a lot easier for us to partner with companies and other organizations because we’re AIM now.

“It fit right with where AIM and Interface wanted to go. They have the youth education side and professional development, but they didn’t have adult tech training. The cool thing is that Interface LLC was a for-profit and now we’re a program within a nonprofit and so we get to take advantage of having that 501 designation.”

Building Interface fulfilled a dream.

“I really thought I was a starter, and so it was good to see something through from idea to completion in a major way.”

She frequently shares her start-up story, warts and all.

“I felt like especially in the early days of Interface I often had to act like I had it altogether all the time because I was selling it, too. It’s kind of a challenging position to be in because you can’t be truly authentic.

“I was really grateful to have good friends and a really strong support system. That made a huge difference.”

She especially enjoys sharing her story with women.

“Women that have done a ton in their career appreciate how difficult it is to do something like this. Women just getting started are like, ‘How did you even do that?’ We have real conversations about what it’s like and the pitfalls – but also the rewards. Being in the middle myself, I am kind of still navigating that.

“I do feel I have a lot of value to add and information to share if people are ready to hear it. I tell people it wasn’t easy all the time, but the thing that kept me moving forward was that it was so rewarding. I have so many graduate stories of people whose lives were changed because of what they learned. It helped them get better jobs and buy homes. They’re still reaping the benefits. It’s still rippling. The culture of Interface is like that.”

She readily accepts being a role model and mentor to young black women.

Growing up in a single-parent family, Dorsey learned self-reliance skills. As a bright Goodrich scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she became a self-motivated high achiever. Early in her career, she proved a project management whiz.

“I like to just figure my way forward. I like problem solving. When things get a little too simple, then that is hard for me. Then I’m like, ‘Okay, what else can we do here?’ I’m not afraid of conflict, so I do lean into it, and I encourage people who work for me to do the same. If you really want to get the thing you want, you have to work through the hard stuff, too.”

Omaha’s limited horizons saw Dorsey leave in her 20s.

“But I came back. The thing that’s really tough here is that as you move up in your career, the leadership gets more white. Working in tech, you’re with a lot of white professionals and when I lived in west Omaha I’d go home, where it was all white, and I felt I had no community. It’s unfortunate and it felt uncomfortable.

“Living in a diverse community is important for me.”

Workplace inclusion requires more than new hires.

“You can hire a bunch of black and whatever programmers but that is not going to change the culture of organizations who might not be ready for it. You have to give people a space where they’re comfortable being themselves and not feeling like they have to fully assimilate in order to fit in.

“I cannot wait until we don’t have to have this conversation anymore and where it’s not special that I’m a black woman in tech. But it matters a lot to people and I have to talk about it.”

She feels she’s reached a personal breakthrough by reclaiming her given name, LaShonna, in place of Shonna and letting her hair go natural.

“Now, I feel like I can be more of myself.”

Dorsey embraces the new diversity in revitalized northeast Omaha, where African-American culture is being discovered by white millennials.

“Whenever you can create opportunities for people to have those experiences with people they don’t interact with on a daily basis, you start to change the narrative. That’s the only way were going to see change.”

Mindset to her is critical to create the transformation she and others hope to see there.

“I think we’re still many years out from seeing the fruits of it. There’s a lot of work to do because we can’t deny the fact poverty is the highest in those zip codes. That’s something to address and fix but people have to want it and see it even as an issue.”

She’s doing her part to equip adults with job-ready tech skills by bringing her code school to the Highlander Village purpose-built community on North 30th Street.

“Those economic improvement opportunities can make a big difference for people,” she said. “It will be awesome to see all of that come to life.”

Her career exploded two years ago, but few knew she was reeling from having barely survived an assault.

“Everything was still new at Interface and I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing all the time when I had this really difficult, tragic thing happen. There were many work days when I had to meet attorneys or go to court Turning those emotions on and off was really hard.”

It stemmed from someone she’d dated suddenly revealing a side he’d concealed before.

“It turned into a night where he took me from where I was without my permission. He strangled me three times, including once where I lost consciousness. He assaulted me in all sorts of ways in what was a five-hour ordeal.”

Fifteen months elapsed from when she pressed charges to her attacker’s sentencing.

“It was a really hard process. I totally understand why people don’t pursue that path because it is very difficult and as the victim you have to prove something happened. Typically, this kind of stuff happens one-on- one.”

Dorsey nearly didn’t report the incident for fear of how she’d be perceived.

“I remember thinking this is going to be so embarrassing and people are going to think I can’t do anything right. It’s irrational thinking, I know, but that was in my head. I decided to report it anyway.

“I try to do everything on my own all the time. But I did get some counseling and I did work through some of this with friends. Leaning into work helped a lot.”

Nature walks and karaoke nights helped, too.

Then she began dealing with it in public forums, including a poignant Facebook post.

“It was hard to carry around all the time. People were really supportive. They called me brave and things like that. I just felt it was relieving a burden for me.”

She posted soon after the last presidential election and urged people to walk through their fear and anger over the results as she had with her assault.

“Every time I talk about it publicly, more than one person will come up to me and say, ‘Me, too,’ or “My friend, my sister, my daughter.’ It’s so common. There’s a bunch of people who feel like they can’t talk about it, so I decided to share what happened to me.”

If nothing else, she said, her story reveals all is not what it seems on the path to success.

“People tend to look at the surface and just assume that because you’ve done a lot, it was without hardship.”

Visit Interfaceschool.com. Follow Dorsey on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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This post falls under the heading: This is why I do what I do

August 15, 2016 Leave a comment

This post falls under the heading:

This is why I do what I do.

 

Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

You can linl to that Reader story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/the-magical-mystery-tour-of-omahas-magic-theatre-a-megan-terry-and-jo-ann-schmidman-production/

I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.

Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at http://www.kacyoung.com/about-kac-young/ and her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kacyoung1.

Kac Young

Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).

“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969.  I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan.  I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint.  They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land.  They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.

“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her.  It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits.  It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.

“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on.  Thanks a zillion.” -kac

Love and Heartlight

 

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964

The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

 

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.

The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center

 

Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.

http://www.laweekly.com/arts/the-rebel-nuns-of-hollywood-why-they-embraced-the-60s-and-broke-from-catholicism-5726544

http://www.independent.com/news/2008/aug/28/how-group-ex-catholic-nuns-saved-their-famous-mont/

http://www.skylightbooks.com/event/rebel-nuns-immaculate-heart-community-discuss-art-and-legacy-sister-corita

The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-28/entertainment/ca-236_1_fine-art

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work.  Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-berrigan-legacy-20160501-story.html

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

March 22, 2013 3 comments

Women journalists cover anything and everything today.  They work in all facets of media.  But there was a time, and not so long ago at that, when they were restricted to a narrow range of reporting topics and jobs.  There were always exceptions to that rule.  Here and there, pioneering women journalists defied conventions and overturned stereotypes to file assignments and fill roles traditionally prescribed for men only.  A new book by Eileen Wirth profiles some of the revolutionary figures among Nebraska women journalists over the last century.  Wirth is a pioneer or revolutionary herself.  She became one of the first modern women in city news at the Omaha World-Herald in the late 1960s-early 1970s, then she broke the gender barrier in the public relations at Union Paciific, before becoming the first female chair of the Journalism Department at Creighton University, where she oversees what’s now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing.  Her book, From Society Page to Front Page, is published by the University of Nebraska Press.  It’s officially out in May.  My story about Wirth and the female journalists she writes about whose lives and careers advanced the cause of women both inside and outside the media field will appear in the April 2013 New Horizons.  This blog contains several stories by me about journalists in print, radio, and television.

 

 

Eileen Wirth

 

 

Ex-Reporter Eileen Wirth Pens Book on Nebraska Women in Journalism and their Leap from Society Page to Front Page

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

Eileen Wirth doesn’t seem to fit the part of a revolutionary but that’s exactly what she’s been during her three careers. Wherever she’s worked, whether as a reporter or public relations practitioner or academic, she’s broken gender barriers.

As the women’s liberation movement played out from the 1960s through the 1980s she fought the good fight for equal rights, only not in the street or in the courtroom but by challenging male chauvinism, sexism and discrimination in newsrooms, offices and boardrooms. Her feminist predecessors fought similar battles as suffragists from the late 19th century through the immediate post-World War II era.

She says the struggles women endured to open new opportunities in the workplace is a story she feels deeply about, especially the stories of women in her own profession of journalism.

In the course of researching her new book, From Society Page to Front Page, Nebraska Women in Journalism, Wirth developed a deep appreciation for and kinship with maverick women who preceded her in the field she loves. She documents dozens of women of high achievement, many of whom she never previously knew about, and the obstacles they faced to work as publishers, editors, reporters. PR professionals and media moguls.

Some ran small weeklies, some made their names as columnists with local newspapers, others as reporters with national wire services and major metropolitan dailies. One woman covered the White House. Three women covered the Starkweather murder spree in great detail. Beverly Deepe became the longest serving American correspondent of the Vietnam War.

Mildred Brown became one of America’s only black newspaper publishers. Cathy Hughes is still running a media empire. Other women are still doing their thing as well.

“In writing the stories of these women it became a journey of self discovery,” says Wirth. “I identified so strongly with these women and with their struggles and their achievements. Both of my sisters had national level careers and I’ve always been in Omaha, but I realized we need to redefine what we mean by female achievement. We have too often downplayed the local, the personal, the balancing act of career and family. I don’t think our society values that enough. One of the things I hope this book does is really give recognition to women who juggled both.”

 

 

 

 

She also hopes the book gets some deserving women elected to the Nebraka Journalism Hall of Fame, where there are cases of men inducted there whose wives are not, even though the wives were co-editors and publishers and full partners of small weeklies.

Wirth says doing the book proved both an awakening and an education for her.

“What was amazing to me is that we had so many absolutely remarkable Nebraska women in journalism. Even as someone who has spent her entire life in journalism and more recently teaching journalism history, if you had asked me to name them I probably couldn’t have named five or six, until you get to the ’50s when I knew some of these people. But even then I was finding people right and left.”

The finding took considerable effort. “It took a lot of digging to find most of them,” she says.  “This book is nothing but a huge reporting process. I went to people and said, ‘Who do you know about, what am I missing?’ I went to sources and people would tell me stuff and I would follow up on leads.”

Elia Peattie, a popular Omaha World-Herald writer from the late 19th century into the and early 20th century, is a prime example of someone Wirth found..

“If I were going to pick one woman in the book I fell absolutely passionately in love with it was Elia Peattie. Hardly anybody has heard of her. I resonated to her. She wrote a column that in some ways is very similar to the Mike Kelly columns of today’s Omaha World-Herald. This was before they had social or women’s pages. She’s kind of the World-Herald’s entree into that.

“She came to Omaha in the 1880s. She had been a society girl on a Chicago paper. She got a woman’s column at the Herald. This is when women’s news was in its infancy and the reason why women’s news was created in the first place was for advertisers. Women could not vote and the headlines were mostly about politics and crime, and if you look at the lives of women in the 1880s this just wasn’t relevant to them. They were working incredibly long days, raising large families, taking in work. They had very hard lives.

“Advertisers pressured the papers to do something to attract women readers because women were the primary shoppers. This was in an age when advertising was exploding. And the Herald hired Elia Peattie to write a column about women and apparently they put almost no restrictions on her. It was up to her to define what would interest women. Well, what she thought would interest women was apparently anything that interested her, which was everything.”

 

 

Elia Peattie

 

 

Wirth admires Peattie’s range.

“A professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney compiled her columns in a book and I was blown away because it was reading a social history of the city in the 1880s. I mean, she has everything from this wonderful description of a young Bohemian slaughtering cows down at the Cudahy plant to a nursing sister at St. Joseph Hospital to the people riding a streetcar to showgirls. She did a very sympathetic portrait of the African American community when racism was horrible.

“She did some hilarious satirical columns about Omaha society people and why did they have to go back East to buy finery when they could buy anything they wanted in Omaha.”

Peattie’s community service involvement also appeals to Wirth, who has a strong service bent herself.

“Peattie ran for the school board when that was the only office women could run for or vote for. She was also one of the founders of the Omaha Woman’s Club. It was a way of localizing the city’s upper class women to do social work stuff. Nationally the woman’s club movement got behind the needs of working women in factories.”

All these activities made Peattie a popular figure.

“She became a larger than life personality,” says Wirth.

Another reason to like Peattie, according to Wirth, is “the work she did to bring together the handful of women journalists in the state. She documented a great deal about fellow women journalists. A lot of my best material came from work she did and recorded for history. She gathered the names of women active in journalism in the 1880s and 1890s. That was invaluable.”

Peattie’s become something of a hero to Wirth.

“One of the other reasons I resonated to Elia Peattie is that while she was writing this column her husband got very ill and it was up to her to support the family. She was writing everything right and left to make money to keep the family going and as a former working mother raising two children I just totally identified with her.

“If she was alive today she’d be running half the city, she’d be writing a blog.”

She might be publishing her own newspaper or magazine, ala Arrianna Huffington.

Wirth also writes about the one certifiable superstar among Nebraska-bred women reporters – Bess Furman.

“If you were going to pick a single woman that was our state’s most distinguished contribution to journalism it would probably be Bess Furman Armstrong,” says Wirth. “She was remarkable and she spanned a lot of eras. She was once referred to as a flapper journalist for her work in Omaha in the ’20s. She was what we would now call a liberated young woman writing rather risque satirical stuff about Omaha. She covered bootleggers and weird crimes down in Little Italy. She wrote this saucy column about Omaha’s most eligible bachelors.”

 

 

(Photo)

 

Bess Furman Armstrong

 

 

Furman was a product of her post-Victorian emancipated times.

“The ’20s were a wonderful period for women,” notes Wirth. “They had gotten the vote, there were more economic and education opportunities. She loved Omaha and she probably would have stayed except she worked for the Omaha Bee and when it  was purchased by William Randolph Hearst she wanted out and when the opportunity came to leave she did.

“With women now having the vote the Bee needed somebody to write the women’s angle to politics. When Al Smith came to give a speech in Omaha in his 1928 campaign she got assigned to cover it and she wrote such a good story that she won a major journalism award for it and the head of the ;Associated Press who was in town with Al Smith offered her a job in Washington (DC) and she took it. Timing is everything.”

Furman made an immediate impression on Capitol Hill

Wirth says, “She was one of the first women to be allowed on the floor of the House of Representatives. She was assigned to cover First Lady Lou Hoover, who absolutely hated journalists. One time in order to write a story about what the Hoovers were doing for Christmas she dressed up like a Girl Scout” and infiltrated a troop visiting the White house. The ruse worked, too.

“When Hoover got beaten by FDR Eleanor Roosevelt started holding women’s only press conferences in order to force papers to give jobs to women,” says Wirth. “She and Eleanor Roosevelt hit it off wonderfully. Furman and her husband hit it off so well with the Roosevelts that they took home movies of the Roosevelts. When Bess became pregnant she decided she wanted her child to have a Neb. birth certificate, so she drove back here in the middle of the Dust Bowl to have her physician brother deliver what turned out to be twins. She brought with her a baby blanket Eleanor knitted her, and that got reported and went nationwide. Postmaster General (James) Farley sent her $10 worth of flowers and that was such a big order they had to send a special train.”

Furman later she did war information work during World War II and then joined the New York Times as one of its first female political reporters.

“She ended her career as the public information officer for the Department of Health Education and Welfare under Kennedy. Bess Furman may have gone to Washington but she was very deeply a Nebraska person and remained so for her whole life,” says Wirth.

Bringing to light women of distinction she feels connected to is satisfying to Wirth.

“Oh yeah, these are my people. We’re out of the same background, the same occupation. Yeah, I felt a very strong affinity with these women. I really found myself as I was writing about them feeling like I knew them and wishing I could actually have known them. I guess I felt especially this way with the women who wrote books, so you got a real feel for them, you weren’t just getting them second hand, you were getting their own take on the world.

“Their struggles were things I could totally identify with. You don’t have to be a journalist to feel this way about these women. Their humanity, their humor, the way they overcame obstacles with grace and courage and dignity, their persistence. To have careers like theirs was pretty daunting but they did it. I identified with the fact they juggled the personal and the professional and really probably never lost sight of either one.

“Culturally, anyone who has Neb. roots would identify with their style. Most of them let their work speak for them, which is what a journalist usually does.”

 

 

Mary McGrath

 

 

One that Wirth did get to know well is Mary McGrath, who preceded her at the Herald and labored 12 years in club news before becoming a highly respected health and medicine reporter. McGrath helped the green female reporters like Wirth negotiate the male-dominated newsroom.

“Mary McGrath was really the pioneer in city news at the Omaha World-Herald,” says Wirth. “She made a huge difference.”

Wirth recalls McGrath organizing potlucks for the paper’s women journalists and how these occasions became vital airing out and strategizing forums.

“It was a support system and an expression of solidarity. It was a safe place to bounce off ideas. If we would have said we were having a consciousness raising session the older women wouldn’t have gone, but to throw a potluck, how more Midwestern could you get? Mary knew the young women on staff were increasingly militant and she knew how smart and talented they were and she knew they were not writing about who was having who to coffee because they wanted to. She broke down the barrier between the two sections (city news and women’s news) by having those potlucks.

“The guys never had a clue what was going on.

Wirth says the Omaha Press Club served the same function for women in journalism across different media. “It was a great way to get to know other women journalists. You realized you were not alone.” Wirth adds, “A sociologist at Iowa State told me if you’re going to get social change made you have to have a cohort and in a sense you could look at the potlucks or the friendship ties that women journalists formed through the Press Club is how we had a cohort. There were enough of us who felt the same way to make a difference and it really made me feel for women of earlier eras who were one of a kind, out there on their own, whereas

I could go cry on Mary’s shoulder or vice versa .”

Each pioneering woman journalist in her own way contributed to the women’s rights cause and helped move their peers a little further along than before.

“There was a movement afoot. That was how this revolution was waged – one tiny step at a time.”

All those steps taken together made big changes, which is why Wirth was so offended when a feminist of high stature, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, was subjected to sexist coverage during her 2008 presidential campaign bid. The way Clinton was dismissed felt to Wirth like a slap in the face and a setback given how far women have come and what they’ve endured to get there.

“It was very disrespectful to women of our era,” says Wirth. It was like, Don’t they realize what we went through? Most of the Baby Boomers fought very quietly to infiltrate, to get a seat at the table, and nobody knew what it had taken to integrate the American workplace. That was my inspiration for writing the book.

“The women involved have kept silent about what they did because that’s how they were able to do it. We were a minority. The women were mostly just asking to practice the field they loved and were good at. They weren’t asking for special treatment.”

Much like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement gained its biggest victories through mass protests, the passage of new laws and court decisions, but there were many smaller, no less important victories won every day by ordinary women asserting their rights.

“When you look at coverage of the women’s movement it all focuses on things like lawsuits and militant demonstrations and you couldn’t do that in a city like Omaha if you intended to go on working in journalism. It wasn’t like you had a union that would protect you or a vast choice of employers, and for most of us that wasn’t our style anyway,” says Wirth.

Big, loud, public displays, she says, “weren’t the only way women made progress.”

Most of the change, she says, was the result of “the stealth revolution.” She adds that “KETV News Director Rose Ann Shannon said it very well when she told me, ‘I always felt I was dealing with reasonable people and we could work problems out.’ I too found that if you could have a reasonable conversation with somebody you could make progress. You were not going to change things overnight.”

She says there’s still work to be done, such as closing the pay gap between the sexes and shattering the glass ceiling that still limits women from advancing the way men do.

“But it’s sure better than what it was in 1970, and those changes were made nationwide by unsung young women quietly sticking their necks out on relatively small things over and over again.”

She says “it kind of boggles the mind” of her students to realize that as late as the 1970s women were still marginalized in journalism. “When you tell this to girls today they’re like, What? They can’t believe it, which I guess shows that we succeeded. They take it for granted.”

Wirth grew up in a large, high-achieving Nebraska City farm family whose parents set high academic standards and expectations for their children. Wirth loved reading and showed a knack for writing early on. She intended on being a history major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until her father insisted she take a journalism course.

“What really made me into a journalist  besides Dad ordering me to take the class was working on the Daily Nebraskan and I still think of as ‘the rag.’ It was so much fun. I fell in love with journalism people. The women were strong, funny, delightful, intelligent people and the guys wouldn’t have had us be any order way. I had found myself.”

When Wirth went to work for the World-Herald in 1969 she became one of the paper’s few female news reporters and right up to leaving its employ in 1980 she and women colleagues there, along with women at t countless other workplaces, waged that “quiet revolution” to bring about change.

“When women said, No, I’m not going to get you coffee, that’s not part of my job description, they were part of this revolution,” she says.

So was Wirth when she brought to the attention of an editor the fact that some young males colleagues hired the same time she was had received new section assignments while she was still in the religion beat she began in three years before.

“I’m a contemporary of Steve Jordon and Mike Kelly and both of them had had a couple of assignment changes, and I thought I was as talented as they were and I certainly worked as hard as they did. I told my editor, ‘If you’re doing this for the guys then you should treat the two groups the same. There shouldn’t be a difference. You should give young women the same opportunities as young men.”

She got the assignment change she desired.

At a time when female journalists were confined to covering only certain subjects, such as religion or society news or women’s news, her work made the case that women were capable of covering anything.

“There was a lot of hesitancy about assigning women to cover cops, which was fine with me because I hated it, but I covered them every Saturday for years simply because I wanted to show that a woman could do it.

“There was a lot talk that women couldn’t cover politics because they couldn’t get stories in bars and nonsense like that. There was real hesitancy about sending women to certain places. The ironical thing is that my religion beat in the early ’70s was at a time when the churches were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, so under the guise of covering religion I was actually doing a tremendous amount of civil rights coverage.

“I never regretting spending those three years on religion but I felt like I wanted to grow, to expand, to try new things.”

She also had the opportunity to take on occasional stories that struck a blow for women’s rights by shining a light on gender inequities.

“Quite a few of the stories I did were aimed at showing this inequality.”

 

 

Connie Claussen

 

 

Take the time that former University of Nebraska at Omaha women’s coach and athletic director Connie Claussen called to say she was fed up with the unfair and unequal treatment she experienced at the beginning of her career there. Claussen, whom Wirth describes as “a force of nature, a great lady.” was an equal rights champion who served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Claussen eventually built a much envied women’s athletic department at UNO featuring championship programs but that legacy almost ended before it started because of how frustrated she was with the short end of the stick offered her and her student-athletes. Before Title IX was passed women’s athletics were separate and unequal in every way.

Wirth recalls, “Connie called one Saturday and said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m not going to do it anymore, I’m not going to teach a full load of physical education classes and coach two or three sports for nothing extra.'” Wirth was sympathetic. “No male would ever coach a (college) sport for free. Women’s athletics were housed in a quonset hut with no showers. I thought, Well this is a sports story and I went over to the UNO beat reporter and he yelled at me, ‘Women sports are a joke, there’s no story here.’ He practically threw me out of the sports department. So I went over to the city desk and they said, Oh yeah, great story. I wrote it and they put it on page one of the Sunday paper. It stirred up enough indignation and attention that Connie ran with it and she got the support she needed to build an outstanding program.

“And I think that was one of the major things we did as women journalists – we were approachable, we were interested in the problems.”

Another story resulted when Doris Royal, a farm wife from Springfield, Neb., called Wirth and in her gravely voice asked, “Are you interested in stories on women?”

“She told me a lot of farm women were losing the family farm operation because of inheritance taxes. The IRS said farms belong to the husband. The only way a woman could escape paying inheritance taxes on a family farm or family small business if she became a widow was if she had worked in town, so she could show she made an economic contribution or if she had brought family inheritance into it.

“A lot of women on farms had worked side by side, they’d driven the tractor and milked the cows, they’d done all the farm work, plus kept the books, and of course that doesn’t account for all their work in the home. But the IRS in effect said, You have made no contribution. Well, that was driving women off the farm because they couldn’t afford it. Land prices had gone up. So Doris started a petition drive and she wanted me to cover a story on it, so I did, I looked into all this stuff. I grew up on a farm and I was horrified, I was shocked, I had no idea. I wrote the story and Doris leveraged my story in the World-Herald to get the Farm Journal, which is the nation’s largest farm magazine, to take up the crusade.

“Doris got petition signatures from every state, she testified before Congress. This woman’s amazing, and they got the law changed.”

Wirth did an entire series on inequitable credit practices that devalued and punished women. “If a woman got married and changed her name she immediately lost all of her credit history,” says Wirth. “Banks assumed the credit rating belonged to the husband even if the women worked full time and could document it.”

With stories like these to file, Wirth’s work was fulfilling enough but when she and her then-husband Ron Psota decided to start a family she knew the demands of her work and the inflexibility of her employer would make motherhood and reporting incompatible. Besides, she was ready for a change.

“It was still the era when women were fired if they got pregnant. My ex-husband and I had been approved to adopt a child and at the World Herald at that time there was no way you could be a reporter and a mother. You had to work 12 and 15 hour days at the drop of a hat if some story broke.”

Making it easier to leave, she says, was the fact that “after 11 years I was burned out on reporting. It was time.”

When hired as the first woman outside of secretaries or receptionists to work in the Union Pacific public relations department she broke down the doors of what had been an exclusive boys-only club. She didn’t appreciate it when one of the old gang complained that she was a token hire to conform with Equal Employment Opportunity and affirmative action policies.

“A crusty old guy who didn’t begin to have my educational credentials and who couldn’t write protested that they had had to hire a woman.”

The bosses set him straight, she says by stating, ‘We hired someone who could write.’ Period. End of story.

Then in 1991 she joined the teaching staff at Creighton University, where in addition to her professor’s role she later became that Jesuit institution’s first female chair of the Department of Journalism (now called the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing). Teaching college is something she always knew was in her future and making a difference in the lives of her students is what most satisfies her about academia.

She’s glad that her book gives students an appreciation for who came before them.

“I think it is very important for my students, especially my female students. You want to give them a sense of what went before so when they invariably face some challenges they will do so with grace and with confidence knowing that women like themselves have conquered similar challenges.”

Wirth’s book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is available starting May 1.

 

 

What’s in a Brand? For Rebel Interactive, Everything

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Blue yin yang

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This is a story about a pair of accomplished women who are partners in life and in work and who have branded themselves and their company as Rebel. M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson form a dynamic couple.  Their passion for what they do and how they do it attracted me to them and their story, and I believe this article for the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly,com), which ran a shorter version of the piece, does them justice.  I think you’ll like them as much as I do.

What’s in a Brand? For Rebel Interactive, Everything

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

When you’re audacious enough to go by Rebel, you better live up to the name. It turns out M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson, owners of Omaha branding agency Rebel Interactive, are mavericks in most everything they do.

For starters, consider that these women left corporate careers to go in business for themselves. The move was also a commitment to their personal relationship, as they’re partners in both business and in life. The couple enjoy an openly gay relationship in conservative Nebraska, a state notoriously unfriendly to same sex unions. Imagine the risk McBride and Wilson take in being up front about who they are in social/business circles that undoubtedly include some homophobes.

The couple’s quite comfortable sharing their life status with people they meet for the first time, which is certainly rebel in these parts. That’s the point. McBride and Wilson are comfortable enough in their own skins to declare their love, to have it published, without fear of repercussion. Why? Because they’re all about being true to themselves. The truth will set you free. That, as much as Rebel, is the credo behind their own personal-professional brand.

“A powerful aspect of the Rebel brand is being authentic,” said McBride. “This applies to all aspects of our lives, and our business is a big part of our lives. Caroline and I believe that being open and real is our opportunity to educate, create possibility and make a difference in the world we live in.”

Living out loud is nothing new to this pair. “We’ve lived more than half of our lives ‘out,’ so it’s common to us,” said McBride. “What I recall is being in a much more powerful place when I was open and willing to educate people who needed more understanding. The other principle I always remembered — and this goes for anything — is your silence will not protect you.”

Far from silent, the couple’s chosen, especially McBride, to publicly advocate for gay rights. She’s past president of Citizens for Equal Protection (CFEP).

“What’s important to us today is letting people know that same sex couples need the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Caroline and I are at an extreme disadvantage legally,” McBride said. “Most are shocked when we explain that when either of us dies we will pay a 48 percent-plus tax to pass assets to each other. Nebraska has (among) the highest combined taxes. And I believe it is our responsibility to bring about the change we want to see in the world. Working with organizations like CFEP is a great way to do this.

Educational activism is Rebel.”

Ah, there it is again, the “r” word. Since this is a story about business/life partners who brand themselves and their company as Rebel, it’s important to note McBride and Wilson are far more than the sum of their parts. To just say they’re rebel is as superficial as calling them Lesbian Ad Babes or using some other misogynistic, gay-bashing label. By itself, rebel doesn’t represent what the partners and their company, a full-service marketing, advertising, Internet agency, are all about, which is designing innovative, interactive experiences that connect clients to customers.

The desired result: commerce. Selling clients’ brands/products in the marketplace.

M.J. McBride

McBride and Wilson work the way corporate consultants do. They interview client management/staff, review current marketing efforts, gauge customer attitudes, discover what makes a company tick, what distinguishes its products or services. Rebel figures out what works, what doesn’t, what needs tweaking or overhauling. Rebel also operates like industrial psychologists in determining a client’s values, personality, character. Where its healthy, where its dysfunctional, where what it promises to provide fails to match what it delivers.

Gaps between perception and reality are identified, addressed. Think of it as image inventory. Brainstorming occurs in Discovery Workshops, Ignite Sessions and the Rebel Think Tank. It’s all part of the proprietary branding process that’s become Rebel’s M.O. Before Rebel externally launches a brand, McBride said, the brand must be understood, embraced internally, among owners, managers, employees. Only then does it go live. Among Rebel’s promises is “bringing brands to life.”

“We talk about being your brand, in all levels, all layers, in every single thing you do and say — your hiring practices, how you pay people, the choices you make, the partnerships you make, the vendor relationships you make and definitely the customer relationships you have and the products you build,” McBride said. “It’s either all brand-enhancing or brand-damaging.”

Visit Rebel’s web site, rebel-interactive.com, or its offices at 1217 So. 13th St., or view any of its self-promotion print pieces, from business cards to letterhead, and you’ll see a consistently sleek, spare red-white-black design and color scheme.

“It’s our colors,” McBride said. She calls this coordinated, integrated strategy “environmental branding.” It can be accessorized, too, to fit any occasion. “It’s about making everything rhyme, wardrobing your brand basically. The concept is it’s an inclusive wardrobe that is YOU, whether you’re at a cocktail party or the pool or the office.” Thus, Rebel has its tuxedo and its casual outfits. Wilson’s collectible red Honda 450 motorcycle is often parked in the client lounge.

Caroline Wilson

The Rebel Gals, as they’re sometimes referred to, practice their own principles. McBride, who can sound preachy at times, even goes by “The Brand Evangelist.” She’s the author of a book, Small Business Brand Plan, a motivational seminar, “Access to Personal Brand Power,” and s workshop, “Be Your Brand Technology.”

Internalizing this whole brand thing is not just about tags or slogans or mantras for McBride-Wilson, it’s the way they do business, it’s the way they interact with the world. It’s their lifestyle. They embody what it is to be your brand.

“It shows up in family, at home, at work, in our professional affiliations, in the pro bono work we do and in the other communities we participate in,” said McBride.

Sharing the same brand helps them successfully live and work together.

“When you have two people that are really passionate about what they do and each other,” McBride said, “it just becomes your life. It’s all a part of your life. We’re the perfect yin-yang balance. I have global brand-managing experience. I know brands inside and out. I know what’s going to work for our clients. I am extremely comfortable consulting any size client any time of day. Caroline brings banking and operations and what we call razor sharp creative and then client research. She’s just an encyclopedia of information.”

Both love people. McBride enjoys developing staff, Wilson doing customer relations.

Rebel gets clients to see branding as a 24/7 proposition. “The fastest way to get them to understand that is to talk about what it costs them to not be their brand or to have a brand that is fragmented. It exponentially costs more to have a confused brand,” said McBride. “When you have clarity with your brand and everybody understands it then you’re just prone to have more brand enhancing activity going on and therefore you’re having an exponential result, which is what we train our customers to think about — exponential results on brand value.”

McBride offered classic examples: Coca Cola’s “the real thing,” Nike’s “just do it”  or YouTube’s “broadcast yourself” campaigns. Simple, clear, enduring, identifiable messages that encapsulate each company, its culture, its product, its image.

Rebel-designed brands include “Edgeworthy” for Fringes Salon, “Progressive Christian thinking” for Augustana Lutheran Church and “The Benson Beat” for the Benson/Ames Alliance. Clients range from small businesses and nonprofits to large corporations and organizations to neighborhoods and communities. All need a hook.

“A tag line is a perfect tool for clarity when it comes to a brand,” McBride said, “so if a company has a tag line that actually is relevant to internal and external audiences then we are excited about bringing it to life. If it doesn’t relate, if it’s generic, if it doesn’t present any competitive advantage or create an experience, then it’s really just some words. What we want to do is create a cohesive, clear message. The more clear your brand is then the easier it is to break through all the noise, all the clutter and actually deliver that message.”

Said Wilson, “Brand alliteration may stand the test of time, like BMW — ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ You still see that, they still use that, and they’ve used that as a campaign for at least 25 years. I like to use cars because cars are an excellent example of big brands, big advertising dollars, big names, global reach. Chevy, ‘like a rock.’ Like a rock stood a long time, people still relate to that. It’s still part of their brand and it really illuminates Chevrolet and who they are. So it can start as a tag line and be a powerful alliteration and then it can just take on a life of its own.”

Tag lines are just one tactic, McBride emphasized. “Not all companies are going to use that tactic but sometimes they’ll use that and then other tactics,” she said.
An effective branding campaign, she added, is an expression of “how we experience the brand through our senses. To the degree you can have a hook into those different areas and build on those, the more relevant your brand becomes. Then you can create brand loyalty and then develop new products, extend your brand and grow your business with a lot less effort.”

“A great example is Rebel,” said Wilson. “Exponential Results was our brand. It was under everything, it was on everything, and that was our promise, that was our brand. Now that lives on, that’s still our promise, but its really the experience now people have” that brands the agency. “Everything we do at Rebel in terms of branding — the thinking, the methodology, how we start here and just keep pushing it up — that’s what we give our clients,” she said.

“What makes them rebel is they’re not afraid to get out there. They’re very bold, they have very cutting-edge, fresh ideas, they’re very fun,” said Bluestone Development’s Christian Christensen. “We’ve been very impressed with what they do. And they’re just fun to be around.”

The agency’s name grew out of Rebel Graphics, which Wilson opened in ‘99. M.J. joined her and their boutique agency took off in ‘05. They now employ six people.

“We had the opportunity when we started the company to call it Wilson-McBride, McBride-Wilson and Associates, which is fine, but then we started looking at other ways to name the company and Rebel was it because we knew we were rebel for all these reasons,” said Wilson. “We wanted to start our own company, which isn’t something everybody does every day. We left great jobs, great companies to do that, and everyone thought we were nuts. We just said, ‘This is going to work, this is something we want to do, we’re going to make a difference.’”

A catchy, provocative name by itself is not enough, McBride pointed out. “A name and a logo is not a brand. We’re talking about much, much bigger than that.” So, what is a brand? “Well, it’s everything,” Wilson said.

Using Rebel as a case study, McBride said the two of them asked themselves, “What are we really passionate about?” The answer: “We’re passionate about what’s possible,” said McBride. “When clients come in here and they start talking to us about what they need to accomplish we’re interested in what is possible. What is possible means you haven’t thought of it yet. It’s like a breakthrough concept. We are passionately driven by what’s possible for us, for our employees, for our community, for our clients, for our planet. That’s what we’re excited about.”

The way Rebel applies that passion, McBride said, is by “giving our clients what they want, so really listening to them and laying our expertise on top of that and then making that a reality. We exist to help our clients have exponential results, exponential growth and profitability. If it’s not about money then it’s about prosperity.” Thus, the Rebel brand states, “brand, interact, profit.”

Getting people to buy into the whole brand concept is easy today, the partners said, but was a real stretch when they first opened shop. Mention branding then, McBride said, and people asked, “Are you talking about branding cattle?” Wilson said, “Yes, people literally said, ‘What do you mean by branding?’ So we were talking about it before most people, at least in Omaha for sure.”

McBride said while her evangelizing helped sell the concept here, Omaha finally caught on to the branding movement. “Other parts of the world are experts at branding and they got the concept a long time ago,” she said. “Now it’s a very strategic way to manage a business and it’s caught on and it’s here to stay.”

The current economic crisis would seem to be a bad environment for advertisers and advertising. Yet McBride said Rebel business has never been better. “We always say the best business to be in is branding, marketing and advertising or alcohol in these kinds of times,” she said, smiling. Skittish consumers, she added, are more apt to buy a strong, well-defined, easy-to-see brand.

“Customers are looking for stability and they want to go with winners,” she said, “and if you’re going to market during these times you’re going to be viewed differently than those dropping out of the market or not visible.”

Pulling ads sends the wrong message, she said. “People are going to assume you’re not doing well and you’re not a viable solution for whatever they want to be. Everything cycles and right now there’s less clutter, less noise in the market, so if you’re willing, like some of our ‘A’ clients are, to be in the game promoting your brand, you’re going to be way ahead when the cycle comes back to normal. Everybody else may be catching up or trying to reestablish or reinvent,” she said.

McBride said feel-good appeals lack traction right now.

“In these times it’s no longer about what people want or want to associate with, it’s about what they need,” she said. “We’re doing workshops on recession branding, working with clients on how to tailor their brand strategy for this kind of an environment. There’s lots of different strategies you can employ right now and really it’s about working with branding experts like us and then looking at what it is your brand is up against and finding creative, breakthrough solutions.”

Increasingly, Rebel’s designing wired, social connectivity campaigns for clients.

“There’s always a new opportunity to build their brand and to be in front of their customers,” McBride said, “and right now we’re developing a lot of social media packages for clients who already have a terrific online presence. We’re using all the applications Google has available, integration with Facebook, Twitter and all the popular social media outlets. We do eblasts or text messages that go directly to people’s phones. This is not random, it’s solicited, so it’s very powerful. All of a sudden our clients have a whole new universe of customers.

“Traditional marketing is very passive, whereas social media is right on target with authentic branding because it’s not passive, it’s participatory. It’s a one-on-one relationship and it’s very intimate.”“That’s exciting,” said Wilson.

A social consciousness attends Rebel’s popular social networking events. Its Rebel Yells and Rebelation Keynotes are forums for smart ways of doing business and for discussing community issues. Rebel taps its vast data base to get things done.

“Officially or unofficially we have a rebel network of extraordinary people we deal with as part of doing business,” said McBride. “For example, we sent out an appeal one Thanksgiving to help a family and in three minutes we had thousands of dollars donated. That got us thinking about the generosity of our clients.” That led to the Rebel Women’s Fund, a nascent micro-lending program “to support people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, just like Rebel, and want to really create something of value for their community and need the money to do it.”

McBride said a new, trademarked online donations product by Rebel is helping nonprofits across the nation raise money to support various women’s causes.

Wilson’s a driving force behind the South 13th Street Community, an association of area business-property owners and residents. She and McBride not only office in the neighborhood just south of the Old Market, they live there, sharing a Rose at SoMa residence. Wilson said the district has “a lot of potential, a lot of activity. It’s a great corridor into downtown. A lot of people are coming back into this area. Thirteenth St. was just designated an area of community importance or an ACI. That’s pretty much establishing a baseline for everything going forward there needing to map onto a specific code of design, so that’s exciting.”

The partners serve as “a conduit” for community development. It’s part of being good neighbors and social entrepreneurs. How very Rebel of them.

The Magical Mystery Tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman Production

May 19, 2010 14 comments

JOE CINO with Edward Albee at a benefit for th...

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UPDATE: Ah, it’s spring again, and that means it’s time for the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, where many established and emerging playwrights and other theater professionals from the far corners of the U.S. gather their collected energies for the theater arts.  As a journalist who interviews some of the guest artists for the conference, which this year is May 28-June 4, I enjoy dropping the name Megan Terry and mentioning that she lives in Omaha. It never fails to elicit a response: first, affection and admiration for the work of Terry, a great American playwright; and then surprise and delight that she lives in the host city for the conference.  What follows below is an article I did five or six years ago on Terry and how and why she came to resettle in Omaha from New York and what she did here.

I only attended a couple productions by the Omaha Magic Theatre, an avant garde, experimental stage company led by two women who against all odds made their ground-breaking theater a success in Omaha, Neb. One of the partners, Jo Ann Schmidman was from here and made her reputation here with the theater.  The other, Megan Terry, made a name for herself in New York long before joining Schmidman in Omaha at the Magic Theatre.  They closed their theater some years ago and the two women who created such a distinct niche for themselves seemed in danger of fading into obscurity when I caught up with them and wrote the following story, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Basically, I wanted to capture in print just how extraordinary what they did was and just how compelling they are as individuals and as partners.

 

 

Megan Terry

 

 

The Magical Mystery Tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman Production

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even in the counter-cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s, the idea conservative Omaha could support an experimental theater with a strong feminist, gay/lesbian bent defied logic.

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?

When native Jo Ann Schmidman founded the Omaha Magic Theatre in 1968 as a center for avant garde expression in the Old Market, she followed her muse. The fact she was barely out of her teens, between her sophomore and junior years as a Boston University theater major, only added to what many must have regarded as folly. That’s not how she saw it though.

Instead of resistance, “what we discovered was quite the opposite…open-minded people with a work ethic,” said Schmidman, an Omaha Central grad weaned on local children’s theater, the work of an adventurous wing of the Omaha Community Playhouse and a summer studying in Northwestern University’s prestigious theater program.

“The pioneering spirit and the quest to work with your own hand, out of your own soul, is an Omaha, a Midwestern trait and that’s exactly the kind of theater I was interested in doing. It didn’t have anything to do with being radical, it had to do with being homemade and what is inside of people,” she said at a Great Plains Theater Conference (GPTC) panel. “It wasn’t about shocking people, it was about giving them a vehicle to reflect, a way to understand one’s self better, to go on a spiritual journey.

“I knew it was a perfect place to start an alternative, experimental theater…there was nothing like it and to date there is not another alternative theater in town. It’s either realism or naturalism.”

In a 1996 Theatre Quarterly interview she said the very qualities of this place that isolate it from the theater mainstream allow for exploration: “There is something incredibly expansive about this area and about the people that live here. The extremes of temperature, I believe, allow extremes of creation.”

She originally opened OMT as a summer enterprise. Grad students from Boston U. rounded out the company. The first season was heavy with plays by European absurdists Genet and Brecht. American works came later, including The Tommy Allen Show by Megan Terry.

The paths of Schmidman and Terry first crossed years earlier.

A Mount Vernon, Wa. native, Terry has lived a life in theater. She was “brought up” in the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, mere blocks from the home of her pioneer grandma. “I just scratched at the door until they let me in,” she said of Playhouse founders Burton and Florence James. After completing her theater studies in the Pacific Northwest Terry tried for an acting career in New York, all the while journaling. “Pretty soon, I thought my own dialogue was better than the stuff I had to perform. Little by little I started writing.”

“At this same time were all the protest movements, the marches. There was a huge political-social-cultural revolution. The new music, the new art, the Action painters and Abstract Expressionists, were at their zenith. All these things were converging,” Terry remembered. “I’d go to Washington Square and hear Bob Dylan and Joan Baez before they were famous. There were about 35 marvelous playwrights all working in New York City and we could all walk to each other’s theaters, so it was like, Can you top this? We just played off of each other.

“I mean, it was all there. I see theater really as a conservative art, where it takes from everything else and I think American jazz had to do what it did and American painting had to do what it did before our kind of theater could happen, because the other arts feed you.”

Terry churned out plays at an amazing clip, at one point having a new one produced every month. Edward Albee co-produced a double bill that included her Ex-Miss Copper Queen On a Set of Pills at the Cherry Lane Theatre. She was a founder of the legendary Open Theatre, an experimental company that produced her work, eventouring it nationally. Other Terry plays were performed at the chic La Mama. Another at the Circle Rep. Still another at the Actor’s Studio.

Along with Sam Shepard, a fellow founder of the Open Theatre, she was identified as one of America’s most promising new playwrights.

 

 

Her work is of its times, yet timeless, reflecting our culture’s struggles with violence/war (Viet Rock), spouse/child abuse (Goona, Goona), objectification (Objective Love), prison life (Babes in the Big House), underage drinking (Kegger). A key facet of her work is transformation, which bends roles, even genders. Themes predominate more than characters in her metaphorical plays.
Terry faced a transformation of her own when the NY theater landscape changed in the early ‘70s. The Open Theatre disbanded. Finding venues for her work proved difficult. Flush with the fervor of feminism, she chafed at the thought of deferring to male producers or playwrights anymore.

“At a point I worked with very strong men in the ‘60s. Joe Chaikin, Tom O’Morgan, Peter Feldman,” said Terry, who developed Viet Rock in a Saturday Open Theatre workshop that also produced HairRock was perhaps the first major work of art to deal with the Vietnam War. When Chaikin and Feldman “took it (the play) away from me,” she said, “a big confrontation” ensued.

Drawn into “the arms of the feminist movement,” Terry felt empowered to go off on her own. “After women saw Viet Rock some of them started coming to me asking me to come to consciousness-raising groups, and I did,” she said. “As more people started calling me up and saying, ‘Will you write a play for something we’re doing?, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I realized I’m behind the careers of all these fabulous guys, but I’m way back here in the shadows and they’re getting all the glory. So, why not separate?”

Aptly, Terry’s and Schmidman‘s paths crossed in theatrical fashion.

“I met her [Schmidman} in Boston when I was asked to come to write the bicentennial celebration for Boston University’s theater school” Terry said. While in Bean Town she joined the throng gathered for a protest on the Boston Common. Out of the crowd Terry estimates approached a million people, the two found each other.

“I don’t go to rallies but I went to an anti-war rally where I met her by mistake, doing guerrilla theater,” Schmidman said. “I found her to fix my tin foil mask.” “Her mask had come off and I helped her with it. It’s just absolutely true,” Terry said.

Schmidman admired Terry’s work. Indeed, she said, “I had the top of my head blown off” by the work of Terry and her cohorts. The two got to know each other when Terry later went to Boston U. to workshop her Approaching Simone. Terry cast BU theater students. None of the perky, blonde, blue-eyed, well made-up girls fit what she wanted. So, “I designed an improvisation where one person had to stand off all of the rest of the kids in the school,” she recalled, “and Jo Ann had the power to stand them off. I said, ‘Ah ha, I can write this play around her. There’s the power I’m looking for.’’ Jo Ann WAS Simone. The play ran off-Broadway at Cafe La Mama, becoming the first student-cast production to win an Obie.
Their relationship grew when Schmidman toured with the Open Theatre, “It was a magic, perfect fit,” said Schmidman. Terry visited Omaha in 1970 to see Schmidman’s production of the Tommy Allen Show.

 

 

 

 

Viet Rock


 

 

“It was a better production then I had done out in Los Angeles. I had to admit it,” said Terry. “I said, ‘This is really good.’ I mean, she was showing me things about this play I didn’t know were there.”

With some prodding, Terry set her sights on this place, moving here in 1974.

“When the Open Theatre closed and I saw what Jo Ann was building here,” Terry said, “I could easily make that transition. She’s a great director.” Still, it was a huge leap of faith. “She was leaving where one made it in the theater. Plenty would not leave New York City, period. But for Megan I never heard a second thought,” Schmidman said.

The difference being in Omaha Terry didn’t have to take a back seat to anyone. It’s why leaving the center of the theater world was not such a hard move. “I always felt like I was camping out in New York as it was,” Terry said. “I always felt like it was temporary. The feminist movement freed me from being stuck in New York and being in that life.” She said she ended up being far more productive here.

Schmidman said since Terry’s “ego was not at stake,” Omaha made sense, as here she could “work every day within a viable company” that would produce her plays. “Megan is the kind of playwright that writes for a company of people, which is how I lured her out here.”

As Schmidman did before her, Terry found the possibilities for theater here “wide open.” Terry’s presence lent OMT instant credibility. Her career hardly suffered for the move. Her prodigious output (60 plays) continued. Her work has been taught or performed across North America, Europe, South America and beyond.

The theater became a year-round venue for the most mind-altering work. It changed locations a few times before settling at its present downtown site on 16th street in a former department store next to King Fong’s.

More than two decades before the Blue Barn Theatre opened, these women were doing Witching Hour work that made electric cool aid acid trips seem tame.

Terry and Schmidman recently sat down for interviews at the theater, an open, tiled space with a stripped-down ‘50s-vibe. They are a study in contrasts. Terry has the pale, soft, rounded features and sweet, doe-eyed look of an ingenue turned mature matron. Schmidman is a slim, dark-featured, hard-angled figure whose severe face and brooding demeanor signal intensity. Little Bo-Peep and Gothic Queen. Both exude a manic fervor on low simmer. They listen intently. They laugh easily. Each interrupts the other to complete a sentence, the way longtime companions do.

 

 

 

 

The two ceased producing at OMT a decade ago. A new group of artists use the space and the name today, inspired by what the two women did to push theater’s boundaries. Terry and Schmidman long intended handing over the OMT to a new troupe. Groups came and went. None stuck. In 2004, fashion designer Julia Drazic and a coterie of designers, visual artists and musicians hit it off with the women and took over the space. The resulting multi-media, multi-layered shows defy categorization. Sound familiar?

Schmidman, who advises the group, calls Drazic “a natural born producer.”

Drazic and Co. realize the heavy legacy they carry with the OMT name.

The Growth of the Magic Theatre
A generation apart, Terry and Schmidman each studied and rejected old theater concepts in favor of a freer model unbound by, in their minds, rigid constraints and assumptions. While Schmidman’s a militant adherent of independence and a harsh critic of conventionality, Terry’s more politic.

With Schmidman as artistic director and Terry as resident playwright, OMT showcased works by playwrights thick in the canon of the American avant garde: Ron Tavel (Kitchenette), a collaborator with Andy Warhol on the Pop artist’s early narrative films; Paula Vogel (Baby Makes Seven), whose play How I Learned to Drive won a Pulitzer; and Obie and Pulitzer winner Sam Shepard (Chicago). Guest directors helmed some shows. Visiting playwrights-directors did workshops. It was all about change and challenging the status quo, even the very definition of theater.

Schmidman was well-suited to the task said New York playwright Susan Yankowitz: “Jo Ann has flung herself into roles, as actor-as director, with unusual courage and confidence, qualities that make her especially friendly to risk.”

Everyone contributed ideas to a play’s development. Everyone participated in its performance. Devoid of the usual barriers, like a proscenium stage, audiences, actors, stage hands, words, sets, music, costumes, sculptures, movements and projected images became equal elements in total, multi-media, sensory immersions.

Terry’s transformational style, in which actors interchange parts or morph into objects, was aided by soft sculptural costumes. Crew handled lights, music and sets not behind a curtain or in shadow, but out in the open, for all to see. Same way with actors changing costumes. It was part of the experience, as in the spirit of the ‘60s New York “happenings” Terry witnessed.

The experience, Omaha theater director Jim Eisenhardt said, could be formidable. “Oh, absolutely, it was intimidating, but it was a great shared experience, too.”

“In those days our object was to push previously established ideas of what theater was in new directions,” said Schmidman. “To create absolutely contemporary theater…in other words, to create theater that had to do with our lives, living and working in Omaha, Nebraska, because that’s what we were doing. So it was a pretty lofty task we set for ourselves. It was to reinvent what does theater look like, what does it sound like, what is it.

“And certainly there were plenty of roots in people before us. This was the end of the ‘60s, so we had Cafe La Mama, Cafe Chino, the Open Theatre” as models to follow.”

 

 

From 1996 Dallas Children’s Theatre/Omaha Magic Theatre production of Star Path Moon Stop

 

 

 

 

OMT fit in well with the Old Market’s head shops and art galleries. It had the entire building that contains the Passageway. The company lived communally there and in a loft across the street, with Terry cooking big stews from French Cafe refuse. The theater became a self-supporting operation. Members did not need to take second jobs. By taking risks rather than playing it safe the women made OMT a successful, recognized home for contemporary theater.

“We were producing this fine theater that commanded national grants and international respect at a time when it wasn’t being given to the opera or the symphony,” Schmidman said. “This tiny little theater was getting direct National Endowment for the Arts support in ever escalating amounts because the work was good. They (the NEA) came out each year to see the work.”

The two women’s imprint is undeniable.

As if being an experimental theater were not enough, OMT dared to be a “‘gay,’ ‘radical feminist,’ ‘lesbian’ theater‘” on top of it, said Rose Theatre artistic director James Larson. “None of that existed in Omaha before.” Given that, he said, “it is extraordinary the Magic Theatre could survive for 30 years.” He added it’s “impressive” OMT could command large grants and he admires how  “resourceful” Schmidman and Terry were in replenishing the company over time.

OMT built loyal followings for experimental work that proved accessible. “Once the people saw the work, whether they knew what they were seeing or not, they responded to it,” Schmidman said. One reason may be the extensive research Terry did for “the big community pieces” OMT did, like her Kegger, that dealt with under age drinking. Once they had a hit, they kept it in front of audiences for a steady cash stream. OMT toured Kegger for three years, nearly surviving on its proceeds alone.

“Touring is what kept us going,” Terry said. “It helped enable us to keep doing what we were doing, reaching out to all of the communities, getting to know people at different universities and arts councils.”

Q & As usually followed shows. Often, the theater invited scholars or experts to lead discussions related to the themes/issues raised. Audiences weighed in, some testifying, as in church, to how the plays resonated with their lives.

Terry and Schmidman set a high standard.

Larson, a playwright whose doctoral thesis is on Terry, worked with OMT for 15 years. He said, “There was a time in the ’60’s and ’70’s when Megan was considered one of the top three female playwrights in the history of American Theater” along with Lillian Hellman and Susan Glaspell. “Then more female playwrights emerged, and Megan is still remembered as the leading political/feminist playwright.”

Noted New York playwright and poet Rochelle Owens said, “Megan Terry’s plays explore the boundaries of American culture…Her use of ‘transformation’ marked her as one of the most original dramatists of the experimental theater of the 20th century.” Owens said Schmidman is a “brilliant artistic director” who, along with Terry, is “an inspiration to theater artists.”

OMT was an island unto itself, isolated, by choice and by perception, from the larger theater community due to the work it did and the single-minded focus, some might say zealousness, the women displayed. “We didn’t play the local theater game,” Terry said. “Or socialize,” Schmidman interjected. “We were too busy working.”

Its 30-year run only ended, in 1998, when Schmidman and Terry, partners in life and in the theater, reached a point of exhaustion. The two share a house together in south O. The theater’s old touring van is parked on the street. The house is obscured by the van and an overgrown garden in front that seems an apt metaphor for two artists whose wild, creative vines are intertwined.

“When we closed we were playing to full houses every night,” Schmidman said. Even if she and Terry were weary, why walk away from such a good thing? “It’s just, there are other things to life. There are other art forms, like living,” Schmidman said. Besides, she said, it just never got any easier, especially the struggle to win grant money. All the late nights of preparing mountains of paperwork for grant applications and then waiting on pins and needles for a yes or no wore on them.

“The audiences were great, the work was great, but getting the damn money was as miserable as ever,” Terry said.

 

Right Brain Vacation Photos: New Plays and Production Photographs from the Omaha Magic Theatre 1972...

 

They closed shop to archive OMT’s and Terry’s remarkable bodies of work, all of which is housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

Thirty years of original, groundbreaking work unseen before here, some seen for the first time outside NY. Tours across Nebraska, Iowa. All “musicals,” not with familiar show tunes, either, but original, contemporary, music.

“The biggest myth of the American theater is people will only go to a show if they can leave the theater humming the tunes or they’ll only go to something that sounds like something else. That has not been our experience,” Schmidman said.

The Magic made its mark far beyond Omaha, too. Terry and Schmidman collaborated on the lyrics and book, respectively, for Running Gag, staged as an official selection of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY.

In 1996 the Magic represented America in the Suwon Castle International Theatre festival in Suwon, South Korea, just south of Seoul. Terry, Schmidman and Co. performed Star Path Moon Stop outdoors before a crowd of some 5,000 squatting spectators.

“It was fabulous,” Schmidman said. “They come from a shamanistic tradition, so they really got into our kind of theater,” Terry said. “They embraced it because it’s quite like their traditional, very broad, emotional, spectacle theater,” Schmidman elaborated. “Yes, their theater is very episodical and relies on fabulous stage effects,” Terry added. The festival appearance followed workshops OMT did the year before in Seoul. The theater traveled abroad once before, when they toured Body Leaks at a women’s fest in Canada.

From OMT’s inception, Schmidman surrounded herself with collaborators drawn from many disciplines/backgrounds. Rarely did anyone have formal theater training. There were painters, musicians, poets, hippies and freaks. Among the noted artists to work with OMT were painter Bill Farmer, musicians Jamel Mohamed and Luigi Waites and composer John Sheehan. Sora Kimberlain arrived as a visual artist and ended up doing set design, acting, writing and directing.

“The bottom line was if theater reflects life and if we’re creating a brand new way of performing, well, you sure don’t need to go to school for it,” Schmidman said. “You need to open your heart, open your soul, give yourself over to the work and do what it tells you.”

EDITOR’S NOTES: While Schmidman and Terry closed the original OMT a decade ago, they’re hardly inactive. Terry still writes, accepting commissions from theaters like The Rose in Omaha. Schmidman no longer directs but she consults/mentors the new OMT and other young theater artists.

In 1992 the Magic Theatre produced a book, Right Brain Vacation Photos, that serves as a great OMT primer, the American avante garde and experimental theater. Look for it at your local library or on Amazon.com.

 

Joan Micklin Silver, Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling

May 18, 2010 2 comments

cracked glass

Image by snacktime2007 via Flickr

I’ve always been fascinated by the many film artists who have come out of my home state Nebraska to forge significant careers in and out of Hollywood. Almost from the very start of the film industry Nebraskans have played major roles in every facet of production.  I mean, just consider this partial list of Nebraskans in film from the silent era through the present day:

Harold Lloyd, Darryl Zanuck, Ann Ronnell, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, David Jansen, James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, William Dozier,  Lew Hunter, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Mike Hill, Monty Ross, Alexander Payne, Gabrielle Union, Patrick Coyle, Jon Bokenkamp, Nik Fackler.

Oscar winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) has made Nebraska his adopted state. Leading editor Tom Elkins, who will be directing a big budget horror film this fall, has made Omaha his adopted hometown.

I’ve never thought the state has done a good job of celebrating its film heritage.  For example, few Nebraskans know that one of the most important filmmakers from the 1970s and ’80s – Joan Micklin Silver – grew up in Omaha and still has family here.  Micklin Silver may not be a household name today, but her films Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Crossing Delancey were among the best of that era and were all the more significant because she was the rare woman making features films then.  Her work in the industry helped open doors traditionally closed to women.

She fought many battles to get as far as she did and took a hard, lonely path to get there as an independent.  When Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director at this year’s Oscars the first person I thought of was Joan.  I called her and she expressed great admiration for Bigelow’s film and described it as a great moment for women in film and perhaps making it more possible for women to be viewed on equal terms with men in such a male-dominated field.

The following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) more than a decade ago and is my attempt at putting Joan’s career in proper perspective.  This long piece appeared more or less as is in an era when newspapers and magazines were more prone to running stories of length like this. Today, it would be chopped by a third or in half.  Look for more of my Joan Micklin Silver stories in future posts.  My blog also includes a story on Peter Riegert and his fine feature directorial debut, King of the Corner, which he also stars in.

Joan Micklin Silver, Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 1999 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Aside from a brief golden time early this century and then again only until quite recently, the mere suggestion a woman might direct a motion picture was met with outright scorn by movie moguls. While Hollywood rewarded screen sirens and goddesses with huge fees and royal perks, it was loathe to share with women the reins of power men wielded behind the scenes.

It is only in the last two decades chauvinism softened enough for women to reemerge as a viable force behind the camera. Nora Ephron, Jane Campion, Martha Coolidge, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Mira Nair and Joan Micklin Silver are just a few of the directors shattering the cinema’s glass ceiling.

From the start women challenging the unwritten rule that directing is a man’s job were branded troublemakers or worse. How bad did it get? Just listen to writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, an Omaha native whose 1975 debut feature Hester Street, along with her later work, helped open doors for women in film:

“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said in a phone interview from her New York home.

 

 

The film history traditionally taught in schools has made it appear women played no significant part in the medium’s formative years. Not true. Sure, the one-time street peddlers-turned-dream merchants who transformed the flickers from mere storefront curiosities into must-see movie palace phenomena were men. And, like other industries, the movies operated as an Old Boys Network relegating females and racial minorities to narrowly defined roles on-screen and off.

But, it turns out, more than a few pioneers bucked the system.

Recent books, videos and CD-ROMs point to the vital contributions of such silent era women directors as Alice Guy Blache´, Nell Shipman and Lois Weber. Hardly household names, sure, but the point is, other than D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim what influential male silent Hollywood directors can you name?

The sound era introduced many lady trailblazers but perhaps none more potent than Mae West, who scripted wicked double-entendres and personified sexual liberation in pushing the boundaries of film content. In the 1920s and ‘30s, editor-turned-writer-turned-director Dorothy Arzner helmed a diverse mix of films (Working Girls) for major studios. In the 1950s, actress-turned-director Ida Lupino made several hard-edged independent films (The Hitchhiker) for her own company before settling in TV land. Despite this proven track record, the directing ranks soon became a men’s only club. What happened? Well, consider that Hollywood was a brash, anything-goes town and the medium itself a still developing mode of expression unrestricted by social convention. In such a climate, coinciding as it did with the Suffragist movement, women flourished behind the scenes.

But with the dawn of talkies the movies grew fatter and more conservative. By the advent of wide screen epics and blockbuster pics, the stakes got ever higher, and thus, the keys to the kingdom fell into fewer and fewer hands. What few women filmmakers there were were confined to directing underground, avant garde or experimental work.

Then, taking a cue from the cinema-verite, guerilla-style approach of John Cassavetes (ShadowsFaces) and the maverick model of Ida Lupino, women like Shirley Clarke (Jason’s Story), Barbara Loden (Wanda) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) made their voices heard. In classic independent fashion each worked outside the Hollywood mainstream to complete personal features that, if not commercial hits, proved once again women could persevere to get their vision on-screen despite filmmaking’s inherent obstacles, especially the low budget variety.

Another turning point came when Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success. The film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael (Ray) Silver, takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Fourteen years later the filmmaker revisited the Lower East Side for the winning Crossing Delancey, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions.

 

 

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Hester Street

 

Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.
The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver, 64, could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said.

Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.

“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”

Among her favorite early moviegoing experiences were film noirs. “I remember very specifically a movie I saw then called Shadow of a Doubt. It’s a great Hitchcock film, and I can remember how terrified I was. I’ve always loved film noirs.” A genuine cinephile, she started collecting movies on videocassette in the ‘80s. “I still have a fantastic collection of them. I would say the best course in feature filmmaking is just watching films.”

Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.

Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents like Cassavetes and Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project.

“You need other people to make films with, and in those years there wasn’t much of a film community yet in Cleveland.”

Then fate intervened. She explains: “I was at a party for Carl Stokes, who was then a mayoral candidate in Cleveland. At that party I met Joan Ganz Cooney (a founder of the Children’s Television Workshop), who was writing the grant proposal for Sesame Street, and I talked to her about what I was interested in doing. She gave me some names, and one of those names was Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company. I met Linda and we hit it off. She gave me some freelance (script writing) work. Then I went to the head of the company and I said, “I want to direct as well as write’. He said, ‘Why, so you can make your mistakes on me?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me, ‘Go ahead,’ and thank goodness he did. I wrote and directed, and Linda produced, three short educational films. They were like little features.”

One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.

“Later, Linda and I formed a production company of our own. The idea was that I would write and she would produce and I would eventually start directing.”

Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties laying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.

“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” she said.

Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.

“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets. It was very helpful.”

She said seeing the process up close “emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”

The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the film grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation. Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin.

Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.” Her mother, only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.

“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”

Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film, most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, the film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.

In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.

Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.” In her acceptance speech she explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up,” she said.

When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

 

Silver, Joan - still image [media]

 

She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as cable films for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime. She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.

“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”

Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”

More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film. “Absolutely. It’s great. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”

She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed new short film (Kalamazoo) out.

Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”

Ironically, it took the doggedness of Micklin Silver and others to finally position women back in film where they had been decades before. Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast (John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsey Crouse, Marilu Henner), gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.

 

John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt from Chilly Scenes of Winter

 

A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship (the lovers are brilliantly played by John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt). Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when, after completing the picture, the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Apparently, execs deemed her achingly honest, funny and painful modern romance too offbeat despite the fact UA fully embraced Woody Allen’s “relationship” comedies Annie Hall and Manhattanand took a hands-off policy concerning them. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.

A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), which she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she far prefers generating her own material.

“In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.

 

 

Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.

Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.” She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive. There are many, many, many more people who want to be in film than there are jobs.”

Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. “I think that my own bent has always been that I want to make certain kinds of films, and they aren’t necessarily the films that are seen as Hollywood-type films.” Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz.

“It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”

Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, she delights in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.

In Chilly Scenes the single Charles (Heard) is lovesick over the unhappily married Laura (Hurt), whom he can’t forget despite her breaking off their affair. While still attracted to Charles she feels guilty at having cheated as well as smothered by his aggressive wooing of her. She tells him, “You have this exalted view of me, and I hate it. I can’t live up to this thing you have about me.” He pleads, “Why would you choose someone who loves you too little over someone who loves you too much?” She replies, “Because it makes me feel less of a fraud.” Exasperated, he can only think to say what he feels, “Oh, I’m going to rape you.”

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. Despite their flaws, the men remain sympathetic figures for risking love in the first place and for staying true to themselves in the process. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.

 

Peter Riegert and Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey

 

About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas, and all the rest of it. And God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”

She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.

Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across the state and was reminded just how “beautiful” the endless horizons of far western Nebraska are. “I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”

A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver said.

If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s been honing and still hopes to make. Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.

Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”

Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real

April 29, 2010 2 comments

Microphone (MXL 990)

 

 

UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process.  As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service.  Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.

“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry.  As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference.  Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”

“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”

– – –

I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before?  I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject.  That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.

I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.

Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real, Native Omahan the Creator of the Urban Radio Format

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.

To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.

 

 

 

 

Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.

It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.

Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.

Love Affair

Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.

“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.

Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”

Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”

She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”

Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.

Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.

Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.

Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.

Fascinated and Inspired

By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.

“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”

Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.

A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”

Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.

The Quiet Storm

It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.

So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”

When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.

“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”

Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Networking and Visioning

Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.

Cathy Hughes accepting the NAACP’s Chairman’s Award

 

 

Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”

Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.

“Black folks own more stations, but there are fewer owners. Sixty-nine of them belong to me. It costs several million dollars before you can get a station. It’s very difficult, unless you’re independently wealthy, to put together the financing and go through the rigors and the process of securing the license. There’s some great (black) individuals who would do a great job of running a radio station, but they’re not able to get the start-up money and organizational revenue they need.”

No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.

 

 

 

 

A Passionate Woman

She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”

Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”

Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”

Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.

Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.


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