As the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks (AURN), April Ryan has reported on her share of newsworthy events. But in February, the host of the White House Report became a part of the story when she asked President Donald Trump a question about the Congressional Black Caucus and he answered by asking her to set up a meeting. She responded without missing a beat - "No, no, no, I'm just a reporter," she said - in part because the 49-year-old has been talking to presidents for the past 20 years. She shares how she built her broadcasting career.
When I was growing up, we didn't have Pandora or devices like we do today. I listened to people talk to me on the radio. My mother would take me places in her little red Chevrolet - school, daycare, church, piano practice. We'd get in the car, buckle up, and turn on the radio. There's something about that magic, this voice telling you to get up, giving you the time, the weather, and the music. It was theater of the mind.
In high school, I thought I wanted to go into computers, but when I started college at Morgan State University in Baltimore, I gravitated toward broadcast journalism. I guess it's because TV and radio were instrumental for my family. That's how we learned about the latest songs, what was happening in our community. I could also talk you under the table. I had a tendency to gab and always had a natural curiosity. So broadcast journalism aligned with my interests and talents perfectly.
I auditioned to be on the college radio station, which was also the local radio station. It was well-connected and had a big listening audience of African-Americans. It was a hurdle for a freshman to be on the air, but it was possible at the time. I started out by doing shifts on Fridays between classes and on the weekend.
The first time I got behind a microphone, it was an adrenaline rush. I was so tired when I got off that shift because it took every fiber of my being to do it. Every time I cracked the mic, it was like I was on this crazy high. You get to talk to callers and be a voice compelling people to listen. You're creating imagery on the air. And it doesn't take a lot to get you on the radio. These days, I can do a podcast in the car. I can go to the station in pajamas.
The thing is, I actually really wanted to be in TV when I was in college. I did an internship at a local TV station, Channel 13 in Baltimore. My plan for my life after college was to get a job, get married, make a lot of money, and be on TV. I was willing to leave the area so I could do TV. In my 20s, I was going from station to station. I was working full-time and stringing, or freelancing, for different networks. I was struggling. But I was learning about writing. I was learning about presentation. I was learning about building my Rolodex. All the while I was looking for bigger gigs.
I went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for 10 months. I worked as a radio announcer during the week and on the weekends, I worked for free on the assignment desk at a TV station hoping that I would eventually get on the air. I never did. Being on that assignment desk helped me do some good reporting and understand the minutiae of putting stories together. It didn't hurt me. It helped build who I would become.
But I wasn't fulfilled. My father had just become ill and I realized I needed to be back home. In the early '90s, I applied for a job as a radio announcer at V-103, an AM/FM combo station in Baltimore.
This business will hurt your feelings. I needed to feel like I mattered. Being with family would boost me up and I would get to save some money. Plus, the mid-Atlantic region is a newsy area. I thought this was a good pop-off point for my career. I wanted to be able to get my bearings again, figure out what I wanted to do and who I was. It was like the Wizard of Oz: There's no place like home.
At V-103, I was putting newsmakers on the air instead of only reading a script. That was something the station hadn't really had before. One of my biggest interviews at the time was with Johnnie Cochran, who had the trial of the century when he was representing O.J. Simpson. After a year or so as a radio announcer, I asked to be promoted to news director. It wasn't a job that existed there before but I felt ready for it. I knew that the worst they could do was say was no. I asked and they gave it to me. That was huge.
I was also working at a local cable channel at the time, still hoping to get on TV. I was up for a radio job in New York and I turned it down. They weren't going to pay me that much. I would have had to supplement my income. I love this career, but I don't love it that much. So I told myself, If the Lord opened this window for me, there will be a double door that opens later.
Sometimes I've wondered if my race or gender had anything to do with me not getting certain opportunities, but I've had to get over it and keep on pushing. I have to speak positive words to myself. OK, maybe not this time, but maybe next time. And my next time has come on many occasions. Sometimes we don't get things for whatever reason, but I always say, the next time.
I was in my late 20s and stringing for AURN. I got some big scoops about the NAACP, and [AURN] liked the fact that I gave them breaking news that no one else gave them. They had an opening for the Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent job, and they offered it to me. I was 29 when I got that job. It wasn't until I was in my mid-30s that I told myself the TV thing wasn't going to work out for me. I'm glad that it happened the way it did though because I've had longevity. Thirty years in the business. Not a lot of people have that.
When I got the White House job, my boss told me, "April, you should not be intimidated by this. It's just like covering city hall, just a little bigger." I didn't know the ropes at first. I would miss things because I didn't know what was going on. I was trying to be very professional in my look, in my approach. I was wearing high heels, and my legs were hurting me and so were my feet. The floors are terrible at the White House. They're unforgiving. And I hated it.
I remember telling my late mother, "I'm leaving." She said, "If you leave there now, people will think you got fired. You've got to stay for two years and after that, you can go." I stayed two years, plus another 18.
Someone told me early on that I needed President [Bill] Clinton to call me by my name at the White House press briefings [rather than just pointing]. That's Washington power. I didn't have it yet. One day, I ran into the president in the West Wing. He was eating a soft sourdough pretzel. I said, "Can you call me by my name?" I had to ask him twice. But then he called me by my name, and that's when it started to feel like things were coming together. It took me a couple months to get to that point.
I started asking about race with the Clinton administration because it wouldn't come up in the daily briefings. My audience needs to hear more information about issues pertaining to black America. There were other black reporters then but they worked for mainstream organizations. To this day, the only time black issues came up are during Black History Month or those crescendo moments, like with Hurricane Katrina, or Trayvon Martin, or Freddie Gray, and Ferguson. But I don't see my role as asking questions about race. I'm not a civil rights leader. I'm not an activist journalist. I could be asking about the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office on health care. I ask questions that need answers. Some things are race and others are just questions. This is what's happening in America. It's a part of this fabric of this great country that's still have yet to be dealt with.
Every four to eight years, something changes. You get a groove going with a certain group, and then the next government comes in, and you have to start all over again. There's always a friendly adversarial relationship when it comes to the press within the White House, but when new administrations come in, they're very fearful. They don't know who we are, and they have these ideas of what we can or cannot do.
The Trump administration has made it clear there's a line. They've made it clear that the press is the enemy. They've let us know what they feel about us, so what do you do after that? I still do my job to the best of my ability, but I'm at the point where I'm like, OK, it is what it is. When [Trump] told me to set up the meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, I was like, Whoa! But I think I handled it the way I did because I've seen my share of ups and downs throughout my career.
When I was 35, I had my first child. I was 40 when I had my second. I'm a mother of two kids and I live in the Baltimore area. It's hard being on top of my game and making sure I'm an engaged parent. I find myself up at night late, up in the morning early. When other people go to meet-and-greets or parties, I can't. I sacrifice for my kids. That's the hardest part. I've been blessed to have my aunt take care of my kids since my oldest daughter was a baby. For 14 years, she's cared for my kids.
I can work from home some days if I don't have to go to the White House. AURN has been very flexible with me. Because they're flexible with me and give me more leeway, I think I do more than the average person because I'm working from home.
In 2001, I took a writing course in the Odyssey program at Johns Hopkins University. I really wanted to write a book and I had been working on one for a couple of years. I had a drive because I was at the White House and wanted to get a book out. Writing long-form was not something that came naturally to me, but it was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. When I was a young girl, there was this vampire show that I saw, and I drew a vampire in a sketchbook, and I started writing about a vampire. I said, "I'm going to write a book." Then Roots came out and I said, "I'm going to write a book about our family." Look how long it took. My first book, The Presidency in Black and White, was published in 2015. It took 17 years.
Working in the White House, sitting at the seat of power, intimidates me to this day. I get to walk in this beautiful, historic place where leaders have fought for my right of citizenship, where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with the president. Every time I walk down the path in front of the White House, I can't believe I work there. Sometimes, I'm in shock. It's a blessing, but I always look at the bigger picture. I'm there to do a job.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misspelled V-103 as B103. This has been corrected.
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